Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff has testified that President Bush authorized him to disclose the contents of a highly classified intelligence assessment to the media to defend the Bush administration's decision to go to war with Iraq, according to papers filed in federal court [PDF] on Wednesday by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the CIA leak case.
Libby testified to a federal grand jury that he had received "approval from the President through the Vice President" to divulge portions of a National Intelligence Estimate.
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby testified to a federal grand jury that he had received "approval from the President through the Vice President" to divulge portions of a National Intelligence Estimate regarding Saddam Hussein's purported efforts to develop nuclear weapons, according to the court papers. Libby was said to have testified that such presidential authorization to disclose classified information was "unique in his recollection," the court papers further said.
Libby also testified that an administration lawyer told him that Bush, by authorizing the disclosure of classified information, had in effect declassified the information. Legal experts disagree on whether the president has the authority to declassify information on his own.
The White House had no immediate reaction to the court filing.
Although not reflected in the court papers, two senior government officials said in interviews with National Journal in recent days that Libby has also asserted that Cheney authorized him to leak classified information to a number of journalists during the run-up to war with Iraq. 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.
In yet another instance, Libby had claimed that President Bush authorized Libby to speak to and provide classified information to Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward for "Plan of Attack," a book written by Woodward about the run-up to the Iraqi war.
Bush and Cheney authorized the release of the information regarding the NIE in the summer of 2003, according to court documents, as part of a damage-control effort undertaken only days after former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV alleged in an op-ed in The New York Times that claims by Bush that Saddam Hussein had attempted to procure uranium from the African nation of Niger were most likely a hoax.
According to the court papers, "At some point after the publication of the July 6 Op Ed by Mr. Wilson, Vice President Cheney, [Libby's] immediate supervisor, expressed concerns to [Libby] regarding whether Mr. Wilson's trip was legitimate or whether it was in effect a junket set up by Mr. Wilson's wife."
Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a covert CIA officer at the time, and Cheney, Libby, and other Bush administration officials believed that Wilson's allegations could be discredited if it could be shown that Plame had suggested that her husband be sent on the CIA-sponsored mission to Niger.
Two days after Wilson's op-ed, Libby met with then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller and not only disclosed portions of the NIE, but also Plame's CIA employment and potential role in her husband's trip.
Regarding that meeting, Libby "testified that he was specifically authorized in advance... to disclose the key judgments of the classified NIE to Miller" because Vice President Cheney believed it to be "very important" to do so, the court papers filed Wednesday said. The New York Sun reported the court filing on its Web site early Thursday.
Libby "further testified that he at first advised the Vice President that he could not have this conversation with reporter Miller because of the classified nature of the NIE," the court papers said. Libby "testified that the Vice President had advised [Libby] that the President had authorized [Libby] to disclose relevant portions of the NIE."
Additionally, 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 Mr. Addington opined that Presidential authorization to publicly disclose a document amounted to a declassification of the document."
Addington succeeded Libby as Cheney's chief of staff after Libby was indicted by a federal grand jury on Oct. 28, 2005 on five counts of making false statements, perjury, and obstruction of justice in attempting to conceal his role in outing Plame as an undercover CIA operative.
Four days after the meeting with Miller, on July 12, 2003, Libby spoke again to Miller, and also for the first time with Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper, during which Libby spoke to both journalists about Plame's CIA employment and her possible role in sending her husband to Niger.
Regarding those conversations, Libby understood that the Vice President specifically selected him to "speak to the press in place of Cathie Martin (then the communications person for the Vice President) regarding the NIE and Wilson," the court papers said.
Libby also testified, Fitzgerald asserted in the court papers, that "at the time of his conversations with Miller and Cooper, he understood that only three people -- the President, the Vice President and [Libby] -- knew that the key judgments of the NIE had been declassified.
"[Libby] testified in the grand jury that he understood that even in the days following his conversation with Ms. Miller, other key officials-including Cabinet level officials-were not made aware of the earlier declassification even as those officials were pressed to carry out a declassification of the NIE, the report about Wilson's trip and another classified document dated January 24, 2003." It is unclear from the court papers what the January 24, 2003 document might be.
During those very same conversations with the press that day Libby "discussed Ms. Wilson's CIA employment with both Matthew Cooper (for the first time) and Judith Miller (for the third time)," the court papers further said.
Although the special prosecutor's grand jury investigation has not uncovered any evidence that the Vice President encouraged Libby to release information about Plame's covert CIA status, the court papers said that Cheney had "expressed concerns to [Libby] regarding whether Mr. Wilson's trip was legitimate or whether it was in effect a junket set up by Mr. Wilson's wife."
Cheney told investigators that he had learned of Plame's employment by the CIA and her potential role in her husband being sent to Niger by then-CIA director George Tenet, according to people familiar with Cheney's interviews with the special prosecutor.
