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McClellan doubted leak denial

The former Bush press secretary testifies he was 'reluctant' to back Cheney aide Libby in the Valerie Plame case.

June 21, 2008|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on Friday, said he was suspicious of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's denial that he had leaked the name of a CIA agent but had no choice but to go along with it.

McClellan's testimony came shortly after his author's tour for "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception," the memoir that created a stir in the capital when it was published last month.

McClellan told the panel that former White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. asked him to publicly exonerate Libby from involvement in the case, as McClellan had done for White House political advisor Karl Rove. Libby was then chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.

"I was reluctant to do it," McClellan said. "I got on the phone with Scooter Libby and asked him point-blank, 'Were you involved in this in any way?' And he assured me in unequivocal terms that he was not."

Libby was later convicted of lying to investigators about his role in leaking the identity of then-CIA operative Valerie Plame in an effort to discredit her husband, longtime diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV, a critic of the Bush administration's stated reasons for invading Iraq. Libby was sentenced to 30 months in prison, but President Bush commuted his sentence.

In opening remarks before the committee, McClellan repeated the charge in his book that the White House had tilted the evidence to convince the public of the need for war in Iraq. "It's public record that they were ignoring caveats and ignoring contradictory intelligence," he said.

"I do not know whether a crime was committed by any of the administration officials who revealed Valerie Plame's identity to reporters," he said. "Nor do I know if there was an attempt by any person or persons to engage in a cover-up during the investigation. I do know that it was wrong to reveal her identity, because it compromised the effectiveness of a covert official for political reasons. I regret that I played a role, however unintentionally, in relaying false information to the public about it."

He was particularly biting about Rove, saying that he doubted the former White House advisor would tell the truth to the committee, which has asked him to testify about his role in the Plame leak.

"I would hope that he would be willing to do so," McClellan said. "Based on my own experiences, I have some doubts. He lied to me."

Rove had also leaked Plame's name to reporters. Asked if Rove had lied to the president about the Plame matter, McClellan said, "I believe so."

McClellan was lionized by some representatives -- Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) called his sentiments "noble" -- but attacked by others as a disgruntled ex-White House employee out to settle scores.

"Who is the real Scott McClellan?" asked the committee's ranking Republican, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas. "The one who actually wrote in his book that the administration did not employ 'deception'? . . . Or the one who elsewhere in the same book leveled self-serving accusations?"

Smith added, "While we may never know the answers, Scott McClellan alone will have to wrestle with whether it was worth selling out the president and his friends for a few pieces of silver."

McClellan hit back at former White House colleagues for "unsavory" reaction to his book, saying that some sought "to turn it into a game of 'gotcha,' misrepresenting what I wrote and seeking to discredit me through inaccurate personal attacks on my motives."

The attacks continued Friday as White House spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters, "I think Scott has probably told everyone everything he doesn't know, so I don't know if anyone should expect him to say anything new today."

During an afternoon of questioning, McClellan was asked why Bush, who had a reputation as governor of Texas for reaching out to Democrats, had become such a partisan figure in Washington. Speculating that Bush succumbed to "the way Washington works," McClellan said that although Bush was responsible for the course of his own presidency, Cheney and Rove were "negative influences on him."

Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) asked McClellan whether he thought Cheney authorized Libby to leak Plame's identity. "I can't rule it out," McClellan said.

Calling McClellan's testimony an "enormously important . . . glimpse into the truth," Wexler suggested impeachment proceedings. "Cheney is the only likely suspect" for authorizing the leak, Wexler said.

Pressed on whether he had ever witnessed the president misrepresent facts, McClellan repeated the accusation from his book that Bush declassified a national intelligence estimate to promote the war in Iraq.

"We had decried the leaking of national security information for years," he said. "This was a very disillusioning moment for me, to say the least."

Republicans expressed disdain for McClellan's motives, suggesting that he had disclosed secrets for maximum book sales rather than policy goals.

Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.) questioned why McClellan had disclosed that Bush pretended not to remember his cocaine use of 30 years before.

McClellan explained that Bush's willingness to fudge his memory on a personal issue "later transferred over" into how the administration attempted to sell the war.

Asked Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), "Could you not have taken some of this with you to the grave?"

--

johanna.neuman @latimes.com

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