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McClellan Spars with Reporters: When is a Leak Not a Leak?

Editor and Publisher | April 8 2006

NEW YORK To no one's surprise, least of all White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, today's briefing for reporters was dominated by questions about the latest revelations in the CIA leak case, with the president being tied more closely to it than ever before.

Here are the relevant portions of the transcript.

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Q Back when the NIE was released on July 18, 2003, you were asked that day when that had been actually declassified. And you said in that gaggle that it had been declassified that day. And if that's the case, then when the information was passed on to the reporter 10 days earlier, then it was still classified at that time.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think you're referring -- a couple of things. First of all, it was publicly released that day, so that's when a portion of the National Intelligence Estimate that we were making available to the public was released. The second part of your question is referring to an ongoing legal proceeding, and referring to a filing in that legal proceeding. We have had a policy in place, going back to the October time period of 2003, that we are not going to comment on an ongoing investigation or an ongoing legal proceeding. That policy remains unchanged.

But let me point out a couple of facts, step back from this legal proceeding. The President of the United States has the authority to declassify information. I also indicated to some reporters earlier today that the President would never authorize the disclosure of information that he felt could compromise our nation's security. Now, the National Intelligence Estimate was declassified -- portions of it were declassified. We made sure that we did not -- that we continued to protect sensitive sources and methods within the National Intelligence Estimate....

Q I understand the reason why you thought it needed to be declassified, because of the debate at the time. The question was, when was it declassified. And you were asked that day, when -- the question was, "When was it actually declassified?" And you said, "It was officially declassified today."

If it had been officially declassified on July 18, 2003, then 10 days before, when the information was given out, it was still classified at the time.

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, you're going back to an assertion that is made in a filing related to an ongoing legal proceeding when you talk about the second part of your question. There is no way for me to separate that question and talk about this issue without discussing an ongoing legal proceeding. And I can't do that. We have a policy that's been established, and I'm obligated to adhere to that policy.

Q But answer the question, it's a factual question.

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, but you can't separate that question from the legal proceeding --

Q Was it declassified that day --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- because of one of the assertions that was made in the filing.

Well, you can go back and look at comments that were made at that time. That was when it was --

Q Those were your comments.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- that was when it was publicly released at the time. I haven't looked back at exactly what was said at that time.

Q Well, let's be really clear about this. It says right here on July 18th, "When was it actually declassified?" Mr. McClellan, answer, "It was officially declassified today." Is that correct?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, you're asking me to get into the timing. I'm not backing away from anything that was said previously -- that's when the document was released, so that's when it officially --

Q They don't say "released." They say "declassify."

MR. McCLELLAN: I know, Jim. Let me tell you. That's when it was officially released. So I think that's what I was referring to at the time. I'd have to go back and look at the specific comments, but I'm not changing anything that was said previously, so let me make that clear.

Q But if you were --

MR. McCLELLAN: Now, secondly, the question you're going to, again, relates to the timing of when certain information was declassified --

Q I'm not going to that question --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, but there's no way you can separate that question out from the ongoing legal proceeding --

Q Scott, you are very careful with your words here. I think if you wanted to say "released," you would have said "released." You said, "declassified."

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay.

Q Well, what does that tell --

MR. McCLELLAN: That's when the information was released publicly.

Q Scott, did you not know --

MR. McCLELLAN: But there was --

Q That's not what --

MR. McCLELLAN: Now, for the National Intelligence Estimate, Jim, it did go through a declassification process; you are correct. And the information was carefully looked at by the intelligence community before the portions of the National Intelligence Estimate were made available to the public --

Q But, Scott, you said, "declassified." If it's declassified on that day, it wasn't declassified before. And you're saying you're sticking to -- you're not taking back anything you said before, and what you said that day is it was officially declassified.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'd be glad to take a look at exactly what I said, and I'll do that.

