Saturday, November 12, 2005

Reynolds defense deceives and falls flat

Paul Reynolds has responded to “Anatomy of a false narrative” and, although I think it is plain that he has failed to provide any significant rebuttals, I would be remiss if I left it unaddressed.

The first thing to note is Reynolds penchant for taking things that I have said out of context. He studiously avoids quoting from my piece at any length, preferring instead to characterize my arguments by extracting a word or two, and then imbedding them into a sentence dominated by his own words. This allows him to attack arguments of his own making, rather than those I have actually made.

For example, Reynolds says:
Let me deal first with the nature of the visit, which Callahan himself says is the “primary question.”
At no point did I say the nature of Wilson’s visit was the “primary question”. I used the phrase “primary question” in the following context:
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?
Reynolds is engaged in two deceits here. First, he pretends that I am posing a question about Wilson’s mission, when in fact I am posing a question about the BBC’s reporting. Second, he pretends that I have singled out the nature of Wilson’s mission as singularly important, when in fact I have identified both the mission and “the conclusions he drew from it” without stipulating that either was more important than the other.

It is important to Reynolds that the nature of Wilson’s visit be the “primary” thrust of my argument because, as it turns out, this is the only aspect of my argument for which he has anything that even resembles a legitimate rebuttal. Hence, if he can portray this as the lynchpin of my position and he can convince himself that he has destroyed it, he can declare victory. Unfortunately he fails on all counts.

In defending the BBC’s characterization of the nature of Wilson’s Niger trip, Reynolds points to the “talking points” that Wilson was given for is trip, which included, among other things, asking officials in Niger if they had been approached concerning uranium transfers. This, in Reynolds’ mind, apparently legitimizes the BBC’s characterization of Wilson’s trip as centering around whether a simple attempt to obtain, rather than an actual purchase, had occurred. Reynolds’ thinks this, despite the fact that: (all emphasis added)

1) Wilson’s trip was conceived directly “in response to questions from the Vice President’s Office and the Departments of State and Defense on the alleged Iraq-Niger uranium deal” (page 39, Senate Intelligence Report)

2) Wilson, in the NYT op-ed which formed the basis of the BBC’s original reporting on the issue, says: “I was informed by officials at the Central Intelligence Agency that Vice President Dick Cheney's office had questions about a particular intelligence report. While I never saw the report, I was told that it referred to a memorandum of agreement that documented the sale of uranium yellowcake — a form of lightly processed ore — by Niger to Iraq in the late 1990's. The agency officials asked if I would travel to Niger to check out the story so they could provide a response to the vice president's office.”

3) The BBC’s very first report on the affair described Wilson as “A former US ambassador who investigated reports that Niger sold uranium to Iraq…”

4) Less than two weeks ago Reynolds himself acknowledged that characterizing the mission as one about an attempt to buy uranium was incorrect when he edited his own story, changing the words “had tried to buy” to “had agreed the purchase” in his description of Wilson’s mission.

Now, Reynolds is certainly correct when he says:
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.
Yes, it does. But common sense also indicates that, when describing - to use Reynolds’ own (ill-advised, given the point he is trying to make) words - “a mission to investigate whether a sale had taken place,” one would describe it as, er, a mission to investigate whether a sale had taken place. This is a “common sense” point that seems lost on Reynolds, and unfortunately, as I have pointed out, the BBC has repeatedly failed to employ such common sense.

However, contrary to Reynolds’ disingenuous portrayal of this as the “primary issue”, this is in fact not particularly important at all. Wilson gained his notoriety not because he claimed that the nature of his trip contradicted the president’s SOTU claims, but rather because he claimed that what he discovered during that mission contradicted the claims, and that the president knew it. It is, therefore the results of the trip, not the nature of it, which are most relevant. Even if we were to concede that the BBC’s characterization of the nature of the trip was accurate (which I do not), it would have no impact on the judgment that the BBC has presented a false narrative, because it has demonstrably misreported what he discovered.

Reynolds pretends to address the issue of how the BBC reported what Wilson discovered on his trip, but, alas, he has not done so. Yet again, he begins his defense, such as it is, by taking snippets of my words out of context and presenting them as saying something they did not say. He says:
[Callahan] claims that this distinction [regarding the nature of the mission] 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.”
Reynolds has so mangled what I actually said, it is difficult to know where to start. First of all, I made no claims about why the distinction regarding the nature of the mission was important. The importance of that distinction, it seems to me, is self-evident to anyone who has followed the issue. Second, I said that the “myth” had been fixed, not by when Wilson himself reported about his trip, but rather when the BBC continually mis-reported the information with which he returned. Last, the myth to which I referred was not that “no such attempt had ever been made.” I have no idea whether or not an attempt was made. It remains an open question. No, the myth to which I referred was the myth, generated by the BBC (among other media outlets), regarding the nature of Wilson’s trip and what he reported back to the CIA.

