WASHINGTON – A new court filing this week as part of the ongoing investigation into the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity was the subject of political jabs Friday, while the White House sidestepped questions over classified information it allegedly released to the press.
The filing that was lodged late Wednesday night revealed that Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, told a grand jury that President Bush and Cheney authorized the leak of sensitive information about Iraq's weapons from a pre-war intelligence report.
The filing also said Bush was "unaware" of Libby's role in disclosing Plame's identity, but how aware Cheney was of Libby's actions was not addressed. According to the court papers, Cheney advised his top aide that Bush had authorized Libby to leak the information to the press in striking back at an administration critic.
Libby is accused of perjury and obstructing justice while investigators probed whether there was a crime committed in the leak of Plame's identity. Opponents of the Bush administration have said the leak was political retribution to silence critics of the war in Iraq.
One of those critics was Plame's husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who penned an op-ed column in the New York Times saying the administration misused intelligence to support its march to war. Days later, syndicated columnist Robert Novak revealed Plame's identity in an article.
From the Senate floor Friday, Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called on the president to clear up what he called discrepancies in what the president has said over the matter.
"For years, President Bush has denied knowing about conversations between his top aides and Washington reporters, conversations where his aides like Scooter Libby sought to justify the war in Iraq, to discredit the White House's critics by leaking national security secrets," Reid said.
But the president "may have personally authorized the very leaks he denied knowing anything about," Reid said, calling on the president to personally "put this matter to rest."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, speaking to reporters in the White House briefing room just minutes later, said that the president would not authorize a disclosure that would harm national security and accused Reid and other critics of skewing the issue.
"There is a difference between providing declassified information to the public when it's in the public interest and leaking classified information that involved sensitive national intelligence regarding our security," McClellan said.
McClellan said Democrats were using "crass politics" in trying to say the White House was leaking information to quiet its critics, when in reality the administration was legally declassifying information to "set the record straight" in 2003 over questions that arose on the lead-up to the invasion.
"We will vigorously set the record straight when people are putting out misinformation or trying to suggest things that simply are not true," McClellan said.
Court papers filed by the prosecutor in the CIA leak case against Libby said Bush authorized Libby to disclose information from a classified prewar intelligence report.
McClellan on Friday volunteered that the administration declassified information from the intelligence report — the National Intelligence Estimate — and released it to the public on July 18, 2003. But he refused to say when the information was actually declassified, citing that it conflicted with the administration's policy not to comment on ongoing legal matters — in this case, the Libby case.
On July 18, 2003, McClellan said that the information had been declassified that day. "It was officially declassified today," he told reporters in a briefing in Dallas, Texas. At the White House on Friday, McClellan interpreted his own remarks to mean that the information had been officially released to the public.
The date could be significant because Libby discussed the information with a reporter 10 days earlier, on July 8 of that year.
In his court filing, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald asserted that "the president was unaware of the role" that Libby "had in fact played in disclosing" Plame's CIA status. The prosecutor gave no such assurance, though, regarding Cheney.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the president has the "inherent authority to decide who should have classified information." The White House declined to comment, citing the ongoing criminal probe into the leak of Plame's identity.
Earlier this year, Cheney told FOX News that an executive order gives the president and the vice president authority to declassify information.
In July 2003, Wilson's accusation that the Bush administration had twisted prewar intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat "was viewed in the office of vice president as a direct attack on the credibility of the vice president, and the president," Fitzgerald's court papers stated.
Part of the counterattack was a July 8, 2003, meeting with New York Times reporter Judith Miller at which Libby discussed the contents of a then-classified CIA report that seemed to undercut what Wilson was saying in public.
Separately, Libby said he understood he also was to tell Miller that prewar intelligence assessments had been that Iraq was "vigorously trying to procure" uranium, the prosecutor stated. In the run-up to the war, Cheney had insisted Iraq was trying to build a nuclear bomb.
The conclusion on uranium was contained in a National Intelligence Estimate, a consensus document of the U.S. intelligence community. Libby's statements came in grand jury testimony before he was charged with five counts of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI in the Plame probe.
Libby 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, Fitzgerald said. Libby testified to the grand jury "that the vice president later advised him that the president had authorized defendant to disclose the relevant portions" of the NIE.
Libby 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."
Libby testified that he was specifically authorized to disclose the key judgments of the classified intelligence document because it was thought that its conclusions were "fairly definitive" against what Wilson had said and the vice president thought that it was "very important" for those key judgments to come out, the court papers stated.
After Wilson began attacking the administration, Cheney had a conversation with Libby, expressing concerns on whether a CIA-sponsored trip to the African nation of Niger by Wilson "was legitimate or whether it was in effect a junket set up by Mr. Wilson's wife," Fitzgerald wrote. The suggestion that Plame sent her husband on the Africa trip has gotten widespread circulation among White House loyalists.
Wilson said he had concluded on his trip that it was highly doubtful Niger had sold uranium yellowcake to Iraq.
After the Justice Department launched a criminal investigation of the Plame leak in September 2003, Libby "implored White House officials" to issue a statement saying he had not been involved in revealing Plame's identity, according to the court documents. When his initial efforts met with no success, he "sought the assistance of the vice president in having his name cleared."
The White House eventually said neither Libby nor Karl Rove had been involved in the leak. Rove remains under criminal investigation.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.