Post ombudsman defended editorial's falsehoods as a difference in "views"
Research ››› ››› MARCIA KUNTZ
In a column purportedly explaining the inconsistencies between The Washington Post's April 9 editorial titled "A Good Leak" and an article published the same day by staff writers Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer, Post ombudsman Deborah Howell suggested the principal reason for the differences in the two pieces was that reporters and editorial writers "can see things quite differently." But the editorial did not merely advocate a position; it did so with numerous false statements.
In an April 16 column purportedly explaining the inconsistencies between The Washington Post's April 9 editorial titled "A Good Leak" and an article published the same day by staff writers Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer, Post ombudsman Deborah Howell suggested the principal reason for the differences in the two pieces was that reporters and editorial writers "can see things quite differently." "Editorials and news stories have different purposes," she wrote. "News stories are to inform; editorials are to influence."
But what Howell ignored in her purported explanation is that the editorial did not merely advocate a position; as Media Matters for America noted at the time, it did so with numerous false statements. Howell explained the inconsistencies between the article and the editorial as the result not of accurate reporting by Gellman and Linzer versus misinformation by the editorial writer, but essentially as the reporters' having a different "view" from that of the editorial writer, derived from reliance on different evidence.
The two Post pieces followed a key disclosure in legal papers filed by special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald concerning former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. A federal grand jury indicted Libby in 2005 for perjury, obstruction, and false statements in conjunction with Fitzgerald's investigation of the CIA leak case. The legal papers revealed that Libby testified before the grand jury that in late June or early July 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney had told him that President Bush himself had authorized the leak to reporters of portions of a 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in order to rebut public statements that former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV had made. In a July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed, Wilson disputed the administration's claim that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had sought to purchase from the African nation of Niger uranium for nuclear weapons. The April 9 Post article reported that the information that Cheney and Libby selected for release -- which included a statement in the NIE that Saddam had been "vigorously attempting to procure uranium from Africa" -- was unsupported by the evidence.
The article by Gellman and Linzer reported that through the filing, Fitzgerald "described a 'concerted action' by 'multiple people in the White House' -- using classified information -- to 'discredit, punish or seek revenge against' " Wilson. As Gellman and Linzer wrote, "One striking feature of that decision -- unremarked until now, in part because Fitzgerald did not mention it -- is that the evidence Cheney and Libby selected to share with reporters had been disproved months before."
Notwithstanding this fact -- that the leak of cherry-picked parts of the 2002 NIE resulted in the misrepresentation of the administration's intelligence on Saddam's alleged efforts to obtain uranium -- the Post editorial board wrote that "President Bush was right to approve the declassification of parts of a National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq three years ago in order to make clear why he had believed that Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear weapons."
Howell did mention that the Gellman/Linzer story reported that the evidence that Cheney and Libby leaked to reporters had been disproved. But she neglected to mention that portions of the NIE itself undermined the administration's claim that Saddam had sought uranium. As Media Matters noted, the information Libby was reportedly instructed to give reporters -- that the NIE stated Iraq was "vigorously trying to procure" uranium -- is not an accurate presentation of the NIE's findings. In addition to that statement, the NIE noted that the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research called the claim "highly dubious" -- indicating that it was, at best, disputed within the intelligence community. For this reason, Gellman and Linzer reported, the CIA specifically left the uranium claim out of the NIE's "key judgments."
Moreover, Howell defended the editorial page by saying that the editorial writer had not read the Gellman/Linzer story, but that in any event, according to the editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, in Howell's words, "it is unlikely the story would have influenced the editorial."
Howell also stated that the editorial was "written off a front-page story Friday by reporter R. Jeffrey Smith about Fitzgerald's filing." But Smith's article contained details that stood at odds with the editorial. Whereas the editorial claimed that "the material that Mr. Bush ordered declassified established ... that Mr. Wilson was the one guilty of twisting the truth" about Iraq's nuclear threat, Smith wrote:
Libby told [New York Times reporter Judith] Miller, among other things, that the NIE concluded Iraq was "vigorously trying to procure uranium," according to Fitzgerald's filing. In fact, the CIA did not believe this allegation, which came from the Defense Intelligence Agency and remains unproved to this day, according to intelligence analysts.
The editorial also alleged that Fitzgerald's legal filing did not support Wilson's claim "that the White House set out to punish him for his supposed whistle-blowing by deliberately blowing the cover of his wife, Valerie Plame." But Smith wrote:
Libby, who was indicted last year for allegedly lying to the FBI and a grand jury about what he said to reporters about his contacts with the media, wants the materials because he thinks they will show that his misstatements were innocent and did not stem from an orchestrated administration campaign to discredit Wilson, according to his court filings.
Fitzgerald's brief uses unusually strong language to rebut this claim. In light of the grand jury testimony, the prosecutor said, "it is hard to conceive of what evidence there could be that would disprove the existence of White House efforts to 'punish' Wilson."
Howell further stated in her column, "Don't expect newspapers to editorialize against leaks," but an April 16 New York Times editorial, titled "A Bad Leak," said:
President Bush says he declassified portions of the prewar intelligence assessment on Iraq because he "wanted people to see the truth" about Iraq's weapons programs and to understand why he kept accusing Saddam Hussein of stockpiling weapons that turned out not to exist. This would be a noble sentiment if it actually bore any relationship to Mr. Bush's actions in this case, or his overall record.
Mr. Bush did not declassify the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq -- in any accepted sense of that word -- when he authorized I. Lewis Libby Jr., through Vice President Dick Cheney, to talk about it with reporters. He permitted a leak of cherry-picked portions of the report.
Obviously, we do not object to government officials talking to reporters about important matters that their bosses do not want discussed. It would be impossible to cover any administration, especially one so secretive as this, unless that happened. (Judith Miller, who then worked for The Times, was one of the reporters Mr. Libby chose for this leak, although she never wrote about it.) But the version of the facts that Mr. Libby was authorized to divulge was so distorted that it seems more like disinformation than any sincere attempt to inform the public.
What Howell defended as a difference in views was in fact a difference in reporting -- accurate versus inaccurate. Howell's column amounted to a defense of the editorial page's reporting of false information.