WASHINGTON—President Bush authorized Vice President Dick Cheney's former top aide to divulge classified intelligence information to a New York Times reporter in an effort to defend the president's decision to go war against Iraq, according to court papers made public Thursday.
The court documents indicate that Bush and Cheney authorized the release of the intelligence information after former Ambassador Joseph Wilson wrote a July 6, 2003, op-ed piece charging that the administration's claim that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was trying to obtain uranium from Niger was false. Some intelligence agencies also disputed the White House's allegation at the time, and it later proved to be false.
The court documents provide the most concrete evidence to date that the president and vice president were engaged in a campaign to disclose selected snippets of highly classified intelligence, much of it misleading, exaggerated or wrong, to a few trusted journalists in an effort to bolster their case for war.
According to court papers filed by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald on Wednesday, former Cheney aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby told a federal grand jury that he received "approval from the president through the vice president" to reveal key judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate in 2003 about Saddam's alleged attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Those court papers said a critical conversation with former New York Times reporter Judith Miller on July 8, 2003, occurred "only after the Vice President advised defendant that the President specifically had authorized defendant to disclose certain information in the NIE."
Libby, however, isn't charged with leaking classified information, but with five counts of perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI. If convicted, he could face up to 30 years in jail and $1.25 million in fines.
Bush administration officials declined to comment Thursday on Libby's testimony. "Our policy is not to discuss ongoing legal proceedings," said Ken Lisaius, a White House spokesman.
The filing was first reported Thursday morning in the online edition of The New York Sun.
Reaction from Democrats was immediate. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives, said: "I am troubled by news reports that President Bush may have authorized Mr. Libby to disclose intelligence information to support the administration's case for war in Iraq. I served for 13 years on the House Intelligence Committee, and I know intelligence must never be classified or declassified for political purposes."
Bush's alleged authorization was mentioned in a 39-page document filing by Fitzgerald to persuade a judge to rule against requests by Libby's legal team for a voluminous amount of "discovery" documents from the White House, the State Department and other federal agencies.
Libby testified "that he was specifically authorized" to disclose the key judgments of the classified NIE to Miller. Two days later, Libby met with Miller because it was thought that the NIE was "pretty definitive" against Wilson and because the vice president thought that it was "very important" for the information in the NIE to be released, court documents say.
The key judgments in the intelligence estimate, however, never mention the allegation that Iraq was shopping for uranium in Niger. The full NIE, far from rebutting Wilson's conclusion, revealed that State Department intelligence experts didn't believe the allegation, either.
During the months before the Iraq invasion, a number of news outlets published classified information about Saddam's efforts to purchase aluminum tubes for nuclear program and about Iraq's relationship to al-Qaida terrorists. Subsequent inquiries concluded that most of that information also was wrong.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, said that the president has "the inherent authority to decide who should have classified information," and a March 2003 executive order gives the vice president the same power.
Bush and Cheney have railed against leaks, particularly of classified information. When the investigation over the disclosure that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was an undercover CIA officer arose, Bush promised to get to the bottom of it and vowed that anyone in his administration caught leaking would be dealt with accordingly.
"There's leaks at the executive branch; there's leaks in the legislative branch," Bush told reporters during a trip to Chicago on Sept. 30, 2003. "And if there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is. And if the person has violated the law, the person will be taken care of."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Ron Hutcheson and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)