Walter Pincus of the Washington Post prints a bit of a Wilson-basher today. Why do we care? The current Plame leak coverage has settled on the theme that the White House was determined to "discredit" Wilson. In that context, an understanding of the White House motive might be enriched if the media admitted that Wilson lacked credibility, and that "discrediting" him amounted to correcting the record.
Folks who make it past the summary of Wilson's political history will eventually learn a bit about his veracity. But first, for context, let's use Wolf Blitzer as our benchmark for the Wilson story as the media was presenting it. On July 13, after Wilson's leaks, after the Wilson op-ed, after Tenet explained the background to the Wilson trip, Blitzer summarized the story thusly:
...11 months earlier, you, the Bush administration, had sent Joe Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador to Niger, to find out whether it was true. He came back, reported to the CIA, reported to the State Department, it wasn't true, it was bogus. The whole issue was bogus. And supposedly, you never got word of his report.
That was the media environment which Wilson helped to create. Let's go to the WaPo:
(a) Did Wilson actually see the forged documents?
Wilson told The Washington Post anonymously in June 2003 that he had concluded that the intelligence about the Niger uranium was based on forged documents because "the dates were wrong and the names were wrong." The Senate intelligence committee, which examined pre-Iraq war intelligence, reported that Wilson "had never seen the CIA reports and had no knowledge of what names and dates were in the reports." Wilson had to admit he had misspoken.
On a better day, the WaPo would pick up Wilson's explanation of this apparent error when he spoke to Paula Zahn after the Senate report had criticized his memory:
ZAHN: I want you to respond to that very specific allegation in the addendum to the Senate report, which basically says that your public comments not only are incorrect, but have no basis in fact.
WILSON: Well, I'm not exactly sure what public comments they're referring to. If they're referring to leaks or sources, unidentified government sources in articles that appeared before my article in "The New York Times" appeared, those are either misquotes or misattributions if they're attributed to me.
Hmm, would Mr. Pincus care to address Mr. Wilson's charge that Mr. Pincus misquoted or misattributed Mr. Wilson's remarks in his June 12, 2003 story? Or should we simply add that to the burgeoning "Wilson lacks credibility" file? Imagine our surprise - Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard found Mr. Pincus to be less than forthcoming on this point.
(b) Was Wilson's wife involved in selecting him for the trip?
Wilson has maintained that Plame was merely "a conduit," telling CNN last year that "her supervisors asked her to contact me."
But the Senate committee found that "interviews and documents provided to the committee indicate that his wife . . . suggested his name for the trip." The committee also noted a memorandum from Plame saying Wilson "has good relations" with Niger officials who "could possibly shed light on this sort of activity." In addition, notes on a State Department document surmised that Plame "had the idea to dispatch him" to Niger.
The CIA has always said, however, that Plame's superiors chose Wilson for the Niger trip and she only relayed their decision.
Well. In his book, "The Politics of Truth", Wilson said (p. 346) that "the assertion that Valerie had played any substantive role in the decision to ask me to go to Niger was false on the face of it... So what if she conveyed a request to me to come to the Agency to talk about Niger? She played absolutely no part in the decision to send me there."
On the other hand, TIME couldn't get him to answer that question last summer:
That means Wilson was also shading the story: "Valerie had nothing to do with the matter," he wrote in his 2004 book The Politics of Truth. "She definitely had not proposed that I make the trip." When asked last week by TIME if he still denies that she was the origin of his involvement in the trip, he avoided answering.
(c) Was Cheney, or Cheney's office, briefed on Wilson's report?
On another item of dispute -- whether Vice President Cheney's office inspired the Wilson trip to Niger -- Wilson had said the CIA told him he was being sent to Niger so they could "provide a response to the vice president's office," which wanted more information on the report that Iraq was seeking uranium there. Tenet said the CIA's counterproliferation experts sent Wilson "on their own initiative."
Wilson said in a recent interview: "I never said the vice president sent me or ordered me sent."
He never said that? Here is Kristof from May 2003, with Wilson as a source:
I'm told by a person involved in the Niger caper that more than a year ago the vice president's office asked for an investigation of the uranium deal, so a former U.S. ambassador to Africa was dispatched to Niger.
...The envoy's debunking of the forgery was passed around the administration and seemed to be accepted — except that President Bush and the State Department kept citing it anyway.
More Kristof, June 13, 2003:
Condoleezza Rice was asked on "Meet the Press" on Sunday about a column of mine from May 6 regarding President Bush's reliance on forged documents to claim that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa. That was not just a case of hyping intelligence, but of asserting something that had already been flatly discredited by an envoy investigating at the behest of the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.
...Mr. Cheney's office got wind of [the Niger report] and asked the C.I.A. to investigate.
...My understanding is that while Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet may not have told Mr. Bush that the Niger documents were forged, lower C.I.A. officials did tell both the vice president's office and National Security Council staff members.
(d) Was Wilson's report conclusive? The WaPo gives us this:
Wilson's central assertion -- disputing President Bush's 2003 State of the Union claim that Iraq was seeking nuclear material in Niger -- has been validated by postwar weapons inspections. And his charge that the administration exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq has proved potent.
Wilson also had charged that his report on Niger clearly debunked the claim about Iraqi uranium purchases. He told NBC in 2004: "This government knew that there was nothing to these allegations." But the Senate committee said his findings were ambiguous. Tenet said Wilson's report "did not resolve" the matter. [See Tenet's July 11, 2003 statement].
The WaPo could have done more, but they have moved in the right direction by noting some flaws in Wilson's original stage-setters.
And they are a fountain of insight in comparison with the NY Times. When the Times wrote their long account of the Judy Miller saga and the backstory to the Plame leaks, they made no mention of Nick Kristof's columns, even though his May 6 effort noted above is widely credited with launching Joe Wilson.
On June 12, 2003, the day of the conversation between Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby, The Washington Post published a front-page article reporting that the C.I.A. had sent a retired American diplomat to Niger in February 2002 to investigate claims that Iraq had been seeking to buy uranium there. The article did not name the diplomat, who turned out to be Mr. Wilson, but it reported that his mission had not corroborated a claim about Iraq's pursuit of nuclear material that the White House had subsequently used in Mr. Bush's 2003 State of the Union address.
An earlier anonymous reference to Mr. Wilson and his mission to Africa had appeared in a column by Nicholas D. Kristof in The New York Times on May 6, 2003. Mr. Wilson went public with his conclusion that the White House had "twisted" the intelligence about Iraq's pursuit of nuclear material on July 6, 2003, in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times.
My goodness. It seems finally to have dawned on the Times editors that they can not continue to cover this story under the pretense that Joe Wilson sprang from the earth, fully grown, with his op-ed on July 6.
Will the Times ever get around to acknowledging that much of the material presented by Kristof was not accurate? Will they acknowledge that one possible motivation for the White House attack on Wilson's credibility was that Wilson was not credible?
One day at a time at the Times.