Colorado media repeated litany of conservative falsehoods about CIA leak case

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

Since I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was convicted on perjury and obstruction of justice charges March 6, several Colorado media outlets have repeated three conservative falsehoods regarding the Valerie Plame CIA leak case: that no underlying crime was committed, that Libby was not responsible for the leak of Plame's identity, and that Libby's leak was an effort to set the record straight.

On March 6, the day that a jury convicted former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby on federal perjury and obstruction of justice charges connected with the leak of the classified CIA identity of Valerie Plame, Media Matters for America noted numerous media myths regarding coverage of the case and predicted that conservatives and other media figures would revive and advance these falsehoods. Editorials published March 7 and 9 in the Rocky Mountain News, The Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction, and The Gazette of Colorado Springs; and March 6 and 7 broadcasts on Fox News Radio 600 KCOL, 630 KHOW-AM, and Newsradio 850 KOA have proven Media Matters right.

As Media Matters has noted, Plame is married to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who in a July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed cast doubt on President Bush's claims about Iraq's purported attempts to buy uranium from Niger. Media Matters noted nine ways in which the media have misinformed about Plame, Wilson, and the activities of administration figures connected to the scandal. In the three days since the Libby verdict, Colorado media perpetuated three of these falsehoods: that no underlying crime was committed, that Libby was not responsible for the leak of Plame's identity, and that Libby's leak was an effort to set the record straight.

1. No underlying crime was committed

Newsradio 850 KOA host Mike Rosen, the Rocky Mountain News, and The Gazette of Colorado Springs all claimed, as Rosen put it during the March 7 broadcast of his show, "There was no crime underlying the perjury and obstruction of justice that 'Scooter' Libby was ultimately convicted of." Similarly, in its March 7 editorial ("The lies he told"), the News called the trial "one of the strangest political spectacles of recent times, given the lack of an underlying crime."

Media Matters noted that since a federal grand jury indicted Libby in October 2005, numerous figures in the media have stated that the nature of the charges against him prove that special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation of the case found that no underlying crime had been committed. But as Colorado Media Matters previously noted, this assertion ignores Fitzgerald's explanation that Libby's obstructions prevented him -- and the grand jury -- from determining whether the alleged leak violated federal law.

Rosen further stated falsely that the leaking of Plame's identity was not illegal "because Valerie Plame hadn't been covert for at least nine years, and under the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act, that period of time was such that she wouldn't have been covered under that act." In fact, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA) definition of "covert agent" includes the description applicable to Plame:

(4) The term "covert agent" means-

(A) a present or retired officer or employee of an intelligence agency or a present or retired member of the Armed Forces assigned to duty with an intelligence agency-

(i) whose identity as such an officer, employee, or member is classified information, and

(ii) who is serving outside the United States or has within the last five years served outside the United States

Journalist David Corn reported in a September 6, 2006, online article for The Nation ("What Valerie Plame Really Did at the CIA") that in the summer of 2001 Plame was appointed head of the operations group for the CIA Counterproliferation Division's Joint Task Force on Iraq (JTFI) and that in that capacity she traveled abroad:

In 1997 she returned to CIA headquarters and joined the Counterproliferation Division. (About this time, she moved in with Joseph Wilson; they later married.) She was eventually given a choice: North Korea or Iraq. She selected the latter. Come the spring of 2001, she was in the CPD's modest Iraq branch. But that summer -- before 9/11 -- word came down from the brass: We're ramping up on Iraq. Her unit was expanded and renamed the Joint Task Force on Iraq. Within months of 9/11, the JTFI grew to fifty or so employees. Valerie Wilson was placed in charge of its operations group.

There was great pressure on the JTFI to deliver. Its primary target was Iraqi scientists. JTFI officers, under Wilson's supervision, tracked down relatives, students and associates of Iraqi scientists -- in America and abroad -- looking for potential sources. They encouraged Iraqi émigrés to visit Iraq and put questions to relatives of interest to the CIA.

[...]

