Shame on the Washington Post, Again
February 19, 2007
Just days before the perjury/obstruction trial of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby goes to the jury, the Washington Post’s Outlook section published a bizarre front-page article by right-wing legal expert Victoria Toensing suggesting that the prosecutor and one of the chief victims in the case should be put on trial.
Beyond the absurdity – and dishonesty – of Toensing’s arguments, the Post illustrated the article with fabricated “mug shots” of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, an Iraq War critic whose undercover CIA wife, Valerie Plame, was outed by the Bush administration.
In this lead opinion article for Washington’s biggest-circulation newspaper, Toensing, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration, cites Fitzgerald, Wilson and several other targets in proposed “indictments,” each of which begins: “This Grand Jury Charges …”
Given the Post’s prominence in the nation’s capital and Toensing’s former position in the Justice Department, the article has the look and feel of an attempt to influence the jury that will be judging whether Libby committed perjury and obstruction of justice.
Though the Post’s Outlook editors are sure to argue that the “mug shots” were tongue in cheek, the Post has editorially supported the Iraq War and disparaged American critics, especially Wilson who stepped forward in summer 2003 as one of the first establishment figures to accuse the Bush administration of “twisting” intelligence.
The Post also has bashed Fitzgerald for prosecuting Libby. So, there is a pattern and a motive to the Post’s behavior.
Toensing’s article hinges largely on her false claim that Plame was not a covert CIA officer involved with sensitive counter-proliferation operations – and that therefore no real crime was committed when the Bush administration leaked her identity.
To bolster that central lie in the article, Toensing argues that Fitzgerald and the CIA may have described Plame’s status as “classified,” but that the prosecutor “never introduced one piece of evidence to support such status.”
Toensing leaves out, however, that it has been Libby’s defense lawyers who have fought to exclude evidence of Plame’s covert CIA status because they regard the fact as likely to prejudice the jury against their client. Plus, Plame’s covert status has been judged mostly irrelevant to a trial about whether Libby lied to investigators and the grand jury.
So, in muddying up the issue of Plame’s classified identity, Toensing is exploiting the limitations on evidence introduced at the Libby trial – and the unwillingness of the CIA to unnecessarily expose additional secrets relating to Plame’s sensitive assignments.
Toensing also recycles other misleading Republican talking points that have been used for three years to confuse the public and protect the White House. For instance, part of Toensing’s “indictment” of Wilson cites his correct belief that Vice President Dick Cheney instigated the investigation that Wilson undertook to Niger.
Ever since Wilson disclosed in 2003 that he found no evidence to support Cheney’s suspicions that Iraq was seeking yellowcake uranium from Niger, the Republicans have made a big deal out of the fact that Cheney didn’t personally ask Wilson to go on the mission; Cheney asked the CIA which recruited Wilson for the task.
Why this minor point of confusion is deemed significant has been one of the curiosities of this sorry affair.
But it is stunning that the Post so values this argument that it would let a partisan writer like Toensing include it in an “indictment” of a citizen who undertook a difficult mission for the CIA, without pay, and reported back correctly that the Niger-Iraq suspicions appeared to be baseless.
Republicans also have condemned Wilson because he believed the substance of his oral report on his mission was conveyed to Cheney’s office. Though Wilson was essentially right – the CIA repeatedly intervened to strike Niger references from White House speeches – the supposed contradiction here was that a formal report on Wilson’s findings was never sent to Cheney.
So, Toensing writes in her “indictment” that “This Grand Jury charges Joseph C. Wilson IV with misleading the public about how he was sent to Niger, about the thrust of his March 2003 oral report of that trip, and about his wife’s CIA status, perhaps for the purpose of getting book and movie contracts.” [Toensing's reference to "March 2003" appears to be another factual error in her article, since Wilson reported back to the CIA in early 2002.]
To back up her accusations, Toensing cites Wilson’s comment on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “the office of the vice president, I am absolutely convinced, received a very specific response to the question it asked [about the Niger uranium] and that response was based upon my trip there.”
With a dramatic flourish, Toensing then adds, “But Cheney said he had no knowledge of Wilson’s trip and was never briefed on his oral report to the CIA.”
