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2006-04-07

Libby Says Bush Authorized Leaks of Highly Classified Iraq Intel to Bolster Case for War

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Lewis "Scooter" Libby–the Vice President’s former chief of staff–has testified that President Bush authorized him to leak details of a highly classified intelligence assessment to the press to defend the Bush administration’s decision to go to war with Iraq, according to court papers filed Wednesday. We speak with investigative journalist Murray Waas. [includes rush transcript]

Lewis "Scooter" Libby–the Vice President’s former chief of staff–has testified that President Bush authorized him to leak details of a highly classified intelligence assessment to the press to defend the Bush administration’s decision to go to war with Iraq.

The news has created a firestorm in Washington. Throughout his presidency, Bush has often denounced leaks from his administration and vowed to punish the leakers. The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Congressmember Jane Harman of California said, "If the disclosure is true, it’s breathtaking. The president is revealed as the leaker-in-chief."

Libby’s grand jury testimony was cited in court papers filed by prosecutors late Wednesday. Libby was indicted in October on charges that he lied to investigators about his role in the outing of former CIA operative Valerie Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

In July 2003, Wilson published an OpEd in the New York Times questioning the accuracy of Bush’s claim that Iraq had sought nuclear materials from Niger. According to Libby’s testimony, Vice President Dick Cheney told Libby to divulge to the media portions of a National Intelligence Estimate regarding Saddam Hussein’s alleged efforts to develop nuclear weapons to contradict Wilson’s claims.

Libby says that he refused to do so because the NIE was classified. A little later on, Cheney told Libby that he had gone to Bush, and that Bush had specifically authorized leaking the information in the NIE. According to the court papers, Libby testified that such presidential authorization to disclose classified information was "unique in his recollection." Libby also testified that an administration lawyer told him that by authorizing the disclosure, Bush had in effect declassified the information.

That authorization led to a July 8, 2003 conversation between Libby and then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller. The filing said that Libby understood he was to tell Miller that a key judgment of the intelligence estimate was that Iraq was "vigorously trying to procure" uranium. According to The New York Times, the CIA did not believe this finding, which came from the Defense Intelligence Agency and remains unproved to this day.

Prosecutors have alleged in the case against Libby that at that meeting he also gave information to Miller about the identity of Valerie Plame. But the court filing makes no allegation that President Bush or Dick Cheney authorized the disclosure of Plame’s identity. However, the papers do place the president, for the first, time, directly in a chain of events that led to Plame’s outing.

  • Murray Waas, veteran investigative journalist who writes for a number of publications. Among them, American Prospect magazine and Salon.com. He has broken a number of stories on the saga of the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. He maintains a blog at WhateverAlready.blogspot.com.
    - Read Murray’s article: Libby Says Bush Authorized Leaks

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the latest, we are joined on the phone right now from Washington D.C. by veteran investigative journalist Murray Waas, who has broken story after story on the saga of the outing of Valerie Plame. Murray Waas maintains a blog at whateveralready.blogspot.com. Welcome to Democracy Now!

MURRAY WAAS: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Why don’t you go through exactly what you learned from these documents that were filed by the prosecutor on Wednesday?

MURRAY WAAS: What the prosecutor said, and he’s for the most part, in the court papers, simply re-reporting what Scooter Libby has said in his Grand Jury testimony, the Grand Jury testimony being kept secret by the Grand Jury rules but allowed to be made public during different events in pretrial. Libby essentially said that the President of the United States and the Vice President authorized him on occasion to leak classified information, not just to make the case to go to war, but when Joe Wilson first went public with his allegations, to then defend how they made the case to go to war. And so, there were documents and things that they thought were exculpatory that helped their case, that showed that they didn’t think they did anything wrong. So the President and Vice President simply said, 'If this helps our cause, you can make this public. We can declassify this. We'll do this unilaterally. We’ll do this without telling anybody. We’ll do this without going through the formal process.’ And they did that.

