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Libby: Bush OK'd leaking of classified Iraq intelligence

Story Highlights

• Libby says Bush authorized him to discuss classified Iraq intelligence
On tape, Libby says he was surprised when Russert mentioned Plame
• Libby accused of obstructing probe into leak of Valerie Plame's CIA position
• On tapes, Libby apologizes for poor memory
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- On a tape played at his trial Tuesday, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby told investigators he thought President Bush authorized him to discuss the contents of a classified report on Iraq intelligence with reporters.

"If the president tells you to talk about a document, it's declassified," Libby told Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald on March 24, 2004, during testimony before a grand jury that would eventually indict Libby for perjury and obstruction of justice.

The conversation with reporters about the contents of a classified report on Iraq, called a national intelligence estimate, happened in the summer of 2003, a few months after the invasion of Iraq.

During that time, the administration was trying to respond to a controversy that had erupted after the U.S. forces failed to find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, as had been expected.

Libby is charged with lying to investigators trying to find out who leaked Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA operative.

Her identity was revealed after her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, alleged in an editorial that the Bush administration twisted facts to support an invasion of Iraq. Wilson said his intelligence-gathering work -- which concluded Iraq had made no serious effort to obtain nuclear weapons material in Niger -- had been ignored by the administration.

Libby had told investigators that he learned of Plame's identity during conversations with reporters during the summer of 2003, but reporters testifying under oath contradict Libby's account.

The audio recordings, made nearly three years ago, shed light on how Libby handled the controversy over Wilson's allegations.

Libby said White House Counsel David Addington told him the president has the power to declassify material on his own. Libby said he asked Addington, "Can the president declassify a document just by telling us to talk?" and Addington said he could.

Libby quoted that response to Fitzgerald on the stand.

Fitzgerald asked Libby whether he was present when Vice President Dick Cheney asked Bush to declassify the material, whether anyone else was present, and whether issues were raised about how going public might overrule CIA Director George Tenet.

To each question, Libby answered no.

Libby, who was Cheney's chief of staff at the time, also testified he had no knowledge of when or how Cheney got the okay from President Bush and concluded only the three of them were aware the material could be disclosed to New York Times reporter Judith Miller when Libby met with her for coffee at a Washington hotel.

Prosecutors are trying to portray Libby as someone who used lies and deception in his ranking position at the White House to try to discredit Joseph Wilson.

Libby's lawyers blame bad memory for any discrepancies in what he told investigators and the grand jury about revealing plame was a CIA operative.

Libby apologized for his poor memory in the audio recordings played Tuesday.

"I get a lot of information during the course of the day. I probably get, you know -- I tried to take a census of how many, and I tend to get between 100 and 200 pages a day," Libby explains on the recordings.

"When a lot of stuff comes to me, I'll gather my staff together and say, 'what happened here?' and we'll sort of pool our recollections of it, and that almost always brings me a fuller recollection of what's happened. I haven't done that here.

"I apologize if my recollection of this stuff is not perfect," Libby said. "I apologize if there's some stuff that I remember and some I don't."

In audio recordings played earlier Tuesday, Libby said he was "surprised" to hear from NBC "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert that Joseph Wilson's wife worked for the CIA.

"Is it your testimony under oath, you don't recall Wilson's wife working for the CIA -- between the sixth (of July) and your conversation with Russert?" asked Fitzgerald.

"That's correct, sir, I don't recall discussing it. I do recall being surprised when I talked to Russert on the 10th or 11th," Libby told Fitzgerald.

Libby and Russert talked on July 10, 2003; Russert has denied he told Libby anything about Wilson's wife.

Wilson's article appeared on July 6, 2003. His wife's CIA connection was revealed in a column written by Robert Novak, eight days later.

Novak's column caused a political firestorm, and two months later prompted an FBI probe.

In the past two weeks of testimony and evidence, prosecutors tried to establish Cheney as the first source of Libby's knowledge that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and sent him on the trip.

Presenting on Thursday, Libby's defense team is expected to argue that any discrepancies in what Libby told investigators stem from his difficult role as a busy government official distracted by urgent national security matters.

CNN's Paul Courson contributed to this report.


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