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Libby testimony shows a White House pattern of intelligence leaks

WASHINGTON—The revelation that President Bush authorized former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby to divulge classified information about Iraq fits a pattern of selective leaks of secret intelligence to further the administration's political agenda.

Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top officials have reacted angrily at unauthorized leaks, such as the exposure of a domestic wiretapping program and a network of secret CIA prisons, both of which are now the subject of far-reaching investigations.

But secret information that supports their policies, particularly about the Iraq war, has surfaced everywhere from the U.N. Security Council to major newspapers and magazines. Much of the information that the administration leaked or declassified, however, has proved to be incomplete, exaggerated, incorrect or fabricated.

Court papers filed late Wednesday by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald quote Libby as telling a grand jury that Bush, via Cheney, authorized him to reveal the key judgments of a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to New York Times reporter Judith Miller. The president and vice president have virtually unlimited legal authority to declassify government secrets.

The authorized leak, in July 2003, came two days after former Ambassador Joseph Wilson wrote an article in The New York Times charging that the White House had manipulated intelligence on Iraq's alleged quest for uranium ore from Africa to make its case for war.

Libby isn't charged with revealing or mishandling classified information, but with five counts of perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI about the unmasking of Wilson's wife, former CIA covert operative Valerie Plame.

On Friday, White House officials said that the administration declassified information to rebut charges that Bush was manipulating intelligence.

Without specifically acknowledging Bush's actions in the Libby case, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters: "There were irresponsible and unfounded accusations being made against the administration suggesting that we had manipulated or misused that intelligence. We felt it was very much in the public interest that what information could be declassified be declassified."

McClellan didn't address why administration officials often declassified information that supported their allegations about Iraq but not intelligence that undercut their claims.

Robert Hutchings, the chairman of the National Intelligence Council from January 2003 to February 2005, said there was nothing improper about Bush's reported actions.

However, Hutchings said, "The decision to put in the public domain classified information, whether through a leak or through the formal authorization" shouldn't be done for "political convenience."

"There should be some higher purpose," he said.

Libby's allegation, which the White House hasn't disputed, isn't the first time that the Bush administration has declassified secrets in an effort to bolster its case for a pre-emptive war against Iraq.

The White House declassified a range of material, including spy satellite photographs and highly sensitive intercepts of Iraqi military communications, when former Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the U.N. Security Council in February 2003 to argue that Iraq was an international threat.

Powell's presentation, it's now known, came after he and his State Department team spent several days at CIA headquarters going over the intelligence on Iraq and tossing out dozens of pages of questionable material that Cheney's office pressed him to include.

In September 2002, unnamed Bush administration officials told The New York Times that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was trying to acquire specially designed aluminum tubes for use in centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Experts in the Energy Department and elsewhere, however, didn't think that the tubes were designed for nuclear weapons, and it's now known that they weren't.

Nevertheless, Cheney, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Powell took to the Sunday television talk shows on the morning that the report was published to warn of a growing threat from Saddam. Rice used some of the same language that appeared in the newspaper story, warning that, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

As the war approached, the White House released other documents and statements containing allegations about Saddam's weapons and ties to terrorism, many of which included information from Iraqi defectors and other sources that already had been discredited.

Among those was a document published in October 2002, titled "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs," which was a public version of the National Intelligence Estimate's main points—but with doubts and dissents stripped out.

Steven Aftergood, an expert on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said that while it doesn't appear that Bush did anything illegal in the Libby case, "it does appear that the president engaged in selective declassification for purposes of political advantage."

The latest revelations could affect a long-running partisan feud over a Senate Intelligence Committee probe into the administration's use of intelligence.

Committee chairman Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said this week that he hopes to complete drafts of a report following Congress' Easter recess.

Democratic leaders on Friday renewed their call for a full investigation into Bush's use of intelligence and the release of Plame's identity.

The White House's McClellan took issue with suggestions that the leak to Miller called into question the sincerity of Bush's frequent complaints about government leaks.

"There is a difference between providing declassified information to the public when it's in the public interest and leaking classified information that involved sensitive national intelligence regarding our security," he said.

Still, when leaks of classified information help make the White House's case, officials haven't always complained.

In November 2003, the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard published highly classified raw intelligence purporting to a show a link between Saddam and al-Qaida.

The Pentagon disavowed the report. But in early January 2004, Cheney told the Rocky Mountain News newspaper that the magazine report was the "best source of information" about the Saddam/al-Qaida connection. That connection has never been proved.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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