Friday :: Apr 14, 2006

Howling Misjudgements - Part 2

by eriposte

This is the second of two parts (Part 1) in response to Bob Somerby's deeply misleading posts this week over the issue of Fitzgerald's now-retracted statement about Scooter Libby and the NIE's key judgements. In this part I discuss some of his criticisms of a Walter Pincus article and a comment by Christy at Firedoglake.

1. Pincus and the NIE key judgements

Let's begin with this post of Somerby's from Monday:

...Today’s let’s start with Walter Pincus, in this morning’s Post. Pincus shortens an even more jumbled account by brave Barton Gellman in yesterday’s Post. But today, here’s how Big Pinc tells it:
PINCUS (4/10/06): Some of Libby's comments about the NIE that he made to reporter Judith Miller, then of the New York Times, on July 8, 2003, were inaccurate. Libby said one "key judgment of the NIE held that Iraq was 'vigorously trying to procure' uranium." That was not an NIE key judgment, and the CIA officials who wrote the document disputed that statement. The “vigorously trying to procure” quote came from an unconfirmed Defense Intelligence Agency report from early 2002 that had caught Cheney’s eye. Libby also inaccurately described the CIA report on Wilson's trip, saying the former ambassador reported information about an Iraqi delegation visiting Niger in 1999 that was "understood to be a reference to a desire to obtain uranium." In fact, Wilson said he was told that a Niger official was contacted at a meeting outside the country by a businessman who said an Iraqi economic delegation wanted to meet with him. The Niger official guessed that the Iraqis might want to talk about uranium because Iraq had purchased uranium from Niger in the mid-1980s. But when they met, no talk of uranium took place.
Like many of President Bush’s past statements, Pincus’ claims aren’t exactly wrong—but they are selective and highly misleading [Eriposte emphasis]. For example, did the NIE say that Iraq was “vigorously trying to procure uranium?” Pincus is right in one narrow way—that wasn’t listed as a “key judgment” in the National Intelligence Assessment. But this statement does come from the NIE (fuller text below)—a fact you surely won’t understand from this misleading presentation by Pincus. [Eriposte emphasis]

The specific claim that Pincus was reporting on was whether a "key judgment of the NIE held that Iraq was 'vigorously trying to procure' uranium." Obviously if this was NOT part of the key judgements of the NIE, then it is Pincus' job as a reporter to point that out. Should Pincus have also stated that the body of the NIE mentioned the uranium allegation? Perhaps - but in that case, he should have also mentioned that the CIA did not stand by the uranium claim in the NIE (why else did the White House dishonestly refer to the British in the SOTU speech?) and that the uranium claim in the body of the NIE was rebutted by the INR text box in the NIE which called the uranium claim "highly dubious". In fact, by his own definition, Somerby is misleading his readers for he conveniently left out these facts (among many other things, as I discussed in Part 1).

Somerby then adds (emphasis mine):

They’re doing exactly what Bush has done; they’re presenting selective material in the attempt to mislead you. Of course, we tend to approve of such behavior—when we’re misled in a way which we like.
Well, let's just say that the last sentence (in bold) certainly seems to be the story of The Daily Howler when it comes to the coverage of the uranium from Africa scandal.

2. Pincus and the DIA report

In a follow-up post on Tuesday (where Somerby correctly points out that David Shuster and Keith Olbermann made a serious error), Somerby said:

