A fossil hunter in search of the origin of the Valerie Plame affair would probably trace it to New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof’s May 6, 2003, piece, “Missing In Action: Truth.” The column cites anonymous sources to report that a former U.S. ambassador had been “dispatched to Niger” after the office of the vice president requested more information about a purported uranium deal between Iraq and Niger. Kristof writes:
In February 2002, according to someone present at the meetings, that envoy reported to the C.I.A. and State Department that the information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged.
This passage and a following passage about how the “envoy’s debunking of the forgery was passed around the administration and seemed to be accepted—except that President Bush and the State Department kept citing it anyway,” were enough to drive Vice President Dick Cheney within spitting distance of a fatal coronary event because several important assertions of facts in the column weren’t true.
If only the vice president’s chief of staff I. “Scooter” Libby and the office of the vice president had sensibly limited themselves to disputing the flawed facts in the Kristof column instead of imagining the sources of the “facts” as part of a conspiracy of undermining leaks from the CIA, Plamegate would never have happened and Libby wouldn’t be facing a five-count indictment.
Imagine if Libby and company had held their fire. The “envoy” depicted in the column, Kristof anonymous source Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, was only weeks away from refuting some of the essential assertions of the Kristof column himself in his famous July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed. In it Wilson writes:
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.
In other words (and without wading into the deep weeds about the forgeries), Wilson couldn’t have debunked any documents because, as he writes, he never inspected them.
Various journalists and bloggers have dogged Kristof on this point, including Matthew Continetti at the Weekly Standard (for more than a year) and Tom Maguire of JustOneMinute, insisting that he correct the record. Given the column’s centrality to the Plame affair—and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s findings—one would expect Kristof to have attached a correction to it by now or at least returned to the topic in a new column.
Also, given Kristof’s last two Times columns, in which he apologizes to Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald for having “nastily” referred to him as “Inspector Javert” in a couple of columns, and demands that Cheney come clean about what he knew about Plamegate and when he knew it, Kristof looks a little silly resisting a similar re-review of his own work.
Reached by phone as he prepared for a trip to Darfur, Kristof wasn’t sure that a correction was in order for a number of reasons. For one, he said was sure his piece accurately reflected what his sources told him. For another, he couldn’t think of an example where a Times column or article was corrected after six months. The news pages do correct “ancient errors,” but Times op-ed columnists have only recentlybeen made subject to a uniform correction policy.
Still, he was receptive to the idea of revisiting the May 6, 2003, piece.
“I definitely think I should do something on the Web and clear the air over this,” he said.
I hope he does, and soon, although I’d prefer he did it in print so the caveats—if there are any—will be preserved in the amber of Nexis alongside his original column.
What distinguishes Kristof from the usual op-ed blowhard is his devotion to reporting, especially of the get-out-of-New-York-and-Washington variety. You may recall that he and his wife Sheryl WuDunn shared a Pulitzer Prize for their Tiananmen Square coverage. Why shouldn’t Kristof’s op-ed columns reflect the same standards of accountability as his news pieces?
Addendum, 7 p.m.: Sometime between my morning interview with Kristof and this moment, the columnist posted to his Times Web page a clarification to his May 6, 2003. (You must be a Times Select reader to view the clarification.) So far, so good. Here’s hoping that Kristof links to the clarification from the May 6, 2003, piece in the Times Web archives and adds an addendum to the Nexis copy. And, of course, a mention of the clarification in his regular column wouldn’t hurt, either.
Addendum, Nov. 4: Mickey Kaus parses Kristof’s clarification.
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