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Libby Says President Authorized Leak

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Court papers made public yesterday alleged that President Bush was involved in leaking classified information. The papers quote Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff. And the papers say that President Bush and the vice president authorized a top Cheney aide to disclose classified intelligence information as part of a counterattack against critics of the Bush Administration's Iraq policy.

Here's NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG reporting:

For over two years, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has been investigating the leak to the press of a CIA agent's name, Valerie Plame. Plame is the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who in 2002 was sent to Niger, on behalf of the CIA, to determine if Saddam Hussein was seeking to illegally buy uranium for use in an Iraqi nuclear weapons program. Wilson determined that Iraq had not been trying to buy uranium from Niger and he subsequently went public with his conclusion.

Shortly thereafter, his wife's name and CIA connection was leaked to the press. And after a complaint from the CIA, the Justice Department named Fitzgerald to conduct an independent inquiry. In October, the special prosecutor announced a five-count indictment against Cheney's then chief of staff, Lewis Scooter Libby, not for leaking, but for lying to the grand jury and obstruction of justice.

The president's top political aide, Karl Rove, remains the focus of further investigation, and yesterday the prosecutor filed papers in the Libby case that strike at the heart of the president's image as a straight shooter.

Specifically, in his court filing, Prosecutor Fitzgerald said that when Libby appeared before the grand jury, he testified that he gave a New York Times reporter classified information from a secret national intelligence estimate with the president's approval, as conveyed to him by the vice president.

Libby says he was authorized to give the reporter key national intelligence judgments, showing that contrary to Ambassador Wilson's assertions, Iraq was vigorously trying to procure uranium from Niger. Fitzgerald quoted Libby as saying it was the only time he could recall, in his government experience, when he disclosed a classified document to a reporter on orders of the president.

Fitzgerald stopped short of saying that the president had authorized Libby to disclose the identity of Wilson's wife or the fact that she was a CIA agent. But the court filing does say that some documents taken from the administration's files quote "could be characterized as reflecting a plan to discredit, punish or seek revenge against Ambassador Wilson."

Yesterday's disclosure would not seem to put the president in any legal jeopardy. It's long been the position of the Justice Department and presidents of both parties that the president has the power to declassify documents. And President Bush has, by executive order, shared that power with vice president Cheney.

But the picture drawn by yesterday's court filing is in stark contrast to the president's often repeated strong statements that he doesn't tolerate leaks. In the last few months alone both the president and the vice president have strongly criticized the press and those who leaked information to the press, resulting in the disclosure of the NSA's warrantless eavesdropping program and the existence of secret overseas CIA prisons for suspected terrorists. In each of these cases, the administration has ordered a criminal investigation. That's the same approach the president took at the time the Plame investigation was announced.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it and we'll take the appropriate action. And this investigation is a good thing.

TOTENBERG: Now, according to a top White House aide, we learn that the president himself was authorizing leaks. Or, as the old saying goes in Washington, the ship of state is the only one that leaks from the top.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.