By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006
The allegation that President Bush authorized the dissemination of secret intelligence as part of an effort to buttress his case for war with Iraq introduces a new dimension to the long-running CIA leak investigation, while posing troubling new political problems for the administration.
Until now, the investigation had been about aides to Bush and their alleged efforts to attack the credibility of a vocal administration critic, including by possibly leaking classified information. Bush cast himself as a disinterested observer, eager to resolve the case and hold those responsible accountable.
But court papers filed late Wednesday night by Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, in the perjury case of former White House official I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, implicate Bush as knowing about efforts to disseminate sensitive information -- and also as orchestrating them.
Although Fitzgerald specifically said Bush was not aware of the leaking of a CIA agent's affiliation, the allegation that the president was involved at all in a leak campaign unleashed a torrent of criticism from Democrats.
"The buck doesn't stop anywhere with this White House. Now we know why the president hasn't been straight with Americans," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). "Two and a half years ago, President Bush said. 'If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is.' He said he'd fire whoever leaked classified information, and now we know the president himself authorized it. Now we know that the president's search for the leaker needs to go no further than a mirror."
The White House refused to comment directly on the court filing, except to point out that Bush's very decision to disclose classified information means he declassified it -- an assessment shared by independent legal experts.
A senior administration official, speaking on background because White House policy prohibits comment on an active investigation, said Bush sees a distinction between leaks and what he is alleged to have done. The official said Bush authorized the release of the classified information to assure the public of his rationale for war as it was coming under increasing scrutiny.
Also, the official said, the president has not been accused of authorizing the release of the name of Valerie Plame, the undercover CIA operative whose unmasking in a July 2003 newspaper column prompted the federal investigation.
"There is a clear difference between the two," the official said. "I understand that in politics these two can be conflated. And we're going to have to try to deal with that. But there is an active investigation and that limits our ability to do so."
Still, Bush's action stands in stark contrast to his condemnations of the kind of disclosure that the court filing said he authorized. "Let me just say something about leaks in Washington," Bush told reporters in September 2003. "There are too many leaks of classified information in Washington. There's leaks at the executive branch, there's leaks in the legislative branch, there's just too many leaks. I want -- and if there's a leak out of the administration, I want to know who it is. And if a person has violated law, the person will be taken care of."
That statement was one of many Bush has made over the past three years condemning leaks of sensitive information. His strong words may make the distinction between leaks of classified data and what he is alleged to have done difficult for the White House to explain.
"It causes a political problem to the extent the White House lets it," said a former administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case.
The former official said Bush erred at the beginning of the scandal by saying he wanted to get to the bottom of the case and fire any leakers because he implicitly accepted that an illegal leak had occurred. That set the impression that anyone involved must have done something wrong. Now the documents suggest he was involved, and it is hard to argue that nothing wrong was done, the former official said.
Congressional Democrats certainly seized upon that vulnerability.
"I served for 13 years on the House intelligence committee, and I know intelligence must never be classified or declassified for political purposes," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "One of the constants in the Bush administration's miserable record on Iraq has been the manipulation of intelligence precisely for political purposes. That has caused our intelligence -- which used to be accepted without question around the world -- to be viewed with skepticism by the international community."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the disclosure punctures the president's credibility.
"The president has always stood so strong against leaks. If he leaked himself, he should explain why this is different than every other leak," he said. ". . . The more we hear, the more it is clear this goes beyond Scooter Libby. At the very least, President Bush and Vice President Cheney should fully inform the American people of any role in allowing classified information to be leaked. Did they believe they had the right to do this and if so, in what circumstance?"
Staff writer Peter Baker, washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza and research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.