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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Wilson and the Conclusion Gap

To address Jonah's post responding to mine:

For some reason, when he comments on my posts, Peter seems to prefer new posts to commenting on the original post.

I have done that in the past when I think the point merits enough attention.

Moreover, my recollection is that the report itself has a number of inaccurate claims in it.

What can I say? I refute an observation you made by citing a report that was signed by every single member of a Senate Committee, both Democrat and Republican, tasked with investigating the claim, and you choose to attack the report with an unsupported “recollection.”

In fact, as I write I believe the Senate is in closed session to debate whether to follow up
that report with a long-promised -- and long-blocked -- report on whether and if so how the Bush administration manipulated pre-war WMD intelligence.

They may revisit the Iraq-Niger intelligence, but who knows? This is mere speculation by Jonah.

So I would hang little on either Schmidt's article or Peter's claims about a highly contested, incomplete-by-design report.

Once again – a unanimous Senate Report attacked by Jonah with no basis provided by him. And to be clear – they were claims in the report, not about the report.

As for the rest of Peter's post, I'll be happy to reply to his "Wilson's claims" stuff once he provides some documentation of these claims. Having just re-read Wilson's original op-ed, I think there is at best limited support for Peter's characterization of these claims.

My couplets came directly from the Senate report, and what he told their investigators versus the committee findings. I never claimed that it was a refutation of the op-ed he wrote for the New York Times. Of course, if Wilson had limited his weighing in on the subject to that one op-ed, neither you nor I would have issue with his being a media hound.

Moreover, consider the statement that Peter describes as "Perhaps most devistating [sic]":

instead of Wilson's report being some kind of bombshell, intelligence community analysts "had a fairly consistent response to the intelligence report based on [Wilson's] trip in that no one believed it added a great deal of new information to the Iraq-Niger uranium story."

Reading this claim, I find myself questioning Peter's commitment either to research or to reporting facts as they are rather than as he might wish them to be.

In describing his report, Wilson writes that "There was nothing secret or earth-shattering in my report, just as there was nothing secret about my trip." Moreover, he writes that "the ambassador told me that she knew about the allegations of uranium sales to Iraq — and that she felt she had already debunked them in her reports to Washington." So Wilson's point never was that he discovered a bombshell, or that no one else had yet come to the same conclusion. Rather it was that his one just piece in an apparently large heap of evidence that the Niger allegations were baseless.

I should have been clearer that I was moving on to a different point. It was not devastating in that Wilson made a claim that his report was a bombshell and it wasn’t. It is devastating because his report was largely irrelevant, and yet he seems to think he is somehow important (going to your media hound observation). Why are we still listening to this man outside the Valerie Plame imbroglio?

But to address Jonah’s point on its own merits. He may claim that in the op-ed that his report was not itself earth-shattering, but he obviously believes it is an important component to his belief that the Administration misled the country in the run-up to war. I think that that statement is a case of false modesty. Of course he thinks that his trip and what he found there puts the lie to the Administration claims. That’s why, for instance, at an Education for Peace in Iraq Center forum on June 14, 2003, he said he was “pissed off” and had “every intention of ensuring that this story has legs.” Why him to take up the charge, except that he can be the standard bearer in the quest for truth? As Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard observed, “Wilson’s charge – and one of the reasons it survives today – was not merely that his analysis differed from that of other analysts or even of Bush administration policymakers. His charge is more specific and not coincidentally more damning: The reason he was courted to write an op-ed for the New York Times and appear on Meet the Press was not that his analysis of the Niger intelligence differed from that of the CIA or of Bush administration policymakers. No, Wilson was given those platforms because he was the man with the proof. Joseph Wilson alone, in his telling, could demonstrate that the Bush administration deceived the country to go to war.”

Peter concludes thusly:

Bottom line? What Wilson claims to have found is at variance with what he reported he found, what he reported he found was not at all groundbreaking, and what new information he did report simply bolstered the intelligence community's then-current views. Ouch.

