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Some Explaining To Do

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, April 10, 2006 12:42 PM

The White House's longtime rationale for its stonewall on all matters even vaguely related to the CIA leak investigation -- that it can't comment on an ongoing legal proceeding -- was never a particularly plausible excuse, even though it has thus far proved oddly effective at keeping the press and the public at bay.

But now, with the president's personal conduct very much in question, it doesn't even come close to hacking it anymore.

There's no indication that special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald ever asked the White House for anything remotely like the sweeping gag rule it has imposed on itself.

If President Bush is sincerely worried about Scooter Libby's ability to get a fair trial, he and his aides could avoid comments directly related to the charges lodged against the former vice presidential chief of staff. Those charges are not even that Libby leaked classified information -- but, much more narrowly, that he lied about a handful of conversations he had with journalists.

Yes, it's true that Fitzgerald's investigation is continuing, and that White House political guru Karl Rove is still widely considered a potential target.

But in a normal world, none of these elements come close to outweighing the public's urgent and considerable need to know what's been going on here.

The latest twist in the leak investigation -- the news that Libby told a grand jury that he had Bush's permission, via Cheney, to divulge sensitive information to journalists -- raises a slew of questions too important for the White House to duck:

Is the president telling the truth? Is he a hypocrite? Under what circumstances did he take the country to war, and how far was he willing to go to cover them up? Can the president be trusted to distinguish what's truly in the national interest, as compared to what's simply in his political interest?

What's clearly needed now is full disclosure, on the record, starting at the very top.

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Calling for an Explanation

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney should speak publicly about their involvement in the CIA leak case so people can understand what happened, a leading Republican senator said Sunday.

" 'We ought to get to the bottom of it so it can be evaluated, again, by the American people,' said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee."

On Thursday, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi insisted: "The President owes the American people the truth about his manipulation of sensitive intelligence for political purposes."

The Pattern

In my March 31 column, A Compelling Story , I wrote about the White House modus operandi that Murray Waas has been meticulously documenting in the National Journal: Time and time again, Bush and his aides have selectively leaked or declassified secret intelligence findings that served their political agenda -- while aggressively asserting the need to keep secret the information that would tend to discredit them.

The Libby revelation has finally gotten that M.O. a little more attention.

For instance, Warren P. Strobel and Ron Hutcheson wrote for Knight Ridder Newspapers over the weekend: "The revelation that President Bush authorized former White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby to divulge classified information about Iraq fits a pattern of selective leaks of secret intelligence to further the administration's political agenda.

"Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top officials have reacted angrily at unauthorized leaks, such as the exposure of a domestic wiretapping program and a network of secret CIA prisons, both of which are now the subject of far-reaching investigations.

"But secret information that supports their policies, particularly about the Iraq war, has surfaced everywhere from the U.N. Security Council to major newspapers and magazines. Much of the information that the administration leaked or declassified, however, has proved to be incomplete, exaggerated, incorrect or fabricated."

On Friday, Strobel and Hutcheson wrote, "Without specifically acknowledging Bush's actions in the Libby case, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters: 'There were irresponsible and unfounded accusations being made against the administration suggesting that we had manipulated or misused that intelligence. We felt it was very much in the public interest that what information could be declassified be declassified.'

"McClellan didn't address why administration officials often declassified information that supported their allegations about Iraq but not intelligence that undercut their claims."

Cheney at the Center

Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer write in The Washington Post: "As he drew back the curtain this week on the evidence against Vice President Cheney's former top aide, Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald for the first time described a 'concerted action' by 'multiple people in the White House' -- using classified information -- to 'discredit, punish or seek revenge against' a critic of President Bush's war in Iraq.

"Bluntly and repeatedly, Fitzgerald placed Cheney at the center of that campaign. Citing grand jury testimony from the vice president's former chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, Fitzgerald fingered Cheney as the first to voice a line of attack that at least three White House officials would soon deploy against former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV."

Lousy Evidence

Gellman and Linzer also note that a "striking feature" of Cheney and Libby's approach was that the evidence they selected to share with reporters "had been disproved months before."

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "Some of Libby's comments about the NIE that he made to reporter Judith Miller, then of the New York Times, on July 8, 2003, were inaccurate. Libby said one 'key judgment of the NIE held that Iraq was 'vigorously trying to procure' uranium.' That was not an NIE key judgment, and the CIA officials who wrote the document disputed that statement. The 'vigorously trying to procure' quote came from an unconfirmed Defense Intelligence Agency report from early 2002 that had caught Cheney's eye."

