WASHINGTON -- Former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby has told a federal grand jury that his "superiors" authorized him to leak highly sensitive intelligence to journalists, including a New York Times reporter he allegedly tipped off to the name of an undercover CIA operative.
The revelation is contained in a Jan. 23 letter from special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald to lawyers for Libby, who was indicted last year in connection with the leak of the operative's name.
In the letter, Fitzgerald recounts testimony in which the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney admitted circulating portions of the National Intelligence Estimate to reporters in June and July 2003.
"It is our understanding that Mr. Libby testified that he was authorized to disclose information about the NIE to the press by his superiors," Fitzgerald wrote.
The letter did not identify those superiors, although Cheney was Libby's direct boss at the time.
The National Journal reported on its Web site yesterday that Cheney had authorized the disclosures.
The revelation that leaks had been authorized comes as the Bush administration has been quick to condemn others for failing to safeguard secrets since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Cheney has been among the most aggressive in lashing out against what officials have described as unauthorized leaks that have gravely hurt the country.
In a speech last night at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Cheney made no reference to the report of Libby's testimony.
But he renewed his sharp criticism of the leak that led to disclosures in December in The New York Times that the National Security Agency was monitoring the communications between people in the United States and suspected al-Qaida operatives outside the country without court warrants.
"The terrorist surveillance program was highly classified, and information about it was improperly given to the news media," the vice president said.
Noting that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales had appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, he added: "As the attorney general pointed out this week, it's easy to imagine America's enemies shaking their heads in amazement that anyone would disclose this information, thereby giving notice to those enemies and [endangering] national security, putting our citizens at risk. But that is what happened."
The surveillance program, he said, had helped prevent attacks and "remains essential" to U.S. security.
Lea Anne McBride, Cheney's press secretary, referred questions about the Libby letter to Fitzgerald's office.
She declined to discuss whether Cheney had been involved with the leaks, saying only, "We continue to cooperate fully with the investigation." A spokesman for Fitzgerald declined comment.
In late December, the Justice Department launched an aggressive leak investigation into media reports about the warrantless domestic surveillance program.
In another case, the CIA is believed to have asked Justice Department officials to probe the sources of a Washington Post report last year that the agency was operating a secret prison system for terror suspects in Europe.
The National Intelligence Estimates are reports that are meant to convey a consensus view in the intelligence community on issues confronting policymakers.
Portions of NIEs are sometimes declassified and made public.
Fitzgerald's letter did not specify the estimate that Libby shared with reporters or whether it was classified, and Fitzgerald has not charged Libby with disclosing classified information.
He said in the letter that he intended to introduce the testimony at Libby's trial, set for January 2007, as part of establishing a "narrative of the events" rather than to show that a crime was committed.
Fitzgerald wrote in the correspondence, which was part of a defense motion filed Jan. 31, that Libby had testified that he caused at least one other government official to discuss an intelligence estimate with reporters in July 2003.
One such report, produced in October 2002, was a foundation of the administration's flawed case for going to war in Iraq. It asserted that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons and was reconstituting his nuclear program.
Cheney was among the most ardent administration proponents of that viewpoint, although a report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence subsequently found that none of the claims was backed up by evidence.
Libby, 55, was indicted last October on charges of obstruction of justice, making false statements and perjury. Prosecutors contend that he lied to FBI agents and a federal grand jury about how he learned the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
The unmasking of Plame, in a July 2003 article by columnist Robert Novak, is related to the administration rationale for going to war in Iraq. Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, investigated allegations that Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium from Africa.
In a New York Times op-ed article published eight days before Novak's column appeared, he accused the administration of twisting intelligence about Iraq's nuclear capabilities.
Wilson's concerns, which had surfaced anonymously earlier that spring, were a source of frustration and irritation for Cheney and other officials.
Both Libby and Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, have acknowledged speaking with reporters about Plame in the days before Novak's column was published.
Libby testified that he first learned of Plame's identity from Tim Russert of NBC News, but Fitzgerald charged that the former aide had lied and that he had learned her identity independently and spread it around. Among the people who told Libby that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA was Cheney, the indictment of Libby alleges.
Fitzgerald said in his Jan. 23 letter that Libby testified that he met July 8, 2003, with Judith Miller of The New York Times to transmit information about the intelligence estimate.
Fitzgerald has separately alleged that at the same meeting, Libby advised Miller of his belief that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA.
Miller, who spent 85 days in jail before agreeing to testify about her meetings with Libby, has written that Fitzgerald asked her questions about Cheney including whether Libby had indicated that the interviews he had given her had been authorized by the vice president.
Miller said she was asked whether Libby indicated whether Cheney approved of his interviews with her, and she said "the answer was no."
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times. Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this article.