Jack Shafer takes up the puzzle of the Nick Kristof column that started it all:
A fossil hunter in search of the origin of the Valerie Plame affair would probably trace it to New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof's May 6, 2003, piece, "Missing In Action: Truth." The column cites anonymous sources to report that a former U.S. ambassador had been "dispatched to Niger" after the office of the vice president requested more information about a purported uranium deal between Iraq and Niger.
But now Jack Shafer gets results:
Addendum, 7 p.m.: Sometime between my morning interview with Kristof and this moment, the columnist posted to his Times Web page a clarification to his May 6, 2003. (You must be a Times Select reader to view the clarification.) So far, so good.
That is my tipping point - as a home subscriber, I am entitled to Times select for free. Free! It is only the baffling sign-up procedure of Times Reject that has daunted me the last three times I tried to exercise my rights, thereby depriving my readership of selected excerpts from MoDo's finest thinking on the events of the day (no, the emailed complaints have not been piling up.)
We are undaunted! Fourth time lucky!
But before we bash on, let's note a few points - first. Mr. Shafer includes an appropriate and understated tribute to Mr. Kristof in his column, which we will repeat here:
What distinguishes Kristof from the usual op-ed blowhard is his devotion to reporting, especially of the get-out-of-New-York-and-Washington variety. You may recall that he and his wife Sheryl WuDunn shared a Pulitzer Prize for their Tiananmen Square coverage.
For more contemporaneous examples he could have mentioned Mr. Kristof's coverage of Darfur, or of the Pakistani rape victims. We don't always keep fairness and perspective front and center here at JustOneBashing, but we would like to imagine it is lurking around the fringes of our coverage.
Secondly, let's note the odd symmetry - both the Nick Kristof and Judy Miller journalistic puzzles surfaced around the time that Howell Raines was stepping aside and Bill Keller was taking over as a consequence of the Jayson Blair debacle in June 2003. Mr. Keller explained recently that he deferred a look at Ms. Miller's WMD reporting (covered here by the unrelenting Jack Shafer) because the Times was in turmoil. Might that also explain the long delay in the Kristof coverage?
MORE: Hey, we are lucky! Here we go, from Mr. Kristof's "not a blog" at the Times, rather than his column: [LATE UPDATE: Nick Kristof made substantial, unnoted revisions to his original post in response to the criticisms below, so some of the excerpts below are now passe. More here.]
The indictment of Scooter Libby has called attention to my May 6, 2003, column, in which I wrote about the Niger uranium events. Some bloggers on the right have been fuming about the column – and since I’m big on Cheney opening windows and being transparent, here’s my effort to do the same.
OK, trench warfare - Bob Somerby was on this too, and much as I would love to think of him as a righty, he would never have it.
One of the criticisms from the right is that it sounds as if the vice president dispatched Wilson to Niger, but I don’t buy that objection. The wording in the column is simply that Cheney asked for more information about the uranium deal, and then the former ambassador was dispatched. And that’s what happened.
Oh, bother. Here is where what might have been a good thing goes sour. On more than one occasion, more than one person has noted that Mr. Kristof wrote TWO columns with Joe Wilson as a key source. Let's go to the lead of his June 13 column:
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.
"At the behest". Do I need to get a dictionary? Do I need to count how many times Chris Matthews used the exact word "behest" on his June 9, 2003 show (the show that might have prompted Lewis Libby's irate call to Tim Russert, for those scoring at home.)
Fine. Per Merriam, "Behest" means:
"an authoritative order : COMMAND;2 : an urgent prompting"
And Chris Matthews used "behest" twice, and "request" once to describe Cheney's role in directing the Wilson trip. Let's not pretend that the May 6 Kristof column is the only problem, or that the June 13 column had no impact.
In fairness, though, it is true that Cheney apparently didn’t know that Wilson had been dispatched. If I’d known that I would have said so.
