Yesterday, breathless news reports suggested that President Bush had directed the "leak" of classified information in July 2003. Yet the "leak" in question was from a document called the National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE - and by the time this "leak" occurred, the contents of the NIE as they related to Iraq were almost entirely public.
On Oct. 7, 2002, nine months before Bush's supposed "leak," the administration released an unclassified version of the very same NIE at the urging of Senate Democrats. And in early 2003, reporters hostile to the administration (primarily John Judis and Spencer Ackerman of The New Republic) were being told all sorts of things about the still-classified portions of the NIE.
And this "leak" wasn't a leak in any case. A "leak" is the unauthorized release of government information. The leak of classified information is a crime. But according to Scooter Libby, the former chief of staff to the vice president who gave the information from the NIE to a reporter, he only released it because he was authorized to do so by the president himself.
Constitutionally, the authority to declare documents "classified" resides with the president. So, under the terms of an executive order first drafted in 1982, he can declassify a document merely by declaring it unclassified.
The language of the executive order reads as follows: "Information shall be declassified or downgraded by the official who authorized the original classification, if that official is still serving in the same position . . . [or] a supervisory official." In the executive branch, the president is the ultimate "supervisory official."
We have found out about the president's decision to declassify information from the 2002 NIE because the special prosecutor who has charged Libby with perjury and obstruction of justice revealed elements of Libby's grand-jury testimony in new court papers.
The prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, claims Libby was involved in revealing the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame as a means of discrediting Wilson's husband, Joseph C. Wilson.
Wilson had written an op-ed in which he said he knew first-hand that the Bush administration had deliberately lied when it claimed Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium in Africa. (The CIA had sent Wilson, a one-time ambassador, to the African country of Niger for little more than a week in 2002 to check out the uranium story.)
Wilson was certain he could demonstrate that Libby had told Judith Miller of The New York Times about Valerie Plame's CIA employment at a meeting between the two on July 8, 2003. But Libby told the grand jury, in effect, that he met with Miller that day to give her information to discredit Wilson's op-ed that was far more potent than simply pointing out Wilson probably got the gig because his CIA wife was throwing the diplomatic has-been a bone.
According to Fitzgerald's court filing, Libby "testified that he was specifically authorized in advance of the meeting to disclose the key judgments of the classified NIE to Miller on that occasion because it was thought that the NIE was 'pretty definitive' against what Ambassador Wilson had said and that the vice president thought that it was 'very important' for the key judgments of the NIE to come out. [Libby] further testified that he at first advised the vice president that he could not have this conversation with reporter Miller because of the classified nature of the NIE. [Libby] testified that the vice president later advised him that the president had authorized [Libby] to disclose the relevant portions of the NIE."
Also lost in the mists of recent memory is the reason we're talking about this in the first place. Fitzgerald is involved in this story because he was asked to investigate whether the public exposure of Mrs. Wilson's CIA employment was a crime. For it to be a crime, she had to be a covert CIA operative who had served in that capacity at some point in the five years prior to her exposure - and the person exposing her had to be doing it consciously and with knowledge that she was covert.
Fitzgerald did not indict Libby or anybody else on those grounds. Even so, there's been a lot of harrumphing about the idea that the White House might have sought to discredit Wilson at all - that somehow doing such a thing was manifestly horrible.
But Wilson had claimed that he had inside knowledge that the White House knew Saddam had never sought to purchase uranium and that it went ahead and told a cock-and-bull story anyway - that, in other words, Bush had deliberately lied us into war.
That charge was so explosive that the Bush administration had no choice but to answer it in some fashion. By authorizing the release of some classified material to a reporter, Bush was fighting back against a slander.
And slander it was, no more and no less. The Senate Intelligence Committee specifically said Wilson came back from Niger and offered up some information suggesting Saddam had been pursuing nuclear material in Niger in 1999.
Wilson's appalling lies were revealed in 2004. And yet, here we are, in 2006, fighting the same old battles. Guess this is what happens when you don't win a war quickly enough.