WASHINGTON - 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
"It's run its course," he said.
"Now we're going to move on."
US President George W. Bush holds his first official news
conference in the remodelled James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the
White House in Washington, July 12, 2007. [Reuters]
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
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 US 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 US 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."