“The NIE contained nothing about Iraq vigorously pursuing uranium?” How did Shuster and Olbermann manage to get this simple fact so totally wrong? We don’t know, but as we noted yesterday, a reader could well have gotten this false impression from Walter Pincus’ misleading account in the Post. Here’s what Pincus wrote:
PINCUS (4/10/06): Some of Libby's comments about the NIE that he made to reporter Judith Miller, then of the New York Times, on July 8, 2003, were inaccurate. Libby said one "key judgment of the NIE held that Iraq was 'vigorously trying to procure' uranium." That was not an NIE key judgment, and the CIA officials who wrote the document disputed that statement. The “vigorously trying to procure” quote came from an unconfirmed Defense Intelligence Agency report from early 2002 that had caught Cheney’s eye.
Reading Pincus, one could easily get the impression that the “vigorously trying to procure” quote wasn’t in the NIE at all. Pincus’ presentation was grossly misleading—and it seems that it may have reeled in a pair of marks, Shuster and Olbermann.
NOTE ON PINCUS: This passage from Pincus appeared in the early editions of yesterday’s Post. (Our hard copy sits before us.) The final sentence of the paragraph was deleted in the paper’s later editions—presumably because it’s so misleading. [Eriposte emphasis] Yesterday, we cut-and-pasted the shortened version (from Nexis) without realizing that it had been edited down. Today, we’ve changed yesterday’s post to reflect the original Pincus text—the report we were actually reading when we penned yesterday’s HOWLER.
The mention of the DIA report by Pincus was probably no accident - and it barely scratches the surface of the truth. In fact, unlike Somerby who appears to be mostly clueless on some of the key details of the uranium from Africa scandal, Pincus is likely far more aware of the significance of the DIA report. After all, the "vigorously trying to procure" uranium claim made it to the NIE through a September 2002 DIA report (which, in turn, was likely based, in part, on an earlier 2002 DIA report). The August 2002 CIA report that was used to construct the NIE's nuclear portion had specifically dropped the uranium claim (likely for good reason - the claim was bunk). Further, immediately after the NIE was published, the CIA went to great lengths to dissuade the White House from referring to the (NIE's) uranium allegation in speeches. In fact, the CIA WINPAC Director had specifically dissuaded the White House from using the uranium claim in the NIE in Bush's SOTU speech - and he finally gave in to the White House by allowing them to instead refer to the British even though the CIA considered the British claim to be bunk. So, obviously, if Libby was characterizing the uranium claim as having had the backing of the CIA just because it appeared in the body of the NIE that would have been flat out dishonest. Somerby, who is clearly too caught up in self-congratulatory delusions, conveniently ignored all of this.

In fact, let's take a look at what Judith Miller said about her meetings with Libby in late June and early July 2003 to understand what exactly Libby was telling her (all emphasis is mine) - something Somerby ignored in his posts this week:

On the afternoon of June 23, 2003, I arrived at the Old Executive Office Building to interview Mr. Libby, who was known to be an avid consumer of prewar intelligence assessments, which were already coming under fierce criticism. The first entry in my reporter's notebook from this interview neatly captured the question foremost in my mind.

''Was the intell slanted?'' I wrote, referring to the intelligence assessments of Iraq and underlining the word ''slanted.''

I recall that Mr. Libby was displeased with what he described as ''selective leaking'' by the C.I.A. He told me that the agency was engaged in a ''hedging strategy'' to protect itself in case no weapons were found in Iraq. ''If we find it, fine, if not, we hedged,'' is how he described the strategy, my notes show.

I recall that Mr. Libby was angry about reports suggesting that senior administration officials, including Mr. Cheney, had embraced skimpy intelligence about Iraq's alleged efforts to buy uranium in Africa while ignoring evidence to the contrary. Such reports, he said, according to my notes, were ''highly distorted.''
What was evident, I told the grand jury, was Mr. Libby's anger that Mr. Bush might have made inaccurate statements because the C.I.A. failed to share doubts about the Iraq intelligence.

''No briefer came in and said, 'You got it wrong, Mr. President,''' he said, according to my notes.

Mr. Libby then proceeded through a lengthy and sharp critique of Mr. Wilson and what Mr. Libby viewed as the C.I.A.'s backpedaling on the intelligence leading to war.
As I told Mr. Fitzgerald, Mr. Libby also cited a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, produced by American intelligence agencies in October 2002, which he said had firmly concluded that Iraq was seeking uranium.

