President Bush personally authorized leaking classified information to deflect Iraq war critics at a time when declining public support for the invasion threatened his reelection campaign, according to testimony from a former senior White House aide.
The assertion, which came in a filing late Wednesday by federal prosecutors in the perjury case against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, connects the president for the first time to a case that until now publicly focused on the activities of senior aides and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff, is facing charges related to the disclosure of a CIA operative's identity.
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."
But Libby's testimony, if true, places Bush in the middle of his administration's effort to undermine its critics at a time that the White House was preparing to make Iraq a central theme of the 2004 presidential campaign.
According to the new court filing, Libby testified to a grand jury that Cheney told him Bush had approved the release of information from the CIA's classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction.
The CIA document, citing various intelligence reports, argued that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had sought nuclear weapons materials in Niger -- a claim that Bush and others used to justify the March 2003 invasion of Iraq but that ultimately proved to be untrue.
The leak from the ClA report was authorized, according to Libby's testimony cited in the court documents, within days of a July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed piece written by former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who traveled to Africa in 2002 to investigate the administration claims that Iraq tried to buy nuclear materials. In the commentary, he debunked the claim and accused the White House of manipulating intelligence.
The court papers provide new details about the active role that Cheney reportedly played in using Libby as a secret administration envoy to rebut concerns about prewar intelligence in conversations with reporters.
Moreover, the court filings suggest that Bush and Cheney were intimately involved in the decision to selectively leak classified information to reporters, without the knowledge of even then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice or her deputy, Stephen J. Hadley.
The National Intelligence Estimate was officially declassified almost two weeks later and released to the media.
The court filing makes no allegation that Bush -- who has vowed to fire anyone in his administration who was involved in revealing the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame -- encouraged or authorized the disclosure of her identity. Plame is married to Wilson.
White House officials declined to comment on the latest revelations Thursday, directing questions to the office of Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who is pressing the case against Libby. Bush Counselor Dan Bartlett did not return repeated telephone calls.
One former White House official said he found Libby's allegation that the president authorized such a leak hard to believe. "It defies logic and all my experience with this president," said the former official, who asked not to be identified because his comments concerned an ongoing criminal case.
The topic of Libby's testimony did not come up when Bush took several questions from the audience after delivering a speech in Charlotte, N.C., defending the war. Upon boarding Air Force One to depart Charlotte, Bush ignored a reporter's question on the testimony.
As commander in chief, Bush has the authority to declassify information when he thinks it is in the national interest. But members of Congress and others said Thursday that the alleged action by the president -- surfacing at a time when his administration has launched investigations into leaks of controversial counter-terrorism policies -- showed a White House double standard on guarding the nation's secrets.
Libby's testimony also raises questions about presidential statements early in the Plame scandal. He declared at the time that he was unaware of anyone in his administration who had leaked classified information in connection with the case.
"After the CIA leak controversy broke three years ago, President Bush said, 'I'd like to know if somebody in my White House did leak sensitive information.' Now we find out that the president himself was ordering leaks of classified information," said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.). "It's time for the president to come clean with the American people."
Two other Democrats, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York and Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, fired off letters to Bush on Thursday demanding answers. Waxman asked whether the president had politicized intelligence.
"Two recent revelations raise grave new questions about whether you, the vice president and your top advisors have engaged in a systematic abuse of the national security classification process for political purposes," Waxman wrote.
Eight days after the Wilson commentary appeared, Plame was identified in a column by syndicated columnist Robert Novak. It is illegal to knowingly disclose the identity of a covert CIA operative.
Wilson's piece was viewed as an attack on White House credibility. Fitzgerald has alleged that Libby helped lead an administration effort to rebut the attack with the support of Libby's boss, the vice president. Fitzgerald's Wednesday filing cited testimony from Libby that the effort also had the support of the president.
Cheney, Fitzgerald said in the court papers, encouraged Libby to talk to reporters about the Wilson trip, and a plan developed for Libby to leak information to then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller. She had written several stories about prewar intelligence that supported administration assumptions about the threat that Hussein was building a nuclear arsenal.
According to the filing, Libby -- before his indictment in October -- told a federal grand jury investigating the Plame leak that Cheney had told him to pass on key portions of the National Intelligence Estimate to the media that refuted Wilson's findings.
The aide testified that he first told Cheney he could not leak classified information, but that later the vice president assured him Bush had approved the disclosure.
Libby said he also cleared the leak with the vice president's then-counselor, David Addington, who said that presidential authorization to publicly disclose a document amounted to declassification of the document.
