It is an equation that is as certain as two plus two equals four: Sean Penn + Iraq War + Hollywood movie = something less than the truth.
And so it is with director Doug Liman’s “Fair Game,” starring Penn and released last Friday, despite Liman’s contention that he made strenuous efforts to depict only those claims he could back up. “I exercised the kind of restraint you don’t normally see from a Hollywood filmmaker,” Liman told The Daily Caller in an interview Monday. “I stuck to the facts.”
The movie bills itself as “inspired by true events” and frames itself around the Joe Wilson-Valerie Plame affair. Wilson, played by Penn, was the former American diplomat sent to Niger by the CIA in 2002 to investigate claims that Iraq was trying to buy uranium for its purported nuclear weapons program from the African country.
The results of Wilson’s trip were viewed as largely meaningless by the CIA. But months after President George W. Bush said in his State of the Union address in 2003 in the lead up to the Iraq War that British intelligence believed that Iraq had been seeking uranium from Africa, Wilson sprung into action — claiming that he disproved the possibility of the Iraq-Niger uranium deal and suggesting the Bush administration may have been intentionally using dubious intelligence to justify the war in Iraq.
By the time Wilson began talking to the press, the Iraq War had begun and the American people were becoming disturbed that no Weapons of Mass Destruction had yet been found. In July 2003, Wilson famously wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, entitled “What I didn’t find in Africa,” suggesting perfidy on the part of the Bush administration.
After the op-ed appeared, the late columnist Robert Novak wrote a column indicating that sources told him that Joe Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame (played in the movie by Naomi Watts), was a CIA operative that recommended Wilson be sent to Niger. The revelation led the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate who leaked Valerie Plame’s identity to Novak since intentionally revealing a covert operative’s identity is a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.
The special prosecutor discovered early on that the main source for Novak’s article was State Department official Richard Armitage. Ironically, despite claims that the revelation of Wilson’s wife’s name was done by Bush administration proponents of the Iraq War seeking to discredit Wilson and his claims, Armitage was against going to war in Iraq, at least at the time the Bush administration initiated the invasion. (Novak, too, was an ardent opponent of the Iraq War.)
You wouldn’t know this by watching Liman’s “Fair Game,” since Armitage is nowhere to be found — except in script at the very end. The narrative that Karl Rove and Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff Scooter Libby were nefarious behind-the-scenes players intent on destroying innocent reputations while pushing the nation into war on false pretenses fits too nicely into Liman and Hollywood’s leftwing vision. You can’t, after all, let facts spoil a cinematic anti-Bush diatribe.
But because the truth matters to some, here is a factual breakdown of the film’s most major inaccuracies:
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
The movie treats Scooter Libby as a bogeyman, who ruthlessly interrogated CIA analysts to supposedly pressure them into providing cherry-picked intelligence that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. Libby is shown in the film holding interrogation sessions at the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Va., where CIA analysts are frightened by the mere presence of the vice president’s chief of staff. One analyst is even depicted throwing up in the bathroom because he was so intimidated by Libby.
The point of these scenes, of course, is to paint the picture that the vice president was itching to go to war and that he and his staff were pressuring CIA analysts into giving them the intelligence they needed to justify the war to the American public.
The problem is that this is directly contradicted by the bipartisan Robb-Silberman Commission report that looked into how the intelligence community got Iraq so wrong. The authoritative report found absolutely no evidence that pressure from the White House or vice-president’s office altered intelligence analysis before the war — and the intelligence community clearly expressed its belief in reports to the administration that Saddam had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program, as well as his biological and chemical weapons programs. The Robb-Silberman report is especially explicit on the point that analysts did not alter their reports as a result of political pressure.
“[W]e closely examined the possibility that intelligence analysts were pressured by policymakers to change their judgments about Iraq’s nuclear, biological, chemical weapons programs,” the report reads. “The analysts who worked Iraqi weapons issues universally agreed that in no instance did political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their analytical judgments.”
In fact, the report suggests that it is vital that policymakers strenuously challenge and question analysts to ensure that they are providing policymakers with the best information possible.
“We urge that policymakers actively probe and question analysts,” the report recommends in order to avoid future intelligence failures like what occurred in Iraq. “In our view, such interaction is not ‘politicization.’ Analysts should expect such demanding and aggressive testing without — as a matter of principle and professionalism — allowing it to subvert their judgment.”
