Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Guardian misses the story

There are some stories that just shouldn’t be covered if one does not have the time, the column inches, or the will to tell the whole story. This is one of those stories.

In covering the US Supreme Court, The Guardian today focuses on the Court’s refusal to hear the appeal of two reporters who face contempt of court charges and jail time for refusing to reveal their sources regarding a leak which revealed the identity of a CIA agent. The Guardian treats the story as a classic case of journalistic ethics and freedom versus the government’s ability to investigate a crime, which of course it is. But it is also much more, and in its treatment The Guardian ignores all the details which make the story compelling.

According to The Guardian’s telling, the story goes like this: In violation of federal law, an unknown Bush administration official leaked the name of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent to certain members of the press. Plame’s husband Joe Wilson, a critic of the Bush administration, says that it was done deliberately as retribution against him for his criticisms of Bush policy. An investigation was begun, in order to uncover the leaker, which resulted in some members of the press being subpoenaed to reveal their sources. The reporters refused, were found in contempt of court, and had their appeal to the Supreme Court rejected. This bodes ill for the future of investigative journalism, which relies upon promises of secrecy in order to compel whistleblowers to talk. End of story.

But it isn’t. It isn’t even the beginning of the story. In fact the story begins with none other than Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson. More than just a critic of the Bush administration, Wilson was actually sent by the CIA to Niger in February 2002 to investigate rumors that Saddam Hussein had attempted to buy uranium there. After spending “eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people”, Wilson returned claiming that no such attempts had ever been made, and in July 2003, penned an article in the New York Times making his mission and his “findings” public, while also accusing the Bush administration of manipulating intelligence. The article was big news and made a lot of waves.

Enter Robert Novak, conservative syndicated columnist. Wondering how on earth a career diplomat and Clinton appointee like Wilson was chosen to investigate the uranium/Niger claims, Novak called the White House and put the question to “a senior administration official”. The official responded that Wilson had been sent by the CIA’s counter-proliferation section on the recommendation of one of its employees, Wilson’s wife Valerie Plame. After confirming it with another official (who apparently responded “Oh, you know about it”) Novak mentioned the fact in a story about the scandal growing around the allegation that the White House ignored Wilson’s findings. All hell then broke loose.

Wilson denied the claim that his wife got him the assignment (a denial that a congressional committee has since discovered to have been false, along with many of his other claims), and accused the Bush administration of outing his undercover wife as a CIA agent (a potential felony) in response to his criticisms. His outrage, however, was difficult to take too seriously, given that he was so protective of her anonymity he proceeded to do a whole spread in Vanity Fair magazine on the issue, complete with a photo of he and “the most famous female spy in America” sitting in a Jaguar, she of course wearing a scarf and mysterious sunglasses to, er, protect her identity.

Wilson’s own outrage was matched only by that of the left-wing media, led by The New York Times, which howled at the notion that the Bush administration broke the law and jeopardized the safety of an undercover CIA operative in order to get even with her husband. The trouble was, there were plenty of questions about whether the “outing” was deliberate, as well as whether Plame was even a covert operative, bringing into doubt that any law had been violated at all. But, smelling political blood, The Times was not so concerned with such technicalities. Virtually every single one of the NYT’s regular liberal columnists got all in high dudgeon, variously accusing the Bush administration of deliberately endangering lives, being contemptuous of law, and inexcusably committing a felony.

Even the Times’ editors got in on the act, demanding in an editorial calling for Attorney General Ashcroft to recuse himself from the investigation of the leak, and in another applauding Ashcroft's eventual recusal and the decision to appoint an independent special prosecutor, asserting without caveat that a felony had been committed in the naming of Plame.
[Special Prosecutor] Mr. Fitzgerald is charged with finding out who violated federal law by giving the name of the undercover intelligence operative to Mr. Novak for publication in his column.
The Times also demanded that:
[Deputy Attorney General] Mr. Comey must also allow Mr. Fitzgerald to use the full powers of a special counsel, including the ability to seek Congressional intervention if he finds his investigation blocked by a government official or agency.
We’ve all been told to be careful what we wish for, because we might well get it. Well, the Times got what it wanted, full powers and all.

The "respected" Fitzgerald proceeded to subpoena several reporters in an effort to discover the leaker. Two of those reporters, one of whom works for The New York Times, refused to testify before a grand jury and were then charged with contempt of court, resulting in the Supreme Court ruling reported on by The Guardian today. More interestingly, however, is how The Times has since changed its tune. Not only is it now opposed to Fitzgerald using his "full powers" of subpoena, in a February ’05 editorial decrying the “chilling” judicial decision that would compel its reporter to reveal her sources, the Times was now claiming that:
Meanwhile, an even more basic issue has been raised in recent articles in The Washington Post and elsewhere: the real possibility that the disclosure of Ms. Plame's identity, while an abuse of power, may not have violated any law.
For months, nay, over a year, The Times had been assuring us that a felony had occurred, while intimating that Bush and Ashcroft were actively preventing an investigation. Now, suddenly, with its own reporter’s head on the block, we’re finally told that, well, maybe, perhaps, it wasn’t all as bad as we’ve been suggesting all along? Please.