What Toensing ignores, however, is that Cheney and other White House officials may not have known specifically about Wilson, but they were aware that the CIA had checked out the Niger claims and judged them to be unfounded.
That was why White House speechwriters had to sneak around the CIA’s negative findings and attribute the Niger claims to the British government in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address. But none of that detail finds its way into Toensing’s “indictment.”
In her “indictment” of Fitzgerald, Toensing accuses him of making “one factual assertion that turned out to be flat wrong: Libby was not ‘the first official’ to reveal Plame’s identity.” But, again, Toensing is playing games with a quote.
At his Oct. 28, 2005, news conference, Fitzgerald actually said: “Mr. Libby was the first official known to have told a reporter when he talked to Judith Miller in June of 2003 about Valerie Wilson.”
In October 2005, Fitzgerald’s comment was accurate. Libby was “the first official known” to have divulged Plame’s identity.
Only later did Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward reveal that he had heard about Plame earlier from deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. By editing out the full context of the quote, however, Toensing succeeds in maligning Fitzgerald’s honesty.
On and on Toensing goes, making one phony argument after another as she “indicts” pretty much everyone who played any role in advancing the case, from Fitzgerald to Wilson to the CIA to “the media” to the Justice Department. She does throw in two ex-administration officials, former press secretary Ari Fleischer and Armitage.
But Toensing leaves out of her “indictments” the principals who were responsible for misusing the Niger intelligence to scare the American people into supporting the Iraq War and who then organized the anti-Wilson smears that ended up exposing his wife’s clandestine work for the CIA.
Cheney, for instance, isn’t in line for a Toensing “indictment” although he was the sparkplug behind the outing of a CIA officer. Nor does George W. Bush merit an “indictment” although he issued misleading statements about the Plame leak that could have been interpreted as encouraging a cover-up.
Before Fitzgerald was appointed as special prosecutor – and when it looked like the scandal could be contained – Bush disingenuously urged his staff to cooperate.
“If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is,” Bush said on Sept. 30, 2003. “I want to know the truth. If anybody has got any information inside our administration or outside our administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true.”
Yet, even as Bush was professing his curiosity and calling for anyone with information to step forward, he was withholding the fact that he had authorized the declassification of some secrets about the Niger uranium issue and had ordered Cheney to arrange for those secrets to be given to friendly reporters.
In other words, though Bush knew a great deal about how the anti-Wilson scheme got started – since he was involved in starting it – he uttered misleading public statements to conceal the White House hand and possibly signal to others that they should follow suit in denying knowledge.
Toensing also spares White House political adviser Karl Rove from an “indictment” although he was another senior administration official peddling Plame’s identity to the press. One well-placed conservative source told me that Rove was a close behind-the-scenes associate of Armitage, and thus may have had a hand in coordinating Armitage’s role in the leaks. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “New Clues in the Plame Mystery.”]
The Post’s Role
Yet, while it may be understandable why a right-wing operative like Toensing would recycle these smears against Wilson and Fitzgerald at this time, what is more shocking is that the Washington Post would give her such prominence – as 12 Washington residents are about to be asked to weigh the evidence on Libby impartially.
By presenting these pro-Libby arguments in such a high-profile manner, including fabricated “mug shots” of prosecutor Fitzgerald, the Post could be seen as joining in a last-ditch bid for jury nullification to spare Libby from conviction.
While the Post’s behavior may be surprising to some, it actually fits with a long campaign by Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt to undermine Fitzgerald’s investigation and tear down Wilson. [See, for instance, Consortiumnews.com’s “Shame on the Post’s Editorial Page” or “Smearing Joe Wilson Again.”]
Yet, regardless of the Post’s editorial biases, there’s no justification for a newspaper publishing information that it knows to be false or intentionally misleading, even if the deceptions are in its opinion section.
Back in the late 1980s, I co-wrote a lead article for the Post’s Outlook section and the piece underwent intensive review for fairness and accuracy. So the argument doesn’t hold that the Post sees no problem in publishing reckless charges in the Outlook section just because it can be passed off as opinion.
Indeed, the Post editors never would have countenanced a similar “indictment” article that actually made sense – one that presented the criminal case against Bush, Cheney, Rove and, say, Fred Hiatt for participating in a conspiracy that involved exposing a covert CIA officer and then trying to cover up the disgraceful action.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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