Friday :: Aug 12, 2005

Are we done Howling yet?


by eriposte

Having long been a fan of Bob Somerby, it is depressing to see him continue to flush his well-earned reputation as a fact-checker down the drain with every passing day. It's time I step in and make some comments, this time about his recent posts focused on Valerie Plame's role in Wilson's 1999 trip to Niger (yes, 1999, not 2002).

In his 8/3/05 piece, Somerby said:

More enjoyably, at one point he pens a long, principled passage about the way high-minded public servants avoid all appearance of nepotism:

WILSON (page 346): Quite apart from the matter of her employment, the claim that Valerie had played any substantive role in the decision to ask me to go to Niger was false on the face of it. Anyone who knows anything about the government bureaucracy knows that public servants go to great lengths to avoid nepotism or any appearance of it. Family members are expressly forbidden from accepting employment that places them in any direct professional relationship, even once or twice removed. Absurd as these lengths may seem, a supervisor literally cannot even supervise the supervisor of the supervisor of another family member without high-level approval. Valerie could not have stood in the chain of command had she tried to. Dick Cheney might be able to find a way to appoint one of his daughters to a key decision-making position in the State Department’s Middle East Bureau, as he did; but Valerie could not—and would not if she could—have had anything to do with the CIA decision to ask me to travel to Niamey.

This is inspiring, and Wilson works in a dig against Cheney. But inevitably, whatever his many virtues, to read Joe Wilson is to get yourself chumped. Obviously, Wilson and Plame did not “go to great lengths to avoid nepotism or any appearance of it” in the matter of his trip to Niger. If they had, Plame wouldn’t have introduced Wilson to the decision-makers at the meeting where this trip was considered, and she wouldn’t have served as hostess at his post-trip debriefing—a meeting held in the Wilson home, exactly where it wouldn’t be held if Wilson and Plame had “gone to great lengths to avoid nepotism or any appearance of it.” Meanwhile, we’re now being told, by the Post’s Pincus/VandeHei, that this was actually the second time Plame had been involved in a Wilson trip—that she actually did “authorize” an earlier trip to Niger, in 1999. [eRiposte emphasis] For ourselves, we don’t especially care about that; we only care about Wilson’s performance in Niger, and we know of no problem with that. But in fact, Wilson and Plame weren’t especially careful to avoid the appearance of nepotism, despite his high-minded claims to the contrary.

It is clear Somerby has a different understanding of nepotism than I do (serving as a hostess once Wilson was picked by her supervisors for the trip is an example of "nepotism"...good grief). But let's set that aside for a moment.

It is one thing if Valerie Plame had been involved in the decision to send Joseph Wilson to Niger, whether in 1999 or 2002. However, there is not a single piece of credible evidence which shows that was the case. So, where did Somerby get this information about Plame having "authorized" Wilson's 1999 Niger trip? It appears to be this reference in his post on 8/2/05:

Along with Pincus, VandeHei co-wrote last week’s Post report—the one which described Novak’s chit-chat with Harlow and reported other tangy new facts. Last night, VandeHei appeared on Countdown, where he spoke with guest host Alison Stewart. At one point, he made an intriguing reply to one of Stewart’s questions:

VANDEHEI (8/1/05): Well, there’s two accounts out there. There’s one—the Senate Intelligence Committee did come up with a report that said that Valerie Plame did play a pretty big role in authorizing her husband’s mission to Niger. The CIA officials have told us that there was some confusion about testimony given to the Intelligence Committee because three years earlier, she had actually authorized a mission for her husband to Niger and CIA officials are telling us they think some of those facts might have been confused and left a false impression.

We don’t really agree with that first assessment; we don’t think the Senate report says that Plame “did play a pretty big role in authorizing her husband’s mission to Niger.” [eRiposte emphasis] But look at the highlighted statement by VandeHei. Three years earlier (in 1999), Plame “had actually authorized a mission for her husband to Niger?” Perhaps VandeHei is simply speaking loosely again, but this claim undercuts things we’ve been told ever since this story began—things we’ve principally been told by Wilson, who has largely framed the mainstream view of this case since July 2003. For two years, we’ve been told that there was just no way Plame could have played any real role in any decision to send him to Niger. But uh-oh! Last week, Pincus and VandeHei seemed to report something different—something that seemed to contradict a frame that mainly came to us from Wilson.

