White House officials are not disputing allegations in court testimony from former vice presidential aide Lewis Libby that President Bush authorized the leaking of intelligence information on Iraq three years ago. They assert that Mr. Bush was justified in releasing the information as part of an effort to rebut critics of the Iraq war.
Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that there is a difference between providing declassified information in the public interest and leaking secrets that compromise national security.
Court papers released this week quote former vice presidential aide Lewis Libby as saying that it was the president himself who authorized leaks of classified information on Iraq to reporters three years ago, in order to counter opponents of the Iraq war.
Libby's grand jury testimony came in connection with his pending trial on charges of lying, perjury and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors say Libby misled investigators in the case of Valerie Plame, the covert CIA officer, whose identity was revealed in the press in 2003.
Plame is married to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who charged that the Bush administration had twisted intelligence about Iraq's weapons capabilities in building a case for the invasion of Iraq.
White House spokesman McClellan would not comment on the allegations contained in Libby's grand jury testimony. But McClellan did defend the right of President Bush to declassify information that he believes the public should know. "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," he said.
Opposition Democrats have seized on the accusations in Libby's testimony to raise questions about Mr. Bush's role in the leaking of classified information, especially given the president's past statements critical of those who leak government secrets. "There (are) just too many leaks. And if there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is, and if the person has violated laws, that person will be taken care of," he said.
Democrats like Senator Charles Schumer of New York are demanding a public explanation from the president. "If the president leaked, for whatever purpose, we ought to know that, and then we ought to know what distinguishes his leaking information from all the others who leaked information, and were condemned by the president," he said.
The court papers do not suggest that the president was in any way involved in the leaking of Valerie Plame's identity. Legal experts also point out that the president has the right to declassify government information at any time, so Mr. Bush does not appear to be in any legal jeopardy.
Libby's court testimony contends that the president and Vice President Dick Cheney wanted some information on Iraq's weapons program declassified and secretly passed along to reporters, as part of an effort to respond to Ambassador Wilson and others critical of the Iraq war.
In the short term, political experts say, there may be some embarrassment for the administration from the Libby allegations, given the president's tough stance on leaks in the past.
Larry Sabato directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "The finger is being pointed in two directions, which makes it very interesting. The finger is pointed at Cheney, as it has been for sometime. But a second finger is pointed at Bush, and the combination could make the Bush White House very uneasy," he said.
Professor Sabato also says the Libby revelations could be a factor in the November congressional elections. "This gives additional fodder to critics of the way the Bush White House operates and (of) the Iraq war. The more that we have of this (controversy) prior to November, the better position Democrats are in for that action," he said.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan says the president would never disclose classified information that would compromise national security. And he says Democrats who are criticizing the president's actions are engaging in what he called crass politics.
Lewis Libby's trial in connection with the Valerie Plame investigation is scheduled to start early next year.