BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The Bush Administration is mired in what can only be called a very bad news cycle.
MALE CORRESPONDENT (NBC): A huge development in the CIA leak case today, as President Bush is now reported to be a central figure in the investigation.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT (ABC): Did the White House practice the opposite of what it preached?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT (CNN): The information stopped short of saying whether the President authorized exposing the name of CIA operative, Valerie Plame.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT (ABC): Leaker-in-Chief? Was it President Bush himself who authorized leaking government secrets for political purposes?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This particular cycle was set in motion by the investigation of who within the administration leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has charged Scooter Libby, the Vice-President's Chief of Staff, with lying, not leaking. But now, Libby's testimony has ripped the lid off a whole new leak – in this case, of a once-classified document that bolstered the President's claim that Saddam was building weapons of mass destruction. And the ultimate leaker, according to Libby, was the President himself. Josh Gerstein broke the story Thursday morning in the New York Sun. He joins me now from San Francisco. Welcome to the show.
JOSH GERSTEIN: Thanks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So just for the record, according to the documents you have, what did Libby say and what didn't he say? He didn't say the President authorized the exposure of Valerie Plame, right?
JOSH GERSTEIN: No, he didn't make that allegation. He said that the Vice-President asked him, meaning asked Libby, to release certain information from a National Intelligence Estimate on what American intelligence agencies thought were Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities prior to the war. And Mr. Libby claims that he was uncomfortable releasing that information because he thought it was classified at that time and that the Vice- President said that he went to the President and got permission to release at least part of that information publicly. And then Mr. Libby went ahead and gave it to Judith Miller, a reporter at The New York Times.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's go back to the Valerie Plame leak. It's widely assumed that exposing her - and thus, ending her career – was actually a way to get back at her husband, Joseph Wilson, who, in the New York Times, refuted the President's claim that Saddam Hussein was shopping for uranium in Niger. So what's that leak got to do with this one?
JOSH GERSTEIN: Well, there was this muscular effort going on in 2003, especially right after Ambassador Wilson's op-ed piece came out in The New York Times, to try to rebut him. Now, whether it was done strictly with facts or whether it was also done, as I say, in a kind of muscular way, to send him a message not to do something like this, remains open to debate. But as the White House was discussing these things, there was this process where they said they wanted to release the Intelligence Estimate on Iraq because they thought it would undercut Mr. Wilson's claims. And the assertion in these court documents is that the President actually authorized Mr. Libby, through the Vice-President, to release certain information that until that point had been highly classified. And the strange part about this is that they were to give it only to a specific reporter, namely, Judith Miller of The New York Times. Two days after the Op-Ed piece came out, Mr. Libby went out and met with her at a hotel in Washington and gave her this information. Now, if the plan was to plant this story in The New York Times, it didn't [CHUCKLES] work out, because Ms. Miller never wrote a story about this and, in fact, never wrote a story about Mr. Wilson and his wife and the fact that his wife worked at the CIA. So it could be that Mr. Libby and Mr. Cheney, who are not known at being great hands in dealing with the press, just blew this one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I know the President's counsels are claiming the President and the Vice-President's claim, that they were within their rights to declassify anything they want, that the executive, the President has that right. But that isn't a settled question, is it? We don't know whether the President actually did anything illegal, do we?
JOSH GERSTEIN: Well, it's not entirely clear, although I think it's unlikely that the President did anything illegal here, because the Special Prosecutor, who has shown every sign of being dogged so far, hasn't made that suggestion anywhere. The greater concern that you hear from more people is whether the President acted ethically here and whether he acted hypocritically, because he has gone out on many occasions and said that it is terrible to leak sensitive classified information - it hurts the war on terror, etcetera, etcetera. So it's a little hard to understand how the President can make those statements condemning others who do that when he himself apparently shortcut a process to declassify this information and went ahead and released it in a somewhat underhanded way to a specific reporter. It's a very strange process from a fellow who has often been very high and mighty on the subject of leaks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, as far as we know, Investigator Fitzgerald is solely examining the Plame leak. Could his investigation be broadened to examine the larger question of whether intelligence was mishandled to bolster the administration's case for war?
JOSH GERSTEIN: I doubt it. He's a pretty cut-and-dried prosecutor. He likes to look into legal questions about whether laws were violated. I suppose you could say he's broadened his probe a little bit in that he hasn't brought any charges in connection with that original leak. Instead, he's charged Mr. Libby with lying to investigators, with obstructing the investigation and with perjury. But I don't think that Mr. Fitzgerald is interested in converting his investigation to sort of a broad examination of everything that went on in the lead-up to the war, because that would turn his investigation into a purely political football and he doesn't seem like that kind of guy that's interested in that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Josh, thank you very much.
JOSH GERSTEIN: Oh, my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Josh Gerstein is a national reporter for the New York Sun.