WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush did not know about a White House effort to leak the identity of a CIA agent but tried to protect staffers who were involved in one of the biggest scandals of his administration, former Bush spokesman Scott McClellan told Congress on Friday.
McClellan said he did not think Bush was involved in a 2003 effort to blow the cover of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson, whose husband had accused the administration of twisting intelligence to justify the Iraq war.
But Bush, through his chief of staff, ordered McClellan to tell reporters that White House staffers Karl Rove and Lewis “Scooter” Libby were not behind the leak, even though they both turned out to be involved, McClellan told the House Judiciary Committee.
Vice President Dick Cheney’s involvement in the leak might have been greater, McClellan said.
“I do not think the president in any way had knowledge about it,” McClellan told lawmakers. “In terms of the vice president, I do not know. There is a lot of suspicion there.”
McClellan, who was White House spokesman between 2003 and 2006, recently released a book that accuses the White House of conducting a propaganda campaign to make the case to invade Iraq. He says Libby and Rove deceived him about their role in the Plame leak.
McClellan said Bush should fully explain what he knew about the leak and how he decided to invade Iraq. The White House was “less than candid and less than honest” as it made its case for war, he said.
McClellan’s book, released last month, caused an uproar in Washington and raised new questions about whether Bush and Cheney directed staffers to smear war critics, like Plame’s husband, and then block a subsequent investigation.
That investigation ultimately led to a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for Libby, Cheney’s top aide, on obstruction and perjury charges. Bush, who had promised to fire anyone involved in the leak, commuted Libby’s sentence.
“Concerns about possible obstruction of justice are not trivial and clearly warrant this committee’s attention,” said committee chairman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat.
Several Democrats on the committee called for Bush’s impeachment, an idea party leaders have rejected.
“You are the first high official in this administration to come before this Congress and offer us a glimpse into the truth,” Florida Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler said.
Republicans and the White House have harshly criticized McClellan for writing the book and then discussing his conclusions in a series of TV appearances.
“I think Scott has probably told everyone everything he doesn’t know, so I don’t know if anyone should expect him to say anything new today,” current White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.
The hearing highlighted the former insider’s pariah status as the harshest questioning came from his fellow Republicans.
The committee’s top Republican, Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, questioned McClellan’s motives and said he had sold out Bush “for a few pieces of silver.”
That drew an objection from McClellan’s attorney.
Other Republicans suggested that McClellan had been manipulated by liberal book publishers and said he should have spoken up while at the White House, rather than waiting to release a book during an election year.
Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King said McClellan should have simply kept his mouth shut.
“From an integrity standpoint, could you not have taken some of this to the grave with you and done this country a favor?” King asked.
McClellan said his book accurately represented his views. Going public with his doubts has not been easy, he said.
“You find out who your true friends are in a time like this,” he said.
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by David Alexander