By: E&P Staff and The Associated Press
Leading newpapapers Friday portrayed the revelation that President Bush may have authorized Lewis “Scooter” Libby to feed sensitive intelligence information to reporters as another major blow to the White House.
Michael Fletcher in The Washington Post wrote that this “introduces a new dimension to the long-running CIA leak investigation, while posing troubling new political problems for the administration.
“Until now, the investigation had been about aides to Bush and their alleged efforts to attack the credibility of a vocal administration critic, including by possibly leaking classified information. Bush cast himself as a disinterested observer, eager to resolve the case and hold those responsible accountable.”
The New York Times in a news story observed that the latest information “provides an indication that Mr. Bush, who has long criticized leaks of secret information as a threat to national security, may have played a direct role in authorizing disclosure of the intelligence report on Iraq.”
On its editorial page, meanwhile, the Times declared that, at the least, “revealing selected bits of intelligence, including information that officials may well have known to be false, seems like a serious abuse of power. It’s not even clear that Mr. Bush can legally declassify intelligence at whim.”
The Los Angeles Times recalled a quote from three years ago: “Bush repeatedly has deplored leaks and has maintained an appearance of distance throughout the CIA leak investigation, telling reporters in 2003: ‘I don’t know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information. If somebody did leak classified information, I’d like to know it, and we’ll take the appropriate action.'”
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney authorized Cheney’s top aide to launch a counterattack of leaks against administration critics on Iraq by feeding intelligence information to reporters, according to court papers citing the aide’s testimony in the CIA leak case.
In a court filing, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald stopped short of accusing Cheney of authorizing his chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, to leak the CIA identity of Valerie Plame.
But the prosecutor, detailing the evidence he has gathered, raised the possibility that the vice president was trying to use Plame’s CIA employment to discredit her husband, administration critic Joseph Wilson. Cheney, according to an indictment against Libby, knew that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA as early as June 12, 2003, more than a month before that fact turned up in a column by Robert Novak.
Fitzgerald quoted Libby as saying he was authorized to tell New York Times reporter Judith Miller that Iraq was “vigorously trying to procure” uranium. Fitzgerald said Libby told him it was “the only time he recalled in his government experience when he disclosed a document to a reporter that was effectively declassified by virtue of the president’s authorization that it be disclosed.”
The process was so secretive that other Cabinet-level officials did not know about it, according to the court papers, which point to Bush and Cheney as setting in motion a leak campaign to the press that ended in Plame’s blown cover.
In 2003, when the public furor erupted over the disclosure of a CIA operative’s status, Bush said he wanted to get to the bottom of the affair. “I want to know the truth,” he said at the time.
Libby’s testimony puts the president and the vice president in the awkward position of authorizing leaks. Both men have long said they abhor such practices, so much so that the administration has put in motion criminal investigations at their behest to hunt down leakers.
The most recent instance is the administration’s probe into who disclosed to the Times the existence of the U.S. government’s warrantless domestic surveillance program.
On Thursday, Democrats criticized the roles of Bush and Cheney.
“President Bush must fully disclose his participation in the selective leaking of classified information,” said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. “The American people must know the truth.”
“The president and the vice president must be held accountable,” Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said from the Senate floor. “Accountable for misleading the American people, accountable for the disclosure of classified material for political purposes. It is as serious as it gets in this democracy.”
Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said the White House would have no comment on the investigation. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the president has the “inherent authority to decide who should have classified information.”
Libby faces trial next January on five counts of perjury, obstruction, and lying to the FBI about how he learned of the CIA identity of Wilson’s wife and what he told reporters about it. The indictment says Cheney told Libby in June 2003 that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA.
The authorization by Bush and Cheney in July 2003 for disclosing sensitive pre-war intelligence assessments came amid a growing public realization that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. The failure to find such weapons undermined the primary rationale Bush and Cheney had used for taking the country to war.
According to Fitzgerald’s court filing, Cheney, in a conversation with Libby, expressed concerns on whether a CIA-sponsored trip to the African nation of Niger by Wilson “was legitimate or whether it was in effect a junket set up by Mr. Wilson’s wife.”
After Wilson’s 2002 trip, the former ambassador said he had concluded that Iraq did not have an agreement to acquire uranium yellowcake from Niger. The subsequent embrace of information that Iraq and Niger did have a deal for uranium was evidence that the administration had twisted prewar intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat, Wilson said.
Wilson’s public criticism on July 6, 2003, “was viewed in the office of vice president as a direct attack on the credibility of the vice president, and the president, on a matter of signal importance: the rationale for the war in Iraq,” Fitzgerald stated.
In the court filing, drawn in part from Libby’s own grand jury testimony before his indictment, Fitzgerald indicated that:
A July 8, 2003, Libby conversation with the Times’ Miller occurred “only after the vice president advised defendant that the president specifically had authorized defendant to disclose certain information” from a then-classified intelligence estimate on Iraq. Libby is alleged to have mentioned the CIA status of Wilson’s wife in the conversation.
Cheney’s chief of staff at first told the vice president that he could not have the July 8, 2003, conversation with Miller because of the classified nature of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq.
Libby “testified that the vice president later advised him that the president had authorized defendant to disclose the relevant portions” of the NIE.
The White House aide testified that he also spoke to David Addington, then counsel to the vice president, “whom defendant considered to be an expert in national security law, and Mr. Addington opined that presidential authorization to publicly disclose a document amounted to a declassification of the document.”
Cheney’s then-chief of staff “understood that the vice president specifically selected him to talk to the press about the NIE and Mr. Wilson on July 12, 2003.” In conversations that day with Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper and again with Miller, Libby referred to the CIA status of Wilson’s wife.
Fitzgerald’s court papers are an effort to limit Libby’s demand that he be given voluminous amounts of classified information to defend himself in his criminal case.