Special Report distorted significance of leak case correction

››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN

Fox News journalists and commentators repeatedly -- and baselessly -- cited a correction issued by CIA leak case special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald as evidence that the Bush administration had not "hyp[ed]" prewar intelligence and that reporters had "wrongly accuse[d]" President Bush of directing I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby to provide false information to reporters about Iraq's supposed nuclear program to justify the decision to invade Iraq.

On the April 12 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Fox News journalists and commentators repeatedly -- and baselessly -- cited a correction issued by CIA leak case special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald as evidence that the Bush administration had not "hyp[ed]" prewar intelligence and that reporters had "wrongly accuse[d]" President Bush of directing former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby to provide false information to reporters about Iraq's supposed nuclear program to justify the decision to invade Iraq.

In fact, recent reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post have revealed substantial evidence -- unaffected by Fitzgerald's correction -- that the Bush administration continued to tout inaccurate intelligence that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium from the African country of Niger even after the United States intelligence community had discredited that claim. Moreover, the correction did not undercut the thrust of Fitzgerald's disclosure -- as originally flagged by The New York Sun in an April 6 article with the headline "Bush Authorized Leak to Times, Libby Told Grand Jury" -- that, according to Libby's testimony, Bush authorized the selective release of classified national security information.

Suggesting that Fitzgerald's April 11 correction fit a pattern of mistakes, journalists and commentators on Special Report also falsely claimed that in an October 2005 press conference, Fitzgerald "accused Scooter Libby of being the first" Bush administration official to leak former CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity to the media. In fact, as Media Matters for America has noted, Fitzgerald said at the press conference that Libby "was the first official known to have told a reporter" (emphasis added) about Plame's CIA employment.

As Media Matters has documented, Bush repeated the African uranium claim during his January 28, 2003, State of the Union address, as did numerous members of his administration in the months leading up to the Iraq war.

In October 2005, Libby was indicted on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury, and making false statements in connection with the Plame case. In an April 6 filing in the case, Fitzgerald alleged that, according to Libby's testimony, Vice President Dick Cheney informed Libby in advance of a July 8, 2003, meeting with New York Times reporter Judith Miller that Bush "specifically had authorized" Libby "to disclose certain information" from a classified October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE).

Fitzgerald also wrote -- inaccurately -- that Libby "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." As major news outlets noted, the reference in the NIE to the now-discredited African uranium claim was not a key judgment but was instead a claim made in a separate section of the NIE.

In an April 11 letter -- reported by National Review White House correspondent Byron York -- Fitzgerald corrected his initial filing, writing:

That sentence should read, "Defendant understood that he was to tell Miller, among other things, some of the key judgments of the NIE, and that the NIE stated that Iraq was 'vigorously trying to procure' uranium."

Importantly, the correction did not alter the most significant revelation in Fitzgerald's April 5 filing -- Fitzgerald's allegation that, according to Libby's testimony, Bush authorized Libby to leak information from the classified NIE to reporters. In its April 6 article breaking the story, The New York Sun explained its significance:

However, the new disclosure could be awkward for the president because it places him, for the first time, directly in a chain of events that led to a meeting where prosecutors contend the identity of a CIA employee, Valerie Plame, was provided to a reporter.

Mr. Fitzgerald's inquiry initially focused on the alleged leak, which occurred after a former ambassador who is Ms. Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times questioning the accuracy of statements Mr. Bush made about Iraq's nuclear procurement efforts in Africa.

Seizing on Fitzgerald's correction, Fox News chief White House correspondent Carl Cameron claimed on Special Report that "[t]he error led some reporters to wrongly accuse the president of directing former vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby to provide false information about Iraq's nuclear ambitions to ... Miller and to attribute it to the CIA's national intelligence estimate." Similarly, during the show's "All Star Panel" segment, Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes said: "If they are at war and somebody is charging them with hyping intelligence for going to the war but that's not true, they would quite understandably want to rebut that." Washington Examiner senior White House correspondent Bill Sammon agreed, asserting, "The only person hyping things here is the prosecutor, not Scooter Libby."

But despite the fact that Libby did not testify that he was authorized to misrepresent the African uranium claim as a key judgment, there is substantial evidence that in continuing to tout the African uranium claim, the Bush administration was indeed misrepresenting intelligence. For example, an April 9 New York Times article cited Fitzgerald's inaccurate key judgments claim. But that same article reported that a week before Libby's July 8, 2003, meeting with Miller, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell "told three other reporters for The Times that intelligence agencies had essentially rejected that [African uranium] contention, and were 'no longer carrying it as a credible item' by early 2003, when he was preparing to make the case against Iraq at the United Nations."

While the October 2002 NIE did state that Iraq was "vigorously trying to procure uranium" from Africa, The Washington Post reported on April 9 that then-director of central intelligence George J. Tenet "interceded to keep the claim out of a speech Bush gave in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002." The Post further reported that in January 2003, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) drafted an "unequivocal" memo debunking the claim. The Post reported that according to "[f]our U.S. officials with firsthand knowledge," the White House received the memo "as Bush and his highest-ranking advisers made the uranium story a centerpiece of their case for ... war":

The council's reply, drafted in a January 2003 memo by the national intelligence officer for Africa, was unequivocal: The Niger story was baseless and should be laid to rest. Four U.S. officials with firsthand knowledge said in interviews that the memo, which has not been reported before, arrived at the White House as Bush and his highest-ranking advisers made the uranium story a centerpiece of their case for the rapidly approaching war against Iraq.

Bush put his prestige behind the uranium story in his Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address. Less than two months later, the International Atomic Energy Agency exposed the principal U.S. evidence as bogus. A Bush-appointed commission later concluded that the evidence, a set of contracts and correspondence sold by an Italian informant, was "transparently forged."