And, in the mean time, what I think is missing from this press coverage, not because anyone is trying to conceal it or anything, but just because it’s kind of a nuance, that the direct opposite of that is that the administration is able to keep secrets and classify things that they don’t want out that are politically embarrassing, that are going to hurt them; in this case, things that were going to hurt them from getting re-elected. And they’ve had these extraordinary leak investigations, using the powers of the state, Grand Jury, the Justice Department and such, to an extent that hasn’t been used since probably the Nixon administration in Watergate. So on the one hand, they’re tightening the amount of information that can get out, anything that’s going to hurt them, they can keep that classified. On the other hand, they’ve radically changed the system in that they can put out anything they like.

So, you get pretty much a one — you get a version of events which is what the government or what the administration wants to tell you, which is just harmful to democracy. And what I think we’re seeing is — and it has nothing to do with Republican, Democrat, liberal, you know, conservative, rightwing, leftwing —- you don’t want to give an administration, you don’t want to give a government that power. You don’t want to allow them to become a sovereign when it comes to the dissemination of information, because information is essential to a democracy. And can I veer off on a tangent? Because it’s not much of a tangent, but something that -—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

MURRAY WAAS: Something that facilitates this. We have the, you know, these kind of almost unprecedented powers in generations being afforded an administration to control the flow of information. In the meantime, the free and independent press is just dissipating into a press that’s compliant, sensational, commercial, just not doing its job, and we have, you know, cumulatively, we have — you look at little episodes or whatever. But when you were doing your newscast before, I mean, the Village Voice, for example, it’s a paper that I worked for a little bit in my wayward youth, to have Sidney Schanberg, who is one of the great, great, foreign correspondents, former columnist for the Times and now past seventy, you know, an extraordinary press critic, so much so that he won one of the nation’s top awards for press criticism after doing everything else in his career, you know, leaving that paper and, you know, and Jim Ridgeway, who has been kind of a steady anchor there for more than 30 years, someone whose politics and column I don’t always agree with, but someone who always went out his way to be kind to me and other people and encouraged good journalism.

So the Village Voice might just be one paper, but you see Knight Ridder, you see the bureaus of major papers in D.C., you know, a third or half what they used to be, and so the powers of journalism are perhaps, getting down to the level of almost a crisis, I think, for democracy. You combine that with the government being given, or the Bush administration taking unprecedented radical new powers, you’re allowing the government to, you know, take — it’s just bad for democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Murray Waas, let me ask you something. Back on these leaks, you point out in your piece that, although not reflected in the court papers, two senior government officials said in interviews with the National Journal, who you write for, in recent days, that Libby has also asserted, "Cheney authorized him to leak classified information to a number of journalists during the run up to the invasion. In some instances, the information leaked was directly discussed with the Vice President while in other instances Libby believed he had broad authority to release information that would make the case to go to war." So this is going way back?

MURRAY WAAS: Yeah, I mean, we see two different strands here. One is the case to go to war, how we went to war, and then secondly, after the war, after the cessation of hostilities, at least as the President has said, the administration then had to defend how it made its case to go to war, whether it had been truthful, whether it had adequately represented what the intelligence agencies of this country said, whether it allowed the free flow of information. So there are really two efforts: to go to war and then to defend what happened after war.

And the defense — people kind of forget the time frame. In July 2003, when Joe Wilson made his allegations and this came to the forefront, George Bush was trying to get re-elected, and 2004 was a major year, not only for Bush, but the Republican Party, because of the House and Senate races. But going back, Scooter Libby, he was one of the people who went out on behalf of the President and met with Judith Miller, Bob Woodward, reporters like this, and was authorized to give them classified information, nuggets of information that supported not so much their viewpoint, but what they thought was evidence or, in a lot of cases, purported evidence or phony evidence to make the case to go to war.

AMY GOODMAN: You also say that Libby testified that he also spoke to David Addington, then counsel to the Vice President, whom Libby considered to be an expert in national security law, and Addington opined that presidential authorization to publicly disclose a document amounted to declassification of the document. Of course, Addington has replaced Scooter Libby now. What about the significance of this, that once the President says, "Release it," it’s really no longer leaking it, because the President is automatically declassifying it?

