After Libby's Bombshell: The White House Plays Defense

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If a former adviser's testimony is wrong and President Bush did not authorize the leak of intelligence information to counter attacks from a critic of the Iraq war, the White House isn't saying so. In fact, the President's men are laying the groundwork for defending the disclosure in case the testimony by I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, turns out to be accurate.

The Republican National Committee asserted in a fact sheet titled "Dems' Declassification Hypocrisy" that Democrats were falsely attacking the President "for 'leaking' information that was declassified legally and appropriately." White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters this morning that he would not comment on an ongoing legal proceeding. But he added, referring to the imbroglio over pre-war intelligence back in the summer of 2003: "You will recall, if you go back to that time period that you are referencing, that we did declassify information ... in the National Intelligence Estimate, to provide that information to the public."

Libby's bombshell is on Page 20 of a 39-page legal filing by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special counsel in the investigation into the disclosure of the identity of then-CIA agent Valerie Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had challenged Administration assertions about Saddam Hussein's efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Fitzgerald filed the document Wednesday night.

Fitzgerald's filing says that Vice President Cheney told Libby "that the President specifically had authorized" him "to disclose certain information" in the National Intelligence Estimate, the government's most authoritative compendium of what was known about Hussein's arsenal in the prelude to war. The White House didn't say anything publicly on Thursday, when the filing became big news after first being disclosed by the New York Sun, but the Republican National Committee published a document that seemed intended to justify what Libby alleged the President did. The document has a section headed, "The President and Vice President Have The Authority To Declassify Information," and notes that the President is not accused of authorizing the disclosure of Plame's identity.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called it a "shocking revelation," and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry said the White House should "stop hiding behind legalese." Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California, who would likely chair the House Government Reform Committee if Democrats win control of the House, sent a letter to the White House asking for "a full accounting" of "the President and Vice President's actions in authorizing leaks of classified intelligence about Iraq." Democratic Rep. John M. Dingell of Michigan, who, as a 50-year member, is dean of the House, said the "protection of those who risk their lives for our security is a non-negotiable responsibility of the Commander in Chief."

McClellan said Bush "would never authorize disclosure of information that could compromise our nation's security" or provide "the enemy our playbook."

"The President has been critical about the leaking of classified information," McClellan said. "And that view has not changed."