Weekly Standard Editorial by Barnes Lists 'Plamegate Hall of Shame' Featuring the Press

The editorial in the September 11 edition of The Weekly Standard, written by Fred Barnes and posted on Saturday, contended now that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, not part of the pro-Iraq war White House cabal, has been identified as who told Bob Woodward and Bob Novak about how Joe Wilson was married to a CIA staffer, “the hoax lingered for three years and is only now being fully exposed for what it was.” Barnes asserted “the rogues' gallery of those who acted badly in the CIA 'leak' case turns out to be different from what the media led us to expect. Note that we put the word 'leak' in quotation marks, because it's clear now there was no leak at all, just idle talk, and certainly no smear campaign.” Barnes suggested “a few apologies are called for, notably by [Colin] Powell and Armitage, but also by the press. A correction -- perhaps the longest and most overdue in the history of journalism -- is in order.”

Barnes recited the misdeeds of Armitage, Powell, Patrick Fitzgerald, the Ashcroft Justice Department and Joseph Wilson before getting to his main target, the media, “especially” the Washington Post and New York Times, which “relied heavily on Wilson's reckless and unfounded charges to wage journalistic jihad against the White House and Bush political adviser Karl Rove. Reporters and columnists, based on little more than Joe Wilson's harrumphing, bought the line that the White House 'leaked' Plame's name to discredit her husband.” Barnes argued that “the Plamegate Hall of Shame consists of favorites of the Washington elite and the mainstream press. The reaction, therefore, has been zero outrage and minimal coverage. The appropriate step for the press would be to investigate and then report in detail how it got the story so wrong.”

Barnes also laid out his case during the panel session on Friday's Special Report with Brit Hume on FNC.

[UPDATE, 3:30pm EDT Sunday: Fox News Sunday, unlike ABC's This Week, devoted a panel segment to the collapse of Plamegate and Brit Hume echoed Barnes' condemnation of “leading members of the news media who continued to take Joe Wilson's charges seriously, even after they had been discredited by the Senate intelligence committee and others, and who have stayed on this story believing there was something there all this time until now.”]

Last week, in a September 4 Newsweek article, “The Man Who Said Too Much,” Michael Isikoff, recounting what he and co-author David Corn of the far-left The Nation magazine wrote in their new book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, reported:
“[T]he initial leak, seized on by administration critics as evidence of how far the White House was willing to go to smear an opponent, came from a man who had no apparent intention of harming anyone. Indeed, Armitage was a member of the administration's small moderate wing. Along with his boss and good friend, Powell, he had deep misgivings about President George W. Bush's march to war.”
A Friday Washington Post editorial, “End of an Affair: It turns out that the person who exposed CIA agent Valerie Plame was not out to punish her husband,” decided that “one of the most sensational charges leveled against the Bush White House -- that it orchestrated the leak of Ms. Plame's identity to ruin her career and thus punish Mr. Wilson -- is untrue.”

The Post concluded:
“[I]t now appears that the person most responsible for the end of Ms. Plame's CIA career is Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson chose to go public with an explosive charge, claiming -- falsely, as it turned out -- that he had debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger and that his report had circulated to senior administration officials. He ought to have expected that both those officials and journalists such as Mr. Novak would ask why a retired ambassador would have been sent on such a mission and that the answer would point to his wife. He diverted responsibility from himself and his false charges by claiming that President Bush's closest aides had engaged in an illegal conspiracy. It's unfortunate that so many people took him seriously.”
The editorial in the September 11 Weekly Standard was signed “Fred Barnes, for the editors,” and titled, “The Plamegate Hall of Shame: Instead of Cheney or Rove or Libby, the real culprits are favorites of the Washington elite and the mainstream press.” An excerpt -- the opening paragraph and then Barnes' take on the media, skipping over his critique of the other players:
The rogues' gallery of those who acted badly in the CIA "leak" case turns out to be different from what the media led us to expect. Note that we put the word "leak" in quotation marks, because it's clear now there was no leak at all, just idle talk, and certainly no smear campaign against Joseph Wilson for criticizing President Bush's Iraq policy. It's as if a giant hoax were perpetrated on the country--by the media, by partisan opponents of the Bush administration, even by several Bush subordinates who betrayed the president and their White House colleagues. The hoax lingered for three years and is only now being fully exposed for what it was....

