Friday, February 03, 2006
The information provided to Bush occurred in the form of one of the “President’s Daily Briefs,” a typically 30-to 45-minute early-morning national security briefing. They are a compiliation of that day's most closely held and highly classified intelligence-- and written specifically for the "First Customer", meaning the President of the United States. Information for PDBs has routinely been derived from electronic intercepts, human agents, and reports from foreign intelligence services.
The information about Bush having been briefed about Wilson’s mission to Niger is contained in court papers filed in federal court. Attorneys for I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, President Bush’s former chief of staff and national security advisors, were seeking information about presidential PDBs from the special prosecutor, as part of a discovery effort to defend their client.
Libby was forced to resign his White House positions last Oct. 28, after he was indicted by a federal grand jury on five counts of making false statements, perjury, and obstruction of justice, for outing Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, as an undercover CIA officer. The indictment alleged that Libby provided information to a reporter about Plame’s CIA employment because in an effort to retaliate against her husband for criticizing the Bush administration’s use of intelligence during the run up to war in Iraq.
Libby appeared this morning in federal court, during which the trial judge, Federal District Judge Reggie B. Walton, set a trial date for Jan.8, 2007. Walton wanted to try the case this next September—which could have had political consequences had Libby been tried so close to the 2006 mid-term congressional elections. But one of Libby’s attorneys, Theodore Wells, says that he was going to be tied up with another case.
In court papers made public late last week, Fitzgerald revealed that there was information regarding Wilson’s mission to Niger contained in at least one PDB, or possibly more, although the special prosecutor provided no specifics of the specific intelligence information that was contained in the ordinarily highly classified briefing materials.
In a letter that Fitzgerald sent Libby’s attorneys on January 9, 2006, and filed in federal court late last week, Fitzgerald wrote: “As you are well aware, the documents referred to as Presidential Daily Briefs (“PDBs”) are extraordinarily sensitive documents which are usually highly classified. We have never requested copies of any PDBs. However, we did ask for relevant documents relating to Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife; Valerie Plame Wilson... and the trip undertaken by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger in 2002... from the Executive Branch of the President and the Office of the Vice President.
“We also sought from the Central Intelligence Agency documents relating to the same item.... relating to the same items, with the exception that the CIA was not requested to produce documents in the files regarding Valerie Plame and Wilson that were not related directly or indirectly to Ambassador Wilson’s travel to Niger in February 2002.
“In response to our requests, we have received a very discrete amount of material relating to PDBs. We have provided to Mr. Libby and his counsel (or are in the process of providing such documents consistent with the process of a declassification review) copies of any pages in our possession reflecting discussions with Joseph Wilson, Valerie Wilson and/or Wilson’s trip to Niger contained in (or written on) copies of the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) in the redacted form in which we received them.”
An attorney representing Libby did not return a phone call from reporters seeking comment regarding their discovery request. A White House spokesperson said they would have no comment because Fitzgerald’s criminal investigation is still an ongoing matter.
Although Fitzgerald did not provide any information as to what President Bush might have been told during his morning intelligence briefing about Wilson’s Niger mission, what is told the President is often similar or parallel to what is provided to Vice President Cheney during his own intelligence briefings. Information contained in PDBs also areoften times similar to that in a highly classified intelligence report known as a Senior Executive Intelligence Brief, or SEIB. Those reports are provided to the Vice President, National Security Council, cabinet Secretaries, and other senior national advisers to the President.
On October 18, 2001, only five weeks after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the CIA circulated a particularly alarming intelligence SEIB raising the specter that Iraq was attempting to covertly uranium from the African nation of Niger to build an atomic weapon.
“According to a foreign government service,” said the report, “Niger as of early this year planned to send several tones of uranium to Iraq under an agreement concluded late this year. Iraq and Niger have been negotiating the shipment since at least 1999, but the state court of Niger only this year approved of it, according to the service."
