crooks.jpg(San Francisco Chronicle) President Bush can stop complaining about leaks of classified information for political motivation. A new court filing suggests the president himself authorized the release of classified prewar intelligence about Iraq to discredit administration critics. The White House had two reactions to the revelation — neither of which is acceptable in our democracy.

Mystech: Can we impeach this guy yet or do we have to wait till he’s eating babies and bathing in the blood of kittens?

The official word from the White House press secretary was no comment about a serious allegation of an administration using the state secrets it possesses to silence a critic. The other response, which may foretell the administration’s legalistic response to this tangled mess, came from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. He told a congressional committee that the president has the “inherent authority to decide who should have classified information.”

In other words, by definition, the president can leak anything he wants, for whatever reason he wants.

Perhaps that defense will hold up in a court of law, but Americans deserve better from a president who feigned indignation at the notion that someone in his administration might unveil the identity of war critic Joseph Wilson’s wife — a CIA agent — for political purposes. In June 2004, Bush had suggested he would fire anyone in his administration that leaked the identity of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame. A year later, Bush amended his vow slightly in declaring that anyone who committed a crime in the CIA leak case will “no longer work in my administration.”

The distinction drawn by Bush appears consequential in light of the statements to prosecutors by Scooter Libby, the indicted former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby told investigators he was given the green light by Cheney — with the president’s blessing — to “disclose the relevant portions” of a then-classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq.

The court filing does not say that Bush and Cheney specifically authorized the outing of Plame’s CIA identity. Nevertheless, the selective release of classified information for crass political motivation — in this case, apparently, to discredit Wilson, a career diplomat who was presenting devastating evidence of the administration’s flawed pretext for war — would be a serious abuse of power.

Libby is charged with five counts of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI — so there is reason to question his credibility. He is scheduled to go to trial in January.

The court filing suggests that Libby’s defense will be that he was just following orders when he gave sensitive national-security information to a New York Times reporter.

The Republican-controlled Congress may be reluctant to investigate their president, but it has a higher calling in our democracy. Americans should not have to wait for the January trial to find out whether their president was playing a game of semantics when he declared that anyone who committed the “crime” of breaching national secrets was unfit to serve in the White House.