Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Some old canards just never die. New information from special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation about whether former CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity was leaked by the White House as part of a campaign to “discredit” her husband has spurred new efforts to depict him as an innocent victim targeted by a Bush administration smear campaign for telling the truth.

Joseph Wilson, a retired Foreign Service officer, was dispatched to Iraq in February 2002 by the CIA, at his wife’s suggestion, to investigate whether Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase “yellowcake” uranium from Niger. In July 2003, Mr. Wilson accused the Bush administration of manipulating intelligence in order to make a case for war with Iraq. He claimed that his investigation 17 months earlier should have debunked the notion that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium from Niger.

But the case against the White House, as represented by some in the mainstream media, is based on sloppy, tendentious reporting. On Monday night’s “Hardball” program on MSNBC, reporter David Shuster asserted that “much” of what Scooter Libby told New York Times reporter Judith Miller about the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate report on Iraq in an effort to rebut Mr. Wilson was untrue. But Nathan Goulding, who blogs on National Review Online, found three significant facts that Mr. Shuster appears to have missed in whole or in part: Perhaps the most egregious was when Mr. Shuster asserted that language stating that Iraq was “vigorously trying” to procure uranium did not appear in the National Intelligence Estimate report at all. Mr. Golding found the phrase on page 24 of the document.

The truth is that the assertions of Mr. Wilson and his partisans that Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium from Niger are a Bush administration fantasy do not stand up to serious scrutiny. Writing in Slate magazine on Monday, Christopher Hitchens describes a February 1999 official visit to Niger — a desperately poor country “known for absolutely nothing except its vast deposits of uranium ore”— by Wissam al-Zahawie, Saddam’s ambassador to the Vatican and longtime senior public envoy for nuclear matters. Noting that Iraq had acquired uranium from Niger in 1981, Mr. Hitchens comes to a commonsense conclusion about Mr. Wilson’s critique of the Bush administration: “In order to take the Joseph Wilson view of this Baathist ambassadorial initiative, you have to be able to believe that Saddam Hussein’s long-term main man on nuclear issues was in Niger to talk about something other than the obvious.” Given the extensive record of Iraqi cheating and deception prior to the war, the Bush administration would have been derelict in its duty if it had given Iraq the benefit of the doubt as to the purpose of al-Zahawies’s visit to Niger.

But the fact is that Mr. Wilson has little credibility left, as his charges against the Bush administration were eviscerated by the Senate Intelligence Committee in its July 2004 report on prewar intelligence. Here’s the way Susan Schmidt of The Washington Post (in a story buried on page A9) described the report on July 10, 2004: “Wilson’s assertions — both about what he did in Niger and what the Bush administration did with the information — were undermined yesterday in a bipartisan Senate intelligence committee report. The panel found that Wilson’s report, rather than debunking intelligence about purported uranium sales to Iraq, as he has said, bolstered the case for most intelligence analysts.”

In the same story, Miss Schmidt added that Mr. Wilson “provided misleading information” to her newspaper claiming that certain documents had been forged.

Both Miss Schmidt, and even more so NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell, have been harshly attacked by the Huffington Post and other liberal blogs, for challenging parts of Mr. Wilson’s version of reality. It is no exaggeration to say that Miss Mitchell — often described using unprintable epithets — has become a hate figure with some of the left-wing bloggers for daring to question Joseph Wilson’s story.

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