A tale of two papers
Physicians have the term "iatrogenic" to describe illness caused by physicians. There is now a need for a new word, "mediagenic," to describe scandals which have their origin in malpractice by the mass media. The indictment of Lewis "Scooter" Libby is a mediagenic scandal.
A review of the origin of the Wilson/Plame firestorm provides insight into the operations and integrity of two leading member of America's elite press corps — the New York Times and The Washington Post. Neither comes off well, though the Post comes off marginally better than the Times. Both, however, launched a serial liar, Joseph Wilson IV, on the public scene and credited him long after prudence would have suggested less credulity, and after independent investigation proved his story not credible.
From the outset both papers were and remain inextricably intertwined with this matter. For all practical purposes, Wilson's claims reached the public stage with a New York Times article in May 2003, written by Nicholas Kristof. Among other things, the article charged that the unnamed "envoy"
...disproved claims by President Bush and Colin Powell that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger so it could build nuclear weapons.... I'm told by a person involved in the Niger caper that more than a year ago the vice president's office asked for an investigation of the uranium deal, so a former U.S. ambassador to Africa was dispatched to Niger. In February 2002, according to someone present at the meetings, that envoy reported to the C.I.A. and State Department that the information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged.
The envoy reported, for example, that a Niger minister whose signature was on one of the documents had in fact been out of office for more than a decade. In addition, the Niger mining program was structured so that the uranium diversion had been impossible. The envoy's debunking of the forgery was passed around the administration and seemed to be accepted — except that President Bush and the State Department kept citing it anyway. "It's disingenuous for the State Department people to say they were bamboozled because they knew about this for a year," one insider said.
This story from the still—unnamed envoy was repeated in a June 12, 2003, article by Walter Pincus of the Washington Post. That Wilson was the unnamed source of this piece is conceded and referenced in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report. For a good year, Wilson continued to receive credulous coverage by the press and these two papers, including the authors of the original pieces, Pincus and Kristof, as Matthew Continetti has so well detailed in the Weekly Standard.
As I have previously noted here, and as anyone who paid the least bit of attention to this (which unfortunately does not include most of the press) all of these claims about the Niger claim were in time debunked as untrue by the SSCI and amplified in the Additional Views filed by the Chair and two Senator members of the Commission.
Here by the way is a good wrap up of the National Intelligence Assessment (NIE) on Iraqi efforts to obtain pure uranium from Africa in case you missed it.
Although we assess that Saddam does not yet have nuclear weapons or sufficient material to make any, he remains intent on acquiring them. Most agencies assess that Baghdad started reconstituting its nuclear program about the time that UNSCOM inspectors departed——December 1998.
The NIE specifically addressed claims of Iraq seeking uranium from Africa:
A foreign government service reported that as of early 2001, Niger planned to send several tons of "pure uranium" (probably yellowcake) to Iraq. As of early 2001, Niger and Iraq reportedly were still working out arrangements for this deal, which could be for up to 500 tons of yellowcake. We do not know the status of this arrangement.
Reports indicate Iraq also has sought uranium ore from Somalia and possibly the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We cannot confirm whether Iraq succeeded in acquiring uranium ore and/or yellowcake from these sources.
And finally, the NIE offered these conclusions with "high confidence":
Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.
We are not detecting portions of these weapons programs.
Iraq possesses proscribed chemical and biological weapons and missiles.
Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons grade fissile material.
There were, to be sure, dissenting opinions included in the NIE. Most notably, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research found the available evidence that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear programs "inadequate." But these judgments were footnotes, figuratively and in some cases literally. Larry Wilkerson, former State Department chief of staff and now an outspoken Bush administration critic, put it this way in a recent speech in which he described the intelligence Colin Powell used for his presentation to the U.N. Security Council. "People say, well, INR dissented. That's a bunch of bull. INR dissented that the nuclear program was up and running. That's all INR dissented on. They were right there with the chems and the bios. . . . The consensus of the intelligence community was overwhelming."
In any event, the report that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa was a minor part of the Adminstration's case, something lost in the repetition of the Wilson lies which magnified and distorted the argument.
Both papers advocated for the independent Commissions .And when these Commissions reported findings inconsistent with those of Wilson and his followers, the papers largely ignored them, though The Washington Post published a far more detailed and factual account of the SSCI than the New York Times. It then paid little attention to those findings and allowed Pincus to continue to cover the story in a similar vein without printing a correction to his initial piece..
The Times printed a similar, but less detailed article on the Commission's findings, but then largely ignored the SSCI findings in its later reporting and it too allowed its reporter, Nicholas Kristof to continue to cover the story without even to this day printing a correction.
Other claims made in the original Kristof story and elsewhere were debunked by the British Butler Commission and the Silberman/Robb Commission, and again for the most part the press, including these papers, has ignored them, continuing to charge or imply in its reportage that the Administration manipulated the evidence for war and that there was no sound basis for concluding that Iraq had sought to purchase yellowcake uranium in Africa.
Keep in mind that the events which ended Friday with the Special Prosecutor's indictment of Libby began with Wilson's sensational charges in Nichoals Kristof's article. Wilson is the "envoy" in the Kristof piece, and he admitted so in his June 14, 2003 speech before the anti—sanctions, anti—Iraq war group EPIC. I am concentrating on the papers' treatment of Wilson's assertions beginning with the May 2003 article to the present because without their sustained campaign, the matter would never have risen to public attention, and the chgain of events would never have been set in motion. They were not simply reporting the news, but rather making the news.
Following Robert Novak's report that Wilson was sent on the mission in part because of the recommendation of his wife, a CIA "operative", the papers joined the call for an investigation, and Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitsgerald was appointed. The President ordered everyone on his Administration to cooperate in the two year long probe and they all did.
