Jim Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy has joined the chorus of right-wingers whose interest in Joe Wilson outstrips their interest in anything else. He demonstrates how an intelligent mind can be seriously misled by restricting his sources to PowerLine (13 cites), the WSJ editorial page (6 cites), and single news story containing a significant error (5 cites).
As the Washington Post reported: “According to the former Niger mining minister, Wilson told his CIA contacts, Iraq tried to buy 400 tons of uranium in 1998.” So Wilson had found evidence that tended to confirm the substance of the sentence in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Quite a lot of the PowerLine/WSJ/Lindgren argument rests on this slender reed, but it’s not correct. The Washington Post has since printed a correction to that story- it was Iran, not Iraq.
Republicans have tried to argue that Wilson lied about the forged documents. The WSJ writes,
The same bipartisan report also pointed out that the forged documents Mr. Wilson claimed to have discredited hadn’t even entered intelligence channels until eight months after his trip.
This is misleading at best. Wilson didn’t claim that he discredited the documents- he didn’t even claim to have seen them! Wilson actually wrote,
As for the actual memorandum, I never saw it. But news accounts have pointed out that the documents had glaring errors — they were signed, for example, by officials who were no longer in government — and were probably forged. And then there’s the fact that Niger formally denied the charges.
Lindgren is correct that Wilson has falsely claimed that his wife had nothing to do with suggesting that he make the trip to Niger. He is also correct to claim that the Senate report said differently. I’m pretty sure that the Senate report is correct, Wilson was lying, and Wilson deserves criticism for this.
However, Lindgren writes:
The Wall Street Journal says that Wilson had started lying to the press and public about how he was hired before his wife was outed, in part by Rove. (my emphasis)
Maybe I’m not reading carefully enough. But as far as I can see, the Wall Street Journal doesn’t actually claim this, and the charge itself isn’t true. Wilson’s editorial told the truth about how he was hired in his original New York Times column. He correctly identifies the people who sent him only as “agency officials.” Republicans have seriously misrepresented what Wilson said after his wife was outed (here, the RNC talking points claim that Wilson falsely asserted that Cheney sent him. In the very same interview cited by the RNC, Wilson said, “it’s absolutely true that neither the vice president nor Dr. Rice nor even George Tenet knew that I was traveling to Niger.”)
The best line of attack that the GOP has is an interview Wilson gave before his wife was outed in which he says:
Well, I went in, actually in February of 2002 was my most recent trip there—at the request, I was told, of the office of the vice president, which had seen a report in intelligence channels about this purported memorandum of agreement on uranium sales from Niger to Iraq.
Maybe this is what he was referring to. I honestly don’t know what role the office of the VP had in suggesting the trip. If Lindgren wants to argue that the trip was absolutely not requested by the office of the Vice-President, that Wilson wasn’t told that it was, and that the White House couldn’t respond without exposing Valerie Plame, he’s welcome to make that argument. Why it wouldn’t be possible to say, “The office of the VP didn’t suggest the trip” is unclear to me.
Lindgren tries out the argument that Plame wasn’t actually covert:
The other reason that Plame may not have been a covert agent is that, according to bloggers quoting Andrea Mitchell, who was involved in NBC’s early stories on Wilson, it was widely known that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA.
The sole evidence for this position is a post from Powerline, quoting an email, paraphrasing Andrea Mitchell. This won’t fly. Mel Goodman, a former CIA analyst, says “I’ve worked in Washington for the past 38 years, including 24 years at the CIA…and I know Ambassador Wilson….and I did not know that his wife was an agency employee.” Her friends and neighbors didn’t know. The CIA thought she was covert. Kevin Drum has collected quotes from four separate ex-CIA employees on the record saying Plame was undercover. This is not a sustainable argument.
Lindgren throws a lot of blame on Wilson:
Here it would be good to ask Wilson whether he thought that by lying about what he found in Niger and what he told the CIA and how he was selected, he was gambling with his wife’s safety. How could he be sure that people would know that Plame was a covert agent, or that there was a law against revealing her identity? Perhaps someone might have reasonably believed that they were correcting misimpressions that Wilson himself had created. Did Wilson realize that he had put the Administration in something analogous to a Catch-22?: Wilson can lie about how he was hired but the Administration can’t correct his lie without outing his wife. Did Wilson consciously decide to gamble with his wife’s safety by lying in a way that would be hard for the Administration to correct?
Kevin Drum does a good job of demolishing the idea of Joe Wilson as an angry anti-war extremist here. I’m sorry, but Wilson didn’t lie about what he found in Niger, or about what he told the CIA. His lie about his wife’s role in suggesting him postdates her exposure. His faith in the integrity of the White House was obviously misplaced, but that’s hardly sufficient reason to blame him.
Lindgren goes on to argue that Rove might not be guilty of a crime. I’d be a fool to argue with a law professor on the question; he may be right, or he may be wrong. I have to give him credit for finally acknowledging that there’s something not quite right about revealing the identity of a covert CIA agent, and acknowledging that Bush has some obligation to take action. But he does no service to his readers or himself by restricting his inputs so severely.
UPDATE: (a) Bob Somerby emails to explain the problem with Wilson’s history with the forged documents. It isn’t that Wilson said anything wrong in print about the docs; it’s that he left other reporters with the impression that he had found problems in the documents. That’s obviously not OK, and Bob is correct to argue that liberals are under no obligation to overlook it. I know we’re all sick of hearing “Wilson’s not the story here,” but Wilson’s not the story here. Rove’s decision to expose a covert operative is the story.
(b) Lindgren has updated his post.To his credit, he doesn’t use the incorrect line about Iraq trying to buy 400 tons of uranium. To his discredit, he makes no edits to the rest of his post; he still seems to feel that his anti-Wilson accusations, tone, and anger are all still appropriate, even without an offense to pin them on.
 A lot of comments are unhappy with this assertion. I was convinced by Tom Maguire that Wilson had misrepresented his wife’s role after she was exposed. I can’t reconcile this statement:
Apart from being the conduit of a message from a colleague in her office asking if I would be willing to have a conversation about Niger’s uranium industry, Valerie had had nothing to do with the matter. (from Joe Wilson’s book)
On February 12, 2002, the former ambassador’s wife sent a memorandum to a Deputy Chief of a division in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations which said, “[m]y husband has good relations with both the PM [prime minister] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity.” (from the Republican addendum to the Senate report.)
I don’t think that she did anything wrong by suggesting him, but I’m convinced that she did, in fact, suggest him.
 Read the comments; this might be more ambiguous than I’ve allowed.