This is what I actually said, which as you can see bears little resemblance to Reynolds' portrayal:
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.
I am happy to address rebuttals to what I have actually said, but I see little reason for focusing too much on straw-men.

Reynolds does go on to defend the BBC’s reporting on the results of Wilson’s mission by making two substantive points. First, he points out that that State Department was not as credulous as the CIA regarding the importance and implications of the Mayaki discussions. Second, he points out that the approach by the Iraqi delegation, as described by Mayaki, was vague and uncertain, and that ultimately no overt approach was alleged. It is clear, I think, that Reynolds shares the State Department's doubts about the significance of the Mayaki discussions.

But, in making these points, Reynolds has in fact gone a long way towards substantiating my charges. For it seems that the BBC’s reporting has been driven not by a desire to present the facts, but rather by Reynolds’ (or others) personal judgments about those facts. Instead of presenting its audience with the facts and allowing them to make up their own minds about how to weigh the relative importance of them, the implication of Reynolds’ defense is that the BBC itself formed its own judgments about their meaning and significance, or lack thereof, and then presented a narrative that reflected those judgments. But, in doing so, it all but prevented its audience from coming to a judgment different from its own.

Apparently, if Paul Reynolds has personally judged that the views of the State Department are correct and those of the CIA are wrong, then he thinks he has no obligation to inform his audience of the views of the CIA, and can present the views of the State Department as definitive. And if Paul Reynolds has personally judged that the Mayaki discussions do not lend support to the notion that an approach on uranium had been made, then he thinks he is justified in withholding the fact of those discussions, and the contrary judgments of others about them, from his audience.

I very much disagree. It is the BBC’s obligation to present the facts, and allow its audience to draw its own conclusions. The point of “Anatomy” was to expose how the BBC had prevented its audience from doing so. The fact that Paul Reynolds, or some other reporter at the BBC, disagrees with Mayaki’s judgment that the Iraqi attempt to increase commercial ties was an allusion to uranium, does not justify the BBC’s failure to inform its audience about Mayaki’s judgment. And it certainly does not justify the BBC in perpetuating the demonstrably false assertion, repeated over and over again, that “[Wilson’s] report said there was no evidence of the claim [that an approach had been made].”

Finally, it is notable that Reynolds has failed to even attempt to address any of the other instances in which I showed how the BBC had incorrectly reported events, nor, more significantly, has he attempted to explain the BBC’s seeming failure to report on the Senate Intelligence report’s revelations regarding Wilson and his trip. He tries to cover for his failure to adress these issues by suggesting that to do so would be “tedious”, a judgment that he even goes so far as to suggest that I have introduced.
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.
This would be the third time that he has taken my words out of context and presented me as saying something I did not say (and he has the audacity to describe my arguments as “calumnies”!). I used the word “tedious” in a post several days ago only to describe the effort needed to parse Reynolds’ many edits with regard to a specific column. I had said:
In any event, all of this parsing of sentences is tedious and, ultimately, mostly beside the point.
It may well be tedious to see Reynolds attempt to explain away all of the other failings of the BBC that I listed in “Anatomy” (especially if those attempts match the less than convincing attempts he has produced so far). But, contrary to what he says, I have not suggested that it would be so.

You, TAE readers, can judge for yourselves what to make of Reynolds’ reluctance to “go through all the details.” I merely point it out.

I look forward to Reynolds’ upcoming Q&A on the issue. It will be interesting to see if, despite his public declaration of “not guilty” to the claims I have made, he manages to take on board the criticisms, and correct the mis-impressions about the issue that the BBC has encouraged its readers to accept for over 2 years now.

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.”

Friday, November 11, 2005

When journalists eat their own

Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who became involved in the Plame/Wilson/Libby/Niger/Iraq/Uranium brouhaha and ended up going to jail for 85 days in order to “protect” her source, has officially resigned from The New York Times. The fact that she was able to negotiate a severance package and a parting shot to be published on the letters pages of the Times in exchange for her departure suggests that perhaps “resign” doesn’t quite capture the reality of the situation. What wouldn't you give to be able to walk into your boss' office and say "I quit...what are you prepared to offer me?"

The Guardian’s Gary Younge covers Miller’s “resignation” (scare quotes are Younge’s as well), but more fascinating to me are the down and dirty details of the infighting at the Times which appear to have presaged her departure. Miller has posted to her own website her closing NYT missive, along with several enlightening letters/responses that she’s written to various colleagues who publicly criticized her on the pages of the NYT. I don’t know whether or not Miller really deserves the vitriol heaped on her from some of them, but I must confess (not without some shame) to a bit of schadenfreude when a journalist falls prey to the type of reporting so often inflicted on others.

