Was It Illegal for President Bush to Leak Classified Secrets to Bob Woodward?

Fact & Fiction

In a recent article in the Nation, Eric Alterman stated flatly that President Bush had broken the law when he personally leaked classified secrets to Bob Woodward after 9-11. Alterman wrote:

In his most recent book, Bush at War, Bob Woodward brags that he was given access to the deeply classified minutes of National Security Council meetings. He also noted, not long ago, that the President sat for lengthy interviews, often speaking candidly about classified information. This surprised even Woodward, who observed, "Certainly Richard Nixon would not have allowed reporters to question him like that. Bush's father wouldn't allow it. Clinton wouldn't allow it.'' But George W. Bush does it--breaking the law in the process--and nobody seems to care.

President Nixon famously stated during the Watergate era that when a president does something that means it's not illegal. The courts disagreed and Nixon was forced to resign. But was Alterman correct in his assessment of President Bush's culpability? HNN asked Steven Aftergood, editor of Secrecy News, a newsletter published by the Federation of American Scientists, what he thinks. He told us that Alterman's conclusion that Bush had violated the law "can't be taken at face value," adding, "though I suppose it is within an opinion columnist's editorial license." He went on:

There are several specific categories of classified information that are protected by statute -- communications intelligence, identities of covert agents, nuclear weapons design information, and some others. Those statutes are binding on the executive branch as well as on everyone else.

But most classified information is not protected by law. Instead, its classified status derives from the president's constitutional authority as commander in chief. He has full authority to declassify and disclose it as he sees fit.

The numerous disclosures of classified information made to Woodward probably did not violate the specific statutory prohibitions. (I didn't examine them carefully with this question in mind.)

But what is offensive is that the documents provided to Woodward are still not available to you or me. If they were declassified, fine-- let's have a look at them. But by handing classified documents over to Woodward on a selective basis, Administration officials probably did not break the law. What they did was to undermine the integrity of the whole classification system.

Is leaking the identity of a CIA operative illegal? Yes, under the terms of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, though some have argued that not even the disclosure of Valerie Plame's identity was a crime. (See Jack Shafer, "Stop the Investigation! Exactly what law did Robert Novak's leakers break?" Slate).

But Aftergood previously has noted that leaks by themselves are not necessarily harmful to democracy, though clearly in Plame's it was. "For better and for worse," he observed, "they are an essential component of the overall economy of news and government information. In many cases, leaks are the most expeditious remedy to arbitrary or irrational government information policies."


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Jon Koppenhoefer - 10/31/2003

I am not so pleased at the prospect of President George W. Bush selectively disclosing classified information to a news reporter and refusing to share such information with the public.

Bob Woodward--the reporter in question--was not bound to keep the information from the public, but used it in a book for which he was paid a considerable sum. I'm not sure why Bush shared such information with Woodward, but I'm inclined to believe it was for personal and/or political reasons, and not out of some deliberate consideration of national security.

I do not hold Bush's intellect in high regard, and with so little experience in public service--his career as Governor of Texas notwithstanding--he may not have mastered the national security classification protocols even yet. At any rate, I don't think that sharing such information--as if it were proprietary in nature--is appropriate, certainly not to effect some desired result in a reporter's book.

Don Williams - 10/31/2003

I am part way through Woodward's book and I find it disgusting how
a once-great journalist is willing to bury his nose in Bush's rectum just so he can be "connected". This whoredom by the press --this unwillingless to subject the Administration to strict
observation --is greatly harming the country. The press is helping to deceive the citizens.

There are major holes in Woodward's chronicle --must of it evidently due to the fact that he's not as smart as he thinks he is. There is no discussion of what US actions motivated Al Qaeda
and what caused the Sept 11 attack. NONE.

There is NO discussion of the potential harm to US national security caused by Bush's unilateralist "You're with us or you're against us" doctrine --including the likelihood of creating far more powerful enemies than Al Qaeda/Bin Ladin.

In fact, Woodward's entire uncritical, unthinking approach seems to be what characterizes American journalism nowdays --to suck up to the mighty for the privilege of writing down whatever line of misleading bullshit the mighty are purveying this week.

I'm at page 122 in Woodward's book and I've seen no discussion of the business and political agendas involved. No mention of Cheney's decade long effort to get Houston oil companies access to the Caspian Sea oil deposits.

Woodward talks about Wolfowitz immediately trying to manipulate America's initial response to Sept 11 into an attack on Iraq but does not discuss the benefits to Israel or the huge sums pumped into US politics by some wealthy supporters of Israel.

Given that this well-dressed, has-been clown is a managing editor at the Washington Post it's no wonder that US voters mostly hear politically spun bullshit.

John Cuepublic - 10/27/2003

Subjecting arcane legalistic nuances to the profundity of NYGuy will enlighten no one.

NYGuy - 10/27/2003

Did Woodward sell out his jouralistic integrity to get a story. It seems Eric Alterman thinks he did and the reason, which probably applies to all Washington newsmen, and probably even Eric, is:

"Why? Because Woodward plays ball--he reports Bush & Co.'s actions in the same heroic, comic-book cadences they use themselves. Moreover, he doesn't bother weighing any competing claims or seeking to determine whether anything he is spoon-fed might actually be true."

The question: Is this really news. As the Clinton apologists said during his trials: "Everyone does it." Whether sex or the media it is all the same.