Wilson, too, occasionally flew overseas to monitor operations. She also went to Jordan to work with Jordanian intelligence officials who had intercepted a shipment of aluminum tubes heading to Iraq that CIA analysts were claiming -- wrongly -- were for a nuclear weapons program.

[...]

When the Novak column ran, Valerie Wilson was in the process of changing her clandestine status from NOC to official cover, as she prepared for a new job in personnel management. Her aim, she told colleagues, was to put in time as an administrator -- to rise up a notch or two -- and then return to secret operations. But with her cover blown, she could never be undercover again.

Rosen had made a variation of this claim before, as Colorado Media Matters has noted. The Gazette similarly stated, in a March 9 editorial titled "Case closed," that "[t]he leak itself wasn't a crime. And special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald never even established that Plame was an undercover agent." But contradicting The Gazette's assertion was a motion filed by Libby's defense team and unsuccessfully challenged by Fitzgerald, on which Judge Reggie Walton ruled to preclude evidence and argument related to Plame's employment status. In his filing, Fitzgerald stated that:

The government reserves the right to offer proof of the classified status of Ms. Wilson's employment if the defendant contends that the questions and answers at issue were not material to the grand jury investigation or seeks jury nullification based on the absence of such evidence.

Elsewhere in the filing, Fitzgerald noted that such proof in part consisted of a declaration from the CIA:

The government agrees that evidence establishing the facts that "Valerie Wilson's employment status with the Central Intelligence Agency (the "CIA") was ... classified or covert" and that "any damage to the national security, the CIA, or Ms. Wilson herself was ... or could have been, caused by the disclosure of that status" (Mtn. at 1) is not strictly necessary to prove that the charged false statements were material to the grand jury's investigation and within the jurisdiction of the executive branch. Nor is evidence of these facts necessary to a determination that defendant had a motive to lie during his FBI interviews and grand jury testimony. Therefore, the government agrees not to offer a declaration from the CIA or any other direct evidence of the facts that Ms. Wilson's CIA employment actually was classified or that the public disclosure of that employment actually damaged the national security, the CIA, or Ms. Wilson, or had the potential of doing so. This agreement is not intended to confer upon defendant a license to mislead the jury, however. Thus, if defendant were to open the door by attempting to challenge the classified status of Ms. Wilson's employment or the potential risks of publicly disclosing that employment, or if the defense disputed the materiality of the statements or sought nullification, the government would be entitled to, and would, seek to offer this evidence.

2. Libby was not responsible for the leak of Plame's identity

Rosen joined the News, the Daily Sentinel, and Fox News Channel's Jim Engel on 600 KCOL on March 6 in claiming, as the Daily Sentinel put it in a March 7 editorial ("The end of a show trial"), that "Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who opposed the Iraq war, was the first to leak Plame's name to the media." Rosen stated that "we already know, and Fitzgerald knew as well, that the first source of Valerie Plame's identity wasn't 'Scooter' Libby, it was Richard Armitage." Engel said that "Armitage [was] the first person to have linked (sic) this." And the News editorialized that Fitzgerald could not have believed that there was a White House conspiracy to leak Plame's identity because "Plame's association with the CIA was first made public in a column by Robert Novak, and investigators knew even before Fitzgerald was named that Novak's source was Richard Armitage -- from the State Department, not the White House."

Indeed, it has been reported that Armitage was the initial source for the first published revelation of Plame's identity, a July 14, 2003, column by Novak. However, as Fitzgerald noted at the October 28, 2005, press conference at which he announced Libby's indictment, Libby had leaked Plame's identity to then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller before Armitage leaked to Novak:

Valerie Wilson's cover was blown in July 2003. The first sign of that cover being blown was when Mr. Novak published a column on July 14th, 2003.

But Mr. Novak was not the first reporter to be told that Wilson's wife, Valerie Wilson, Ambassador Wilson's wife Valerie, worked at the CIA. Several other reporters were told.

