Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Anatomy of a false narrative

The recent edits required by Paul Reynolds in order to get his facts, if not the actual story, straight on the Wilson/Niger matter raise an interesting question: For how long has the BBC been misreporting this? TAE decided to have a look.

One practical difficulty in answering this is that the BBC search engine is not particularly good, and it occassionally fails to pick up articles for no apparent reason. For example, a search for "Paul Reynolds" returns 431 stories, including 7 from last month...but not his article about the Libby indictments from just last week. Go figure. This means that several different searches with various key words were necessary to gather all the articles referenced below, and there is still no certainty that the there isn’t some unread article secreted away in the bowels of the website that has been missed. Still, with that caveat in mind, I think there is enough here to tell an interesting story.

The primary question needing to be asked is: At what point did the BBC transform the object of Wilson’s Niger trip, and the conclusions he drew from it, from an investigation into whether Iraq had obtained uranium from Niger into an investigation into whether Iraq had simply sought to obtain it? The answer is: Almost immediately.

The first mention of Joe Wilson on the BBC's website came on July 7, 2003, the day after The New York Times published Wilson’s op-ed accusing the president of distorting pre-war intelligence. In its article, the BBC correctly reported (all emphasis from this point on is added, unless stated otherwise):
A former US ambassador who investigated reports that Niger sold uranium to Iraq has said Washington exaggerated the threat of the Iraqi weapons rogramme
in the run-up to the war.

Joseph Wilson - US ambassador to Gabon between 1992-95 - was asked by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to check reports that Niger sold Baghdad processed uranium that could be used to make nuclear weapons in the 1990s.

After spending eight days talking to dozens of people in Niger in February 2002, Mr Wilson concluded: "It was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place."
So far, so good. This is all pretty clear and straightforward. Wilson is correctly characterized as having looked into, and drawn conclusions about, whether a transaction had actually taken place.

However, that same day, none other than Paul Reynolds wrote another article, the first in which Wilson's mission was first presented as something other than what it was. Reynolds wrote:

A British claim, later repeated by President George W Bush, that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from an African country (Niger) was not supported either by the International Atomic Energy Agency or by a former American diplomat, Joseph Wilson, who was told to look into it.

Mr Wilson concluded that it was "highly doubtful" that a transaction had taken place. He further concluded, in an interview with NBC, that "some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons programme was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat".

Reynolds was misleading on a couple of points. First, the claim that the IAEA did not support the British intelligence claim, while factually accurate, clearly implies that the IAEA's conclusions contradicted British intelligence. That implication is wrong. The IAEA had determined that documents purporting to establish a sale of uranium were forgeries. But the British intelligence claim of an attempt to buy uranium was not based upon those forgeries, and Britain still stands by its intelligence claim to this very day.

Second, when he says that Wilson was sent to "look into it", the "it", grammatically speaking, refers to the British intel claim. But that, too, is wrong. Wilson was sent to look into the notion that Iraq had purchased uranium from Niger, not that it had simply sought to obtain it. This fact is reflected in Wilson's conclusions, which Reynolds accurately characterizes, but which he then goes on to inexplicably suggest contradicts the British intel claim. The truth is, as we have since discovered from the Senate intelligence committee report (page 43) on pre-war intelligence, Wilson's report to the CIA about his trip actually did lend support to the idea that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium, even as Wilson concluded that the transaction had not been consumated.

On the next day, July 8, an article appeared which focused directly on the differences between the CIA and British intelligence over an Iraq/Niger link. With regard to the British claim, the article claimed that:
A former US diplomat, Joseph Wilson, was sent to Niger last year and concluded that there was probably no link with Iraq.
Yet again, this was wrong. Wilson made no such sweeping conclusion in his debriefing by the CIA. His doubts were, instead, very narrow, pertaining simply to the alleged transaction. Again the BBC had passively and uncritically accepted Wilson's disingenuous (and illogical) op-ed portrayal of the results of his trip.

