In an apparent attempt to stem the tide of criticism about the administration's failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, President Bush authorized Vice President Dick Cheney's former top aide to leak parts of a highly sensitive intelligence report to reporters, The Associated Press reports.
Court papers filed by prosecutors in the CIA leak case in federal court Wednesday unveiled the new details, according to the AP. I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby told the federal grand jury he received "approval from the president through the vice president" to leak portions of a National Intelligence Estimate about Saddam Hussein's reported efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
Though there is no evidence Bush or Cheney suggested Libby divulge the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame, Libby is reported to have testified that presidential authorization to disclose this kind of classified information was "unique in his recollection."
Libby also testified he was told by an administration lawyer that by authorizing the disclosure of the information, Bush was essentially declassifying it. The National Journal reported that two senior government officials said 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, with Cheney signing off on some leaks and Libby using his own discretion in other cases about releasing information that would make a case for the war.
The release of the information in July 2003 was intended as a damage-control effort in the days after Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece that claims by the administration that Saddam Hussein had attempted to buy uranium from the African country of Niger were probably false.
At the time, Plame was a covert CIA officer and the administration believed Wilson's allegations could be discredited if word leaked out that Plame had recommended him for a CIA-sponsored mission to Niger to investigate the uranium claims. Two days after Wilson's Times piece, Libby met with former Times reporter Judith Miller, disclosing parts of the secret report as well as Plame's identity and tie to Wilson's trip. Libby testified that he told Cheney he didn't believe he was allowed to disclose the classified information to Miller but that Cheney said the president had authorized it.
CBS News reporter Beverley Lumpkin reported that while it's within the president's power to declassify a government document, "This is not only embarrassing to the president and vice president in tying them to the dirty business, it's also very damaging to Scooter Libby's defense strategy that he was so busy he couldn't possibly have remembered knowing about Wilson and his wife" (see " 'Scooter' Libby Pleads Not Guilty in CIA Leak Case").
The new revelation about Libby's testimony comes as his defense team is requesting a mountain of classified information from the administration in order to mount a defense in his upcoming trial on five counts of perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI over the Plame affair, according to the AP.