The report also included this particularly chilling prospect: “The quality of yellowcake to be transferred could support the enrichment of enough uranium for at least one nuclear weapon.”
It is doubtful that this was the information that was told to the President during his morning briefing, however, because Wilson had not yet ventured to Niger on behalf of the CIA.
A much more likely possibility is that Bush, like Vice President Cheney, was told in late June, 2003, that the CIA no longer considered “credible” allegations that Saddam Hussein had attempted to have ever procured uranium from Niger or any other African nation in an attempt to build a nuclear weapon.
As my National Journal story first disclosed yesterday, then-CIA director George Tenet received a highly classified memo on June 17, 2003, on the Niger matter from his analysts warning that allegations that Saddam Hussein had attempted to procure uranium from the African nation were to no longer to be believed.
In the memo, the CIA analysts wrote: "Since learning that the Iraqi-Niger uranium deal was based on false documents earlier this spring, we no longer believe that there is sufficient other reporting to conclude that Iraq purchased uranium from abroad."
The memo also related that there had been other, earlier claims that Saddam's regime had attempted to purchase uranium from private interests in Somalia and Benin; these claims predated the Niger allegations. It was that past intelligence that had led CIA analysts, in part, to consider the Niger claims as plausible. But the memo said that after a thorough review of those earlier reports, the CIA had concluded that they were no longer credible. Indeed, the previous intelligence reports citing those claims had long since been "recalled" -- meaning that the CIA had formally repudiated them.
Within days after Tenet received the memo, the CIA provided the information contained in it to both Cheney and Libby in briefings on the matter. The congressional Senate and House Intelligence Committees received similar briefings on June 18 and June 19, 2003, according to government records.
Two senior government officials suggested that it was likely that Bush would have also been similarly briefed, because Cheney, Libby, Tenet, and the Senate and House Senate committees had been at the time, and also because the issue of Wilson’s trip to Niger was being discussed in the media and Capitol Hill. Said one official: “It would have just made sense, that this was have recycled to the President too... There is a lot of similarity as to what the President and Vice President are briefed about.”
Despite having been briefed on the CIA’s findings, Cheney continued to defend the Niger allegations as possibly still credible. Appearing on Meet the Press on Sept. 14, 2003, at least two and half months after having been told of the CIA’s new conclusions, Cheney said: “[O]n the whole thing, the question of whether or not the Iraqis were trying to acquire uranium in Africa—In the British report, this week, the Committee of the British Parliament, which just spent 90 days investigating all of this, revalidated their claim that Saddam was, in fact, trying to acquire uranium in Africa. What was in the State of the Union speech and what was in the original British White papers. So there may be difference of opinion there. I don’t know what the truth is on the ground with respect to that.”
Meanwhile, Dan Froomkin this afternoon has more on everything Plame and Libby.
Thursday, February 02, 2006
Information to be reviewed during the President's morning briefings are written up in what is known as Presidential Daily Briefs, or PDBs. Attorneys for I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, are demanding copies of any PDBs that CIA leak special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald might have obtained during the course of his investigation.
In a January 9, 2006 response to the discovery demand, Fitzgerald wrote back:
“As you no doubt well aware, the documents referred to as Presidential Daily Briefs (“PDBs”) are extraordinarily sensitive documents which are usually highly classified. We have never requested copies of any PDBs. However, we did ask for relevant documents relating to Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife; Valerie Plame Wilson... and the trip undertaken by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger in 2002 (even if the items/documents themselves did not refer to Wilson by name) from the Executive Branch of the President and the Office of the Vice President.
“We also sought from the Central Intelligence Agency documents relating to the same items, with the exception that the CIA was no requested to produce documents relating to the same items, with the exception that the CIA was not requested to produce documents in its files regarding Valerie Plame Wilson that were not related directly or indirectly to Ambassador Wilson’s travel to Niger in February 2002.
