WASHINGTON — Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan blames President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for efforts to mislead the public about the role of White House aides in leaking the identity of a CIA operative.
In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, McClellan recounts the 2003 news conference in which he told reporters that aides Karl Rove and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby were "not involved" in the leak involving operative Valerie Plame.
"There was one problem. It was not true," McClellan writes, according to a brief excerpt released Tuesday. "I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest-ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice president, the president's chief of staff and the president himself."
Bush's chief of staff at the time was Andrew Card.
The excerpt, posted on the Web site of publisher PublicAffairs, renews questions about what went on in the West Wing and how much Bush and Cheney knew about the leak. For years, it was McClellan's job to field _ and often duck _ those types of questions.
Now that he's spurring them, answers are equally hard to come by.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said it wasn't clear what McClellan meant in the excerpt. "The president has not and would not ask his spokespeople to pass on false information," she said.
Plame issued a statement saying the opposite.
"I am outraged to learn that former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan confirms that he was sent out to lie to the press corps," Plame said. "Even more shocking, McClellan confirms that not only Karl Rove and Scooter Libby told him to lie but Vice President Cheney, presidential Chief of Staff Andrew Card and President Bush also ordered McClellan to issue his misleading statement."
McClellan turned down interview requests Tuesday.
Plame maintains the White House quietly outed her to reporters. Plame and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, said the leak was retribution for his public criticism of the Iraq war. The accusation dogged the administration and made Plame a cause celebre among many Democrats.
McClellan's book, "What Happened," isn't due out until April, and the excerpt released Monday was merely a teaser. It doesn't get into detail about how Bush and Cheney were involved or reveal what happened behind the scenes.
Yet the teaser provided enough fodder for administration critics.
"Just when you think the credibility of this White House can't get any lower, another shoe drops," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "If the Bush administration won't even tell the truth to its official spokesman, how can the American people expect to be told the truth either?"
In the fall of 2003, after authorities began investigating the leak, McClellan told reporters that he'd personally spoken to Rove, who was Bush's top political adviser, and Libby, who was Cheney's chief of staff.
"They're good individuals, they're important members of our White House team, and that's why I spoke with them, so that I could come back to you and say that they were not involved," McClellan said at the time.
Both men, however, were involved. Rove was one of the original sources for the newspaper column that identified Plame. Libby also spoke to reporters about the CIA officer and was convicted of lying about those discussions. He is the only person to be charged in the case.
Since that news conference, however, the official White House stance has shifted and it has been difficult to get a clear picture of what happened behind closed doors around the time of the leak.
McClellan's flat denials gave way to a steady drumbeat of "no comment." And Bush's original pledge to fire anyone involved in the leak became a promise to fire anyone who "committed a crime."
In a CNN interview earlier this year, McClellan made no suggestion that Bush knew either Libby or Rove was involved in the leak. McClellan said his statements to reporters were what he and the president "believed to be true at the time based on assurances that we were both given."
Bush most recently addressed the issue in July after commuting Libby's 30-month prison term. He acknowledged that some in the White House were involved in the leak. Then, after repeatedly declining to discuss the ongoing investigation, he said the case was closed and it was time to move on.
Associated Press writer Jennifer Loven contributed to this report.