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White House: No Denial On Intel Leaks

The White House on Friday declined to challenge assertions that President Bush authorized leaks of intelligence information to build support for the war in Iraq.

But Mr. Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan, appeared to draw a distinction about the president's oft-stated opposition to leaks.

"There is a difference between providing declassified information to the public when it's in the public interest and leaking classified information that involved sensitive national intelligence regarding our security," he said.

And, reports CBS White House correspondent Jim Axelrod, McClellan says the President has the power to declassify information, and he was using that power when he authorized the release of parts of an intelligence report that supported administration claims that Saddam Hussein was a nuclear threat.

"You are talking about information that was declassified, and provided to the American people because it was in the public interest that they have that information so they could see what the facts were," McClellan said.

"But," Axelrod says, "here is where it gets tricky. Scooter Libby was the man who leaked the intelligence about Saddam. But he also leaked the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame. No one is linking Mr. Bush to the Plame leak, but given that both occurred at roughly the same time, the leaks may suggest a new light for some of Mr. Bush's statements denying that he was involved in classified leaks."

Court papers filed by the prosecutor in the CIA leak case against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby said Mr. Bush authorized Libby to disclose information from a classified prewar intelligence report. The court papers say Libby's boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, advised him that the president had authorized Libby to leak the information to the press in striking back at administration critic Joseph Wilson.

Read the official court documents.
McClellan volunteered that the administration declassified information from the intelligence report — the National Intelligence Estimate — and released it to the public on July 18, 2003. But he refused to say when the information was actually declassified.

On July 18, 2003, McClellan said that the information had been declassified that day. "It was officially declassified today," he told reporters in a briefing in Dallas, Texas. At the White House on Friday, McClellan interpreted his own remarks to mean that the information had been officially released to the public.

The date could be significant because Libby discussed the information with a reporter 10 days earlier, on July 8 of that year.

Congressional Democrats moved quickly to capitalize on Libby's claim.

"In light of today's shocking revelation, President Bush must fully disclose his participation in the selective leaking of classified information," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada on Thursday. —

"If the disclosure is true, it's breathtaking. The president is the leaker-in-chief," added Rep. Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

In his court filing, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald asserted that "the president was unaware of the role" that Libby "had in fact played in disclosing" Plame's CIA status. The prosecutor gave no such assurance, though, regarding Cheney.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the president has the "inherent authority to decide who should have classified information." The White House declined to comment, citing the ongoing criminal probe into the leak of Plame's identity.

In July 2003, Wilson's accusation that the Bush administration had twisted prewar intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat "was viewed in the office of vice president as a direct attack on the credibility of the vice president, and the president," Fitzgerald's court papers stated.

Part of the counterattack was a July 8, 2003, meeting with New York Times reporter Judith Miller at which Libby discussed the contents of a then-classified CIA report that seemed to undercut what Wilson was saying in public.

Separately, Libby said he understood he also was to tell Miller that prewar intelligence assessments had been that Iraq was "vigorously trying to procure" uranium, the prosecutor stated. In the run-up to the war, Cheney had insisted Iraq was trying to build a nuclear bomb.

The conclusion on uranium was contained in a National Intelligence Estimate, a consensus document of the U.S. intelligence community. Libby's statements came in grand jury testimony before he was charged with five counts of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI in the Plame probe.

Libby at first told the vice president that he could not have the July 8, 2003, conversation with Miller because of the classified nature of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, Fitzgerald said. Libby testified to the grand jury "that the vice president later advised him that the president had authorized defendant to disclose the relevant portions" of the NIE.

Libby testified that he also spoke to David Addington, then counsel to the vice president, "whom defendant considered to be an expert in national security law, and Mr. Addington opined that presidential authorization to publicly disclose a document amounted to a declassification of the document."

Libby testified that he was specifically authorized to disclose the key judgments of the classified intelligence document because it was thought that its conclusions were "fairly definitive" against what Wilson had said and the vice president thought that it was "very important" for those key judgments to come out, the court papers stated.

After Wilson began attacking the administration, Cheney had a conversation with Libby, expressing concerns on whether a CIA-sponsored trip to the African nation of Niger by Wilson "was legitimate or whether it was in effect a junket set up by Mr. Wilson's wife," Fitzgerald wrote. The suggestion that Plame sent her husband on the Africa trip has gotten widespread circulation among White House loyalists.

Wilson said he had concluded on his trip that it was highly doubtful Niger had sold uranium yellowcake to Iraq.

The prosecutor's court papers offer a glimpse inside the White House when the Justice Department launched a criminal investigation of the Plame leak in September 2003. Libby "implored White House officials" to issue a statement saying he had not been involved in revealing Plame's identity, and that when his initial efforts met with no success, he "sought the assistance of the vice president in having his name cleared," the prosecutor stated.

The White House eventually said neither Libby nor Karl Rove had been involved in the leak. Rove remains under criminal investigation.