George W. Bush was asked at Johns Hopkins University Monday to respond to Patrick Fitzgerald's allegation of a concerted White House effort to discredit Joseph Wilson. He declined to do so. "Yes. No, I -- this is -- there's an ongoing legal proceeding which precludes me from talking a lot about the case," the president said.
Before moving on to the next question, Bush took a moment to answer one that hadn't been asked. "I will say this," the president said. "After we liberated Iraq, there was questions in people's minds about the basis on which I made statements, in other words, going into Iraq. And so I decided to declassify the [2002 National Intelligence Estimate] for a reason. I wanted to see -- people to see what some of those statements were based on. So I wanted to see -- I wanted people to see the truth and thought it made sense for people to see the truth. And that's why I declassified the document."
Maybe it's time to unpack things a bit here.
First, let's recall how Patrick Fitzgerald has characterized Scooter Libby's testimony on this issue. In the legal brief he filed last week, Fitzgerald said that Libby has testified that Dick Cheney advised him before he spoke with Judy Miller on July 8, 2003, that Bush "specifically had authorized [Libby] to disclose certain information in the NIE." Libby further testified, Fitzgerald said, that "the circumstances of his conversation with reporter Miller -- getting approval from the president through the vice President to discuss material that would be classified but for that approval -- were unique in his recollection."
Now let's look at what an unnamed senior administration official told the New York Times over the weekend. The official "confirmed" for the Times that Bush had, in the Times' words, "ordered the declassification of parts of a prewar intelligence report on Iraq in an effort to rebut critics who said the administration had exaggerated the nuclear threat posed by Saddam Hussein." It seemed like news at first, but maybe it's not. As the Times acknowledged, the official did not say "when Bush acted." Why does that matter? Because we've known for the better part of three years now that Bush declassified part of the October 2002 NIE at some point.
On July 18, 2003, a senior administration official walked reporters through the document -- or at least most of it -- during a background briefing aimed at explaining away how 16 deeply misleading words about Niger made their way into Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech. Unless we're missing something, that background briefing couldn't have occurred unless the document had been declassified, right?
The real question -- the one the Times' unnamed source hasn't answered -- is whether Libby is correct in saying that Bush, through Cheney, specifically authorized him to leak parts of the NIE before Libby met with Judy Miller on July 8 and before Bush declassified most of the document. Bush wasn't asked that question Monday. And while the answer he gave seemed to address it, it didn't. Bush said only what we already knew: That at some unspecified point in time, he declassified parts of the NIE.
Maybe we're splitting hairs here, but it seems to us that there's a difference between declassifying parts of a classified document for public dissemination -- something a president pretty plainly has the authority to do -- and that which Libby says Bush did: grant approval to discuss material that would be classified but for that approval. The "confirmation" Bush provided Monday glosses over that distinction, just as his claims about getting out "the truth" gloss over the fact that the information Libby was disseminating was information the White House knew to be false.