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April 6, 2006
Still Crying Over The Lost Fitzmas

The New York Sun reported today that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby has testified that he released information from a National Intelligence Estimate in 2003 to a reporter prior to its publication. Predictably, the media and the blogosphere has overreacted, proving once again that most people do not understand classified materials, unclassified materials, and the process used to classify documents. The Josh Gerstein article is pretty straightforward:

A former White House aide under indictment for obstructing a leak probe, I. Lewis Libby, testified to a grand jury that he gave information from a closely-guarded "National Intelligence Estimate" on Iraq to a New York Times reporter in 2003 with the specific permission of President Bush, according to a new court filing from the special prosecutor in the case.

The court papers from the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, do not suggest that Mr. Bush violated any law or rule. However, the new disclosure could be awkward for the president because it places him, for the first time, directly in a chain of events that led to a meeting where prosecutors contend the identity of a CIA employee, Valerie Plame, was provided to a reporter. ...

"Defendant testified that he was specifically authorized in advance of the meeting to disclose the key judgments of the classified NIE to Miller on that occasion because it was thought that the NIE was Ôpretty definitive' against what Ambassador Wilson had said and that the vice president thought that it was Ôvery important' for the key judgments of the NIE to come out," Mr. Fitzgerald wrote.

Mr. Libby is said to have testified that "at first" he rebuffed Mr. Cheney's suggestion to release the information because the estimate was classified. However, according to the vice presidential aide, Mr. Cheney subsequently said he got permission for the release directly from Mr. Bush. "Defendant testified that the vice president later advised him that the president had authorized defendant to disclose the relevant portions of the NIE," the prosecution filing said.

Not too long ago, newspapers made a big deal out of nothing when it came out that Bush had given Cheney the authority to declassify material at his discretion. At the time, they clucked their tongues at the delegation of authority to the VP, claiming that it showed Bush's disinterest in his responsibilities. Now suddenly everyone is shocked to find out that Bush has the authority to declassify material. In fact, he has the ultimate authority to do so, and he is only responsible to the voters in the execution of these duties. And the estimate on Iraq and WMD involved in this story was released to the press on July 18, 2003, at a White House briefing.

Why did George Bush release the NIE at all? Because Joe Wilson had busied himself by spreading misinformation via leaks to Nick Kristof and Walter Pincus, and then finally under his own by-line at the New York Times twelve days prior to the release of the NIE information. The media had demanded answers to the charges leveled by Wilson and his supporters, and those answers were found in the NIE. The decision to declassify it and publish it came as a result of that demand. Once the decision is made to declassify information, it can be released in any number of ways. This was both leaked and openly presented in the same fortnight.

Beyond the issue of the Libby leak and its tie to George Bush, the hypocrisy of the media is truly astonishing. I just at at a dinner two nights ago where Senator Chris Dodd demanded that Congress pass a federal shield law to protect reporters from revealing sources. Why? So that they can report leaks of exactly this kind. I suppose when they like the leaker, then they call him a whistleblower. When they don't like the leak, and especially when it turns out not to be all that significant, then apparently the source is a weasel who doesn't deserve protection.

I understand how disappointing it was to the BDS sufferers that Fitzmas turned into Fizzlemas, but this report is just another non-story in a controversy full of them.

Others commenting ...

Austin Bay: "So what’s the story here? That someone who worked in the White House selectively passed properly declassified material to the press? That’s not a scandal; that’s Beltway business as usual. I’d love to hear that reported– it’s not news per se, but it would be refreshingly open and honest media analysis."

Power Line: "This is the same "scandal" the press tried to sell a few months ago. I wrote about it here. The Sun article (unlike some other press accounts) explains clearly what was going on. Intelligence insiders like Joe Wilson were leaking a combination of falsehoods and minority views to the press in order to challenge the administration's decision to go to war with Iraq. This was deeply unfair. In October 2002, the intelligence agencies presented to the administration their "consensus estimate" with regard to Iraq's WMD programs."

David Ensor at CNN:If the president decides to declassify information, he has that legal right. So, it's not about a law being broken here, and it's not about Valerie Plame-Wilson's name. But it does show us the first evidence that the president himself wanted some of this information put out in the media. (via Tom Maguire)

UPDATE: Once again, the President has the authority to declassify materials at his discretion, a point hammered home by the Washington Post as well:

Experts said the power to classify and declassify documents in the federal government flows from the president and is often delegated down the chain of command. In March 2003, Bush signed an executive order delegating declassification authority to Cheney.

One can argue about the wisdom of George Bush in declassifying the Iraq NIE when he did, but let's remember that the press had been clamoring for that information ever since the fall of Baghdad three months earlier. The WMD stockpiles had not been found, and Joe Wilson among others had claimed that "Bush lied". In response, Bush declassified the NIE so that everyone could see what exactly the intelligence services had told him about Iraq's WMD programs. Now everyone wants to proclaim George Bush a criminal for releasing the information that the entire media establishment demanded he reveal.

This isn't brain surgery, folks. Research may be tedious, but it really is necessary before reaching your conclusions.

UPDATE: In the interest of complete accuracy, I should state that Bush declassified the portion of the NIE relating to Iraq, not the entire NIE. Since the portion that got declassified is the same given to the reporter by Libby, I assumed that it was a difference without a distinction, but some commenters seem to feel otherwise. The declassified portion is published at the link I provided above and was the same portion given to reporters at the 7/18/03 briefing.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 6, 2006 7:31 PM

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