Once again both papers were deeply involved. Judith Miller (and possibly Nicholas Kristof) of the New York Times and Walter Pincus and Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post provided evidence in the Special Prosecution which involves the lives and fates of the very people who bore an already enormous burden of trying to find solid intelligence, ironically much of it from Plame's shop in an agency that was and still remains an unreliable source of solid information upon which decisions of moment must be made.
Should the Libby case go to trial, reporters from both papers likely will continue to be an integral part of this story as both as witnesses and as reporters of the trial.
The New York Times has never once informed its readers by correcting the original story that the original report which launched Wilson and his Niger mission into the public arena was utterly discredited by the very bipartisan commission the Times and the rest of the major media said was required to get to the facts of the matter. The object lesson being, I suppose, if the press doesn't like the report which follows the inquiry it supported, it will go on simply pretending their original story was the authentic version of the events.
Last week, almost 2 1/2 years after printing its original false Wilson charges, the Washington Post printed a correction by Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank, a correction made far too long after it was clear that the story was false in every respect. The tardy correction was so grudgingly made one could almost see the club Pincus' editors had held over his head. And even then, this second Pincus—authored piece left in place a serious omission which, on its own, the paper corrected the following day, leaving only a pentimento trace of the last of the Wilson lies first published on June 12, 2003..
And what are the papers' reactions to the Libby indictment? The New York Times defiantly sticks with a lie and the Washington Post acknowledges (now tacitly) for the third time that it set off this enormous distraction by an utterly false charge by a serial liar. From Saturday's Washington Post:
Nevertheless, it is also a fact that Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, after substantially completing his two—year investigation, has brought no criminal charges in the leak of Ms. Plame's identity to journalists and its publication by columnist Robert D. Novak. Judging from the indictment, Mr. Libby was not Mr. Novak's source, and Mr. Libby himself is not charged with any wrongdoing in revealing Ms. Plame's identity to journalists. Though Mr. Fitzgerald says he has not wrapped up his work, that is the right outcome and one that reflects prudent judgment on his part.
The special counsel was principally investigating whether any official violated a law that makes it a crime to knowingly disclose the identity of an undercover agent. The public record offers no indication that Mr. Libby or any other official deliberately exposed Ms. Plame to punish her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Rather, Mr. Libby and other officials, including Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff, apparently were seeking to combat the sensational allegations of a critic. They may have believed that Ms. Plame's involvement was an important part of their story of why Mr. Wilson was sent to investigate claims that Iraq sought uranium ore from Niger, and why his subsequent —— and mostly erroneous —— allegations that the administration twisted that small part of the case against Saddam Hussein should not be credited. To criminalize such discussions between officials and reporters would run counter to the public interest.
From Saturday's New York Times:
The diplomat, Joseph Wilson, went to Niger in 2002 at the request of the Central Intelligence Agency to investigate allegations that Iraq tried to buy uranium to make a nuclear bomb. Mr. Wilson reported back that the uranium story was unfounded, and he later went public with that contention. But Mr. Cheney's team kept on pushing the claim, which was included in President Bush's State of the Union speech in 2003.
Tom Maguire details Kristof's repeated airing of Wilson's lies and notices, as I have, and Kristof's remarkable failure to correct his reporting and the incredible hypocrisy of his Times Select column in which Kristof argues contra—factually:
In a well—hidden Times Select column, Nick Kristof reveals himself to be a bit of an ironist — he exhorts Dick Cheney to come clean about his role in the Plame leak while lying shamelessly about his own....
I gather from the indictment and other sources that Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby were upset in May and June 2003 by a column of mine from May 6, 2003, in which I linked Mr. Cheney to Mr. Wilson's trip to Niger. If Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby thought that my column was unfair, or that Mr. Wilson was exaggerating his role, they had every right to ask for a correction or set the record straight.
But they never raised the issue with me — nor, when Mr. Wilson went public, did they make their case publicly. Certainly the solution was not to leak classified information about Mr. Wilson's wife.
Emphasis added, and indeed not — the solution might have been for George Tenet, then head of the CIA, to issue a public statement explaining Wilson's trip, and noting that, contra Kristof, Wilson had not been sent at Cheney's behest, had not debunked any forgeries (since he had not seen them), and had not provided a definitive report about Iraq's nuclear aspirations. But wait, that is what happened on July 11, just after Wilson went public. Gee, didn't Kristof just say they did not make their case publicly?
A newspaper so enmeshed in repeating lies on critical matters of national importance as the New York Times deserves to die a quick death. To rely on it for important matters after this behavior, is to rely on a thoroughly untrustworthy source. It has become little more than a cocooning plaything: an alternate reality in which the anti—Administration left can feel cozy in their make—believe land.
The Washington Post deserves some credit for having acknowledged the paper's deep involvement in creating and perpetuating a monstrous lie, destructive here and abroad to the conduct of national defense at a very critical time in our history and in the history of the world.Worse their's was a lie which proved a major distraction to people like Mr. Libby, already pressed to the limit with national defense and security concerns.And the distraction was pointless. Wilson's thrusting himself in the public eye itself drew scrutiny to himself and his family and his claim that he'd been sent at the "behest" of the Vice President. The necessity of denying the false impression created by Wilson caused people to probe who selected him for this mission and why. He lied. He showboated. He was caught out, but in the process he painted himself as a victim and gulled the same people again into this enormous distraction from the difficult tasks they were facing on out behalf.
Neither paper deserves our respect for being so uncritical of his claims in the first instance and for having so long kept silent about the truth when it became known. They behaved like the kind of beasts who attack firemen trying to put out a fire and save their neighborhood.The Washington Post reconsidered and pulled back. The New York Times did not, evidently hoping for the flames to win.