Tenet has told investigators that he had no specific recollection of discussing Plame or her role in her husband's trip with Cheney, according to people with familiar with his statement to investigators.
Two senior government officials said that Tenet did recall, however, that he made inquiries regarding the veracity of the Niger intelligence information as a result of inquires from both Cheney and Libby. As a result of those inquiries, Tenet then had the CIA conduct a new review of its Niger intelligence, and concluded that there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had in fact attempted to purchase uranium from Niger or other African nations. Tenet and other CIA officials then informed Cheney, other administration officials, and the congressional intelligence committees of the new findings, the sources said.
Six days after Libby's conversation with Cooper and Miller regarding Plame, on July 18, 2003, the Bush administration formally declassified portions of the NIE on Iraqi weapons programs in an effort to further blunt the damage of Wilson's allegations that the Bush administration misused the faulty Niger intelligence information to make the case to go to war. It is unclear whether the information that Bush and Cheney were said to authorize Libby to disclose was the same information that was formally declassified.
One former senior government official said that both the president and Cheney, in directing Libby to disclose classified information to defend the administration's case to go to war with Iraq and in formally declassifying portions of the NIE later, were misusing the classification process for political reasons.
The official said that while the administration declassified portions of the NIE that would appear exculpatory to the White House, it insisted that a one-page summary of the NIE which would have suggested that the President mischaracterized other intelligence information to go to war remain classified.
As National Journal recently disclosed, the one-page summary of the NIE told Bush that although "most agencies judge" that an Iraqi procurement of aluminum tubes was "related to a uranium enrichment effort", the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Energy Department's branch "believe that the tubes more likely are intended for conventional weapons."
Despite receiving that assessment, the president stated without qualification in his January 28, 2003, State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production."
The former senior official said in an interview that he believed that the attempt to conceal the contents of the one-page summary were intertwined with the efforts to declassify portions of the NIE and to leak information to the media regarding Plame: "It was part and parcel of the same effort, but people don't see it in that context yet."
Although the court papers filed Wednesday revealed that Libby had testified that Bush and Cheney had authorized him to disclose details of the NIE, two other senior government officials said in interviews that Libby had asserted that Cheney had more broadly authorized him to leak classified information to a number of journalists during the run-up to war with Iraq as part of an administration effort to make the case to go to war.
In another instance, Libby had claimed that Bush authorized Libby to speak to and provide classified information to Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward for "Plan of Attack."
Other former senior government officials said that Bush directed people to assist Woodward in the book's preparation: "There were people on the Seventh Floor [of the CIA] who were told by Tenet to cooperate because the President wanted it done. There were calls to people to by [White House communication director] Dan Bartlett that the President wanted it done, if you were not co-operating. And sometimes the President himself told people that they should co-operate," said one former government official.
It is unclear whether Libby will argue during his upcoming trial that these other authorizations by both the President and Vice President show that he did not engage in misconduct by disclosing Plame's CIA status to reporters, or that he considered these other authorizations giving him broad authority to make other disclosures.
Fitzgerald has apparently avoided questioning Libby, other government officials, and journalists about other potential leaks of classified information to the media, according to attorneys who have represented witnesses to the special prosecutor's probe. Outside legal experts said this might be due to the fact that other authorized leaks might aid Libby's defense, and because Fitzgerald did not want to question reporters about other contacts with Libby because of First Amendment concerns.
In a Feb. 17, 2006 letter to John D. Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., wrote that he believed that disclosures in Woodward's book damaged national security. "According to [Woodward's] account, he was provided information related to sources and methods, extremely sensitive covert actions, and foreign intelligence liaison services."
Woodward's book contains, for example, a detailed account of a January 25, 2003 briefing that Libby provided to senior White House staff to make the case that Saddam Hussein had aggressive programs underway to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.
Two former government officials said in interviews that the account provided sensitive intelligence information that had not been cleared for release. The book referred to intercepts by the National Security Agency of Iraqi officials that purportedly showed that Iraq was engaging in weapons of mass destruction program.
Much of the information presented by Libby at the senior White House staff meeting was later discarded by then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and then-CIA Director George Tenet as unreliable, and would not have either otherwise been made public.
One former senior official said: "They [the leakers] might have tipped people to our eavesdropping capacities, and other serious sources and methods issues. But to what end? The information was never presented to the public because it was bunk in the first place."
In the letter to Negroponte, Sen. Rockefeller complained: "I [previously] wrote both former Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) George Tenet and Acting DCI John McLaughlin seeking to determine what steps were being taken to address the appalling disclosures in [Woodward's book]. The only response that I received was to indicate that the leaks had been authorized by the Administration."
-- Previous coverage of pre-war intelligence and the CIA leak investigation from Murray Waas. Brian Beutler provided research assistance for this report.