President Bush always said he would wait to talk about the CIA leak case until after the investigation into his administration’s role. On Thursday, he skipped over that step and pronounced the matter old news hardly worth discussing.
“It’s run its course,” he said. “Now we’re going to move on.”
Despite a long history of denouncing leaks, Bush declined to express any disappointment in the people who worked for him and who were involved in disclosing the name of a CIA operative. Asked about that during a wide-ranging news conference, the president gave a dodgy answer.
“It’s been a tough issue for a lot of people in the White House,” he said.
He didn’t even acknowledge the undisputed fact that someone working for him was the source, saying only that “perhaps somebody in the administration did disclose the name of that person.”
The investigation was launched to determine who leaked the identity of Valerie Plame, a former CIA operations officer who had served overseas and is married to a key administration critic on the war, Joseph Wilson.
Shortly before Plame’s cover was blown in 2003, Wilson had accused the Bush administration of manipulating intelligence to exaggerate the threat from Iraqi weapons and thus help justify the war.
Wilson has said he believes his wife’s identity was disclosed to punish him and to undermine his credibility.
After a two-year probe, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald indicted Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, on charges of obstruction of justice and of lying to investigators and the grand jury about the leak. He was convicted in March on all but one count. Ten days ago, Bush commuted Libby’s 30-month prison sentence, while leaving other penalties in place.
Libby is still appealing his conviction. And Bush has not ruled out an eventual pardon for the former top White House aide.
But the president appeared eager Thursday to put the entire case in the past. It was costly for his presidency, denting his image as someone who had pledged to restore integrity to the White House.
As it turned out, several administration officials revealed Plame’s identity. White House political adviser Karl Rove and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage were the primary sources for a 2003 newspaper column outing Plame. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer also admitted telling reporters about her. Libby was the only one charged in the matter and not for leaking.
“I’ve often thought about what would have happened had that person come forth and said, `I did it,’” Bush said, despite the fact that Armitage and perhaps the others did just that.
In the beginning stages of the case, Bush said, “I want to know the truth,” and pledged to fire anyone found to have leaked. As the investigation wore on, he expressed more weariness than outrage, saying only that someone who “committed a crime” would be fired and calling the case “background noise” he had to ignore.
The question on the CIA leak case was only one of three during the 59-minute news conference that did not deal with Iraq.
The others addressed a new threat assessment from U.S. counterterrorism analysts. It says al-Qaida has used its safe haven along the Afghan-Pakistan border to restore operating capabilities to a level unseen since the months before Sept. 11, 2001.
Nevertheless, Bush said, “Because of the actions we’ve taken, al-Qaida is weaker today than they would have been.”
The president also was asked whether it was appropriate for Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to say he had a “gut feeling” there might be a terror attack this summer. “My gut tells me that which my head tells as well, is that: When we find a credible threat, we’ll share it with you,” Bush said.
The president’s main purpose for holding the news conference was to present his take on a new report sent to lawmakers on the progress made by the Iraqi government. The interim assessment, required by Congress, shows only mixed results so far, with Iraqis making satisfactory progress on eight benchmarks, mostly in security areas, but unsatisfactory progress on another eight and mixed results on two.
With both chambers of Congress debating legislation to order the withdrawal of U.S. troops by next spring, Bush asked for more time to let his troop-increase plan work. “I believe we are making security progress that will enable the political track to succeed,” he said.
The president also sought to make some common cause with his opponents. Bush portrayed the growing number of Republicans who are urging him to change course as agreeing with him.
And he left the strong impression he is leaning toward reducing troop levels, though without offering any specific time frames or promises. He referenced “when” — not “if” — “we start drawing down” and said he would “judge where we need to make any adjustments” after a follow-up report in September. He even noted that, at that point, he will make sure “that al-Qaida and other extremists do not benefit from a decision I might have to make.”
At the same time, Bush made clear that while he’ll listen to lawmakers, they have little business making war decisions. He said Congress “has got all the right to appropriate money” but not to set troop strength or tell the military how to conduct operations.
“I don’t think Congress ought to be running the war,” he said. “I think they ought to be funding our troops.”