04/10/2006 01:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Secretly Not Secret: So George Told Dick to Tell Scooter to Tell Judy...

As usual, I'm confused. Bear with me while I try to work through this.

On July 8, 2003, Scooter Libby told Judy Miller stuff that was in the classified October 2002 National Security Estimate. On July 12, 2003, he passed similar information to Matt Cooper. But Libby claimed in sworn testimony -- which the White House does not contradict -- that Vice President Cheney told him that President Bush authorized the release of the classified October 2002 national security estimate to rebut the nasty things that Ambassador Joe Wilson and a British Parliamentary inquiry were saying about the case for invading Iraq. So, President Bush and Vice President Cheney sent Libby out to leak state secrets to protect themselves from political discredit.

"Not so," says Scott McClellan. The estimate wasn't classified anymore when Libby spilled it to Judy and Matt. Once President Bush told Vice President Cheney to tell Scooter to tell Judy, the selected bits of information were declassified, because presidents, by definition, can't leak classified documents. Why not? Well, once the president gives permission to leak it, the document is automatically declassified; so its release is no longer a leak, but a revelation in the national interest. This would appear to be an instance covered under President Nixon's more general principle that "If the President does it, then it's not a crime."

So Libby legitimately briefed Judy Miller on the contents of the declassified intelligence estimate, because, as responsible citizens of a democracy, the public needed to have this information. But I'm still confused, because back in July 2003, ten days or so after Scooter acted on the President's order by divulging unclassified information to Judy, Scott McClellan announced that President Bush would declassify and release a version of the October 2002 national security estimate. So if, when Libby, under orders from Bush, relayed to him by Cheney, discussed the document with Judy and Matt, it was still classified. Presidents can leak classified material, after all.

"No," says Scott, because when the President authorized Libby to discuss the intelligence estimate it was de facto declassified, even though the fact of the declassification and the paper itself were not released to the public for ten days. Here's the point where it gets really interesting to me, because this innovation suggests that the intelligence estimate spent ten days in the quasi-metaphysical category of a secretly declassified document. Let's spell that out: for ten days the White House kept it a secret that the document was no longer secret. One has to stand in awe of the conceptual power necessary not only to create but actually to think and live in the shadowy world of the secretly not secret.

However, the pleasure of meditating this conundrum is cut short by another question. What has all this to do with the exposing of Valerie Plame as a CIA operative -- the raison d'ětre of the Fitzgerald investigation? Because the briefing was not declassified in its entirety, only the juicy bits that Bush and Cheney thought we needed, positively needed, to know, were released. And these were but parts of a one-page summary of a 90-something-page document that no one other than those involved in writing and redacting it seems actually to have read at the time. Was Valerie Plame's name and relation to Joe Wilson a part of the original National Security Estimate for October 2002? Not likely. Was it mentioned in the executive summary parts of which were released in July 2003? Presumably no. So the Plame leak and the subsequent public release of the secretly not secret SIE had nothing to do with each other, right? No, not quite nothing. Libby (and Rove) got Plame's name from Cheney. Did Bush authorize this disclosure? Did Cheney using the authority vested in him by "an executive order to that effect" declassify Plame's status as a covert agent of the CIA? Since Libby had a security clearance of his own, I suppose Cheney could tell him classified stuff without declassifying it, though I'd be interested in hearing what in Libby's job description required him to know Plame's identity.

So let's say that Cheney told Libby but did not declassify the information. In the that case, Libby (and Rove) broke the law when they passed the information on to reporters. Or Bush and/or Cheney authorized Libby (and Rove) to divulge the secretly not secret information to reporters because it was vitally important for the American people to know that Valerie Plame both worked for the CIA and was married to Joe Wilson. How else could we perform our democratic responsibility of not wondering why our invading forces found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? In other words, in either case, to serve the narrow political interests of the Bush Administration, the identity of a covert intelligence agent was declassified and she and every one who had anything to do with her in the hostile foreign environments in which she had worked was put at risk. Or am I still missing something?

Well, have you heard about the weapons of mass destruction in Iran?