Sunday, July 10, 2005
Rehabilitating Joseph Wilson: Once America's most prestigious paper, The New York Times continues to go down the tubes. Today's column by Frank Rich would be acceptable, if questionable, journalism had it been published on or before July 6, 2004. Today, it's just a big correction waiting to happen -- that is, if editorial page editor Gail Collins had an ounce of journalistic ethics. [For the record: My request for a correction to an false statement in a Times editorial has elicitied only an automated response from public editor Byron Calame.]
WHEN John Dean published his book "Worse Than Watergate" in the spring of 2004, it seemed rank hyperbole: an election-year screed and yet another attempt by a Nixon alumnus to downgrade Watergate crimes by unearthing worse "gates" thereafter. But it's hard to be dismissive now that my colleague Judy Miller has been taken away in shackles for refusing to name the source for a story she never wrote. No reporter went to jail during Watergate. No news organization buckled like Time. No one instigated a war on phony premises. This is worse than Watergate.
In other words, back in June 2004 Frank Rich had not completely succumbed to Bush Derangement Syndrome -- that's changed now. As the Wall Street Journal has pointed out numerous times, this is not the Bush White House "getting" reporters. This is an independent prosecutor gone wild -- an independent prosecutor that the Times and the rest of the mainstream media demanded.
This, however, is the least of Rich's crimes against journalism. Rich ignores the Senate Intelligence Committee report [PDF file] that came out just over a year ago.
Specifically, it began with the former ambassador Joseph Wilson's July 6, 2003, account on the Times Op-Ed page (and in concurrent broadcast appearances) of his 2002 C.I.A. mission to Africa to determine whether Saddam Hussein had struck a deal in Niger for uranium that might be used in nuclear weapons. Mr. Wilson concluded that there was no such deal, as my colleague Nicholas Kristof reported, without divulging Mr. Wilson's name, that spring. But the envoy's dramatic Op-Ed piece got everyone's attention: a government insider with firsthand knowledge had stepped out of the shadows of anonymity to expose the administration's game authoritatively on the record. He had made palpable what Bush critics increasingly suspected, writing that "some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."
Up until that point, the White House had consistently stuck by the 16 incendiary words in President Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." The administration had ignored all reports, not just Mr. Wilson's, that this information might well be bogus. But it still didn't retract Mr. Bush's fiction some five weeks after the State of the Union, when Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, announced that the uranium claim was based on fake documents. Instead, we marched on to war in Iraq days later. It was not until Mr. Wilson's public recounting of his African mission more than five months after the State of the Union that George Tenet at long last released a hasty statement (on a Friday evening, just after the Wilson Op-Ed piece) conceding that "these 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president."
This would be well and good had it been published before the Senate Intelligence Committee report, but today they are nothing more than lies. To put Rich and Wilson, in the best possible light I refer you to FactCheck.org.
The famous "16 words" in President Bush's Jan. 28, 2003 State of the Union address turn out to have a basis in fact after all, according to two recently released investigations in the US and Britain.
Bush said then, "The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa ." Some of his critics called that a lie, but the new evidence shows Bush had reason to say what he did.
- A British intelligence review released July 14 calls Bush's 16 words "well founded."
- A separate report by the US Senate Intelligence Committee said July 7 that the US also had similar information from "a number of intelligence reports," a fact that was classified at the time Bush spoke.
- Ironically, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who later called Bush's 16 words a "lie", supplied information that the Central Intelligence Agency took as confirmation that Iraq may indeed have been seeking uranium from Niger .
- Both the US and British investigations make clear that some forged Italian documents, exposed as fakes soon after Bush spoke, were not the basis for the British intelligence Bush cited, or the CIA's conclusion that Iraq was trying to get uranium.
None of the new information suggests Iraq ever nailed down a deal to buy uranium, and the Senate report makes clear that US intelligence analysts have come to doubt whether Iraq was even trying to buy the stuff. In fact, both the White House and the CIA long ago conceded that the 16 words shouldn't have been part of Bush's speech.
But what he said - that Iraq sought uranium - is just what both British and US intelligence were telling him at the time. So Bush may indeed have been misinformed, but that's not the same as lying.
For a less sugar-coated version, we turn to Powerline.
So: what Wilson actually told the CIA, contrary to his own oft-repeated claims, is that he was told by the former mining minister of Niger that in 1998, Iraq had tried to buy 400 tons of uranium from that country, and that Iraq's overture was renewed the following year. What Wilson reported to the CIA was exactly the same as what President Bush said in his 2003 State of the Union address: there was evidence that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Africa.
Recall Wilson's famous op-ed in the New York Times, published on July 6, 2003, which ignited the whole firestorm over the famous "sixteen words" in Bush's State of the Union speech. In that op-ed, Wilson identified himself as the formerly-unnamed person who had gone to Niger to investigate rumors of a possible uranium deal between Iraq and Niger. Here are the key words in Wilson's article:
[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.
It was this flat-out lie about what Wilson learned in Niger, and what he reported to the CIA upon his return, that fueled the "sixteen words" controversy and led to the publication of Wilson's best-selling account, titled, ironically, The Politics of Truth.
One can only conclude that Joseph Wilson has perpetrated one of the most astonishing hoaxes in American history. But here is what I really don't get: didn't the administration have access to all of this information about Wilson's report? And if so, why didn't they use it when Wilson was dominating the news cycle with his lies?
Despite all of this, Rich is attempting to writes as though the Senate Intelliegence Committee investigation never happened. Rich goes on to slime the Bush administration for continuing to pursue some conspiracy to "get" Wilson. Of course, this might make sense if Wilson still has any credibility -- he doesn't, but Rich can get away with this only by ignoring the problem.
I'm also amused at Rich's complaint about the timing of releasing information on Fridays. You'd think that he'd just drop the entire idea for good after it bites him on the butt.
The New York Times is a propaganda rag nowadays. It's disturbing just how far it has fallen in such a short time.