Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The ongoing legal proceeding

I've written a lot in recent days (here, here and here) about Scooter Libby's sworn testimony, which fingers President Bush as leaker-in-chief. And I'd love to give it a rest.
But yesterday, we finally heard from the president himself, when a Johns Hopkins University student asked him whether it was true - as alleged by Libby's prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald - that the White House had been leaking in order to discredit ex-ambassador and war critic Joseph Wilson. (Republican appointee Fitzgerald put it this way last week, in court filings: "It is hard to conceive of what evidence there could be that would disprove the existence of White House efforts to 'punish Wilson.'")
Here's how Bush began his answer: "Yes, no, I, this is, there's an ongoing legal proceeding..."
Translation: I'm in trouble on this one.
Taking refuge behind an "ongoing legal proceeding" is a time-honored Washington stonewalling tactic. And Bush is using it selectively anyway, because the White House didn't hesitate to declare that Tom DeLay was innocent even after he had been indicted in an ongoing legal proceeding.
But, all that aside, Bush did ultimately respond to the student's question. Sort of.
He said that he had declassified a prewar intelligence document in July of 2003 because "it was important for people to get a sense for why I was saying what I was saying in my speeches." (He had given speeches contending that Saddam Hussein was gathering the materials for nuclear weapons. Wilson, on July 6, 2003, said publicy that Hussein was not doing that.)
But more important, yesterday, was what Bush did not say.
He didn't mention the revelation, in the Fitzgerald court filings, that he had authorized Libby to undercut Wilson by selectively leaking to the press only those portions of the intelligence document that supported the notion that Hussein was going nuclear - and that this action was taken several weeks before the entire document was declassified.
As I noted the other day, the material that Libby shared with the press conveniently omitted any reference to the intelligence skeptics (at the State and Energy departments) who essentially agreed with Wilson.
Bush didn't volunteer any of that, even though he said yesterday that "I wanted people to see the truth."
This whole saga won't be going away any time soon. Not with Fitzgerald dropping new court filings along the way. Not with the Libby trial slated to begin this winter (after the midterm election). These developments might do further damage to the president's 60 percent disapproval rating.