Managing Intimigate: Bush Had Better Take This Leak Seriously

John Podesta
Podesta

As the allegations of intimidation-by-leaking — "Intimigate" as some call it — continue to unfold, the president's problems are multiplying. First, if press reports are accurate, he has a grave national security problem. Someone in the White House has made public the identity of a woman who may have been a "nonofficial cover" operative of the CIA, potentially causing multiple sources of intelligence to go cold. Second, he has a legal problem, for not only is a leak of this kind a breach of national security, it is also a grave criminal offense. Third, he has a political problem, as this story was brought to light by a senior administration official who apparently was so offended by efforts to discredit former ambassador Joseph c= Wilson IV that he or she exposed the White House's connection to the leak to The Post. Finally, given the failure of the White House so far to demonstrate any urgency in addressing this growing scandal, he faces a loss of public trust.

As a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, I know something about managing investigations of the White House and even more about managing the White House when it's under investigation.

President Bush, after a week of sidestepping, finally toughened his stance on this growing problem, stating, "I take those leaks very seriously," and saying that he expects the investigation "to hold someone to account who should not have leaked." But the administration's handling of this incident is at best curious and at worst irresponsible.

For example, his aides initially told The Post that the president had no plans to ask his staffers whether they played a role in revealing the name of an undercover officer married to Wilson. His national security adviser, on national television, treated the matter as unsubstantiated press speculation rather than the grave security breach it was. His chief of staff and White House counsel waited more than 11 hours after notice from the Justice Department and more than two days after the story broke in The Post to instruct the staff to preserve records and e-mails concerning the matter. And, perhaps most disturbing, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ed Gillespie, was dispatched to virtually every cable outlet in the country to further discredit Wilson, a strategy one Republican aide on Capitol Hill referred to as "slime and defend."

To compound these problems, White House spokesman Scott McClellan made an ill-advised categorical statement, just after the investigation was announced, that neither Karl Rove nor Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, was the source of the leak. Neither man may be the source, but it's never wise to speak with such certitude before the facts have been established. If, on the other hand, McClellan was speaking on the basis of fact, he has invited the Justice Department to review how the White House determined the facts.

And while it is standard practice for the White House to review documents demanded in a criminal investigation, both to identify those cases where it might legally exercise privilege and also to avoid surprises, the two-week review process the White House is undertaking suggests that either the White House has far more documentation on the defamation of Joe Wilson than it should or that it has devoted pitifully few staff resources to expediting the review.

The Bush team has two choices. It can continue on its current course in the hope that this problem will solve itself. Or it can give priority to the interests of national security, the rule of law and even its own political credibility by managing this crisis expeditiously and with the seriousness it deserves.

If the administration opts to handle the matter proactively, it should take three immediate steps. First, it would be wise for the president to require everyone in the White House to sign a certification that he or she was not the source of the original leak to columnist Robert Novak or involved in "pushing the story" once Novak published. The latter may itself be a criminal violation if the person "pushing" knew that the United States was taking measures to conceal Mrs. Wilson's identity. Falsifying such a certification would be subject to penalty under Title 18, Section 1001 of the U.S. Criminal Code.

Second, White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales should expedite a review of the documents turned over by White House staff relating to this matter and should ensure himself that the "self-certification" review that he has established is adequate to locate all relevant documents.

Finally, the president should make clear to his White House political operatives, the RNC and friends of the administration that they are to cease and desist from the attacks on Wilson and his wife. Wilson served our country with distinction under both Republican and Democratic administrations. His only offense appears to be that he told the truth. He does not deserve the treatment he is getting, and further efforts to malign and intimidate him would raise serious questions of obstruction of justice.

President Bush this week told reporters that we may never find out the real story here because the press "does a very good job of protecting the leakers." The press has a challenging role to play in our society in uncovering the truth, and to do that it sometimes must protect sources. So the press may well protect the leakers. The president should not.

© 2003 The Washington Post