President Bush has always made his view of leakers perfectly clear. Before, during, and after the Valerie Plame and NSA wiretapping leaks that have bedeviled his presidency, Bush has insisted that leakers thwart the proper functioning of government. In certain cases, they commit “treason.” He has described leakers as low-level, frustrated bureaucrats who feed their own egos by passing along juicy tidbits to mangy reporters. As Bush told reporters in December 2001, “somebody in our government wanted to show off to his family or her family in between Christmas and New Year’s by leaking information in the press … I don’t know why people do that. I guess either to make you [the press] feel good and/or to make themselves feel good.” Uriah Heep would have been a leaker.
Now we learn that the president himself is a leaker. We’ve always known that the commander-in-chief’s distaste for leaking didn’t stop it from happening (as it has in every administration), but this is the first time we appear to have direct evidence that Bush had his hand on the siphon. Documents filed yesterday by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald report that Scooter Libby told a federal grand jury that President Bush authorized him to leak information from a classified National Intelligence Estimate. Libby testified that Vice President Cheney told him that Bush “specifically had authorized” him to “disclose certain information in the NIE.” The leak strategy was part of a larger administration effort to counter claims they had distorted evidence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction during the march to war.
Bush didn’t authorize Libby to say anything about Valerie Plame, but when the leader of the free world says go ahead take a joy ride with classified information, can we be surprised that Libby or Karl Rove then went further? In the cut and thrust that surrounded those hectic days in July 2003, when CIA officials were leaking about faulty prewar intelligence, how could White House officials resist going too far once the president himself had diddled with the classification during a fracas?
The press corps—and bloggers—will likely compile a yards-long list of occasions when the president has denounced leaking, but it’s worth asking the philosophical question: Can the president even be a leaker? For a leak to be real, it has to be unsanctioned. Once a piece of secret information gets unwrapped (by the president no less), it’s not a leak, it’s part of a communications strategy. It’s national policy. So, maybe he’s not a leaker.
But he is certainly a hypocrite. It’s one thing to declassify information; it’s another thing to present information to a reporter as though it were classified to preserve the shadow authenticity that comes with a leak. Bush wanted to have the information out there but not have to account for it or explain it.
All presidents engage in this hypocrisy, but Bush has made it Texas-sized by putting on such a show about leaks during his time in office. He’s done everything short of forming a Department of Anti-Leaking. The most recent example has been the attack on the New York Times for printing leaks about the NSA wiretap operation, but President Bush has been at it for years. In October 2001, after reading a Washington Times story that described terrorist camps in Afghanistan that the CIA and Pentagon had targeted for destruction, Bush told aides, “an act of treason was committed in the newspaper this morning.” He called the four top congressional leaders to inform them that he had ordered the FBI, CIA, and Pentagon to sharply reduce the number of lawmakers eligible for classified briefings on the war. Members of Congress, Bush was saying, could not be trusted. Bush backed down a week later, and the pertinent members of Congress were quickly brought back into the loop.
For the moment, the public response from White House officials will be what we’ve gotten before: They can’t comment during an official investigation. But off the record or on background, officials might very well start talking, or even leaking, to help beat back this story. When they do, we can assume that they’ll be doing it with the president’s approval.