Clearly it is a notable event when the Supreme Court refuses to prevent reporters from being jailed for not revealing their sources. But in the case at hand, there is a great deal more to the story that makes it compelling, and The Guardian dropped the ball by ignoring the bigger story.

(a note of credit is owed to James Taranto of OpinionJournal.com, who's covered this story well and I garnered many of the NYT links from his work).


Blogger jbrabby said...

I have been led to believe that Mr. Wilson's report either confirmed or was later confirmed by a European intelligence service. I haven't read your previous posts, so I don't know whether you are baselessly implying that there is some truth to the Bush administration's uranium cake story ("eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people, Wilson returned claiming that...") or whether you have some facts to back it up. At this point I'm fairly convinced that the British and American story isn't true, but would be appreciative if you could point out the support for their position? Thanks.

9:36 PM  
Blogger Scott Callahan said...


In my post I linked to this article on Wilson's misrepresentations. http://www.nationalreview.com/may/may200407121105.asp

You may also want to read the senate report linked to within that article. It is summarized in this washington post story (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A39834-2004Jul9.html) from which I quote:

Wilson's assertions -- both about what he found in Niger and what the Bush administration did with the information -- were undermined yesterday in a bipartisan Senate intelligence committee report.

The panel found that Wilson's report, rather than debunking intelligence about purported uranium sales to Iraq, as he has said, bolstered the case for most intelligence analysts. And contrary to Wilson's assertions and even the government's previous statements, the CIA did not tell the White House it had qualms about the reliability of the Africa intelligence that made its way into 16 fateful words in President Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address.


11:21 PM  
Blogger Scott Callahan said...


BTW, the "eight days drinking mint tea" line was Wilson's own words...a direct quote from Wilson's article in the NYT.


11:23 PM  
Blogger jbrabby said...

I saw. I wonder what he was thinking when he wrote that.

In any case, after reviewing most of the section of the Intelligence report dealing with Wilson and then leading up to the state of the union address-I believe that the Post article is partially correct and also misleading.

Congress does not find that the CIA expressed reservations about the credibility of its Niger uranium intelligence. There is something funny going on in the report's discussion of the CIA's final review of the material, but the report clearly maintains that no doubt was expressed in the immediate run up to the speech or directly to the White House.

On the other point--what Wilson found in Niger, the Post's reporting is misleading. Though the report does use the language "most analysts" in conclusion 13, the sentences following it make it clear that Wilson's report only reinforced existing, contrary opinions rather than changing anybody's mind. The state department felt that Wilson's report supported their doubts about the possibility of a sale. The CIA, whose analysts already gave more credit to the uranium sale story, found that it supported their position b/c it confirmed that an Iraqi delegation had visited Niger. This (I believe) was the first time the report given to them by an unnamed foreign intelligence service had been independently corroborated in any of its details.

Wilson's report appears to have contained powerful evidence for the state department as well--the assurances of former government officials and private enterprise that no purchases had occured or were even considered. Also, he re-iterates that a french consortium ( in which the French gov't had some kind of interest) had control of the uranium mines in Niger and the French were unlikely to approve a sale of the quantity reported.

Based on my admitedly quick reading then, I can't say that the report undermined Wilson's version of things. It does make clear that the CIA was riding pretty hard on the credibility of the foreign intelligence source.

The section dealing w/ the British White Paper was almost entirely redacted. I assume that it was British intelligence that gave the US the uranium story--perhaps ther's some evidence supporting the CIA hidden behind the censor's black ink?

4:51 AM  
Blogger Scott Callahan said...


Perhaps we are speaking at cross purposes. On the issue of whether or not Saddam did indeed seek to buy uranium from Niger (ie were Joe Wilson's impressions correct) I don't know. As far as I know it has not been established for sure either way.

However, the reason Joe Wilson came to prominence was not because he drew conclusions about the alleged Niger sale, but rather because, "based on [his] own experience", he accused the President of "manipulating", "twisting", and "exaggerating" intelligence. The clear implication was that Bush had twisted the intelligence he received on the Niger sale. But as we have since found out, he didn't. Despite Wilson's tea-drinking investigation, the CIA still believed the Niger story, as did British intelligence, and it never told the president it had qualms about it. We know, too, that Wilson misled the Washington Post with regard to his conclusions.

More importantly, for the purposes of my post, we also know that Wilson lied about his wife getting him the assignment. This is important because it goes directly to Wilson's accusations about the Bush administration trying to retaliate against him for his criticisms, as well as the issue of whether or not a crime was committed in revealing her name. Given that Plame did get Wilson the job, it seems reasonable (to me, anyway) for the administration to raise questions about Wilson's bona fides as an investigator into illicit arms sales by pointing out that he became such an investigator simply through an act of nepotism (ie it was the admin that was whistleblowing on Wilson, not vice-versa). And for a crime to have been committed in outing Plame, it had to be done with knowledge that she was undercover, and with intent to uncover her. That does not appear to have been the case at all.


7:59 AM  

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