How Obtuse Is the U.S. Press?
By Robert Parry
September 3, 2006
In the movie Shawshank Redemption, the wrongly convicted Andy Dufrense (Tim Robbins) gets frustrated when the corrupt prison warden blocks Dufrenses chance to prove his innocence. How can you be so obtuse? Dufrense asks.
The same question could be addressed today to Washington journalists who are falling over themselves to absolve George W. Bushs White House of any serious wrongdoing in the three-year-old assault on former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson and the outing of his CIA officer wife, Valerie Plame.
This new backlash against those who challenged the White House on the Plame case follows disclosure that one of the sources for Robert Novaks July 14, 2003, column, which blew Plames cover, was Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who was not considered a close White House ally.
In a Sept. 2 front-page story, the New York Times reacted to this news by suggesting that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald had been overzealous in pursuing the Plame investigation for more than two years, since Armitage had testified early on that he apparently was Novaks principal source on Plame. [NYT, Sept. 2, 2006]
The Times article came on the heels of a scathing editorial by the Washington Post putting the primary blame for the exposure of Plame on her husband, Joseph Wilson, because in July 2003, he went public with the findings of his 2002 CIA-organized trip to Niger which helped debunk the false pre-Iraq War claim that Iraq had sought yellowcake uranium from Africa.
He [Wilson] ought to have expected that both those [Bush administration] officials and journalists such as Mr. Novak would ask why a retired ambassador would have been sent on such a mission and that the answer would point to his wife, the Post editorial said.
The Post also argued that since Armitage was a reluctant supporter of the Iraq War, it follows that one of the most sensational charges leveled against the Bush White House that it orchestrated the leak of Ms. Plames identity is untrue. [Washington Post, Sept. 1, 2006]
But as with the corrupt prison warden in Shawshank Redemption its hard to believe that national journalists could be this obtuse.
As we explain below, the evidence is overwhelming that the White House assault on Wilson was planned weeks before he published an Op-Ed on July 6, 2003, accusing Bush of twisting the yellowcake claim and that Bushs operatives responded by pointing journalists toward Plames identity.
Indeed, the available evidence doesnt even fully support the contention that Novak first learned about Plame from his interview with Armitage on July 8, 2003. According to the Times own reporting, Novak apparently had been primed to ask a question on this topic.
The Times buries this crucial point in its Sept. 2 story that questions whether Fitzgerald properly exercised his prosecutorial discretion. In the last sentence of the 17th paragraph, the Times reports that Armitage disclosed Plames possible role in arranging Wilsons Niger trip in reply to a question.
In other words, Armitage didnt just toss out Plames CIA connection as gossip, as the Post editorial assumes. He apparently mentioned it in response to Novaks question about how the Niger trip had been arranged, which begs the additional question of who might have suggested that Novak ask that.
The distinction is important because other evidence indicates that Bushs aides were pushing reporters to ask about the circumstances behind the Niger trip, knowing that line of questioning would lead to Plames identity.
For instance, Time magazine correspondent John Dickerson, who accompanied a presidential trip to Africa shortly after Wilsons article was published, said he was twice urged to pursue the seemingly insignificant question of who had been involved in arranging Wilsons trip.
As the President toured Africa in July 2003, questions about Wilsons article dominated the trip, prompting White House spokesman Ari Fleischer to finally concede that the yellowcake allegation was incorrect and should not have been included in the State of the Union speech in January 2003.
The mistake represented one of the first times the Bush administration had retreated on any national security issue. Administration officials were embarrassed, livid and determined to punish Wilson.
On July 11, 2003, CIA Director George Tenet took the fall for the State of the Union screw-up, apologizing for not better vetting the speech. This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, Tenet said.
That same day, however, as Bush was finishing a meeting with the president of Uganda, Dickerson said he was chatting with a senior administration official who was tearing down Wilson and disparaging Wilsons Niger investigation.
The message to Dickerson was that some low-level person at the CIA was responsible for the mission and that Dickerson should go ask the CIA who sent Wilson.
Later, Dickerson discussed Wilson with a second senior administration official and got the same advice: This official also pointed out a few times that Wilson had been sent by a low-level CIA employee and encouraged me to follow that angle, Dickerson recalled.
