WASHINGTON – President Bush declassified sensitive intelligence in 2003 and authorized its public disclosure to rebut Iraq war critics, but he did not specifically direct that Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, be the one to disseminate the information, an attorney knowledgeable about the case said Saturday.
Bush merely instructed Cheney to "get it out" and left the details to him, said the lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case for the White House. The vice president chose Libby and communicated the president's wishes to his then-top aide, the lawyer said.
It is not known when the conversation between Bush and Cheney took place. The White House has declined to provide the date when the president used his authority to declassify the portions of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, a classified document that detailed the intelligence community's conclusions about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The new information about Bush and Cheney's roles came as the president's aides have scrambled to defuse the political fallout from a court filing Wednesday by the prosecutors in the complex, ongoing investigation into whether the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame was disclosed to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, an Iraq war critic.
Wilson had accused the administration of twisting prewar intelligence to exaggerate the weapons threat in Iraq.
Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald said in the filing that Libby testified before a grand jury that he was authorized by Bush, through Cheney, to leak information from the intelligence estimate.
Libby faces trial, likely in January, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to the grand jury and investigators about what he told reporters about Plame.
Fitzgerald did not say in the filing that Cheney authorized Libby to leak Plame's identity, and Bush is not accused of doing anything illegal.
Fitzgerald's aim with the filing was to counter Libby's defense that he innocently forgot about conversations he may have had with reporters about Plame by showing that the White House's concern about the war criticism was so consuming it would be difficult to forget.
But by suggesting that the leak of Plame's name may have been set in motion by the president, however indirectly, the documents reverberated much more broadly. Democrats unleashed a storm of criticism against Bush, saying he appeared to have misused the declassification process for political gain.
On Friday, the White House argued there is an important different between disclosing sensitive information to further a public debate and leaking classified information that compromises national security. But the attorney said Saturday the president's instructions were not as specific as it might seem from both Fitzgerald's description of Libby's testimony and news accounts of it.
Because Bush declassified the intelligence document, the White House does not view Libby's conversations about it as a leak. But that determination is difficult to make without knowing precisely when Bush decided to declassify the information.
Libby passed the information about the document to New York Times reporter Judith Miller on July 8, 2003. It was 10 days later, on July 18, when the same portions of the document that Libby discussed with Miller were released publicly.