The next day the mischaracterizations hardened further, with the addition of new charges from an anonymous CIA official.

Doubts about a claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from the African state of Niger were aired 10 months before Mr Bush included the allegation in his key State of the Union address this year, a CIA official has told the BBC.

On Tuesday, the White House for the first time officially acknowledged that the Niger claim was wrong and suggested it should not have been used in the president's State of the Union speech in January.

But the CIA official has said that a former US diplomat had already established the claim was false in March 2002 - and that the information had been passed on to government departments, including the White House, well before Mr Bush mentioned it in the speech.

Not only was Wilson's mission and conclusions misrepresented as addressing the issue of whether Iraq had tried to obtain uranium, but they had now been transformed from "not supporting" the claim to definitively establishing the claim as false! As the Senate Intelligence report would show, this assertion was incorrect. In fact CIA analysts had concluded (page 46) that Wilson had not added any new information to clarify the issue.

And the BBC had then added another CIA generated charge - now known to be untrue - that Wilson's disavowal had been passed on to the White House "as early as March 2002".

The BBC was also incorrect in saying that the White House acknowledged that the "Niger claim" was wrong. What the White House actually "acknowledged" was that the documents which purported to establish a sale from Niger were forgeries. It did not say that the British intelligence claim was false. When, a couple of days after this article, George Tenet explained the background of how the CIA had treated the claim and his assessment that it should not have been included in the SOTU, he said that the British intelligence claim "did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches." Failing to rise to a level of certainty is not the equivalent of being declared false. Of course, this fact did not stop the BBC from incorrectly claiming that:
CIA director George Tenet has issued a statement saying his agency should have prevented false claims about Iraqi nuclear fuel procurement from getting into a major speech by President Bush in the run-up to the war.
It is also worth noting the introduction of an unnamed CIA source to give the charges more force. Was the BBC an unwitting dupe in a CIA effort to discredit the president? Were they a knowing participant? All we can say for sure is that they did, indeed, credulously report CIA charges that are now known to be false. As far as I am aware, the BBC has not issued a retraction or a correction.

These charges were to be found yet again in a Paul Reynolds piece, also on July 9. After again implying, inaccurately, that Wilson's Niger trip related to the claim that Iraq had sought uranium, Reynolds says:

Mr Wilson broke cover this week to reveal that he had told the US Government that "it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had taken place."

...The question that arises of course was why the president mentioned the claim in the light of Mr Wilson's report.

The CIA has told the BBC that it passed on Mr Wilson's information through normal channels, which include the White House.

Indeed Mr Wilson himself said he had been asked to go to Niger because of a request by Vice President Dick Cheney's office. So he presumed that Mr Cheney's officials had been informed of his findings.

Actually, the "question that arises" is why Reynolds would have thought that Wilson's doubts about an actual transaction somehow contradicted the president's SOTU claim. And, again, Reynolds pushes the notion that Cheney had been informed of Wilson's findings. We know now that the CIA did not brief Cheney because its analysts "did not believe that the report added any new information to clarify the issue." (page 46 of Senate Intelligence Committee report) Again, I am unaware of any correction or retraction on this point.

Reynolds would go on to write a Q&A for the BBC on July 15 which did correctly characterize the facts, and a September 2003 article would also do so. Unfortunately, this would be the last time, as far as TAE has been able to discover, that they would be correctly characterized on the BBC website for over 2 years.

Notably, Reynolds did another Q&A on the details of the controversy in October 2003, 3 months after his original. Where he originally had the details mostly correct, quoting Wilson's own words for his conclusion that a "transaction" had probably not occurred, he now dropped any reference to an actual purchase and instead adopted the ever solidifying myth:
It started in February 2002 when Joseph C Wilson IV, a retired career diplomat and former American ambassador to the west African state of Gabon, was asked by the CIA to go to Niger, also in west Africa, and investigate reports that Iraq had tried to buy uranium there...Mr Wilson came back and reported that he did not believe the reports.
The myth had thus been fixed in place. Wilson's original mission to investigate whether a sale had occurred, and his conclusion that it was unlikely that any such transaction had taken place, had forever become conflated with a mission to investigate whether Iraq had tried to buy uranium, and a conclusion that no such attempt had ever been made.