Starting in July 2003, the mainstream understanding of this issue was largely framed by Wilson. Many of the things you assume to be true came to you from Wilson’s account. But, for all his manifest virtues, Wilson has frequently been a shaky witness; unfortunately, his misstatements have been bold and fairly common. [eRiposte emphasis]

Just look at this sad state of affairs.

Vandehei's first statement is false on the face of it. Somerby acknowledges this weakly - he says "We don’t really agree with that first assessment; we don’t think the Senate report says that Plame “did play a pretty big role in authorizing her husband’s mission to Niger.”". Rather than state one's "thinking" about the Senate Report's statement, why not make it clear that Vandehei's statement was flat out wrong and that neither the Senate Report, nor any other credible report has claimed that Plame played any role in authorizing Wilson's 2002 trip to Niger?

It gets weirder. Despite Vandehei's first statement being flat out wrong, Somerby unbelievably accepts Vandehei's second statement as being accurate (surely because it feeds his biased narrative against Wilson, damn the facts). Sure, Somerby says "Perhaps VandeHei is simply speaking loosely again", but his next statement ignores this qualification. Somerby says "this claim undercuts things we’ve been told ever since this story began". For a person who has constantly chided all and sundry for taking statements made by journalists at face value, this is pretty depressing stuff.

Perhaps Somerby could have taken a minute to read the Senate Report on the issue of the 1999 trip and educated his readers about it. After all, since the Senate GOP was intent on pushing the point that Plame suggested Wilson for the 2002 trip, it would be quite reasonable to assume that if they had an opportunity to embarrass Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame further they would have surely done so (especially if the facts were on their side for a change). So, what does the Senate Report say? (emphasis mine)

The former ambassador had traveled previously to Niger on the CIA’s behalf [redacted]. The former ambassador was selected for the 1999 trip after his wife mentioned to her supervisors that her husband was planning a business trip to Niger in the near future and might be willing to use his contacts in the region [redacted]. [page 39]

So, there is ZERO evidence in the Senate Report that Plame authorized the 1999 trip. Somerby could have raised this when he made the above disparaging remarks against Wilson. He chose not to (more on this below). More importantly, the Senate Report makes it quite clear that Plame's supervisors were involved in the decision because if Plame could "authorize" the trip herself, there would be no reason for her to mention her husband's business trip to her supervisors, and for the decision on the trip to be made "after" that. She could have simply made the decision herself without having to inform her supervisors about anything.

Let's take another logical step. Is it reasonable to conclude that Valerie Plame, who did not have the seniority to authorize her husband's 2002 trip to Niger (the Senate Report makes it clear that the decision to send Wilson on the 2002 trip was not made by Valerie Plame), somehow had the seniority to authorize his 1999 trip? This defies logic (unless of course she had the seniority before and got demoted subsequently - for which there is no evidence. If such evidence existed you can be sure that the GOP would have released it by now).

Why did Somerby, the master word parser, not mention these inconvenient points? (Note: In fact, the Senate Report's brief statement on the 1999 trip also does not rule out the possibility that Plame was contacted by her supervisors and that she was responding to their request. I have no idea if that is what happened in 1999, but we know that some have claimed that that is what happened in the context of the 2002 trip.)

Let's now fast-forward to 8/11/05, to Somerby's latest Howler (bold text is my emphasis):

But at any rate, concerning the 1999 trip, Pincus scales down his earlier language, which he attributed to CIA officials. Today, he doesn’t say that Plame “arranged” that trip; he says she “suggested” Wilson for the job. He attributes this claim to Wilson himself, and to the Senate Intelligence report.