So, Libby testified, he met Miller on July 8, 2003, at the St. Regis Hotel a few blocks from the White House; Libby testified he chose to meet at a hotel partly because he was sharing the information with Miller "exclusively."
Fitzgerald's filing was unclear on precisely what information Libby was allegedly authorized to share with Miller. It quoted Libby as saying that he understood that he was to tell the reporter that a key judgment of the National Intelligence Estimate was that Iraq was "vigorously trying to procure" uranium. The judgment eventually proved flawed.
Libby "testified that the circumstances of his conversation with reporter Miller -- getting approval from the president through the vice president to discuss material that would be classified but for that approval -- were unique in his recollection," Fitzgerald's filing said.
The filing also said Libby disclosed to Miller a "classified" summary of the Wilson trip in which the former envoy acknowledged earlier Iraqi interest in obtaining uranium from Africa. It was unclear from the papers whether Cheney or Bush had authorized the dissemination of that information.
Despite the leak and possible scoop, Miller did not write a story. She later served 85 days in jail for refusing to divulge her conversations with Libby to the grand jury. She was released and testified.
Libby testified that a few days after his meeting with Miller, Cheney authorized him to discuss Wilson and the National Intelligence Estimate with other reporters, standing in for his usual spokeswoman.
The meeting with Miller is considered crucial to the prosecution of Libby. Fitzgerald has alleged that Libby also gave Miller information that identified Plame at the meeting, and that he later lied to investigators about doing so, a charge central to his perjury case.
Fitzgerald suggests that if not for the president and vice president, the meeting with Miller might never have taken place and, by implication, Libby might not have been indicted.
The "critical conversation," Fitzgerald said in the filing, "occurred only after the vice president advised defendant that the president specifically had authorized defendant to disclose certain information" in the National Intelligence Estimate.
The estimate eventually was released to other reporters. The court filing notes that other administration figures, including Hadley, separately were working to formally declassify the estimate and other documents, in an effort to promote the administration rationale for war. The filing says Hadley was unaware Libby had been authorized by Bush to release the document.
Even as he was leaking the intelligence information to reporters, Libby was working behind the scenes to have White House officials issue a public statement exonerating him in the summer and fall of 2003, according to the court papers.
According to Fitzgerald, Libby prepared a handwritten statement for White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan to tell reporters that Libby "did not leak classified information." He also urged McClellan to say that Libby was not the source for the Novak story that disclosed the identity of Plame and launched the investigation.
Fitzgerald noted that Libby knew then that White House political director Karl Rove -- who remains a focus of the Fitzgerald investigation -- had spoken to Novak.
McClellan subsequently issued a statement saying that Libby and Rove had "assured me that they were not involved in this."
Fitzgerald's filing is part of a battle over access to documents Libby says he needs to prepare for his trial, scheduled for January. Libby is seeking what Fitzgerald described as "nearly every document generated by four large executive-branch entities" relating to Wilson's Niger trip.
Fitzgerald is opposing the request as irrelevant to the question of whether Libby obstructed justice. He said in the filing Wednesday that some documents unearthed during his investigation and turned over to Libby "could be characterized as reflecting a plan to discredit, punish or seek revenge" against Wilson.
The filing also notes that Fitzgerald intends to call, in addition to two CIA officials, just one White House official to testify in the trial: former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who will be asked to discuss his conversations with Libby in summer 2003 regarding Plame.
Times staff writers Mary Curtius and Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.
*(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
'In light of today's shocking revelation, President Bush must fully disclose his participation in the selective leaking of classified information. The American people must know the truth.'
Sen. Harry Reid,
Senate Democratic leader,
'Under any circumstances, the president has the right to declassify information. Secondly, as the press is reporting, there is no indication in the court filing that either the president or vice president authorized the disclosure of Valerie Plame's identity, and to insinuate otherwise is flat-out wrong.'
Republican National Committee communications director
'The president and the vice president must be held accountable -- 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.'
Sen. Richard Durbin
'One of the constants in the Bush administration's miserable record on Iraq has been manipulation of intelligence precisely for political purposes. That has caused our intelligence -- which used to be accepted without questions around the world -- to be viewed with skepticism by the international community.'
Rep. Nancy Pelosi,
House Democratic leader,
'If the president of the United States is authorizing leaks of classified material in order to destroy people who oppose his point of view, or go after them, then something is really unbelievably wrong with their standards, as well as the lack of accountability in this administration.'
Sen. John F. Kerry
'If the disclosure is true, it's breathtaking. The president is the leaker in chief.'
ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, of California
Source: Associated Press