[Editor’s note: This article was the February-A 2011 AIM Report, which I wrote when I was the Editor of Accuracy in Media. It is about the movie, “Fair Game,” starring Sean Penn as Joe Wilson and Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame. I had covered Scooter Libby’s trial in 2007. Libby was a key figure in the story that involved Wilson and Plame. This report looks back on the issues raised by the trial of Libby, the dishonesty of the producers of “Fair Game,” and the politicization of justice, much like we are experiencing today – Roger Aronoff]
By now the movie version of the Valerie Plame book, Fair Game, has been so thoroughly debunked, as has the version of history that it purports to tell, that it hardly seems necessary to go back down this path again. But unfortunately it is. Because although the movie bombed at the box office, grossing less than $10 million in the U.S. since its release in November, its assault on the truth will continue as a DVD release, video-on-demand, premium cable and on network TV.
The movie stars Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame, former CIA operative, and left-wing activist Sean Penn as her husband Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador and central figure in a partially successful effort to rewrite history, that nearly brought down a President in the middle of a war.
The film was financed by Imagenation Abu Dhabi, owned by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) royal family, which has also financed other anti-American propaganda.
The three basic lies of the story they tell are these: 1) The Bush administration knowingly lied us into war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by twisting evidence to make people believe that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and was a threat to this country; and 2) when former ambassador Wilson blew the whistle on Bush and Cheney for doing so, they got back at him by outing his wife, a covert CIA agent; and 3) Scooter Libby led the White House effort to out Ms. Plame and discredit her husband, and then took the fall for the administration. Within these lies are a whole series of lies and misrepresentations and deliberate damage done to the reputations of a lot of people.
As someone who has explored this topic through an award-winning documentary, “Confronting Iraq: Conflict and Hope,” a series of articles, and public debates, I regret that this case regularly must be re-litigated. But it must. There are many fine examples of reporting, and commentary, that have brilliantly and effectively made the necessary arguments, but there is significant detail that requires further exposition, which I will attempt later in this report.
The movie was actually based on Ms. Wilson’s book, and Joe Wilson’s book, The Politics of Truth, and made with their cooperation. The New York Times, in its review of the film, acknowledges that the film does “not disguise its sympathies.” It says that “in 2002, [Plame] is given the assignment of investigating Saddam Hussein’s nuclear and biological weapons programs.” Calling the film terrifically entertaining, they write, “When she and her colleagues find extensive evidence that Iraq is not actively developing weapons of mass destruction, their conclusions are overridden by men from the office of the vice president, most notably I. Lewis Libby Jr., known as Scooter…”
The Times must know this is utter nonsense, but they go on.
“Dispatched to Niger, at Valerie’s suggestion, to check out allegations that Hussein had purchased large quantities of uranium, [Joe] finds nothing. When Mr. Bush, in his State of the Union address, contends that Iraq had indeed gone shopping for nuclear material in Africa, Joe tries to set the record straight and then publishes an Op-Ed article in The New York Times to make his case.
“You may remember what happens next. Valerie’s cover is blown, and Joe wages a noisy campaign to expose the culprits and to defend both of their reputations against an onslaught of spin, innuendo and attempted character assassination.”
That version is exactly what the Wilsons and the filmmakers want you to believe. However, it bears little resemblance to the truth.
In a column dated July 14, 2003, eight days after Wilson’s column had appeared in the Times, columnist Robert Novak identified Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative who had recommended her husband. The CIA spokesman had confirmed Plame’s identity for Novak.
This series of events, and a lot more that I don’t have room for here, led to the appointment of a Special Prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, who indicted one person, Scooter Libby, for perjury and obstruction of justice. No one was indicted for leaking classified information, or outing a covert CIA agent, or any such crimes. Libby never should have been indicted, much less found guilty. Fitzgerald, who had a grudge against Libby from previous matters, knew from the start that it was Richard Armitage, a high ranking State Department official who had given Plame’s name to Novak. Both Armitage and Novak were known to be against going to war in Iraq.
