President Bush insists a president “better mean what he says.” Those words could return to haunt him.
After long denouncing leaks of all kinds, Bush is confronted with a statement — unchallenged by his aides — that he authorized a leak of classified material to undermine an Iraq war critic.
The allegation in the CIA leak case threatens the credibility of a president already falling in the polls, and it gives Democrats fresh material to accuse him of hypocrisy.
“In politics, what gets bad gets worse,” said GOP strategist Ed Rogers. “And we’ve been on a a bad roll for quite some time. We’re in an environment now where every mistake is a metaphor.”
Critics were quick to portray the Bush-leak report as a fresh sign of a failed Iraq policy, manipulated intelligence and a lack of presidential veracity. Honesty was once seen by Americans as one of Bush’s strongest character traits, but polls show that perception has waned in Bush’s second term.
Causing the furor is a court filing that revealed that I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former top aide, told a federal grand jury that Bush authorized him to leak classified information on Iraq to reporters in mid-2003.
Libby is charged with lying and obstructing an investigation into whether the administration intentionally revealed the identity of a CIA operative, Valerie Plame, to undermine her husband’s public criticism of the Iraq war.
As president, Bush has wide latitude to declassify material. And there was nothing in the legal papers filed by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald to suggest Bush or Cheney did anything illegal, or had specifically authorized Libby to identify Plame.
Still, the report put Bush and Cheney at the center of the alleged administration effort to leak classified material to bolster its case for invading Iraq and to discredit war critics.
Bush often has denounced leaks and pledged to punish the leakers. He has expressed pride in a disciplined White House where leaks are infrequent.
“It was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war,” he told a news conference last Dec. 19, speaking of the leaking of the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program.
The latest flap comes as things seemed as if they could hardly get worse for the president and his Republican allies: Iraq, continued fallout over the botched Katrina response, the Dubai ports debacle, shortcomings in the new Medicare prescription drug program, the resignation of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the collapse of a proposed immigration overhaul.
A new AP-Ipsos poll showed just 36 percent of the public approve of Bush’s job performance, a low-water mark for his presidency.
Another AP-Ipsos poll showed that, while 53 percent of those surveyed said they considered Bush to be “honest” in October 2004, that number had dropped to just 44 percent last month.
The disclosure that Bush might be the White House leaker-in-chief isn’t going to help matters.
“He’s suffering enough now and this is certainly more fuel for the fire,” said Wayne Fields, a specialist in presidential rhetoric at Washington University in St. Louis.
Fields said Bush has a record of “making blanket statements, sometimes self-righteous ones” that can later be turned against him when “replayed and quoted over and over.”
Just Thursday, Bush emphasized the importance of straight talk. “When the president says something, he better mean what he says,” he told a North Carolina audience. “In order to be effective, in order to maintain credibility, words have got to mean something. You just can’t say things in the job I’m in and not mean what you say.”
In September 2003, Bush said he was distressed by the CIA leak case. “If somebody did leak classified information, I’d like to know it, and we’ll take the appropriate action,” he said.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said at the time: “If anyone in this administration was involved in it (the CIA leak), they would no longer be in this administration.”
Democrats mocked those earlier statements in light of the new allegations.
“The president all the time was looking for himself,” Sen. John Kerry, Bush’s vanquished 2004 presidential challenger, said on the “Imus in the Morning” radio and television show.
Republican consultant Rich Galen said the controversy was “just another in a list of issues that have come up, emotional issues, that the White House has had a hard time getting in front of.”
The White House scrambled to assert the president’s right to selectively declassify information, with McClellan insisting there’s a difference between leaks that can compromise national security and a president’s decision to declassify information “when it is in the public interest.”
Democrats who fail to recognize that distinction are “engaging in crass politics,” he suggested.
To which House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi responded, “The president owes the American people the truth about his manipulation of sensitive intelligence for political purposes.”
Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.
© 2006 The Associated Press