Sad, just sad. There was no reason for Somerby to have put his reputation on the line for pushing Vandehei's earlier statement just to trash Wilson, when Somerby could have just as easily shown that Vandehei's claim was simply untenable.

Is there an apology for Joseph Wilson then? No! Wilson was still a bad bad guy, as Somerby says:

According to Pincus, Wilson seems to agree that Plame “suggested him” for his 1999 trip. We don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but readers may remember how hotly Wilson disputed the notion that she would have “suggested” him for such a trip. Indeed, in his book, The Politics of Truth, Wilson said that such a claim was “false on the face of it.” Indeed, Plame would never do something like that. As everyone knows, public servants do everything possible to avoid the appearance of nepotism:

WILSON (page 346): Quite apart from the matter of her employment, the claim that Valerie had played any substantive role in the decision to ask me to go to Niger [in 2002] was false on the face of it. Anyone who knows anything about the government bureaucracy knows that public servants go to great lengths to avoid nepotism or any appearance of it. Family members are expressly forbidden from accepting employment that places them in any direct professional relationship, even once or twice removed. Absurd as these lengths may seem, a supervisor literally cannot even supervise the supervisor of the supervisor of another family member without high-level approval. Valerie could not have stood in the chain of command had she tried to. Dick Cheney might be able to find a way to appoint one of his daughters to a key decision-making position in the State Department’s Middle East Bureau, as he did; but Valerie could not—and would not if she could—have had anything to do with the CIA decision to ask me to travel to Niamey.

In this passage, Wilson was directly disputing this claim from Novak’s original column: “Two senior administration officials told me Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report” (see page 345). That was ridiculous, Wilson was saying. “Anyone who knows anything” would have known how stupid it was. But uh-oh! Now we read, in Pincus’ report, that Plame did suggest Wilson for a previous trip. She did “suggest Wilson’s name” in 1999—the very thing he later insisted that no public servant would do.

Once again, the master word parser fails to read the very sentences he claims indict Wilson. Other sentences of the extract that Somerby provides say very clearly what Wilson's position is, but Somerby ignores them. Let's repeat:

WILSON (page 346): Quite apart from the matter of her employment, the claim that Valerie had played any substantive role in the decision to ask me to go to Niger [in 2002] was false on the face of it. Anyone who knows anything about the government bureaucracy knows that public servants go to great lengths to avoid nepotism or any appearance of it....Valerie could not have stood in the chain of command had she tried to. Dick Cheney might be able to find a way to appoint one of his daughters to a key decision-making position in the State Department’s Middle East Bureau, as he did; but Valerie could not—and would not if she could—have had anything to do with the CIA decision to ask me to travel to Niamey.

Clearly Wilson was not talking about nepotism in the context of someone "suggesting" something. He was pointing out that nepotism would be involved in a family member plays any substantive role in the decision to hire another family member. Somerby ignores Wilson's words to make up his own self-serving inference about Wilson was trying to say.

According to Somerby's logic, as an employee of my company, I would be committing nepotism even if I merely suggested to my company that they consider the company my wife works for as one of their possible suppliers. This is totally bizarre. Nepotism is when I try to exert any influence in any decision that awards my wife's company a contract. If my wife's company is the best supplier, and one that more than meets all the requirements that my company has for its suppliers, it would be negligent of my company to not consider it as one of the contenders. What would be nepotism is if I tried to push my company in any way to make my wife's company a supplier, just because it is my wife's company. If I recuse myself from the decision and ensure that no one in the company is bound by my views on the matter, no nepotism would exist.

Here's a definition of nepotism (emphasis mine):

Favoritism shown to members of one's family, as in business; bestowal of patronage in consideration of relationship, rather than of merit or of legal claim.

Somerby then goes on to say this:

This is one of the rare cases, in the past dozen years, where the mainstream press corps essentially adopted the Dem/lib version of a public dispute.

How wrong could someone be?

eriposte :: 8:41 AM :: Comments (15) :: TrackBack (1) :: Spotlight :: Digg It!