"Declassifying" and "Leaking"

The question before the House, as it were, is not a legal one, it seems to me. The question is an ethical one. The president cannot, technically speaking, "leak" classified information for the simple Bush0315_1 reason that if the president decides to declassify it, it's no longer "classified," and therefore becomes not a "leak" but a "disclosure." As a debater's point, this is pretty damn airtight. But it's also a little disturbing. Let's say a president has a political beef against a covert CIA agent. And let's say he outs that agent for political purposes. I'm not saying we have hard evidence this has happened in the Plame case - we don't at all - but let's posit such a hypothetical case. Legally, the president's in the clear. Constitutionally, he's in the clear. But ethically: surely not. In fact, ethically, it seems to me, he would be acting in a way that could well lead to Congressional censure or even impeachment. You don't treat spies' cover as tools for your Beltway push-back.

That's not what we know in this case. In this case, we're merely talking about the following set of circumstances. A president is challenged in his public account of pre-war intelligence. The president authorizes a selective leak of classified information to rebut the challenge. He selects only those parts of the classified information that supports his case, and omits the rest that actually show parts of the government disputing his case. He authorizes the veep to authorize Libby to give the selected information to a pliant reporter for the New York Times. Meanwhile, his public statements reiterate an abhorrence of all unauthorized disclosure of classified information.

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This is an interesting insight into the president's character. It simply shows his willingness to use the prerorgatives of his office as the guardian of our national security to play political hardball against opponents. It shows a conscious capacity to mislead people by selectively disclosing data that skews - for a while - the public's understanding of the facts. It proves that this president is capable of deliberately misleading the American people as a gambit in a Beltway spat, or even just to keep ahead of the news cycle. It wasn't Karl Rove's dirty tricks or David Addington's Schmittian ideology or Dick Cheney's "dark side" here. It's George W. Bush - hard-assed political fighter, micro-managing press coverage of a minor matter, using the privileges of his constitutional position as commander-in-chief to play Washington hardball at a time of war. This is what we know. And it helps round out the picture of who this man is, doesn't it?

(Photo: Kevin Dietsch / UPI / Landov)