The Wilson-Plame Affair (Cont'd)
By Michael Getler
Sunday, July 18, 2004; Page B06
There was no ambiguity in the conclusion of the massive report released by the Senate's bipartisan Select Committee on Intelligence on July 9. "Most of the major key judgments" made by the intelligence community about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction were "either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting. A series of failures, particularly in analytic trade craft, led to the mischaracterization of the intelligence."
The Post has done a good job sifting through and reporting on this exhaustively detailed study. But only one of perhaps a score of stories has attracted criticism from readers. That story, by staff writer Susan Schmidt, appeared on Page A9 July 10. It reported on what the committee had to say about a CIA-sponsored trip to Africa by former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV in February 2002 to investigate reports that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium in Africa, and about the role of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, who was an undercover employee of the CIA at the time, in the decision to send him.
There is no room here to go into all the details, but Wilson's trip, and his subsequent public criticism of the Bush administration, became a much longer-running and high-profile story than his original secret assignment. In addition, a federal grand jury has been conducting a criminal investigation for several months now into who identified Plame by name to columnist Robert D. Novak a year ago.
The Post has been in the middle of all this. It carried the first stories about Wilson's trip, has probably covered this issue most thoroughly and is probably the most highly visible outlet for Novak's column, although it appears in 200 papers. So the paper, properly and alertly, included this portion of the Senate report in its first-day coverage.
Almost all the readers who had complaints relied for their objections on some critical comments by Joshua Micah Marshall, an online commentator who writes the "Talking Points Memo" Web site. Another critic, of both the story and the reporter, is Wilson, who sent me a copy of a letter to The Post that appeared in Saturday's paper.
There was one mistake in the Schmidt story, which was not central to the main points and which The Post corrected on Tuesday (more on that later). If I were the editor of this story, there are one or two places where it might have been better to use the exact words from the Senate report, or to have another sentence of background. And there was one paragraph of speculation about the possible impact of the report on the administration's case in the investigation that, in my view and the view of critics, should have been left out.
But in general, I didn't find the criticism of this story persuasive. The story, in my view, reflects the points, interviews and conclusions laid out in the Senate study.
Wilson, in his letter, refers to "the Republican-written" report. It is a bipartisan report. Wilson says "the decision to send me to Niger was not made, and could not be made, by Valerie." Neither the report, nor the story, says she made "the decision." The story says Wilson was "specifically recommended for the mission by his wife." The report says "interviews and documents provided to the Committee indicate that his wife . . . suggested his name for the trip." A reports officer in her division told the committee she "offered up his name." There are other references as well to Plame's role.
Wilson takes issue with Schmidt's reporting that his report on the trip to Niger "bolstered the case" about purported uranium sales to Iraq. But the study concludes that Wilson's March 2002 report, which noted that the former prime minister of Niger said that in 1999 he was approached by a businessman insisting he meet with an Iraqi delegation (which he did not do), "lent more credibility to the original CIA reports on the uranium deal."
Marshall takes issue with The Post's reporting that "contrary to Wilson's assertions . . . the CIA did not tell the White House it had qualms about the reliability of the African intelligence that made its way into the 16 fateful words in President Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address." Actually, the CIA fought hard, and successfully, to keep the material about Africa, aspects of which were a matter of dispute, out of a major speech Bush gave in October 2002. But the Senate study points out that in January 2003, the CIA, which still believed Iraq was probably seeking uranium from Africa, did not tell the White House to take out those 16 words from the State of the Union address and that then-CIA Director George Tenet had not even read the speech beforehand.
The error in the story occurred when Schmidt mistakenly wrote that Wilson had reported that Iraq had tried to buy 400 tons of uranium from Niger in 1998. The Senate report had said it was Iran. The Post correction, however, did not make it clear that the Senate report said it was Iran, which meant there were several different ways one could read the correction.
"The Post's corrections are maddening," wrote one reader. "Sometimes the most trivial errors are corrected but significant errors are ignored. Sometimes blame is fixed, especially if the Post was not at fault, but most often it is not. Sometimes the corrected information is cryptic almost to the point of secrecy in not providing more details." Now, there is something we can all agree on.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Michael Getler is The Post's ombudsman. He can be reached at (202) 334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20071.|