When Hollywood decides a former White House aide is fair game for attack, facts don’t come into play. History, however, cannot be so cavalier about the truth. The new movie “Fair Game” - based on the outing of CIA employee Valerie Plame Wilson during political battles concerning the war in Iraq - is anything but fair or honest. In depicting former vice-presidential chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby as a sinister point man in a broad effort to destroy Mrs. Wilson’s career while concocting a fraudulent case for the war, the movie perpetuates myths that improperly damage U.S. credibility.
The record needs to be set straight, not merely for the sake of Mr. Libby but in order to correct a false narrative that feeds an ill-informed anti-Americanism around the globe.
The movie portrays Mrs. Wilson as an irreplaceable, female James Bond whose husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, was an inveterate (though intemperate) crusader for truth. Mr. Libby is portrayed as a hatchet man intent first on browbeating the CIA into confirming a false story line of Iraqi acquisition of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and then intent on discrediting the Wilsons by any means possible. In the movie’s telling, the leak of Mrs. Wilson’s identity had deadly consequences: As many as 29 top Iraqi scientists, on the verge of a rescue operation managed by Mrs. Wilson, instead are left subject to insurgent hit squads when her cover is blown.
The film’s most important particulars are false. Neither Mr. Libby nor anybody on the president’s or vice president’s staff tried to pressure intelligence agencies to alter findings about WMDs. Mr. Libby didn’t pressure a CIA official into claiming that intercepted aluminum tubes were intended for nuclear weapons. It was the intelligence agencies that insisted the tubes were for nuclear weapons use, while the Department of Energy - not the CIA - expressed doubts.
Mr. Wilson’s report didn’t lead the CIA to conclude that Iraq was innocent of seeking yellowcake uranium from Africa. Contrary to the new fictionalized plot, his own credibility with reporters was not impeccable but impoverished because he told reporters he had proved the falsity of documents he had not even seen. (Mr. Wilson later attributed his own exaggerations to “a little literary flair.”) President George W. Bush’s infamous “16 words” in his State of the Union speech, about British intelligence reporting that Iraq sought the yellowcake, were ill-advised but neither technically untrue nor knowingly misleading.
Mr. Libby was convicted for perjury about his conversations with reporters concerning the Wilsons, but the movie - through clear inferences and suggestive cutaways - gives the impression that he masterminded the leak of Mrs. Wilson’s name. That impression is categorically false.
In this regard, it’s likely the jury got it wrong about Mr. Libby’s guilt. As former Business Week editor Stan Crock convincingly detailed online in World Affairs magazine Tuesday, “Fact is, Libby was acquitted of the only charges that involved him leaking to reporters, and his conviction for lying to [the late NBC newsman Tim] Russert to cover up crimes he didn’t commit makes no sense.” Mr. Libby didn’t even have a discernible motive for lying: “A review of grand jury and trial transcripts shows he told both the grand jury and FBI that [Vice President Dick] Cheney had told him about Plame’s CIA links, so he did not cover or take the fall for his former boss.”
It’s not uncommon for movies that portray real, living people to take dramatic license. Yet when a false narrative on matters so important is seared into public consciousness, the fictions can have serious repercussions. The facts are these:
First, the official, bipartisan Robb-Silberman Commission reported as follows: “We closely examined the possibility that intelligence analysts were pressured by policymakers to change their judgments about Iraq’s nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs. The analysts who worked Iraqi weapons issues universally agreed that in no instance did political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their analytic judgments.”
Second, “All of the coordinating agencies, with the exception of [the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research], agreed that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program.”
Third, CIA Director George Tenet definitively reported, “CIA approved the President’s State of the Union address before it was delivered. … The President had every reason to believe that the text presented to him was sound.”
Fourth, a full year to the day after Robert Novak’s column outed Mrs. Wilson, Lord Robin Butler’s report on the matter for the British government concluded, “The statements on Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa in the Government’s dossier, and by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, were well-founded. By extension, we conclude also that the statement in President Bush’s State of the Union Address … was well-founded.”
Fifth, the leak about Mrs. Wilson’s status was neither malicious nor deadly. The leaker was the State Department’s Richard Armitage, who was not a war hawk, not a White House favorite or insider and not accused of anything other than an inadvertent error. CIA spokesman Bill Harlow was the one who confirmed her identity - hardly the actions of an agency worried about an employee’s covert status.
Mrs. Wilson, meanwhile, was not immediately pulled off major operations, and (according to a story in Sunday’s Washington Post by reporter Walter Pincus) “did not play the central role that the film puts her in. She was not directly part of the scientist program” that was so highly dramatized in the movie. This program was not canceled because of the leak.
It’s wrong to assert that the disclosure of Mrs. Wilson’s identity was part of a malignant effort to hide an even bigger nefarious plot of having “lied us into war.” If anything, the Bush White House (including Mr. Libby) was the victim of bad information - information supplied by Mrs. Wilson’s incompetent CIA.
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