Asking the Right Question About the President's Involvement in the CIA Leak Affair
By Elizabeth de la Vega
The latest in a parade of horrors emanating from the Bush administration appeared Thursday in the form of a revelation buried in papers filed in federal court by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald in his investigation into the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, now under indictment on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, told the Grand Jury Fitzgerald convened that President Bush had -- via Vice President Cheney -- authorized him to disclose selected information from a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) to New York Times reporter Judith Miller, which he did during a private breakfast meeting at the St. Regis Hotel on July 8, 2003.
On Friday, in a press conference that bore a striking similarity to Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine, President Bush's spokesman Scott McClellan dutifully responded to reporters' questions about the disclosure. No, the increasingly robotic McClellan said, the White House will not comment on an ongoing case. But, he assured the assembled journalists, the President can declassify whatever he wants, whenever he wants, however he wants. So, McClellan implied, it would have been perfectly legal for the President to have taken this action, which he could not, of course, comment on because this was an ongoing case (and so on).
Thus has begun a debate in our media whose starting questions usually run along the lines of: "Is what the President did legal?" or "Does the President have authority to declassify information at will?" (Given the President's failure to deny Libby's allegation, it has largely been accepted as true.) The answer to those questions has generally been: Yes, the President -- as chief executive -- has the authority to declassify information at will.
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