Accuracy in Media

Led by the anti-Bush faction at NBC News, the mainstream media are trying to turn the trial of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, into another indictment of the administration’s Iraq policy. But NBC’s Tim Russert and other media personalities are the ones really on trial, having themselves been implicated in uncertain knowledge of a phony “scandal” about who knew what and when regarding Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s CIA wife, Valerie Plame. You can bet the media will do their best to keep coverage of this trial away from how the Wilson/Plame controversy was completely mishandled by the press and how prominent journalists have memory problems about details in the case that make their own changing stories extremely questionable. 

These journalists are being called as “witnesses” in the case when they could be on trial themselves, charged with the same faulty memory that put Libby in the dock. It is a travesty of justice that Libby is on trial when the overwhelming evidence shows that he was simply trying to rebut false claims about the administration’s Iraq policy that were emanating from Wilson and his media allies and appearing in the press.

The story, by now, is an old one: Wilson had gone to Africa on behalf of the CIA to examine a possible effort by the Saddam Hussein regime to acquire uranium from Niger in Africa. He wrote about it in the New York Times, blasting administration policy. Administration officials talked to the press about Wilson and his CIA wife, Valerie Plame. Columnist Robert Novak wrote a column identifying Plame as working for the CIA. An investigation was launched, after the CIA claimed that Plame’s identity should not have been legally disclosed.  

Armitage Gets Off

The main suspicion that started the investigation-that someone in the administration maliciously and illegally leaked knowledge of Plame’s CIA affilation to the press-was dismissed by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. It turned out that a State Department official, Richard Armitage, was behind this disclosure and no charges were brought against him. He said it was inadvertent. Armitage, a media darling who opposed the war in Iraq, was simply let off the hook. 

In order to understand how the media have bungled coverage of this case from the start, and how they are distorting the ongoing trial, it is critical to grasp that it was Wilson who was found guilty in the court of public opinion for not telling the truth about why he went to Africa and what he found. A Senate Intelligence Committee report confirmed that key elements of his public story, as reflected in his Times op-ed and book, The Politics of Truth, were false. What’s more, the committee found evidence that Plame had suggested and recommended her husband for the Africa trip. The CIA’s role in this whole affair remains murky, even at this late date. 

If Armitage had acknowledged early on that he was the source, he could have derailed and ended Fitzgerald’s more than two-year probe. Fitzgerald knew about Armitage’s role from the start of his investigation, which began in December 2003, but proceeded anyway, apparently determined to find something or somebody he could prosecute. The eventual and only victim became Libby. 

Having covered the opening arguments in the trial, Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald comes across in an aggressive manner, apparently convinced that he caught Libby in a lie. But it is also the case that this is all that he has to show for more than two years of work. So he has to look like he really has something to offer the jury, in order to justify all of the taxpayer money that he has spent. 

Dubious Charge

The charge against Libby is that he told conflicting stories about what he told Russert and others about his knowledge of Plame’s CIA affiliation. But his lawyers have pointed out that he had absolutely no reason to lie. Libby’s main interest wasn’t Plame; it was setting the record straight about the Vice President’s role. From the start, Libby’s desire was to counter false charges being made by Wilson that his investigation of an Iraq-uranium link through Niger in Africa had turned up nothing, and that the Vice President had been behind his trip but didn’t want to accept the results. Libby told the press that Cheney had no role in advocating the trip and hadn’t even received Wilson’s report. Cheney found out about Wilson’s mission after reading about it in the New York Times.

Not only did it turn out that Plame had been behind the trip, Wilson, in contrast to his stated findings in his New York Times op-ed, had actually uncovered evidence of Saddam Hussein’s interest in acquiring uranium from Africa. This is exactly what President Bush had charged in his State of the Union address, citing the British government as his source, not Wilson 

It is important to understand this background when analyzing how various news outlets, especially MSNBC, have completed distorted the facts of this case. Their obvious agenda is to go beyond Libby and attempt to discredit Cheney, a solid conservative who has been a strong advocate of the Bush Doctrine of striking America’s enemies before they attack us. Cheney is under savage attack by the media, even to this day, because he still defends the Iraq War and the elimination of the Saddam Hussein regime.  

The media’s malicious targeting of the Vice President is demonstrated in various ways, such as when Wolf Blitzer of CNN interviewed Cheney and brought up the completely irrelevant issue of his lesbian daughter. The questions were designed not to solicit information but to try to embarrass the Vice President. 

The demonizing of Cheney seems to surpass the anti-Bush hysteria that rears its ugly head so often in the media. Jonathan Alter, a Senior Editor for Newsweek and NBC consultant, told Chris Matthews on the MSNBC show Hardball that the Libby trial is not about Libby but about how “obsessed” Cheney was “with his enemies.” Unveiling the secret agenda behind coverage of the Libby trial, Alter denounced Cheney as “Nixonian,” adding that “Cheney’s credibility is already shot.” 

In fact, it’s the media’s credibility that is shot.

