The quality of the reporting on the Joe Wilson/Valerie Plame story has been appalling. It raises in stark form the question whether “mainstream” reporters get facts wrong because they are ill-informed, or because they are counting on their readers being ill-informed.
This Seattle Times piece by Bloomberg reporters Holly Rosenkrantz and William Roberts is a case in point. Purporting to be a neutral analysis of the Wilson/Plame controversy, it begins with this astonishing claim:
Two-year-old assertions by former ambassador Joseph Wilson regarding Iraq and uranium, which lie at the heart of the controversy over who at the White House identified a covert U.S. operative, have held up in the face of attacks by supporters of presidential adviser Karl Rove.
“Huh?” say our readers, who know better. How about the Senate Intelligence Committee report? Good question, but one that Rosenkrantz and Roberts have anticipated. They write:
[T]he Senate panel conclusions didn’t discredit Wilson. The committee concluded that the Niger intelligence information wasn’t solid enough to be included in the State of the Union speech. It added that Wilson’s report didn’t change the minds of analysts on either side of the issue, while also concluding that an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate “overstated what the Intelligence Community knew about Iraq’s possible procurement attempts.”
This is a bizarre mischaracterization of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, which you can read in its entirety here, as it relates to Wilson. Let’s recall, first of all, what the “two-year-old assertions” by Joseph Wilson were. Wilson started this whole affair with an autobiographical op-ed in the New York Times dated July 6, 2003. The piece was titled “What I Didn’t Find In Africa,” and it purported to be Wilson’s personal testimony to the effect that Saddam Hussein never tried to buy uranium from Niger. Wilson wrote:
[I]n January, President Bush, citing the British dossier, repeated the charges about Iraqi efforts to buy uranium from Africa.
The next day, I reminded a friend at the State Department of my trip and suggested that if the president had been referring to Niger, then his conclusion was not borne out by the facts as I understood them.
The thrust of Wilson’s attack on the Bush administration was that the famous “sixteen words” in President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech–“The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”–were untrue. Note that Bush said that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Africa, not that it had succeeded.
What did the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report say about Wilson’s trip to Niger? The following, at p. 8 of the report’s “Niger” section:
The intelligence report based on the former ambassador’s [Wilson’s] trip was disseminated on March 8, 2002 … The intelligence report indicated that former Nigerian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki…said that in June 1999, [redacted] businessman, approached him and insisted that Mayaki meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss “expanding commercial relations” between Niger and Iraq. The intelligence report said that Mayaki interpreted “expanding commercial relations” to mean that the delegation wanted to discuss uranium yellowcake sales.
So what Joe Wilson reported orally to the CIA was exactly what President Bush said in his State of the Union address, and the opposite of what Wilson wrote in the New York Times. Iraq did indeed try to buy uranium from Niger, as Niger’s former Prime Minister told Wilson. It is hard to imagine how the Senate report could discredit Wilson any more thoroughly.
It did, though. The Senate committee found that Wilson was an unreliable witness in several respects. When Wilson talked to the Committee’s staff, he related a version of events that was different from the official CIA report that summarized his oral debriefing, and it also contradicted the recollections of the relevant CIA employees. The committee wrote, at p. 9 of its report:
When the former ambassador spoke to Committee staff, his description of his findings differed from the DO intelligence report and his account of information provided to him by the CIA differed from the CIA officials’ accounts in some respects. First, the former ambassador described his findings to Committee staff as more directly related to Iraq and specifically, as refuting the possibility that Niger could have sold uranium to Iraq and that Iraq approached Niger to purchase uranium. The intelligence report…did not refute the possibility that Iraq had approached Niger to purchase uranium.
See also p. 38 of the report, where the Committee notes that most analysts understood Wilson’s report from Niger as supporting the original CIA concerns about a possible uranium deal between Niger and Iraq.
And that’s not all. The Senate committee also found that Wilson falsely leaked to the Washington Post the claim that certain documents purporting to show uranium sales between Niger and Iraq were forgeries because “the names were wrong and the dates were wrong,” when in fact, he had never seen the documents and was not familiar with their contents. See p. 10 of the Committee’s report:
Committee staff asked how the former ambassador could have come to the conclusion that the “dates were wrong and the names were wrong” when he had never seen the CIA reports and had no knowledge of what names and dates were in the reports. The former ambassador said that he may have “misspoken” to the reporter when he said he concluded the documents were “forged.” He said he may have become confused about his own recollection….
The Senate Intelligence Committee also found that Wilson lied about the role played by his wife, Valerie Plame, in his trip to Niger. Wilson wrote in his book, ironically titled The Politics of Truth, “Valerie had nothing to do with the matter. She definitely had not proposed that I make the trip.” In fact, however, the Committee reported at p. 4:
[D]ocuments provided to the committee indicate that [Wilson’s] wife, a CPD employee, suggested his name for the trip. The CPD reports officer told Committee staff that the former ambassador’s wife “offered up his name” and a memorandum to the Deputy Chief of the CPD on February 12, 2002 from the former ambassador’s wife says, “my husband has good relations with both the PM [prime minister] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity.”
The former ambassador was selected for the 1999 trip after his wife mentioned to her supervisors that her husband was planning a business trip to Niger in the near future and might be willing to use his contacts in the region.
So, to sum up: the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report shows that: 1) Wilson lied in the New York Times about what he told the CIA after he returned from Niger. In fact, far from debunking the concern that Iraq may have tried to buy uranium from Niger, Wilson reported that Niger’s former Prime Minister told him that Iraq had made just such an overture in 1999. 2) Wilson lied when he leaked a report to the Washington Post about documents he had not even seen. 3) Wilson lied when he said that his wife Valerie “had nothing to do with” his being chosen to go to Niger.
In the face of this evidence, which is evident to anyone who takes the trouble to read the Committee’s report, Rosenkrantz and Roberts blithely assert that Wilson’s assertions about Africa and uranium “have held up in the face of attacks,” and that “the Senate panel conclusions didn’t discredit Wilson.” Having read the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report with care, I can think of only two possible explanations: either Rosenkrantz and Roberts have not read the report, or they are trying to mislead their readers. In either case, this is a grotesque instance of journalistic malpractice. Sadly, however, it is not untypical of the quality of the liberal media’s reporting on the Wilson/Plame affair.