“In response to our requests, we have received a very discrete amount of material relating to PDBs. We have provided to Mr. Libby and his counsel (or are in the process of providing such documents consistent with the process of a declassification review) copies of any pages in our possession reflecting discussions of Joseph Wilson, Valerie Wilson and/or Wilson’s trip to Niger contained in (or written on) copies of the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) in the redacted form in which we received them.”
One can click here to read a full set of the correspondence, which has been posted online, courstesy of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy.
Expect the issue of the PDBs to be a point of contention this morning during Libby's appearance in federal court today regarding discovery issues between the prosecuction and defense.
Here is my lede:
Vice President Cheney and his then-Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby were personally informed in June 2003 that the CIA no longer considered credible the allegations that Saddam Hussein had attempted to procure uranium from the African nation of Niger, according to government records and interviews with current and former officials.The new CIA assessment came just as Libby and other senior administration officials were embarking on an effort to discredit an administration critic who had also been saying that the allegations were untrue.
CIA analysts wrote then-CIA Director George Tenet in a highly classified memo on June 17, 2003, “We no longer believe there is sufficient” credible information to “conclude that Iraq pursued uranium from abroad.“...
Despite the CIA’s findings, Libby attempted to discredit former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had been sent on a CIA-sponsored mission to Niger the previous year to investigate the claims, which he concluded were baseless...
To read the entire article, click here.
What is the significance of the previously unreported CIA assessment? First, virtually the entirety of the effort to discredit Wilson—which resulted in the outing of his wife, Valerie Plame, as a covert CIA officer, occurred after Cheney and Libby were briefed that Wilson was essentially correct, and that there was nothing to the Niger allegations.
Second, the new disclousre is also likely to have an impact on Libby’s faulty memory defense during his trial. As this excerpt from my story explains:
Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University, said, "The prosecutor's implicit inference before the jury may well likely be that Libby lied to protect the vice president. Even in a plain vanilla case, a prosecutor always wants to be able to demonstrate a motive."
That Cheney was one of the first people to tell Libby about Plame, and that Libby had written in his notes that Cheney had heard the information from the CIA director, Gillers said, might make it more difficult for Libby to mount a credible defense of a faulty memory. "From a prosecutor's point of view, and perhaps a jury's as well, the conversation [during which Libby learned about Plame] is the more dramatic and the more memorable because the conversation was with the vice president" and because the CIA director's name also came up, Gillers said.
The disclosure that Cheney and Libby were told of a CIA assessment that the agency considered the Niger allegations to be untrue, and that Tenet requested the assessment as a result of the personal interest of Cheney and Libby, would "demonstrate even further that Niger was a central issue for Libby," said Gillers, and would "make it even harder, although not impossible, to claim a faulty memory."
And thirdly, the new information is perhaps most important in comparing statements by Cheney and other administration officials said publicly about Niger and other Bush administration officials regarding prewar intelligence with what they were being told in private by the CIA.
Judd Legum at Think Progress had this post last night, referencing Cheney's statements regarding Niger on Meet the Press on Sept. 14, 2003-- almost three months after he was apprised of the CIA's findings. At this blog, our motto is you click, you decide!
Here is an even longer excerpt of what Cheney said on Meet the Press:
“[O]n the whole thing, the question of whether or not the Iraqis were trying to acquire uranium in Africa—In the British report, this week, the Committee of the British Parliament, which just spent 90 days investigating all of this, revalidated their claim that Saddam was, in fact, trying to acquire uranium in Africa. What was in the State of the Union speech and what was in the original British White papers. So there may be difference of opinion there. I don’t know what the truth is on the ground with respect to that” [emphasis added.]"
Finally, regarding those lost email records, I recommend this post by Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy.
Sunday, January 29, 2006
Probably the worst that would happen to me is that I would be ordered to take some remedial courses at night with a bunch of fiteeen year old girls who were caught illegally downloading Napster. And then, a la James Frey, I can tell all my friends that I did 85 days of hard time, and was visited by John Bolton everyday-- and then sell the book rights to Nan "The Essential Truth" Talese.
