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Court Filing Reignites Debate Over Iraq Intelligence

Court papers filed in Washington allege that President Bush authorized the disclosure of sensitive information about Iraq to a reporter. What is to be secret, or not secret, is ultimately a presidential decision.

Classifying a document in the U.S. government is easy. There are probably thousands of rubber stamps marked "secret" or "top secret" scattered in the offices of U.S. government agencies. But declassifying a document is hard - unless you are the president.

According to a filing in a U.S. federal court, Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, says he leaked key parts of a classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq to a reporter on the vice president's authorization and with President Bush's approval.

White House officials will not comment directly on the matter. However, spokesman Scott McClellan said the president can declassify anything he sees fit.

"The president of the United States has the authority to declassify information. I also indicated to some reporters earlier today that the president would never authorize the disclosure that he felt could compromise our nation's security," he said.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists says that it is correct that the president has that authority. But, he adds, presidents have been known to leak information for political purposes.

"It happens with some frequency, I would say. And, obviously, it's a temptation for any president to take advantage of the information at his disposal to advance his agenda. Nevertheless, it's not what the classification system is for. Classification is to protect the national security, not to provide political advantage," he said.

Ten days after Libby is reported to have disclosed the information to then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller, portions of the October 2002 intelligence estimate on Iraq were formally released to the media on July 18, 2003. The information concerned Iraq's alleged bid to obtain uranium from Africa for nuclear weapons. Saddam Hussein's supposed acquisition of weapons of mass destruction was a key rationale for the U.S. attack on Iraq, but the weapons turned out to be nonexistent. Officials now admit the intelligence on Iraq was flawed.

The court papers filed by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald say the information was leaked to rebut claims by critics that the intelligence on Iraq's nuclear ambitions had been exaggerated by the administration.

Spokesman McClellan said declassifying portions of the intelligence estimate was, as he put it, "in the public interest" to rebut allegations that the administration manipulated prewar intelligence.

"There were irresponsible and unfounded accusations being made against the administration suggesting that we had manipulated or missed that intelligence. That was flat-out false," he said.

But Larry Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, tells VOA that the information in the 2002 estimate about Iraq trying to procure uranium from Africa had already been discredited by the time it was leaked in July of 2003.

"All that business about Africa, period, yellowcake from Africa, period, was thoroughly discredited, regardless of the source. At least in our eyes it was, and certainly in the secretary of state's eyes it was," he says.

The State Department's Intelligence and Research Branch had in fact filed a dissenting view in the 2002 estimate, included in the declassified excerpts, saying there was no compelling evidence that Iraq was engaged in a concerted effort to acquire nuclear weapons.