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White House Does Not Deny Leak Claims

Times Staff Writers

The White House on Friday appeared to confirm that President Bush had authorized a leak of classified information about pre-Iraq war intelligence, describing the release of such information as beneficial for the “public interest.”

The statement came the day after disclosures in court documents that the White House, despite Bush’s frequent criticisms of leaks, secretly provided material to a reporter in early July 2003. The government did not announce declassification and publicly release the material for another 10 days.

“There were irresponsible and unfounded accusations being made against the administration, suggesting that we had manipulated or misused that intelligence [in order to justify going to war],” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said. “Because of the public debate that was going on and some of the wild accusations that were flying around ... we felt it was very much in the public interest that what information could be declassified, be declassified. And that’s exactly what we did.”

McClellan on Friday repeatedly said the release of the material was intended to inform public debate about the war. But the controversy has reignited long-standing complaints that the Bush White House uses intelligence data for political advantage -- particularly in making the case for invading Iraq and then defending the war in the midst of the 2004 reelection campaign.

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Some Democrats said the leak was part of an administration pattern of “selective disclosure” -- releasing information to support its arguments and rebut its critics while guarding data that could prove embarrassing or politically damaging.

On Friday, Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, called on the Republican leadership to demand that Bush explain in person to Congress “the leak of extremely sensitive intelligence for purely political purposes.”

The document that Bush personally declassified, a summary of the so-called National Intelligence Estimate, was provided to counter the claims of an administration critic.

Former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV had been sent to Africa by the CIA in 2002 to investigate administration claims that Iraq was seeking to purchase nuclear materials -- claims he said were unfounded.

Wilson later charged that the administration had “twisted” intelligence when it said Saddam Hussein’s attempts to get uranium from Niger were proof that he was trying to rebuild his nuclear weapons program.

To counter Wilson’s claims, the administration disclosed classified information to attack his arguments and undermine his personal credibility, recent court filings show.

Bush’s role came to light this week in documents filed by a special prosecutor seeking a perjury conviction against I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff. According to the documents, Libby testified that he leaked the classified information to New York Times reporter Judith Miller after Bush gave Cheney his personal authorization.

That criminal investigation was launched after another leak: the identity of Wilson’s wife, undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame. Her name was disclosed to journalists in what was widely viewed as an effort to taint Wilson by suggesting that his mission to Africa had been arranged as a personal junket by his wife. It is illegal to knowingly leak the name of a covert operative.

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This week’s revelation does not link Bush to the Plame leak, but rather to the intelligence document backing administration claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction -- claims that proved to be untrue.

McClellan walked a rhetorical tightrope Friday, refusing to explicitly confirm the testimony revealed in Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald’s court filing but defending the president’s actions nonetheless.

He drew a distinction between the kinds of disclosures that do not threaten national security and disclosures such as the report last year that Bush had authorized warrantless wiretapping of people with suspected links to terrorist organizations.

“Declassifying information and providing it to the public, when it is in the public interest, is one thing,” McClellan said. “But leaking classified information that could compromise our national security is something that is very serious.”

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He accused Democrats of failing to grasp the distinction and of “engaging in crass politics.”

Democrats have been fuming over what they say are repeated refusals by the White House to release information that would not compromise national security.

In 2004, for example, the White House rejected a request by eight Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee for a one-page “president’s summary” of a National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.

The lawmakers noted in their request that the document contained no sensitive material beyond information that had been released publicly a year earlier.

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But the document did include a caveat first reported last month by National Journal: that one of the leading justifications for the war -- Iraq’s acquisition of aluminum tubes that U.S. officials said could be used to build weapons -- might have been overblown. The summary, according to a March 2005 report by a presidential commission, said some intelligence agencies believed the tubes were “more likely” intended for conventional weapons.

More examples were cataloged in February by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Writing to John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, Rockefeller pointed to a pattern of “abuse of intelligence information for political purposes.”

Prominent on Rockefeller’s list was a Feb. 9 speech in which the president described a 2002 terrorist plot to blow up the former Library Tower skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles.

Bush and Frances Townsend, a senior homeland security aide, pointed to the plot as the White House sought to defend the president’s wiretapping program against a rising tide of criticism from the public and on Capitol Hill. Critics noted at the time that it was not clear the program had anything to do with preventing the potential attack.

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Rockefeller noted an earlier comment by CIA Director Porter J. Goss that revealing information even about failed plots can aid Al Qaeda and its affiliates “in many ways.”

“Why then did the president and the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism describe in great detail the information about this plot contained in a highly classified October 2004 CIA document?” Rockefeller asked.

The letter also referred to the administration’s decision to provide “almost unfettered access to classified material of the most sensitive nature” to author and Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward for his largely favorable 2002 book, “Bush at War.” Rockefeller said that he wrote at the time to then-CIA director George J. Tenet demanding to know what steps were being taken to address the “appalling disclosures” contained in the book.

“The only response I received was to indicate that the leaks had been authorized by the administration,” Rockefeller said, adding that the CIA never replied to a follow-up letter asking who in the administration had given the authorization.

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The senator called the administration’s approach to leaks “extraordinarily hypocritical.”

“Preventing damage to intelligence sources and methods from media leaks will not be possible until the highest levels of the administration cease to disclose classified information on a selective basis for political purposes,” Rockefeller said. “The president and other senior members of the administration must set the example for others to follow.”

A Rockefeller spokeswoman said Friday that the senator had yet to receive a reply to his February letter.

Also Friday, McClellan waved off repeated questions about the apparent 10-day gap between the days in 2003 that Bush authorized the Libby leak to Miller and the day the White House released the document publicly. Legal scholars contend that by authorizing the leak on July 8, 2003, Bush’s action was tantamount to an official declassification. But McClellan told reporters July 18 that “this information was just, as of today, officially declassified.”

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The discrepancy suggests that Bush authorized the leak before his senior intelligence aides and advisors fully concluded that its release would not violate national security.


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