May 1 2006

Intelligence Manipulation at the Washington Post

Editorial page ignores facts to back Bush

Newspaper editorial pages are entitled to their own opinions—but not to their own facts. That seems to be a distinction that the Washington Post has a hard time making these days.

The paper’s April 9 editorial, “A Good Leak,” defended the White House’s actions amid new revelations in the investigation of the leaking of an undercover CIA employee’s name to reporters. CIA analyst Valerie Plame Wilson was outed by administration sources in July 2003 after her husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson, publicly challenged a key White House argument for war—that Iraq was attempting to procure uranium from Africa.

Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald recently filed new documents indicating that Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, testified that he was authorized by George W. Bush to release portions of a classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) to reporters to rebut Wilson’s criticisms of the case for war.

The Post editorial supported Bush’s action, which is the paper’s prerogative. But it backed up its positions with an inaccurate claim: “The material that Mr. Bush ordered declassified established, as have several subsequent investigations, that Mr. Wilson was the one guilty of twisting the truth. In fact, his report supported the conclusion that Iraq had sought uranium.”

In fact, neither Wilson’s report nor the actual National Intelligence Estimate supported the White House’s claims about uranium. That much was clear in the news section of the same day’s Washington Post. The paper’s reporting showed that Wilson’s findings—that there was “no support for charges that Iraq tried to buy uranium” in Niger—were consistent with what many intelligence analysts thought about the allegations. In the body of the NIE, according to the Post, the uranium allegations were treated skeptically:

Unknown to the reporters, the uranium claim lay deeper inside the estimate, where it said a fresh supply of uranium ore would “shorten the time Baghdad needs to produce nuclear weapons.” But it also said U.S. intelligence did not know the status of Iraq’s procurement efforts, “cannot confirm” any success and had “inconclusive” evidence about Iraq’s domestic uranium operations.

The Post news report added that in closed Senate testimony in September 2002, top CIA officials expressed reservations about the uranium claim—and they weren’t the only ones: “The State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, likewise, called the claim ‘highly dubious.’ For those reasons, the uranium story was relegated to a brief inside passage in the October estimate.” The disconnect between what Libby was alleging was in the NIE and what the document actually said has been noted by other reporters (, 10/19/05).

The Post editorialists seem to have based their argument on a Senate Intelligence Committee report, which some suggest debunked Wilson’s claims (Washington Post, 7/10/04). That report found that some CIA analysts believed Wilson’s findings backed up their conclusions, though skeptics (most notably at the State Department) were unmoved. As Knight Ridder reported (7/10/04), the Senate report found “that State Department analysts concluded that Wilson’s information supported their view that there wasn’t much substance to the Iraq-Niger link.”

To reach the conclusion that Wilson was “the one guilty of twisting the truth” also ignores a long-established part of the story—namely, that the CIA was trying to remove the Niger story from Bush’s speeches long before the decision to leak parts of the NIE to the media. And the White House itself admitted in July 2003—shortly after Wilson went public—that the Niger allegation should have been kept out of Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union address.

The Washington Post covered this story extensively at the time (beginning on 7/8/03), reporting at length on efforts by the CIA (7/23/03) to keep the uranium claim out of Bush’s public remarks about Iraq. On July 20, the Post’s Dana Priest reported that

recent revelations by officials at the CIA, the State Department, the United Nations, in Congress and elsewhere make clear that the weakness of the claim in the State of the Union speech was known and accepted by a wide circle of intelligence and diplomatic personnel scrutinizing information on Iraqi weapons programs months before the speech.

So why is the paper’s editorial page still arguing that the White House had a strong case against Wilson—especially on a claim that the White House has long admitted was incorrect?

“Two Views” of the Truth?

On April 16, Washington Post ombud Deborah Howell responded to critics—including FAIR—who questioned her about the paper’s puzzling editorial. While Howell’s attention to the matter was appreciated, her response avoided the most important issue: whether the paper’s editorial page got its facts right.

Much of Howell’s column (headlined “Two Views of the Libby Leak Case”) concerned the disconnect between the editorial and the Post news story that appeared on the same day, which established that the National Intelligence Estimate that Dick Cheney aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby selectively disclosed to the press did not back up the White House’s claims about Iraq’s intent to import yellowcake uranium from Niger. Since the Post editorial argued that the disclosure was a helpful attempt to explain the White House’s case for invasion and rebut war critic Joseph Wilson, many readers objected that the editorial’s argument was at odds with the facts.

Howell acknowledged the heart of the factual dispute, writing:

The passage in the Post editorial that sent war critics round the bend was this one: “Mr. Wilson was the one guilty of twisting the truth. In fact, his report supported the conclusion that Iraq had sought uranium.”

While issuing the disclaimer that “I have no purview over the editorial policy of the Post,” Howell offered a response to these “round the bend” readers. She first argued that “it’s important to remember that the articles and the editorial are looking back at June and July of 2003, seeking to add historical context to what we knew then.”

Howell then offered support for the editorial page, arguing that reports of a “trade meeting between officials of Iraq and Niger” might support the White House’s claims—though she admitted that “news accounts have said there was no talk of uranium.” It’s not clear how that would show that Wilson was, in the words of the Post editorial, “the one guilty of twisting the truth.” (Wilson’s conclusion that there was no Niger/Iraq uranium deal was based largely on his observation that such a deal would have been impossible—New York Times, 7/6/03).

When Howell asked editorial page editor Fred Hiatt for his response, he cited a British investigation into Iraq intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on Iraq to bolster the paper’s argument. Specifically, Hiatt pointed to one of the Senate report’s conclusions, which read in part, “The report on the former ambassador’s trip to Niger . . . did not change any analysts’ assessments.” Since, as noted, that conclusion also stated that State Department analysts continued to challenge the uranium claim, it’s not particularly strong evidence for the claim that Wilson’s “report supported the conclusion that Iraq had sought uranium.”

In a debate about intelligence cherry-picking, Hiatt was doing just that—and Howell let him get away with it. The quote cited by Hiatt is just one of several “Niger Conclusions” offered in the Senate report. Conclusion 16 would seem to undermine the Post’s argument:

The language in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that “Iraq also began vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake” overstated what the Intelligence Community knew about Iraq’s possible procurement attempts.

Or the Post could have cited Conclusion 12, which pointed out that intelligence analysts first learned in October 2002—several months before Bush’s State of the Union speech—that the supporting evidence for the Iraq-Niger claims were actually forged documents. The Senate report also held that CIA officials should have tried more vigorously to remove the Niger comments from Bush’s State of the Union speech—which was, after all, the event that prompted Wilson to come forward in the first place.

Howell wrote that “some readers think it’s a scandal when two parts of the newspaper appear to be in conflict with each other.” That misses the real point—what readers take issue with is when a newspaper’s editorial position is in conflict with reality.

Howell also wrote that more “context” in the editorial would have helped, adding: “It also could have used a sentence to say what is known in every newsroom: Leaks are good for journalism.” But the word “leak” should generally be reserved for unauthorized revelations of information the government wants to keep secret; Libby’s disclosure is best described as a “plant,” an attempt by the government to anonymously place information or misinformation in the media without accountability. If journalists are unable—or unwilling—to understand such distinctions, that’s bad news for journalism indeed.