MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
There was a barrage of questions at the White House today about the president's role in leaking intelligence information about Iraq in 2003. A beleaguered press secretary battled with a room full of reporters, all asking why Mr. Bush would authorize the leak of such information when he has consistently denounced leaks. On Capitol Hill, Democrats demanded answers from the president himself. We'll get to the political implications of the matter in a few minutes.
First, NPR's David Greene reports from the White House.
DAVID GREENE reporting:
Here's spokesman Scott McClellan, trying to do his job today at the White House.
Mr. SCOTT MCCLELLAN (White House spokesman): My recollection is, is that I was referring to the fact, yes, it's officially declassified today. But that doesn't get into the issue of when everything was declassified.
GREENE: McClellan was trying to recollect events in the summer of 2003. And to really understand this story, it's worth turning back to that summer, after the US had gone to war in Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein. President Bush was facing criticism over the intelligence used to justify that invasion and new court documents now suggest that the president decided at the time to authorize Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Scooter Libby, to speak to reporters about some of the intelligence he had used. According to Libby's account, it was Cheney who told him he had that permission from the president, and Libby went ahead and set up at least one meeting, with New York Times reporter Judith Miller at a hotel a few blocks from the White House.
Miller recalled the meeting last year on NPR.
Ms. JUDITH MILLER (The New York Times): I agreed to listen to Mr. Libby's information on the basis of his attribution as a former Hill staffer. It is very common in Washington to hear information on the basis of one attribution and then to go back to that source if you're going to use the information and say, you know, this attribution really won't fly.
Unidentified Woman: Are you saying you do that frequently, make an agreement to hear information under one --
Ms. MILLER: No, I did not say I do it. I said it is often done in Washington, especially in the national security area.
GREENE: It seemed like the kind of leaking that Mr. Bush had often said he detests. After it happened, another week or so went by and Mr. Bush hosted his biggest war ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The questions about whether the war was justified continued.
Unidentified Reporter: Mr. President, in his speech to Congress, the prime minister opened the door to the possibility that you may be proved wrong about the threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah.
Unidentified Reporter: Do you agree, and does it matter whether or not you find those weapons?
President BUSH: Well, you might ask the Prime Minister that. We won't be proven wrong.
GREENE: The very next day, July 18th, 2003, the White House released what it said was a declassified version of a document called the National Intelligence Estimate. It pertained to the danger posed by Saddam Hussein, and some of it was used by Mr. Bush in his decision making. It's not clear whether that was the same information that Libby gave to Miller or not. But what was happening that summer is now causing the White House new headaches.
Today, spokesman Scott McClellan said that in the summer of 2003, the White House declassified intelligence that might help clarify Mr. Bush's reasoning for going to war at a time when critics were spreading falsehoods. But he was asked a key question. Wasn't the National Intelligence Estimate still classified when Libby went to speak to Miller, apparently with the president's blessing?
Unidentified Reporter #2: If it had been officially declassified on July 18, 2003, then ten days before, when the information was given out, it was still classified.
Mr. SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Again, you're going back to an assertion that is made in a filing related to an ongoing legal proceeding when you talk about the second part of your question. There's no way for me to separate that question and talk about this issue without discussing an ongoing legal proceeding, and I can't do that.
GREENE: One point McClellan did make today is that the president has the authority to declassify anything any time he wants to. But the whole affair may be more of a challenge for the president politically than legally. The president has always scolded leakers. Today, McClellan said there are bad leaks that compromised national security, but the spokesman sought to draw a distinction, saying that passing along the National Intelligence Estimate at the time the White House did so was okay.
Mr. MCCLELLAN: That is something that was in the public interest that it be disclosed because there was a lot of debate going on. And we will vigorously set the record straight when people are putting out misinformation or trying to suggest things that simply are not true.
GREENE: But Democrats have pounced on the issue. This was Minority Leader Harry Reid on the Senate floor.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): According to court records, President Bush may have personally authorized the very leaks he denied knowing anything about. In light of this disturbing news, we need to hear from President Bush which of these is true, his comments in 2003 or the statements made by the vice president's chief of staff? This is a question he alone must answer, not a spokesman, not a statement, only the president of the United States.
GREENE: That hasn't happened so far. For the second consecutive day, Mr. Bush ignored shouted questions on the issue.
David Greene, NPR News, the White House.
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