Based on the op-ed, anyway, Peter's wrong on his first claim,

Since I never limited myself to the op-ed, that’s a fatuous observation. Read the report.

and the second claim is precisely what Wilson said in the op-ed.

Again, I had moved on to a different point. The point is, why are we even listening to him? But even taking Jonah’s point at face value, the last person to really believe that Joe Wilson wasn’t adding something to the discussion is Joe Wilson, his one comment in his op-ed notwithstanding.

On the third point: it, too, is consistent with Wilson's op-ed's reference to the Ambassador's views, and nowhere in the op-ed does he describe his findings as somehow challenging to the intelligence community's existing beliefs.

For the reasons set forth immediately below, it is clear that Wilson was challenging the intelligence community’s existing beliefs, unless you are saying that Wilson’s op-ed supports the contention that there may have been an Iraq-Niger uranium connection.

Frankly, I am puzzled that a person as smart as Peter

thank you

could find it devastating that the report of a man who describes a report as containing "nothing secret or earth-shattering" would later be described by intelligence community analysts as not "adding a great deal of new information".

To the extent that Wilson’s report had any impact, it was to buttress the belief that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger. That point bears repeating: The impact of Wilson’s report was to support the original reporting that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger.

Gee, do you think that’s Wilson’s take-away from his trip? That to the extent his trip was of interest at all, it was to bolster the Administration’s claim that there was an Iraq-Niger uranium connection? Would that go to the truth of Wilson’s underlying claims – or more importantly to his underlying conclusions?

On what basis do I make the above contention with regard to the impact of his report? Because Wilson reported that former Nigerian prime minister Ibrahim Mayaki told him that in 1999 an Iraqi delegation had visited Niger in 1999 to explore “expanding commercial relations” between Iraq and Niger, and Mayaki had concluded that their request for enhanced trade meant that they wanted to discuss purchasing uranium. This was viewed by analysts as supporting the claim that Iraq had sough uranium from Niger.

Let’s recall the context of why this all became an issue – those 16 words in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech. Bush claimed in his speech that “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Wilson and others claim that this statement helped mislead the country into war that the intelligence of an Iraq-Niger connection had been refuted, and Bush misleadingly cited the British government in an effort to circumvent the fact that the U.S. government could no longer support the contention through its own intelligence. Correct me if I’m wrong, Jonah, is there any other reason we should care about Wilson’s trip in the larger context?

Why did Bush source the British government? According to Stephen Hayes, it was because the CIA was concerned about potentially compromising sources and methods by disclosing the Iraq-Africa connection that they had developed (and which Wilson’s report buttressed). “To ease the CIA’s anxiety about sources and methods, [Bob] Joseph [of the NSC] passed on a suggestion from the White House communications office: Source the reporting to the British because their government had already made the argument publicly in the white paper it had issued some five months earlier. Importantly, the CIA never objected to including the Iraq-Africa language in the State of the Union on the grounds that the information was not reliable.” (Emphasis added). While the State of the Union was the first time this line was uttered by Bush, the CIA had numerous opportunities in reviewing draft Bush speeches to object to this or similar language, but failed to do so, the reason being that the CIA believed it to be true notwithstanding the conclusions Wilson drew from his trip.

So where does this leave us with Wilson? Leave aside what he told the Senate committee, and instead like Jonah let’s look at his op-ed entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” Wilson says:

“It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that [the Iraq-Niger uranium transaction had ever taken place.” Jonah can quibble that, since he was expressing his personal conclusions, his underlying claim was true. My belief is that, since the Intelligence Community from his report concluded the opposite, as confirmed by a unanimous bipartisan Senate committee report, his claims are on the wrong side of the truth.

Wilson admits to only two possibilities: his information was deemed inaccurate, or it was ignored because it did not fit certain preconceptions about Iraq, in which case “a legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses.” There seems to be a third possibility – that the information he provided additional evidence of a connection even though Wilson himself didn’t see it that way.

