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Secrets, Evasions and Classified Reports

The CIA leak case isn’t just about whether top officials will be indicted. A larger issue is what Judith Miller’s evidence says about White House manipulation of the media

By Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball

10/19/05 "
Newsweek" -- -- The lengthy account by New York Times reporter Judy Miller about her grand jury testimony in the CIA leak case inadvertently provides a revealing window into how the Bush administration manipulated journalists about intelligence on Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

Whatever the implications for special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s probe, Miller describes a conversation with Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, on July 8, 2003, where he appears to significantly misrepresent the contents of still-classified material from a crucial prewar intelligence-community document about Iraq.

With no weapons of mass destruction having been found in Iraq and new questions being raised about the case for war, Libby assured Miller that day that the still-classified document, a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), contained even stronger evidence that would support the White House’s conclusions about Iraq’s weapons programs, according to Miller’s account.

In fact, a declassified version of the NIE was publicly released just 10 days later, and it showed almost precisely the opposite. The NIE, it turned out, contained caveats and qualifiers that had never been publicly acknowledged by the administration prior to the invasion of Iraq. It also included key dissents by State Department intelligence analysts, Energy Department scientists and Air Force technical experts about some important aspects of the administration’s case.

The assertion that still-secret material would bolster the administration’s claims about Iraqi WMD was “certainly not accurate, it was not true,” says Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who coauthored a study last year, titled “A Tale of Two Intelligence Estimates,” about different versions of the NIE that were released. If Miller’s account is correct, Libby was “misrepresenting the intelligence” that was contained in the document, she said.

A spokeswoman for Cheney’s office said today that she could not respond to Miller’s account because it described grand jury testimony in the Valerie Plame leak case. Following standard White House policy, the vice president’s office does not intend to make any public comments on any matter relating to the investigation until after it is complete.

Libby’s comments about the NIE may seem at this point a sideshow to the pressing question that is currently consuming much of Washington: whether he or any other White House official will be charged with any crimes stemming from the outing of CIA agent Plame, the wife of former ambassador and administration critic Joseph Wilson.

But Libby’s comments do touch on what many believe is a larger issue raised by the case: whether the administration accurately represented the nature of what the U.S. intelligence community knew, and didn’t know, about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs before the nation went to war.


The NIE was no small matter in that debate. Hastily prepared in the fall of 2002 at the request of members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the NIE was supposed to be a blue-ribbon document that represented the consensus view of U.S. government intelligence agencies. A white paper based on the NIE was publicly released by the administration in early October 2002—just one week before Congress voted on a resolution authorizing the president to go to war.

The publicly released white paper unequivocally backed up the White House’s case about the dangers posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. It stated boldly and without caveats in the first paragraph that Baghdad “has chemical and biological weapons” and “if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade.” If Iraq obtains sufficient weapons-grade material from abroad, the white paper further warned, Baghdad could make a nuclear weapon “within a year.”

To support its conclusions about an Iraqi nuclear program, it prominently cited, among other factors, Iraq’s “aggressive attempts” to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes—an effort that Miller and her colleague Michael Gordon had first written about in an influential front-page story for The New York Times the previous September.

When Miller met with Libby for two hours at Washington’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel on July 8, 2003, the vice president’s top aide provided an additional detail that was not contained in the white paper, according to Miller’s account published in last Sunday’s New York Times. The still-classified NIE, Libby told her, “had firmly concluded that Iraq was seeking uranium” for a nuclear bomb.

The new information was potentially significant at that moment because it came just two days after a New York Times op-ed by Wilson challenging the administration’s claims about Iraqi attempts to purchase uranium. In the op-ed, Wilson had come forward for the first time to say that he had personally undertaken a CIA-sponsored mission to Niger the year before and concluded that reports of Iraqi attempts to purchase uranium from that country could not be substantiated.

As Miller describes it, Libby’s principal message during their two-hour breakfast meeting that day was to rebut Wilson’s attacks, launching what she describes as a “lengthy and sharp critique” in which he laid out the “credible evidence” of Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Niger.

