We've got a lot of questions about the role the president and the vice president played in leaking classified information to push back against Joseph Wilson. We're not alone: Over the weekend, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter said that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney owe the American public a "specific explanation" of their involvement in what they'd surely like to pass off as Scooter Libby's freelancing handiwork.
But rather than coming clean when the news of Scooter Libby's testimony broke last week, Scott McClellan hid behind the line that the White House doesn't comment on ongoing legal proceedings (except when it does). And now, as the New York Times reports this morning, the White House has begun the process of leaking selectively about the leak: A "senior administration official" now confirms that Bush ordered the declassification of parts of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq in an effort to counter claims that his administration had exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
This "confirmation" -- which came only after the Associated Press quoted an attorney close to the case as saying much the same thing -- seems to be less about shedding light or admitting complicity than about seeking distance from what Libby ultimately did. "The explanation offered Sunday left open several questions, including when Mr. Bush acted and whether he did so on the advice or at the request of Mr. Cheney," the Times notes. "Still unclear is the nature of the communication between Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. Also unknown is whether Mr. Bush fully realized what information Mr. Cheney planned to disclose through Mr. Libby or was aware of the precise use that Mr. Cheney intended to make of the material."
Put those in the category of "unanswered questions." On another list, we've got "things that don't add up." Among them: If Bush had declassified parts of the NIE by the time Libby began leaking to Judy Miller and Bob Woodward in June 2003, why was Stephen Hadley trying to get the NIE declassified in July 2003? And if Bush had declassified parts of the NIE in the public interest -- as his supporters claim -- why was Libby disseminating to reporters a false account of the NIE that played up claims about Iraq's nuclear threat that others in the government had long since dismissed?
And if Bush really didn't know what Libby was doing with the information he'd been empowered to share, who were those "multiple people in the White House" who Patrick Fitzgerald says were involved in a "concerted effort" to "discredit, punish or seek revenge against" Wilson?
Maybe these are all just "hyperbolic charges of misconduct and hypocrisy" from Democrats and other war critics, as the Washington Post's editorial board suggested over the weekend. But Arlen Specter isn't a Democrat, and Patrick Fitzgerald ain't Cindy Sheehan. Whoever's doing the asking, it's time for the president and the vice president to start doing some answering.