The media -- especially the Washington Post and New York Times -- relied heavily on Wilson's reckless and unfounded charges to wage journalistic jihad against the White House and Bush political adviser Karl Rove. Reporters and columnists, based on little more than Joe Wilson's harrumphing, bought the line that the White House "leaked" Plame's name to discredit her husband. In an editorial last January, the New York Times said the issue in the case "was whether the White House was using this information in an attempt to silence Mrs. Wilson's husband, a critic of the Iraq invasion, and in doing so violated a federal law against unmasking a covert operative." The paper's answer was yes.

So instead of Cheney or Rove or Libby, the perennial targets of media wrath, the Plamegate Hall of Shame consists of favorites of the Washington elite and the mainstream press. The reaction, therefore, has been zero outrage and minimal coverage. The appropriate step for the press would be to investigate and then report in detail how it got the story so wrong, just as the New York Times and other media did when they reported incorrectly that WMD were in Saddam's arsenal in Iraq. Don't hold your breath for this.

Not everyone got the story wrong. The Senate Intelligence Committee questioned Wilson under oath. It found that, contrary to his claims, his wife had indeed arranged for the CIA to send him to Niger in 2002. It found that his findings had not, contrary to Wilson's claim, circulated at the highest levels of the administration. And Bush's 16 words in the State of the Union to the effect that British intelligence believed Saddam had sought uranium in Africa -- words Wilson insisted were fictitious -- had been twice confirmed as true by none other than the British government.

Worse, Wilson failed in the single reason for his trip to Niger: to ferret out the truth about whether Iraq had sought uranium there. Wilson said no, dismissing a visit by Iraqis in 1999. But journalist Christopher Hitchens learned the trade mission was led by an important Iraqi nuclear diplomat. And uranium, of course, was the only thing Niger had to trade.

The fascination in Washington with the idea of a White House conspiracy to ruin Plame's career and punish Wilson never made sense. If there had been one, it had to be the most passive conspiracy in history. The suspected mastermind was Rove, the Bush political adviser. But all Rove did was to acknowledge off-handedly to two reporters that he'd heard that Wilson's wife, whose name he didn't know, was a CIA employee. And the two reporters were more likely to agree with Wilson about the war in Iraq than with the Bush administration. The conspiracy charge, the Post rightly concluded, was "untrue."

A few diehards in the media have tried to keep the conspiracy notion alive. Michael Isikoff of Newsweek asserts that what Armitage did and what Rove did were separate, and thus a White House smear campaign could still have gone on. Yes, but it didn't. Jeff Greenfield of CNN recalled a Post story in September 2003 that said "two top White House officials" had contacted six reporters "and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson's wife." But the Post itself has in effect repudiated this dubious story.

What's left to do? Fitzgerald, in decency, should terminate his probe immediately. And he should abandon the perjury prosecution of Libby, the former Cheney aide. Libby's foggy memory was no worse than that of Armitage, who forgot for two years to tell Fitzgerald he'd talked to the Post's Woodward but isn't being prosecuted. Last but not least, a few apologies are called for, notably by Powell and Armitage, but also by the press. A correction -- perhaps the longest and most overdue in the history of journalism -- is in order.

On Saturday, the New York Times ran a story on the subject, “New Questions About Inquiry in C.I.A. Leak.” Reporter David Johnston led:
“An enduring mystery of the C.I.A. leak case has been solved in recent days, but with a new twist: Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the prosecutor, knew the identity of the leaker from his very first day in the special counsel's chair, but kept the inquiry open for nearly two more years before indicting I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, on obstruction charges.

“Now, the question of whether Mr. Fitzgerald properly exercised his prosecutorial discretion in continuing to pursue possible wrongdoing in the case has become the subject of rich debate on editorial pages and in legal and political circles.

“Richard L. Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state, first told the authorities in October 2003 that he had been the primary source for the July 14, 2003, column by Robert D. Novak that identified Valerie Wilson as a C.I.A. operative and set off the leak investigation.

“Mr. Fitzgerald’s decision to prolong the inquiry once he took over as special prosecutor in December 2003 had significant political and legal consequences. The inquiry seriously embarrassed and distracted the Bush White House for nearly two years and resulted in five felony charges against Mr. Libby, even as Mr. Fitzgerald decided not to charge Mr. Armitage or anyone else with crimes related to the leak itself.”
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center