When asked by TheDC whether policymakers should be rigorously challenging CIA analysts, former CIA Director General Michael Hayden echoed the Robb-Silberman Commission report’s recommendation on the matter.
“They should absolutely be asking tough questions. That comes with the job description. No analyst worth his salt would be intimidated by a policymaker asking tough questions,” he said. “That is just fine. And there is no sin in that at all. That is what we do. And a policymaker should have the right to challenge our analysts.”
Yet, “Fair Game” employs all the cinematic techniques to paint this process as a sordid affair.
As the film accurately depicts Libby noting during one of these supposedly nefarious sessions with a CIA analyst, before Gulf War I, the CIA predicted Saddam Hussein as being far away from obtaining nuclear weapons capability. After the war, however, it was discovered that he was much closer to building a nuclear weapon than the intelligence community had believed.
This failure to predict the extent of Saddam’s nuclear program before the first Gulf War, according to the Robb-Silberman Commission report, is one of the reasons that CIA analysts got it wrong in Iraq again. Knowing how much in error their analysis was before the first Gulf War, CIA analysts didn’t want to make the same mistakes again by underestimating Iraq’s nuclear sophistication and drive.
MOVIE MYTH #2: The intelligence community didn’t believe the aluminum tubes purchased by Iraq were for its nuclear program
The movie depicts Plame sitting around a table with other members of the intelligence community discussing Iraq’s acquisition of high-strength aluminum tubes — a key piece of data that led the CIA to conclude that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. The scene further depicts one member of the intelligence community making the case that the tubes are evidence for a reconstituted nuclear program, which prompts Plame to thoroughly debunk the very possibility that the tubes could be used in a nuclear weapons program.
In the absence of any other knowledge, an observer of the scene would be left to conclude that Plame was right and it was transparently obvious that these tubes not only weren’t being used for an Iraqi nuclear program, but couldn’t be used for one. But in reality, as the bipartisan Robb-Silberman Commission report notes, “Most agencies in the Intelligence Community assessed — incorrectly — that these [aluminum tubes] were intended for use in a uranium enrichment program.”
The report goes on to note that “Analysts from the National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC),” which was an intelligence agency, “recognized as the national experts on conventional military systems” concluded that “While it could ‘not totally rule out the possibility’ that the tubes could be used for rockets and thus were not destined for a nuclear-related use, the tubes were, technically speaking, poor choices for rocket bodies.”
So, the report continues, “NGIC’s expert judgment was therefore that there was a very low probability the tubes were designed for conventional use in rockets” and “because of NGIC’s expertise on conventional weapons systems such as rockets, NGIC’s view that the tubes were poor choices for rocket bodies gave CIA analysts greater confidence in their own judgment that the tubes were likely for use in centrifuges.”
While it is true that Department of Energy dissented from the consensus view on aluminum tubes, most of the intelligence community thought otherwise and the “CIA informed senior policymakers that it believed the tubes were destined for use on Iraqi gas centrifuges.”
On the aluminum tubes contention, “Fair Game” is hardly fair.
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.
One of the main turning points in the movie is when Wilson is sitting at an airport bar listening to the State of the Union when he hears Bush utter these 16 words: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
He discovers later that when referencing Africa, Bush was indeed referring to Niger specifically. This sets Wilson, who suggests his report to the CIA definitively debunked the Iraq-Niger claim, off. The ultimate culmination of his rage is him penning his op-ed in the New York Times in July 2003.
There is a minefield full of problems with all of this. For starters, Bush’s statement was technically accurate. British intelligence was suggesting at the time that Iraq was trying to get uranium from Niger. After a lengthy investigation, in 2004, the British government would issue the Butler Report on pre-war intelligence about Iraqi WMD. On Bush’s State of the Union claim, it said, “we conclude also that the statement in President Bush’s State of the Union Address of 28 January 2003 … was well-founded.”
What’s more, Joe Wilson’s contention that he definitively disproved the possibility that Iraq purchased uranium from Niger is categorically false — at least the CIA didn’t take it that way at all. The bipartisan U.S. Senate report looking into intelligence failures surrounding Iraq stated that while the intelligence report regarding Wilson’s trip showed the difficulty of Niger selling uranium to rogue countries, it “did not refute the possibility that Iraq had approached Niger to purchase uranium.” In fact, the report goes on to say, that the most important information gleaned from Wilson’s trip to Niger was “that the Nigerian officials admitted that the Iraqi delegation had traveled there in 1999, and the Nigerian prime minister believed the Iraqis were interested in purchasing uranium …”
The Senate report ultimately concluded, “The report on the former ambassador’s trip to Niger, disseminated in March 2002, did not change any analysts’ assessments of the Iraq-Niger uranium deal. For most analysts, the information in the report lent more credibility to the original Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports on the uranium deal,” though the report does note that “State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) analysts believed that the report supported their assessment that Niger was unlikely to be willing or able to sell uranium to Iraq.”
