Reynolds defends the BBC over Wilson reporting
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.”