So now we know. Of course, DCI Tenet said that on July 11, 2003, but hey.
The better objection is that the references to the documents themselves make it sound as if the envoy had the documents in possession, while in fact he didn’t.
"Better objection"? Grrr. How about "the excellent objection, as contrasted with the merely very good one"?
Wilson has said that he misspoke when he made references to the documents to me and to two other journalists. By the time we spoke in 2003, these problems in the documents had been pointed out and were in the public domain, but apparently not in early 2002. So while it’s possible that he reported that the signatures were wrong, that seems to me unlikely.
Emphasis added, and I don't even know what Kristof means. Wilson has also said (to Paula Zahn) that those anonymous statements were "either misquotes or misattributions".
Is Kristof saying it is unlikely that Wilson reported that the documents were wrong? Well, on the one hand, yes, we all agree it is unlikely that he debunked forgeries he had not seen.
Per the Senate Intelligence Committee report, Wilson had not seen any documents at all, summaries or otherwise (although the summaries were discussed, and folks were quite cagey in describing to the Senate just what Wilson was allowed to see). But let's add this - anything Wilson saw at his meeting with the CIA and other intel people preceded his trip to Niger. Did he masterfully debunk a few summaries, then leave to learn about Niger and enjoy the tea? Hey, maybe he is that good.
But then again, in his July 11, 2003 statement, DCI Tenet said this:
There was no mention in the report [based on Wilson's debriefing] of forged documents -- or any suggestion of the existence of documents at all.
So, with Mr. Kristof on board at least we all have come together and agreed that it is unlikely that Wilson debunked any forgeries. But when Kristof says "it’s possible that he reported that the signatures were wrong", let me ask - reported to whom? Kristof was there, wasn't he, taking notes and all. What is "possible" about it? Did it or did it not happen, or doesn't Kristof know?
Is Kristof saying that his column misrepresented or misquoted Wilson? Or did Wilson misspeak, or embellish his discoveries in talking to Kristof? Say the magic words. Please. And while on this point, let's not overlook the June 13, 2003 column, which repeated the same story about debunked forgeries. Did Kristof really mis-hear Wilson on two occasions? It's possible! And I suppose we could follow up with Walter Pincus and the earnest toilers at the New Republic, whose gory stories were documented by Matthew Continetti.
But Mr. Kristof is moving on:
There’s also a suggestion from the right that Wilson was wildly spinning me and others and exaggerating how strongly he debunked the deal.
Really? By odd coincidence, Wilson joined the Kerry campaign as an advisor in mid-May 2003. I am straining to think of a linkage, or a reason for Wilson to spin anyone.
So where does that leave us? I think that the attacks on Wilson are overdone. He clearly was wrong in any hinting that he had seen the documents, but he has acknowledged that. He may have exaggerated how strongly he debunked the documents, but that seems to depend a bit on who was listening.
Well, he acknowledged to Paula Zahn that the anonymous leaks about debunked forgeries were due to the sloppy reporting of others, including Mr. Kristof. Quite a stand-up guy. As to "that seems to depend a bit on who was listening", what does that mean? Kristof, Pincus of the WaPo, and Judis and Ackerman of The New Republic all misheard him? If this is a correction or clarification, I am about ready to turn to something simpler, like the Sunday crossword.
More generally, I find the attacks on a private citizen like Wilson rather distasteful. Sure, he injected himself into the public arena with his op-ed column and TV appearances, and so some scrutiny is fair. But I figure it's more important to examine and probe the credibility of, say, the vice president than a retired ambassador.
Uh huh. The credibility of a private citizen who is working as an adviser to the Kerry campaign is off limits when he is, uhh, misheard all over Washington.
Well, if it will raise Mr. Kristof's comfort level, let's not pretend it is all about Wilson - we are delighted to point out that this is also an attack on the journalistic practices at the Times.
