Conservative media silent on prior publication of leaks favorable to White House

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Following reports describing a Treasury Department program designed to track the financial activity of terrorist organizations, the Bush White House and its supporters in the media decried the leakers for divulging classified information and attacked the press for publishing details of the program. But conservatives were silent when the Bush administration previously disclosed -- and the media reported -- classified information to the press in order to bolster its arguments or discredit its political opponents.

Following June 23 articles by The New York Times and other newspapers describing a Treasury Department program designed to track the financial activity of terrorist organizations, the Bush White House and its supporters in the media decried the leakers for divulging classified information and attacked the press -- for the most part singling out the Times -- for publishing details of the program. As Media Matters for America noted, numerous conservative media figures advanced the administration's baseless argument that the story tipped off the terrorists to the government's tactics and put Americans at greater risk -- some even going so far as to accuse the Times of "treason."

In the past, however, the Bush administration has seen fit to disclose classified information to the Times and other news outlets in order to bolster its arguments or discredit its political opponents. On those occasions, conservatives -- the very people now vilifying the Times -- were largely silent.

Weapons of mass destruction

In an infamous September 8, 2002, article headlined, "U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts," New York Times reporters Judith Miller and Michael R. Gordon relied on leaked classified intelligence to report that "Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb." The article, which coincided with the Bush administration's intensified efforts to portray Iraq as a growing threat, detailed Saddam Hussein's efforts to purchase "specially designed aluminum tubes" purportedly intended as centrifuges to enrich uranium. The now-discredited allegations that the tubes represented evidence of Saddam's revived nuclear weapons program were attributed to anonymous "administration officials" as well as an unnamed Iraqi defector.

Knight Ridder staff writer Jonathan Landay noted in an October 25, 2005, article that Miller and Gordon's article "reinforced the Bush administration's charge that the United States couldn't wait for proof that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons." Landay further reported that the Times article gave administration officials "an opportunity to discuss the matter the same day on the Sunday television talk shows. They could discuss the article, but otherwise they wouldn't have been able to talk about classified intelligence in public."

Indeed, the day of the article's publication, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on NBC's Meet the Press and rather than condemn the Times' publication of classified intelligence -- as he's done in the case of the bank-tracking story -- he touted Miller and Gordon's reporting on the aluminum tubes. Cheney said, "There's a story in The New York Times this morning ... and I want to attribute the Times. I don't want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources, but it's now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire ... the kind of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge." On the September 8 edition of CNN's Late Edition, then-National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice echoed Cheney, asserting that Iraq had obtained "high quality aluminum tubes that are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs."

In December 2005, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and the House Judiciary Committee Democratic staff released a report that, in part, examined the White House's use of selectively leaked classified information in making its case for invading Iraq. The report pointed to the aluminum tubes article as an example of how "classified intelligence information supporting the Bush Administration's position ... was leaked to the press." The report further noted that "administration officials appear to have leaked classified information to the press well before the New York Times article," citing a July 29, 2002, Washington Times article headlined "Iraq Seeks Steel for Nukes." This article similarly reported that Iraq had attempted to purchase components for uranium enrichment, citing "administration officials familiar with intelligence reports."

But rather than decry the administration's leaking of classified information, conservative media touted the Times' aluminum tubes article as further evidence of the threat posed by Saddam. For instance, The Weekly Standard -- which has featured numerous articles lambasting the Times for the bank-tracking story (here, here and here) -- published a September 23, 2002, piece titled "Tubes of Mass Destruction" by Washington Institute for Near East Policy adjunct scholar Simon Henderson. The Standard article noted the Times report as evidence that "the Bush administration has started lobbing missiles at hardline liberals ever unconvinced about the threat Saddam Hussein poses to his region and the world. The administration's game presumably is to make these diehards change their minds and to win over skeptical members of the public." Henderson went on to note that "[h]aving leaked the story, the administration ran with it," citing Cheney's Meet the Press appearance.

The Plame leak

The disclosure to the press of former CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity represents another example of the Bush administration's leaking of classified information to serve its own purposes. In a July 6, 2003, op-ed, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV challenged one of the White House's central justifications for war with Iraq -- that Saddam had attempted to purchase uranium from Niger. In a subsequent effort to discredit Wilson, White House senior advisor Karl Rove and Cheney's chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby informed several Washington reporters -- including The New York Times' Miller --that Plame, Wilson's wife, worked at the CIA. Robert D. Novak went on to publish this fact in his July 14, 2003, syndicated column. Soon after, the CIA requested that the Justice Department investigate the leak. As special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has acknowledged in his ongoing probe, Plame's employment at the CIA was classified at the time of its disclosure.

The leaking of Plame's CIA identity inflamed many Democrats and former intelligence officials, but denunciations among conservatives of Novak's publication of Plame's identity were nowhere to be found. To the contrary, a February 20, 2004, Wall Street Journal editorial defended Novak by alleging that he "gave the CIA the chance to talk him out of publishing Ms. Plame's name" and that "[i]t still isn't clear that Ms. Plame was really 'under cover' at all." In a July 13, 2005, editorial, the Journal also defended the White House officials involved in the leak, claiming that Rove was "the real 'whistleblower' in this whole sorry pseudo-scandal." But following the reports on the Treasury Department program, the Journal criticized the Times disclosure of classified information in a June 30 editorial, saying that the paper "believes the U.S. is not really at war." Similarly, Fox News host John Gibson said on July 12, 2005, that Rove should be given "a medal" for outing Plame and added that she "should have been outed by somebody." On the June 24 edition of Fox News' The Big Story, however, Gibson assailed the Times for "revealing secrets" and "undermining our national security."

