Saturday, November 12, 2005

Reynolds defends the BBC over Wilson reporting

Below is the text of Paul Reynolds' response to my post "Anatomy of a false narrative." I promised him that I would post any response he had to the main page here, and so I have. My comments on his response will follow in another post.

The Callahan Calumnies
by Paul Reynolds

Scott Callahan, the American Expatriate, has made a serious accusation against the BBC in his article “Anatomy of a False Narrative.” I am going to describe my response as “The Callahan Calumnies.”

They are indeed calumnies – false charges.

Callahan’s case is that the BBC misrepresented both the nature and results of a visit to Niger by a former US ambassador Joseph Wilson in February 2002.

Let me deal first with the nature of the visit, which Callahan himself says is the “primary question.” Much of his criticism flows from this charge and if it can be shown to be false, that criticism necessarily fails.

It is false.

He says that the BBC, in its online reporting, failed to understand that Wilson was going to Niger, in Callahan’s own words, “to look into the notion that Iraq had purchased uranium from Niger, not that it had simply sought to obtain it.”

He claims that this distinction is important on the following grounds: when Wilson reported that he could find no evidence of an actual sale, the “myth had thus been fixed in place” that “no such attempt had ever been made.”

I will deal with the results of the visit in a moment.

But let me first dispose of this “primary question”.

The basis of the US concern about Niger was a report from an unnamed foreign intelligence service, which later provided the text of an alleged contract between Iraq and Niger for the sale of uranium yellowcake, the refined form of the original ore.

Common sense indicates that anyone sent on a mission to investigate whether a sale had taken place would want to check the whole background. This might include whether any discussion of a sale had taken place and any approach made.

But one does not have to rely on what common sense says.

We have Wilson’s instructions.

They show that the Callahan distinction is wholly bogus and artificial.

The Senate Intelligence Committee on intelligence and the Iraq war, released in July 2004, looked into the Wilson visit in some detail.

On page 41 it describes how the CIA’s Counter Proliferation Division (CPD) briefed him on what to do.

“On February 20, 22002 CPD provided the former ambassador with talking points for his use with contacts in Niger. The talking points were general, asking officials if Niger had been approached, conducted discussions, or entered into any agreements concerning uranium transfers with any ‘countries of concern’…” (my bold).

So much for the Callahan distinction.

Let me now consider Callahan’s claims about the results of the mission.

He says that Wilson’s trip “did lend support to the idea that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium” from Niger. He claims that the BBC misrepresented this finding. to presumably downplay the results of the mission.

The basis for Callahan’s claim was a conversation Wilson had with a former Prime Minister of Niger Ibrahim Mayaki. Mayaki reported that in June 1999 (to quote from the Senate report) a “businessman approached him and insisted that Mayaki meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss “expanding commercial relations” between Niger and Iraq. Mayki interpreted this to mean that the delegation wanted to discuss uranium, as Niger had nothing else to sell.

Now, it is true that CIA regarded this information as the most interesting aspect of the Wilson mission. However it failed to convince others, especially the State Department, as the Senate report makes clear.

And let us not forget what Wilson told the Senate Committee staff. “He had told …US officials [the ambassador and another unnamed US official in Niger] he thought there was ‘nothing to the story,’” the Senate report stated. It added that the US ambassador in Niger said she recalled Wilson saying he had reached “the same conclusions that the embassy had, that it was ‘highly unlikely anything was going on.’”

Nevertheless, Callahan clearly expected the media to take the Mayaki supposition fully on board as supporting his case that there was fire behind the smoke.

Yet let us read on in the Senate report to find out what transpired at this meeting between Mayaki and the Iraqi delegation.

It tells us on page 44.

It turns out that Mayaki never even asked the delegation what they meant by “expanding commercial relations” and they never explained!

Mayaki claimed that he “made a successful effort to steer the conservation away from a discussion of trade..”, on the grounds that Iraq was under UN sanctions.

Now this does not mean that the Iraqis did not hope to discuss uranium but they did not make a very serious effort it appears.

One wonders how this delegation explained itself to Saddam Hussein.

So much for the strength of the Callahan claims about the results of the mission.

Callahan ranges far and wide across the field of this episode and I will not go through all the details. This, he himself has suggested, would be tedious. I have dealt with the main charges.

I will add two things though.

The first is that I accept that some of the wording on this story needs more care. I myself was guilty of implying in one story that Wilson had gone to Niger to investigate the British government’s belief (still held) that Iraq had sought uranium there.

The second is that I now intend to do an updated Question and Answer column on the Niger issue, which I hope will help resolve these issues. Such background is needed anyway to accompany stories about the charges against Lewis Libby.

But the plea, milud, to the charge of pursuing a “false narrative” is “not guilty.”


Anonymous Lee Moore said...

As Reynolds now seems to acknowledge Wilson was sent to investigate reports of uranium sales, AND relevant background, including attempts and contacts. And as Reynolds also now seems to acknowledge, from his edits to his own reports, Wilson found (or said he found) no evidence of sales, but some evidence of attempts and approaches. Reynolds doesn’t think much of the approaches – noting Mayaki’s lack of curiosity about what the Iraqis might mean by “expanding commercial relations.” Seeing as Niger has only got one thing to sell, and since Mayaki had already assumed that the Iraqis meant uranium sales by it, his lack of curiosity seems unsurprising. I wonder if Paul is one of those splendidly naive chaps who on taking a wrong turning out of the theatre in the evening, and being accosted by an attractive young lady, heavy with mascara and clad in a short skirt, is genuinely unclear as to what sort of a “good time” she has in mind.

However Reynolds’ personal doubts about the seriousness of Iraqi approaches cannot conceal the disingenuousness of “Nor did he report any clear evidence that Iraq had approached Niger for a sale” in his (amended) 28 October report.

Read it again in all its glory :

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 clear evidence that Iraq had approached Niger for a sale.

Now compare it with :

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. But he did report some evidence of an Iraqi approach - that the Prime Minister of Niger thought that an Iraqi trade contact in 1999 may have been a feeler about the possibility of uranium sales.

My report and Reynolds’ are both true. But they give a slightly different emphasis. That’s what Scott meant by a false narrative. Once Reynolds tidies up his actual mistakes, the revised version of his story contains no untruths. But it’s still a false narrative.

“President Clinton was impeached and was later stripped of his Arkansas law licence. But President Nixon was not impeached. Nor was he ever convicted of, or even tried for, any criminal offence.”

True. But a false narrative.

The remaining question is whether Reynolds is a fool or a knave. I’m not sure. Perhaps when he devotes a column to Wilson’s veracity, we’ll see. After all, Reynolds has called him to the stand often enough to give evidence against Bush and Co - it’s now time for the cross-examination.

7:22 PM  
Blogger David said...

Still nothing on the pages of the Senate report that blew Wilson and his claims out fo the water either!

8:20 PM  
Anonymous avaroo said...

Reynold's comment that he needs to prepare "background" material on the Niger issue to accompany a story on the charges against Libby indicates that he thinks the Niger trip had something to do with the charges against Libby. Which is odd.

Paul, I was prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt but I'm afraid that Scott has decisively made his case against your and the BBC's in general reporting.

9:24 PM  

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