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July 22, 2003
Retraction Times
Is Krugman saying the Bushies committed treason?

SPECIAL UPDATE, JULY 23, 2003: I'd always rather be lucky than smart. Yesterday Paul Krugman appears to have done something not very smart, but he might have gotten very lucky. In a Krugman Truth Squad column posted here yesterday (and reposted below), I criticized Krugman for making the very grave accusation in his New York Times column Tuesday that "Bush administration officials have exposed the identity of a covert operative." I observed that there appeared to have been no basis for Krugman to have assumed that the operative was "covert" -- and it would be her covert status that would make the exposure into what Krugman called "a criminal act."

Shortly after my column was published, a reader told me about an article on the website of New York Newsday of which I had been unaware. This article appeared to corroborate Krugman's claim. Corroborate, but not justify -- the timing of its publication makes it unlikely that it was Krugman's source (and even if he had advance knowledge of the story he did not cite it), so its corroboration may have been nothing more than a stroke of luck -- one that has saved Krugman from having made an over-reaching claim. And the Newsday piece only corroborated, it did not prove. It remains unclear whether the Newsday story is accurate; its claims have not been corroborated or even repeated by any other major newspapers as of this writing.

My NRO editor and I decided yesterday that it would be prudent to remove my column from the NRO website while I evaluated the new information. But we agreed that the column should be re-posted as soon as possible with whatever amplifications or corrections were required. What follows is my entire original column -- not a word has been altered. At several points I have inserted comments to incorporate new information, presented in red type and set off by ***asterisks.

 smell another New York Times retraction coming up. And a big one. Paul Krugman, America's most dangerous liberal pundit, has made a statement in his Times column today which — if it had been directed against a private individual rather than public officials — would almost certainly trigger a libel suit.



  
It's an extraordinarily serious allegation, tantamount to accusing Bush administration officials of treason:

... Bush administration officials have exposed the identity of a covert operative. That happens to be a criminal act ...

Krugman has been raking President Bush over the coals for his "16 words" in the State of the Union address — so now, the Krugman Truth Squad is going do a little raking with these "18 words." Let's start by putting Krugman's 18 words in context (which is more than Krugman ever does when he quotes President Bush):

And while we're on the subject of patriotism, let's talk about the affair of Joseph Wilson's wife. Mr. Wilson is the former ambassador who was sent to Niger by the C.I.A. to investigate reports of attempted Iraqi uranium purchases and who recently went public with his findings. Since then administration allies have sought to discredit him — it's unpleasant stuff. But here's the kicker: both the columnist Robert Novak and Time magazine say that administration officials told them that they believed that Mr. Wilson had been chosen through the influence of his wife, whom they identified as a C.I.A. operative.

Think about that: if their characterization of Mr. Wilson's wife is true (he refuses to confirm or deny it), Bush administration officials have exposed the identity of a covert operative. That happens to be a criminal act; it's also definitely unpatriotic.

Okay, let's look at this statement under the microscope in the Krugman Truth Squad's forensics lab, and watch a lie being born.

We'll start with the first sentence: "And while we're on the subject of patriotism, let's talk about the affair of Joseph Wilson's wife." First, we're not "on the subject of patriotism." It's a peculiar error for a newspaper well known for being heavily copy-edited, but other than the title of the column — "Who's Unpatriotic Now" — there was no reference to patriotism in the column whatsoever. And similarly, there's no "affair of Joseph Wilson's wife" — these two paragraphs are the attempt to invent one.

***Another reader alerted me to an online column by David Corn on the website of The Nation, published on July 16, two days after the Novak column mentioned in Krugman's post. A Google search reveals that it has been quoted, discussed, and linked on several other websites -- none of great note, but arguably this constitutes an "affair." This matter was also mentioned prominently in a feature on Wilson on NBC Nightly News on Monday evening, aired as Krugman's column was going to press. The Newsday article appeared even later than that, posted on the paper's website at 9:48 PM, EDT.

***A follow-up Newsday story today suggests the "affair" has graduated to a cause celebre, complete with denunciations and calls for investigations by Democratic senators.

The second sentence: "Mr. Wilson is the former ambassador who was sent to Niger by the C.I.A. to investigate reports of attempted Iraqi uranium purchases and who recently went public with his findings." What a coincidence — it just so happens that Wilson "went public" by publishing an op-ed in none other but the New York Times itself on July 6. Considering that Krugman's Times column is a defense of copyrighted material that appeared in the Times, journalistic ethics demand that this potential conflict of interest be disclosed. But then ...