David E. Sanger and David Barstow write in the New York Times: "President Bush's apparent order authorizing a senior White House official to reveal to a reporter previously classified intelligence about Saddam Hussein's efforts to obtain uranium came as the information was already being discredited by several other officials in the administration, interviews and documents from the time show."

A Memorable Event

Anne Marie Squeo writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The special prosecutor trying the case against former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis Libby will try to show that the leaking of a CIA agent's name grew out of a highly organized administration effort that commanded high-level attention, a court filing this week shows.

"Pretrial filings by Mr. Libby's defense team indicate they intend to argue that any misstatements made in Mr. Libby's testimony to investigators and a grand jury were innocent mistakes because of his focus on more pressing national-security issues. . . .

" 'Mr. Libby's defense, as we understand it, is that because of his 24-7 national-security responsibilities, he just forgot his conversations with reporters,' says Scott Fredericksen, a Washington defense attorney and former prosecutor. 'And what Mr. Fitzgerald is telling the judge here is that Mr. Libby was expressly authorized to go have these conversations with reporters by the vice president and authorized to release classified information by the president. That is a unique situation and not very forgettable.' "

The New White House Line

Jennifer Loven reported on Sunday for the Associated Press: "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."

David E. Sanger and David Johnston write in the New York Times, attributing the same comments to a "senior administration official."

They write: "The disclosure on Sunday appeared intended to bolster the White House argument that Mr. Bush was acting well within his legal authority when he ordered that key conclusions of the classified intelligence estimate should be revealed to make clear that intelligence agencies believed Mr. Hussein was seeking uranium in Africa.

"Moreover, the disclosure seemed intended to suggest that Mr. Bush might have played only a peripheral role in the release of the classified material and was uninformed about the specifics -- like the effort to dispatch Mr. Libby to discuss the estimate with reporters."

Michael Isikoff and Evan Thomas write in Newsweek: " '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."

Hypocrisy Watch

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush insists a president 'better mean what he says.' Those words could return to haunt him.

"After long denouncing leaks of all kinds, Bush is confronted with a statement - unchallenged by his aides - that he authorized a leak of classified material to undermine an Iraq war critic.

"The allegation in the CIA leak case threatens the credibility of a president already falling in the polls, and it gives Democrats fresh material to accuse him of hypocrisy."

David Lightman writes in the Hartford Courant: "Some pundits are calling President Bush leaker-in-chief and hypocrite, and while people may not fathom all the details about the Valerie Plame case, they understand barbs like those.. . . .

"Calling him hypocritical or leaker-in-chief, a phrase pollster Scott Rasmussen has found is being used more and more, stings for several reasons.

"The phrases suggest Bush is not acting presidential. They are a reminder of how badly the president wanted to convince an increasingly skeptical public that Iraq was a dire threat to the United States. And most of all, tagging Bush with those phrases calls into question whether he deserves his reputation as an honest leader."

Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor that "critics are now charging Mr. Bush with hypocrisy - a development that makes efforts to put his presidency back on track all the more daunting. . . .

"Even if Bush turns out to have been a bit player in an effort to discredit Wilson, he is now explicitly tied to the decision to selectively disseminate classified information. Whether that constitutes a 'leak' is a matter of semantics."

Caroline Daniel writes in the Financial Times: "Although Mr Bush has the legal power to declassify documents, the revelation made his own assault on leaks look like hypocrisy."

John Cochran writes for ABC News about the big questions that remain: "Was the president, a fierce critic of leaks, a hypocrite? Had he leaked material for political reasons? . . .

"Splitting hairs over the reasons for the leak is . . . unlikely to do much for what was once a strong point: public confidence in his candor and truthfulness. One Republican consultant said Friday: 'Bush is a far better man than Bill Clinton, but unfortunately, this will sound to people like something you would expect from Clinton.' "

McClellan's Feeble Shield

McClellan's shield on Friday seemed so feeble that he was almost apologizing for it. So if it isn't his policy, whose is it?

The TPM Muckraker blog published the transcript of McClellan's early-morning gaggle on Friday.

"That's a question relating to an ongoing legal proceeding and, as you know, I can't get into commenting on that. We want to make sure that there is due process, that there is a fair trial, and that we don't do anything to jeopardize an ongoing legal proceeding.

"They're going to be -- this is not the first filing that has been made in this legal proceeding. There will be additional filings, I'm sure, going forward. And I hope you can appreciate the policy -- the position that we've taken, which is that we're going to let that legal proceeding continue. And we're not going to comment on it while it's ongoing. . . .

