AP, USA Today uncritically reported Bush's misleading response to question about NIE leak

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Both the Associated Press and USA Today uncritically reported President Bush's highly misleading claim that he authorized the selective declassification of an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate because he "wanted people to see the truth" behind his dubious prewar arguments regarding the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

Both the Associated Press and USA Today uncritically reported President Bush's highly misleading claim that he authorized the selective declassification of an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) because he "wanted people to see the truth" behind his dubious prewar arguments regarding the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Their articles suggested that this statement, made in an April 10 speech, represented a direct response to recent court filings by special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald indicating that the president authorized the disclosure of parts of the NIE to a reporter in July 2003. But while Bush was indeed responding to a question concerning this explosive revelation, he appeared to be referring only to his later, formal declassification of portions of the document and therefore sidestepped the allegations at the center of the controversy.

Further, neither the AP nor USA Today challenged Bush's claim that his declassification of the NIE represented a desire to reveal the "truth." In fact, the parts of the document leaked to the press with Bush's alleged approval did not accurately depict the intelligence available to his administration prior to the war. To the contrary, the leaked information consisted of cherry-picked evidence intended to bolster the White House's rationale for the invasion of Iraq.

On April 6, news reports revealed the contents of court papers pertaining to Fitzgerald's investigation of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff. Libby was indicted in October 2005 on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements to the FBI regarding the federal probe into the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity. According to the filing, Libby testified that he had been told by Cheney that Bush authorized the disclosure of, in Fitzgerald's words, "certain information in the NIE" to rebut claims made by Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson wrote in a July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed that the administration had "twisted" the prewar intelligence regarding Saddam's nuclear ambitions. As a result, Libby leaked specific, classified portions of the NIE to former New York Times reporter Judith Miller on July 8, 2003. The White House formally declassified sections of the NIE 10 days later.

Following an April 10 speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Bush received a question from an audience member regarding Fitzgerald's assertion in the filing that the evidence showed a "concerted effort" on behalf of the White House to punish and discredit Wilson. Bush responded that the ongoing investigation "precludes me from talking a lot about the case," then went on to address the issue of the NIE disclosure:

BUSH: I will say this, that after we liberated Iraq, there was questions in people's minds about the basis on which I made statements, in other words, going into Iraq. And so I decided to declassify the NIE for a reason. I wanted to see -- people to see what some of those statements were based on. So I wanted to see -- I wanted people to see the truth and thought it made sense for people to see the truth. And that's why I declassified the document.

You can't talk about -- you're not supposed to talk about classified information, and so I declassified the document. I thought it was important for people to get a better sense for why I was saying what I was saying in my speeches. And I felt I could do so without jeopardizing ongoing intelligence matters, and so I did.

As New York Times reporters David E. Sanger and David Johnston reported in their April 11 article on the speech, the president's answer both avoided the contention that the administration set out to discredit Wilson and ignored entirely the allegations regarding his authorization of Libby's leak:

Mr. Bush stumbled as he began his response before settling on an answer that sidestepped the question. He said he had ordered the formal declassification of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq in July 2003 because "it was important for people to get a better sense for why I was saying what I was saying in my speeches" about Iraq's efforts to reconstitute its weapons program.

Mr. Bush said nothing about the earlier, informal authorization that Mr. Fitzgerald's court filing revealed. The prosecutor described testimony from Mr. Libby, who said Mr. Bush had told Mr. Cheney that it was permissible to reveal some information from the intelligence estimate, which described Mr. Hussein's efforts to acquire uranium.

Similary, Los Angeles Times staff writer Tom Hamburger noted that "Bush did not directly address the allegation that he had explicitly authorized a leak to a reporter," and Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank described Bush's answer as "[n]o comment and non sequitur":

As for the non sequitur, it's true that Bush declassified the NIE, on July 18, 2003. But this was after vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby had done his leaking -- with Bush and Vice President Cheney's blessing, Libby has testified.

But AP staff writer Deb Riechmann's April 10 article merely quoted Bush's answer and described it as his "first comment since more detail about the release of a prewar intelligence document surfaced last week in a court filing by U.S. prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald." In USA Today's April 11 article on the speech, staff writer Richard Benedetto also left the false impression that Bush had been speaking directly about Libby's leak of the NIE:

Bush was responding to special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's disclosure last week in a court filing that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, had told a grand jury that he leaked the NIE information to a New York Times reporter after Cheney authorized him to, citing Bush's approval.

Moreover, both Riechmann and Benedetto quoted Bush's explanation that he had "wanted people to see the truth" without noting that the information Libby leaked to Miller -- allegedly with Bush's approval -- did not truthfully represent the intelligence available to the White House during the buildup to war, as noted by the weblogs AMERICAblog and Firedoglake. On April 9, Washington Post staff writers Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer reported that Cheney and Libby "made careful selections of language" from the NIE to bolster the administration's case regarding Saddam's nuclear ambitions. These included the assertion that Iraq had been "vigorously" attempting to procure uranium in Africa, which had "been disproved months before." Further, Cheney allegedly instructed Libby to describe the uranium story as a "key judgment" of the NIE. In fact, "the alleged effort to buy uranium was not among the estimate's key judgments" because it "had been strongly disputed in the intelligence community from the start," as Gellman and Linzer reported.

By contrast to the AP and USA Today, Knight Ridder reporter William Douglas's April 10 article on Bush's speech provided this crucial context:

The disclosure that Bush and Cheney had authorized Libby to talk about the NIE has raised new questions about the administration's candor about what it knew about Saddam's weapons programs.

By the time Libby disclosed portions of the NIE, the Niger allegation already had been largely discredited, and much of the other classified information that administration officials revealed about Iraq was wrong, exaggerated or disputed.

Additionally, the court papers suggest that Libby mischaracterized the NIE.

The court filing said he "understood that he was to tell Miller, among other things, that a key judgment of the NIE held that Iraq was `vigorously trying to procure' uranium."

But the key judgments of the NIE, which were released publicly days after Libby briefed Miller, made no reference to the uranium allegation, which the State Department disputed in the body of the estimate.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Intelligence, War in Iraq
Network/Outlet
USA Today, Associated Press
Stories/Interests
Prewar Intelligence/WMD
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