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TWO QUESTIONS! Did Scooter play games with Judith Miller? The Times—and The Lake—overstate: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, APRIL 17, 2006

TWO QUESTIONS: It’s amazing that Bush’s numbers have sunk so low—given the work of the liberal elites who have been chasing Bold Leader around. Let’s consider two recent posts—posts which gave bungled answers to a pair of serious questions. The first question arose from Patrick Fitzgerald’s recent filings, the second from a WashPost report.

FIRST QUESTION: When Scooter Libby discussed the NIE with Judith Miller, did he “cherry-pick” portions of the report?

Yes, said the New York Times this Sunday, in its latest inept editorial. Our analysts simply threw up their hands at the way the editorial began:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (4/16/06): President Bush says he declassified portions of the prewar intelligence assessment on Iraq because he "wanted people to see the truth" about Iraq's weapons programs and to understand why he kept accusing Saddam Hussein of stockpiling weapons that turned out not to exist. This would be a noble sentiment if it actually bore any relationship to Mr. Bush's actions in this case, or his overall record.

Mr. Bush did not declassify the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq—in any accepted sense of that word—when he authorized I. Lewis Libby Jr., through Vice President Dick Cheney, to talk about it with reporters. He permitted a leak of cherry-picked portions of the report. The declassification came later.

The Times makes two or three significant claims here. Let’s run through them as we try to determine if Libby “cherry-picked” the NIE.

First, it hasn’t been shown that Bush “authorized Libby, through Vice President Cheney, to talk about [the NIE] with reporters.” It seems that Libby may have testified that Cheney said that Bush did this. (On this, as on other matters, Patrick Fitzgerald’s prose is unclear.) But this claim hasn’t been shown to be true, and the White House has denied it—in a statement to the New York Times, no less! But the Times omits these basic facts, which muddle the paper’s preferred story.

The Times’ second claim is more significant. Indeed, here we reach our basic question: Did Libby give Miller “cherry-picked portions” of the NIE? That seemed to be Fitzgerald’s claim in his original court filing. But last week, Fitzgerald corrected his original filing—as everyone but the Times editors surely knows. In his new filing, Fitzgerald said that Libby showed Miller the NIE’s “key judgments”—the document’s most strongly-held, consensus claims—and a supporting statement from the body of the document. It seems that Libby didn’t discuss the State Department’s dissent about uranium-from-Africa—but that was a minority view in the NIE, a view which had been rejected by the majority of intelligence agencies. Did Libby “cherry-pick” the NIE? At best, the claim is tortured—the document agreed with the White House position—but in paragraph 4 of its editorial, the Times seems to take this claim even farther. “[T]he version of the facts that Mr. Libby was authorized to divulge was so distorted that it seems more like disinformation than any sincere attempt to inform the public,” the paper writes.

By the way: When the NIE was declassified—just ten days after Libby met with Miller—State’s dissents were included for all to see. As a result, these dissents have been widely discussed, for the past three years. But the Times omitted these facts as well. It only told its well-spun readers that “the declassification came later.”

Did Libby “cherry-pick” from the report? This is a tortured claim—a claim which largely broke down when Fitzgerald corrected his initial, flawed filing. But so what? It’s the story the Times prefers—and the eds maintained it in their editorial by omitting a string of key facts.

On Saturday, though, Jane Hamsher made a separate claim against Libby. This leads to our second question.

SECOND QUESTION: When Libby discussed the NIE with Miller, did he know (and fail to say) that its “key judgments” had simply been wrong?

Yes, said Hamsher in Saturday’s post. “Only this last week we learned what [the Bush Admin] knew then,” she wrote—“the National Intelligence Council had delivered a definitive judgment in January of 2003 that the claims [about Iraq seeking uranium] weren’t credible.” If true, that’s a gigantic piece of news—a huge, major story. To prove her claim, Hamsher offered this passage from a Post report by Barton Gellman—a report which appeared last Sunday:

GELLMAN (4/9/06): Tenet interceded to keep the claim out of a speech Bush gave in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002, but by Dec. 19 it reappeared in a State Department “fact sheet.” After that, the Pentagon asked for an authoritative judgment from the National Intelligence Council, the senior coordinating body for the 15 agencies that then constituted the U.S. intelligence community. Did Iraq and Niger discuss a uranium sale, or not? If they had, the Pentagon would need to reconsider its ties with Niger.

The council ’s reply, drafted in a January 2003 memo by the national intelligence officer for Africa, was unequivocal: The Niger story was baseless and should be laid to rest. Four U.S. officials with firsthand knowledge said in interviews that the memo, which has not been reported before, arrived at the White House as Bush and his highest-ranking advisers made the uranium story a centerpiece of their case for the rapidly approaching war against Iraq. [Hamsher’s emphasis]

According to Gellman, the National Intelligence Council had rendered an “unequivocal” judgment—“the Niger story was baseless and should be laid to rest.” But Gellman’s writing is hopelessly vague here. It’s impossible to know what his statement means—and it seems that Gellman may know this.

According to Gellman, the “council reply” said (“unequivocally”) that “the Niger story was baseless.” But uh-oh! There have been many different “Niger stories” in the past several years. There have been “Niger stories” about buying uranium. There have been “Niger stories” about seeking uranium. And there have been some highly specific “Niger stories” about specific alleged transactions—stories based on those famous documents, docs which turned out to be forged. Which “Niger story” did the council shoot down? There’s no way to tell from Gellman’s account—and not all these “Niger stories” are relevant to the Bush-Wilson dispute. This is truly horrible writing—uselessly vague are essentially worthless, except as a goad to further reporting. To all appearances, Gellman doesn’t know what the council’s report specifically said—and it seems that he may understand this.

When Gellman’s report appeared in the Post, Kevin Drum noticed an obvious oddity. Since this claim seems like such a bombshell, why did Gellman “bury the lede”—place it deep inside his report, restricted to just a few paragraphs? One obvious possible answer: Gellman knew he had weak, imprecise information—that he didn’t really know what this report said. What “Niger story” did this memo shoot down? Gellman shows no sign of knowing. But Hamsher ignores the murk and the gloaming and treats the Gellman report like a bombshell. Unfortunately, it just isn’t a bombshell. A bombshell might be lurking behind it (or not). But so far, there’s no way to tell.

Bush honchos misrepresented a lot of information in the march to war with Iraq. The dissembling began in August 2002 and continued all through that fall and winter, as Woodward explains in Plan of Attack. But that doesn’t mean that the Evildoers dissembled and lied at every turn. They didn’t have to lie about the NIE, because the flawed document largely supported their preferred position. Nor is it clear what that “national intelligence officer for Africa” really said. We know his report was “unequivocal.” We just don’t know what it said.

Special report—The logic of failure!

PART 3—THE LOGIC OF “FAILING” SCHOOLS: Our ed team never works on Patriot’s Day. Our series resumes tomorrow.