Friday, November 04, 2005

One step forward, two steps back

This is a long one.

In a series of e-mail exchanges, TAE has managed to convince Paul Reynolds that his article about the Libby indictments, which I critiqued several days ago, contained some factual errors. He has since altered the article (albeit with no indication whatsoever that a substantive edit has been made), for which I would like to commend him. Unfortunately I cannot do so.

The first change is relatively innocuous, although the new version is just as subject to criticism as the original. Recall that, with regard to reports that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from Niger, Reynolds’ original article said:
The British government certainly believed the Niger report - and strangely enough after all that has happened, still does.
I criticized Reynolds for that “strangely” comment, which seemed clearly aimed at throwing doubt onto the assessment of British intelligence without reason. This is the altered version.
The British government certainly believed the Niger report, at least to the extent that Iraq had made approaches to Niger - and strangely enough after all that has happened, still does, even though the CIA does not.
Ah. It is “strange” that British intelligence stands by the intel since the CIA no longer does. But isn’t it just as “strange” that the CIA does not believe it when British intelligence still does? Just as before, Reynolds is clearly, if subtly, conveying his opinion that it is British confidence in, not CIA rejection of, the intel that his readers should question. Obviously his edit has not addressed my criticism at all.

You may be wondering why Reynolds added the bit in the middle, ie “at least to the extent that Iraq had made approaches to Niger.” That explanation is a bit more more complex and relates to his other edits.

(At this point I need to make this clear. Since Reynolds edited his story without notifying readers what corrections he has made, the article as it originally appeared is now gone from the BBC’s website. This makes it difficult to quote the original article with complete and total accuracy. The quotes that follow which are said to be from his original, unedited version are cobbled from previous posts, e-mails, and my memory. If anyone sees any mistakes, or knows of any way to find a cached version of the original somewhere on the web so that I could verify their accuracy, I would be grateful if you would let me know.) (UPDATE: I now have a copy of the original version, and have inserted notes below where any substantive inaccuracies have occurred.)

In Reynolds’ original, he had claimed that:
In February 2002, Joseph Wilson, a former US ambassador was sent to Niger in West Africa to investigate intelligence that Iraq had tried to buy uranium yellowcake (compressed uranium ore) there.
After pointing out that British intelligence “strangely” still believes the report, he wrote:
But Mr Wilson did not believe it. He said it was a case of forged documents and had no merit.
Trouble is, this is all wrong. In the first place, Wilson did not say it was a case of forged documents. He merely cited, news reports claiming that the documents were “probably” forgeries, but admitted that he had never seen them.

Second, Wilson was sent to Niger in order to investigate a report that Iraq had actually bought uranium there, not that it had simply sought to buy it. But the claim which British intelligence “strangely” still believes, and which the president cited in the now controversial “16 words” from his state of the union speech, was precisely that – that Iraq had sought, not bought, uranium from Niger.

In Wilson’s infamous NYT piece in which he essentially accused the president of lying about the issue, Wilson specifically says that he concluded that it was “highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.” But at no point does he indicate that he made any conclusions either way about the notion that Iraq had approached Niger in an attempt to buy uranium. And it is no wonder he didn’t, because, as the Senate investigation into pre-war intelligence has since discovered (see page 43), according to the CIA report of Wilson’s trip, he had a discussion with former Niger Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki in which Mayaki related an approach that had been made to him in 1999 by an Iraqi delegation. The delegation offered to “expand commercial relations” with Niger which, Mayaki told Wilson, he interpreted as an attempt to discuss the purchase of uranium yellowcake. In other words, despite his accusations in the NYT article, Wilson’s Niger mission did not suggest in any way that the president had lied, and in fact if the mission related at all to what the president had said, it actually tended to support it.

TAE pointed all of this out to Reynolds to show not only that Reynolds’ words were technically incorrect, but that it rendered his narrative to be essentially false, that narrative being that Wilson had simply criticized the president based on his own experiences, and had subsequently come under an attack and a “smear campaign”, as Reynolds quotes an amenable Democrat. This is a false reading of events. Wilson had disingenuously and falsely accused the president, not only pretending that certain evidence contradicted the president when in fact it did not, but he even withheld evidence from his article that actually supported the president's claim. Wilson was not a honest whistleblower, but was instead a political partisan distorting the truth in order to give his attack more weight. Surely these facts are relevant to garnering an understanding of and making judgements about not just Wilson himself but indeed the whole Plame/Wilson/Libby fiasco.

Reynolds has now changed the words so that they are no longer technically incorrect, but, regrettably, he has done so in such a way so as to maintain the false narrative. This is how the relevant passages now read (with changed or added portions in bold):
In February 2002, Joseph Wilson, a former US ambassador was sent to Niger in West Africa to investigate intelligence that Iraq had agreed the purchase of uranium yellowcake (refined uranium ore) there.