Special kudos to the journalists who have stepped up on this story and debunked The New York Times/Plame/Wilson version of events.
When this story was unfolding, Christopher Hitchens led the way in exposing evidence that Saddam Hussein had sought uranium from Niger. Byron York, who did great work during Scooter Libby’s trial, showed how flawed the witnesses were, along with the prosecution’s case. Cliff May has also done some great work on this story, particularly regarding Wilson’s trip to Niger.
As far as debunking the movie, “Fair Game,” three people have done excellent analysis. Quin Hillyer, writing for both The Washington Times and Spectator.Org; Stan Crock, the former Washington news editor and chief diplomatic correspondent for Business Week, and Jamie Weinstein, for The Daily Caller. Weinstein identifies four myths propagated by the film, and explains the truth behind each one. “MOVIE MYTH #1: Scooter Libby and other members of the Bush administration pressured CIA analysts into providing cherry-picked intelligence to justify the Iraq War.” This absolutely did not happen, as the bi-partisan Robb-Silberman Commission made clear.
“MOVIE MYTH #2: The intelligence community didn’t believe the aluminum tubes purchased by Iraq were for its nuclear program.” Again, the Robb-Silberman Commission proves this false, too.
“MOVIE MYTH #3: The 16 words about uranium from Africa in Bush’s State of the Union speech were a lie, and it was well known to be a lie because of Joe Wilson’s trip to Niger.” Those words, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” have been confirmed on many occasions by the British. Wilson’s report to the CIA after his trip to Niger only confirmed this even more, rather than prove it was false.
“MOVIE MYTH #4: The revelation of Valerie Plame’s association with the CIA gravely harmed American intelligence efforts and cost lives.” This too is false, according to Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus, who has solid contacts with the intelligence community.
Weinstein also interviewed the film’s director, Doug Liman, and exposed that Liman’s knowledge of the case was very thin, and that he hadn’t even read the relevant portions of the Robb-Silberman Report. Nor did Liman know that the National Intelligence Estimate of 2002 actually supported Bush’s assertions that Saddam possessed WMD, including a nuclear weapons program. This, by the way, was something that Valerie Plame was well aware of.
Surprisingly, The Washington Post has been among Wilson’s harshest critics. In a December 3 editorial, they wrote, “‘Fair Game,’ based on books by Mr. Wilson and his wife, is full of distortions—not to mention outright inventions.” Among those it cites are the one about the 16 words in the State of the Union address, their story that “Ms. Plame’s exposure was the result of a White House conspiracy. A lengthy and wasteful investigation by a special prosecutor found no such conspiracy,” said the Post editorial, “but it did confirm that the prime source of a newspaper column identifying Ms. Plame was a State Department official, not a White House political operative.” They added that “Hollywood has a habit of making movies about historical events without regard for the truth; ‘Fair Game’ is just one more example. But the film’s reception illustrates a more troubling trend of political debates in Washington in which established facts are willfully ignored. Mr. Wilson claimed that he had proved that Mr. Bush deliberately twisted the truth about Iraq, and he was eagerly embraced by those who insist the former president lied the country into a war. Though it was long ago established that Mr. Wilson himself was not telling the truth—not about his mission to Niger and not about his wife—the myth endures.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
I wrote or co-wrote with Cliff Kincaid a series of articles during and after the Libby trial that showed he was wrongly accused, wrongly convicted, and that Bush did a disservice to Libby and his own legacy by not having the courage of his conviction to pardon Libby rather than just commute his sentence.
What else shows the dishonesty of the film? In some cases, it is what was left out. For instance, there was no reference to George Tenet’s statement, released on July 11, between the release of Wilson’s column on July 6, 2003, and Novak’s on July 14 (though Novak’s column was actually in newsrooms on July 11, which could go a long way toward explaining how many news people became aware of Plame’s identity.)
In Tenet’s statement of July 11, he said, the “CIA approved the President’s State of the Union address before it was delivered,” and that “the President had every reason to believe that the text presented to him was sound.” He also said Joe Wilson’s trip to Niger supported the claim that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from Niger. Tenet noted that the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) “judged that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.”
