Two Views of the Libby Leak Case

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, April 16, 2006

The lead editorial and a front-page story last Sunday on the I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby leak case left many Post readers confused.

The front-page story by reporters Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer, drawing on legal papers filed by Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald in the perjury case, put Libby and his former boss, Vice President Cheney, at the forefront of an effort to "discredit, punish or seek revenge against" Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador and controversial critic of the Iraq war.

Wilson had made a trip to Niger, at the CIA's behest, in 2002. He wrote a July 2003 op-ed piece in the New York Times dismissing an allegation that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger. A key part of the Gellman/Linzer story was that "the evidence Cheney and Libby selected to share with reporters had been disproved months before." Wilson was suggested for the trip by his wife, Valerie Plame, a CIA employee, whose name was leaked to several reporters, setting off the investigation.

The editorial was written off a front-page story Friday by reporter R. Jeffrey Smith about Fitzgerald's filing, which disclosed that President Bush authorized Libby to leak classified intelligence from the CIA's National Intelligence Estimate to reporters.

The Post editorially has supported the war, and the purpose of the editorial -- headlined "A Good Leak" -- was to support that leak as necessary to show that the president had reason to believe that Iraq was seeking uranium. The editorial said Bush "clumsily" handled the leak, leading to Democrats' "hyperbolic charges of misconduct and hypocrisy." (Don't expect newspapers to editorialize against leaks.)

The passage in the Post editorial that sent war critics round the bend was this one: " . . . Mr. Wilson was the one guilty of twisting the truth. In fact, his report supported the conclusion that Iraq had sought uranium."

First, it's important to remember that the articles and the editorial are looking back at June and July of 2003, seeking to add historical context to what we knew then. And we know a lot more now about the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq than we knew then.

Second, it's important to understand that I have no purview over the editorial policy of The Post. The editorial board makes policy, and it is not my job to second-guess it. But this case provides an excellent opportunity to point out to readers how reporters and editorial writers can see things quite differently.

Editorials and news stories have different purposes. News stories are to inform; editorials are to influence.

Reader Thomas J. Cassidy of New York wrote: "Do the Post editorial writers read the Post articles before publishing their opinions? . . . It is understood and correct that editorial staff and news staff be kept at a distance. But it is not understood that editorial writers do not read revealing and well-researched articles by their reporters."

In fact, the editorial writer had not read the Gellman/Linzer story. The editorial was written Friday; the story appeared in the Sunday edition. Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt said it is unlikely that the story would have influenced the editorial.

The "supported" in the editorial refers to Wilson's report that there was a trade meeting between officials of Iraq and Niger. Though news accounts have said there was no talk of uranium, the meeting was seen as corroboration that the Iraqis were seeking uranium, because that's mostly what Niger has to export.

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