Since Iraq had no civilian nuclear programme, the supposition was that it was seeking a source of fuel for a military one.

The British government certainly believed the Niger report, at least to the extent that Iraq had made approaches to Niger - and strangely enough after all that has happened, still does, even though the CIA does not.

London used it in its intelligence dossier against Iraq. Mr Bush himself referred to it in his State of the Union address in January 2003. [
note: This sentence was in the original piece.]

But Mr Wilson said he found no evidence of any sale. In an article in the New York Times after the war he quoted news reports that documents purporting to show a sale were probably forged. Nor did he report any evidence that Iraq had approached Niger for a sale.

Nothing much might have happened had Mr Wilson not written that article. In it he stated: "A legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretences."
[note: this last sentence, although in bold, was contained in the original piece.]
Note how Reynolds still refuses to inform his readers of the known discrepancies between Wilson’s assertions, which Reynold’s readily trumpets, and the known facts about his trip, which he never mentions.

In his original, he had erroneously characterized Wilson’s mission and conclusions. Having fixed that, he now equivocates on exactly what the president referred to in his SOTU speech. He says the president referred to “it”, namely the Nigerian report. What did the report say? Well, follow the text back and you discover “it” must refer to “the intelligence that Iraq had agreed to the purchase of urnanium” (emphasis added). But as we know, that is wrong. The president did not claim that a purchase had been agreed. Sure, Reynolds did note the distinction between an actual purchase and having simply “approached” Niger, but he did so with regard to what British intelligence “strangely” still believes, not with regard to what the president spoke about in the SOTU. Reynolds seems curiously reluctant to allow the gap between what the president said and what Wilson claims to have debunked to become apparent. Why?

And, in the event that you are aware of what the president actually said, Reynolds does attempt to paper over the discrepancy by adding “Nor did he report any evidence that Iraq had approached Niger for a sale.” This is, of course, entirely disingenuous. Wilson did not address the issue at all in his NYT article, having focused strictly on the absence of evidence for a purchase. Indeed, Reynolds could just as sensibly have said “Nor did he report any reason to doubt that Iraq had approached Niger for a sale.” Why did he choose one instead of the other? Presumably because the former suits his desired narrative while the latter does not.

More importantly, though, why didn’t Wilson report any evidence that Iraq had approached Niger, given that he had in fact uncovered such evidence from Mayaki? Reynolds doesn’t even allow his audience to know of that evidence, much less question why Wilson left it out of his article.

Finally, he adds the actual accusation that Wilson made against the president. “A legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretences.” [note: he did not add it. It was in the original piece.] Given Reynolds’ leading presentation to that point, and just as significantly given what he has withheld, the otherwise uninformed reader will naturally conclude that Wilson had presented that legitimate argument. But as we know, he did not. He did not present one single substantive argument that could be said to substantiate the charge. Still, Reynolds leaves his audience to believe that Wilson's claims had at least some basis in fact.

Reynolds’ original article contained clear factual errors which allowed a false narrative to be developed around Joe Wilson’s role in the whole Plame/Libby affair. This is not a narrative distinct to Reynolds or the BBC. This is the way the mainstream media almost universally is presenting this story. It is unfortunate that, having admirably acknowledged the errors, Mr. Reynolds has seen fit to correct the story not in such a way so as to present all the relevant facts, but instead in such a way so as to maintain the false narrative.

Is this what we pay taxes for?


Anonymous avaroo said...

Wouldn't it just be easier for Mr. Reynolds to tell the truth about the whole affair? Surely it would take less time than trying to parse words to convey an incorrect impression.

Small wonder so few people trust MSM media these days. They've really done it to themselves, they have no one else to blame.

2:38 AM  
Blogger Marc said...

Scott, I just emailed you the link to the Google cache copy of Paul's original article.

Be sure and save it before the BBC clear the Google cache.

8:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a shame, I had some hope that Mr Reynolds would have learned something from his encounters with you. Apparently he has only learned to cover his arse.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous tired & excitable said...

Disco boy Paul under the cracked disco ball...Stayin' Alive...Stayin' Alive...

What I'm hearing, John, is "Up tempo but down at heel...That's the consensus, widely held among informed sources at the press club bar last night...

11:17 AM  
Anonymous Paul Reynolds said...

I tried explaining to Scott that my story is about Libby not Wilson. The Wilson part is therefore very much an outline. I added bits to it after listening to what Scott suggested. However Scott seems to want a detailed account of the whole Wilson trip which was NOT the point of the piece -- the charge against Libby was..

As for "stealth" editing, one cannot litter the page with corrections and amendments. It is up to you guys to save and compare then and now and make your own comments.

