Saturday, April 08, 2006

White House does not dispute leak claim

White House does not dispute leak claim
By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Friday left unchallenged a prosecutor's disclosure that President George W. Bush authorized a former top official, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, to share intelligence data on Iraq in 2003 with a reporter to counter Iraq war criticism.

Spokesman Scott McClellan insisted that Bush had the authority to declassify intelligence and rejected charges from Democrats that he did so selectively for political purposes.

"Declassifying information and providing it to the public when it is in the public interest is one thing," McClellan told reporters during a combative briefing. "But leaking classified information that could compromise our national security is something that is very serious, and there's a distinction."

Democrats seized on the issue, which has put Bush on the defensive at a time when his popularity is slumping and the Iraq war is increasingly unpopular. They accused the president, who has often spoken of the damage done by leaks, of hypocrisy.

"President Bush's selective declassification of highly sensitive intelligence for political purposes is wrong," said the House of Representatives Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada demanded an explanation from Bush, who has twice ignored shouted questions about the issue.

"Only the president can put this matter to rest. He must tell the American people whether the Bush Oval Office is the place where the buck stops, or the leaks start," Reid said.

The case is rooted in am investigation in which Libby, a former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, is accused of obstruction of justice and perjury in an investigation designed to discover who leaked then-CIA officer Valerie Plame.

Her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, emerged as a key critic of Bush's decision to invade Iraq in March 2003, saying that the president knowingly gave the American people information about Iraq's alleged nuclear program that U.S. intelligence services knew was untrue.


Wilson said the administration deliberately leaked his wife's identity to pay him back for his criticism.

The White House mounted an effort to respond to Wilson. On July 18, 2003, officials released portions of an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that said, among other things, that Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in a year or less once it acquired sufficient weapons-grade fissile material.

Inspectors who scoured Iraq after the U.S. invasion failed to find any signs of a nuclear program, leading to accusations that Bush manipulated intelligence in order to justify the war, a charge that follows him to this day.

According to court papers made public this week, Libby testified to a federal grand jury that Cheney had told him Bush authorized him to disclose information from the secret National Intelligence Estimate to a New York Times reporter.

The court documents did not say that Bush or Cheney authorized Libby to disclose Plame's identity.

Libby resigned from the administration last October when he was indicted by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. His trial is expected to begin next January.

McClellan argued the release of the declassified information was very different from what he called the potentially damaging leak of information about Bush's domestic eavesdropping program which aims to track phone calls and e-mails in the United States to suspected terrorists abroad.

"Democrats who refuse to acknowledge that distinction are simply engaging in crass politics," he said.