Playing Hardball With Secrets
For more than two years, Senate Republicans have dragged out an investigation into how the Bush administration came to use bogus intelligence on Iraq to justify a war. A year ago, Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called it "a monumental waste of time" to consider whether the White House manipulated intelligence to exaggerate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
Meanwhile, the evidence has steadily mounted that President Bush and his team not only did that before the war, but kept right on doing it after the invasion. The most recent additions to this pile came yesterday, in reports by The New York Sun, The National Journal and other news organizations on documents from the case against Lewis Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney who is charged with lying about the unmasking of Valerie Wilson, a covert C.I.A. agent.
According to these papers, Mr. Libby testified that President Bush authorized him to tell reporters about classified intelligence on Iraq as part of an effort to discredit Mrs. Wilson's husband, Joseph Wilson, a retired diplomat who had cast doubt on the claim that Iraq tried to acquire uranium for nuclear bombs from Niger. The National Journal reported that Mr. Libby has also said that Mr. Cheney authorized him to leak classified information before the invasion to make the case for war.
Emphasis added throughout. Regarding the "unmasking of... a covert C.I.A. agent", it is clear that Ms. Plame's status was classified, but does the Times actually know that she was "covert" as defined by the Intelligence Identities Protection Act? A key open issue is whether she served abroad in the last five years [See Kleiman, York, or yours truly]. That is evidence currently being sought by the Libby defense team and withheld by Fitzgerald (if it exists), so the Times ought to break this scoop - if, in fact, they have any idea what they are talking about. They sort of grasped this point in February 2005, but perhaps they have moved on.
On "President Bush authorized him to tell reporters... as part of an effort to discredit ... Joseph Wilson", a casual reader might infer that President Bush was specifically apprised of the motivation behind NIE disclosure. In fact, the Fitzgerald filing does not address Bush's state of mind in approving the disclosure, nor was Libby privy to that conversation, which, per Libby's testimony, took place between Bush and Cheney. In any event, if rebutting one's critics is a crime, all of Washington should be locked up. Hmm, we're not afraid of Big Ideas... Well, let's press on:
Mr. Wilson was sent by the administration to Niger to check out the report that Iraq tried to buy uranium in the late 1990's. He concluded that it was bogus and said so in a Times Op-Ed article in July 2003. In response, the administration leaked word that Mr. Wilson's wife was a C.I.A. agent.
Wow. The editors seem to have forgotten what Joe Wilson actually wrote, and what he actually reported. I have more detail in this post, but the gist is, Wilson did not report that Iraq had not *tried* to buy uranium from Niger; in fact, he reported on a 1999 Iraqi approach which appeared to be exactly that. He did report that he did not believe such a sale was consummated, which is a different matter. One might expect the Times editors to be aware of this distinction.
As to their statement that "In response, the administration leaked word that Mr. Wilson's wife was a C.I.A. agent", let's note that Woodward received a Plame leak in mid-June 2003, prior to the Wilson op-ed. Cause, effect, tedium. Maybe they should mention those great Kristof columns.
The Times also pounds the table on the aluminum tubes, which, in a particular left-wing constellation, have replaced the Niger uranium as the shining star for the case that Saddam had nuclear aspirations:
According to The National Journal, that document said the State Department and the Energy Department had concluded that it also was not true that Iraq bought aluminum tubes to enrich uranium. During his State of the Union address in 2003, Mr. Bush said flatly that it was true.
Flatly? No, he didn't. Here we go from January 2003:
Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.
That is the sort of caveatted, carefully phrased statement that ought to infuriate any of the President's critics who trouble themselves to read it (We infer that the Times editors have not done so). One might guess that the wording carefully reflected the dispute which was revealed in July 2003 with the partial declassification of the NIE. Here we go with excerpts on the aluminum tubes:
Most agencies believe that Saddam's personal interest in and Iraq's aggressive attempts to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes for centrifuge rotor - as well as Iraq's attempts to acquire magnets, high-speed balancing machines, and machine tools - provide compelling evidence that Saddam is reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for Baghdad's nuclear weapons program. (DOE agrees that reconstitution of the nuclear program is underway but assesses that the tubes probably are not part of the program.)
And later, in the famous INR dissent:
The Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research (INR) believes that Saddam continues to want nuclear weapons and that available evidence indicates that Baghdad is pursuing at least a limited effort to maintain and acquire nuclear weapon-related capabilities. The activities we have detected do not, however, add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what INR would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons.
...In INR's view Iraq's efforts to acquire aluminum tubes is central to the argument that Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, but INR is not persuaded that the tubes in question are intended for use as centrifuge rotors. INR accepts the judgment of technical experts at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) who have concluded that the tubes Iraq seeks to acquire are poorly suited for use in gas centrifuges to be used for uranium enrichment and finds unpersuasive the arguments advanced by others to make the case that they are intended for that purpose.
The DOE thought the tubes were "poorly suited" for use in centrifuges; what the President's wordsmiths had written was that the tubes "were suitable" for such use, which was probably true. Only the Times editors know what logical leap they undertook to get to "Mr. Bush said flatly that it was true" that "Iraq bought aluminum tubes to enrich uranium".
But parsing aside, the Times theme is that the aluminum tubes (not, any more, the 16 Words and the Niger uranium) were what crystallized the case for war. In fact, even the NIE dissenters believed that Saddam had nuclear aspirations; they simply did not believe that the tubes were proof of it.
UPDATE: Lots more on the faux aluminum tubes controversy from Seixon. We especially like this [But was this publicly available in October 2002? I want to believe! And per the Times, the CIA did release an unclassified version of the NIE on Oct 4, 2002.]:
[Folks promoting this new controversy] always makes news out of things that aren’t, simply by fooling the reader into believing that it is news in some way. All of this is quite simple to show, and I will.
...[The attack theme is that] Bush would be severely damaged if the public knew that the president might have been made aware of the aluminum tubes dissenting opinions? I see. Well, that’s quite odd, since the public unclassified intelligence assessment on Iraq was released in October 2002 containing the following passage:
Iraq’s aggressive attempts to obtain proscribed high-strength aluminum tubes are of significant concern. All intelligence experts agree that Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons and that these tubes could be used in a centrifuge enrichment program. Most intelligence specialists assess this to be the intended use, but some believe that these tubes are probably intended for conventional weapons programs.
In other words, anyone with eyesight and a knack for reading comprehension in the United States could have seen that some intelligence specialists thought the tubes were intended for conventional weapons.
UNRELENTING: The Times editors assert that "Mr. Wilson was sent by the administration to Niger". Really? Per the Wilson account, he was sent by "officials at the Central Intelligence Agency"; per George Tenet, Wilson was sent by "CIA's counter-proliferation experts, on their own initiative"; per Robert Novak,
The CIA's decision to send retired diplomat Joseph C. Wilson to Africa in February 2002 to investigate possible Iraqi purchases of uranium was made routinely at a low level without Director George Tenet's knowledge.
My point - "Administration official" normally denotes someone whose career in the Executive Branch ebbs and flows with the political tides of new elections. For example, Tenet and his top aides at the CIA are political appointees who could properly have been described as "Administration officials".
The Wilson trip was arranged by CIA careerists who would, in an honest editorial, be described as "government officials".
I have no doubt that the Times editors deal with these sourcing issues on a daily basis and are fully capable of distinguishing between "government" and "Administration" officials, so it is hard to believe this mistake is accidental. As an example, look at their big James Risen story from Dec 16 2005 which broke the NSA warrantless eavesdropping. Here is the lead:
WASHINGTON, Dec. 15 - Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.