WASHINGTON – The White House faced a barrage of questions Friday over the timing of President Bush’s decision to declassify intelligence that was then leaked to the press by Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.
In a tense briefing, White House spokesman Scott McClellan was asked repeatedly to explain his statement from three years ago that portions of a prewar intelligence document on Iraq were declassified on July 18, 2003.
Ten days earlier, Cheney’s top aide, I. Lewis Libby, had leaked snippets of intelligence from the document to New York Times reporter Judith Miller to rebut allegations by Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson, Libby told prosecutors, according to documents revealed this week.
Libby, Cheney’s former chief of staff, said he had passed the information to Miller after being told to do so by Cheney, who advised Libby that Bush had authorized it, said a court filing by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald.
McClellan told reporters July 18, 2003, that the material being released on Iraq “was officially declassified today.” On Friday, McClellan interpreted his own words to mean that’s when the material was “officially released.”
Asked when it was declassified, McClellan refused to answer, saying the matter was part of Fitzgerald’s ongoing CIA leak probe that has resulted in Libby’s indictment.
Libby faces charges of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI regarding the disclosure that Valerie Plame, Wilson’s wife, worked for the CIA. He is accused of making false statements about how he learned of her CIA employment and what he told reporters about her.
Plame’s CIA employment was disclosed by conservative columnist Robert Novak eight days after her husband, Wilson, accused the Bush administration of manipulating prewar intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat from weapons of mass destruction.
The declassification issue marks the second time in the CIA leak probe that the White House’s previous public statements have been called into question.
After checking with Libby and presidential adviser Karl Rove, McClellan said in 2003 that neither aide was involved in the leak of the CIA identity of Wilson’s wife.
John Podesta, a former chief of staff in the Clinton White House, said, “Scott McClellan’s credibility isn’t just in tatters. It is more like confetti.”
Administration critics said Bush’s actions were a misuse of the declassification process.
Bush’s “selective declassification of highly sensitive intelligence for political purposes is wrong,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Pelosi said a presidential executive order requires a uniform system for classifying, declassifying and safeguarding national security information.
Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., called for a House Intelligence Committee investigation and for the president to explain his actions in person to Congress.