BURLINGAME — Joe Cotchett has been involved in a host of high-profile cases, but the one set to begin early next year may end up dwarfing them all.

The Burlingame-based attorney is the lead trial lawyer in the civil lawsuit filed by ex-CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV, against Vice President Dick Cheney, his former chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, presidential adviser Karl Rove and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage.

The Wilsons are suing over the allegedly "intentional and malicious exposure" by senior Bush administration officials of Plame's identity as a CIA agent in retaliation for her husband's criticism of the administration's case for war with Iraq.

At his office last week, Cotchett picked up a 5-inch- thick binder that he had just received from the defendants in the case. It contained motions to dismiss the lawsuit based on executive privilege.

Leaning forward in his chair, Cotchett assessed the magnitude of the case.

"It's going to be the case of the next year," Cotchett said. "It's going to be the case that everybody watches, because it involves fundamental constitutional issues. It goes right to the heart of our national security."

In the suit, the Wilsons charge that their rights under the First and Fifth amendments of the Constitution were violated, because they were allegedly punished for exercising their right to free speech and treated unequally under the law.

According to the complaint, Libby and his codefendants destroyed Plame's career by "intentionally or at least with deliberate indifference ... eliminating the secrecy of her status that was essential to her continuing to perform in her job."

Cotchett said the public may never learn how much damage was done to U.S. intelligence operations by the revelation of Plame's identity. At the time her cover was blown, she was reportedly working on counter-proliferation issues related to Iraq and the Middle East.

"Think of all the people all around the world who were in meetings with her, who are now wondering whether they were photographed with her, whether their lives are in jeopardy," Cotchett said.

A judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia will hear the defendants' motion to dismiss in early February, said Cotchett, who acknowledged that defeating the motion will a challenge. But the former Army Special Forces colonel will make it as difficult as possible for his opponents to avert a trial.

"There's no lawyer who has more of a go-for-the-throat, never stop, push, drive, squeeze mentality than Joe," said George Corey, a Millbrae attorney who has worked with — and against — Cotchett. "All you have to do is be on the other side of the case, and you'll find out. You'll think he has five legs and 10 arms coming at you."

Much of Cotchett's reputation stems from a case he brought against Lincoln Savings and Loan in the early 1990s on behalf of more than 20,000 pensioners. He won a judgment for $3.3 billion, an amount that was later reduced to $1.75 billion. He also won verdicts of more than $200 million in the 1980s related to the collapse of Technical Equities Corp. of San Jose.

Corey said Cotchett puts relentless pressure on opposing counsel during every phase of a trial and disguises a "brilliant mind" behind a blustery exterior.

"He's superb with juries," said Corey. "They like him, they like his brashness ... they like his homey approach to them. There's a whole lot of mom and apple pie in his manner."

Mel Cohn, a retired San Mateo County Superior Court judge, witnessed Cotchett's growth as a courtroom attorney from the bench.

"As a trial lawyer, he's obviously one of the best in the country," Cohn said. "He has a lot of poise ... and he seems to go over well with jurors."

If the walls of his wood-paneled office are any indication, Cotchett goes over well with a lot of people. Dozens of framed photographs depict him mingling with the rich and powerful, from Warren Beatty and Steven Spielberg to Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher.

Besides a fondness for his family, the photos also capture Cotchett's close relationship with leaders of the Democratic Party, for whom he is an active donor and fundraiser. In one picture taken aboard Air Force 2, the 6-foot 4-inch attorney stands behind Hillary Clinton, who is seated, wearing a black suit and dark sunglasses.

Cotchett plans to reach into a dark chapter in the Clintons' life to propel the Wilsons' civil suit. The court ruling that required President Bill Clinton to testify in a lawsuit brought by Paula Jones serves as a precedent to compel testimony from Libby and his co-defendants, Cotchett said.

Libby is also the subject of a criminal case, brought by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, that charges him with perjuring himself and obstructing justice in the course of a federal investigation into the leak of Plame's identity.

Plame's employment with the CIA was first revealed in an article by columnist Robert Novak on July 14, 2003. Joseph Wilson charged that Libby, Rove and other officials deliberately spread that information to Novak and other reporters in retaliation for an article he had published a week earlier in The New York Times.

Wilson's article challenged an assertion made by President Bush in the 2003 State of the Union Address that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium suitable for use in a nuclear weapon from the African country of Niger. Wilson said he had been sent by the CIA to investigate the uranium claim and found it to be without merit.

The articles by Wilson and Novak set off a political storm. Supporters of the administration argued that Wilson's relationship with Plame undercut his credibility, since she was involved in the decision to send him to Niger. They also questioned whether Plame's role with the CIA was truly secret.

Former CIA agent Larry Johnson, a regular commentator on the Plame affair, dismissed the criticisms of Plame's covert status. Plame worked under "non-official cover," criss-crossing the globe while posing as an energy analyst, putting her at grave personal risk, Johnson said.

"The fact that it even gets discussed with a straight face makes you wonder what kind of recreational drugs people are using," said Johnson, who entered the CIA in the same class as Plame.

Cotchett called the belittling of Plame's covert status "preposterous." He pointed to the first page of the Wilsons' lawsuit, which contains an excerpt from a speech given by former President George H. W. Bush in 1999.

In remarking upon the importance of protecting intelligence officers, Bush called those who "betray the trust" by exposing the names of sources "the most insidious of traitors."

Those are fighting words, and Cotchett appears to savor them.