Apr
13
2006

Intelligence Manipulation at the Washington Post

Paper's editorial page ignores facts to back Bush

(NOTE: Please see the Activism Update regarding this alert.)

Newspaper editorial pages are entitled to their own opinions—but not to their own facts. The Washington Post's editorial page, however, seems to want to have it both ways.

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."

But the actual National Intelligence Estimate did not support the White House's claims about uranium, nor did Wilson's report. 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 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 the actual document has been noted by other reporters (Newsweek.com, 10/19/05).

The Post seems to have based its 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."

But 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 July 8, 2003), 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?

ACTION:

Contact the Washington Post and ask whether its editorial page must adhere to the same rules as its reporters-namely, that it get its facts right.

CONTACT:

Washington Post

Editorial Page Editor

Fred Hiatt

fredhiatt@washpost.com

(202) 334-6000

Ombudsman

Deborah Howell

ombudsman@washpost.com

(202) 334-7582