Springing leaks

April 09, 2006

Capitol Hill was stunned last week at reports suggesting that President Bush himself ordered the leak of classified material in order to discredit a critic of his justification for invading Iraq.

It wasn't clear from I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's grand jury testimony whether Mr. Bush actually authorized the leak or whether Vice President Dick Cheney just told Mr. Libby he had the president's blessing. Or even whether the former top aide to Mr. Cheney was freelancing in his conversations with reporters and, now that he faces federal perjury charges, is simply trying to save his own skin.

Yet the deeply disconcerting implication of Mr. Libby's account of the saga of Joseph C. Wilson IV, Valerie Plame and Iraq's illusive weapons of mass destruction is that the Bush White House has as little respect for the intelligence secrets of the nation as it does for the privacy of individual citizens.

An administration so obsessed with security that it's been spying on Americans without bothering to get warrants seems quite content to spill classified material to advance its political ends. The only secrets this White House cares about keeping are its own.

For either the president or the vice president to be manipulating the release of security information for political gain reduces whatever credibility they have left. Mr. Bush, in particular, has been made to look like either a hypocrite or a liar by Mr. Libby's account.

According to a court filing by prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Mr. Libby described a campaign in June and July 2003 to use intelligence information about Iraq's efforts to obtain nuclear weapons to combat former Ambassador Wilson's contention that there was little proof of such efforts. The aide said Mr. Cheney told him the leaks had been approved by Mr. Bush.

Yet a few months later, amid allegations that someone in his administration had leaked the name of Ms. Plame, a CIA operative and Mr. Wilson's wife, the president dismissed the notion.

"I don't know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information," he said. "If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take the appropriate action."

That didn't leave a lot of maneuvering room for the White House, which refused to comment directly on Mr. Libby's testimony but spent Friday trying to argue that some leaks are worse than others.

With this further blow to his leadership, Mr. Bush could do little Friday to prevent the collapse of a promising immigration compromise in the Senate, or provide the muscle to help House Republicans pass a budget.

When everything is reduced to petty politics, that's all there is left.

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