Apr 19 2006

Washington Post responds to critics

"Two Views" of the truth?

On April 16, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell responded to critics—including FAIR—who questioned her about the paper’s puzzling April 9 editorial, “A Good Leak.” While Howell’s attention to the matter is 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 a 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 wrote that the editorial was composed first, so the news story could not have affected its content. Howell zeroed in on 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.”

In response to these readers who were sent “round the bend,” Howell made two arguments. Her first was 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.” She added that “I have no purview over the editorial policy of The Post.”

Nonetheless, Howell 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 Howell 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.”

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 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.”

But 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 indicates 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 the facts.

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.