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White House: Bush did not flip-flop on leaks

Spokesman says president has right to declassify intelligence

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Lawyers for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby are seeking sensitive intelligence material to bolster his defense.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House on Friday rejected suggestions that President Bush contradicted himself by repeatedly railing against leaks of classified information even though he had approved the release of classified information to bolster the U.S. case for the Iraq war in 2003.

Documents released this week by prosecutors in a CIA leak case contained an assertion by I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's former chief of staff, that Bush approved the release of information from a classified national intelligence estimate in 2003.

The White House has not challenged the statements in the court documents.

But White House spokesman Scott McClellan argued Friday that the president staunchly opposes releasing classified information that could affect U.S. security. And he pointed out that the president reserves the right to declassify material.

Looking at the specific 2003 case, McClellan said, "Because of the public debate that was going on and some of the wild accusations that were flying around at the time, we felt it was very much in the public interest that what information could be declassified be declassified, and that's exactly what we did."

But the court documents show that Bush approved the release of the information 10 days before the White House said the information was declassified.

The information was released on July 8, 2003, according to the documents.

On July 18 of that year, McClellan told reporters "this information was just, as of today, officially declassified."

Asked repeatedly about the issue Friday, McClellan said he would not back down from statements he made at the time but also said he would look in to the time frame.

He added, "I think what I was referring to is the fact that that was when it was made available to the public."

The issue carries heavy political ramifications as Bush struggles with very low approval ratings, and many Americans question his credibility. It also involves the Iraq war, his central foreign policy issue.

The information was released in 2003 to counteract assertions by former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had publicly questioned President Bush's claim that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa for a nuclear weapons program.

Libby is charged with perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to FBI agents investigating the exposure of Valerie Plame Wilson, a covert CIA operative and the ambassador's wife.

Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor in Libby's case, wrote that Libby "undertook vigorous efforts to rebut" the ambassador's attack on Bush's argument for war.

Fitzgerald wrote that Libby told a grand jury that Vice President Dick Cheney told him that Bush had authorized the release of portions of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq.

The court documents do not suggest that Bush approved the release of Plame's identity, and the NIE did not contain references to Plame.

McClellan said Friday that because a trial is pending, the White House could not comment on certain issues that could relate to the case.

Democrats, meanwhile, have slammed the president over the issue.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, speaking on the Senate floor Friday, called it "shocking news" that Libby "may have acted on direct orders from President Bush when he leaked classified intelligence information to reporters."

"It is an understatement to say that this is a serious allegation with national security consequences," he said. "It directly contradicts previous statements made by the president. It continues, in my opinion, a pattern of misleading America by this Bush White House. It raises somber and troubling questions about the Bush administration's candor with Congress and the American people."

He referred to a remark Bush made in September 2003, in the midst of questions about the covert agent's exposure. Bush said at the time, "I don't know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information. If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take appropriate action."

Reid said Bush "must tell the American people whether President Bush's Oval Office is a place where the buck stops or the leaks start."

But McClellan, in a contentious briefing with reporters, went on a counterattack against Reid, accusing him of "crass politics."

McClellan said Reid "is trying to twist" the story into something that it's not.

Bush has lambasted the leak of Plame's identity, and even more severely has blasted the leak of the existence of a secret wiretapping program under which the government has listened in on calls between people in the United States and suspected terrorists overseas -- without obtaining a warrant to do so.

"There is a difference between providing declassified information to the public when it's in the public interest and leaking classified information that involved sensitive national intelligence regarding our security," McClellan said.

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