It was big news in Washington when Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the on-going investigation into the leak of a CIA officer’s name to the press. Most of the coverage speculated that Ashcroft’s decision signaled that the investigation was coming to a “critical juncture.” Unnamed officials who attributed Ashcroft’s decision to “political factors” were quoted widely. But numerous outlets used the story to perpetuate one of the media’s prime distortions of the Bush administration’s rationale for Operation Iraqi Freedom.
As the media tell the story, the leak of the officer’s name came as retaliation by “senior administration officials” against the officer’s husband, former U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson. Recall that after the CIA heard reports about Iraqi efforts to procure uranium in Africa, it dispatched Wilson to Niger to investigate. Agency officials have said that Wilson did not file a written report on his return. But in July 2003, the New York Times published an op-ed by Wilson charging that President Bush had distorted his report to support its case for war.
Wilson charged that the President was wrong to claim that the Iraqis had made uranium purchases in Africa, but it was Wilson who was distorting the record. In his State of the Union speech, the President had said only that there were reports that the Iraqis were shopping for uranium in Africa. CIA Director George Tenet said that Wilson had himself uncovered indications of Iraqi interest in African uranium. The chief Iraqi weapons inspector said his team had uncovered evidence of Iraqi interest in African uranium.
But that history seems to have been forgotten by those reporting on the Ashcroft recusal. In the Washington Post, for example, Dan Eggen and Mike Allen identified Wilson as a “prominent critic of the Bush administration’s Iraq policies.” According to Eggen and Allen, Wilson had “concluded during a 2002 mission to Africa that there was little evidence that Saddam Hussein had sought uranium there.” CNN was even further off the mark. The network claimed that Wilson had “discredited intelligence allegations on the supposed movement of nuclear materials to Iraq.”
CBS News had Wilson going to Africa to “check an allegation that Iraq had tried to buy uranium there.” CBS’s report concluded, inaccurately, that he had “reported finding no evidence.” “Nonetheless,” according to CBS News, the President went on to make that allegation in the State of the Union speech, but was forced to withdraw the claim after Wilson’s July 2003 article. Even the Fox News Channel blew the story. It claimed that Wilson had found no proof that Iraq was seeking uranium in Niger.
The only major media outlet to get the story right was the New York Times. The Times’ Eric Lichtblau was the only reporter to accurately write that Wilson’s trip found “nothing to substantiate the accusation that Iraq had imported uranium ore from Niger.” He followed this by writing that the President had made no such allegation; only that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa. And Lichtblau accurately reported that the President had made no reference to Niger in his speech.