Accuracy in Media

In a July 17 story, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen of the Washington Post had to admit, in recapping White House statements about the Valerie Plame case, that White House spokesman Scott McClellan was usually careful to disavow involvement “in any illegal leak, though his public statements clearly left an impression of a White House aloof to the affair.” This is the key to understanding White House statements about the case and the reported White House role. If you read the transcripts of McClellan’s briefings, it is clear that McClellan had denied a White House role in a criminal disclosure of classified information.

But in order to make it seem that the White House was not leveling with the American people or that it was caught in a contradiction, reporters at press briefings misrepresented the McClellan position as one that had denied any White House involvement at all in even mentioning or discussing the case with journalists. But that’s of course ridiculous. Officials leak information all the time and many journalists rely on that information. The issue is whether officials were involved in an illegal leak of information. But when McClellan then took the stand that he would not comment any more on the case because of the ongoing investigation, members of the White House press corps descended like sharks in the water, creating the impression that there was a cover-up.

That was a mistake on McClellan’s part. He should have reiterated that the White House position was always against illegal leaks of classified information, not discussing the case with reporters. And that’s what has been revealed in this case. Bush official Karl Rove’s big “crime” so far has been exposed as discussing the matter with reporters. It’s clear, based on the notes of his discussion with Matt Cooper of Time, that Rove wasn’t aware of the facts and didn’t have access to classified information about Valerie Plame’s service or status in the CIA. He said she “apparently” worked at the agency. In any case, it turns out she isn’t covered under a law designed to protect the identities of secret CIA agents.

The original White House mistake was agreeing to a special counsel investigation.  That was done in a state of panic after the New York Times and other media started their campaign treating Wilson as a whistleblower whose wife was “outed” in retaliation for his criticism of the administration’s Iraq policy. The notes of Bush official Karl Rove’s conversations with Matt Cooper show that Rove was warning him away from the story because of the role that Wilson’s wife played in arranging his trip. Wilson would consistently deny that his wife played any role at all. The Senate Intelligence Committee report showed that was a lie. The committee cited evidence that Plame recommended him for the mission to investigate an Iraq-uranium link. Wilson knew that if his wife had such a role, it would be a violation of federal nepotism laws and could cause her termination. Instead, today, she’s still working at the CIA.  The White House should have pressed for an investigation of that, rather than succumb to the panic created by the media to identify the leaker of Plame’s identity.

At this point, there’s no evidence that it was a leak in the sense that someone identified her for the purpose of leaking classified information and destroying her career as a CIA employee.  What we have is evidence of officials providing information to the press that they obtained from the press. 

The media, however, don’t want to make that point clear. Instead, they want to confuse the situation.

When the Matt Cooper notes in the case showed that Rove had talked to him about the case and had said that Plame “apparently” worked for the CIA, that was depicted by the media as undermining McClellan’s previous statements. But that’s not the case.

Here’s one of the questions put to McClellan that was designed to make the White House look deceptive: “But isn’t the difficulty that you have said to the public, dating back to 2003, affirmatively, Karl Rove is not involved, and now we have evidence to the contrary? So how do you reconcile those two things? How does the President reconcile those two things?” Here’s another question: “You very confidently asserted to us and to the American people that Rove told you he had nothing to do with it. Can you stand by that statement now?”

These questions are portrayed as tough and aggressive when in fact they miss the mark. McClellan’s position was that no officials were involved in an illegal leak of classified information. The President said he would fire anyone involved in such a leak. “If somebody did leak classified information, I’d like to know it, and we’ll take the appropriate action,” Bush said. Clearly, Bush was threatening to fire any official who “knowingly” or “illegally” disclosed Plame’s identity.

McClellan, at the briefings, should have reiterated that position. Instead, he said, “If I were to get into discussing this, I would be getting into discussing an investigation that continues and could be prejudging the outcome of the investigation.”

This was another public relations mistake by the White House. They chose to remain silent. But that mistake should not detract from the basic point, which is that, in their grilling of McClellan, the media are making a mountain out of a molehill. There is no contradiction in the White House position. If somebody in the White House broke the law and leaked classified information, there’s no evidence of that so far. All of the evidence is not in, however, and the special prosecutor may be able to make a case against some official based on perjury or obstruction of justice charges.

The tragedy is that the special counsel was not charged with investigating whether Wilson and his wife violated federal nepotism laws.

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