A couple of days prior to Reynolds' piece, on September 29 2003, an article had appeared which included the following background information:

Ambassador Wilson was sent to the West African state of Niger to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium there to build nuclear weapons.

His report said there was no evidence for the claims.

Despite this, Mr Bush referred to them in his State of the Nation speech in January.

This incorrect version of events, juxtaposed against Bush's SOTU (that's "Union", BTW, not "Nation") with the word "despite", thus enticing the reader to conclude, wrongly, that Wilson's information had contradicted the president's claim, became the standard background blurb that would then appear in nearly any article which touched on the Niger/Iraq issue. It appeared, with virtually identical wording, in at least 6 more articles over the next year (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), generally under the helpfully leading section head "Act of Revenge?"

It's also worth pointing out that, although the BBC refers to what "his report said", the BBC could never have actually seen such a report, primarily because no such report existed. Wilson did not submit a written report of his mission, and was instead simply verbally debriefed by CIA agents, who then wrote up their own summary of the information provided by Wilson. That report in fact did present evidence that supported the claim, namely the information given by ex-Prime Minister Mayaki that an approach had been made to him by an Iraqi delegation seeking to increase "commercial ties", which he took to mean a veiled reference to uranium (page 43). Indeed, not only did the report contain that evidence, but according to the Senate Intelligence committee, the reporting CIA agent had judged this to be "the most important fact in the report." (page 46)

In any event, while the above formulation was carried into 2004, by 2005 it had given way to yet another, although the substance of it remained basically the same. In July 2005 the BBC wrote:
Mr Wilson said he travelled to Niger to investigate a claim that Iraq had tried to buy nuclear material there but found no evidence to prove it.…The
Niger claim was used by President Bush as one of the reasons for invading

Perhaps this change in formulation was undertaken in order to account for the Senate Intelligence committee's revelations. Given that the previous formulation had been shown to be wrong in that Wilson had found evidence of the claim, it is possible that the BBC felt it necessary to add the "to prove it" so as not to fall afoul of the facts while still framing the Wilson trip as placing the claim into doubt. In any event, this phrasing, with a few minor alterations, would go on to make an appearance in at least 5 more on-line articles (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), the last being just over a week ago. Thus has the BBC been misreporting both Wilson's mission and his conclusions, not to mention a few other things along the way, for well over over two years now.

Now, to be entirely fair, the Senate Intelligence report which shed a great deal of light on Wilson's trip, his conclusions, and how they were received and portrayed within the CIA, was not issued until July 2004, which means that much of the BBC's original reporting in 2003 was done to some degree behind a veil of ignorance. Once the BBC had decided to accept the assertions of the likes of Wilson and anonymous CIA agents, without access to any documentation or verification, at least some of the BBC's errors were perhaps inevitable.

However, once the Senate Intelligence report came out one might have expected the BBC to have taken the opportunity to set the record straight. Presumably, when the Senate Intelligence report was released on July 9, 2004, someone at the BBC would have checked it out for revelations about the Wilson saga. Afterall, that saga had led to many accusations about the administration's handling of pre-war intelligence, and had even set in motion a series of events that led to an independent investigation into the whether the administration had deliberately outed a covert CIA agent. It borders on the realms of the inconceivable that no one at the BBC was curious about what the report revealed regarding Mr. Wilson's Niger adventure. And yet, in the days following the release of the Senate investigation report, at least as far as those articles burped out by the admittedly less than stellar BBC search engine have shown, BBC on-line did not make a single mention of any references to Joseph Wilson in the report.

