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Bush Speaks on Disclosure

The president says he declassified intelligence to clarify his grounds for the invasion of Iraq.

April 11, 2006|Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush told a Washington audience Monday that he had declassified intelligence information in 2003 to help the American public understand the basis for statements the administration had made about Iraq before the start of the war.

In his first comments on the matter, Bush did not directly address the allegation that he had explicitly authorized a leak to a reporter. But White House officials have not denied it.

"I will say this, that after we liberated Iraq, there was questions in people's minds about, you know, the basis upon which I made statements, in other words, going into Iraq," Bush said in response to a question from an audience member at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

"I wanted people to see the truth," Bush said. "You're not supposed to talk about classified information, and so I declassified the document. I thought it was important for people to get a better sense for why I was saying what I was saying in my speeches."

A federal court filing last week disclosed that Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, had testified that Cheney and Bush authorized him in July 2003 to release portions of a National Intelligence Estimate to a New York Times reporter.

On July 18, 2003, the White House announced that it had declassified portions of the National Intelligence Estimate and then released the document publicly. The leak to the New York Times reporter occurred 10 days earlier.

It is being investigated whether those actions were designed to counter criticism from former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had been dispatched to Africa by the CIA in 2002 to look into claims that Iraq was seeking nuclear material. Wilson found little evidence to support those claims and, in mid-2003, publicly charged that the administration had "twisted" intelligence to make the case for war.

The former ambassador's criticism came at a time when the White House was worried about an upcoming reelection bid and about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

In addition to releasing the National Intelligence Estimate, at least two White House officials told reporters that Wilson's wife, a covert operative, worked at the CIA.

It is widely believed that White House aides mentioned Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as a way of undermining his credibility, suggesting his trip to Africa was part of a junket arranged by his spouse.

Plame was subsequently identified by name in a syndicated newspaper column. Prosecutors have spent the last two years investigating the leak of her name.

It is a crime to knowingly identify a covert operative. Libby has been charged with obstruction of justice, lying to federal agents and perjury in connection with that inquiry.

The court papers filed by Special Prosector Patrick J. Fitzgerald last week do not say that Bush or Cheney leaked Plame's name. But the filing describes an effort by several White House officials to "discredit, punish or seek revenge against" Wilson.

On Sunday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) urged Bush and Cheney to tell "exactly what happened."

Wilson called Monday for the White House to consider releasing transcripts of what the president and vice president had said to the prosecutor in the matter.

"It is in the interest of the president and vice president to be very direct with the American people about what happened during that time frame," he told CNN.

The administration's decision to declassify the document came about four months after the invasion of Iraq, when U.S. and allied troops had yet to find weapons of mass destruction. That failure was starting to raise doubts about the rationale Bush had used for going to war.

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