MURRAY WAAS: Well, I think what you’re seeing is what David Addington is saying, is the President is a sovereign, and we’ve seen throughout history, throughout American history, the legislative branch and the press and the public saying, 'No, that's not the case.’ But wartime presidents assume more power, and we have to think how central information is. In other words, when people might be more upset that David Addington writes a memo saying the President in wartime can torture, he can detain people, he can go beyond the Constitution, he can allow the N.S.A. to wiretap without court authorization. But when he’s making this statement about information, it’s just as important, because without information, without a show like — you know, for example, it’s just not a show like yours being able to be on the air that’s freedom of the press, it’s also you need the information. You know, you need information to flow. You need people in government to talk to you, but every journalist, including me, you know, even Seymour Hersh, we’re all building on the work of other journalists and what else is out there.

AMY GOODMAN: Murray Waas, finally, what is the significance of this right now, if the President is the, what some were saying yesterday, the "Leaker-in-Chief," so what?

MURRAY WAAS: Well, it just gives the President of the United States this extraordinary power. If he wants to go to war, information that would undercut what he is saying publicly, critics who disagree with him, information in the bureaucracy —

AMY GOODMAN: Is it illegal? —

MURRAY WAAS: Well, apparently —

AMY GOODMAN: Could he be indicted?

MURRAY WAAS: It’s interesting, he can’t be — apparently he can’t be indicted. The President, under constitutional — his constitutional authority gives him the right to declassify information, but it doesn’t — what we’ve seen and we have seen very mainstream and conservative critics of this say if the President does it and it’s within his constitutional prerogative or it’s within the law, it doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t mean that it’s good for the democratic process.

AMY GOODMAN: Does this change the story that we’ve been covering, the whole story of the outing of Valerie Plame? Where does it go from here, and what more do you expect? You have had a lot of inside sources on this story.

MURRAY WAAS: Well, the most important thing, of course, is the trial of Scooter Libby, which is held off until 2007, and the strategy —

AMY GOODMAN: After the election, the 2006 election.

MURRAY WAAS: Correct, correct, and the question is, again, I think at the core of this is: Is a president, is he a sovereign when it comes to the government’s information? Is he the person who can eke it out? Now interestingly, that’s the issue that brought Scooter Libby to the Grand Jury and has caused his indictment, but now what we can see is Libby has asked for classified information to be used at his trial, and Pat Fitzgerald has said that that’s greymail, it’s an attempt to just ask for classified information for no other purpose than to try and shut down the trial, because the government won’t want to declassify it. Well, it’s not Pat Fitzgerald, though. It’s not the prosecutor or the people or the Grand Jury who get to decide whether the trial goes forward and information will be declassified. It’s the intelligence agencies and government agencies, the C.I.A., for example. It’s the Bush administration’s Justice Department, and it’s the Bush administration.

So we could potentially see the shutdown of the trial, because, again, the President is almost a sovereign when it comes to information, but the check on that is Congress. The check on that is the press. The check on that is programs like your own and what the public says about that. But this is what, for those of your listeners who are old enough, in Iran-Contra, it was the same type of thing, where Oliver North and a number of other defendants charge after charge were thrown out as a backdoor way to end the investigation. So, again, you’re giving the executive branch, through this issue of what they can classify and declassify, these extraordinary, extraordinary powers, and so you can — if the indictment is correct and Scooter Libby is prosecuted — and he does deserve the presumption of innocence, but if he did do what the indictment says and he is ultimately convicted, you’re still giving the executive branch the classification powers.

AMY GOODMAN: Murray, we’re going to have to leave it there.

MURRAY WAAS: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: But I want to thank you very much for being with us. Murray Waas, veteran investigative journalist, who writes for a number of publications, has been breaking a lot of these stories in the National Journal.

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