WASHINGTON – President Bush was defending the War on Terror to an audience in North Carolina on Thursday, just as word came that newly filed court documents reveal Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney authorized Cheney's former chief of staff to release classified information about Iraq in July 2003.
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the only person indicted in the ongoing CIA leak investigation, told a grand jury that he had permission to discuss with reporters the National Intelligence Estimate regarding Iraq weapons systems.
Nothing in the papers indicate Bush or Cheney told Libby to reveal the name of CIA analyst Valerie Plame, nor do they suggest that either the president or vice president did anything illegal. But the documents do hint at more problems for the administration since some may show a plan to punish one of its critics, Plame's husband, Amb. Joe Wilson.
The new information is contained in 39 pages of arguments filed late Wednesday by prosecutors as part of an attempt to block subpoenas filed by Libby's lawyers that could force high-ranking officials to testify, including former CIA Director George Tenet and Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove.
Libby was Cheney's former chief of staff until he resigned last fall as a result of the indictment. He faces obstruction of justice charges and is accused of lying to investigators about his conversations with reporters who revealed Plame's identity.
Libby's lawyers have claimed that he might have been confused about his conversations from more than two years prior to his grand jury testimony, but he didn't intentionally mislead investigators.
According to the documents, Cheney told Libby to pass on portions of the National Intelligence Estimate to the press. Libby apparently wasn't satisfied with that request so Cheney got backing from Bush, then repeated his request to Libby to pass on the information. The president has the authority to declassify, and in fact, days later, the entire intelligence estimate was released to the press. The estimate did not discuss Plame.
Cheney told FOX News earlier this year that he too has authority to declassify information.
"There is an executive order that specifies who has classification authority, and obviously focuses first and foremost on the president, but also includes the vice president," Cheney said in February.
But the revelation didn't stop Bush critics from decrying the latest revelation.
"In light of today's shocking revelation, President Bush must fully disclose his participation in the selective leaking of classified information. The American people must know the truth," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
"The fact that the president was willing to reveal classified information for political gain and put the interests of his political party ahead of Americas security shows that he can no longer be trusted to keep America safe," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said.
The NIE said that Iraq was vigorously pursuing yellowcake uranium from Niger, which was contradictory to critics of the administration, including Wilson, who led an envoy to investigate the allegations that Iraq was seeking the nuclear material from the African country.
Wilson's report from his trip to Niger said former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had not obtained additional uranium from Niger, though he had obtained uranium from that country in the past. Wilson also noted that a former official in Niger said the Iraqis were seeking "better commercial relations" and since they had never bought anything except uranium from Niger, the official interpreted that as an effort to get more uranium. The Iraqis efforts were foiled, however, by the fact an international consortium controlled the mining, making it almost impossible to get the uranium on the sly.
Wilson left out those elements from an op-ed he wrote in which he blasted the president. The column was published in The New York Times in July 2003, and led to the release of the NIE. It also triggered the sequence of events that resulted in officials mentioning that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Plame was part of the group that made the decision to send Wilson on the mission to investigate Iraqi efforts to obtain uranium from Niger.
The closest the NIE comes to discussing the Plame matter is that it includes a reference to Iraq "vigorously trying to procure uranium," which British intelligence continued to assert from sources other than those the United States was citing.
According to the documents filed Wednesday, the authorization to discuss the NIE led to the July 8, 2003, conversation between Libby and New York Times reporter Judith Miller.
Libby's participation in that conversation with Miller "occurred only after the vice president advised defendant that the president specifically had authorized defendant to disclose certain information in the National Intelligence Estimate," according to the papers filed by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald.
The filing did not clarify what was contained in the "certain information."
"Defendant 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," the papers added.
Miller later went to jail for more than 80 days while refusing to testify until Libby released her from their confidentiality agreement.
In its latest filing, federal prosecutors say some of the documents it has turned up during its investigation "could be characterized as reflecting a plan to discredit, punish or seek revenge against Mr. Wilson."
Additionally, the documents say that Libby has mentioned "bureaucratic infighting over responsibility for the 'sixteen words,' " a reference to the 16 words that Bush used to describe Iraq's connection to Niger in his 2003 State of the Union address.
FOX News' Jim Angle, Wendell Goler, Michael Levine and The Associated Press contributed to this report.