In fact, Mr. Libby was the first official known to have told a reporter when he talked to Judith Miller in June of 2003 about Valerie Wilson.

Before the March 6 verdict, some in the media had suggested that because Libby did not leak to Novak, he is not technically responsible for the leak. Rosen, the News, and the Daily Sentinel all suggested that there was something untoward about Fitzgerald's investigation of Libby because Fitzgerald supposedly "knew" that Libby was not the original leaker.*

3. Libby's leak was an effort to set the record straight

Critics of the case also repeatedly have claimed that Fitzgerald's indictment stemmed from an effort by Libby and Vice President Dick Cheney to rebut a purportedly inaccurate attack on the administration by Wilson. According to these critics, Wilson falsely accused Cheney of having sent him to Niger to investigate reports that Iraq had attempted to purchase yellowcake uranium from the African nation. In fact, Wilson's Times op-ed did not say Cheney sent him. Rather, Wilson wrote that it was "agency officials" from the CIA who "asked if I would travel to Niger" to "check out" a "particular intelligence report" that "Cheney's office had questions about," so that CIA officials "could provide a response to the vice president's office."

Rosen repeated this distortion, claiming that in orchestrating the Plame leak, "the administration was trying to explain ... [t]hat [Wilson] wasn't sent there at the White House's recommendation -- that he was sent there because his wife recommended him and that was relevant information." George Brauchler, who was a guest co-host on the March 7 broadcast of 630 KHOW-AM's The Caplis & Silverman Show, made a similar distortion:

BRAUCHLER: She gets him -- unbeknownst to the administration and without their request -- to go down to Niger ... So all the vice president's office seeks to do is to clarify two things. One, we never sent him down, which is what he indicates in his op-ed piece. And oh, by the way, everybody ought to know that his wife -- the CIA -- is the one that sent him on this trip to help their political cause.

Here Rosen and Brauchler made the additional distortion that Plame "sent" Wilson on the mission, purportedly to further their political goals. Media Matters has noted that a July 22, 2003, Newsday article quoted an unidentified senior intelligence official as saying, "They [the officers asking Wilson to check the uranium story] were aware of who she [Plame] was married to, which is not surprising. ... There are people elsewhere in government who are trying to make her look like she was the one who was cooking this up, for some reason." According to a July 21, 2004, USA Today article:

The [Senate Intelligence] committee also questioned Wilson's repeated denials that his wife had "anything to do" with his selection by the CIA to go to Niger. It quoted from a memo by Plame that lays out Wilson's qualifications for the assignment. Wilson and the CIA confirm that the agency, not Plame, selected him for the mission. He says the memo merely laid out his qualifications after he was picked.

The Senate Intelligence Committee's 2004 "Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq" said that "interviews and documents provided to the Committee indicated that his [Wilson's] wife, a CPD [Counterproliferation Divison] employee, suggested his name for the trip." But CIA officials have disputed the accuracy of a State Department intelligence document that reportedly indicates that Plame "suggested" Wilson's name for the trip. Moreover, the bipartisan committee did not officially conclude that Plame suggested the trip. In a partisan addendum to the report, then-committee chairman Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) wrote that Democrats opposed including the statement, "The plan to send the former ambassador to Niger was suggested by the former ambassador's wife, a CIA employee" in the full report.

From the March 7 broadcast of Newsradio 850 KOA's The Mike Rosen Show:

ROSEN: The initial motivation behind this investigation and the subsequent trial was to nail Cheney and Rove, and through them George W. Bush. That was the political motivation. There are some -- some interesting, pithy comments about the context. This from Bill Bennett, talking about Joe Wilson's role and how his wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as a covert CIA agent, except she wasn't a covert agent at the time and hadn't been for many years. Hadn't been for so many years that the, the relevant law involved -- which calls for penalties against people who out covert agents -- no longer applied. It had been that long before she had any covert status. Bill Bennett said:

"[I]f your spouse's position is of such a classified nature that disclosure of her position would put her job in jeopardy" -- or her life, for that matter -- "then don't write a political op-ed in The New York Times" -- which is what Joe Wilson did -- "that has implications for what your spouse did to put you in a position to write that op-ed."