At the end of the two conversations I wrote down in my notebook: look who sent. What struck me was how hard both officials were working to knock down Wilson. Discrediting your opposition is a standard tactic in Washington, but the Bush team usually played the game differently. At that stage in the first term, Bush aides usually blew off their critics. Or, they continued to assert their set of facts in the hope of overcoming criticism by force of repetition. [See Dickersons article, Wheres My Subpoena? for Slate, Feb. 7, 2006]
Back in Washington on July 11, 2003, Dickersons Time colleague, Matthew Cooper, was getting a similar earful from Bushs political adviser Karl Rove, who tried to steer Cooper away from Wilsons information and added that the Niger trip was authorized by Wilsons wife, who apparently works at the agency [CIA] on WMD issues, according to Coopers notes of the interview. [See Newsweek, July 18, 2005, issue]
Cooper later got the information about Wilsons wife confirmed by Cheneys chief of staff Lewis Libby, who had been peddling the information even before Coopers phone call. Libby had been brought into the get-Wilson cabal in June 2003 when the White House got wind that Wilson might present a problem.
By spring 2003, Wilson had begun talking privately to journalists about his Niger findings and criticizing the administration for hyping the WMD intelligence. Behind the scenes, the White House began to hit back, collecting information about Wilson and his fact-finding trip.
In his memoir, The Politics of Truth, Wilson cited sources as saying that a meeting in the Vice Presidents office led to a decision to produce a workup to discredit Wilson.
Libby then asked Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman, a neoconservative ally in the State Department, to prepare a memo on Wilson. Dated June 10, 2003, the memo referred to Valerie Plame as Wilsons wife. [NYT, July 16, 2005]
CIA Director George Tenet also divulged to Cheney that Wilsons wife worked for the CIA and had a hand in arranging Wilsons trip to Niger information that Cheney then passed on to Libby in a conversation on June 12, 2003, according to Libbys notes as described by lawyers in the case. [NYT, Oct. 25, 2005]
Those two facts Plames work for the CIA and her minor role in Wilsons Niger trip (which was approved and arranged at higher levels of the CIA) were transformed into key attack points against Wilson.
On June 23, 2003, still two weeks before Wilsons Op-Ed, Libby briefed New York Times reporter Judith Miller about Wilson and may then have passed on the tip that Wilsons wife worked at the CIA. But the anti-Wilson campaign gained new urgency when the ex-ambassador penned his Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on July 6, 2003.
As Cheney read Wilsons article, What I Didnt Find in Africa, the Vice President scribbled down questions he wanted pursued. Have they [CIA officials] done this sort of thing before? Cheney wrote. Send an Amb[assador] to answer a question? Do we ordinarily send people out pro bono to work for us? Or did his wife send him on a junket?
Though Cheney did not write down Plames name, his questions indicated that he was aware that she worked for the CIA and was in a position (dealing with WMD issues) to have a hand in her husbands assignment to check out the Niger reports. [Cheneys notations were disclosed in a May 12, 2006, court filing by special prosecutor Fitzgerald.]
On that morning of July 6, 2003, Wilson appeared on NBCs Meet the Press to elaborate on the yellowcake dispute. Later that day, Deputy Secretary of State Armitage called Carl W. Ford Jr., the assistant secretary for intelligence and research, at home and asked him to send a copy of Grossmans memo to Secretary of State Colin Powell, according to a former State Department official interviewed by the New York Times.
Since Powell was preparing to leave with Bush on the state visit to Africa, Ford forwarded Grossmans memo to the White House for delivery to Powell, the former official told the Times. [NYT, July 16, 2005]
The next day, when Bush left for Africa, Powell was carrying the memo containing the information about Plames work for the CIA and other details about the yellowcake dispute, the Washington Post reported.
Pressing the Press
On July 8, 2003, two days after Wilsons article, Libby gave Judith Miller more details about the Wilsons. Cheneys chief of staff said Wilsons wife worked at a CIA unit responsible for weapons intelligence and non-proliferation. It was in the context of that interview, that Miller wrote down the words Valerie Flame, an apparent misspelling of Mrs. Wilsons maiden name. [NYT, Oct. 16, 2005]
On that same day, Novak elicited information from Armitage about the role of Wilsons wife in arranging the Niger trip. According to the Sept. 2, 2006, story in the New York Times, Armitage said in reply to a question that Ms. Wilson might have had a role in arranging her husbands trip to Niger.
On July 12, 2003, in a telephone conversation, Miller and Libby returned to the Wilson topic. Millers notes contain a reference to a Victoria Wilson, another misspelled reference to Wilsons wife. [NYT, Oct. 16, 2005]
Two days later, on July 14, 2003, Novak having gotten confirmation about Plames identity from Karl Rove published a column, citing two administration sources outing Plame as a CIA officer and portraying Wilsons Niger trip as a case of nepotism.
