The White House spins, but Waas blocks
So Bush is in the clear? Hardly. A report by Murray Waas from February 2nd has the goods on what the White House was doing in mid to late June, 2003. And what would that be? Obsessing about the holes in the Niger story, and planning how to cope with Joseph Wilson's activities in exposing those holes.
First, the NYT piece.
A senior administration official confirmed for the first time on Sunday that President Bush had ordered the declassification of parts of a prewar intelligence report on Iraq in an effort to rebut critics who said the administration had exaggerated the nuclear threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
But the official said that Mr. Bush did not designate Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby Jr., or anyone else, to release the information to reporters....
The disclosure appeared intended to bolster the White House argument that Mr. Bush was acting well within his legal authority when he ordered that key conclusions of the [NIE to be revealed]...
Moreover, the disclosure seemed intended to suggest that Mr. Bush may have played only a peripheral role in the release of the classified material and was uninformed about the specifics -- like the effort to dispatch Mr. Libby to discuss the estimate with reporters....
There are indications that Mr. Bush issued the declassification order in late June...
If Mr. Bush acted that early, it would suggest that the administration was growing increasingly concerned as evidence emerged that the intelligence was deeply flawed. But the White House account also appears to separate Mr. Bush from the involvement in the selective release of the information to a few reporters...
The main ideas that the WH is propagating here are
(i) that Bush was out of touch with what Libby or Cheney did with classified information
(ii) that he was within his legal authority to declassify it (because he was releasing it not for political purposes, but rather to inform the public, as Executive Order 13292 permits)
(iii) that he made this decision in June 2003, thus well before Joseph Wilson's op-ed appeared on July 6
I won't touch point (i) with a barge pole. Point (ii) really depends for its effect pretty heavily upon whether we accept both the facts and the premises of point (iii). We should note immediately that the NYT does not assert as a fact that the decision was made in June. Indeed, the Times' pointed refusal to assert it as a fact suggests to me that the question of when precisely Bush decided to declassify the key judgments of the NIE remains very much up in the air. So much for the central "fact" of point (iii).
Now for the premise of (iii) that Bush's decision had nothing to do with Wilson's activities. Murray Waas's report in the National Journal from February 2, 2006 pretty nicely torpedoes the entire premise.
CIA analysts wrote then-CIA Director George Tenet in a highly classified memo on June 17, 2003, "We no longer believe there is sufficient" credible information to "conclude that Iraq pursued uranium from abroad." The memo was titled: "In Response to Your Questions for Our Current Assessment and Additional Details on Iraq's Alleged Pursuits of Uranium From Abroad."...
Tenet requested the previously undisclosed intelligence assessment in large part because of repeated inquiries from Cheney and Libby regarding the Niger matter and Wilson's mission, although neither Cheney nor Libby specifically asked that the new review be conducted, according to government records and to current and former government officials.
Waas goes on to describe how Cheney and Libby were highly suspicious of any reports about Iraq coming from the CIA, and how in particular they were obsessed about Wilson and Plame at this early stage.
One indication of Cheney's personal interest in the subject was that some of Libby's earliest and most detailed information regarding Plame's CIA employment came directly from the vice president, according to information contained in Libby's grand jury indictment.
"On or about June 12, 2003," the indictment stated, "Libby was advised by the Vice President of the United States that Wilson's wife worked at the Central Intelligence Agency in the Counterproliferation Division. Libby understood that the Vice President had learned this information from the CIA."...
Sources said that Tenet may have discussed Plame with Cheney because of requests from Cheney, Libby, and other administration officials for more information about the Niger matter and Wilson's mission. Cheney's and Libby's interest in Niger was apparently rekindled after New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote on May 6, 2003, that the CIA had sent an unnamed former ambassador to the African nation in February 2002 to investigate allegations that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium from Niger.
It was this obsession of Cheney and Libby in May and early June, then, that caused the CIA to generate the June 17th memo. Waas reports that a few days after the memo was written, both Cheney and Libby were informed about it.
In other words, the concerted effort to block, circumvent, undermine, or otherwise confront the danger that Joseph Wilson's revelations might pose for the White House had begun at least a month before Wilson actually published his op-ed. No matter if Bush can walk his decision to declassify back into late June, therefore. It does nothing to distance Bush from the concerted effort inside the White House to find something to do about what Wilson knew and was already telling.
Crossposted at Daily Kos