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A Call for Straight Talk: Bush's credibility is at stake over leak 07:33 AM CDT on Friday, April 7, 2006

The revelations yesterday from the Scooter Libby perjury trial are not a legal bombshell for the Bush White House. Politically well, that's another story.

If Mr. Libby's testimony is accurate, the president of the United States authorized the leak of classified information a practice he has long said he finds repugnant and then misled the public about having been involved in the disclosure.

If true, this calls into question Mr. Bush's forthrightness on this issue. The court documents released yesterday do not indicate whether the president ordered the disclosure of former CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity as part of a broader initiative to discredit her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had made damaging allegations about the Iraq war strategy. Nevertheless, the Libby testimony puts Mr. Bush at the head of a chain of events that resulted in exactly that.

Because he has the right to declassify information, Mr. Bush is not in legal jeopardy. In turn, if Mr. Libby is being truthful, he technically broke no law when he relayed this information to reporters. The "controlling legal authority," to dredge up an old Al Gore phrase, approved of the whole thing.

But a legalistic defense will not help Mr. Bush politically. After "Plamegate" became a hot issue, Mr. Bush publicly vowed to fire anyone in the White House found to have leaked Ms. Plame's name. Last summer, he adjusted his stance slightly, saying, "I would like this to end as quickly as possible so we know the facts. And if someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration."

If Mr. Libby is telling the truth, Mr. Bush's previous condemnations of leaks ring as true as Claude Rains' cynical claim in Casablanca to be shocked, shocked that gambling was going on in Rick's.

Certainly, message manipulation has been a tool of White Houses dating back to our first presidents. But Mr. Bush currently faces tremendous credibility issues. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that only 40 percent of Americans believe he is trustworthy, and his approval rating has sunk to 33 percent the lowest of his presidency.

The president needs to have a talk with the American people. A straight one. "First of all, that is not the way this White House operates. The President expects everyone in his administration to adhere to the highest standards of conduct. No one would be authorized to do such a thing." - White House press secretary Scott McLellan, when asked by reporters on September 29, 2003, if anyone in the White House was involved in leaking CIA agent Valerie Plame's name to the press.

``If somebody committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration. It's best that people wait until the investigation is complete before you jump to conclusions." - President George W. Bush, July 18, 2004