Woodward's books

Since Bush took office in 2001, Washington Post assistant managing editor and author Bob Woodward has written two books chronicling the White House's decision-making during the years following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The first of the books, Bush at War (Simon & Schuster, November 2002), described the year following 9-11, while the second, Plan of Attack (Simon & Schuster, April 2004), focused on the administration's invasion of Iraq. In both cases, the White House granted Woodward access to an extensive amount of classified information, as he indicated in his "Note to Readers" in Bush at War:

The information I obtained for this book includes contemporaneous notes taken during 50 National Security Council and other meetings.

[...]

I have attributed thoughts, conclusions and feelings to the participants. These come from either the person himself, a colleague with direct knowledge of them, or the written record -- both classified and unclassified.

[...]

War planning and war making involve secret information. I have used a good deal of it, trying to provide new specific details without harming sensitive operations or relationships with foreign governments.

That the White House had apparently divulged classified information to Woodward provoked consternation from certain members of Congress, while his unprecedented level of access fueled criticism that Bush at War was "too soft on the president." Questions regarding Woodward's arrangement with the White House persisted following the publication of Plan of Attack. Again, administration officials were "authorized" by Bush to provide Woodward with classified information. In a review of Plan of Attack in the June 7, 2004, issue of The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner, the magazine's co-editor and co-founder, noted Woodward's extensive use of classified material and the "skepticism" surrounding it:

What should arouse immediate skepticism is that Woodward was given full access to the most senior government officials, as well as the most highly classified documents and details of recent military and intelligence operations. This degree of access to still unfolding national-security secrets is unprecedented in the history of any sitting administration. The feeding and co-opting of Woodward must have been the subject of extensive White House strategizing, and it must have been approved from the very top. Woodward's reporting of how Rumsfeld and Franks planned the Iraq War is based on reams of ultra-classified attack memoranda.

Based on interviews with the head of the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA), Woodward discloses that in this war, for the first time, NSA battlefield intercepts are relayed directly to combat troops on the ground. He reveals verbatim accounts of highly confidential official conversations leading up to the Iraq War between President Bush and Saudi Arabia's ambassador, Prince Bandar, and other ambassadors and heads of state, based on official notes. This is the sort of highly sensitive material ordinarily released to historians after an interval of 50 years, if then. It did not come from some disgruntled GS-14[a reference to a mid-level career civil servant using the civil service pay scale].

[...]

If a less docile reporter -- say, the younger Bob Woodward -- had divulged such state secrets in service of criticism, the administration and its lawyers would have been all over him for disclosing "sources and methods" and recklessly compromising the national security. But Karl Rove evidently concluded that Bush should share these crown jewels with Woodward because the president would come out standing tall.

Kuttner went on to note that while Woodward's book did cause "mild embarrassment to lesser officials ... [o]ne high official in particular comes across looking just terrific. And that is George W. Bush." That the book cast him in a largely favorable light is evidenced by the fact that it was listed as recommended reading on the website of Bush's 2004 re-election campaign.

In a December 2, 2002, review of Bush at War, Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes noted Woodward's "impressive access to ... what went on in the meetings of the National Security Council, the realm of the president, Rice, and [then-deputy national security adviser Stephen] Hadley." He writes that "[t]here's plenty of evidence of Woodward's reporting prowess in 'Bush at War' " and that Woodward "uncovers more things than anyone else in journalism." But in complimenting Woodward's ability to gain intimate access to the administration, Barnes does not address the fact that the administration willingly divulged classified information in the process and that Woodward printed it. By contrast, Barnes has recently heaped scorn on The New York Times' decision to publish the Treasury Department bank-tracking story. Indeed, on the June 29 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Barnes complained that "you don't just blab secrets" and urged Congress to hold hearings involving the newspaper's editors and "to look into laws covering leaks of classified information."

Al Qaeda-Iraq connection

In an article titled, "Case Closed," in the November 24, 2003, issue of The Weekly Standard, staff writer Stephen F. Hayes reported that the Standard had obtained a "a top secret U.S. government memorandum" proving that "Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003." Not only was the article quickly discredited by Newsweek magazine and others, but it spurred the CIA to request a Justice Department investigation into the leak of the classified memo. Nonetheless, Cheney later touted Hayes's piece as the "best source of information" regarding the purported Iraq-Al Qaeda link pushed by the administration in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Despite the fact that it was the product of a "top secret" leak, numerous conservatives heralded it as evidence supporting the Bush administration's justification for the Iraq war, criticizing the mainstream media for failing to cover the story. For instance, on the December 5, 2003, edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Report, Media Research Center president L. Brent Bozell III said of the memo: "[I]t's explosive because it is justification, unquestionable justification, for having gone to war. You've got so many in the press who have been questioning the reasons for going to war and questioning the ties between -- the alleged ties between Hussein and Al Qaeda that, now, for them not to report the evidence that's out there, makes a mockery of what they've been reporting for the last year." But more than two years later, Bozell responded to The New York Times article on the classified Treasury Department program by accusing the newspaper of "aiding and abetting the terrorist movement ... by divulging these secrets."

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