President Bush Orders Staff to Attend Ethics Briefings

President Bush has ordered his entire staff to attend remedial training in ethics and handling of sensitive information in light of the CIA leak investigation and charges against former vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby.

Bush Orders Staff to Attend Ethics Briefings (WaPo, A2)

President Bush has ordered White House staff to attend mandatory briefings beginning next week on ethical behavior and the handling of classified material after the indictment last week of a senior administration official in the CIA leak probe. According to a memo sent to aides yesterday, Bush expects all White House staff to adhere to the “spirit as well as the letter” of all ethics laws and rules. As a result, “the White House counsel’s office will conduct a series of presentations next week that will provide refresher lectures on general ethics rules, including the rules of governing the protection of classified information,” according to the memo, a copy of which was provided to The Washington Post by a senior White House aide.

The mandatory ethics primer is the first step Bush plans to take in coming weeks in response to the CIA leak probe that led to the indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff, and which still threatens Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff. Libby was indicted last week in connection with the two-year investigation. He resigned when the indictment was announced and on Thursday pleaded not guilty to charges of lying to federal investigators and a grand jury about his conversations with reporters.

A senior aide said Bush decided to mandate the ethics course during private meetings last weekend with Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and counsel Harriet Miers. Miers’s office will conduct the ethics briefings.

The meetings come as Bush faces increasing pressure from Democrats to revoke a security clearance for Rove as punishment for Rove’s role in unmasking to reporters a CIA operative whose husband was critical of the White House’s prewar assessment of Iraq’s weapons capabilities. The five-count indictment against Libby maintains that other government officials were aware of, if not involved in, leaking the identity of Valerie Plame to the media.

This is as embarrasing as it is pointless. Now, granted, it is not unusual to have refresher courses in the handling of classified information (DoD tends to require at least perfunctory training annually) but this is rather silly for officials at the highest level of government. Additionally, there are probably nuanced ethical issues that are unique to working in the White House that would not necessarily occur to even the most honorable people.

Still, people in their 50s who have been entrusted with presidential-level secrets and policy-making should be above reproach. If the president is not confident in their ethics or discretion, they should be relieved of their duties immediately.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ken says:

    Before serving his jail time Rove should have his security clearance pulled. He should have been fired from the WH staff years ago as Bush promised us he would fire anyong involved in the outing of Plame.

    I wonder if the FBI or the CIA can themselves remove Rove’s security clearance, or is that up to the White House? Anyone know?

  2. James Joyner says:

    I’m pretty sure a president can issue security clearances or, indeed, divulge classified information, to whoever he damned well pleases.

    Firing Rove may well be the right thing to do, however, for a variety of reasons.

  3. Bithead says:

    I disagree.
    Firing Rove would be the worst thing he could do.

    And these remedial courses are a close second.

  4. Barry says:

    James: “I’m pretty sure a president can issue security clearances or, indeed, divulge classified information, to whoever he damned well pleases.”

    I’m not. What do the applicable laws say?
    It is an interesting question, because various
    players in the bureaucracy could use security clearance denial to block an appointment.

  5. odograph says:

    They were laughing about this on MSNBC this morning. Always a bad sign when the newsreaders can’t get through it without a chuckle.

    But to come at this ethics thing from another angle, anybody remember Philip Cooney, the guy who was hired from the oil industry, to edit down (sex down?) climate change reports for the Whitehouse? He resigned in “disgrace” and then seemlessly went to work for Exxon, the same company that had earlier been charged with shaping administration policy.

    So anyway, at this late date, what are the “ethics” going to be? Is it “don’t manipulate the facts” … how can it be when that has been standard operating procedure for the entire reign of GWB?

    See also data manipulation at the fisheries and food and drug administrations …

  6. RSwan says:

    The president is the highest classification authority. He can decide to classify or declassify anything he wants. One well known example occurred in the early 1960’s. There was a highly classsified Air Force program that was developing a mach 3 strike and reconnaisance aircraft. President Johnson was under fire by the Republicans for weakness on defense issues. He decided for solely political reasons to declassify the RS-71 aircraft. Of course, he mispoke (intentionally???) and named it the SR-71, which in hindsight was a more appropriate designation.

    As far as getting security clearances, temporary ones can be issued for a person to do their job. This is typically done in the early part of an administration. It is supposed to be temporary while a normal security clearance is issued but sometimes this doesn’t happen. Sometimes this because of time, the person in question leaves the government but I guess it is possible for someone who wouldn’t pass a normal clearance to be given a temporary one for convenience of the administration. Personnally, I have no doubt Sandy Berger will be given a security clearance if the next adminstration is Democratic.

  7. Jim Flack says:

    With the mandated course on ethics for all White House staff, I wonder if the President has included his Vice President on those who must attend. If not, he should revise his order, and have the Vice President attend with everyone else.

  8. Dave Johnson says:

    “The president is the highest classification authority. He can decide to classify or declassify anything he wants.”

    I think there are laws in place that cover this, and we don’t – or didn’t used to – live in a country where the President can decide what the laws are or whether or not to enforce some but not others.

    There are laws and regulations that say that Rove MUST lost his security clearance for talking about the CIA agent with a reporter – intentional or not. (He has said that he did do this but claims it was not intentional.) There is also a confidentiality agreement that Rove signed that covers this. We don’t want people in positions to unintentionally blurt out our most important secrets, as Rove claims he did – or worse, to intentionally leak them, as some suspect Rove did.

    What we have here is someone – Bush? – blocking enforcement of these laws, regulations and agreements in order to keep Rove on staff and with a clearance.

    Regardless of whether one feel that the CIA is “anti-American” or not, the laws, regulations and agreements should be followed.

  9. McGehee says:

    There are laws and regulations that say that Rove MUST lost his security clearance for talking about the CIA agent with a reporter – intentional or not.

    If there are, I’m sure you wouldn’t mind citing them specifically?

  10. jae grenier says:

    I’m feeling a little cynical today. The ethics course will consist of a) how to avoid getting caught, b) how to protect Bush/Cheney if you are caught, c) what financial help you can expect if we can’t keep you out of jail and d) how long it will take for your presidential pardon.

  11. Dave Johnson says:

    Aside from the espionage laws which we are familiar with because Libby was indicted for obstructing investigation into whether they were violated, Executive Order 12958 requires employees to sign a “Classified Information Nondisclosure Agreement,” also known as a SF-312, promising not to reveal classified information.

  12. AST says:

    There’s an article in the latest National Review by Byron York to the effect that by requiring his staff to waive confindentiality, Bush has put the press in a bind by making them liable to subpoena for stories based on leaks. It might also make the people who leak think twice before doing so.

    I’ve always thought that if you have to be instructed in ethics, you’ll never have them. These briefings, however, are a good thing because they’re about the law and the ways you can put your butt in a sling by being too chummy with a reporter or not recognizing that you’re being set up.

    I don’t think anybody should resign over this. It’s a manufactured scandal. If it were real, Joe Wilson would have been charged for outing his wife and she would have been disciplined for cooperating. The CIA bureaucracy has declared war on POTUS, and they should be exposed and fired.

    I think that everybody in this thing has something to be criticized for. Bush should have dumped Tenet when he took over. Rove and Libby shouldn’t be talking to reporters off the record. The only thing done right was putting Judy Miller in jail for a while.