President Bush says he declassified portions of the prewar intelligence assessment on Iraq because he “wanted people to see the truth” about Iraq’s weapons programs and to understand why he kept accusing Saddam Hussein of stockpiling weapons that turned out not to exist. This would be a noble sentiment if it actually bore any relationship to Mr. Bush’s actions in this case, or his overall record.
Mr. Bush did not declassify the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq – in any accepted sense of that word – when he authorized I. Lewis Libby Jr., through Vice President Dick Cheney, to talk about it with reporters. He permitted a leak of cherry-picked portions of the report. The declassification came later.
And this president has never shown the slightest interest in disclosure, except when it suits his political purposes. He has run one of the most secretive administrations in American history, consistently withholding information and vital documents not just from the public, but also from Congress. Just the other day, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the House Judiciary Committee that the names of the lawyers who reviewed Mr. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program were a state secret.
Obviously, we do not object to government officials talking to reporters about important matters that their bosses do not want discussed. It would be impossible to cover any administration, especially one so secretive as this, unless that happened. (Judith Miller, who then worked for The Times, was one of the reporters Mr. Libby chose for this leak, although she never wrote about it.) But the version of the facts that Mr. Libby was authorized to divulge was so distorted that it seems more like disinformation than any sincere attempt to inform the public.
This fits the pattern of Mr. Bush’s original sales pitch on the Iraq war – hyping the intelligence that bolstered his case and suppressing the intelligence that undercut it. In this case, Mr. Libby was authorized to talk about claims that Iraq had tried to buy uranium for nuclear weapons in Africa and not more reliable evidence to the contrary.
About a month before, Mr. Bush rushed to announce that American forces had found evidence of a biological weapons program in Iraq – trailers that could have been used to make doomsday devices. We now know, from a report in The Washington Post, that a Pentagon team actually on the ground in Iraq inspecting the trailers had concluded two days earlier that they were nothing of the kind.
The White House says Mr. Bush was not aware of that report, and was relying on an assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency. This is hardly the first time we’ve been told that intelligence reports contradicting administration doctrine somehow did not make it to Mr. Bush’s desk. But it does not explain why he and Mr. Cheney went on talking about the trailers for weeks, during which the State Department’s intelligence division – about the only agency that got it right about Iraq – debunked the mobile-labs theory.
Of course, the inaccurate report saying that the trailers were bioweapons labs was made public, immediately, while the accurate one was kept secret until a reporter found out about it.
Since Mr. Bush regularly denounces leakers, the White House has made much of the notion that he did not leak classified information, he declassified it. This explanation strains credulity. Even a president cannot wave a wand and announce that an intelligence report is declassified.
To declassify an intelligence document, officials have to decide whether disclosing the information would jeopardize the sources that provided it or the methods used to gather it. To answer that question, they closely study the origins of the intelligence to be disclosed. Had Mr. Bush done that, he should have seen that the most credible information made it clear that the Niger story was wrong. (In any case, Iraq’s supposed attempt to buy uranium from Niger happened four years before the invasion, and failed. The idea that this amounted to a current, aggressive and continuing campaign to build nuclear weapons in 2002 – as Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney called it – is laughable.)
This messy episode leaves more questions than answers, so it is imperative that two things happen soon. First, the federal prosecutor in the Libby case should release the transcripts of what Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney said when he questioned them. And the Senate Intelligence Committee must report publicly on how Mr. Bush and his team used the flawed intelligence on Iraq. Senator Pat Roberts, the committee chairman, says the panel will meet this month to discuss three of the report’s five sections. That’s a step. And it has taken only two years to get this far.