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FINALLY! I never claimed to debunk Bush’s claim, Wilson says. We warned you about this last year:
TUESDAY, JULY 20, 2004

HEY PAULA: It’s Joe Wilson Day at the DAILY HOWLER, so why not start with last evening’s nightmare—Wilson’s appearance on Paula Zahn Now. Paula asked Joe five questions. Here’s our quick rundown:
Question 1: Sensible question by Zahn. Disingenuous answer by Wilson. (Details below.)

Question 2: Sensible question by Zahn. Responding, Wilson misstates what he said in his original New York Times op-ed piece. Zahn, of course, doesn’t notice.

Question 3: Zahn is now reaching the limits of her knowledge. Her question attributes a statement to William Safire, when, in fact, the statement was made by the unanimous Senate Intelligence Committee. Wilson surely sees the error, but takes advantage of her mistake. (Details below.)

Question 4: Worthless question. Pointless answer.

Question 5: Bizarr-o question. Scripted answer to a different question, a basic question which Zahn failed to ask.

In short, Zahn had conducted a hapless interview. Then, in closing, she made these bizarr-o end-comments:
ZAHN: Ambassador Wilson, we have to leave it there. Thank you for joining us tonight. We do need to button this off by reminding people that this bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report states that his wife had, indeed, proposed his name for the Niger mission. We leave it up to you to wade through all of these facts.
In fact, the Committee report is less clear on that matter than Zahn suggests. And is she “reminding” viewers of what the report said? In fact, Zahn had never mentioned this topic at any prior point in the interview. She was making a shaky assertion—an assertion she had not made before.

In short, a typical session for cable “news.” Zahn’s performance was utterly hapless; Wilson’s answers were often disingenuous. But so it has gone as the Honest Ambassador has returned to the spotlight in the past week. At the end of last week, many readers wrote to say that we simply had to review Wilson’s letters to Salon and the Washington Post. We perform that service today. Sometimes you get what you wish for.

FINALLY: At the end of last week, many readers sent us Joe Wilson’s letter to the chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a copy of which had appeared in Salon. Readers praised Wilson’s refutation of charges made in last week’s Committee report.

But Wilson’s letters have been quite disingenuous. (He also wrote to the Washington Post, published Saturday). In fact, both Wilson letters evaded the claims that were made in the Senate Committee report. He set up (and knocked down) pitiful Straw Men, as he did when he appeared on Sunday’s Late Edition. Sorry, but we can’t share our readers’ assessment of Wilson’s performance last week.

For the record, one charge against Wilson strikes us as fairly trivial. Several charges are more serious. But, since readers asked us to comment on his brilliant rebuttals, we do so below.

Question One: Did Wilson’s wife suggest his name?

Did Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, suggest his name for the trip to Niger? This has been a relatively trivial issue from the time it first arose. No one has ever really explained why it would matter if Plame played a role in her husband’s selection. But at any rate, this charge has been “rebutted” by Wilson this week, and—since you asked us to look at what he has said—his “rebuttals” have been typically disingenuous.

For the record, here is what the Intelligence Committee said on this subject. We quote from the main body of the report, which was unanimously adopted by nine Republicans and eight Dems:

INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE REPORT (page 39): Some CPD officials could not recall how the office decided to contact the former ambassador, however, interviews and documents provided to the committee indicate that his wife, a CPD employee, suggested his name for the trip.
The bad punctuation is in the report. At any rate, one of the documents referenced here is a memo from Wilson’s wife on February 12, 2002. The Committee report quotes from her memo. “[M]y husband has good relations with both the PM [Prime Minister] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity,” Plame wrote on that date, discussing the possible trip to Niger. But Wilson has always insisted—sometimes quite dramatically—that Plame played no role in his selection. Here’s the way he put it in his book, The Politics of Truth:
WILSON (page 5): I tried to figure out why the administration would take this tack. What were they trying to suggest to the press? Were they trying to suggest that my wife had somehow influenced a decision to send me to the middle of the Sahara Desert? Were they implying that this had been nepotism, or some kind of a junket?...

Apart from being the conduit of a message from a colleague in her office asking if I would be willing to have a conversation about Niger’s uranium industry, Valerie had had nothing to do with the matter.

