The sudden press flap over Scooter Libby’s alleged “revelation” that President Bush declassified intelligence information related to Iraq is silly but all too predictable. The entire flap relies on mixing terms and “misunderstanding by innuendo” — a technique of demagoguery, not journalism. The flap is yet more evidence that the national press is more interested in playing “gotcha” with the Bush Administration than reporting the news.
Presidents and vice-presidents can declassify information based on their own good (or bad) judgment. That is a privilege and responsibility of the office. Their authority is near-absolute. Disseminating unclassified information isn’t a crime — no matter the technique used. The information can be disseminated at a press conference, in a press release, in a speech, or — yes– via leak.
Reporters thrive on “leaks” because a leak usually means “scoop.” A leak can also mean “spin” but that’s an understood aspect of Washington’s political carnival. However, leaking properly declassified material isn’t a crime. Leaking classified material is illegal– and so is publishing classified material in a press release.
So what’s the story here? That someone who worked in the White House selectively passed properly declassified material to the press? That’s not a scandal; that’s Beltway business as usual. I’d love to hear that reported– it’s not news per se, but it would be refreshingly open and honest media analysis.
However, the breathless excitement with which MSNBC (during the 3 PM CDT hour) broke this story certainly suggested scandal. An hour later the mood had calmed a bit; even so a rather smug Chris Matthews asked his attorney guest why Scooter Libby would “finger the President?” Dick Sauber (Time Magazine’s Matt Cooper’s lawyer) responded that Libby was probably trying to cover for himself. That’s possible, and it’s reasonable, non-libelous speculation on Sauber’s part. But the bottom line is the president can declassify information. “Finger” is a push word, stoked with criminal innuendo —but Bush was not engaged in a criminal act. Questioning Bush’s judgment is perfectly appropriate, but accusation of crime or lies is unwarranted. (As it is, the information in question came from the National Intelligence Estimate. The NIE information didn’t have anything to do with the Plame case.) . . . CNN is exploring another angle: that the White House is “hypocritical” because it has come down hard on leaks. But a word is missing in this accusation: "unauthorized."