Profile: Barton Gellman
Barton Gellman was a participant or observer in the following events:
At a private lunch meeting, Vice President Cheney presents President Bush with a four-page memo, written in strict secrecy by lawyer John Yoo of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (see November 6-10, 2001), and a draft executive order that establishes military commissions for the trial of suspected terrorists (see November 10, 2001). The legal brief mandates that foreign terrorism suspects held in US custody have no access to any courts whatsoever, civil, criminal, military, domestic, or foreign. They can be detained indefinitely without charges. If they are to be tried, they can be tried in closed “military commissions.” [White House, 11/13/2001; Savage, 2007, pp. 138; Washington Post, 6/24/2007]
Military Commissions Suitable to 'Unitary Executive' Agenda - According to author Craig Unger, military commissions are a key element of Cheney’s drive towards a “unitary executive,” the accretion of governmental powers to the presidency at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches. Federal trials for terror suspects would put them under all the legal procedures provided under the US judicial system, an unacceptable alternative. Military courts-martial would give them the rights granted by the Geneva Conventions. Military commissions, however, are essentially tribunals operating outside of both civilian and military law. Defendants have few rights. Secret evidence can be admitted without being disclosed to the defendants. Hearsay and coerced testimony are admissible. Prisoners can be held indefinitely. [Unger, 2007, pp. 221-222]
No Bureaucratic Footprints - After Bush peruses the memo and the draft order, Cheney takes them back with him to his office. After leaving Bush, Cheney takes extraordinary steps to ensure that no evidence of his involvement remains. The order passes from Cheney to his chief counsel David Addington, and then to associate White House counsel Bradford Berenson. At Berenson, the provenance of the order breaks, as no one tells him of its origin. Berenson rushes the order to deputy staff secretary Stuart Bowen with instructions to prepare it for signature immediately, without advance distribution to Bush’s top advisers. Bowen objects, saying that he had handled thousands of presidential documents without ever sidestepping the strict procedures governing coordination and review. Bowen relents only after being subjected to what he will later recall as “rapid, urgent persuasion” that Bush is standing by to sign and that the order is too sensitive to delay. Berenson will later say he understood that “someone had briefed” Bush “and gone over it” already. “I don’t know who that was.” When it is returned to Bush’s office later in the day, Bush signs it immediately (see November 13, 2001). Virtually no one else has seen the text of the memo. The Cheney/Yoo proposal has become a military order from the commander in chief.
Dodging Proper Channels - The government has had an interagency working group, headed by Pierre Prosper, the ambassador at large for war crimes, working on the same question (see Shortly Before September 23, 2001). But Cheney and Addington have refused to have any contact with Prosper’s group; one of Cheney’s team later says, “The interagency [group] was just constipated.” Cheney leapfrogged over Prosper’s group with their own proposal, performing an adroit bureaucratic move that puts their proposal in place without any oversight whatsoever, and cutting Prosper’s group entirely out of the process. When the news of the order is broadcast on CNN, Secretary of State Colin Powell demands, “What the hell just happened?” An angry Condoleezza Rice, the president’s national security adviser, sends an aide to find out. Virtually no one, even witnesses to the presidential signing, know that Cheney promulgated the order. In 2007, Washington Post reporters Barton Gellman and Jo Becker will call the episode “a defining moment in Cheney’s tenure” as vice president. Cheney has little Constitutional power, but his deft behind-the-scenes manuevering and skilled bureaucratic gamesmanship enable him to pull off coups like this one, often leaving even the highest White House officials none the wiser. “[H]e has found a ready patron in George W. Bush for edge-of-the-envelope views on executive supremacy that previous presidents did not assert,” the reporters write. [White House, 11/13/2001; Unger, 2007, pp. 221-222; Washington Post, 6/24/2007]
Quiet Contravening of US Law - Six years later, Unger will observe that few inside or outside Washington realize that Cheney has, within a matter of days, contravened and discarded two centuries of American law. He has given the president, in the words of former Justice Department lawyer Bruce Fein, “the functions of judge, jury, and prosecutor in the trial of war crimes [and] the authority to detain American citizens as enemy combatants indefinitely… a frightening power indistinguishable from King Louis XIV’s execrated lettres de cachet that occasioned the storming of the Bastille.” [Unger, 2007, pp. 223-224]
Entity Tags: Stuart W. Bowen, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, US Department of Justice, John C. Yoo, David S. Addington, George W. Bush, Barton Gellman, Bradford Berenson, Jo Becker, Bruce Fein, Condoleezza Rice, Craig Unger, Colin Powell, Pierre-Richard Prosper
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Barton Gellman. [Source: Publicity photo via Washington Post]On December 12, 2002, the Washington Post publishes a front-page story by reporter Barton Gellman entitled “US Suspects Al-Qaeda Got Nerve Agent From Iraqis.” It states: “The Bush administration has received a credible report that Islamic extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda took possession of a chemical weapon in Iraq last month or late in October, according to two officials with firsthand knowledge of the report and its source. They said government analysts suspect that the transaction involved the nerve agent VX and that a courier managed to smuggle it overland through Turkey.” [Washington Post, 12/12/2002] The story proves so controversial that the Post’s ombudsman Michael Getler writes a column about in on December 22. Getler notes that, “[B]eginning with the second paragraph, which started out, ‘If the report proves true…’ the story contains an extraordinary array of flashing yellow lights.” He asks, “[W]hat, after all, is the use of this story that practically begs you not to put much credence in it? Why was it so prominently displayed, and why not wait until there was more certainty about the intelligence?” However, he says the Post stands by publishing the story. [Washington Post, 12/12/2002] Slate will comment in 2004, “[T]he Gellman scoop withered on the vine.… nobody advanced or refuted the story—not even Gellman.” Gellman will later admit that he should have run a follow-up story, if only to point out that no confirming evidence had come out. [Slate, 4/28/2004] He will later admit the story was incorrect. But he will continue to defend the story, claiming that “it was news even though it was clear that it was possible this report would turn out to be false.” [Washington Post, 8/12/2004]
New York Times reporter Judith Miller speaks about her reporting on PBS. [Source: PBS]New York Times reporter Judith Miller, embedded with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division south of Baghdad, writes that Iraq destroyed large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in the days before the March 2003 invasion.
Single Unidentified 'Scientist' as Source - Miller’s source is identified as an Iraqi scientist who claims to have worked in Iraq’s chemical weapons program for over a decade; this scientist is said to have told an American military team hunting for unconventional weapons in Iraq, the Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, or MET Alpha (see April-May 2003), of the stockpiles. According to MET Alpha, the scientist has taken the team to a supply of material he buried in his backyard—“precursors for a toxic agent”—as evidence of Iraq’s illicit weapons programs. The scientist also claims that Iraq sent unconventional weapons and technology to Syria, and has been cooperating with al-Qaeda. In the last years of the Hussein regime, Miller reports the scientist as claiming, Iraq “focused its efforts… on research and development projects that are virtually impervious to detection by international inspectors, and even American forces on the ground combing through Iraq’s giant weapons plants.” MET Alpha refuses to identify the scientist, saying to do so would imperil his safety, and does not take Miller to see the scientist’s buried supply of materials. According to Miller, the team describes the scientist’s assertions and his cache of materials as “the most important discovery to date in the hunt for illegal weapons.” Moreover, Miller writes that the discovery “supports the Bush administration’s charges that Iraq continued to develop those weapons and lied to the United Nations about it. Finding and destroying illegal weapons was a major justification for the war.”
Military Controlled, Vetted Report - Miller admits to not interviewing the scientist, not being permitted to write about the scientist for three days, and having her report vetted by military officials before submitting it for publication. She says that portions of her report detailing the chemicals located by the MET Alpha team were deleted, again for fear that such reporting might place the scientist in jeopardy. Neither Pentagon officials in Washington nor CENTCOM officials in Qatar will verify that the scientist is actually working with American forces. Miller’s only contact with the scientist is viewing him “from a distance at the sites where he said that material from the arms program was buried,” where he wore a baseball cap and pointed at spots in the sand where he claimed chemical weapons materials were buried.