Smear Campaign

These smears of Cheney are based on the assumption, since discredited, that there was a White House conspiracy to punish Wilson, a former diplomat, for the op-ed piece in the New York Times on July 6, 2003, criticizing the administration’s decision to go to war. This was three months after the statue of Saddam came down, marking the end of his regime. In fact, Wilson’s report to the CIA, which was passed on to the British, had made the critical point that Saddam had, in fact, sent a trade delegation to Niger, in what could only be interpreted as an effort to buy uranium, since that is the country’s only significant export. Wilson decided to ignore the implications of his own report in going public, apparently convinced the CIA would back him and that no one in the administration would have the courage to counter him. Cheney and Libby decided not to let the lies stand. 

Rather than make these points, which are essential to understanding the case, the media have focused on what appear to be sensational developments in the trial, such as that there was a disagreement in the administration about how to respond to Wilson’s charges and the fall-out from calls for an investigation. The White House was described as wanting to protect Bush’s top adviser and strategist Karl Rove, but not Libby. A note from Cheney was entered into testimony that said, “Not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others.” Libby was concerned about becoming a “sacrificial lamb” because of Rove’s importance to Bush in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. 

All of this is interesting but largely beside the point. What Libby and Rove and others were doing was rebutting Wilson’s false charges, while passing along information about his wife working at the CIA and being behind his trip to Africa on behalf of the Agency. Numerous conversations were held with various journalists, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with any of this. It happens all the time. The difference was that this was a conservative administration dealing with a hostile liberal press. Cheney and Libby knew full well that Wilson’s accusations, published in the New York Times, could affect public opinion. They had to fight back. 

Clearly, there was some panic in the administration, especially at the CIA, which had sent Wilson on that dubious mission and allowed him to write the misleading Times op-ed. Then-CIA director, George Tenet, who had told Bush that finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a “slam dunk,” decided to back away from the President’s claim about the Iraq-uranium link in his State of the Union speech. This fateful decision would only feed the media sharks, convincing them that the administration had something to hide. In fact, it was Wilson who was hiding something-the involvement of his CIA wife in arranging his trip, and the evidence of Iraq’s interest in uranium that he admitted in his own report that he had found on his mission to Niger.       

To repeat: Libby has not been charged with revealing Plame’s identify, in violation of federal law, for the purpose of discrediting her husband. He is charged with making inconsistent statements about what he told various reporters about the matter. This, according to Fitzgerald, constitutes a lie. It will be a tough case to prove, and one that should never have been brought.

There Is No Case 

The case that the jury is being asked to sort out is whether or not Libby knowingly lied to the FBI investigators and the grand jury. If so, were the lies material to the investigation? Libby’s defense is that he could have been wrong about what he said to Tim Russert, Washington bureau chief of NBC News, Matt Cooper of Time magazine, and Judith Miller of the New York Times. 

Libby’s statements, truthful or not, were not relevant in the long run, however, because Fitzgerald already knew that the main charge he was investigating-that there was an illegal leak for the purpose of destroying a covert CIA operative-was already off the table. He knew Armitage was behind the Novak column, and that Rove had been another source. But neither one of them would be indicted!  

So Libby is being forced to go through a trial, with hours of tedious testimony about events that have nothing to do with anything of real substance. A jury will be asked to sort it all out, as if they are capable of doing so.

According to Ted Wells, Libby’s attorney, Libby told both the FBI investigators and the grand jury that he was originally informed of the fact that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA by Cheney himself. This was important to understanding why Wilson was sent on the mission in the first place, and whether there was a faction in the Agency that was deliberately trying to undermine administration policy on Iraq. This is the aspect of the story that most media have consistently pulled back from pursuing. The CIA, of course, didn’t want that investigated. Instead, it rallied around Plame, who turned out to be a political operative, like her husband, involved in supporting Democrat John Kerry for president in 2004. 

The Details  

To read what exactly Libby said to the grand jury and FBI, you can view the indictment on pages 11 through 14. The case involves comments to three reporters only. Libby first learned that Joe Wilson’s wife was Valerie Plame Wilson, and that she worked at the CIA, on June 12, from Cheney. He talked to at least 10 reporters, according to Wells, between June and July of 2003, with the purpose of rebutting the statements of Wilson. They include those named in the indictment, plus David Sanger of the New York Times, Bob Woodward, Walter Pincus and Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post, and Andrea Mitchell of NBC News.

In each instance, the indictments involve a brief conversation that took place just days after the Wilson column appeared in the Times. It was three months later that Libby spoke to the FBI investigators, for which he was instructed not to read his notes before the meeting. It was eight months later that he testified before the grand jury. It was almost as if Libby was being set up. 

Regarding Russert, it began as a call by Libby to complain about Chris Matthews reporting that Cheney knew of Wilson’s report about what he “found out” in Niger, but ignored it in order to dishonestly sell the war. They talked either on July 10 or 11, or perhaps both. 

Russert on the Hot Seat 

That is significant because the July 14 Bob Novak column, which first identified Valerie Plame by name and identified her as an “operative on weapons of mass destruction” for the CIA, was actually distributed to news organizations on July 11-three days before publication date. Who saw the column? And who, therefore, had knowledge of Plame’s CIA status? Who in the media passed along this information to others? Fitizgerald didn’t seem interested in answering these questions. 