The third sentence: "Since then administration allies have sought to discredit him — it's unpleasant stuff." What's the "unpleasant stuff"? Krugman never says — so we are left to imagine a vicious smear campaign that does not, in fact, exist. CIA director George Tenet discussed Wilson's claims (without naming Wilson) in his courageous statement in which he expressed regret that the Niger intelligence had been cited in the State of the Union address. While Tenet argued Wilson's investigation was both incomplete and that elements of it partially supported the Niger intelligence, he said nothing whatsoever disparaging of Wilson. Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said in a press briefing the day after Wilson's Times op-ed that there was "zero, nada, nothing new here." And in another press briefing the day after Tenet's statement, Fleischer forcefully argued that Wilson was presenting a one-sided view of his investigation for the media. But there was no "unpleasant stuff" whatsoever.

The most "unpleasant stuff" I can find is a critique by Capsar Weinberger in last Friday's Wall Street Journal. I'm not sure whether he qualifies as an "administration ally," but he notes that Wilson was always "an outspoken opponent of the war" and calls him a "retired ambassador with a less than stellar record." By the standards set by Krugman's columns — in which, for example, he has compared George Bush to Emperor Caligula and Captain Queeg — that "stuff" isn't really all that "unpleasant," is it? Or maybe the problem is the fact that Bush and security advisor Condoleezza Rice affronted Wilson's pride by being unaware of his investigation, which by his own admission he never wrote up as a report, prior to the inclusion of the "16 words" in the State of the Union.

The fourth sentence: "But here's the kicker: both the columnist Robert Novak and Time magazine say that administration officials told them that they believed that Mr. Wilson had been chosen through the influence of his wife, whom they identified as a C.I.A. operative." Isn't it remarkable that Krugman would quote conservative icon Robert Novak as an authority on anything more important than the time of day? Well, partisan punditry makes strange bedfellows. Here's what Novak said in a July 14 Chicago Sun-Times column:

Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him. "I will not answer any question about my wife," Wilson told me.

And here's what Time reported in a July 17 story:

And some government officials have noted to TIME in interviews, (as well as to syndicated columnist Robert Novak) that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. These officials have suggested that she was involved in her husband's being dispatched [sic] Niger to investigate reports that Saddam Hussein's government had sought to purchase large quantities of uranium ore, sometimes referred to as yellow cake, which is used to build nuclear devices.

In an interview with TIME, Wilson, who served as an ambassador to Gabon and as a senior American diplomat in Baghdad under the current president's father, angrily said that his wife had nothing to do with his trip to Africa. "That is bulls__t. That is absolutely not the case," Wilson told TIME. "I met with between six and eight analysts and operators from CIA and elsewhere [before the Feb 2002 trip]. None of the people in that meeting did I know, and they took the decision to send me. This is a smear job."

This is a "smear job"? To say that Wilson's wife "suggested" or "was involved" in Wilson's trip? For one thing, who's to say it's not true — according to Novak, the CIA agrees Plame was "involved" — and if it is true, is it still a smear? And what if it's false — what exactly is the "unpleasant stuff" here? Is it the implication that Wilson's wife finagled an all-expenses-paid trip for her hubby to Niger? Now maybe if he were investigating Iraqi uranium purchases from Maui I could see the point, but it seems to me that the most "unpleasant" element is that it suggests that Plame must not like her husband very much.

*** These remarks were, perhaps, too flip. They were made assuming strongly that Plame is not a covert operative, in which case exposing her involvement is only a matter of casting doubt on Wilson by suggesting nepotism. But if she is a covert operative, then exposing her could endanger her. In Newsday, Wilson asserts that the purpose of that would be "to keep anybody else from coming forward."

Now on to the fifth sentence: "Think about that: if their characterization of Mr. Wilson's wife is true (he refuses to confirm or deny it), Bush administration officials have exposed the identity of a covert operative." Huh?! When did "their characterization" of Plame go from being an "operative" (per Novak) or an "official" (per Time) to being a "covert operative"? That's Krugman's characterization. That's not reporting. That's not commentary. It's just plain old making stuff up.

*** This is the heart of the matter: Did Krugman have reasonable grounds to make the leap from "operative" and "official" to "covert operative"? Maybe Ms. Plame is, in fact, exactly that -- but one thing's for certain: nothing in his Times column provides grounds for saying so. The fact is that in his column he offers no source beyond Novak and Time, and those two sources simply don't justify what Krugman said.

*** A national security official I spoke to late yesterday ventured, "The bottom line is that Krugman couldn't possibly know, unless he has a reliable CIA source." Well, we can't rule anything out, but what about media sources?

