Washington The White House insisted Friday that President Bush did nothing wrong in authorizing a leak of prewar intelligence because he had allegedly declassified the secret information.
The White House was silent about the leak for almost 24 hours before spokesman Scott McClellan said the president - who has repeatedly trashed government leakers - slipped the information to the New York Times "in the public interest."
The furor over the leak erupted when court documents revealed that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, had told investigators that Bush had authorized him to leak parts of the CIA's secret National Intelligence Estimate to the Times.
McClellan argued Friday there was nothing wrong in what the president did because Bush had declassified the information.
"Declassifying information and providing it to the public when it is in the public interest is one thing," McClellan said.
"But leaking classified information that could compromise our national security is something that is very serious, and there's a distinction," he said.
McClellan was pressed on whether Bush leaked the information before it was declassified.
On July 18, 2003, McClellan had announced that parts of the National Intelligence Estimate had been declassified that day. But Libby testified before a grand jury that 10 days earlier he had been authorized by Bush and Cheney to leak the information.
McClellan declined to address the conflict between his and Libby's time line.
The leak came several months after the invasion of Iraq, as U.S. troops were unable to find any of the weapons of mass destruction that were a main reason for the war.