The New York Sun's Web server is running slowly today under the weight of requests for a very, very important story: I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, has testified that President Bush and Cheney gave specific permission for Libby to leak details of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, a classified document, to the press. The paper notes that if Libby's story is true, Bush isn't in any legal trouble -- it appears to be within his authority as president to allow classified information to be released to the public -- but it would indicate a major inconsistency with Bush's previous statements on the leak that led to the outing of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity. Bush has disclaimed any knowledge of the leak and called for anyone who was involved to be punished; if he and Cheney, as Libby says, actually authorized the leak, well, that would be a story.
In October, Libby was charged with obstructing the investigation of the leak and lying to the grand jury and FBI; his trial is scheduled to begin in January 2007. The Sun quotes a court document (PDF here) that Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor in the leak case, filed yesterday. It outlines what Libby says occurred before he met with New York Times reporter Judith Miller on July 8, 2003.
According to the Sun, Libby's story goes like this: After ambassador Joseph Wilson questioned the accuracy of Bush's claim that Iraq had sought nuclear material in Africa, Dick Cheney told Libby to tell some reporters that the NIE contradicted Wilson's view. 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 authorized leaking the information in the NIE. Libby was apparently still unsure about what to do, so he checked with David Addington, the vice president's legal counsel. Addington told him that leaking the information was OK because Bush's approval "amounted to a declassification of the document," court papers obtained by the Sun say.
One fact in the NIE that Libby says he was authorized to leak was the conclusion that Iraq was "vigorously trying to procure uranium"; Wilson argued that there was no evidence of such a procurement effort. Cheney also allowed Libby to leak details surrounding Wilson's trip to Africa.
The Sun says that it isn't clear whether Bush knew that the NIE information was going exclusively to Judith Miller, but Cheney knew that detail, according to Libby.
Libby does not say that he was authorized to disclose Plame's identity to Miller; Miller says she can't recall where she heard Plame's name (even though the words "Valerie Flame" appeared in one of Miller's notebooks).
There's one amusing detail in the documents obtained by the Sun. After White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that it was "ridiculous" to think that political advisor Karl Rove was the source of the Plame leak, Libby wrote a note to McClellan asking him to make a similar declaration about his -- that is, Libby's -- involvement. The Sun says that Libby's talking points for McClellan were handwritten, but that they read "like a stanza of verse" in the prosecutor's typewritten rendering. Libby wanted McClellan to say:
"People have made too much of the difference in
How I described Karl and Libby
I've talked to Libby.
I said it was ridiculous about Karl
And it is ridiculous about Libby.
Libby was not the source of the Novak story.
And he did not leak classified information."
McClellan later told reporters -- much to his eventual embarrassment -- that both Rove and Libby "assured me that they were not involved in this."
Now, the thing to bear in mind here is that this is just Libby's side of the story. And Libby, who's at the center of the storm, does have a reason to lie -- and he is, after all, charged with lying.
That said, from what we know about how this White House works -- or, really, about how any hierarchical organization probably works -- Libby's story does make a kind of intuitive sense. Libby was Cheney's chief of staff; it doesn't seem likely that he would have undertaken to counter the Wilson claims all by himself, without first checking at least with his boss. Moreover, Libby understood well that the NIE was a classified document, and, working for Bush and Cheney -- for whom secrecy is sacrosanct -- it doesn't seem plausible that he would have discussed the document without at least checking with higher-ups. Cheney, as many have pointed out, has expanded the vice president's powers of classification and declassification; Cheney has suggested that he can declassify documents all by himself. Libby, then, would have had a motive in asking Cheney whether it was OK to talk about the NIE to reporters -- permission from Cheney would have cleared Libby of any wrongdoing in discussing the classified information. Permission from Bush was even better.
A couple of years ago, McClellan told reporters that "if anyone in this administration was involved in [the leak], they would no longer be in this administration." I wonder if that applies to Bush and Cheney as well.