An unclassified version of that estimate had been made public before my interviews with Mr. Libby. I told Mr. Fitzgerald that I had pressed Mr. Libby to discuss additional information that was in the more detailed, classified version of the estimate. I said I had told Mr. Libby that if The Times was going to do an article, the newspaper needed more than a recap of the administration's weapons arguments. According to my interview notes, though, it appears that Mr. Libby said little more than that the assessments of the classified estimate were even stronger than those in the unclassified version.

Here is what we learn from the passages above. Miller is not the best witness in the world, but even from Miller's notes and high-level observations it is clear Libby was faking it beyond belief. Miller was meeting him primarily to ask about whether the intel was slanted - no one in their right mind could deny that it was - and unsurprisingly, Libby deliberately misled her by claiming how solid the intel was. He claimed that the classified version of the NIE provided an even stronger basis for Bush's uranium claim, when the CIA had repeatedly warned the White House not to refer to the NIE's or British claims on uranium, and when the classified version of the NIE also included INR's dissent calling the claim "highly dubious". He claimed that the CIA never warned the White House off the uranium claim - which was false. He appears to have referred to the CIA's actions as some kind of backpedaling, when all the CIA was doing was reminding the White House that they never really authorized the White House to refer to the uranium claim in the NIE in the first place. A reasonably careful review of the pre-SOTU discussion between the WINPAC Director and his NSC counterpart makes it clear that the uranium claim only made it to the SOTU despite CIA disapproval and because of White House pressure. Libby also appears to have claimed that the NIE firmly concluded that Iraq was seeking uranium despite all of the above; in doing so, he was obvious doing some cherry-picking - using the text in the body of the NIE that the CIA had walked away from repeatedly. We should also remember that when the White House later retracted the uranium claim in the SOTU and faced a major PR disaster, they asserted that Bush's SOTU claim was "technically accurate" (it wasn't) because it only referred to the British, and not the CIA/NIE! And here was Libby, faker extraordinaire, trying to use the NIE to bolster the White House's case. Finally, Libby's meeting with Miller also occurred shortly after he had been briefed on a CIA report that categorically retracted the uranium claim altogether (did he mention that to Miller?).

Despite all of this, Somerby, who more than anyone else on the left has invested the last three years of his time in deeply and repeatedly misleading his readers on the uranium matter, decided to ignore it all in his posts. The fact that Pincus was alerting readers to the real origin of the uranium claim in the NIE (which opens the door to a much more thorough examination of the systematic deception of the Bush White House on the uranium matter) was clearly lost on Somerby who used this opportunity to celebrate his own ignorance (NOTE: There were one or more individuals in CIA's WINPAC who continued to stovepipe the uranium claim despite the fact that others in the CIA, including Tenet, were trying to shut it down - and those WINPAC officials might have helped in the decision to leave the uranium claim in the body of the NIE). Somerby also conveniently whitewashed his own long-time role in supporting the false, after-the-fact White House propaganda about Bush's SOTU statement being "accurate" (because of the British reference), propaganda which requires us to logically believe the fact that the White House was told to not refer to the CIA/NIE intel when it was discussing the uranium claim.

The bottom line is that Pincus's statement may have been marginally misleading in one direction, but it did leave out vast swaths of information that would have put Libby in far worse light. So, on balance, Pincus' report was far more friendly to Libby than Somerby would have you believe.