"There's no way I can get into that without discussing issues relating to an ongoing legal proceeding. And I think you will appreciate that a policy has been established -- I didn't establish it, but I'm obligated to adhere to that policy."

Reporters most definitely did not appreciate the policy, and expressed outrage when McClellan used it as a pretext to refuse to answer even simple factual questions about his own previous comments about when the NIE in question was declassified.

It was more of the same at the televised briefing .

Defining the National Interest

To the extent that McClellan said anything related to the Libby revelation, it was to suggest that the president is incapable of leaking classified information -- because once he utters it, it is automatically declassified. By contrast, he had nothing but scorn for leaks of classified information that he said could compromise national security.

By that logic, however, the White House owes us answers to these questions: How was is it in the public interest or the national security interest to leak highly selective, misleading excerpts from a discredited document in an attempt to disparage someone making what turned out to be accurate charges that the administration exaggerated prewar intelligence?

Is there any evidence that Joseph Wilson's charges were doing any damage to national security -- rather than to Bush's political standing and credibility?

And conversely, is there any evidence that national security was compromised by the other leaks that the administration has responded to so ferociously? And would most Americans not agree that knowing about such things as domestic spying or secret prisons is in the public interest?

What's Next?

Dana Milbank writes in Slate: "The political world breathlessly awaits the latest installment in Scooter Libby's public squabble with Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor probing the Valerie Plame leak. A filing by Fitzgerald last week claimed that Libby, formerly Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, told a grand jury that Bush authorized him to disclose classified information. Libby has until Wednesday to respond to Fitzgerald's latest bombshell.

"Scandalmongers also await the press's first opportunity to question Bush about the revelation. After Monday's speech on Iraq at Johns Hopkins' School for Advanced International Studies? On a campaign trip to Iowa on Tuesday? With the Ghanaian president at the White House Wednesday? Questions will be asked -- shouted, if necessary -- but not necessarily answered."

Poll Watch

Richard Morin writes for The Washington Post: "Political reversals at home and continued bad news from Iraq have dragged President Bush's standing with the public to a new low and boosted Democratic chances of wresting control of Congress from Republicans in the November elections, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.

"The new survey found that 38 percent of the public approved of the job Bush is doing as president, down 3 percentage points in the past month and his worst showing in Post-ABC polling on this key measure since he became president. Sixty percent disapproved of his performance. . . .

"And perhaps more ominously for the president, 47 percent say they 'strongly' disapproved of Bush's handling of the presidency--more than double the percentage who strongly approved (20 percent) and the second straight month that the proportion of Americans intensely critical of the president was larger than his overall job approval rating."

Ron Fournier reports that the latest Associated Press poll has Bush hitting a new low of 36 percent job approval.

Dana Blanton reports for Fox News that its poll "finds that the president's job approval rating has slipped a couple of points and currently matches an earlier low recorded back in November. Today, 36 percent of Americans say they approve of the job George W. Bush is doing as president and 53 percent disapprove."

Woodward Responds

Author and Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward has written a blistering response to David Corn 's scathing piece in The Nation.

Corn wrote that Woodward let his sources mislead his readers when it came to reporting on a January 2003 meeting between Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair. Corn said Woodward missed two critical aspects of that meeting: That Bush, who was still publicly saying he wanted to avoid war, had settled on March 10 as the day bombing would begin; and that Bush discussed both a feint to draw Saddam into war and the possibility of assassinating him.

Woodward responded that Corn's column was "thoroughly dishonest and represents another low for journalism." Woodward chronicles how his book "describes in detail that Bush decided well in advance of the January 31st meeting that he was going to war."

In his reply, Corn concedes that point, but insists that Woodward missed the other aspects, presumably "due to the reluctance of Woodward's insider sources to share with him the full truth."

Cheney Pitching It In Early

I wrote on Thursday about how Cheney has the unenviable task of throwing the first pitch at the Nationals home opener tomorrow.

But it appears Cheney's handlers have come up with one way of minimizing the potential wrath of the crowds: Beating them to the stadium.

Gametime tomorrow, according to the tickets, is 1:05 p.m. But according to the vice president's press schedule, he's pitching at 12:59.

Froomkin Watch

Bad timing, I know -- but I'm going on vacation tomorrow. I'll have an abbreviated column in the morning, with a lot of stuff about Iran I couldn't fit in today. The regular column will return on Thursday, April 20.

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