*** It turns out that Corn's column on The Nation website could have been a source, but Krugman didn't cite it. Corn refers to Wilson's wife as "an undercover CIA officer," "a CIA operative who apparently has worked under what's known as 'nonofficial cover,'" and "a woman known to friends as an energy analyst for a private firm." He says "the Bush administration has screwed one of its own top-secret operatives." I don't know how Corn knows all this, since he says Wilson wouldn't tell him "whether she is a deep-cover CIA employee," and he cites no other sources. Did Krugman know about the Corn column? Hard to know -- but if he did, then why didn't he cite it?

*** In the NBC Nightly News story on Monday night, Andrea Mitchell said, "Wilson tells NBC News the White House deliberately leaked his wife’s identity as a covert CIA operative." But Wilson says no such thing himself on camera, so I have to be skeptical about whether Wilson really told Mitchell something he refused to tell both Corn and Newsday. In any event, the timing of the broadcast makes it virtually impossible for this to have been Krugman's source, unless he had advanced notice of this piece.

*** The Newsday article states flatly in its second paragraph, "Intelligence officials confirmed to Newsday Monday that Valerie Plame, wife of retired Ambassador Joseph Wilson, works at the agency on weapons of mass destruction issues in an undercover capacity." And later, "A senior intelligence official confirmed that Plame was a Directorate of Operations undercover officer who worked 'alongside' the operations officers who asked her husband to travel to Niger." If Krugman had seen this seemingly open-and-shut admission, once again, why didn't he cite it?

*** Is the official admission reported by Newsday true? The national security official I spoke with was unaware of the Newsday story, although he was intensely aware of the whole "affair." He denied any official confirmation concerning Plame's status, covert or otherwise. This is consistent with the approach taken by White House spokesman Scott McClellan in a press briefing yesterday afternoon. Asked whether "the administration deliberatively blew the cover of an undercover CIA operative," he said, "That is not the way this President or this White House operates. And there is absolutely no information that has come to my attention or that I have seen that suggests that there is any truth to that suggestion." Assuming that both McClellan and Newsday are being truthful, then Newsday's "senior intelligence official" source is probably CIA. Several Newsday quotes from the official confirm this, such as "We paid his air fare." Who's the "we" if not CIA?

*** CIA or not, something about this is fishy. For whatever reason, none of the three major newspapers -- the New York Times, the Washington Post, nor the Wall Street Journal -- have yet to report on Plame's covert status, even after Wilson's seeming statement to that effect on NBC Nightly News, the seeming official admission in Newsday, and yesterday's public statements by Democratic senators. The only exception is Krugman's column in the New York Times-- and as I said in the text above, "That's not reporting."

Apparently the Times has learned nothing about fact-checking from the Jayson Blair scandal — or perhaps Krugman longs for the same kind of Pablo Picasso-like "retirement" from the Times that former executive editor Howell Raines told Charlie Rose he intends to enjoy — now that he's been chucked out onto the hard pavement of 43rd Street.

Okay, we're almost there — one sentence to go: "That happens to be a criminal act; it's also definitely unpatriotic." Well, there we have it. It's one thing for Krugman to use every dirty trick in the book to disagree with the policies of the Bush administration (though even there, only an utterly amoral partisan would agree that his end justifies his means). But this is something far worse. He has accused the Bush administration of endangering the life of a "covert operative" by exposing her. He has, in essence, accused the Bush administration of a conspiracy to commit treason.

If that's not what he really means then it is most urgent that a retraction from the New York Times be immediately forthcoming.

*** I suspect that the Times will rely on the seeming official admission in Newsday to justify not making a retraction. And surely this subject will appear in their pages again soon, as well as the pages of the Post and the Journal. My best guess at this time is that it will turn out that Novak's original sources were administration officials simply eager to trivialize Wilson, and themselves trivializing in their own minds any impropriety in revealing Plame's CIA connection. After all, they may well have reasoned, Wilson had "outed" his own CIA connection already by going public with his CIA-sponsored mission. It will probably turn out that Ms. Plame is, indeed, a covert operative of some kind, and that will be further confirmed obliquely by various government sources (but that's not the kind of thing that the CIA is likely to ever admit on official letterhead). In the meantime, we can be sure that the administration's enemies will do all they can to make this whole sorry "affair" as controversial and damaging for the administration as possible.

— Donald Luskin is chief investment officer of Trend Macrolytics LLC, an independent economics and investment-research firm. He welcomes your comments at don@trendmacro.com.

 
 
 

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