Hardball 's pattern of misinformation and imbalance on CIA leak case


In recent months on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, coverage of the investigation into the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame has offered a clear pattern of misinformation by host Chris Matthews and his guests. Further, on numerous occasions, Hardball's panels of guests who discussed the issue have skewed right -- solely composed of Republicans, prominent conservatives, and journalists or political figures with no public partisan or ideological affiliation; only one arguably skewed left (the head of a nonpartisan professional organization was paired with a columnist frequently presented on PBS' The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer as the liberal of two panelists). Media Matters for America has reviewed Hardball segments devoted to the leak investigation since the July 2 revelation that Karl Rove was Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper's source in the Plame matter. Below, we have documented the show's panels that had a conservative slant, as well as the torrent of falsehoods and misinformation dished up by Matthews and his guests.

Hardball hosts and guests repeatedly offer up falsehoods and misinformation on the Plame investigation

Media Matters has documented the following false or misleading claims advanced on Hardball, from a variety of sources including Matthews himself:

Claim #1: Former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV claimed Vice President Cheney sent him to Niger.

On several occasions, guests on Hardball have wrongly asserted that former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV claimed that Vice President Dick Cheney sent him to Niger to investigate the veracity of reports that Iraq had attempted to purchase yellowcake uranium there. But as Media Matters has documented, this claim echoes a false RNC talking point that misrepresented Wilson's July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed and his August 3, 2003, interview on CNN's Late Edition. Wilson did not claim that the vice president sent him to Niger; rather, Wilson stated that the CIA sent him to Niger to answer the vice president's office's questions regarding the purported Iraq-Niger uranium deal. Claiming that Wilson stated or insinuated that Cheney's office sent him to Niger lends false justification to the argument articulated by defenders of the Bush administration that, in outing Plame, administration officials were merely setting the record straight by disclosing that Plame -- not Cheney -- had authorized the trip.

Several guests have advanced this claim, including:

  • Tucker Eskew, deputy assistant to the president for communications, on the July 12 edition of Hardball.
  • Ken Mehlman, Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman, on the July 13 edition of Hardball.
  • Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC, on the October 13 edition of Hardball. Additionally, on the October 18 edition of Hardball, Mitchell claimed: "Joe Wilson went on television with us and in interviews and said he had been dispatched by the vice president," apparently referring to Wilson's appearance on NBC's Meet the Press on July 6, 2003, which Mitchell guest-hosted. Mitchell added: "He led people to believe, he said publicly, that he had been dispatched by the vice president. And that was clearly not the case by every bit of reporting that I have been able to do." But Media Matters could find no example of Wilson claiming that Cheney sent him to Niger. In the July 6, 2003, interview, Wilson alluded to the origins of his trip: "[T]he question [of Iraq seeking uranium from Niger] was asked of the CIA by the office of the vice president."
  • Mike Allen, then a Washington Post staff writer, on the July 27 edition of Hardball.

Claim #2: Wilson was unqualified for his mission to Niger.

On the October 12 edition of Hardball, Republican attorney Victoria Toensing asserted that Wilson "doesn't have any experience in WMD, and he doesn't have any kind of senior experience in the country [Niger]" -- thereby implying that Wilson was unqualified to investigate the alleged Iraq-Niger uranium deal. On the October 13 edition of Hardball, National Review Washington editor Kate O'Beirne advanced a similar argument, claiming Wilson was "[n]o expert in weapons of mass destruction."

But as Media Matters noted, Wilson's qualifications for the Niger mission included diplomatic credentials (he specialized in Africa for the majority of his diplomatic career), as well as past experience investigating sales of Niger uranium in 1999. Moreover, it is unclear how, according to Toensing's and O'Beirne's criticisms, Wilson's alleged lack of experience with weapons of mass destruction would prevent him from properly investigating the sale of yellowcake uranium, which is a commodity, not a weapon, and must undergo several refining and enriching procedures before it is considered weapons-grade.

Claim #3: Wilson's wife got him the job investigating the alleged Iraq-Niger uranium deal.

In an attempt to undermine Wilson's credibility and to frame the leak of Plame's identity as an attempt by Bush administration officials and Robert Novak (whose July 14, 2003, column first outed Plame) at exposing nepotism, conservatives on Hardball have asserted that Plame got Wilson the job investigating the alleged Iraq-Niger uranium deal. During Toensing's appearance on the October 12 edition of Hardball, she stated: "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."

O'Beirne made a similar argument during her October 13 Hardball appearance. After claiming Wilson was "[n]o expert in weapons of mass destruction," she asked, "[W]hat was he doing over there? And the innocent answer would be, his wife works at the CIA, and she recommended him."

On the October 18 edition of Hardball, Weekly Standard staff writer Stephen F. Hayes added his voice to the chorus, falsely stating that the Senate Intelligence Committee's 2004 "Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq" concluded that Wilson had not been "truthful about the fact that his wife suggested him to go" -- an assertion Hayes also made in an October 24 Weekly Standard article that Media Matters debunked.