Overall, Wilson’s trip, according to the report, was mainly viewed as a non-event — intelligence community “analysts had a fairly consistent response to the intelligence report based on the former ambassador’s trip in that no one believed it added a great deal of new information to the Iraq-Niger uranium story,” the Senate report reads. What’s more, Wilson’s trip was viewed as so inconsequential that the Senate report says that the “CIA’s briefer did not brief the vice president on the report, despite the vice president’s previous questions about the issue.”
The bipartisan Senate report also discovered that Wilson was telling the press things that he couldn’t possibly have known about. Wilson was the source in a Washington Post article that said documents related to the supposed Niger uranium sale to Iraq were forged because “the dates were wrong and the names were wrong.” Except, as the Senate report noted, Wilson “had never seen the CIA reports and had no knowledge of what names and dates were in the reports.” Wilson told the Senate committee that he may have “misspoken.”
Now, it is true the CIA later concluded that the 16 words probably should not have been included in the president’s State of the Union address. But as the Senate report notes, “At the time the president delivered the State of the Union address, no one in the IC [intelligence community] had asked anyone in the White House to remove the sentence from the speech.” It further noted that “CIA Iraq nuclear analysts and the director of WINPAC told committee staff that at the time of the State of the Union, they still believed that Iraq was probably seeking uranium from Africa, and they continued to hold that belief until the IAEA reported that the documents were forgeries.”
In other words, Bush’s 16 words are hardly an example of the Bush administration’s perfidy in supposedly pushing false claims about Iraq on the American public in order to justify war. Like much of the intelligence given to the Bush administration before the war, the intelligence community simply got it wrong.
MOVIE MYTH #4: The revelation of Valerie Plame’s association with the CIA gravely harmed American intelligence efforts and cost lives
The most dramatic scenes in the move depict Plame involved in highly sensitive operations with the CIA, including those that involve Iraqi scientists. As a result of her outing during the Iraq War, the movie shows operations to save her Iraqi contacts halted and we are lead to believe they probably died as a result.
In an interview, Liman told TheDC that a former CIA officer told him that “people were put in mortal jeopardy as a result of the outing of Valerie Plame and separately that it did not end well for the scientists.”
Despite Liman’s claim, it is far from clear that Plame played as crucial a role as movie viewers are led to believe. It also seems to be a stretch to suggest that American assets died as a result of her revelation. Reporters Walter Pincus and Richard Leiby write about this in a recent Washington Post article about the movie:
It’s true that Valerie Plame Wilson was working with one of the CIA’s teams trying to gather intelligence on Iraq WMD operations, but she evidently did not play the central role that the film puts her in. She was not directly part of the scientist program, according to agency officials.
The movie, on the other hand, depicts Valerie recruiting an Iraqi-born Cleveland physician to visit her scientist brother in Baghdad for information about Hussein’s alleged nuclear program. In fact, the doctor was recruited by another CIA officer.
Although the film suggests that the blowing of Valerie’s cover led directly to the shutdown of the Iraqi scientist exfiltration, an intelligence insider told us: “Something like this, if it was going on, wouldn’t have been canceled for this reason.”
Interview with “Fair Game” director Doug Liman
In an interview with TheDC, Liman showed a stunning ignorance about the Valerie Plame affair for a man who claims to have thoroughly fact-checked the film. After pressing Liman about several scenes depicted in the film, using the bipartisan Robb-Silberman Commission report as my guide, TheDC got the impression he was completely unfamiliar with the report.
“Did you read the Robb-Silberman report before making the film?” TheDC asked.
“My writers did,” he said.
Which is another way to say “no.”
(It should be noted that the most relevant portion of the report as it pertains to the events depicted in “Fair Game” is less than 100 pages long. I suppose it is understandable that Liman didn’t take the hour or two necessary to read it — it is, after all, only the most comprehensive and authoritative report ever produced on the subject the movie covers.)
Liman kept trying to prove his interpretation of events by referencing the declassified 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq.
