My recent move from New York City to Washington has brought with it a lot of changes, among them a new morning newspaper. Yesterday, that switch paid off in the form of a magnificent front-page article by Mike Allen and Dana Priest in The Washington Post. The piece confirmed reports that two Bush administration officials had blown the cover of CIA operative Valerie Plame and quoted a senior administration official as saying it was done "purely and simply for revenge." Plame is the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was sent by the government to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein had attempted to procure uranium from Niger. Wilson revealed in an early July op-ed that he'd told the government the claims were false well before they showed up in President Bush's State of the Union address.
While the Post was breaking big news of apparently illegal conduct by senior White House officials, The New York Times was left scrambling, eventually offering up a brief, un-bylined article that was significantly less informative than the Post's coverage. A quick glance at today's papers seemed to indicate that the Times was now ignoring the story altogether, but more careful scrutiny revealed that the information from the previous day's story had been thrown into a page-one piece by Carl Hulse and David Sanger headlined "New Criticism on Prewar Use of Intelligence" -- the main focus of which is on a letter from the House Committee on Intelligence. Interestingly enough, the Post had that story yesterday as well.
In both cases, it would appear that the Times' inferior coverage is the fault of inferior access to sources of information rather than poor news judgment. But the weekend's Post scoops repeat a pattern that's been visible ever since Wilson's allegations first came to light.
The Times should have owned the story of the phantom yellowcake from the beginning, as it was the Times that published the Wilson op-ed that got the whole thing started. But it was the Post that picked up the ball and ran it down the field. Not only did the Post dedicate more words to the story over the summer, it uncovered many significant details that appeared only later -- if at all -- in the Times. On July 11, Walter Pincus reported that the CIA had warned British intelligence of the forgery well before the president gave his speech. On July 20, Priest quoted a "senior administration decision-maker" as saying that "everyone knew" the evidence was shaky yet put it in the speech anyway, and on July 23, Pincus and Dana Milbank revealed the existence of memos from the CIA to Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson warning that the Niger information should not be used in the president's speeches.
The Times' former executive editor, Howell Raines, was roundly assailed in the conservative press both for alleged liberal bias and for his practice of "flooding the zone" with intensive coverage of potentially big stories. With Raines forced from office in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, the new management led by Bill Keller seems to be bending over backward to address these complaints by deliberately downplaying coverage of intelligence scandals that threaten to engulf the administration. Whether this will do the Times any good with its conservative critics remains to be seen, but the paper is threatening to shut itself out of what may develop into a major story.
As Daniel Drezner, a professor of political science and an unpaid adviser to the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign, is asking on his Web log, "[I]f the White House was willing to commit an overtly illegal act in dealing with such a piddling matter, what lines have they crossed on not-so-piddling matters?" It's a good question, and one that The New York Times probably won't be answering.
Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow.