At the very least, it's an embarrassment for an administration that prides itself on secrecy: Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, says that the president himself authorized leaking a classified document to make the case that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program. Of course, the president is legally entitled to do this: Anytime the commander in chief wants to release something, it is automatically declassified.
But legality is not really the issue here. The issue is, of course, hypocrisy: This is an administration that refused to release the names of those participating in the energy task force, that did not inform all of the appropriate members about the NSA wiretaps, and that surprised Congress with the Dubai ports deal. Secrecy has been a trademarkexcept now, for when it suited political purposes.
Remember the situation back in July 2003 (that's when Libby was given permission by his bosses to leak). The White House was playing defense, big time. The search for the supposed weapons of mass destruction had come up empty, and Ambassador Joe Wilson had written a New York Times op-ed excoriating the administration for exaggerating the evidence on WMD. Wilson's piece was taken as a personal affront to Cheney (since he wrote that Cheney had sent him to Niger to investigate Iraq's WMD issue). This was damage control time, and Libby had been chosen to do it.
In one sense, it's what every White House has done: fight back. But there's another question, raised to me by Jeff Smith, a former chief counsel for the CIA: Isn't leaking intelligence for political reasons a bad thing?
"One man's leak is another man's effort to get the truth out," he says. "When something is classified, it is supposed to remain classified until there is a thoughtful and measured analysis of whether it may be declassified and released."
In this case, it was about politics. And George W. Bush would be the first one to say that isn't the way it's supposed to happen.