“I’ve actually seen the NIE,” Liman said. “The beauty of making this film years after the fact is that so many documents have been declassified. And so you can actually read the actual documents the president and vice president were presented.”
The NIE was declassified in 2003, at least parts of it. And, as should be obvious, it was read and incorporated into both the Senate report and the Robb-Silberman Commission report. It also doesn’t do anything to bolster Liman’s case. Indeed, beyond uranium acquisition, the NIE supports more generally that Iraq was pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
“Iraq does not yet have a nuclear weapon or sufficient material to make one but is likely to have a weapon by 2007 to 2009,” the NIE reads in one section.
“Most agencies believe that Saddam’s personal interest in and Iraq’s aggressive attempts to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes for centrifuge rotor — as well as Iraq’s attempts to acquire magnets, high-speed balancing machines, and machine tools — provide compelling evidence that Saddam is reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for Baghdad’s nuclear weapons program. (DOE agrees that reconstitution of the nuclear program is underway but assesses that the tubes probably are not part of the program.),” the NIE reads in another section.
The NIE does contain a reservation from one intelligence agency, but it makes clear that the intelligence community as a whole estimated with “moderate confidence” that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program and that the country could have a nuclear weapon by the end of the decade.
Liman is left to argue that the Bush administration should have listened to the DOE.
“When you have the Department of Energy telling you the tubes are poor choices, that they are poorly suited, those were their words, for weapons production and the DOE is the expert when it comes to gas centrifuges, I would listen. You can’t get any more forceful than that,” he said.
It is true the DOE was in the minority of the intelligence community in dissenting from the aluminum tubes aspect of the nuclear case against Iraq. But it also joined with the intelligence community to assess that Iraq had a nuclear program that could produce a nuclear weapon by the end of the decade. If you are wondering what Liman’s point here is by pointing out one intelligence agency dissenting from the aluminum tubes analysis or how this piece of information provides any evidence that the Bush administration intentionally promoted false claims to push the country into war, you are not alone.
When pressed to tell TheDC what information he had, as he claimed, that the Robb-Silberman Commission didn’t have when it issued its report, Liman first suggested that he had talked to Plame’s CIA colleagues.
The Robb-Silberman Commission interviewed, in its words, “hundreds of experts from inside and outside the Intelligence Community …”
When pressed further to see what else he may have had that the Robb-Silberman Commission didn’t have access to, Liman said that he talked to an FBI agent who had some information about the matter and that he had Karl Rove’s memoir, which had not yet been published when the commission issued its report. Pretty paltry stuff.
Liman also claimed that he reached out to Scooter Libby’s attorneys to get his side of the story.
“We made several attempts to speak with Scooter Libby, through more than one lawyer,” he said.
When asked to name the lawyers, he replied that the lawyers “specifically asked me not use their names.”
But one of Libby’s attorneys told TheDC that he polled Libby’s attorneys involved in the case and none of them said they were contacted by Liman or anyone else associated with the movie.
“My law firm serves as counsel to Mr. Libby. We were not contacted,” said Alex J. Bourelly, an attorney at Baker Botts LLP, in an e-mail to TheDC, “and we are told by Mr. Libby’s other counsel that they were not contacted, during the preparation of the movie ‘Fair Game’ by the Director, or anyone else associated with the film, to discuss or screen the film, or to approach Mr. Libby to see if he would discuss or screen the film.”
He continued: “Counsel for Mr. Libby were publicly disclosed during the trial and are easy to find.”
Despite all the major myths propagated by his film that could have been corrected with just a minimal amount of reading, Liman somehow seems to view himself as some top-notch researcher, saying that if one was going to “pick a filmmaker who was just going to create a puff piece, that was just going to tell their [Wilson and Plame’s] point of view exclusively, I would not have been the filmmaker chosen.”
“I’m way too strong-willed and I have too strong of a background in research,” he told TheDC. “If I was Valerie and Joe and just wanted someone to parrot my side of the story there are other filmmakers who would be infinitely better choices than Doug Liman.”’
Actually, if you were Valerie Plame or Joe Wilson, it doesn’t seem like you could do much better than Doug Liman.
In the end, the movie is what you would expect from Hollywood, especially a film relating to the Iraq War that got Sean Penn — Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro’s favorite sycophant — to sign on. If accuracy matters, “Fair Game” should be destined for the dustbin. But if history is any guide, it is a shoe-in for an Academy Award.