Miller puts her resignation in part down to the fact that she has “become the news, something a New York Times reporter never wants to be.” Given the inside knowledge they must have of the way NYT reporters often report the news, it’s no wonder they would want to avoid becoming its subject. But frankly I think it would do a world of good for reporters, not just at the Times but elsewhere as well, to become the object of news stories. Given the power that people in the media have to shape opinion and therefore influence public policy discussions and decisions, I think shining a light on who those people are, what they think, and most importantly how they go about shaping those opinions and influencing those discussions is a pretty good idea. This is what “media correspondents” ought to be doing…looking critically at what reporters at other news outlets are doing.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Think again

You might think that an article which contained passages such as this:
This is a common solution for the dilemma faced by many officials who supported war, and now perhaps wish they had not. They are rushing to find lifeboats to leave a ship they themselves helped to launch.
...would be headed with the label "Opinion", or at least its euphemistic substitute, "Analysis". If so, you'd be wrong.

More on an anatomy...

I have been advised on how to search the BBC’s website using the Google search engine rather than the BBC’s inadequate engine. Doing so returned a few articles which I had not previously seen, all of which simply added to the number of times in which the BBC had misreported the Wilson saga. More significantly, however, is that, as with previous searches using the BBC engine, the Google search did not unearth any BBC reporting on the Wilson revelations that came out of the July 2004 Senate Intelligence Committee report on pre-war intelligence. Given the high profile that the BBC had given to Wilson following his original charges, and would proceed to give him as the Plame investigation carried on and came to a head, this incuriousness over what the Senate report revealed about him is itself a bit, well, curious (to put it mildly).

Also, although I briefly mentioned and linked to it yesterday, my sense of fairness compels me to give a slightly higher profile to the single BBC piece which I think did do a fair and accurate job of laying out the facts without trying to lead the reader into drawing preferred conclusions. There is little to be found in this Q&A by Paul Reynolds, from a week after Wilson’s article came out in the NYT, with which to take issue. Interestingly, it was not aimed directly at answering questions about Wilson’s accusations, but was instead directed at explaining the difference in intelligence views between the US and Britain regarding the Niger/Iraq link. In it Reynolds accurately portrays Wilson’s mission and conclusions; notes that senior admin officials were not briefed on those conclusions; notes that the CIA did not view Wilson’s observations as having resolved anything; and notes that the British intel claim was not derived from the forged documents, and that therefore, as far as British intelligence was concerned, the fact that the documents were forged had no impact on its belief.

Having pointed all this out, however, one can’t help but wonder: If, a mere one week after Wilson’s charges first appeared, the BBC had these facts at hand, what explains its distorted and misleading coverage over the course of the next 2+ years?

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.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

An e-mail worth keeping

I have generally avoided posting the contents of the e-mails I occassionally get which comment on TAE as a site, but I received one today which I think is not just thoughtful but also thought provoking and instructive, and is probably worth showing to the wider TAE audience. The fact that it comes from a British journalist residing in the US and writing about US politics makes it all the more relevant (and, for me, satisfying.) So, with Mr. Massie's permission, here it is:

Dear Mr Callahan,

I came across your entertaining and pleasingly provocative blog the other day, while searching for something else. I'm glad to have done so.

As someone who reports from the United States for a number of papers (principally The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday as well as, occasionally, on this side of the atlantic for National Review Online) it is simultaneously disconcerting and encouraging to find blogs such as the one you so vigorously and tenaciously maintain.

Disconcerting, because journalists generally dislike being monitored in this fashion; encouraging because we should be and such scrutiny, provided it is conducted with a reasonable degree of fairness, can be valuable. The medicine is not always palatable, but it is still good for us.

As it happens, I share some of your frustrations. All foreign correspondents have their weaknesses but there is a structural problem to the job too.

Firstly, by simple virtue of our foreigness we have an imperfect knowledge of the countries we report on. This can be minimised by reading and experience and while the advantages of a fresh perspective should not be discounted either, this weakness still remains. It's one we should be conscious of: the old saw that the more one knows the more one realises how much more there is to know applies here. This is true everywhere but especially so in a country as large, diverse and contradictory as the United States.

Secondly, editors in the United Kingdom, who will browse the major American news sites and consider themselves au fait with what is happening here have their own preconceptions that are not always shared by their correspondents in the field. Ultimately, of course, it is the editors who decide what appears in the paper.