But Miller wanted more specifics. She “pressed Mr. Libby to discuss additional information [about Iraq’s nuclear program] that was in the more detailed, classified version of the estimate,” Miller wrote, referring to the NIE. If the Times was going to do an article, “the newspaper needed more than a recap of the administration’s weapons arguments.”

Libby, though, “said little more than that the assessments of the classified estimate were even stronger than those in the unclassified version,” Miller wrote.


Even when she sought to change the subject to Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programs, Miller continues, “my notes show that Mr. Libby consistently steered our conversation back to the administration’s nuclear claims. His main theme echoed that of other senior officials: that contrary to Mr. Wilson’s criticism, the administration had had ample reason to be concerned about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities based on the regime’s history of weapons development, its use of unconventional weapons and fresh intelligence reports.”

What Miller didn’t mention in her article is that on July 18, 2003, the White House did release a more detailed version of the NIE. At the time, White House aides were trying to explain how the claims about Iraqi uranium purchases in Africa had mistakenly found their way into the president’s State of the Union Message that year—even though, it turns out, they were partially based on documents that were forged.

But contrary to what Libby told Miller, the more detailed version of the NIE was hardly stronger. In fact, it revealed for the first time, in the very first paragraph—right after the sentence that “if left unchecked, [Iraq] probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade”—the fact that the State Department’s intelligence arm, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), had an “alternative view” of the matter.

That alternative view, relegated to a boxed footnote inside the document, stated that while INR believed that Saddam “continues to want nuclear weapons” and had a “limited effort” underway to acquire nuclear capabilities, the evidence does not add up to a “compelling case” that Iraq was pursuing a full-scale nuclear weapons program. “Iraq may be doing so,” the footnote read, “but INR considers the available evidence inadequate to support such a judgment.”

Specifically, the INR analysts challenged the assertion that Iraq’s purchase of aluminum tubes was for the purpose of advancing a nuclear program. They noted that “technical experts” at the Energy Department didn’t believe they were suited for such uses. In fact, INR—citing the large number of tubes being purchased and the “atypical lack of attention to operational security in the procurement efforts”—concluded that the tubes are “not intended for use in Iraq’s nuclear weapon program.”

As for the purported Iraqi attempts to purchase uranium from Africa, the NIE did indeed assert that Iraq had been “vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellow cake.” It based that assessment on foreign government “reports” about attempted purchases from Niger and two other African countries.

But the NIE also included an INR written annex in which the State Department analysts concluded that claims of Iraq uranium purchases in Africa were “highly dubious.”


Those weren’t the only dissents included in the INR that had not been revealed in the earlier white paper. The original pre-Iraq war white paper had asserted that Iraq was developing an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or missile that was “probably intended to deliver biological warfare agents” and could even threaten “the U.S. homeland.” The white paper had attributed these conclusions to “most analysts.”

In fact, the newly declassified NIE disclosed for the first time that the U.S. Air Force’s intelligence agency, the Office of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, had a different view. The Air Force intelligence agency “does not agree” that Iraq’s UAVs were “primarily intended” for delivering biological weapons and believed they were more likely to be primarily for reconnaissance, although unconventional weapons delivery was “an inherent capability.”

As Carnegie president Mathews noted in her study last year, the actual NIE had other caveats and qualifiers that were not in the declassified white paper that was released before the war. In the prewar white paper, the words “we judge” and “we assess” were deleted from five key findings of the NIE, making the conclusions seem like flat declarative statements rather than more nuanced judgments. More significantly, key sentences that were in the NIE—and revealed seeds of doubt about some matters—were omitted from the prewar white paper. Among them: “We lack specific information on many key aspects of Iraq’s WMD program.” Also: “We have low confidence in our ability to assess when Saddam would use WMD.”

Miller, who had been among the most aggressive reporters in the country writing stories about the threat posed by Iraqi WMD, was quoted in a New York Times article that accompanied her piece last Sunday as saying for the first time” “WMD—I got it totally wrong. The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them—we were all wrong.”

Today, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the need for a federal “shield” law to protect journalists from having to disclose their sources, she elaborated a bit: “As I painfully learned while covering intelligence estimates of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, we are only as good as our sources. If they are mistaken, we will be wrong.” She made no reference to Libby.

2005 Newsweek, Inc. - 2005 MSNBC.com

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