Stealth editing is better than no editing.

Paul Reynolds

2:51 PM  
Blogger Scott Callahan said...

And I tried explaining to Paul that the Libby indictment cannot be understood apart from Wilson's role in it. The fact that he felt it necessary to include references to Wilson seems to me to suggest that Paul agrees.

I also tried explaining to Paul that by fudging the role that Wilson played, his readers would necessarily get a distorted view of the situation, and hence would be incapable of drawing rational conclusions about it.

How much effort and space would it have taken to say "Wilson's credibility has since taken a big blow when the Senate investigation into pre-war intelligence determined that many of the claims in his NYT article, not to mention other claims he was peddling to other journalists, were unfounded."

How much effort and space would it have taken to point out that "Despite Wilson's accusations in the NYT, a closer look shows that his conclusions were centered on the possiblity of an actual transaction having taken place, while the British intelligence cited in the president's SOTU address only claimed that Iraq had sought to buy uranium."

How much effort and space would it have taken to point out "Despite Wilson's claim, it turns out that some of what he reported to the CIA actually heightened analysts suspicion that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger."

Any one of these simple sentences would have gone a long way towards adding the necessary context to give his readers a more accurate understanding of events.

He didn't and hence his article "about Libby" leaves his audience struggling to come to grips with the real story about Libby.


3:14 PM  
Anonymous Kevin in Kenilworth said...

The effort to claim the war in Iraq was entered under false pretenses will never end. Those that would like to have this view, will have it irrespective of the facts, and will continue to portray it as true to the best of their ability.

Of course, to anyone prepared to look at the situation dispassionately, the facts are clear. Virtually all US politicians and essentially the entire world accepted the general view put forth by various US and non-US intelligence services that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Even the French and Germans - in their refusal to join the global coalition to invade Iraq - did not argue that there were no weapons of mass destruction. They simply argued that more time and continued diplomacy would be better approaches to getting Iraq to do what it had agreed to do than an invasion. Hussein's own behavior - whether viewed at the time and particularly in retropect - supported the generally held view that he was hiding such weapons.

Reynolds is right when he states that the discussion can go on with no end. That is due to the fact that he and his "colleagues" have a view that they insist on portraying irrespective of the reality and the evidence. What we can take from this is a better understanding of who can and who cannot be trusted on the basis of where they now stand on this issue.

3:18 PM  
Blogger Scott Callahan said...


As for stealth editing, I'm tempted to say that if one is prepared to litter the page with errors in the first place, then one should be prepared to litter one's page with corrections.

However, in the spirit of a more productive approach, I would suggest that you can easily place a note at the bottom of the article which lists any errors that have been corrected. If such a note becomes unwieldy due to the need to make multiple corrections, that would be a good indication that the author needs work a bit harder on getting his facts right the first time around.


3:24 PM  
Anonymous Lee Moore said...

I think the fact that Paul Reynolds sometimes turns up to respond to complaints is evidence that at least he's trying. Even so, I still think his article remains highly misleading. In fact I thought Scott's analysis of "Nor did he report any evidence that Iraq had approached Niger for a sale" was too kind to Paul, as it assumes that Paul meant that Wilson's NYT "report" didn't mention any approach to Niger. I didn't read it that way - I read it as more general (ie Wilson never reported such an approach) and the reference to the NYT as being restricted to the previous sentence. What's more I think Paul intended it the way I read it, because he's since corrected it by inserting "clear" before evidence. That makes the sentence true - Wilson did report some evidence of an Iraqi approach (the Mayaki conversation) but it wasn't very clear evidence. But that just leaves Paul's sentence as true but highly misleading. Who - apart from people who have trawled through all the background detail - is going to infer from Paul's sentence Wilson DID report some evidence of an Iraqi approach, but it just wasn't clear evidence ? The natural inference is that Wilson DIDN'T report evidence of any kind. Paul knows that's not true, which is why he stuck the word "clear" in. But how hard would have been to say "Although Wilson did report evidence that Iraq had approached Niger for a sale, the evidence was far from clear cut" ? Answer - very hard without changing the whole tone of the article which encourages us to assume that Wilson found nothing relevant to an Iraqi approach to Niger at all.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Scott Callahan said...


You are exactly correct about the "clear" business, which I had already noted in my most recent post:

You are also correct that Paul deserves credit for taking the time to even read the criticism, much less respond to them.

(And, I should note that his responses are not limited to the posts you read here. We have exchanged many e-mails, and he has always been pleasant and polite.)


4:52 PM  
Anonymous avaroo said...

Stealth editing is not better than reporting honestly to begin with.

6:37 PM  
Anonymous Nick (South Africa) said...

...or leaving a footnote entry summerising what has been edited and why...

11:34 PM  

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