By ANDY SULLIVAN
President George W. Bush’s 2003 decision to declassify an intelligence report to rebut an Iraq war critic stirred unease even in the White House, an administration official said on Thursday in the perjury trial of a vice presidential aide.
White House communications official Cathie Martin said she was “not comfortable” in July of that year when her boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, told her to use the information to counter charges that the administration had manipulated intelligence to build a case for invading Iraq.
“I wasn’t sure if I could use that point because it was related to the NIE,” Martin said, referring to a classified National Intelligence Estimate report that said Saddam Hussein had sought to buy uranium from Niger.
Martin was not aware that Bush had already declassified the report by that time.
Bush drew criticism last spring when he admitted he declassified the report and authorized White House officials to leak it to reporters to counter criticism from former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who said the administration ignored his findings that no uranium sale had taken place.
Martin said she was “still not comfortable about the NIE” even as Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, began sharing the information with reporters.
“I was aggravated that Scooter was calling the reporters and I wasn’t,” Martin said as her husband, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin, watched from the front row of the courtroom.
RECESSED FOR DAY
The trial recessed for the day and was to resume on Monday.
Libby resigned from Cheney’s office when he was charged with lying to investigators as they sought to determine who blew the cover of Wilson’s wife, CIA operative Valerie Plame, after Wilson went public with his charges.
Nobody has been charged with blowing Plame’s cover.
Libby’s lawyers say he did not lie deliberately to the FBI and a grand jury, but did not remember correctly what were trivial conversations at a time when he was preoccupied with national security matters. Cheney is expected to testify on Libby’s behalf.
Prosecutors hope to show that Libby’s top priority at the time was to rebut Wilson’s charges.
Martin is the third government official to testify that they told Libby of Plame’s identity up to a month before he says he learned of her from a reporter. The other two officials have admitted under cross-examination to giving conflicting accounts of their conversations with Libby.
Martin said Cheney directed her to monitor TV and print coverage of the emerging scandal and drafted a list of talking points to shift blame away from the vice president two days after Wilson went public in July 2003.
One item on Cheney’s list, based on classified information, said that the intelligence community still believed Saddam sought uranium from Africa despite Wilson’s report.
Martin currently works as deputy director of communications for policy and planning in the White House.
Former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer is expected next on the witness stand. Defense lawyers hope to point out that Fleischer agreed to testify in exchange for a guarantee of immunity in the investigation.
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