Q You didn't say -- I mean, we've got that here --

MR. McCLELLAN: I can't do that here in this room right now, but I'll be glad to take a look at it --

Q Then why are you saying you're not backing up from anything if you --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, what I'm saying is that -- I think what I was referring to is the fact that that was when it was made available to the public. So all that information is officially declassified at that point.

Q Then why are you saying you won't back off anything you said before if, in fact, we have transcripts here where you say that's when it was officially declassified? Are you still saying that's when it was officially declassified?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's when it was made available to the public. So it's officially --

Q When was it officially declassified?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- so it's officially declassified at that point. I think we're talking past each other a little bit. I'll have to go back and look at the specific transcript -- and I'll be glad to do that -- and we can talk about it further later.

Q Okay. When was it officially declassified?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, in terms of the timing of when information may have been declassified, that gets into a question relating to the legal proceeding in a filing that was made by Mr. Fitzgerald earlier this week.

Q What were you referring to on July 18th, then? Was that the official release, or official declassification?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's what I'll have to check. I'll have to go back and look. But my sense is, and my recollection is -- while we're sitting here talking about it is -- I was referring to the fact that was when it was officially declassified for the public.

Q Scott --

Q Can I just -- one more here. In terms of releasing information and leaks, you know the President has been highly critical of people who leak --

MR. McCLELLAN: Absolutely.

Q -- not just classified material. He has said in the fall of 2003, "I've constantly expressed my displeasure with leaks." Now, whether the argument from the administration is he declassified this, so it wasn't classified information -- I know you're not going the get to the legal issues here -- but he has criticized people who leak, not just classified information. And there were clearly leaks coming out of this White House --

MR. McCLELLAN: What was the context of my comments -- about leaking of classified information, I believe.

Q He was asked about leaking classified information, but the President said, "I've constantly expressed my displeasure with leaks." Not just classified information. He says "particularly leaks."

MR. McCLELLAN: The President believes the leaking of classified information is a very serious matter. And I think that's why it's important to draw a distinction here. Declassifying information and providing it to the public, when it is in the public interest, is one thing. But leaking classified information that could compromise our national security is something that is very serious. And there is a distinction.

Now, there are Democrats out there that fail to recognize that distinction, or refuse to recognize that distinction. They are simply engaging in crass politics. Let's make clear what the distinction is.

Q He said, "displeasure with leaks," not just classified leaks, though, Scott.

Q Scott, can I follow on that for a second. Because in December of 2003, to follow on this, he says, "If there's a leak out of the administration, I want to know who it is." Now, is there a question -- we're not talking about legality here -- while he's saying that, according to the court filing -- which I know you can't get into the specifics of -- but as he's saying it, he certainly is aware who would have allowed the information to be disseminated. So, at best, isn't the statement "If there's a leak out of the administration, I want to know who it is" -- at best, isn't that just inconsistent, if not misleading?

MR. McCLELLAN: Absolutely not. That's referring to the leaking of classified information.

Q Only the leaking of classified information. He doesn't --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that in the context of what that question was responding to --

Q So what about if it's a political? And if it's in political -- if there's a political purpose to it, then it's fine?

MR. McCLELLAN: If it's in the public interest, it's another matter. And the National Intelligence Estimate was declassified because it was in the public interest to provide portions of that National Intelligence Estimate to the American people. As I said, there were people that were out there making irresponsible accusations that intelligence was manipulated or that intelligence was misused. There has been no evidence to back that up whatsoever. And if you look at the National Intelligence Estimate, Jim -- you weren't here at the time, but some others in this room were -- it shows the collective judgment of the intelligence community.

And then you go back and look at the bipartisan Robb-Silberman commission, and they said there is no evidence of political pressure on the intelligence analysts. You go back and look at the Butler report. The Butler report said that there was no evidence of deliberate distortion. You go back and look at the Senate Intelligence Committee report, they say they did not find any evidence that administration officials attempted to coerce, influence or pressure analysts to change their judgments.