The matter at issue is fairly trivial, but Wilson’s claim is hard to reconcile with the evidence of Plame’s memo. Clearly, Plame had something to do with Wilson’s selection, although there may be nothing wrong with the role she seems to have played. But when Wilson spoke to this issue last week, he did what he so typically does—he erected, then knocked down, a pair of Straw Men. For simplicity sake, let’s review the relevant portion of his letter to the Washington Post:
WILSON (letter to the Washington Post): The decision to send me to Niger was not made, and could not be made, by Valerie. At the conclusion of a meeting that she did not attend, I was asked by CIA officials whether I would be willing to travel to Niger. While a CIA reports officer and a State Department analyst, both cited in the report, speculate about what happened, neither of them was in the chain of command that made the decision to send me.
In this passage, Wilson says that his wife did not make “the decision to send me to Niger.” But the Senate report makes no such assertion, as Post ombudsman Michael Getler noted in his Sunday column. And, having knocked down this first Straw Man, Wilson quickly established another; he described the meeting at which CIA officials asked him to go to Niger. Plame “did not attend,” he says. But this meeting—which occurred on February 19, 2002—is irrelevant to the claim in the Senate report. The actual claim is that, some time on or before February 12, Plame “suggested Wilson’s name” for the trip. As noted, no one has ever really explained why it should matter if Plame did this. But this letter to the Post is vintage Wilson. It sets up—then knocks down—a pair of Straw Men when it says that Plame didn’t make the decision and wasn’t even present at the 2/19 meeting. This sounds like a pleasing rebuttal—to those who haven’t read the Committee report.

Wilson also mentions this irrelevant 2/19 meeting in his letter to the Committee chairmen—although he is a bit more accurate on the question of Plame’s attendance:

WILSON (letter to the Intelligence Committee): In fact, Valerie was not in the meeting at which the subject of my trip was raised. Neither was the CPD reports officer. After having escorted me into the room, she [Valerie] departed the meeting to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest. It was at that meeting where the question of my traveling to Niger was broached with me for the first time...
In this letter, Wilson notes that Plame was in fact present at the start of this 2/19 meeting. (According to the Senate report, Plame “told Committee staff that she only attended the meeting to introduce her husband and left after about three minutes.”) (In his book, Wilson also fudges this point, saying only that “she was not at the meeting.”) These are minor points about a trivial matter, but they typify Wilson’s persistent love of fudge. Remember: This 2/19 meeting is wholly irrelevant to the question at issue. But having raised the meeting as a Straw Man, Wilson overstates the facts, saying that Plame was not present when, according to the Committee report, she actually did “attend the meeting to introduce her husband.”

Did Plame suggest Wilson for the trip? Wilson says she didn’t, and we don’t much see why anyone cares. But Wilson slightly fudges the facts about this. Indeed, David Corn, defending Wilson, says, “It may be that in some of his public remarks, Wilson underplayed his wife's involvement in his trip.” To us, this topic is largely trivial. But Wilson’s erection of Straw Men and fudging of facts are typical of the way he does things. More such conduct follows from Wilson—about topics that actually do matter.

Question Two: Did Wilson mislead the Washington Post?

In his letter to Roberts and Rockefeller, Wilson responds (or pretends to respond) to a claim that isn’t trivial. He responds to a claim made by Chairman Roberts and two other Republicans—a charge made in the part of the report given over to “Additional Comments” from Committee members. Here is one of charges by the three senators—a murky charge which they flesh out by citing particular incidents:

ROBERTS/BOND/HATCH (page 443): Rather than speaking publicly about his actual experiences during his inquiry of the Niger issue, the former ambassador seems to have included information he learned from press accounts and from his beliefs about how the Intelligence Community would have or should have handled the information he provided.
In short, the senators charge that Wilson tended to say more than he actually knew. In part, the senators refer to a matter described in the body of the report—the part of the report unanimously accepted by the Committee. According to the Committee report, Wilson misstated to Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, in an interview for a 6/12/03 report—an interview conducted at a time when Wilson was still anonymous. According to the report, Wilson told Pincus that he had determined, as part of his trip, that the famous Niger documents were forged. The problem: Wilson had never seen these forged documents. Indeed, the documents weren’t even in US hands when he took his trip to Niger. According to the Committee report, Wilson “told Committee staff that he was the source” of the Pincus article. Here’s the way the Senate report recorded Wilson’s explanation for his apparent misstatement:
SENATE INTELLIGENCE REPORT (page 45): The former ambassador said that he may have “misspoken” to the reporter when he said he concluded the documents were “forged.” He also said he may have become confused about his own recollection after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in March 2003 that the names and dates on the documents were not correct and may have thought he had seen the names himself.
Since that idea is clownish and absurd on its face, one would surely want to hear Wilson’s fuller response to this allegation. Sadly, he only pretended to respond in his letter to the Committee; as anyone can see, he gives a groaning “non-response response.” He offers irrelevant, meandering points, basically noting that, on other occasions, he didn’t claim to have seen the forged documents. (Please note: In the letter, he never denies that he misstated this matter to Pincus.) By now, he seems to have adjusted his position; he now seems to be claiming that he may have been misquoted by Pincus. But readers who loved Wilson’s letter in Salon failed to notice his studied non-response to the question these three senators raised.

