Vice President Dick Cheney says he has the power to declassify government secrets, raising the possibility that he authorized his former chief of staff to pass along sensitive prewar data on Iraq to reporters.
Cheney coupled his statement inwith an endorsement of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, his ex-aide. Libby is under indictment on charges of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI about disclosing the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame.
"Scooter is entitled to the presumption of innocence," Cheney told Fox News Channel. "He is a great guy. I worked with him for a long time. I have tremendous regard for him. I may well be called as a witness at some point in the case, and it is therefore inappropriate for me to comment on any facet of the case."
In a recent court filing, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald revealedthat superiors had authorized him to spread sensitive information from a National Intelligence Estimate. The administration used the NIE assessment on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction as part of its justification for going to war.
At the time of Libby's contacts with reporters in June and July 2003, the administration, including Cheney, who was among the war's most ardent proponents, faced growing criticism.
No weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, and Bush supporters were anxious to show that the White House had relied on prewar intelligence projecting a strong threat from such weapons.
Fitzgerald did not specify which superiors Libby may have been referring to when he testified that higher-ups had authorized him to spread sensitive information.
But in the interview, Cheney said an executive order gives him, and President Bush, power to declassify information.
"I have certainly advocated declassification. I have participated in declassification decisions," Cheney said. Asked for details, he said, "I don't want to get into that. There's an executive order that specifies who has classification authority, and obviously it focuses first and foremost on the president, but also includes the vice president."
Libby is not charged with leaking classified information, and his lawyers said last week that there was no truth to a published report that they had advised the court or prosecutors that Libby will raise a defense based on authorization by superiors.
A legal expert said Cheney's comments could nonetheless foreshadow a Libby defense.
Former Whitewater independent counsel Robert Ray said, "If the focus is off the defendant and on to somebody else, generally for the defense that's a good day. If it turns out that Cheney was actively involved in decisions related to the disclosure of a CIA officer's identity and if the truth of it is that he was orchestrating the disclosure of information to the media, it seems to me that's a fundamentally different case than one centered around the activities of Libby."
The indictment against Libby says Cheney advised his chief of staff on June 12, 2003, that the wife of Bush administration critic and former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson worked at the CIA in the counterproliferation division.
Libby understood that the vice president had learned this information from the CIA, according to the indictment, which says Libby also learned of Wilson's wife's identity from the CIA and the State Department.
On July 14, 2003, the CIA identity of Valerie Plame — the maiden name of Wilson's wife — was published by columnist Robert Novak. Eight days earlier, Wilson had accused the administration of twisting prewar intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat. Wilson concluded it was highly doubtful that a purported sale of uranium yellowcake by Niger to Iraq in the late 1990s had ever taken place.
Libby was indicted last October on five counts of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI about how he learned of Plame's identity and what he told reporters about it.
A defense that Libby was authorized to leak sensitive data about Iraq would not appear to provide any defense against the charge of making false statements regarding Plame.
But some lawyers pointed out that setting up defenses before a jury involve more than simply constructing legal arguments.
An authorization defense in the CIA leak case would mean that "much of what Libby was trying to do was aid and protect his boss Cheney," Ray suggested. The downside to employing such an approach is that it "almost comes with a defense that I did it."