'Incalculable Value' - Miller quotes the commander of the 101st Airborne, Major General David Petraeus, as calling the potential of MET Alpha’s work “enormous.” Petraeus adds: “What they’ve discovered could prove to be of incalculable value. Though much work must still be done to validate the information MET Alpha has uncovered, if it proves out it will clearly be one of the major discoveries of this operation, and it may be the major discovery.” [New York Times, 4/21/2003] The day after her report is published, Miller will tell a PBS interviewer: “I think they found something more than a smoking gun.… What they’ve found is… a silver bullet in the form of a person, an Iraqi individual, a scientist, as we’ve called him, who really worked on the programs, who knows them firsthand, and who has led MET Alpha people to some pretty startling conclusions.” Asked if the report will confirm “the insistence coming from the US government that after the war, various Iraqi tongues would loosen, and there might be people who would be willing to help,” Miller responds: “Yes, it clearly does.… That’s what the Bush administration has finally done. They have changed the political environment, and they’ve enabled people like the scientists that MET Alpha has found to come forth.” [American Journalism Review, 8/2003; Huffington Post, 1/30/2007]
Report Almost Entirely Wrong - Miller’s reporting will be proven to be almost entirely wrong. Neither Miller nor MET Alpha will ever produce any tangible evidence of the scientist’s claims, including the so-called “evidence” he claims he buried in his backyard. And, Miller will later admit, the “scientist” was actually a former Iraqi military intelligence officer with no connection to Iraq’s WMD programs (see July 25, 2003). [Slate, 7/25/2003] Other reporters, such as the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman and the Associated Press’s Dafna Linzer, report that teams such as MET Alpha have found nothing of use. Linzer will soon report that nothing the Iraqi scientist claims can be verified. And Miller will admit that much of the information she has published in the Times has come from Iraqi National Congress head Ahmed Chalabi (see May 1, 2003), a known fabricator (see 1992-1996, (1994), November 6-8, 2001, Summer 2002, Early 2003, and July 9, 2004). Miller will continue to insist that her reporting is accurate. [American Journalism Review, 8/2003]
The Washington Post prints an article by reporter Barton Gellman about the intelligence leaks from the White House that led to the outing of CIA official Valerie Plame Wilson. The article examines the question of whether Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, obstructed the FBI investigation into Plame Wilson’s exposure in order to protect Cheney. [Washington Post, 10/30/2005] According to journalist and blogger Joshua Micah Marshall, the Post deleted a key portion of Gellman’s story shortly after it appeared on the Post’s Web site (the edited version is what makes it into print). The deleted portion noted that on July 12, 2003, Cheney told Libby “to alert reporters of an attack launched that morning on [former ambassador Joseph] Wilson’s credibility by Fleischer, according to a well-placed source” (see July 12, 2003 and 3:20 a.m. July 12, 2003). [Joshua Micah Marshall, 10/30/2005] A criminal lawyer who blogs under the moniker “Anonymous Liberal” speculates that the Post may have removed the reference to Fleischer because Fleischer was a source for Post reporter Walter Pincus. Pincus is identified in Gellman’s article as receiving information from an unidentified White House source who, like Libby, attacked Wilson and implied that he was sent to Niger by his wife (see February 19, 2002, July 22, 2003, October 17, 2003, and July 20, 2005). [Anonymous Liberal, 10/30/2005]
Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Barton Gellman, Ari Fleischer, “Anonymous Liberal”, Bush administration (43), Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Walter Pincus, Washington Post, Valerie Plame Wilson, Joshua Micah Marshall
Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing
