WASHINGTON -- Long after President Bush warned that anyone in his administration who leaked classified information would suffer the consequences, a new federal court filing asserts that it was Bush himself who authorized release of once-classified intelligence about Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction in the summer of 2003.
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former vice presidential chief of staff indicted on obstruction of justice charges in the broad investigation of the leaked identity of a CIA agent, has testified that the president authorized him to release "relevant" parts of a National Intelligence Estimate to offset criticism of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, according to court documents filed Wednesday.
The new and potentially embarrassing revelation for the Bush administration is contained in a federal court filing by the Chicago-based prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, who is investigating the disclosure of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. That document makes no connection between Bush and the leak of Plame's name, but it draws Bush into a small circle that released selected national intelligence to counter the claims of an outspoken critic of the war.
The president had the legal authority to declassify information by releasing it, a government authority and outside experts say, but the alleged episode raises a more pressing political problem. It has increased demands for the White House - which was refusing to comment on the investigation yesterday - to publicly address a conflict between Bush's criticism of leaks and his own alleged leaking.
"This is a very significant disclosure. This is big," said Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican and Bush ally who refrained from commenting on Libby's testimony but said the White House will be compelled to comment. "They owe all of us an explanation, all of us who trust him, and they owe the American people an explanation."
In a midterm election year, Democrats are speaking out more forcefully.
"If Mr. Libby's claims are true, they represent a catastrophic breach of the public trust," said Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat. "It's OK for the Bush administration to release classified documents that compromise national security when it suits their political purposes."
Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph I. Wilson, had traveled to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq was trying to purchase uranium for nuclear weapons. After debunking that claim, which was among the assertions that the president had made in his rationale for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Wilson wrote an op-ed article for The New York Times on July 6, 2003, criticizing the flawed intelligence that the Bush administration had cited in taking the nation to war.
Evidence that Fitzgerald is preparing for Libby's trial will show that Wilson's article "was viewed in the office of vice president as a direct attack on the credibility of the vice president (and the president) on a matter of signal importance: the rationale for the war in Iraq," Fitzgerald wrote.
Two days after Wilson's article appeared, Libby spoke with Times reporter Judith Miller as a confidential source "only after the vice president advised [Libby] that the president specifically had authorized [Libby] to disclose certain information in the NIE [National Intelligence Estimate]," the filing shows.
Vice President Dick Cheney called it "very important" for "key judgments" of that intelligence to "come out," serving as a "pretty definitive" counterattack to Wilson's criticism. Libby "understood that he was to tell the reporter, among other things, that a key judgment of the NIE held that Iraq was `vigorously trying to procure' uranium," the filing shows.
The vice president believed Wilson's credibility would be undercut if his trip were perceived as "a junket," and "an assignment on account of nepotism," according to the court filing. Libby discussed Wilson's connection to Plame with both the Times reporter and a Time magazine reporter several days later.
Bush declined to comment yesterday when a reporter called out a question to him. And the White House, which had spoken out frequently during 2003, has maintained a more recent policy of not commenting on Fitzgerald's investigation.
"It's an ongoing investigation, and we've had a policy for some time that we're not going to comment on it," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday.
Libby at first believed he couldn't discuss the intelligence estimate with Miller "because of the classified nature of the NIE," Fitzgerald has told the court.
But Cheney assured Libby that the president had authorized him to "disclose the relevant portions of the NIE," the filing shows, and David Addington, the legal counsel in Cheney's office, assured him that the president's approval for release of the information "amounted to a declassification of the document."