WASHINGTON – President Bush Thursday acknowledged for the first time that “somebody” in his administration leaked the name of an undercover intelligence officer but declined to say whether he was disappointed in such an action and contended it was time to move on.
Asked during his news conference whether he was disappointed that his advisers revealed the identity of undercover operative Valerie Plame to the news media, the president did not answer directly. But he offered perhaps his fullest discussion of a case he has generally refused to address because it was in the courts.
Bush described as “fair and balanced” his decision to commute the prison term of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for his role in the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame’s identity.
Bush went on to say he had not spent “a lot of time” talking with people in his administration about court testimony in the Libby case. But he added: “I’m aware of the fact that perhaps somebody in the administration did disclose the name of that person, and I’ve often thought about what would have happened had that person come forth and said, I did it. Would we have had this, you know, endless hours of investigation and a lot of money being spent on this matter?”
It was not exactly clear who Bush was referring to in his comments, because several officials other than Libby discussed Plame’s identity with reporters, including senior White House adviser Karl Rove.
But the comment seemed aimed at former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who was the first person known to have mentioned Plame’s name to a journalist, in a June 2003 conversation with Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.
Armitage also mentioned Plame to columnist Robert Novak in what the columnist described as an “offhand revelation.” Novak was the first to disclose Plame’s identity and CIA affiliation publicly, in July 2003.
Actually, Armitage did tell senior State Department officials what he had done after he realized he might have been the source for Novak’s column. One of them called then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to report that the State Department possessed information relevant to the leak investigation and already had contacted the Justice Department.
The aide, former State Department lawyer Will Taft, asked Gonzales if he wanted to know the details and Gonzales said no, according to “Hubris,” a book on the case by journalists Michael Isikoff and David Corn.
Also Thursday, Bush’s statement that he had commuted Libby’s 30-month prison sentence because it was “excessive” drew a quizzical response from the trial judge in Libby’s case, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton. In an opinion ordering Libby to begin serving supervised probation, Walton noted that the prison term was “consistent with the bottom end” of federal sentencing guidelines.
“The court is somewhat perplexed as to how its sentence could accurately be characterized as excessive,” Walton wrote.