The late and greatly missed John P. Roche told the following story of his days in the Johnson White House. In 1968, former assistant secretary of State for the Far East Roger Hilsman came out with a book, To Move a Nation, in which he made himself out to be one of the Cassandras of the Kennedy/Johnson administrations, vainly warning all along that America’s strategy in Vietnam was a mistake.
John Roche, having read the classified-cable traffic from the early days of the conflict forward, knew that this was baloney. During his days at State Hilsman was a hawk in good standing. JPR sent a collection of choice documents to LBJ with a note saying, “Should I check with Dean Rusk about getting these leaked, or declassified, so to speak?” Shortly thereafter he was summoned to the Oval Office.
“This is dreadful; this guy [Hilsman] is a liar,” the president said. “What’ll we do?”
“Well, declassify them,” John replied.
“Who can declassify them?” LBJ said.
“I don’t know, can’t you declassify them?” John said, “You’re president of the United States; I don’t know who the hell can. I can’t.” So LBJ dubbed them declassified and John wrote on them, “Declassified by Authority of the President of the United States.” The information was transmitted to the press, and after John left the White House, he wrote several articles under his own byline using the documents to set the record straight.
Even for those (like me) who resist the Vietnam/Iraq analogy there are striking parallels to revelations in the Scooter Libby court documents that declassified sections of (presumably) the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate for Iraq were leaked to Judith Miller to discredit Joseph Wilson. If nothing else, President Johnson established a precedent for the timely declassification of select documents that cast doubt on the claims of former government employees exploiting the legitimacy conferred by their previous positions to misrepresent the facts.
It is odd that the president’s critics are taking umbrage that this release of declassified material was intended to discredit Wilson. Of course it was. What else could it be? Wilson was defaming the administration by saying that the president was a liar, in particular regarding the claim in the 2003 State of the Union address that Saddam Hussein’s regime was seeking to acquire uranium in Africa. Wilson based this charge on the knowledge he had acquired during his February 2002 mission to Niger. He considered his information dispositive, and went public in July 2003. So the administration chose to fight back with the facts. They really had no other choice.
Since the summer of 2003, we have learned more about Wilson’s credibility. His mission to Niger was doomed from the start. It was cursory, unsystematic, and most importantly overt–everyone he spoke to knew he was working for the U.S. government, thus would hardly be likely to admit they were engaging in illegal activities. The CIA report on Wilson’s mission stated that it “did not provide substantial new information.” Wilson gave the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigating prewar intelligence an exaggerated sense of the significance of his findings, but admitted that he “mis-spoken” to the press about what he had learned. His comments since then have been frequently conflicting, the only constant being his central role in these events, and his general importance to world affairs. The Senate committee concluded that it was not wrong of the CIA to try to exploit Wilson’s alleged access in Niger, but considered it “unfortunate” that given the vast array of tools available to the Agency, spouse-on-junket was the “only option available.”
So if the administration had information in an NIE that demonstrated conclusively that President Bush was not twisting the facts, and declassifying portions of it did not endanger ongoing operations (and how could it, three months after the fall of Baghdad?), then why should it not be declassified and released? The president had the legal authority to do so, either through Executive Order 13292, or the powers inherent in the office (the LBJ standard). So long as protocols were followed, there was no impropriety. Moreover, the motive, to prove Wilson’s charges groundless, was completely legitimate. It was not, as some have charged, a political purpose, it was defending of the integrity of the executive office.
The administration’s error, if anything, was using press leaks to distribute the information. Leaks, while a way of life in Washington, are still disreputable. Rather than fighting the battle through favored intermediaries, an opinion piece written by, for example, the vice president, or a high-profile press release would have been more effective. Perhaps they felt that responding directly would have unduly raised Wilson’s profile. But face it–the guy was writing in the New York Times. Someone probably saw it.
One hopes the president’s team will seize the high ground on this issue. If he authorized the release of the information, he should come right out and say so. President Bush is at his best when he takes the offensive. And when a man is calling you a liar, you are never required to just sit there and take it.
–James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.