Personally, I think Peter's last post is embarrassing to him both in its failure to provide any sourcing for the claims attributed to Wilson and in its mischaracterization of the basics of Wilson's contentions. Perhaps Wilson has made other claims to the contrary of his written ones, but then Peter ought to present those claims and explain why they are contrary to the plain words of the original op-ed.

To address Jonah’s substantive remark, of course, again, I did source the claims – directly from the Senate report. It seems clear to me that throughout this entire diatribe against my post, Jonah has not even bothered to read the pertinent section of the Senate report. Instead, he breezily dismisses it because of what another blogger has written.


Blogger Jonah B. Gelbach said...

first, nowhere in your previous post do you say that your descriptions of "wilson's claims" come from the senate report, rather than, say, your misconceptions of what he has said (should they be misconceptions) or susan schmidt's characterizations. i don't think it was unreasonable of me to say what i did about sourcing.

second, you breezily (to use your own word) dismiss joe wilson's explicit statement that he does not regard his role as providing bombshell-level (or even necessarily important) new evidence to the intel community. you do so on the grounds that surely he must have thought his role important since he wrote the op-ed. but you seem to neglect the fact that the tenuous basis of the niger story and the 16 words had not in fact been made public, except through some relatively veiled references to wilson's role, up to july 2003. thus you neglect the rather obvious possiblity that the INTEL COMMUNITY learned nothing important from Wilson, but that the PUBLIC did. The fact that his own findings, as he very clearly states in the op-ed, were consistent with what was believed at the time just underscores this point. The story wasn't that Joe Wilson didn't findd what he didn't find in Africa, but rather that what he didn't find in Africa was known not to have been found. Hence the importance of his role --- TELLING PEOPLE THE INFO THAT THE BUSHIES WOULD NOT. this is not a complicated idea. your refusal to admit that you mischaracterized the nature of his claims -- on the grounds that you know he meant not-X when he said X -- is no less puzzling than your initial mischaracterization.

third, i have read the part of the senate intel report that concerns wilson. it characterizes wilson and his role in a generally poor light. i do not know if that characterization is apt or whether it is as off the mark as your assertions about wilson making "bombshell" claims. i do know that wilson himself wrote a very long and detailed letter to Pat Roberts and Jay Rockefeller (chair and ranking member of the Senate IC, respectively) contesting precisely the SIC report's characterizations of his actions and role. You can read that letter at this site. I don't know what really happened, but I do know that these matters are contested. on that score, your breezy dismissal of my noting regarding the disputes does nothing to buttress your position.

regarding my "mere speculation" about the results of the senate's closed session, my point was simply that the SIC report was not -- and was never intended to be -- dispositive concerning the administration's misuse of intelligence, including the niger matter. it's odd that you would focus on this point. as for the SIC report, i hardly "attacked" it. i pointed out a fact, that its conclusions are contested and that it was incomplete by design. you haven't even argued that i'm wrong on either point. again, puzzling.

on your bolded claim, that wilson's report supported the admin's case, i have three replies. first, even if your characterization is correct (and again, i do not know if it is or not), that sure is a thin reed of "support" for the 16 words (consider "recently", for example). second, wilson's letter to roberts and rockefeller disputes that claim. third, if the claim was ok, why did the admin withdraw it the day after wilson's op-ed? sure, you could say his claim supported an otherwise mistaken claim, but (notwithstanding your hand-waving) his op-ed itself makes the point that others already had concluded the allegation was baseless.

at the end of the day, you've still mischaracterized what wilson said. moreover, you criticize me for relying on what "a blogger" writes, yet you cite stephen hayes---hardly a paragon of objective commentary---to make some of your case. lastly, you don't actually source your descriptions "directly from the Senate report" (as opposed, say, to schmidt's article).

my reply was not a diatribe. it was a simple statement of disappointment that you chose to make counter-factual claims in criticizing my own (accurate, I think) description of the indictment.

11/02/2005 5:43 PM  

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