April 7, 2006 — -- A day after it was revealed that President Bush authorized the release of sensitive pre-war intelligence, his spokesman did not deny the information was leaked by the White House.
But spokesman Scott McClellan said it had been declassified and was made public as a defense against allegations the intelligence was manipulated.
Refusing to answer many questions by citing the ongoing legal investigation into the matter, McClellan faced a barrage of queries from reporters about the timing of the release of the information and said it was not wrong to do because it had been declassified by the president.
"The president would never authorize the disclosure of information that he felt could compromise our nation's security," McClellan said.
Refusing to recognize the difference, he said, is "crass politics" on the part of Democrats, and he denied that the release was politically motivated.
McClellan said the information from the National Intelligence Estimate was "historical" and the public needed to know the contents as the administration faced claims it had misused the data in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Political questions swirl around the recent grand jury testimony by a former vice-presidential aide that Bush authorized the release of sensitive intelligence gathered before the war in Iraq. But a senior administration official insisted to ABC News such a move would not violate the law.
"By definition, the president cannot leak," the official said. "He has the inherent authority to declassify something. ...It's like accusing a shopkeeper of shoplifting from himself."
In sworn grand jury testimony released today, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby said he received "approval from the president through the vice president" to leak parts of the highly classified NIE to New York Times reporter Judith Miller.
A senior White House official would not comment on whether the president authorized the disclosure of parts of the NIE but said that during the time Libby describes -- mid-2003, when former Ambassador Joe Wilson was claiming the president had twisted intelligence about Iraq's nuclear weapons program to lead the nation to war -- the Bush administration was in the midst of a fervent defense of the war. "The administration was engaged in a heated debate over the substance of Joe Wilson's charges," the senior White House official said. "You bet."
That official said today that "very soon after that we declassified the entire NIE" to further refute claims made by Wilson -- that Iraq had no nuclear aspirations.
Libby testified Cheney's lawyer, David Addington, told him "presidential authorization to publicly disclose a document amounted to a declassification of the document."
Other experts agree, at least in part.
"The president has the legal authority because classification is done by his executive order," said Walter Dellinger, the former solicitor general under President Clinton. He said such a move could still have significant political consequence, however.
"But the fact that the president has the raw Constitutional authority to do this does not mean that it's free from criticism or censure because it is an abuse of the classification process," Dellinger said.
At the very least, Libby's comments could make the White House look hypocritical for vigorously pursuing investigations of who leaked information damaging to the administration, about the domestic spying program, or secret detention camps, for example.
During his presidency, Bush has spoken out repeatedly against leaking.
"Let me just say something about leaks in Washington. There are too many leaks of classified information in Washington," the president said in 2003.
He also spoke out after allegations surfaced that administration officials had leaked the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame, who is Wilson's wife.
"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," he said at the time.
Libby's grand jury testimony claims the authorization for the leak came in July of 2003, as the Bush administration was under increasing pressure to justify going to war in Iraq. In an op-ed piece published in the New York Times in early July, Wilson wrote, "Some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."
There is no evidence, in Libby's testimony or elsewhere, that either the president or the vice president authorized the leaking of Plame's identity, however.
"The identity of an agent like Valerie Plame is, however, covered by a different statute which makes it a crime," said Dellinger. "And releasing that information is a very different matter than simply releasing classified information."
Nevertheless, Democrats quickly seized on the release of Libby's testimony today, citing political impropriety at the least.
"If this occurred, we must hold the president and vice president accountable for misleading," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois. "This is as serious as it gets."
Libby has not been indicted for leaking classified information, but rather for perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements -- in other words, for lying. If one is inclined to consider Libby lying, it might also be possible that these specific claims -- which special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald called "unique" in his investigation -- are not true either.
Only the president and the vice president can clear this matter up, and they're not talking.