Kristol, NY Times misrepresented NIE leak

››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN

William Kristol and The New York Times misrepresented information from a classified October 2002 NIE that President Bush allegedly authorized former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby to leak to the media.

In recent articles, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and New York Times staff writers David E. Sanger and David Johnston misrepresented information from a classified October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that President Bush allegedly authorized former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby to leak to the media. In his column for the April 17 issue of The Weekly Standard, Kristol wrote that Bush apparently authorized Libby to disclose "key judgments" of the NIE which, Kristol falsely claimed, "disproved accusations from [former ambassador] Joseph Wilson and others that Bush had manipulated or distorted the judgments of the intelligence community." Similarly, Sanger and Johnston reported on April 10 that Bush ordered the disclosure of "key conclusions" of the NIE "to make clear that intelligence agencies believed Mr. [Saddam] Hussein was seeking uranium in Africa."

According to court papers filed by special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Libby did testify that he was authorized to tell Times reporter Judith Miller in a July 8, 2003, meeting that the Bush administration's claim that Iraq sought uranium from Africa was a "key judgment of the NIE." But contrary to Kristol's and the Times' assertions, that claim was not, in fact, included in the "key judgments" section of the NIE. Moreover, the claim had reportedly been discredited before the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003.

Libby was indicted in 2005 for obstruction of justice, making false statements, and perjury in connection with the Bush administration's alleged disclosure that Wilson's wife -- Valerie Plame -- was a CIA operative.

Bush highlighted the African uranium claim in his January 28, 2003, State of the Union address, in which he asserted: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." As Media Matters for America has documented, beginning in December 2002, the Bush administration repeatedly offered versions of this claim in making the case for war.

From Sanger and Johnston's April 10 New York Times article, "Bush Ordered Declassification, Official Says":

The disclosure on Sunday appeared intended to bolster the White House argument that Mr. Bush was acting well within his legal authority when he ordered that key conclusions of the classified intelligence estimate should be revealed to make clear that intelligence agencies believed Mr. Hussein was seeking uranium in Africa.

From Kristol's column in the April 17 issue of The Weekly Standard:

Last week, news from the prosecution of Scooter Libby put the debate over the justification for the Iraq war back on the front pages. The president, through Vice President Dick Cheney, apparently authorized Libby to share with reporters key judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq -- evidence that disproved accusations from Joseph Wilson and others that Bush had manipulated or distorted the judgments of the intelligence community.

In an April 5 filing, Fitzgerald alleged that Libby's July 8, 2003, meeting with Miller "occurred only after the Vice President [Dick Cheney] advised defendant [Libby] that the President specifically had authorized defendant to disclose certain information in the NIE." According to Fitzgerald, Libby testified that "he brought a brief abstract of the NIE's key judgments to the meeting with Miller" and that Libby "understood that he was to tell Miller, among other things, that a key judgment of the NIE held that Iraq was 'vigorously trying to procure' uranium."

But as the Times itself reported in an April 9 article co-authored by Sanger, Libby had apparently been authorized to spread misinformation. In contrast to its misleading April 10 report that Bush "ordered that key conclusions" of the NIE be revealed, the April 9 Times report noted that the African uranium claim was "not one of the 'key judgments' of the document" but was instead "the subject of several paragraphs on Page 24 of the document, which also acknowledged that Mr. Hussein had long possessed 500 tons of uranium that was under seal by international inspectors, and that no intelligence agencies had ever confirmed whether he had obtained any more of the material from Africa."

The Times noted on April 9 that "[c]iting intelligence as a 'key judgment' in such estimates carries great weight with policy makers, because the reports are meant to highlight the most important and solid judgments of the government's intelligence agencies." Similarly, The Washington Post noted in an April 9 article that "key judgment" is "a term of art indicating there was consensus on a question of central importance."

No such consensus apparently existed on the NIE claim -- cited by Libby -- that Iraq was "vigorously trying to procure uranium" from Africa. The NIE contained a section in which the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) warned that such claims were "highly dubious." And in its April 9 article, the Times reported that in a 2004 interview, "a senior intelligence official involved in drafting the estimate said the uranium allegations were excluded from the key judgments because the drafters knew there were serious doubts about their accuracy."

Moreover, contrary to Kristol's claim, the portions of the NIE Bush allegedly authorized Libby to leak did not "disprove[] accusations from Joseph Wilson and others that Bush had manipulated or distorted the judgments of the intelligence community." In February 2002, Wilson traveled on behalf of the CIA to the African country of Niger to investigate claims that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium from that country. On July 6, 2003 -- two days before Libby met with Miller -- Wilson wrote in a New York Times op-ed: "I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

Beyond the objections articulated by INR in the October 2002 NIE, the Post reported in its April 9 article that White House officials continued to push the bogus African uranium claim even after it had been disputed by the bulk of the intelligence community. The Post reported that in January 2003, the National Intelligence Council produced an "unequivocal" memo stating, in the Post's words, that "[t]he Niger story was baseless and should be laid to rest." The Post added that according to "[f]our U.S. officials with firsthand knowledge," the White House received the memo "as Bush and his highest-ranking advisers made the uranium story a centerpiece of their case for ... war":

[Then-director of the CIA George J.] Tenet interceded to keep the claim out of a speech Bush gave in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002, but by Dec. 19 it reappeared in a State Department "fact sheet." After that, the Pentagon asked for an authoritative judgment from the National Intelligence Council, the senior coordinating body for the 15 agencies that then constituted the U.S. intelligence community. Did Iraq and Niger discuss a uranium sale, or not? If they had, the Pentagon would need to reconsider its ties with Niger.

The council's reply, drafted in a January 2003 memo by the national intelligence officer for Africa, was unequivocal: The Niger story was baseless and should be laid to rest. Four U.S. officials with firsthand knowledge said in interviews that the memo, which has not been reported before, arrived at the White House as Bush and his highest-ranking advisers made the uranium story a centerpiece of their case for the rapidly approaching war against Iraq.

Bush put his prestige behind the uranium story in his Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address. Less than two months later, the International Atomic Energy Agency exposed the principal U.S. evidence as bogus. A Bush-appointed commission later concluded that the evidence, a set of contracts and correspondence sold by an Italian informant, was "transparently forged."

Similarly, the Times noted in its April 9 article that a week before Libby's meeting with Miller, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell "told three other reporters for The Times that intelligence agencies had essentially rejected that [African uranium] contention, and were 'no longer carrying it as a credible item' by early 2003, when he was preparing to make the case against Iraq at the United Nations."

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