(No emails: I know that the Napster cultural reference is woefully out of date, that Napster is now a legitimate business, in partnership with the record industry... and that some other renegade service has replaced Napster or what-not... but I never claimed that this blog was written by some type of hipster or anything. This blog is very uncool.)
I am going to blog some comments about this column later.... In the meantime, I recommend you read what Timothy Karr has to say.
Ted Koppel: And Now, a Word for Our Demographic
Special to the New York Times and (also) Whatever Already!
NOT all reporters have an unfinished novel gathering dust but many, including this one, do. If that isn't enough of a cliche, this novel's hero is a television anchor (always plant your pen in familiar turf) who, in the course of a minor traffic accident, bites the tip off his tongue. The ensuing speech impediment is sufficient to end his on-air career and he finds himself, recently divorced, now unemployed, at home and watching altogether too much television.
After several weeks of isolation he discovers on his voice mail a message from an old friend, the opinion-page editor of his hometown newspaper. She is urging him to write a piece about television news, which, after some hesitation, he does -- with a vengeance:
The earls and dukes and barons of television news have grown sleek and fat eating road kill. The victims, dispatched by political or special interest hit-and-run squads, are then hung up, displayed and consumed with unwholesome relish on television.
They wander the battlefields of other people's wars, these knights of the airwaves, disposing of the wounded from both armies, gorging themselves like the electronic vultures they are.
The popular illusion that television journalists are liberals does them too much honor. Like all mercenaries they fight for money, not ideology; but unlike true mercenaries, their loyalty is not for sale. It cannot be engaged because it does not exist. Their total lack of commitment to any cause has come to be defined as objectivity. Their daily preoccupation with the trivial and the banal has accumulated large audiences, which, in turn, has encouraged a descent into the search for items of even greater banality.
A wounded and bitter fellow, this fictional hero of mine, but his bilious arguments hardly seem all that dated. Now here I sit, having recently left ABC News after 42 years, and who should call but an editor friend of mine who, in a quirky convolution of real life's imitating unpublished fiction, has asked me to write this column examining the state of television news today.
Where to begin? Confession of the obvious seems like a reasonable starting point: I have become well known and well-off traveling the world on ABC's dime, charged only with ensuring that our viewers be well informed about important issues. For the better part of those 42 years, this arrangement worked to our mutual benefit and satisfaction. At the same time, I cannot help but see that the industry in which I have spent my entire adult life is in decline and in distress.
Once, 30 or 40 years ago, the target audience for network news was made up of everyone with a television, and the most common criticism lodged against us was that we were tempted to operate on a lowest-common-denominator basis.
This, however, was in the days before deregulation, when the Federal Communications Commission was still perceived to have teeth, and its mandate that broadcasters operate in ''the public interest, convenience and necessity'' was enough to give each licensee pause.
Network owners nurtured their news divisions, encouraged them to tackle serious issues, cultivated them as shields to be brandished before Congressional committees whenever questions were raised about the quality of entertainment programs and the vast sums earned by those programs. News divisions occasionally came under political pressures but rarely commercial ones. The expectation was that they would search out issues of importance, sift out the trivial and then tell the public what it needed to know.
With the advent of cable, satellite and broadband technology, today's marketplace has become so overcrowded that network news divisions are increasingly vulnerable to the dictatorship of the demographic. Now, every division of every network is expected to make a profit. And so we have entered the age of boutique journalism. The goal for the traditional broadcast networks now is to identify those segments of the audience considered most desirable by the advertising community and then to cater to them.
Most television news programs are therefore designed to satisfy the perceived appetites of our audiences. That may be not only acceptable but unavoidable in entertainment; in news, however, it is the journalists who should be telling their viewers what is important, not the other way around.
Indeed, in television news these days, the programs are being shaped to attract, most particularly, 18-to-34-year-old viewers. They, in turn, are presumed to be partly brain-dead -- though not so insensible as to be unmoved by the blandishments of sponsors.
