Scott McClellan stonewalls on the leak disclosure

The White House press secretary refuses to answer questions about why the president secretly authorized disclosure of Iraq intelligence to a reporter.

Published April 7, 2006 5:17PM (EDT)

Faster even than the White House Web site, Josh Marshall has posted the transcript from this morning's White House press "gaggle" with Scott McClellan, which was the first time reporters asked the press secretary probing questions about the revelation that in early July 2003, Bush secretly authorized Libby to disclose to New York Times reporter Judith Miller portions of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. McClellan was, as usual, in top form -- maddeningly arbitrary, unapologetically contradictory and ruthlessly opaque.

"Did the president authorize the leak of intelligence information?" he was asked first.

McClellan, of course, can't answer that because the disclosure came in a court filing by Valerie Plame-leak prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald -- "an ongoing legal proceeding, and our policy has been that we're not going to comment on it while it's ongoing," he said. Helpfully, though, McClellan said he wanted to "remind you about that time period" by pointing out that a summary of the NIE was provided to reporters on July 18, 2003. The White House chose to declassify and disclose the NIE as a public service, McClellan said, not -- he emphasized this -- for political purposes. "There was a lot of debate and discussion going on about the intelligence that was part of the basis for going to war in Iraq," he said. "And we felt it was in the public interest to declassify information in the National Intelligence Estimate that was important to that discussion, and that's what we did at that time."

He added that the information in the NIE was not sensitive; making it public did not endanger national security. "The president would never authorize disclosure of information that could compromise our nation's security," he said. "There was nothing in that that was declassified that could compromise our nation's security. It was some historical context about some of the intelligence that was used in making the decision to go to war in Iraq."

The problem with McClellan's claim, though, is the timeline. Libby met with Miller on July 8, 2003, and according to his testimony he was authorized in advance of that meeting by Cheney and Bush to give her portions of the NIE. This authorization occurred in secret -- according to Libby even members of the president's Cabinet didn't know he'd declassified parts of the NIE for Miller. Only 10 days later -- July 18, 2003 -- did the White House give the document to the press.

This prompts some obvious questions: If McClellan is telling the truth that Bush declassified the document only so the public could see some of the prewar intelligence on Iraq, why did he declassify it in secret? Why would the White House have let at least 10 days go by after the declassification before officials disclosed the document to anyone but Miller? One plausible reason is that the administration wasn't interested in the "public interest" -- rather, it was interested in giving a single (friendly) reporter some inside dish in the expectation that she would write a story backing the administration's claims against former ambassador Joseph Wilson. As Fitzgerald's court filing points out, "there exist documents, ... and there were conversations in which [Libby] participated, that reveal a strong desire by many, including multiple people in the White House, to repudiate Mr. Wilson before and after July 14, 2003."

Reporters at today's gaggle repeatedly tried to get at this issue of the timeline and whether the White House was currying special favor with Miller. One asked: "A number of us had requested the NIE be declassified starting in -- sometime in mid-June. Can you tell us by what date the actual declassification process of that executive summary had been completed?" And: "At what point was that considered to be a declassified document? ... Because I know at a number of times a number of us asked for it and were told that we couldn't have it because it was classified." "So is the president comfortable with declassifying information and providing it to reporters on a private basis, earlier? The dates don't jive." Again: "So is the president comfortable with declassifying information and slipping it to a reporter before the rest of us are told?"

McClellan could answer none of this. Why not? The timeline, he said, is "an issue that's referred to in the filing by Mr. Fitzgerald," and he can't talk about the filing because that would violate the White House policy against discussing ongoing investigations. "I'm not getting into any timelines," he said.

Just then, Helen Thomas, that old-time press-corps bomb thrower, asked McClellan: "The president denounced leaking in a couple of statements, and so forth, once at a news conference. He knew the truth. He allowed this charade to go on ... He knew who was doing the leaking. He knew why he declassified ... He knew about the exposure of a CIA agent ... I'm asking why did the president in his own domain, he didn't ask anyone why?"

McClellan's answer was classic. Even though seconds before he'd vowed not to discuss anything in Fitzgerald's brief because doing so would violate a bedrock White House principle, the press secretary told Thomas, "Go back and look at the filing. Look at what Mr. Fitzgerald says in his filing. Mr. Fitzgerald in a filing -- Mr. Fitzgerald in his own words in his filing contradicts what you just said."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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