Question Three: Was Wilson’s trip ever briefed to Cheney?

Roberts/Bond/Hatch list another concern under the general charge quoted above. They specifically complain that Wilson went beyond “his actual experiences” in repeatedly saying that his trip had surely been briefed to Dick Cheney. How did Wilson respond to that? Simple; in his letter to the Committee, he completely failed to mention this complaint. Readers thought Wilson’s “rebuttal” was brilliant because they didn’t know that he was avoiding what the three senators actually said. By Sunday, Wilson had made another adjustment; he now told Blitzer that he had been wrong in his frequently voiced assumption about Cheney’s briefing. Meanwhile, Wilson zig-zagged back on this point last night. Here’s his first Q-and-A with Zahn, in which he was baldly disingenuous:

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.

There’s a term for that “answer:” Pure horseshit. Of course Wilson knew “what public comments they’re referring to.” Among other things, they were referring to the 6/12/03 Pincus article, and they were referring to his comments about Cheney. This is spelled out with perfect clarity in the three senators’ “Additional Comments.” Wilson’s disingenuous comment to hapless Zahn was, alas, typical Wilson.

Question Four: How did intelligence analysts view Wilson’s report?

In his letter to the Committee chairmen, Wilson also deals with the following question: How did intelligence analysts view his report on Niger? The following assertion sounded good to our readers because they hadn’t read the Committee report:

WILSON (letter to the Intelligence Committee): The “additional comments” also assert: “The Committee found that, for most analysts, the former ambassador’s report lent more credibility, not less, to the reported Niger-Iraq uranium deal.” In fact, the body of the Senate report suggests the exact opposite:
Wilson goes on to quote various parts of the Committee report—parts of the report which, he says, support his view of the Niger-uranium matter. Our readers found his presentation quite thrilling. But what does Wilson neglect to mention? In fact, in the body of the Committee report, the seventeen members unanimously drew this formal conclusion:
SENATE INTELLIGENCE REPORT (page 73): Conclusion 13: The report on the former ambassador’s trip to Niger, disseminated in March 2002, did not change any analysts’ assessments of the Iraq-Niger uranium deal. For most analysts, the information in the report lent more credibility to the original Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports on the uranium deal, but State Department analysts believed that the report supported their assessment that Niger was unlikely to be willing or able to sell uranium to Iraq.
The three senators accurately recorded that conclusion, reached by all seventeen Committee members. But in his letter, Wilson said “the body of the Senate report suggests the exact opposite”—without ever mentioning the fact that the Committee unanimously disagrees. Our readers thought Wilson’s rebuttal was brilliant—because they didn’t know what the unanimous committee had judged, and because they didn’t know that Wilson was picking-and-choosing his facts once again. As we’ve said: Typical Wilson.

FINALLY! “I never claimed to debunk the allegation!”

In our view, Wilson’s letters to the Committee and the Post are fake, evasive, insincere, misleading. Correctly, Getler burned Wilson’s Straw Men in his ombudsman column, and similar Straw Men littered the letter Wilson sent to the Committee itself. But here is the most amazing thing Wilson says in his “rebuttal” to the Committee. Take a seat. Strap yourselves in. Try to believe that he said it:

WILSON (letter to the Intelligence Committee): My article in the New York Times makes clear that I attributed to myself “a small role in the effort to verify information about Africa's suspected link to Iraq's nonconventional weapons programs.”...I went to great lengths to point out that mine was but one of three reports on the subject. I never claimed to have “debunked” the allegation that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa. I claimed only that the transaction described in the documents that turned out to be forgeries could not have occurred and did not occur.
Amazing, isn’t it? I never claimed to have “debunked” the allegation that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa! Readers, what has the last year been about if Wilson didn’t claim to debunk Bush’s claim? (Think hard—we know you’ll come up with something.) Let’s compare two important statements—Bush’s famous 16 words, and Wilson’s amazing new admission:
BUSH: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

WILSON: I never claimed to have “debunked” the allegation that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa.

