As President Bush took questions from graduate students Monday, one of them raised a touchy subject that he had not yet publicly addressed a court filing last week revealing that he had personally authorized the use of pre-war intelligence to rebut an administration critic. Bush said he would not talk about the court case of former White House aide I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, citing "a serious investigation." But the President did say why the White House had released part of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq when it was under attack by former ambassador Joseph Wilson and others in the summer of 2003.
"After we liberated Iraq, there was questions in people's minds about the basis on which I made statements, in other words, going into Iraq," Bush said at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), in Washington. "So I decided to declassify the NIE for a reason. I wanted people to see what some of those statements were based on. I wanted people to see the truth and thought it made sense for people to see the truth.And that's why I declassified the document."
But Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) had a very different view of things. On Monday she accused Bush of declassifying national security information for political purposes and briefly invoked President Richard Nixon before backing off that explosive analogy. "Obviously it was done not just for political reasons, which sounds kind of everyday Washington politics," she told Al Hunt, Bloomberg's Washington bureau chief. "It was done to protect the decision makers from being held accountable for some of the information they used in the run up to the invasion of Iraq."
Senator Clinton, who faces reelection in November, told Bloomberg News in New York that Bush's authorization of the leaking of information to bolster his case on Iraq "was absolutely not the proper use" of the declassification process, according to a transcript provided by Bloomberg. "Presidents should know not to go too far," she added. "We saw it with Richard Nixon claiming national security to break into Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office, to break into the Democratic National Committee. Well, here we have a president at least giving an implicit go ahead "
Interjecting, Hunt asked if the Senator was saying this case was analogous to what Nixon did. "We don't know," she said. "We don't know. But we do know that for political purposes that really use national security to score political points and to protect decisions and decision makers material was declassified." Hunt asked Clinton, "You're convinced that your husband never engaged in any similar leaks." She replied, with a playful fillip, "Not that I'm aware of. Look, everybody leaks."
Bush made his comments about the leak during a speech about the global war on terrorism, in which he spoke more broadly about his "freedom agenda" for democratizing the Middle East. "Look, I'm pleased with the progress," he said. "I was reading the other day where Kuwaiti women are running for office. It's a positive sign, you know? We've got to be realistic about what's possible, but we've got to be firm in our belief that freedom is possible and necessary." Bush was referring to a local election last week in which Kuwait allowed women to vote for the first time, following passage of a government-sponsored suffrage bill last May. Female candidates lost in the municipal race, but women have announced they will run in parliamentary elections next year. Bahrain was he first Gulf Arab state to give women the vote, in 2002.
Two knowledgeable officials told TIME on Saturday that Bush had, indeed, unilaterally declassified the parts of the NIE following criticism from Wilson, without using the standard declassification process that the White House went through later. The officials said the President told Vice President Cheney that the excerpts should be provided to the press, but had played no role in the actual leak to Judith Miller of The New York Times. "The conversation between the President and the Vice President was only about declassifying," a senior administration official said. "The President made the executive decision, and still believes it was the right decision, to declassify the NIE. But any discussion with Scooter about disseminating that information was not known to the President."
Cheney then had a conversation about the release with Libby, his chief of staff at the time, who provided them to Miller. She did not write an article about them. The material, including some findings that had been disputed by members of the intelligence community, was provided to the whole press corps ten days later on July 18, 2003. On that day, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said it had been "just, as of today, officially declassified." Today, he told reporters: "What I told you then was based on what I knew at the time."
This afternoon, he also gave his response to a call by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) on "Fox News Sunday" for "the president and the vice president to tell the American people exactly what happening." "It's not a question of whether or not we would like to talk more about it," McClellan replied. "We don't want to do anything that could jeopardize this ongoing investigation and legal proceeding. We want there to be due process. We want there to be a fair hearing. And that's why we made it policy not to comment on it while it continues."