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Why 'leaker in chief' charge harms the president

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 10, 2006



WASHINGTON

Leaks of information out of the White House are as old as the republic. So the assertion that the president himself had authorized the dissemination of then-classified information to select reporters should come as no surprise. Except that the president in question is George W. Bush.

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President Bush has long railed against leaks of classified information as a threat to national security; his administration is vigorously investigating unauthorized revelations of classified material to the press about secret overseas prisons and warrantless wiretapping. Now, a revelation of grand jury testimony establishes Bush himself as a player in White House efforts to discredit an Iraq war critic through the use of classified information.

The president is not accused of illegality. And no one questions his legal right to declassify information. But critics are now charging Mr. Bush with hypocrisy - a development that makes efforts to put his presidency back on track all the more daunting.

"Here's why this hurts: It reminds people again that the intelligence was bad and we're in Iraq without end for some of the wrong reasons, and that's at the heart of his 36 percent," says Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, referring to Bush's job approval rating in recent polls.

In a legal filing last week, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald does not allege that Bush was involved in exposing the identify of CIA agent Valerie Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joe Wilson, the Iraq war critic whom Mr. Fitzgerald says the White House was trying to discredit. Ms. Plame's "outing" as a CIA agent lies at the heart of Fitzgerald's investigation, which eventually led to the indictment last October of Vice President Cheney's then-chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Mr. Libby was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice in the investigation, though not with illegally exposing Plame's identity.

A private briefing

It was in Libby's grand jury testimony, revealed publicly for the first time in the government filing, that the former White House official stated that Bush had approved Cheney's instruction to reveal portions of a classified prewar National Intelligence Estimate that they believed would bolster the administration's argument that Iraq was seeking to develop nuclear weapons. At least three reporters received that information: then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller, author Bob Woodward, and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine.

On July 18, 2003, after those three had been privately briefed, the administration publicly declassified much of the document. A striking aspect of the administration's private dissemination effort is that the information Cheney and Libby put forth - regarding efforts by Iraq to acquire uranium from Niger - had already been widely discredited within the administration.

In his filing, Fitzgerald described a "concerted effort" by top White House officials, with Cheney at the heart, to "discredit, punish, or seek revenge against" Ambassador Wilson.

Even if Bush turns out to have been a bit player in an effort to discredit Wilson, he is now explicitly tied to the decision to selectively disseminate classified information. Whether that constitutes a "leak" is a matter of semantics.

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