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July 16, 2005
Why Can't The Gray Lady Read?

The New York Times reports on a memo that Colin Powell reportedly carried aboard Air Force One on a trip to Africa the week before Robert Novak named Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. The importance of this memo revolves around the people who accompanied the President and Powell on the Africa trip and the fact that it describes the circumstances of Joe Wilson's hiring for the mission to Niger. However, the report by Richard Stevenson makes several factual errors that even a quick perusal of the Intelligence Committee report would correct.

The first error committed by Stevenson is one of omission. The Times has been beating a supposed Karl Rove connection to death over the past few weeks. However, if one looks at the contact dates for the two conversations Rove had with reporters -- July 9 for Novak, July 11 for Matt Cooper -- obviously Rove didn't go to Africa and didn't have access to the memo. After all, both reporters called Rove, not the other way around, and both started their conversations on different topics that hardly would have been so pressing that they would have been redirected by satellite to AF1.

So if the memo does hold any key to the leak, Rove can't be the leaker.

The other errors misrepresent what happened in Niger and how the CIA selected Joe Wilson as its investigator. Stevenson writes this about the Niger information:

On Thursday, a person who has been officially briefed on the matter said that Karl Rove, President Bush's senior adviser, had spoken about Ms. Wilson with Mr. Novak before Mr. Novak published a column on July 14, 2003, identifying the C.I.A. officer by her maiden name, Valerie Plame. Mr. Rove, the person said, told Mr. Novak he had heard much the same information, making him one of two sources Mr. Novak cited for his information.

But the person said Mr. Rove first heard from Mr. Novak the name of Mr. Wilson's wife and her precise role in the C.I.A.'s decision to send her husband to Africa to investigate a report, later discredited, that Saddam Hussein was trying to acquire nuclear material there.

Had Stevenson actually read the SSIC report, he would know that the report in fact was substantiated by Wilson's investigation. Iraq had on at least one occasion in the three years prior to Wilson's trip attempted to open secret trade negotiations with Niger:

[Wilson's] intelligence report indicated that former Nigerien Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki was unaware of any contracts that had been signed between Niger and any rogue states for the sale of yellowcake while he was Prime Minister (1997-1999) or Foreign Minister (1996-1997). Mayaki said that if there had been any such contract during his tenure, he would have been aware of it. Mayaki said, however, that in June 1999,(REDACTED) businessman, approached him and insisted that Mayaki meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss "expanding commercial relations" between Niger and Iraq. The intelligence report said that Mayaki interpreted "expanding commercial relations" to mean that the delegation wanted to discuss uranium yellowcake sales. The intelligence report also said that "although the meeting took place, Mayaki let the matter drop due to the UN sanctions on Iraq."

Given that Niger exports a total of four commodities, that assumption of Iraqi interest in uranium ore should have appeared rather solid. No one goes into secret talks to discuss the purchase of livestock, cowpeas, or onions, the only other Nigerien exports. This demonstrated that Saddam still planned on pursuing WMD and had actively searched for new resources for a nuclear-weapons program. Stevenson got this exactly wrong.

The other major factual error comes in Stevenson's description of the role of Valerie Plame in Wilson's selection. He underplays Plame's efforts to get her husband involved in the Niger mission:

The notes, which did not identify Ms. Wilson or her husband by name, said the meeting was "apparently convened by" the wife of a former ambassador "who had the idea to dispatch" him to Niger because of his contacts in the region. Mr. Wilson had been ambassador to Gabon.

The Intelligence Committee report said the former ambassador's wife had a different account of her role, saying she introduced him and left after about three minutes.

Talk about cherry-picking! Yes, the above does describe what Plame did, but it leaves out a few other items. Again, had Stevenson bothered to read the relevant portions of the SSIC report, he would have found that Plame was much more enthusiastic about hiring hubby Joe:

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 CPD reports officer told Committee staff that the former ambassador's wife "offered up his name" and a memorandum to the Deputy Chief of the CPD on February 12, 2002, from the former ambassador's wife says, "my 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." This was just one day before CPD sent a cable DELETED requesting concurrence with CPD's idea to send the former ambassador to Niger and requesting any additional information from the foreign government service on their uranium reports. The former ambassador's wife told Committee staff that when CPD decided it would like to send the former ambassador to Niger, she approached her husband on behalf of the CIA and told him "there's this crazy report" on a purported deal for Niger to sell uranium to Iraq. The former ambassador was selected for the 1999 trip after his wife mentioned to her supervisors that her husband was planning a business trip to Niger in the near future and might be willing to use his contacts in the region ...

On February 19, 2002, CPD hosted a meeting with the former ambassador, intelligence analysts from both the CIA and INR, and several individuals from the DO's Africa and CPD divisions. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the merits of the former ambassador traveling to Niger. An INR analyst's notes indicate that the meeting was "apparently convened by [the former ambassador's] wife who had the idea to dispatch [him] to use his contacts to sort out the Iraq-Niger uranium issue." The former ambassador's wife told Committee staff that she only attended the meeting to introduce her husband and left after about three minutes.

Plame didn't just make an off-hand suggestion and then play hostess once. She repeatedly suggested Wilson for the job, wrote a memorandum requesting him for the mission, and then delivered the assignment to Wilson herself.

All this begs the question: why was Plame so set on using her husband for the job? Wilson told the SSIC that she had characterized the initial report of Iraq-Niger contacts as "crazy". After Wilson returned, he reported that the Iraqis had indeed tried to start trade talks in secret with Niger, and that the Nigerian PM believed that to be an effort to get yellowcake uranium. However, after the invasion of Iraq, Wilson started leaking a warped version to journalists such as Walter Pincus, also described in the SSIC report and determined to be false.

It looks like Plame wanted a specific result from the Niger investigation, and she selected the man who she felt would guarantee it.

Finally, Stevenson holds off until the last paragraph a little fact that tends to undermine the entire notion of this AF1 memo sourcing Novak's column:

The information in the State Department memorandum generally tracked the information Mr. Novak laid out for Mr. Rove in their conversation, according to the account of their exchange provided by the person briefed on what Mr. Rove has told investigators.

But it appears to differ in at least one way, raising questions about whether it was the original source of the material that ultimately made its way to Mr. Novak. In his July 14, 2003, column, Mr. Novak referred to Ms. Wilson as Valerie Plame. The State Department memorandum referred to her as Valerie Wilson, according to the government official who reread it on Friday.

Given that her identity as Valerie Plame caused the entire brouhaha -- after all, Wilson was known to be married -- it seems unlikely that Novak got his information directly or indirectly from this memo. Why didn't Stevenson put that in the lead of the article? It seems somewhat more important than a ten-paragraph recap of the history of the leak.

Given the Times' deep involvement in this case, I'd say that these mistakes are either grossly inexcusable or deliberate attempts to warp the record -- perhaps both.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at July 16, 2005 7:45 AM

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