Thirdly, all foreign correspondents simplify matters. It's sadly inescapable. Space constraints play a part in this, of course, but it is also the case that, much of the time at least, our readers neither need nor demand the level of detail that the NYT or WaPo properly realises their own readership requires. I suspect every correspondent will tell you that nuance and qualifying statements are frequently the first lines to be cut from a piece if cutting is required. This is highly regrettable.

Fourthly, it is one of the weaknesses of the modern media that almost every story needs to be hyped to be more important the day it is published than it necessarily would seem were one to take a longer-term view.

Nonetheless, I think we have, as a class, to admit that we do an imperfect job. So I can understand your frustration. It's akin to reading the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide to one's own home town and not recognising the description you find. It casts doubt, one feels, on the accuracy of every other guide in the publisher's series.

So what can be done? The challenge is to report on the United States in a sufficiently sensitive manner as to give, over time, as accurate a picture of this country's complexity as possible. This is sometimes easier in theory than practice.

I've come to feel, sometimes, that there's a degree of truth in almost everything written about the United States in the British press but that most stories invite the response, "yes, but..." since the contrary point of view or narrative is frequently every bit as persuasive as that which is eventually published. That generalisation, of course, like every generalisation about the United States, only takes one so far...

But it is clearly the case that many, though by no means all, British reporters stationed in America are instinctively well to the left of American mainstream opinion and wary of the United States. This would still be the case if John Kerry had triumphed last November, though it is certainly true that George Bush's victory was met with great depression in many British newsrooms and that this has impacted coverage of the United States in the British press.

It is also obvious that, like most of our counterparts on the major metropolitan American papers, much of American life is, as the Justin Webb quotation you cite, easy for us to mock and present as a caricature. Foreign correspondents touch down in Alabama or Texas for a couple of days to watch the locals (some of whom even seem to speak a form of English!) before retreating to the comfort and security of Washington or New York. I'm rather painfully aware that I have not spent enough time in the south or Texas and constantly remind myself that the Beltway does not represent America and that what is received wisdom here is not necessarily - and generally is not - accepted as gospel truth elsewhere in the country.

Equally, for all that parts of American and American life may seem strange, the point to remember is that different does not automatically mean beyond the pale or illegitimate. Diversity comes in many guises. I think some of my colleagues may sometimes forget this. But it is also a sad truth that editors in the UK (and, I fear, readers) enjoy wacky tales of bible-thumping, gun-toting rednecks, no matter how cliched and unrepresentative - or at least distorted - such stories may be. Those stories tend to be easier to get into the paper than, for example, "Bush increases aid to Africa." Sad but true.

For my own part I'll confess to admiring the United States and the enjoyment I feel living here. For all its imperfections it is a remarkable, fascinating, stimulating place to be. Dr Johnson's famous line to the effect that when a man is tired of London he is tired of life rather sums up how I often feel about America.

(This op-ed, from July 4th, gives you some idea of where I'm coming from, should you be interested)

Anyway, this email has gone on long enough. I'm sure you won't need my encouragement to keep up your good work.

yours sincerely

Alex Massie

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Evans goes out with hope

Back in July, Harold Evans was touted by the BBC as “follow[ing] in the footsteps of Alistair Cooke, the man behind Radio 4’s Letter From America for 58 years.” Apparently Evans found the footsteps too hard to follow. After little more than 58 days, Evans has penned his last column. Although TAE has been much critical of Evans in the past, his last piece is worth a read.

He writes about a new book by Sean Wilentz called “The Rise of Democracy in America” which, Evans says, ought to bring some hope to those fretting over the prospects of making a success out of Iraq. The book apparently details the many hurdles that had to be overcome as America was founded and developed, and points out that the prospects of success for democracy in America had at times looked very poor indeed. Evans says:
… The Rise of American Democracy, is not at all about Iraq, but it has hit a nerve here because of the weakening of resolve over Iraq. It confronts Americans with the thought that - compared to generations before them fighting for liberty and equality - they are wimps.
Naturally, a BBC opinion piece involving Iraq would not be complete without the odd attack on the Bush administration here and there, and Evans doesn’t disappoint. Rather than note the mistakes and missteps in the handling of post-invasion Iraq, Evans simply asserts as fact the “reckless failure” of Bush to have any plan at all.

Noting the irony of Republican Bush following in the footsteps of “idealist” Democrat Woodrow Wilson in his attempts to export freedom and democracy, Evans strangely fails to mention the word “neo-con”, despite the fact that this “idealist” agenda is precisely what puts the “neo” in neo-conservative. I suppose the notion of identifying neo-conservatism with “idealism” rather than militaristic Zionism and oil-grabbing is a bit too much for the BBC.

Still, the piece is worth a look, or a listen, even if only for its novelty value as a view of hope on Iraq in a see of doom, gloom and blame that is the standard fare at the BBC.