So this was part of the debate that was going on at that time in the public. And so it was in the public interest that information be declassified.

Q I understand that. My only question is --

MR. McCLELLAN: And this information, too -- and another distinction. This was pre-war intelligence we're talking about. So it was historical context that was being provided, not information that could compromise our nation's security.

Q My only question is looking ahead, when he then says, "I want to know who the leaker" was -- doesn't he know, since he authorized the disclosure of the information?

MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, go back and look at the filing that was made by Mr. Fitzgerald, because Mr. Fitzgerald talks about that very issue in his filing and contradicts what you're suggesting...

Q All right, let's talk about the politics of this.

MR. McCLELLAN: But that doesn't get into the issue of when everything was declassified.

Q The purpose of releasing portions of this clearly had a political implication for the administration. There is a debate going on, and you wanted to counter that debate. And, yet, you're criticizing Democrats, saying that they are engaging in crass politics for saying that they're -- that this was leaking. How do you not see that there was a --

MR. McCLELLAN: For the reasons I stated. That's a very good question. Let's talk about the distinction. There is a difference between leaking classified information that could compromise sources and methods, which could be harmful to our nation's security. The terrorist surveillance program is a prime example. There was an unauthorized disclosure of this vital program that is helping to prevent attacks and save American lives. This is a program that is aimed at intercepting international communications involving known al Qaeda members or suspected al Qaeda affiliates. And it is vital to our nation's interest.

General Hayden, the number-two man in our intelligence community, said its disclosure is harmful to our nation's security. So there is a clear distinction here. Democrats refuse to recognize that distinction. That is engaging in crass politics.

On the issue of the National Intelligence Estimate, that is something that was in the public interest that it be disclosed because there is a lot of debate going on. And we will vigorously set the record straight when people are putting out misinformation or trying to suggest things that simply are not true.

Helen, go ahead.

Q Did the President know that Joe Wilson was married to a CIA agent before Novak revealed it?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, this goes to -- go back and look at previous comments, but this goes to an ongoing legal proceeding, and I would encourage you --

Q Did he know? It's a simple question.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- I would encourage you to go and look at the filing that was made just the other night, because Mr. Fitzgerald touches on that subject in the filing.

Q You mean the President did not know?

MR. McCLELLAN: Helen, I can't get into discussing an ongoing legal proceeding, and that's a question relating to the ongoing legal proceeding.

Q I think it's a very simple, important question.

Q This inevitably leads to the conclusion that you are not disputing the allegation that the President was involved in the leaking -- or authorized the leaking of classified information. Are you satisfied with that? And is that really in the interests of the American people?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not getting into confirming or denying things, because I'm not commenting at all on matters relating to an ongoing legal proceeding.

Q Scott, just a --

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me come back to you. Elaine, go ahead.

Q Scott, let me ask you about the issue of credibility. Isn't the fact that you're up here having to vigorously defend and make the distinction between what some people see as leaking and what you are saying, from what I understand, is the sharing of information to provide historical context -- isn't that illustrative of the fact that the President's credibility has been damaged by it?

MR. McCLELLAN: The Democrats have a credibility problem when they try to suggest that we were manipulating intelligence, or that this is about something other than what I just said. That's crass politics. And they're the ones who have an issue when it comes to what you bring up....

Q Can I just go back to this original statement that the President said about, "I constantly express my displeasure with leaks, particularly leaks of classified information" -- leaving the impression he doesn't like any leaks. Can you give us an idea how the President feels about leaking information, since if this information --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think we have to draw distinctions here, and what specifically you're referring to. I mean, if people are going out there talking about a potential policy decision-making process that is still in development and that the President hasn't come to a decision on, then that's not helpful information, and of course we'd look down on something like that.

Q But otherwise, if it's helpful to you and it's declassified, leaks are okay?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, if it's in the public interest.

Q Leaks are okay?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I didn't say that.

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