I thought that was right on target.

[...]

ROSEN: Joe Wilson, who had been associated with the Kerry campaign as well -- and, by the way, he was ultimately dumped from the Kerry campaign -- had a political ax to grind, as did his wife, and the administration was trying to explain how this guy Joe Wilson came to be sent to investigate Saddam Hussein's seeking of yellowcake uranium from Africa, from Nigeria. That he wasn't sent there at the White House's recommendation -- that he was sent there because his wife recommended him and that was relevant information -- that wasn't to silence critics or punish anybody, that was the conspiracy theory. And that conspiracy theory rapidly fell apart. The Rocky Mountain News in its editorial makes note of that:

"Many people still believe in the conspiracy, political passions being what they are, but the crucial point is that Fitzgerald could not have believed in the conspiracy. Plame's association with the CIA was first made public in a column by Robert Novak, and investigators knew even before Fitzgerald was named that Novak's source was" -- not "Scooter" Libby or the White House -- "that Novak's source was Richard Armitage" -- a critic of the Bush administration, and a critic of what we were doing in Iraq -- and that Richard Armitage wasn't from the White House, he was "from the State Department."

And that was the principal, the very first, the initial, source of Valerie Plame's identity and the connection between Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson.

"At that point," says the Rocky, "the investigation probably should have ended. Disclosure of Plame's job, it turns out, wasn't a crime -- in fact, given the trial testimony, it appears that half of" Washington, "half of the Washington press corps was talking about it, and no two of them seem to remember the conversations the same way."

The key point being: There was no crime underlying the perjury and obstruction of justice that "Scooter" Libby was ultimately convicted of.

[...]

ROSEN: The left is, is celebrating that, of course. The left is terribly disappointed that Dick Cheney and Karl Rove were never charged in this investigation. And they weren't able to put a smoking gun, nailing them for violation of a law, and in this case one of the reasons they couldn't nail them or Libby was because no law had been violated. She wasn't a covert agent at the time and hadn't been for a sufficient number of years.

[...]

ROSEN: Regarding the illegal leaking of a covert CIA agent, that never happened either, because Valerie Plame hadn't been covert for at least nine years, and under the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act, that period of time was such that she wouldn't have been covered under that act.

[...]

CALLER: I can't figure out for the life of me what the motive was for "Scooter" Libby to lie. I mean, when you're trying somebody you always look for means, motive, and opportunity, and obviously he had the means and the opportunity, but what was the motive? And I'm going to have to drop off here, but --

ROSEN: Well, it depends on what kind of a conspiracy theory you're trying to advance. If your underlying premise is that Dick Cheney wanted to punish Joe Wilson, and as such he revealed Valerie Plame's covert status, which wasn't covert, in order to punish Wilson and discourage others -- if that's your conspiracy theory, then "Scooter" Libby would've lied in order to cover up Dick Cheney's fingerprints on this. But we already know, and Fitzgerald knew as well, that the first source of Valerie Plame's identity wasn't "Scooter" Libby, it was Richard Armitage.

From the March 6 broadcast of Fox News Radio 600 KCOL's Ride Home with The James Gang:

ENGEL: So what Armitage -- the first person known to have leaked this, he also told it to Bob Woodward -- was explaining why Wilson was sent on this mission. Now Wilson looks at it as an attempt to smear him, to undermine him, to punish his family for what he said. But that is not the context in which the original mention of her came.