The Washington Post’s editorial staff, led by editor Fred Hiatt, pens an op-ed defending President Bush’s decision to selectively leak classified information (see June 19 or 20, 2003, June 27, 2003, July 2, 2003, July 6-10, 2003, 7:35 a.m. July 8, 2003, July 10, 2003, (July 11, 2003), July 12, 2003, July 12, 2003, Late Afternoon, July 12, 2003, July 14 or 15, 2003, and July 17, 2003) from a 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq (NIE—see October 1, 2002). Apparently the editorial is in response to recent information from special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald that shows Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney deliberately released selected classified information to manipulate public perceptions about the Iraq war (see April 5, 2006, and April 9, 2006). The Post says that a sitting president has the authority to declassify classified information, and Bush did so “in order to make clear why he had believed that Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear weapons.” It calls the leaking of the information to a variety of press sources “clumsy,” and says the handling of the information exposed Bush “to the hyperbolic charges of misconduct and hypocrisy that Democrats are leveling.” The Post says that nothing was illegal or untoward about Cheney’s method of releasing the information—authorizing his chief of staff, Lewis Libby, to leak the information to New York Times reporter Judith Miller—instead of the usual methodology of officially declassifying the information and then sharing it with the press in a briefing. But Cheney’s actions, the Post says, made “Bush look foolish” when he “subsequently denounced a different leak in the same controversy and vow[ed] to ‘get to the bottom’ of it.” The Post turns its focus onto former ambassador Joseph Wilson, accusing him of lying about his conclusions that Niger had not attempted to sell Iraq any uranium (see July 6, 2003), and saying that the White House made no attempts to smear or discredit him (see June 2003, June 3, 2003, June 11, 2003, June 12, 2003, June 19 or 20, 2003, July 6, 2003, July 6-10, 2003, July 7, 2003 or Shortly After, 8:45 a.m. July 7, 2003, 9:22 a.m. July 7, 2003, July 7-8, 2003, July 11, 2003, (July 11, 2003), July 12, 2003, July 12, 2003, July 18, 2003, October 1, 2003, April 5, 2006, and April 9, 2006). The Post also reiterates the disproven claim that Wilson was sent to Niger by his wife, outed CIA official Valerie Plame Wilson (see February 19, 2002, July 22, 2003, October 17, 2003, and July 20, 2005). [Washington Post, 4/9/2006]
Similar Editorials from Three Other Publications - The New York Post, National Review, and Wall Street Journal ran very similar editorials in the days before the Washington Post editorial. [New York Post, 4/7/2006; National Review, 4/8/2006; Wall Street Journal, 4/8/2006]
Post News Report Contradicts Editorial - The same day that the Post publishes the editorial, it also prints an article by veteran reporters Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer that documents an extensive White House effort to besmirch Wilson’s credibility. The reporters write: “Fitzgerald wrote that Cheney and his aides saw Wilson as a threat to ‘the credibility of the vice president (and the president) on a matter of signal importance: the rationale for the war in Iraq.’ They decided to respond by implying that Wilson got his CIA assignment by ‘nepotism.’” [Washington Post, 4/9/2006]
'BushCo Propaganda' - Author and film producer Jane Hamsher, who runs the liberal blog FireDogLake, calls the Post editorial “an unmitigated piece of BushCo. propaganda” and devotes a considerable amount of space to challenging the editorial’s assertions. [Jane Hamsher, 4/9/2006]
Entity Tags: Judith Miller, George W. Bush, Fred Hiatt, Dafna Linzer, Barton Gellman, Joseph C. Wilson, Washington Post, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Jane Hamsher, National Review, Valerie Plame Wilson, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Wall Street Journal, New York Post
Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing
Receive weekly email updates summarizing what contributors have added to the History Commons database
Developing and maintaining this site is very labor intensive. If you find it useful, please give us a hand and donate what you can.
If you would like to help us with this effort, please contact us. We need help with programming (Java, JDO, mysql, and xml), design, networking, and publicity. If you want to contribute information to this site, click the register link at the top of the page, and start contributing.