In contrast, Somerby has this to say:

Short story: The NIE did state, as a key judgment, that Iraq was “reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.” To the extent that the Bush Admin believed that, it was a serious concern (though not worth going to war about, in our view). That said, we’d have to say that the current excitement recapitulates a long, tiring story, in which we liberals focus on Wilson-related stories to the exclusion of other, more straightforward matters. (Example: Murray Waas’ recent report on aluminum tubes has been wiped off the map by the new Wilson craze.) In fact, there was material in the NIE which, taken on its face, would have justified concern about Iraq—and Libby’s alleged exaggerations to Miller don’t strike us as especially grave. But around the liberal web—and now, in the mainstream press—misstatements and spinning are all the rage.
Look how nicely Somerby mimicks the usual right-wing bloggers and Fox News types who try to change the subject to "nuclear weapons program" when the discussion is on the specific topic of the uranium allegation. What's more, he speaks about what the White House "believed", despite knowing fully well that everything that is being debated in not just about what they "believed" but what they really knew, what they were told and when. What a truly embarrassing spectacle. Somerby conveniently mentions Murray Waas' report on the aluminum tubes (of course readers of TLC know that much of what Waas reported recently on the tubes has been covered at TLC last year) as deserving of focus, without any sense of irony that in both the aluminum tubes story and the uranium story we have an administration that was deliberately misleading the public on Iraq's nuclear capabilities. Somehow Waas providing "straightforward" evidence that the White House misrepresented what they knew is news we should focus on, but "straightforward" evidence that the White House misrepresented what they were told on the uranium affair is only for "rubes" and "true believers" frequenting some liberal blogs. Libby was faking it even as late as June/July 2003 and grossly misrepresenting the intel (hardly different from the White House's aluminum tubes misrepresentations) -- and rather than ask journalists to cover that story in greater depth, Somerby indirectly sends Libby a big fat internet kiss instead, and trashes Pincus while accusing the liberal web of "misstatements and spinning". Talk about projection.

Not done with the misleading, Somerby also claims to offers us 'proof' that the key judgements actually mentioned the uranium allegation. I already dispensed with that nonsense in Part 1, but try to believe Somerby wrote this:

In fact, Libby didn’t have to misstate in his conversation with Miller. The NIE’s key judgments did seem to imply that Iraq was seeking uranium.
The piece-de-resistance?
Why would “Scooter” have bothered lying (or reading “selectively”)? He just had to read the relevant “key judgments,” then read the supporting material.
Should we laugh or cry at this? Libby just had to "read the supporting material" Somerby says, in a conversation that Miller came to have with Libby specifically about whether the White House was selectively cherry-picking supporting material without disclosing that there was material that challenged those conclusions! Perhaps the White House press office dealing with the Plame case and the uranium scandal has an opening?

To close this out, let's reflect on what it must have taken Somerby to write this on Monday:

As we’ve noted, the NIE does say, in its “key judgments,” that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium from abroad. Pincus cuts it amazingly thin. It’s great work—if you can get it.
As I've shown here, there was only one person slicing it very thin on this matter, and it wasn't Walter Pincus. There was only one person "playing games just like Bush" and that was not Walter Pincus. Paging FactChuck.Org.

3. The Bubble

This sentence from Somerby's post on Wednesday might as well have been written about his own coverage on the uranium scandal:

And as always, they’re picking-and-choosing their facts, avoiding those which challenge their overall judgments.

Let me also add that one of the things that motivated me to write this post is Somerby's attacks on Firedoglake. Rather than correct his own history of egregious, misleading and wrong coverage on the uranium/Plame matter, Somerby self-righteously and viciously attacked one of the well-known liberal blogs that, while inadvertently incorrect at times, has played a significant and productive role (controversial to its detractors) in bringing some accountability to the media that Somerby has long railed against. All of us on the progressive side of the blogosphere do make mistakes from time to time (and many of us try to correct those mistakes as and when we become aware of them), but that doesn't make those mistakes deserving of the kind of attacks that Somerby has resorted to. Here's an example (emphasis mine, except the first five words):