As strange as this may seem, perhaps it is less so given that the Senate report tended to not only contradict huge chunks of the reporting that had been done previously by the BBC on the subject, but it discredited the man whose claims the BBC had been trumpeting so loudly. It established that:

  • Contrary to Joe Wilson's explicit denials, his wife had been involved in the decision to send him to Niger.
  • He had been sent to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq had purchased uranium yellow cake.
  • Wilson had not compiled a report of his trip, but was instead verbally debriefed by
    two CIA officers.
  • The report compiled by those officers, although rejecting the possibility that a uranium sale had taken place, did not refute the possibility that Iraq had approached Niger in an attempt to do so.
  • That report also detailed Wilson's meeting with Mayaki, which actually heightened CIA suspicions that such an approach had been made. The reporting officer testified that, although Wilson had not provided substantial new information, the officer judged the Mayaki discussions to be the most important aspect of the report, as it supported other intelligence reporting on the issue.
  • As late as February 27, 2003, over a month after the president's SOTU address, the CIA was still putting forward (in a response to Senator Carl Levin) the belief that Iraq had possibly been "probing" Niger for yellowcake .
  • Contrary to the implications of Wilson's NYT article, the vice-president was not briefed on Wilson's trip. This was so, according to the CIA, because Wilson had not added any new information to clarify the issue.
  • Wilson admitted that he was the source of a Washington Post article in which he was anonymously quoted as claiming to have determined that the Niger documents were forgeries based on names and dates on the documents. When asked how he could possibly have done so given that he had never actually seen the documents, Wilson said that he may have "misspoken" to the reporter in question.
All of these revelations, with the exception of the first and last, contradict either explicitly or implicitly at least some part of the BBC's reporting going back to 2003. Again, TAE has been unable to find any evidence on the BBC's website to suggest that it ever noted these revelations. The fact that they are contrary to the BBC's reporting, and that they suggest a storyline at odds with the narrative as framed by the BBC, may explain this remarkable reluctance to report the true facts about Wilson and his trip. It does not, however excuse it.

The BBC has been perpetuating a false narrative. It is time, I think, that it set the record straight.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Outstanding work. The clearest evidence yet of a consistent process whereby news is selectively and progressively interpreted and slanted to support a pre-existing conclusion by the BBC. Institutionalised leftism - there may be no cure, short of defunding. Throw your licence renewal letters in the bin unopened.

11:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are too generous in giving the BBC a free pass up to the publication of the Senate report in July 2004.

The BBC site has this piece, which is a statement by Tenet, not a report having journalistic input.

Text of the Tenet statement

12 July, 2003

He reported back to us that one of the former Nigerian officials he met stated that he was unaware of any contract being signed between Niger and rogue states for the sale of uranium during his tenure in office.

The same former official also said that in June 1999 a businessman approached him and insisted that the former official meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss "expanding commercial relations" between Iraq and Niger.

The former official interpreted the overture as an attempt to discuss uranium sales.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Scott Callahan said...


I saw the Tenet statement. In fact, that was the link I used in which the BBC characterized (in introducing the text) the statement as referring to "false claims" that, in fact, Tenet had not declared false.

I don't think I have given them a pass pre-2004. I'm simply making the point that, prior to that point, they could not have known that some of what they reported was not true. For example, when they reported the claims of the CIA agent that "a former US diplomat had already established the claim was false", they had no way of knowing that what the CIA agent was telling them was untrue. Perhaps a more politically astute reporter might have questioned whether he was being fed a false story as part of the spat between the CIA and the admin over pre-war intel. But, still, it had not yet been established as false.

Having said that, there is, of course, much that the BBC reported which it should have known was wrong even prior the release of the Senate report. And I hope I have done enough to demonstrate that.


2:31 PM  
Blogger David said...

Scott: awesome forensic work here. Thank you

5:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The explanation for the BBC's coverage is probably quite simple: the journalists were either too lazy or too blinded by bias to get the story right.

I worked in one of the world's busiest newsrooms in London several years ago and I think it's quite fair to say that most of the journalists there rigorously ideological rather than intellectually rigorous.

Such is the state of the profession, if you could indeed call it that.

8:55 PM  

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