American journalism, ‘dirty tricks’ and political skulduggery

ONE of the troubles with political journalism, especially American political journalism, is that its attention span is so short. A story is front-page news today, but by tomorrow the media spotlight has moved on and the story disappears.

By Phillip Knightley

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Fri 4 Nov 2005, 10:39 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 6:51 PM

Or some minor aspect of it catches the journalists’ imagination and the main thrust of the story is overlooked and then forgotten. Take as an example what has happened with the scandal now obsessing Washington, the grand jury indictment of Scooter Libby, formerly chief of staff to vice-president Dick Cheney.

The jury has decided that Libby has a case to answer to the charge that he leaked to the American media the name of an undercover CIA agent, Valerie Plame, an offence in American law. It is alleged that Libby did so in order to punish Plame’s husband, the former US ambassador to Iraq, Joseph Wilson IV.

The CIA had sent Wilson to Niger to investigate allegations that Saddam Hussein had been trying to buy uranium for Iraq’s nuclear bomb programme. Wilson could find no such evidence and this is what he reported. The allegation is that this annoyed the Bush administration which was using the claim as part of its justification for a war against Iraq. When Wilson heard Bush continuing to use the Niger story in his weapons of mass destruction rhetoric, Wilson went public and revealed his findings in an article in the New York Times.

The leak about Plame’s CIA undercover status quickly followed. Here was an interesting piece of political skulduggery, a brilliant example of Bush’s warning, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us”, in action. But then, the story got side-tracked. The special prosecutor investigating who had leaked Plame’s identify asked two journalists who had told them about Plame. Both at first refused to answer arguing that they had a right to protect their source’s identity.

One of the journalists, from Time magazine, changed his mind and alleged it was Libby. The other, the controversial New York Times journalist, Judith Miller, who had backed the government’s accusation in the run-up top the war that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, held out and went to jail before agreeing to testify. She too said her source for the ‘outing’ of Plame was Libby. All this has occupied columns and columns of space in newspapers around the world and obscured the real questions. What evidence was there in the first place that Saddam was seeking uranium from Niger? Where did it come from? Why was Wilson so adamant that the evidence was not true? And why was the Bush administration so upset that he said so?

The facts first and then a little informed supposition. Iraq had no need to import uranium from Niger because there was already 500 tonnes of it sitting in barrels in storage in Baghdad. A telephone call to the International Atomic Energy Authority was all that was needed to confirm this.

The 500 tonnes were useless for atomic weapons because it was the wrong sort of uranium — as any atomic physicist knows — and Iraq did not have the means to refine it and turn it into weapons uranium. Why then did the Bush administration believe that Saddam was seeking more uranium from Niger? Because British intelligence, French intelligence, and the Senate Select Intelligence Committee all thought he was.

British intelligence has since agreed that its source for this was Italian intelligence and we can speculate that Italy was also the source for the other services. Italy is officially saying nothing, but Italian investigative reporters have been writing stories alleging that someone planted in the files of Italian intelligence reports saying that Saddam was after uranium from Niger. Who would do that?

The suspicion — and it is only that until the American media gets back to doing its job — is that it was a ‘dirty tricks’ operation to justify invading Iraq so as stop Saddam Hussein developing an atomic weapon of mass destruction. By planting fake ‘evidence’ with Italian intelligence and then ensuring that this was passed to other intelligence services, the American case for war was strengthened.

The CIA, to its credit, was not convinced and sent Wilson to investigate. His report rubbishing the story, blew away a major part of the case for invasion. Who masterminded the dirty trick? At the moment, no one knows. But if it turns out that it was someone in Cheney’s office, then Cheney himself would be at risk. It’s time to drop the diversions, like a journalist’s right to protect sources, and get back to the main story.

More news from