But even before it was discredited by intelligence community, the African uranium claim in the NIE was far from definitive. The NIE included a section in which the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) warned that such claims were "highly dubious."

But according to Fitzgerald, Libby testified that he was authorized to discuss the NIE with Miller because "it was thought that the NIE was 'pretty definitive' against" charges leveled by Wilson that "some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted [by the Bush administration] to exaggerate the Iraqi threat." Miller described her July 8, 2003, meeting with Libby in an October 16, 2005, New York Times article: "As I told Mr. Fitzgerald, Mr. Libby also cited a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, produced by American intelligence agencies in October 2002, which he said had firmly concluded that Iraq was seeking uranium." Nowhere in either Fitzgerald's filing or Miller's account is there any mention of INR's initial objections to the uranium claim or of the NIC's subsequent debunking.

Similarly, in a November 16, 2005, article, Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward described his notes from his June 23, 2003, interview with Libby: "A portion of the typed notes shows that Libby discussed the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, mentioned 'yellowcake' [uranium] and said there was an 'effort by the Iraqis to get it from Africa.' "

In noting Fitzgerald's April 11 correction, Cameron falsely asserted that this was "the second time" Fitzgerald has had "problems with his facts in the leaks case" and that Fitzgerald previously said that "Libby was the first government official to disclose the identity of CIA official Valerie Plame to the media, specifically The New York Times." During the panel discussion, NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams similarly claimed that "it's not the first time that he [Fitzgerald] made such an error." Sammon added that Fitzgerald said Libby "was the first official to tell the first reporter about Valerie Plame" and that "this is the second occasion where he is overreaching."

In fact, in his October 28, 2005, press conference announcing Libby's indictment, Fitzgerald stated: "Mr. Libby was the first official known to have told a reporter" about Plame's CIA employment. According to Fitzgerald, Libby first revealed Plame's identity during a June 23, 2003, meeting with Miller. Two weeks after Fitzgerald's press conference, Woodward reportedly testified that he learned about Plame's CIA employment in "mid-June 2003" from a "senior administration official" other than Libby.

From the April 12 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

CAMERON: Just yesterday, the special prosecutor in the CIA leaks case, Patrick Fitzgerald, had to correct an embarrassing mistake in his own court filing. The error led some reporters to wrongly accuse the president of directing former vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby to provide false information about Iraq's nuclear ambitions to New York Times reporter Judy Miller and to attribute it to the CIA's National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE. Fitzgerald first wrote, quote: "Defendant," meaning Libby, "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."

The intelligence report did allege Iraq was aggressively seeking nuclear materials, but it was not among to so-called key judgments, which carry significant weight and require broad agreement. Fitzgerald's misquote prompted some media, including The New York Times, to suggest the president had directed aides to misrepresent and exaggerate the NIE in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. Fitzgerald's corrected version reads, "Defendant understood that he was to tell Miller, among other things, some of the key judgments of the NIE, and that the NIE stated that Iraq was 'vigorously trying to procure' uranium.

That seemingly small change amounts to a whopping "oops, never mind." And it's the second time that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has had problems with his facts in the leaks case. He has said that Scooter Libby was the first government official to disclose the identity of CIA official Valerie Plame to the media, specifically The New York Times. But since Fitzgerald said that, The Washington Post's Bob Woodward has come forward and said he was the first reporter to learn that information. He hasn't said who his source was, but he has said it was not Libby.

[...]

WILLIAMS: Well, there's lots of questions now about Fitzgerald's judgment and intentions, because it's not the first time that he has made such an error.

[...]

SAMMON: But as you said, it's the second time he's been sloppy. Remember last year he accused Scooter Libby of being the first official to leak -- er, to say that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent to a reporter. He got up as a press conference and made much of this and was very self-righteous about it. And then -- you know, this was after a several-year investigation --

HUME: Although he's not -- although that isn't what Libby is charged with. The crime he's charged with is not the disclosure of Plame --

SAMMON: No, but --

HUME: It was part of his narrative of what Libby did that led him to tell this alleged lie.

SAMMON: He called this press conference and self-righteously denounced Libby in very direct terms. He was the first official to tell the first reporter about Valerie Plame. And I've done an extensive investigation for two years, I've put reporters in jail, I've interviewed all the reporters, interviewed all the officials. And guess what happened? Bob Woodward, the most famous reporter in America, somehow escaped the attention of "Elliott Ness" Fitzgerald -- which is what The New York Times was calling him, "Elliott Ness with a Harvard degree." And so, sheepishly, Fitzgerald had to acknowledge that actually Bob Woodward was told about this by another official at least a week before Scooter Libby. So this is the second occasion where he is overreaching and has to sort of climb back down.

[...]

BARNES: The correct word would have been that they believed that what Joe Wilson said was wrong in his report and they were trying to rebut what he said which is perfectly -- that's what an administration ought to do. If they are at war and somebody is charging them with hyping intelligence for going to the war but that's not true, they would quite understandably want to rebut that. But that doesn't seem to be the way Joe -- rather, the prosecutor, Fitzgerald, is going.

[...]

SAMMON: I think because they have staked out a position previously that we can't comment on this ongoing criminal investigation, I think it would look opportunistic if they jumped in suddenly when Fitzgerald has embarrassed himself and pointed to that, because that would be hypocritical. But I agree with Fred. The only person hyping things here is the prosecutor, not Scooter Libby. The prosecutor is hyping the case. And then, the problem is the media takes that and runs with it. The media draws all these conclusions based on this erroneous filing.

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