Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald could decide as early as this week whether to bring criminal charges against high-ranking officials within the Bush administration in connection with the leaking of a covert CIA operative's identity two years ago.

The White House and the rest of official Washington are bracing for what may come out of a grand jury investigation that is winding down after 22 months.

At issue is who leaked the identity of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame in July of 2003. Ms. Plame is married to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who accused the Bush administration of twisting intelligence on Iraq to justify the U.S.-led invasion.

Under certain circumstances, disclosing the identity of a covert CIA operative is a violation of federal law.

Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed by the Justice Department to find out who leaked Ms. Plame's identity to reporters and whether it was done as part of an organized effort within the Bush administration to punish Ambassador Wilson for his criticism on Iraq.

Special prosecutors have the power to conduct their own independent inquiries into allegations of wrongdoing at high levels of government. The prosecutor is supposed operate free from any political pressure and has the power to compel witnesses to provide testimony before a grand jury of ordinary citizens called to hear evidence in the case.

Reporters have pressed President Bush about the CIA leak case in recent weeks. But Mr. Bush says he, like everyone else, must wait for prosecutor Fitzgerald to decide what, if anything, comes next.

"There is a serious investigation," said Mr. Bush. "I am not going to prejudge the outcome of the investigation."

Some political analysts have suggested the leak probe has become a major distraction for a White House already on the defensive over Iraq, the response to Hurricane Katrina and Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, who is opposed by some conservative leaders.

Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, the administration's top public diplomacy official, told NBC television that the Bush White House has not been distracted by the probe.

But Ms. Hughes also said there is concern because the leak investigation involves the president's top political adviser, Karl Rove, and Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby.

"I am sure inside [the White House], everyone is concerned because Karl [Rove] and Scooter [Lewis Libby] are friends of all of ours," commented Ms. Hughes.

Both men have testified before the grand jury probing the leak case and have acknowledged talking to reporters about Ambassador Wilson and his wife. But both men deny that they revealed Ms. Plame's identity.

Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich told NBC television that the Bush White House is trying not to let the leak probe became a major distraction.

"Look, it has to be a draining experience for anybody who goes through this kind of investigation and has this kind of attention paid to them," he said. "On the other hand, Karl Rove is a very competent professional and I suspect he has worked very hard to keep his focus on the big things that matter to the president."

A number of Republicans and several opposition Democrats say they would not be surprised if the grand jury issued criminal indictments in connection with the leak case before the grand jury term expires at the end of this month.

Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, was interviewed on Fox News on Sunday. He said many Democrats are already convinced that the leaking of Valerie Plame's identity was part of a concerted administration effort to attack critics of the president's Iraq policy.

"There is a suggestion there that what happened is very clear. In an effort to discredit Ambassador Joe Wilson, who said some things critical about the deceptions that led up to the invasion of Iraq, they in fact outed [revealed] the identity of his wife [Valerie Plame]. Exactly who did it has never been clear," said Senator Durbin.

White House officials deny there was a coordinated campaign to try and discredit critics of pre-war intelligence on Iraq.

As recently as July, President Bush said that anyone who committed a crime in the CIA leak case would be fired.