Finally! This is what we’ve always told you—Wilson had no way of knowing if the 16-word statement was right or wrong. He had no way to debunk it! But throughout his thrilling and best-selling book, he calls this statement a “lie-lie-lie-lie,” over and over and over again. But then, grinding overstatement like that has been the problem with Wilson all along (as the three senators correctly note). And now, alas, Dems will start to pay a price for investing so much in his presentations.

Our conclusion

Democrats should be quite upset with their blowhard hero, Joe Wilson. Those “rebuttals” he’s been sending out are largely overblown, misleading junk, like so much of his past year’s work. Sorry, but Wilson’s wife did play some role in his selection for the trip (not that there’s anything wrong with it). And Wilson did keep saying that Cheney must have been briefed, a thundering judgment he now says was wrong. The Committee did judge that most analysts felt his report strengthened the case about Iraq’s pursuit of uranium. And did he make bogus statements to Pincus? We don’t know, and probably never will. In his TV interviews, Blitzer and Zahn were too inept to ask him the relevant questions. For the record, Wilson’s explanations seem mighty shaky compared the account of this matter in the unanimous report.

What did Wilson learn from his trip to Niger? Actually, he learned fairly little, as the Committee report notes. He judged that it would be hard to complete a uranium transaction in Niger, but Bush never said that Iraq bought uranium—he only said Iraq sought it. Wilson now tells us that he never claimed to have debunked that claim! And Bush referred to British intelligence, whose contents Wilson couldn’t review. Simply put, Wilson never had any way of knowing whether Iraq sought uranium in Africa. (Don’t even ask about the Congo and Somalia.) And now, at last, after one solid year, he finally says what we said all along: He had no way to debunk this allegation. Last week, Lord Butler said Bush’s claim was “well-founded.” And Wilson has no way of knowing if that judgment is correct. He never knew if Bush’s claim was true or false, despite all his loudmouth posturing.

But along the way, Wilson’s loud, dramatic overstatements distracted Dems from stronger pursuits. Bush’s 16-word statement was always a relatively weak example of the Admin’s pre-war embellishment. Yes, Bush’s statement was poorly founded; he had to rely on British intelligence because our own intel was inconclusive. But other examples of dissembling were much more clear; Admin officials often said things in the run-up to war that were, as a matter of fact, baldly wrong. No matter! Loudmouth Wilson kept banging the drums, leading us down that Niger road. Now, he’s being called the latest liberal liar, and the charge is close enough to true so that, in part, it’s going to stick. Lord Butler said Bush’s claim was well-founded—and Wilson admits he can’t debunk it! Given those facts, many American are going to wonder why Bush was trashed for those 16 words. This was always a weak side road, with Wilson the piper who led Dems down it. He continued his bull-roar in his letters last week—and readers heaped praise on his work.

OVERSTATEMENT CENTRAL: “I never claimed to have ‘debunked’ the allegation that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa,” Wilson says. But he calls the allegation a “lie” all through his overstated book. Here’s one example of his overstatements—the first one that we turn to:

WILSON (page 337): Had I been the chief executive of this operation, as President Bush likes to say that he is, I would have been furious that a member of my staff had inserted such an obviously false claim in the most important speech I might ever make.
Was Bush’s claim false? We still don’t know—and neither does Wilson! But then, he overstates wildly all through his book. Sadly, Dems are now going to pay a price for accepting his loud overstatements.

ILLOGIC CENTRAL: Wilson has long been a fount of illogic. Here’s one instant example:

WILSON (page 334): The path to writing the op-ed piece had always been clear in my mind. My government had refused to address the fundamental question of how the lie regarding Saddam’s supposed attempt to purchase African uranium had found its way into the State of the Union address... I had to raise it, publicly and in my own words. I realized that my credibility would be called into question, and I was steeled for that. But whatever one might say about me—and there is a lot—the truth remained: There was never any evidence of Iraqi uranium purchases from Niger. [Wilson’s emphasis]
Within one paragraph, Wilson floats from an alleged “attempt” to purchase uranium to the claim that there was never any evidence of such purchases. But Bush didn’t claim there had been any purchases—only that there had been an attempt. Wilson’s illogic has been endless, but so what? He calls Bush’s statement a “lie” all the same, even though he doesn’t know, even today, if the statement was true or false. Sadly, Dems are now starting to pay a price for buying this blatant illogic.