WASHINGTON — President Bush declassified sensitive intelligence in 2003 and authorized its public disclosure to rebut Iraq war critics, but he did not specifically direct that Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, be the one to disseminate the information, an attorney knowledgeable about the case said Saturday.
Bush merely instructed Cheney to “get it out” and left the details to him, said the lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case for the White House. The vice president chose Libby and communicated the president’s wishes to his then-top aide, the lawyer said.
Declassification details unknown
It is not known when the conversation between Bush and Cheney took place. The White House has declined to provide the date when the president used his authority to declassify the portions of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, a classified document that detailed the intelligence community’s conclusions about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The new information about Bush and Cheney’s roles came as the president’s aides have scrambled to defuse the political fallout from a court filing Wednesday by the prosecutors in the complex, ongoing investigation into whether the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame was disclosed to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, an Iraq war critic.
Wilson had accused the administration of twisting prewar intelligence to exaggerate the weapons threat in Iraq.
Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald said in the filing that Libby testified before a grand jury that he was authorized by Bush, through Cheney, to leak information from the intelligence estimate.
Broad implications for White House
Libby faces trial, likely in January, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to the grand jury and investigators about what he told reporters about Plame.
Fitzgerald did not say in the filing that Cheney authorized Libby to leak Plame’s identity, and Bush is not accused of doing anything illegal.
Video: Libby fingers Bush Fitzgerald’s aim with the filing was to counter Libby’s defense that he innocently forgot about conversations he may have had with reporters about Plame by showing that the White House’s concern about the war criticism was so consuming it would be difficult to forget.
But by suggesting that the leak of Plame’s name may have been set in motion by the president, however indirectly, the documents reverberated much more broadly. Democrats unleashed a storm of criticism against Bush, saying he appeared to have misused the declassification process for political gain.
A leak or public disclosure?
On Friday, the White House argued there is an important different between disclosing sensitive information to further a public debate and leaking classified information that compromises national security. But the attorney said Saturday the president’s instructions were not as specific as it might seem from both Fitzgerald’s description of Libby’s testimony and news accounts of it.
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Because Bush declassified the intelligence document, the White House does not view Libby’s conversations about it as a leak. But that determination is difficult to make without knowing precisely when Bush decided to declassify the information.
Libby passed the information about the document to New York Times reporter Judith Miller on July 8, 2003. It was 10 days later, on July 18, when the same portions of the document that Libby discussed with Miller were released publicly.
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.
Wilson in the crosshairs
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 meeting with 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 claims authorization from Cheney
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.
'A junket set up by Mr. Wilson's wife'
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.
NBC's Joel Seidman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.