But the White House counterattack had only just begun. On July 20, 2003, NBCs correspondent Andrea Mitchell told Wilson that senior White House sources had called her to stress the real story here is not the 16 words [from Bushs State of the Union speech] but Wilson and his wife.
The next day, Wilson said he was told by MSNBCs Chris Matthews that I just got off the phone with Karl Rove. He says and I quote, Wilsons wife is fair game.
When Newsday spoke with Novak before he decided to clam up Novak said he had been approached by the sources with the information about Plame. I didnt dig it out, it was given to me, Novak said. They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it. [Newsday, July 22, 2003]
That account from Novak clashes with the version cited by the Washington Post editorial of Sept. 1, 2006, which describes the Plame disclosure as reportedly passed along in an offhand manner, virtually as gossip. Novaks account to Newsday only a week after his infamous column would seem to fit better with a scenario in which Bushs aides had prepped Novak on what to ask Armitage or in which Armitage was part of the anti-Wilson cabal.
On July 22, 2003, the White House began shifting into cover-up mode. Bushs spokesman Scott McClellan denied any White House role in the Plame leak. Im telling you flatly that that is not the way this White House operates, McClellan told reporters.
Privately, however, some administration officials acknowledged that the Plame disclosure was an act of retaliation against Wilson for being one of the first mainstream public figures to challenge Bush on the WMD intelligence.
In September 2003, a White House official told the Washington Post that at least six reporters had been informed about Plame before Novaks column. The official said the disclosure was purely and simply out of revenge.
Novaks article indeed did destroy Plames career as a CIA officer and exposed her network of operatives who had been investigating Irans nuclear program. A CIA complaint to the Justice Department prompted an inquiry into the illegal exposure of a CIA officer.
Initially, when the investigation was still under the direct control of Attorney General John Ashcroft, Bush and other White House officials continued to deny any knowledge about the leak. Bush said he wanted to get to the bottom of the matter.
If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is, Bush said on Sept. 30, 2003. I want to know the truth. If anybody has got any information inside our administration or outside our administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true.
Yet, even as Bush was professing his curiosity and calling for anyone with information to step forward, he was withholding the fact that he had authorized the declassification of some secrets about the Niger uranium issue and had ordered Cheney to slip those selected secrets to reporters to undercut Wilson.
In other words, though Bush knew a great deal about how the anti-Wilson scheme got started since he was involved in starting it he uttered misleading public statements to conceal the White House role and possibly to signal to others that they should follow suit in denying knowledge.
The cover-up might have worked, except in late 2003, Ashcroft recused himself because of a conflict of interest, and Fitzgerald the U.S. Attorney in Chicago was named as the special prosecutor. Fitzgerald pursued the investigation far more aggressively, even coercing journalists to testify about the White House leaks.
On Oct. 28, 2005, Fitzgerald indicted Libby on five counts of perjury, lying to investigators and obstruction of justice. In a court filing on April 5, 2006, Fitzgerald added that his investigation had uncovered government documents that could be characterized as reflecting a plan to discredit, punish, or seek revenge against Mr. Wilson because of his criticism of the administrations handling of the Niger evidence.
Beyond the Plame leak, the White House also oversaw a public-relations strategy to denigrate Wilson. The Republican National Committee put out talking points ridiculing Wilson, and the Republican-run Senate Intelligence Committee made misleading claims about his honesty in a WMD report.
Rather than thank Wilson for undertaking a difficult fact-finding trip to Niger for no pay and for reporting accurately about the dubious Iraq-Niger claims the Bush administration sought to smear the former ambassador.
The Republican National Committee even posted an article entitled Joe Wilsons Top Ten Worst Inaccuracies and Misstatements, which itself used glaring inaccuracies and misstatements to discredit Wilson. [For details, see Consortiumnews.coms Novak Recycles Gannon on Plame-gate.] Meanwhile, with her undercover work destroyed, Plame quit the CIA.
Now, based on a new report about Armitages role in leaking Plames identity, the New York Times, the Washington Post and other leading U.S. news organizations are joining in a new campaign to disparage those who harbored suspicions about the Bush administrations actions from special prosecutor Fitzgerald to former Ambassador Wilson.
For these national journalists who act as if they are oblivious to all the evidence of a long-running White House smear campaign and cover-up, it might be time to pose the Shawshank Redemption question: How can you be so obtuse?
Of course, in the movie, the warden really wasnt obtuse. He just wanted to keep benefiting from Dufrenses financial skills and, most importantly, to protect his corrupt schemes. The motives of the Washington news media may be more of a mystery.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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