WASHINGTON – President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney authorized Cheney’s top aide to launch a counterattack of leaks against administration critics on Iraq by feeding intelligence information to reporters, according to court papers citing the aide’s testimony in the CIA leak case.
In a court filing, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald stopped short of accusing Cheney of authorizing his chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, to leak the CIA identity of Valerie Plame.
But the prosecutor, detailing the evidence he has gathered, raised the possibility that the vice president was trying to use Plame’s CIA employment to discredit her husband, administration critic Joseph Wilson. Cheney, according to an indictment against Libby, knew that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA as early as June 12, 2003, more than a month before that fact turned up in a Robert Novak column.
Libby faces trial next January on five counts of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI about how he learned of the CIA identity of Wilson’s wife and what he told reporters about it. The indictment says Cheney told Libby in June 2003 that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA.
The authorization by Bush and Cheney in July 2003 for disclosing sensitive prewar intelligence assessments came amid a growing public realization that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. The failure to find WMD undermined the primary rationale Bush and Cheney had used for taking the country to war.
On Thursday, Democrats criticized the roles of Bush and Cheney.
“President Bush must fully disclose his participation in the selective leaking of classified information,” said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. “The American people must know the truth.”
“The president and the vice president must be held accountable,” Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said from the Senate floor. “Accountable for misleading the American people, accountable for the disclosure of classified material for political purposes. It is as serious as it gets in this democracy.”
Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said the White House would have no comment on the investigation. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the president has the “inherent authority to decide who should have classified information.”
In the court filing, drawn in part from Libby’s grand jury testimony prior to his indictment, Fitzgerald indicated that:
• A July 8, 2003, Libby conversation with New York Times reporter Judith Miller occurred “only after the vice president advised defendant that the president specifically had authorized defendant to disclose certain information” from a then-classified intelligence estimate on Iraq. Libby is alleged to have mentioned Wilson’s wife in the conversation.
• Libby testified that “the circumstances of his conversation with reporter Miller – getting approval from the president through the vice president to discuss material that would be classified but for that approval – were unique in his recollection.”
• Cheney’s chief of staff 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.
• Libby “testified that the vice president later advised him that the president had authorized defendant to disclose the relevant portions” of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq.
• The White House aide 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.”
Fitzgerald’s court papers are an effort to limit Libby’s demand that he be given voluminous amounts of classified information to defend himself in his criminal case.
Libby’s testimony also puts the president and the vice president in the awkward position of authorizing leaks. Both men have long said they abhor such practices, so much so that the administration has put in motion criminal investigations at their behest to hunt down leakers.
The most recent instance is the administration’s probe into who disclosed to The New York Times the existence of the warrantless domestic surveillance program.