Hey, you dumb f*cking rubes: This morning, over at firedoglake, Christy Hardin Smith is treating her readers like a pack of dumb, f*cking rubes. “ReddHead” just can’t puzzle it out the meaning of Fitzgerald’s correction. Try to believe that she wrote this:
SMITH (4/13/06): Now, to those of us who have been obsessed with this case since the investigation began, this has some meaning. But I can guarantee you that if you tried to explain the significance of this to someone who hasn’t paid attention to the case, you are simply going to get some eyes glazing over and a "huh?”
Pathetic. So let’s explain it nice and slow, so slow that even Smith will get it. Here goes: When Fitzgerald’s original filing appeared, typists like Smith went into hysterics; they said the filing showed that Cheney gave Libby permission to misrepresent the NIE’s contents. As noted, it got so stupid that Shuster and Olbermann even said that the passage about Iraq “vigorously trying to pursue uranium” wasn’t in the NIE at all! )And Smith, of course, applauded this statement!) Now, Fitzgerald corrects his original statement; it becomes clear that Libby didn’t misstate the contents of the NIE. We went from “did misstate” to “didn’t misstate.” And to Smith, this is deeply confusing.

Readers, we’ll suggest that you always go to firedoglake for all your vital True Belief Needs—and to get treated like a pack of dumb rubes in the process. In the meantime, recall what we’ve often said: At this point, if you have to embellish facts to make a case against Bush, you ought to get out of the case-making business. But you know the nature of the life-forms around you. Many of them embellish their facts just because they enjoy the process. It makes their “blogging” a good deal easier—and it makes their lives much more fun.

Somerby claims: "Now, Fitzgerald corrects his original statement; it becomes clear that Libby didn’t misstate the contents of the NIE." Again, only someone intending to mislead his readers could have typed this tripe up. There is significant evidence that Libby was misrepresenting the contents of the NIE (as I've discussed earlier on this page) and Fitzgerald's correction didn't take away from that. Libby may not have misstated the part about the key judgements (which none of us could have known until Fitzgerald corrected his filing), but he clearly misled Judith Miller on the credibility and validity of the uranium claim and what was in the classified version of the NIE. Not to mention, the circumstances surrounding Libby's use of the key judgements and the NIE raise far more questions about Libby's/Cheney's/Bush's motives than Somerby would like his readers to believe.

Let me add another point. Christy was perfectly correct in her statement. In fact, when I published a post on the correction and explained its significance, here are a couple comments I got immediately almost two days a day and a half or so before Christy wrote her post:

You know, there comes a point in some verbal dead horse beatings when the observer just decides to walk away because his head hurts, what with all the speculation and convoluted hypothesizing.

I've stopped paying attention to the "news" on this matter, because it seems mostly pointless. When all is said and done, we can read about it years from now in post mortum analyses; that is, if turns out to be interesting enough. I don't think it will. In fact, I fear that many of us will wonder, "why was it again that this was getting so much attention?"

Posted by Terry Ott at April 11, 2006 09:17 PM

I gotta admit my eyes glazed over on my first reading. After your explanation, I get it... but I think most of the country won't fine-tooth this stuff and will just await the final outcomes.

I'm not suggesting it's too complicated to understand. I'm just echoing what a very astute friend pointed out last weekend. Most of the country is just too busy working and has no time to delve into details.

But the majority know Plame's name now and well understand that what was done to her is wrong. When Fitzgerald's done, I think they'll understand "guilty, Guilty, GUILTY!"

Posted by Kevin Hayden at April 11, 2006 09:27 PM

Somerby does not show where Christy trumpeted the original statement from Fitzgerald early in the week (if I remember right Jane was the one who explicitly covered it first, basically by citing what I wrote). He just trashes her for not trumpeting the correction later in the week. If Christy never explicitly made a hullaballoo over it originally (perhaps because it was getting too deep in the weeds for her) then why should she write about the correction in a different manner? Sure, Christy could have explained what Somerby wanted her to explain, but there was no reason for Somerby to attribute mal-intent to her just because she didn't. Additionally, right near the top of her post, Christy linked to conservative Tom Maguire's post that made the case for Libby.
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