‘Post’ Ombud Joins Battle Over Libby Leak

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By: Greg Mitchell

It?s not every Easter Sunday that The New York Times take a direct swipe at its main competitor on the national news scene, The Washington Post, but that?s what it did in an editorial today pointedly titled ?The Bad Leak.? Meanwhile, to the south, the Post?s ombudsman, Deborah Howell, tried to explain what the Times was tweaking.

Admittedly, it takes guts and a thick hide to defend Post editorials related to the Iraq war. The arguments in Howell?s Sunday column, however, are preposterous. So for one day, it?s Times 1, Post 0.

Howell could not have known, when she confidently wrote in her column, “Don’t expect newspapers to editorialize against leaks,” that The New York Times would do just that a few hours later.

Aside from that, Howell exacerbates her editorial page?s claim last week that ?Scooter? Libby?s release of intelligence data to reporters in the matter of Joseph Wilson and Niger uranium was, as the title put it, ?A Good Leak? because it was only aimed at informing the public. That was bad enough, but Howell takes it several steps further by blessing leaks on principle. ?Leaks are good for journalism,? she puffs.

Even those spreading blatantly false information that can cause harm? As the Times editorial puts it, ?the version of the facts that Mr. Libby was authorized to divulge was so distorted that it seems more like disinformation than any sincere attempt to inform the public.?

Of course, leaks, properly vetted and put in context, often are good for journalism and for readers. But as the backlash against unnamed sources?and the WMD leaks that got us into a catastrophic war?indicates, to embrace politically motivated leaks on ?good journalism? grounds is absurd. The fact that Howell bends over backward to accept this particular leak?which spread false information and was part of a process that led to outing a CIA operative?speaks volumes.

Her column today was inspired by the apparent conflict last Sunday between a Post editorial and a front page news story by Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer which left readers ?confused,? Howell explains.

That ?Good Leak? editorial declared the White House was not out to punish Ambassador Joe Wilson for raising doubts about pre-war intelligence. Bush, in a sense, was a hero, for instantly declassifying the key NIE document–he was only out to inform the public, not punish Wilson or try to continue to mislead people about evidence for going to war. Now Bush, the poor guy, the Post complained, was the target of ?hyperbolic charges of misconduct and hypocrisy? from the Democrats.

The Post editorial concluded, ?It?s unfortunate that those who seek to prove? that grounds for the war were bogus ?now claim that Mr. Bush did something wrong by releasing for public review some of the intelligence he used in making his most momentous decision.?

But as the Times? ?Bad Leak? editorial today responds: ?President Bush says he declassified portions of the prewar intelligence assessment on Iraq because he ?wanted people to see the truth? about Iraq’s weapons programs and to understand why he kept accusing Saddam Hussein of stockpiling weapons that turned out not to exist. This would be a noble sentiment if it actually bore any relationship to Mr. Bush’s actions in this case, or his overall record.?

As often the case in Post editorials related to Iraq, reporting in the same newspaper seriously undermined hawkish assertions. Post reporters Gellman and Linzer observed that Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald in his latest court filing described a “concerted action” by “multiple people in the White House” using classified information to “discredit, punish or seek revenge against” Wilson. Fitzgerald said the grand jury has collected so much testimony and so many documents that “it is hard to conceive of what evidence there could be that would disprove the existence of White House efforts to ‘punish’ Wilson.”

Then, the two reporters debunked their own paper’s ?public service? defense by observing ?that the evidence Cheney and Libby selected to share with reporters had been disproved months before.” Libby, allegedly at Cheney?s direction, “sought out at least three reporters to bolster the discredited uranium allegation.? In other words: Far from serving our citizens, the White House was misleading and manipulating them.

Howell in her column claimed that the Post editorial was merely trying to ?support that leak as necessary to show that the president had reason to believe that Iraq was seeking uranium.? This is patently false, for a mountain of evidence (as the Post itself has reported) now shows that the president had little or no reason to believe that Iraq was seeking uranium.

The ombud also shrugs that ?we know a lot more now about the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq than we knew then.? Well, she may know a lot more than she did then, but the president and his henchmen saw the writing on the wall themselves back in June and July 2003. It?s telling that Howell makes no mention of the latest revelation this past week?also from the Post–about the top-level report debunking the ?mobile biological labs,? submitted in May 2003 and ignored by administration officials for many months.

Instead, Howell explains that reporters and editorial writers often simply ?see things quite differently.? They ?depend on different sources.? True enough, but what if editorials are poorly sourced, factually incorrect or as misleading as certain leaks from officials? What if the editors don?t even care? Hiatt made a damning admission to Howell?even if he?d read the Gellman-Linzer piece before the editorial was written it probably wouldn?t have changed a thing.

No wonder, as Howell reveals, that Post executive editor Len Downie doesn?t regularly read his own editorial page. He says he doesn?t want it to ?make a mark on how he runs the news pages.? Thank god for that.

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