Why 'leaker in chief' charge harms the president

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.

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.

"Most White Houses believe that a leak is an uncontrolled revelation where they're not in control of it," says Charles Jones, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Otherwise, it's associated with implementation of policy."

A related area of debate is exactly when the information Bush declassified can be deemed to have been, in fact, declassified - when the president gave permission for the private briefings, for now an unrevealed date, or on July 18, 2003, when the White House formally announced the declassification of much of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). To Jeffrey Smith, former general counsel of the CIA, this is a relevant question.

"At least in my mind, there's a difference between declassification - which is a formal step in which information is put officially on the public record - and a leak," says Mr. Smith. "Here, what appears to have happened is the White House wanted to get this information out, but selectively gave certain portions of the NIE to a reporter without attribution. That's not declassification; that's a leak."

Another new point of debate is what the government filing does, if anything, to Libby's legal case. In a Washington Post interview, his lawyer, William Jeffress, argued that the filing does not undermine Libby's assertion that he could not recall the details of conversations he may have had with reporters in which Plame's identity came up.

Other lawyers see Fitzgerald's filing as potentially damaging. "His defense is, I was so preoccupied with other stuff, I wasn't really focused on this element of how I learned about Valerie Plame," says former Reagan administration lawyer Bruce Fein. But this filing argues that Libby was focused on Wilson. "Since [Plame] was an integral character in this whole plot, I think this hurts him rather than helps," Fein adds.

Reaction in Congress

Last Friday, the day after the content of Fitzgerald's filing was first reported in the New York Sun, Democrats basked in yet another bad news cycle for Bush.

"If the president explicitly authorized the disclosure of classified information through Scooter Libby to bolster some case he was making, this is of great consequence and needs to be investigated," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota, who chairs the Democratic Policy Committee.

Some analysts cautioned Democrats to be careful not to overplay their hand - especially activists outside Congress who have been trying to generate a drumbeat toward impeachment.

Senate Republicans were less certain how to proceed. On Friday, as they prepared to leave town for a two-week recess, they said it was not yet a concern in their caucus, which had been focused on the fate of a controversial immigration reform bill. "I've heard nothing about it either on or off the floor," said Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho. "It's still ripening," said a senior GOP aide.

By Sunday morning, some Republicans were calling on Bush and Cheney to clear the air. "I think it is necessary for the president and vice president to tell the American people exactly what happened," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, speaking on "FOX News Sunday."

Former Ambassador Joe Wilson, speaking on ABC's "This Week," called on Bush and Cheney to release transcripts of what they told Fitzgerald in their joint interview with him.

Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report from Washington.

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