President Bush said yesterday that he ordered the release of classified information in 2003 to prove his reasons for the Iraq war were legitimate - a striking assertion for a leader who has made secrecy one of the trademarks of his administration, analysts said.

Bush's account of why he declassified a July 2003 intelligence report suggests that the president, usually as unapologetic about his decisions as he is tight-lipped about the internal workings of his White House, feels the need to justify the action he took to bolster his case for the war.

"His default mechanism is to do things the way he wants to and not feel a need to explain, but he's prepared to fall back now and make more modest demands," said presidential historian Fred Greenstein of Princeton University.

"He knows the days are over when he can just wave a wand and get what he wants."

Defends decision
Bush, under fire for allegations that he leaked classified information to rebut war critics, defended his decision to declassify the report, an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that mentioned Iraq's push to acquire nuclear weapons.

He said he wanted "people to see the truth" of his prewar claims.

"I thought it was important for people to get a better sense for why I was saying what I was saying in my speeches. And I felt I could do so without jeopardizing ongoing intelligence matters. So I did," Bush told students and foreign policy analysts at the Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

Bush was accused last week in court filings related to the CIA leak investigation of making a rare unilateral declassification to bolster his case for invading Iraq. Special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald said in the filing that Bush authorized top aides to use the declassified information, which was leaked by I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, to a New York Times reporter.

Bush said yesterday that he could not talk about the investigation. And he sidestepped a question from a student about whether there was a "concerted White House effort to punish" Joseph Wilson IV, a former diplomat who publicly questioned Bush's war justification.

Instead, the president described his decision to publicize intelligence that appeared to support his rationale for invading Iraq.

"After we liberated Iraq, there was questions in people's minds, you know, about the basis on which I made statements - in other words, going into Iraq," Bush said during a lengthy question-and-answer session.

"And so I decided to declassify the [report] for a reason. I wanted people to see what some of those statements were based on."

The explanation was a grudging one that reflected "the larger pattern of this administration's inability to convince the public of the necessity for war once it turns ugly," said Richard H. Kohn, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill specialist in presidential war leadership.

"The irony and the sad part of this is that he didn't do it when full explanations, complete explanations, and convincing explanations could provide a basis of public support for the war in Iraq - at this point, it's too little and too late," Kohn said.

Some analysts regarded the explanation as consistent with Bush's expansive view of presidential power.

Bush and his aides "treat classified material as a matter of their discretion," invoking top-secret status when they don't want to answer questions about their policies and divulging it selectively "when it suits their aims," said James Mann, author in residence at the Nitzke School, who has written a history of Bush's foreign policy advisers.

The latest revelations in the leak investigation don't suggest that Bush was involved in the unmasking of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, the Central Intelligence Agency analyst whose 2003 outing touched off the probe.

Still, they cast an uncomfortable glare on Bush, who has spoken out forcefully against those who divulge details of the inner workings of his White House or internal discussions there.

Credibility ebbs
The episode could hasten a steady erosion in Bush's credibility on Iraq and his ability to rally public support for the war, said Christopher Gelpi, a public opinion specialist at Duke University.

"One of the strongest points that Bush had going for him was his consistency, that he's often said, 'You may not like what I say, but at least you know where I stand,'" Gelpi said. "This is one in a chain, which is becoming a larger chain of events, that make it less likely that people will believe what he has to say about Iraq."

Gelpi caught the attention of Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, in 2004, after he and Peter D. Feaver, a Duke political scientist later hired by the White House, published a study showing that the American public would support a war with U.S. casualties as long as they had confidence it would succeed.

Now, Gelpi said, Bush appears to be losing a key ingredient in instilling that trust.

"He's largely lost the presidential leadership lever, if you will, of propping up public opinion on Iraq," Gelpi said.

julie.davis@baltsun.com