As Stan Crock pointed out in his article for the World Affairs Journal, “Valerie Plame says in her memoir that she read the report that the CIA wrote immediately after debriefing Wilson on his trip and also read his column before it was published. She added that she thought the column was accurate. She said the report was only a few pages long. No one, let alone a professional intelligence officer, could have missed the part about Iraq trying to buy yellowcake. She had to know the column was wrong, but evidently said nothing. So she was anything but an innocent bystander as her husband created a political firestorm.”
Crock also wrote about a question and answer period at an advance screening of the film, at the AFI Theater in Silver Spring, MD, which I also attended. “Doug Liman insisted he was ‘diligent’ about fact-checking. He said he left out Armitage and made Libby the heavy ‘for efficiency of storytelling.’ After all, he said, ‘it all ultimately led back to Scooter Libby,’ who, Liman said, put Plame’s name in a memo Armitage saw. But this is simply not true: according to testimony at the trial, a State Department official, Carl Ford, wrote the memo. Libby had no hand in it.”
Crock wrote that “The entire thrust of Liman’s film, told from the Wilson/Plame point of view, is that the White House did something wrong, that it manipulated intelligence and then retaliated against Wilson by exposing a covert operative and endangering national security. But no one was ever charged with violating the law that makes it illegal to expose spies… As trial testimony showed, neither Libby nor anyone else knew Plame was covert. Most importantly, Libby was acquitted on the only charges that relate to leaking Plame’s CIA employment.”
Crock also debunks the underlying case against Libby: “Libby was charged with lying during the investigation about three phone calls with reporters… The prosecution claimed that in two of these calls, reporters Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time asked Libby about Plame’s CIA employment and that Libby confirmed it. Libby denied that he had confirmed her employment for them. Judge Reggie Walton and the jury found for Libby. The judge said there was no evidence to support the charge about Miller and threw it out midway through the case. The prosecution’s evidence of the Cooper leak was so feeble that the jury acquitted Libby on that charge.
“Libby’s conviction turned on his testimony about a phone call with NBC’s Tim Russert that occurred the day before the two calls with Miller and Cooper. Ironically, the prosecution charged that during the Russert conversation Wilson’s wife was not discussed.”
Actually, when Russert testified at the trial, he said that he had no recollection of whether he asked, or did not ask, Libby, in words or substance, anything about Valerie Plame. Russert was apparently just reasoning from what he recalled over a year later to have been his reaction when he saw Novak’s article. That rather thin gruel was the basis of Scooter Libby’s convictions.
In fact, the prosecution never showed any reason why Libby would intentionally lie about his conversation with Russert. By contrast, the defense proved that Libby had no such motive for several reasons, any one of which defeated the prosecution’s case. Notably, uncontested evidence proved that, right after talking to Russert, Libby heard from someone else that the press knew Plame worked at the CIA—one of several reasons why Libby had no motive to make up a story about Russert.
Indeed, the prosecution presented no hard evidence that Libby had lied. Instead, the prosecution asked the jury to infer that Libby had (with no motive) lied, based simply on the jury’s experience of the accuracy of memory. The defense had lined up some leading experts to testify that research shows that memory is much less accurate than people commonly think, and that Libby’s memory errors were fully consistent with common memory errors. But, as Crock shows, the judge—who apparently misunderstood memory himself—barred expert testimony and barred the kinds of evidence relevant to judging Libby’s memory.
Crock quotes one of America’s leading memory experts, Harvard Professor David Schacter, who reviewed the case and concluded: “As someone who has studied memory for a lifetime, I could not render a fair decision based on the evidence before the jury. I do not believe that they could, either.”
In short, Libby was convicted of a motiveless crime for which there was no direct evidence, only the jury’s unscientific inference of wrongdoing based on evidence that America’s leading memory expert describes as completely inadequate to a reasoned judgment. If Hollywood wanted to make a fair film about a great injustice, that would have been the place to start.
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