Just for example, Wilson's July 6 op-ed more or less contradicted some of the key points in the early Kristof columns. For instance, Wilson wrote that:
"As for the actual memorandum, I never saw it. But news accounts have pointed out that the documents had glaring errors — they were signed, for example, by officials who were no longer in government — and were probably forged..."
Did that tinkle any bells at the Times? Right about July 6 might have been a good time for Mr. Kristof to offer an "Ooops" column. Or maybe the Times editors could have alerted their readers to the possibility that their guest contributor had been changing his story over the past few months. Or something.
Let's see how the Times described Mr. Wilson in his signed guest piece:
Joseph C. Wilson 4th, United States ambassador to Gabon from 1992 to 1995, is an international business consultant.
Well, he was also an adviser to the Kerry campaign, back when Kerry was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Did the Times fail to detect that in their sleuthing, or did they think people would laugh at loud over their Sunday coffee if they read, basically, "Kerry adviser attacks Bush".
And was the Times utterly unaware that Ms. Wilson was at the CIA, in the same division that was locked in a bitter dispute with the White House over the use of pre-war intelligence? Andrea Mitchell of NBC knew that Ms. Plame was at the CIA (and said it was widely known among reporters on that beat), but she did not know where in the CIA. And, per Vanity Fair, Nick Kristof had breakfast with Mr. and Mrs. Wilson while Joe told his story. Did they exchange knowing looks? (We will parse Mr. Kristof's "denial" at the bottom).
Maybe a Times investigation would have prompted the following hypothetical identification of Mr. Wilson, author of the guest op-ed:
Joseph C. Wilson IV, the former Ambassador to Gabon, is a Kerry adviser. Mr. Wilson is married to a CIA officer engaged in a dispute with the White House and his story has been changing over the past few months, but here is his latest version.
That would have made for honest, but possibly low-impact, journalism.
Oh, well, hail progress. Mr. Kristof acknowledges what? He spoke to Wilson, and mistakes were made. A bold first step.
DID Mr. Kristof use Valerie Plame as a source? See below:
On Oct. 11, 2003, Mr. Kristof broke major news about Ms. Plame's history at the CIA, telling us that she was moved into an early retirement path in 1994 after possibly being outed by Aldrich Ames.
He also described his own reporting relationship with Ms. Plame:
I know Mrs. Wilson, but I knew nothing about her CIA career and hadn't realized she's "a hell of a shot with an AK-47,'' as a classmates at the CIA training "farm,'' Jim Marcinkowski, recalls. I'll be more careful around her, for she also turns out to be skilled in throwing hand grenades and to have lived abroad and run covert operations in some of the world's messier spots. (Mrs. Wilson was not a source for this column or any other that I've written about the intelligence community.)
Well. "I knew nothing about her CIA career" might mean:
(a) I had no idea she was at the CIA;
(b) I knew she was at the CIA, but I had no idea what she did.
(c) I know what she is doing at the CIA *now*, but I had no idea of the career path that brought her here.
"Mrs. Wilson was not a source for this column or any other that I've written about the intelligence community" is a bit better, but what an odd caveat to include "about the intelligence community" - were the May 6 and June 13 columns about the intelligence community? Or were they about Dick Cheney and the White House misuse of intelligence, with the intelligence community as minor players? Was Ms. Plame a source for some unrelated column from yesteryear about, for example, Iran's nuclear aspirations?
I would think a direct statement would be easy and appropriate - was Ms. Plame a source for the May 6 column, and/or the June 13 column? Was she a source for any earlier columns?
If this Oct 11, 2003 denial is meant to be a denial, then there is no harm in clarifying it.
Of course, if it is meant to be a tap dance, well, here we go again.
And yes, I understand that there are source confidentiality issues. But there is also a little issue of journalistic ethics - if the Times ran the Wilson piece without disclosing the marital conflict of interest, and then sat back and wrung their hands about the leak of infromation which their reporter already knew, well, that is a problem too.