J-school deans ignored Plame case facts

Doug MacEachern
Jul. 30, 2006 12:00 AM
Just when my team of therapists had convinced me to (intellectually) let go of Valerie Plame . . . more stuff happens.

It billows up in puffs of purple smoke like yet another nerve-rattling appearance from the Wicked Witch of the West.

In one big poof, a group of four journalism school deans wrote in the Washington Post earlier this month that nearly all of the national-security exposés published, mostly, in the New York Times in recent years are justified. All except one.

“There are situations in which that chance should not be taken,” they wrote. “For instance, there was no justification for columnist Robert D. Novak to have unmasked Valerie Plame as a covert CIA officer.”

I have long argued that journalism is like plumbing. You learn it on the job at the elbow of practicing masters. The anointment of fellows like these J-school deans – all from schools duly identified as “prestigious” in every news story that has published their op-ed – are recommended if you wish to rise high in the ranks of editors. But journalists still learn best by shoveling through muck in the trenches.

This isn’t just old-school whimsy. The good professors themselves provide a classic example of the isolating nature of their ivory towers in their preening treatise on the public’s right to know some things but not others.

As if it is accepted gospel, they identify the former Vanity Fair cover-woman as a “covert” CIA officer.

Since the summer of 2003, Plame’s “covert” status has been the keystone that would lead to Karl Rove’s desperately anticipated frog-march out of the White House.

But after more than two years of investigation, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald abandoned that elementary factoid. He gave up altogether determining what Plame’s status was with the CIA. If not covert, was it “classified”? That latter would seem to be the case. But what did that mean? Fitzgerald decided it was not his job to find out.

But while the prosecutor who has lived and breathed “covert” vs. “classified” vs. “cover girl” for three years could not conclude Plame’s status, four university deans blithely conclude that they know. She was “covert,” and therefore should never have been named in the July 14, 2003, column by Novak.

I will grant you that the Plame story is the most convoluted, intractable partisan story of our era. It is far more complex and murky than Watergate ever was, mostly because the latter built upon a set of facts that few people disputed. More important, no one (except, oh, Richard Nixon) ran from Watergate facts because they proved inconvenient to preconceived conclusions.

The Plame story is different because it comes to news readers from a universe that is impervious to the gamma rays of discovery. That is to say, discovery by people other than mind-reading university professors who know facts that Fitzgerald does not.

A few days ago, for example, I happened across a lengthy report from the Financial Times of London, a not-insubstantial news source.

“The FT has now learnt that three European intelligence services were aware of possible illicit trade in uranium from Niger between 1999 and 2001,” FT reporter Mark Huband wrote. The intelligence those agencies gathered implicated Niger in “possible illicit uranium deals with at least five countries, including Iraq.”

Huband’s report was published over two years ago, on June 28, 2004.

Now, the relevance of such a story is anchored not so much in the Plame Affair as much as in the mother lode controversy that produced the Plame nugget. That would be the famous “16 words” spoken by President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union speech about Saddam Hussein’s pursuit of atom bomb-making materials in Africa, which Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, claimed to have proved were lies.

Alas, we don’t have sufficient space here to go through the (lengthy) litany of Wilson’s own “misspeaking” and bald-faced lies on this and other subjects. Except one.

Wilson himself told two officials from the CIA’s Directorate of Operations on March 5, 2002, that former Nigerien Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki told him of a meeting with an Iraqi delegation in 1999. Wilson told the CIA agents that the former prime minister concluded from the meeting that the Iraqis were seeking “yellowcake” uranium, the only product of value, except goats, produced in Niger. This uncontested fact can be found on Page 43 of the 2004 Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, under the heading “Niger.”

But few journalism school deans appear inclined to look that up. Nor reports in the reputable Financial Times of London that support Wilson’s only honest words about Niger. Not even, for that matter, the honest-if-incomplete conclusions of special prosecutor Fitzgerald.

E-mail doug.maceachern@arizonarepublic.com.

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