If we are to believe the grand jury testimony of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby -- as reported by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald in court papers (PDF) -- then the president of the United States has been deceiving the country ever since the CIA leaks investigation began in 2003.
Compared with other deceptions that George W. Bush has perpetrated in the years since he promised to restore honor and integrity to the Oval Office, this one cannot be spun away as a misunderstanding, a "misunderestimate" or a mistake. From the moment that the Justice Department opened its probe of the disclosure of Valerie Plame Wilson's covert CIA identity to the press, Bush insisted that he wanted to find and punish the culprits, especially if any of them were among his White House staff. He claimed to consider the leaking of classified information to be a matter of the utmost seriousness.
And he let his press secretary insist repeatedly that the White House had absolutely no idea how this terrible thing had happened.
We have come a long way since then, of course. We have learned that at least two of the highest-ranking White House staff members leaked Plame's identity to reporters as part of a broader effort to discredit her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, for daring to draw attention to White House misuse of intelligence on Iraq in an Op-Ed in the New York Times. We know that Libby, then the vice president's chief of staff and national security advisor, and Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff, both participated in that effort -- and that both have lied repeatedly about their roles in the scheme.
We also know that Vice President Dick Cheney was behind Libby's leaking. As one of the most vocal sources of misinformation about Iraq's alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction during the months leading to the invasion, Cheney was particularly eager to "push back" against Wilson in the spring and summer of 2003. No doubt his zeal intensified with each day that those weapons failed to turn up in occupied Iraq.
And now, thanks to Libby's attempts to obtain classified materials for his criminal defense, we are told that the president played a direct and crucial role in the effort to discredit Wilson. Bush may not have been told that his staffers had leaked Plame's identity, but he certainly knew that they were disseminating classified material to selected reporters to discredit Wilson.
According to Libby's grand jury testimony, the vice president instructed him in July 2003 to tell New York Times reporter Judith Miller about the classified contents of the CIA's National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, prepared in October 2002. The NIE indicated that Saddam Hussein had indeed been seeking to buy enriched uranium for nuclear weapons from Niger. By leaking that information to the Times, Cheney hoped to discredit Wilson, who had publicly rebuked the White House for exaggerating Iraq's alleged efforts to purchase uranium from Niger.
Testifying before the grand jury, Libby claimed that he had balked initially at Cheney's instructions because the CIA report was classified -- and that Cheney told him the president had authorized the leak to Miller. (The president may or may not have the right to unilaterally declassify information.) In an April 5 brief to the court, Fitzgerald summarized the testimony of the vice president's former chief of staff about those events:
"Defendant's participation in a critical conversation with Judith Miller on July 8  occurred only after the Vice President advised defendant that the President had specifically authorized defendant to disclose certain information in the NIE ... Defendant testified that he was specifically authorized in advance of the meeting to disclose the key judgments of the classified NIE to Miller on that occasion because it was thought that the NIE was 'pretty definitive' against what Ambassador Wilson had said and that the vice president thought that it was 'very important' for the key judgments of the NIE to come out ... Defendant testified that the vice president later advised him that the president had authorized defendant to disclose the relevant portions of the NIE."
Libby's story doesn't directly implicate the president in the Plame leak. But the latest revelations contrast rather sharply with the assurances provided by White House press secretary Scott McClellan back in the fall of 2003, when the administration was still resisting the appointment of a special prosecutor or independent counsel to probe the leak of Plame's identity. On Sept. 29, 2003, Helen Thomas asked him whether "the president has tried to find out who outed the CIA agent? And has he fired anyone in the White House yet?"
In his most patronizing tone, McClellan replied, "Helen, that's assuming a lot of things. First of all, that is not the way this White House operates. The President expects everyone in his administration to adhere to the highest standards of conduct. No one would be authorized to do such a thing." Asked whether the president knew anything beyond what the media had reported, McClellan said, "We don't have any information [about the leak] that's been brought to our attention beyond what we've seen in the media reports. I've made that clear." He emphasized that the president knew nothing about the leak, repeating, "We have nothing beyond those media reports to suggest there is White House involvement."
The press secretary bristled when Thomas and other reporters suggested that the president had reacted too passively to the leak, and seemed unconcerned about its implications for national security and Plame's safety.
"Absolutely, the President believes that this is a serious matter when you're talking about the leak of classified information," said McClellan. "The leak of classified information, yes, you're absolutely right, can compromise sources and methods. That's why the President takes it very seriously, and we've always taken it very seriously."
That was the famous press briefing when McClellan exonerated Rove, while promising that any official responsible for the leak would be fired. "If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration," he said, speaking for the president.
How will McClellan explain away Libby's testimony, if and when a White House reporter asks a difficult question? He could say that the president had automatically declassified the NIE when he told Cheney that it could be revealed to Miller, but that wouldn't excuse the lies. He could claim that Libby is lying, but that might be dangerous. He could say that the president had no idea what Cheney and Libby were doing with the CIA document he declassified, but that would make the boss look very dumb.
Or he could confirm the rumors that have been circulating about his plans to resign in the near future, and leave these irritating problems to someone else.
Meanwhile, the White House and the CIA may have to rethink their recent threats to prosecute journalists under the Espionage Act for reporting leaks of classified information, such as the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretap program. Will Bush really want to indict reporters for doing their jobs, now that everyone knows he disclosed the nation's secrets to try to cover his own butt?