Exceptions, it should be noted, remain. Thus it is that the evening news broadcasts of ABC, CBS and NBC are liberally studded with advertisements that clearly cater to older Americans. But this is a holdover from another era: the last gathering of more than 30 million tribal elders, as they clench their dentures while struggling to control esophageal eruptions of stomach acid to watch ''The News.'' That number still commands respect, but even the evening news programs, you will find (after the first block of headline material), are struggling to find a new format that will somehow appeal to younger viewers.
Washington news, for example, is covered with less and less enthusiasm and aggressiveness. The networks' foreign bureaus have, for some years now, been seen as too expensive to merit survival. Judged on the frequency with which their reports get airtime, they can no longer be deemed cost-effective. Most have either been closed or reduced in size to the point of irrelevance.
Simply stated, no audience is perceived to be clamoring for foreign news, the exceptions being wars in their early months that involve American troops, acts of terrorism and, for a couple of weeks or so, natural disasters of truly epic proportions.
You will still see foreign stories on the evening news broadcasts, but examine them carefully.
They are either reported by one of a half-dozen or so remaining foreign correspondents who now cover the world for each network, or the anchor simply narrates a piece of videotape shot by some other news agency. For big events, an anchor might parachute in for a couple of days of high drama coverage. But the age of the foreign correspondent, who knew a country or region intimately, is long over.
No television news executive is likely to acknowledge indifference to major events overseas or in our nation's capital, but he may, on occasion, concede that the viewers don't care, and therein lies the essential malignancy.
The accusation that television news has a political agenda misses the point. Right now, the main agenda is to give people what they want. It is not partisanship but profitability that shapes what you see.
Most particularly on cable news, a calculated subjectivity has, indeed, displaced the old-fashioned goal of conveying the news dispassionately. But that, too, has less to do with partisan politics than simple capitalism. Thus, one cable network experiments with the subjectivity of tender engagement: ''I care and therefore you should care.'' Another opts for chest-thumping certitude: ''I know and therefore you should care.''
Even Fox News's product has less to do with ideology and more to do with changing business models. Fox has succeeded financially because it tapped into a deep, rich vein of unfulfilled yearning among conservative American television viewers, but it created programming to satisfy the market, not the other way around. CNN, meanwhile, finds itself largely outmaneuvered, unwilling to accept the label of liberal alternative, experimenting instead with a form of journalism that stresses empathy over detachment.
Now, television news should not become a sort of intellectual broccoli to be jammed down our viewers' unwilling throats. We are obliged to make our offerings as palatable as possible. But there are too many important things happening in the world today to allow the diet to be determined to such a degree by the popular tastes of a relatively narrow and apparently uninterested demographic.
What is, ultimately, most confusing about the behavior of the big three networks is why they ever allowed themselves to be drawn onto a battlefield that so favors their cable competitors. At almost any time, the audience of a single network news program on just one broadcast network is greater than the combined audiences of CNN, Fox and MSNBC.
Reaching across the entire spectrum of American television viewers is precisely the broadcast networks' greatest strength. By focusing only on key demographics, by choosing to ignore their total viewership, they have surrendered their greatest advantage.
Oddly enough, there is a looming demographic reality that could help steer television news back toward its original purpose. There are tens of millions of baby boomers in their 40's and 50's and entering their 60's who have far more spending power than their 18-to-34-year-old counterparts. Television news may be debasing itself before the wrong demographic.
If the network news divisions cannot be convinced that their future depends on attracting all demographic groups, then perhaps, at least, they can be persuaded to aim for the largest single demographic with the most disposable income -- one that may actually have an appetite for serious news. That would seem like a no-brainer. It's regrettable, perhaps, that only money and the inclination to spend it will ultimately determine the face of television news, but, as a distinguished colleague of mine used to say: ''That's the way it is.''