The Leaker in Chief?

George W. Bush likes to be seen as a man who dwells above the pettiness of political warfare. He has said he doesn't read the newspapers and shrugs off media criticism as carping of the chattering classes. Especially since 9/11, he has said that he looks to a higher power for guidance. He once threatened to stop sharing information with Capitol Hill if lawmakers didn't put a stop to leaking. "There are too many leaks of classified information," he told reporters in September 2003, "and if there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is."

Last week a video clip of Bush making that statement became cable-TV wallpaper.

Bush, it appeared, was not above the old leaking game after all. The president who, as a younger man, once played the role of loyalty enforcer in his father's White House had not forgotten how to play hardball. According to a filing from the prosecutor in the Valerie Plame leak investigation, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, who has been indicted for lying in the case, told a grand jury that President Bush specifically authorized him to leak from an intelligence document on WMD in Iraq. The leak, according to Libby's testimony, was intended to rebut the allegations of an administration critic, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was disputing administration claims that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had been trying to buy uranium from the African country of Niger.

Democrats jumped on the news, calling Bush a hypocrite. Republicans on Capitol Hill worried that the attacks on Bush's integrity would further sink his poll ratings and hurt the GOP in November. "Leaker in chief is something that could stick," said a senior GOP aide, who declined to be named for fear of angering the president. The White House has not denied the central thrust of Libby's claim. But by late last weekend, the White House was scrambling to distance Bush from the leak, putting out the word that the president had not been involved in tactical decisions--like who should leak, or picking which reporter to leak to. The White House may just be spinning--or the reaction could portend a rift between Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who seemed to be giving Libby his marching orders.

Legally, Bush did nothing wrong. The president can declassify a document any time he wants. Indeed, a sanitized version of the document in question--a National Intelligence Estimate compiled by the CIA and other agencies--was formally declassified and made public only 10 days after some of its contents were leaked by Libby to New York Times reporter Judith Miller in July 2003. But the administration was unquestionably playing games with reporters, whether or not the president was directly involved.

For instance, on July 11, seven days before key portions of the NIE were released, reporters badgered the then national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice to allow them to see some of the NIE, which had been used by the administration to make the case for war with Congress. "We don't want to try to get into kind of selective declassification," said Rice, though she added, "We're looking at what can be made available."

What Rice did not say was that just a few days before, Libby, who was Cheney's chief of staff and national-security adviser, had been doing some highly selective leaking to Miller over breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington. (A spokesman for Rice said she had no comment because of the ongoing investigation.) Miller later wrote in The New York Times that Libby appeared "agitated" about an article Ambassador Wilson had published two days earlier on the Times's op-ed page. Wilson had disputed one of the more sensational claims made in Bush's State of the Union address in January--that Iraq was seeking yellowcake uranium from Africa for itsnuclear-weapons program. Wilson wrote that, as a former diplomat with African experience, he had been asked by the CIA to travel to Niger to check out the claim, and found no evidence to support it.

At his meeting with Miller, Libby asked to be identified only as a "former Hill staffer"--a position he had not held for several years. Libby proceeded to rip into Wilson as a minor figure whose report about African uranium had never been seen by the White House. He went on to tell Miller that a highly classified National Intelligence Estimate had "firmly concluded that Iraq was seeking uranium." He also made a passing reference to Wilson's wife, who was working at the time on WMD at the CIA. At one point, wrote Miller in her notes (later subpoenaed by the prosecutor in the leak investigation), Libby seemed to be "reading from a piece of paper he pulled from his pocket."

It is not clear how much Libby might have been freelancing and how much he was working under orders. According to the filing by the prosecutor, Libby told the grand jury that he had been authorized by Cheney to disclose the "key judgments" of the NIE. Libby further testified that Cheney told him he had "consulted" with Bush. A lawyer familiar with the investigation, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, told NEWSWEEK that the "president declassified the information and authorized and directed the vice president to get it out." But Bush "didn't get into how it would be done. He was not involved in selecting Scooter Libby or Judy Miller." Bush made the decision to put out the NIE material in late June, when the press was beginning to raise questions about the WMD but before Wilson published his op-ed piece. (Bush once harrumphed that he would fire whoever had outed Plame. No one is accusing Bush of leaking Plame's name, but he started the ball rolling that ended up with her exposure.)

Judging from Miller's account of her breakfast with Libby, the vice president's man went well beyond the "key judgments" of the NIE. The reference that Saddam was prospecting in Africa for uranium was inserted in the NIE's back pages, along with a dissent from intelligence analysts at the State Department who were "highly dubious" about the report. A former U.S. intelligence official who declined to speak for the record due to the sensitivity of the matter told news-week that the NIE staff, writing under strict time pressures, adopted a "kitchen sink" approach, throwing in all sorts of reports that had not been fully vetted.

The dissenting opinions were included in the declassified NIE released to the press on July 18, 2003. But Libby said nothing about them to Miller when he was leaking to her on July 8. Cheney's role in this operation remains murky, as does the precise role played by Bush (both men were questioned by the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald--Bush at the White House, Cheney at an unknown location--but not under oath). The filing by Fitzgerald ties Cheney more directly to Libby's leak than any evidence so far. It says Libby testified that after Wilson's op-ed appeared on July 6, Cheney questioned whether Wilson's trip to Africa was legitimate, or "whether it was a junket set up by Mr. Wilson's wife," Valerie Plame, a CIA operative then working in the agency's counterproliferation division of the directorate of operations.

Libby has been charged with lying to a grand jury and to the Feds about when and from whom he learned Plame's identity. The theory was that Libby was trying to intimidate or get back at Wilson by exposing his wife's undercover role. Libby has argued all along that he was so preoccupied with important national-security matters, he barely noticed that Wilson's wife was involved, and later forgot that he had mentioned anything about her to reporters when he was questioned by investigators in the leak probe. To defend himself, Libby may now want to call both Cheney and Bush as witnesses at his trial. That is not likely to endear him to the president--the one man who has the power not only to declassify secrets but also to pardon convicted felons.