Libby claimed that Russert was aware that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA. He said that he told Russert that he didn’t know that fact and that Russert replied that it was common knowledge among reporters. Months after the call, disputing Libby’s account, Russert told investigators that he didn’t know or say that Valerie Wilson worked for the CIA, nor did he mention her name. In a sweetheart deal, he made a deal to not have to answer any questions other than about his conversation with Libby. Wells said that Russert was interviewed for 22 minutes in a law office, not before the grand jury, where he could have faced additional questions. 

Wells says that Russert is the one who may have been mistaken. Russert had no notes from the conversation and could have learned about Plame from other sources. David Gregory, NBC’s White House correspondent, was told about Plame on July 11 by Ari Fleischer, while traveling with the President in Africa. Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign correspondent for NBC, declared on a CNBC show on October 3, 2003, that Plame’s CIA affiliation was “widely known among those of us who cover the intelligence community and who were actively engaged in trying to track down who among the foreign service community was the envoy to Niger. So a number of us began to pick up on that. But frankly I wasn’t aware of her actual role at the CIA and the fact that she had a covert role involving weapons of mass destruction, not until Bob Novak wrote it.”

She later backtracked, saying that she “may have misspoken.” 

Giving the Media a Pass 

But fuzzy or faulty memories by journalists haven’t gotten them into any legal trouble. Fitzgerald never subpoenaed Mitchell or Gregory after they declared that they didn’t want to be interviewed. 

Why, asked Wells, would Libby concoct this story? He wasn’t a personal friend of Russert. Why make it up if he knew it was going to be refuted by Russert? What motive could he have? 

In other words, there is no motive for lying. The simple explanation is that people have different recollections of conversations, and there is no proof to show that Libby, as opposed to members of the press, was lying.   

In the case of Matt Cooper of Time magazine, it was Cooper who brought it up. Cooper testified that he asked Libby if he knew that Valerie Plame arranged for Joe Wilson to go to Niger. According to Libby, he told Cooper that he had heard that from other reporters, but he didn’t know if it was true. Cooper said the question was thrown out to Libby as an afterthought. Cooper took notes of the conversation, and there wasn’t a single word about Valerie Plame. But Cooper said that Rove had told him the day before about Plame, and that was in his notes and in an email to his editor. 

The basic point that Wells was making for the defense was that Libby was talking to reporters for the purpose of rebutting the substance of what Joe Wilson was saying. His wife was only a side-issue. This buttresses the point that Libby had no reason to lie about what he told reporters about Plame. 

Regarding Judith Miller, she testified repeatedly that her own memory was bad, fuzzy and confused. She said she had Valerie Plame’s name before talking to Libby, but had it written down in her notes as Victoria Wilson. Her story changed later on.

No Reason to Lie 

Wells argued that the whole theory of the prosecution is built on a false premise?that Libby made up the Russert conversation so he could tell others he heard about Valerie Wilson from reporters, rather than from Cheney. 

It turns out that, according to an article by Dahlia Lithwick of Slate.com, two of the prosecution witnesses had the same memory problems. Marc Grossman, a former State Department official, “concede[d] that what he told the FBI, the grand jury, and the Libby jurors about his conversations with Libby had ‘changed’ over time.” The same was true for former Deputy CIA Director Robert Grenier. 

Despite all of the bad memories, especially among the titans of the press, Fitzgerald decided to target Libby. 

A possible explanation for Fitzgerald’s zealous pursuit was offered by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which pointed to a previous intersection of interests with Libby. Between government jobs, Libby had been a lawyer in private practice, and had represented Marc Rich, the “oil trader and financier who fled to Switzerland in 1983, just ahead of his indictment for tax-evasion by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Bill Clinton pardoned Mr. Rich in 2001, and so the feds never did get their man. The pardon so infuriated Justice lawyers who had worked on the case that the Southern District promptly launched an investigation into whether the pardon had been ‘proper.’ One former prosecutor we spoke to described the Rich case as ‘the single most rancorous case in the history of the Southern District.'”

Two of the lawyers who had spent years trying to make the case against Rich were Fitzgerald and James Comey, the Justice official who in fact appointed Fitzgerald to investigate the Plame case. They apparently believed that Libby’s defense of Rich somehow played a role in his eventual pardon and held this against Libby.

But there is another factor. Libby was the point man when the Bush Administration was trying to get the Justice Department to sign off on the controversial NSA terrorist surveillance program. At that time, Attorney General John Ashcroft was in the hospital, and Comey, the acting Attorney General, refused to approve it. The administration then went to Ashcroft, who gave it his approval. Could this have angered Comey and, by extension, his partner Patrick Fitzgerald? 

There is no proof the Libby prosecution is a personal vendetta, but there has to be some explanation of why Libby has been singled out in a case that should never have been brought. 

We do know that the investigation and trial have served to divert the public’s attention away from serious problems that remain at the CIA.

Roger Aronoff is a media analyst with Accuracy in Media. Cliff Kincaid is Editor of Accuracy in Media.




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