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.
Hiatt pointed to a British intelligence report that he said lent credence to the claim that Iraq was seeking uranium and to the report of the bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which was critical of Wilson. The committee concluded that "the report on the former ambassador's trip to Niger . . . did not change any analysts' assessments." For most analysts, the committee report said, the information in Wilson's report "lent more credibility" to original reports of an Iraq-Niger uranium deal, "but the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research analysts believed that the report supported their assessment that Niger was unlikely to be willing or able to sell uranium to Iraq."
Gellman and Linzer relied on later reports from commissions appointed by President Bush -- the Silberman-Robb WMD commission and the Iraq Survey Group -- and on their own reporting over three years from intelligence sources. Gellman said the commission and the ISG found no evidence that Iraq sought uranium abroad after 1991.
It would have been helpful if the editorial had put statements about Wilson in more context -- especially the controversy over his trip and what he said. It also could have used a sentence to say what is known in every newsroom: Leaks are good for journalism.
On the Gellman/Linzer story, it would have been good to quote more from the WMD commission's and Iraq Survey Group's reports and specifically their conclusions.
Both pieces demonstrate the high wall between editorial and news. While editorial writers read reporters' stories, Executive Editor Len Downie doesn't regularly read editorials (although he read this one) lest it make a mark on how he runs the news pages.
Some readers think it's a scandal when two parts of the newspaper appear to be in conflict with each other, but it's not that unusual that reporting -- particularly in news and editorial -- will depend on different sources. It happened again last week when an editorial and a story gave different estimates for how long it might take Iran to build a nuclear bomb.
Reporting about national security and intelligence gathering is always fraught with fraught; it is a subject I will write about again.
Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.