By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Brooks’ ugly smear

David Johnston’s article in today’s New York Times underscores the unfairness of Times columnist David Brooks’ attack (sub. req.) on former State Department official Richard Armitage earlier in the week. Of course, unfairness is an opinionmonger’s stock in trade, and I have no quarrel with that. The problem is that the specific nature of Brooks’ criticism is based on an untruth, and Brooks knew it when he wrote it.

Not to get bogged down in the impenetrable Valerie Plame Wilson leak case — a matter in which there are truly no good guys, including Wilson’s husband, the self-aggrandizing former ambassador Joseph Wilson — but last week we learned that it was Armitage who’d tipped off columnist Robert Novak that Valerie Wilson was a CIA operative.

Novak’s July 2003 column revealing that fact has been cited by many (including me) as evidence that the White House may have been seeking political retribution against Joseph Wilson, who’d become a critic of the case for the war in Iraq following his mission to Niger to learn whether Saddam Hussein had sought uranium. (Wilson said Saddam hadn’t, but the evidence suggests that Wilson had actually found otherwise. But never mind.)

What’s significant about the Armitage revelation — reported in Newsweek by staffer Michael Isikoff, and fleshed out in a forthcoming book by Isikoff and the Nation’s David Corn — is that Armitage was a relative liberal in the Bush administration, an aide to and friend of Colin Powell who apparently held Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby, et al. in contempt. Armitage would be the last person to engage in a political dirty trick on behalf of the Bushies. He shouldn’t have outed Valerie Wilson, but he certainly didn’t do it to punish her husband.

Anyway, to get back to Brooks. In his rambling indictment of Armitage and the political and media culture that Brooks sees as protecting him, he wrote sarcastically:

Richard Armitage, as is often made clear, is the very emblem of martial virtue. Unlike the pencil-necked chicken hawks that used to bedevil him, he had his character forged in the heat of battle, amid the whir of bullets. And what he apparently learned is that if you keep quiet while your comrades are being put through the ringer, then you will come out fine in the end. Armitage did keep quiet as the frenzy boiled, and he will come out fine.

This is brutal stuff. What Brooks is saying is that Armitage kept his mouth shut while Libby faces prison and Rove was nearly ruined by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. But it’s also completely untrue. Among the research materials that Brooks had available was the Newsweek article, which contains this:

Armitage’s admission [initially to Powell, his boss] led to a flurry of anxious phone calls and meetings that day at the State Department…. Within hours, William Howard Taft IV, the State Department’s legal adviser, notified a senior Justice official that Armitage had information relevant to the case. The next day, a team of FBI agents and Justice prosecutors investigating the leak questioned the deputy secretary. Armitage acknowledged that he had passed along to Novak information contained in a classified State Department memo: that Wilson’s wife worked on weapons-of-mass-destruction issues at the CIA. (The memo made no reference to her undercover status.) Armitage had met with Novak in his State Department office on July 8, 2003 — just days before Novak published his first piece identifying Plame. Powell, Armitage and Taft, the only three officials at the State Department who knew the story, never breathed a word of it publicly and Armitage’s role remained secret.

But oh, you say, Armitage and his buddies “never breathed a word of it publicly.” Doesn’t that support Brooks’ thesis? Hardly. Remaining silent after having been questioned by “a team of FBI agents and Justice Department prosecutors” suggests that silence was something investigators were insisting on. And, sure enough, we come to today’s Times article by Johnston, in which we learn:

Mr. Armitage cooperated voluntarily in the case, never hired a lawyer and testified several times to the grand jury, according to people who are familiar with his role and actions in the case. He turned over his calendars, datebooks and even his wife’s computer in the course of the inquiry, those associates said. But Mr. Armitage kept his actions secret, not even telling President Bush because the prosecutor asked him not to divulge it, the people said.

Will Brooks write a retraction? Will he apologize? Will Byron Calame look into this?

Columnists have wide latitude, but they are journalists, too. They have no right to unmoor themselves from the facts. Brooks accused Armitage of being the worst kind of moral coward — something he should have known was untrue from reading the original Newsweek article, and which is even more clear today. Brooks shouldn’t be allowed just to slide by.

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  1. Anonymous

    Dan: You are too good to resort to the unwieldy euphemism of “untruth.” Brooks is a self-serving liar who plays nice for television and radio (especially public broadcasting), but is otherwise a standard right-wing hack hardly deserving of his elevated status. His stratagem has been adopted by commentators such as Rich Lowry and John Fund, who sling mud in their own domains, but show up dismayingly often on NPR and PBS with their nice-guy masks. One can only hope that Brooks sees your comment.

  2. Anonymous

    I was sufficiently inspired after reading your post — and sending the previous comment — to write Brooks the following signed response:”It is difficult to find words to describe how sickening some of your columns are. However, the mendacious attack on Richard Armitage reaches a new low. I recommend that you read the following: I also find abjectly hypocritical your nice-guy PBS guise, when compared with your mud-slinging “journalistic” side. At the risk of indulging in cliche, “Have you no shame?””

  3. Anonymous

    Unfortunately this is being taken as gospel truth by kneejerk left bashers like Kevin at Pundit Review. Those who suffer from Bush Derangement Syndrome will still regard Joe Wilson as a courageous truth teller. They will still claim that the 16 words were false. They cannot be convinced otherwise, which is exactly why they cannot be trusted, believed or respected.

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