The revelation yesterday that President Bush is apparently the leaker-in-chief is fascinating for many reasons.
There's the complicated legal question of whether a president can summarily declassify secret intelligence on a whim, without needing to at least go through some procedural channels. Indeed, legal experts, quoted here, contend that Bush at the very least should have honored his "professional obligation" by consulting with intelligence officials before leaking.
But, leaving that issue aside, what's truly noteworthy about this specific case - Bush authorizing Scooter Libby to leak classified material to a reporter during the summer of 2003, in order to retroactively defend the March launching of war in Iraq - is the fact his selectively leaked material was apparently false...and that the administration had good reason to believe, long in advance, that this material was false.
According to the federal court filings by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, Libby has told a grand jury that he leaked to a reporter an intelligence report which contended that Saddam Hussein had been trying to obtain fuel for nuclear weapons. This leak was intended to refute the findings of ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had publicly concluded that Hussein had been doing no such thing.
But here's the mirthless punch line: The leak authorized by Bush apparently omitted the fact that, back in October 2002, Bush had received a classified "President's Summary," which informed him that the nuclear-fuel allegation was highly questionable, that experts from the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Department of Energy's intelligence branch simply didn't believe it. (For more, read this March 30 piece by Murray Waas, of the nonpartisan National Journal; he's the best investigative reporter tracking this subplot.)
So let us review. Bush says repeatedly in 2003 that he doesn't like leakers. Now there are court papers, with testimony under oath that he himself leaked - and that the material he selectively leaked was not even necessarily true.
What is the White House saying about all this? Very little, at least for attribution. But, as this Washington Post report today makes clear, Bush's anonymous allies are working on a defense. Remember back in 1998 when Bill Clinton was parsing the word "is"? It's much the same thing today, except this time it's about what the meaning of the word "leak" is.
The anonymous defenders essentially told the Post that if Bush had leaked the classified identity of Joseph Wilson's CIA-employed wife (which he didn't), that would have been a bad leak. But since Bush authorized a leak to assure the public of his rationale for war, that was a good leak. As the source put it: "There is a clear difference between the two."
That is very enlightening. Because I was not aware, from previous Bush statements, that there was any distinction to be drawn between good leaks and bad. Bush certainly didn't seem to think so. He has launched criminal investigations to track down leakers. He said in September 2003 that if he learned who a leaker in his employ was, "the person will be taken care of."
But here's my favorite, from December 2001: "Somebody in our government wanted to show off to his family or her family in between Christmas and New Year's by leaking information in the press … I don't know why people do that. I guess either to make you [the press] feel good and/or to make themselves feel good."
Meanwhile, you know that the war isn't going well when two of its leader/defenders within the Bush inner circle are sniping publicly at each other. It all started a week ago when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in Great Britain that the U.S. effort in Iraq was less than perfect: "I know we've made tactical errors, thousand of them I'm sure."
Enter Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He is probably accustomed to hearing such critiques of his performance from people who he presumably dismisses as defeatists and hate-America types. But Rice? Bush's exercise partner? Isn't she on the team?
So he fired back in a radio interview on Tuesday, with the tone of a guy who didn't think that girls belonged on the playing field: "I don't know what she was talking about, to be perfectly honest...(C)alling changes in military tactics during the war 'errors' reflects a lack of understanding of warfare."
It's a bad-vibe situation right now. Perhaps someone can leak something new, to make them all feel good.
By the way, the conservative push-back on the Bush leak revelation has begun.
The gist of the Bush defense was articulated today by Cliff May, an ex-GOP spokesman who has helped direct a neoconservative think tank, Project for a New American Century. Today he wrote, on the National Review website, that "there is no hint of a scandal here. There is not even any news here..." Essentially, he argues, "it’s in the job description of the President to decide what will remain classified (secret) and what will be de-classified and released to the press and public."
But here's the real test for May and his colleagues: Suppose Bill Clinton had been waging an unpopular war, and had decided to selectively leak classified material, which in itself was specious, to reporters in an effort to defend his war. Would conservatives be saying that Clinton was merely fulfilling his "job description"?