From the March 7 broadcast of 630 KHOW-AM's The Caplis & Silverman Show:

BRAUCHLER: We get information that Niger says, "Hey, there may be Iraqi attempts to try to obtain some of this weapons-grade yellowcake uranium stuff." So, the vice president doesn't send anybody down to Niger. Get this: Valerie Plame, CIA operative, gets her husband, who was an ambassador under President Bill Clinton and a big-time Democrat who'd worked in the office of Al Gore, who'd worked in the office of Tom Foley. She gets him -- unbeknownst to the administration and without their request -- to go down to Niger. And he comes back with a report, which I can't imagine it's not classified. I don't know how he gets to reveal the contents of his report, obtained on behalf of the CIA, no one's asked that question. But he comes back and says, "Well, it's doubtful." Of course, he testifies to the Senate Intelligence Committee that, you know, "it turns out Iraq did make overtures to the government. But I still think it's doubtful." So he says that. So all the vice president's office seeks to do is to clarify two things. One, we never sent him down, which is what he indicates in his op-ed piece. And oh, by the way, everybody ought to know that his wife -- the CIA -- is the one that sent him on this trip to help their political cause.

From the editorial "The end of a show trial" in the March 7 edition of The Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction:

Lewis "Scooter" Libby faces a maximum of 24 years in federal prison now that a jury has convicted him of four counts of perjury, lying to the FBI and obstructing an investigation.

Libby's crime was not, as the perfervid political left liked to frame the case, leaking the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson to members of the press in purported retaliation for Wilson's husband disputing Bush administration's claims that Saddam Hussein's regime sought to buy uranium in Africa prior to the war in Iraq.

Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald declined to indict anyone on that charge, perhaps because early on in his investigation Fitzgerald learned that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who opposed the Iraq war, was the first to leak Plame's name to the media.

From the editorial "The lies he told" in the March 7 edition of the Rocky Mountain News:

Libby lied to investigators multiple times, and these were not crimes that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald felt inclined to overlook. We don't blame him, although Fitzgerald's investigation should never have reached the point where he had to make such a decision, either (more on that in a moment). Moreover, if Libby lied to a grand jury, he deserves at least some time in prison.

Still, the Libby trial must count as one of the strangest political spectacles of recent times, given the lack of an underlying crime.

When the Valerie Plame story first broke in the press, the scenario was that her status as an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency had been leaked as part of a larger plan orchestrated by the White House for political reasons.

If true, that would have been a serious enough matter to justify an investigation, although the appointment of Fitzgerald was in turn prompted as much by politics as anything. His assignment was to determine whether, in fact, the White House was involved.

We won't rehash the whole thing, because that scenario soon unraveled. Many people still believe in the conspiracy, political passions being what they are, but the crucial point is that Fitzgerald could not have believed it. Plame's association with the CIA was first made public in a column by Robert Novak, and investigators knew even before Fitzgerald was named that Novak's source was Richard Armitage - from the State Department, not the White House.

At that point, the investigation probably should have ended. Disclosure of Plame's job, it turns out, was not a crime - in fact, given the trial testimony, it appears that half of the Washington press corps was talking about it, and no two of them seem to remember the conversations the same way.

From the editorial "Case closed" in the March 9 edition of The Gazette of Colorado Springs:

Robert Novak, whose July 2003 column launched the Valerie Plame affair, which concluded with a multiple convictions for former White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby, might be a good person to consult on the meaning of it all. In a column this week, focusing on how crestfallen Democrats are because it never panned out as a second Iran-Contra scandal, Novak pointed out that "the Libby trial uncovered no plot hatched in the White House." The jury never heard from the man who actually leaked Plame's identity to Novak. The leak itself wasn't a crime. And special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald never even established that Plame was an undercover agent.

Correction: 

This item originally included the sentence: "In fact, Fitzgerald's October 2005 statement indicated he knew that Libby was the original leaker." Subsequent to Fitzgerald's October 2005 press conference, media reports indicated that Armitage had leaked Plame's identity to Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward before Libby spoke with any journalists; at the time of Fitzgerald's October 2005 statement, Libby apparently was the first official known to Fitzgerald to have leaked Plame's identity to a reporter. The subsequent revelations about Armitage's apparent leak to Woodward, which preceded Libby's leaks to journalists, clarified Armitage's place in the chronology. Colorado Media Matters regrets the omission.

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.