Weekly Standard 's Hayes spun inaccurate, incomplete retelling of Niger uranium affair

The October 24 edition of The Weekly Standard featured a factually inaccurate, incomplete, and highly deceptive article by staff writer Stephen F. Hayes purporting to explain the “chain of events that gave rise to a grand jury investigation” into the alleged outing of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame and to set right the “narrative constructed to date by the mainstream media” surrounding the investigation, which Hayes described as: “Simple. Clean. And very misleading.” Hayes's treatment of the facts surrounding a mission to Niger undertaken by Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, wrongly portrayed Wilson as a serial liar whose conclusions regarding dubious reports of Iraqi attempts to procure uranium from Niger were widely debunked and largely ignored the intelligence assessments that backed Wilson's findings. Notwithstanding the article's numerous falsehoods, on the October 18 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, host Matthews described Hayes's article as a “brilliant piece,” telling Hayes that he was “a great reporter, and you're probably right in every regard.”

Wilson, a former diplomat who specialized in Africa, traveled to Niger in 2002 at the behest of the CIA to investigate questions from Vice President Dick Cheney's office concerning reports that Iraq had purchased yellowcake uranium (a lightly processed form of uranium ore) from Niger. Based on his observations, Wilson concluded that no such sale had taken place, and reported his findings to the CIA. After President Bush referred to the uranium deal in his 2003 State of the Union address as justification for invading Iraq, Wilson detailed the findings of his Niger trip in a July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed. Eight days later, nationally syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak identified Plame as “an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction,” and wrote: “Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger.” The White House allegedly attempted to discredit Wilson by suggesting that Plame recommended him for the mission. Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is investigating whether any laws were violated in connection with the leak of Plame's identity.

In writing his Weekly Standard article, Hayes drew heavily from the Senate Intelligence Committee's "Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq." Hayes wrote that the “Senate report includes a 48-page section on Wilson that demonstrates, in painstaking detail, that virtually everything Joseph Wilson said publicly about his trip, from its origins to his conclusions, was false.” In fact, the Intelligence Committee report drew no conclusions regarding the origins of Wilson's trip or the accuracy of his findings. Wilson's report, according to the Committee, “did not change any analysts' assessments of the Iraq-Niger uranium deal.” The CIA viewed Wilson's report as supportive of its contention that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa, whereas the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) believed the report backed their assessment that Niger was likely unwilling and unable to supply uranium to Iraq. The Senate report did conclude, however, that INR's assessment -- which Wilson's statements supported -- of Iraq's nuclear program as a whole was the correct assessment based on the intelligence available at the time. Hayes made no mention of this fact.

Hayes consistently downplayed INR's analysis of the Niger intelligence, instead focusing heavily on the CIA's interpretation. Hayes wrote: “Even as some CIA officials expressed doubts about the original Iraq-Niger reporting and the INR analyst quietly voiced his concerns about a potential hoax after careful examination of the Iraq-Niger documents passed to the U.S. embassy in Rome, the CIA approved Iraq-Niger language for the White House.” The Senate report noted, however, that the INR analyst “sent an e-mail to several IC [intelligence community] analysts outlining his reasoning why, 'the uranium purchase agreement probably is a hoax.' He [the analyst] indicated that one of the documents that purported to be an agreement for a joint military campaign, including both Iraq and Iran, was so ridiculous that it was 'clearly a forgery.'” The report further documented that when the CIA acknowledged it did not have the documents the analyst referred to, INR sent them to the CIA. Moreover, the Senate committee attributed much significance to the INR analysts' objections, concluding that: “Even after obtaining the forged documents and being alerted by a State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) analyst about problems with them, analysts at both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) did not examine them carefully enough to see the obvious problems with the documents.”

Hayes also omitted a key portion of Wilson's findings that bolstered the INR's analysis. Hayes highlighted a “tantalizing detail” of Wilson's report: that Wilson met with former Nigerien prime minister Ibrahim Mayaki, who disclosed to him that an Iraqi delegation visited Niger in 1999 with the hopes of “expanding commercial relations” between the two countries -- which Mayaki took to mean negotiating for the sale of uranium. According to the Senate report, this finding was significant to the CIA, as it reinforced its belief that an Iraq-Niger transaction had occurred. Hayes did not mention, however, a second portion of Wilson's report, in which he recounted a meeting with Niger's former minister of mines, Mai Manga. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Manga claimed that “there were no sales outside of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) channels since the mid-1980s,” and that he “knew of no contracts signed between Niger and any rogue states for the sale of uranium.” Manga went on to state that a “French mining consortium controls Nigerien uranium mining and keeps the uranium very tightly controlled from the time it is mined until the time it is loaded onto ships in Benin for transport overseas,” and that “it would be difficult, if not impossible, to arrange a special shipment of uranium to a pariah state given these controls.”

Hayes also misleadingly attempted to dismiss allegations that the Plame's outing was an effort to discredit or strike back at Wilson by the White House. Hayes wrote:

If the White House launched a campaign to counter the claims Wilson was making to columnists like [The New York Times' Nicholas D.] Kristof, it doesn't appear to have been very comprehensive. Officials who worked on other aspects of the Iraq WMD story say they do not recall any coordinated effort to correct Wilson's misrepresentations. And, in any case, the results were hardly what you'd expect from a White House offensive. Several reporters known to have spoken with Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, the senior White House officials apparently at the center of the current investigation, have testified that they did not learn of Plame's identity or status from either person.

What Hayes failed to mention was that Time reporter Matthew Cooper disclosed that in a July 2003 conversation with Rove, he “learned for the first time that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA.” Also, New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who recounted her testimony before the grand jury in an October 16 Times article, wrote of a meeting with Libby on June 23, 2003 -- well before the July 6, 2003, publication of Wilson's op-ed -- that “I told Mr. Fitzgerald that I believed this was the first time I had been told that Mr. Wilson's wife might work for the C.I.A.”

Additionally, Hayes wrote affirmatively that “Valerie Wilson suggested the agency send her husband,” and that "[c]ontemporaneous notes from an analyst in the State Department's INR suggest that Mrs. Wilson 'apparently convened' the meeting" at which Wilson accepted the assignment. But, as Media Matters for America has noted, the CIA has denied that Plame sent Wilson and has reportedly disputed the INR memo's assertion that Plame suggested her husband for the trip. Also, the Senate Intelligence Committee did not reach an official conclusion as to who made the decision to appoint Wilson to the mission.

Hayes appeared on the October 18 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews to discuss the Plame investigation. Matthews lavishly praised Hayes's article, saying, “Stephen Hayes wrote a long, I think in many ways brilliant piece about this whole story.” Matthews also complimented Hayes's journalistic acumen, saying: “And by the way, in the particulars, you're a great reporter, and you're probably right in every regard.”