Legal experts say that President Bush had the unquestionable authority to approve the disclosure of secret CIA information to reporters, but they add that the leak was highly unusual and amounted to using sensitive intelligence data for political gain.
"It is a question of whether the classified National Intelligence Estimate was used for domestic political purposes," said Jeffrey H. Smith, a Washington lawyer who formerly served as general counsel for the CIA.
In court papers filed Wednesday, Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald said I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, has testified that Cheney told him that Bush had authorized the leak of secret information from the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq in the summer of 2003. Fitzgerald's court filing portrays the leak as part of an effort to discredit former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who contended in a newspaper column that intelligence about Iraq's nuclear weapons program was distorted in the run-up to the U.S. invasion.
The court filing says that Libby, who is fighting perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges in connection with the leak investigation, was concerned about the legality of sharing classified information with reporters. But he was assured by David S. Addington, who then served as counsel to Cheney, that presidential authorization to disclose the information amounted to declassification.
Experts said the power to classify and declassify documents in the federal government flows from the president and is often delegated down the chain of command. In March 2003, Bush signed an executive order delegating declassification authority to Cheney.
Libby understood that only he, Bush and Cheney knew of the declassification when Libby held his first conversation with a reporter in July 2003, the court papers show.
In one telling footnote in the filing, Fitzgerald notes that even after Bush authorized the dissemination of the intelligence data, then-White House deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley was "active in discussions about the need to declassify and disseminate" the information.
"There is an institutional interest and ultimately a public interest in having these decisions documented," said Ronald D. Lee, a Washington lawyer and former general counsel to the super-secret National Security Agency. "You can't have a government where everything is sort of done in people's heads."