On imbalanced Hardball panel, Toensing repeated Plame investigation falsehoods and distortions


The October 12 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews featured a skewed panel to discuss special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation into the alleged outing of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame: Sol Wisenberg (former deputy to independent counsel Kenneth Starr) and Republican attorney Victoria Toensing (who has strongly defended columnist Robert D. Novak, in whose July 14, 2003, column Plame was first publicly identified). In the course of the discussion, Toensing misleadingly claimed that Fitzgerald's investigation was limited to possible violations of one statute in particular and recycled a number of falsehoods about Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.

In 2002, Wilson was sent to Niger by the CIA to answer questions from Vice President Dick Cheney's office regarding the purported sale of Nigerois yellowcake uranium to Iraq. Wilson's investigation turned up no evidence of any sale taking place. After President Bush alluded to the apocryphal uranium transaction in his 2003 State of the Union address as justification for invading Iraq (the now-infamous "sixteen words"), Wilson detailed the findings of his trip in a July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed. Eight days later, Novak identified Plame as "an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction," and wrote: "Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger." The White House allegedly attempted to discredit Wilson by suggesting that Plame recommended him for the mission. The CIA has denied that Plame suggested the trip. Fitzgerald is investigating whether the leak of Plame's identity was a criminal act.

On Hardball, Toensing distorted the scope of Fitzgerald's investigation by narrowing it to a single law. Responding to host Chris Matthews's claim that Fitzgerald's case deals with the Bush administration's rationale for the Iraq war, Toesning said: "No it doesn't. Don't say that. It doesn't. It has to do with whether somebody violated the criminal law and gave a name of an undercover agent as defined by the law and whether that person knew that she was undercover." Toensing was apparently referring to a law she helped draft as chief counsel on the Senate intelligence committee, the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA), which states that it is unlawful for someone to knowingly divulge the identity of an agent whose "intelligence relationship to the United States" is being actively concealed.

But Fitzgerald was given broad authority to investigate leaks of Plame's identity. He was not restricted to investigating possible violations of the IIPA, and he is reportedly considering a number of possible charges. According to an October 12 Washington Post article: "Numerous lawyers involved in the 22-month investigation said they are bracing for Fitzgerald to bring criminal charges against administration officials. They speculated, based on his questions, that he may be focused on charges of false statements, obstruction of justice or violations of the Espionage Act involving the release of classified government information to unauthorized persons."

Toensing then repeated dubious claims about Wilson's credentials in an attempt to undermine his credibility and to frame the leak of Plame's identity as an attempt by the White House and Novak to expose a case of nepotism, rather than as an act of political retribution against Wilson for publicly refuting the administration's case for war. Toensing alleged that Wilson "doesn't have any experience in WMD [weapons of mass destruction], and he doesn't have any kind of senior experience in the country." Toensing made a similar claim in a January 12 Washington Post op-ed, in which she wrote that Wilson was "credentially challenged" for the Niger mission and was "an expert neither on nuclear weapons nor on Niger." As Media Matters for America documented at the time, Wilson had diplomatic credentials as well as past experience investigating sales of Nigerois uranium in 1999, and he specialized in Africa for the majority of his diplomatic career, having served in Niger, Togo, Burundi, and South Africa, and as ambassador to the Gabonese Republic and to the Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe. In coming to the defense of Novak, both on the October 12 edition of Hardball and in her Post op-ed, Toensing failed to disclose that she and Novak are close friends.

Additionally, it is unclear how, according to Toensing's criticism, Wilson's alleged lack of experience with weapons of mass destruction would prevent him from properly investigating the sale of yellowcake uranium. Yellowcake is a commodity, not a weapon, and contains a very low concentration of uranium-235 -- the isotope that fuels nuclear reactors and weapons. It must undergo several more refining and enriching procedures before it is considered weapons-grade.

From the October 12 edition of Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you both about the motivation of prosecutors, all right? If you're up against, whatever case it is, as complicated as this is, this leak case, and it has to do with the war and the argument for the war, somebody challenged the argument --

TOENSING: No, it doesn't. Don't say that. It doesn't. It has to do with whether somebody violated the criminal law and gave a name of an undercover agent as defined by the law and whether that person knew that she was undercover.

MATTHEWS: And what would be the motive for doing that?

TOENSING: Look, go back in time and just think about this a little bit. When Bob Novak wrote his column, it could just have easily been framed as he, Bob Novak, was exposing nepotism. But it didn't happen that way because the press didn't like President Bush and framed it all for poor Joe Wilson. If a wife gets a husband an assignment, and he doesn't have any experience in WMD, and he doesn't have any kind of senior experience in the country, Novak thought he was exposing nepotism.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
CIA Leak Investigation
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.