Additionally, Matthews and MSNBC correspondent David Shuster have themselves advanced the claim that Plame got Wilson the job investigating the purported uranium deal. On October 13, Matthews stated, "Of course Valerie Plame suggested her husband for the mission." He pushed this assertion again on the October 20 edition of Hardball, asking New York Daily News Washington bureau chief Thomas DeFrank, "[D]id he [Rove] leak the fact that wife of Joe Wilson sent him on the trip?" Also on the October 20 edition of Hardball, MSNBC correspondent David Shuster claimed, "His wife had recommended Wilson for the trip."

But as Media Matters noted, this assertion is disputed by CIA officials cited in The Washington Post and by unnamed intelligence officials quoted in the press. It is also unsupported by the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee report.

Claim #4: Special prosecutor Fitzgerald's investigation is limited to the Intelligence Identities Protection act, which will make it very difficult to charge anyone with a crime.

On the October 12 edition of Hardball, Toensing falsely suggested that federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation of the CIA leak was limited to possible violations of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA), which states that revealing the identity of an undercover agent is illegal only if the leaker was aware of the agent's covert status. In response to Matthews's assertion that "this leak case ... has to do with the war and the argument for the war," Toensing stated, "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." But as Media Matters noted, Fitzgerald was given broad authority to investigate the CIA leak, including but not restricted to possible violations of the IIPA.

On the October 13 edition of Hardball, O'Beirne downplayed the possibility that leaking Plame's identity violated the law. But as Media Matters noted, O'Beirne apparently confused the IIPA with the Espionage Act -- another statute under which Fitzgerald is reportedly considering seeking indictments. Responding to Matthews's comment that White House officials "could have still broken the law to whack" Wilson, O'Beirne said: "Yes, that underlying Espionage Act is pretty darn hard to break. They could've been unaware ... of what her status was at the CIA." The Espionage Act does not, however, specifically address the identities of covert agents, but instead deals generally with the unlawful distribution of classified information to individuals not authorized to receive it. O'Beirne's comments echo the language of the IIPA.

Claim #5: The leaks were simply part of Washington politics as usual, so no crime could have been committed.

On the October 17 edition of Hardball, former RNC chairman James S. Gilmore III baselessly suggested that the CIA leak did not involve a criminal offense: "[T]he simple fact that you say this lady works over there and that she sent her husband over to Africa -- that, in and of itself, as I think most everybody agrees, is not criminal." Matthews agreed with Gilmore's assessment, stating, "Right. But is it factual?" But as Media Matters noted, the very fact that Plame worked at the CIA was itself reportedly classified information.

MSNBC analyst and former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan echoed Gilmore's baseless supposition on the October 18 edition of Hardball, stating, "Look, if Cheney said -- they said, look, his wife is an analyst over at the CIA and she's the one that's saying the CIA did this and he says look, get out the truth that we didn't do it. Those jerks at the CIA sent a Clintonite on this trip and gave him the ability to hurt the president. There's nothing wrong with that."

On the October 20 edition of Hardball, Republican strategist Ed Rollins similarly claimed, "We know for sure that a couple of very high-ranking White House guys talked to some reporters and basically tried to go out and diminish someone who was criticizing them. ... I mean, if they are going to nail them for conspiracy for sitting there and talking about it with reporters, you can nail everybody who has ever been in the White House in history." But Rollins's argument omitted reference to a key aspect of the case: the question of whether, in the process of those conversations, administration officials leaked that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA -- a potential violation of federal laws.

Claim #6: The New York Times and The Washington Post offered different accounts of the Miller-Libby conversations.

On the September 30 edition of Hardball, former Bush-Cheney campaign attorney Benjamin Ginsberg falsely claimed that September 30 articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times gave differing accounts of July 2003 conversations between Times reporter Judith Miller and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, regarding Valerie Plame's role in Wilson's trip to Niger. But as Media Matters noted, although the two articles differed slightly in structure, they agreed on the major facts of the Miller-Libby conversations -- both reporting that Libby told Miller that Plame played a role in Wilson's selection for the trip.

Hardball panels skew right

A review of Hardball programming since July 2 revealed nine separate discussions of the Plame investigation with panels solely composed of Republicans, prominent conservatives, and journalists or political figures with no public partisan or ideological affiliation. By contrast, Media Matters found only one instance of a panel that was arguably skewed left: In a July 5 discussion on whether journalists should have federal protections against revealing their sources to prosecutors, Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant was paired with Barbara Cochran, president of the nonpartisan professional organization the Radio-Television News Directors Association. (Oliphant is occasionally paired with a conservative commentator on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer -- here, for example.) The nine panels that skewed right are:

  • July 15 (with NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory guest-hosting): Andrea Mitchell and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX);
  • July 15: Washington Post correspondent Dana Milbank and National Review White House correspondent Byron York;
  • July 21: Washington Post staff writer Jim VandeHei and Washington Times editorial page editor Tony Blankley;
  • July 22: Hotline editor Chuck Todd and Weekly Standard staff writer Stephen F. Hayes;
  • September 30: Todd and Hayes;
  • October 6: Newsweek investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff, Washington Post national political editor John Harris, and Hayes;
  • October 12: Republican attorney Victoria Toensing and former Kenneth Starr deputy independent counsel Sol Wisenberg;
  • October 18: MSNBC contributor and former Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan and former presidential adviser David Gergen;
  • October 18: Newsweek political analyst Howard Fineman and Hayes.
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.