The unit referred to here was the Office of Special Plans, the same group Seymour Hersh would write about after the war. As such reports show, its existence was widely known before the war. With many analysts prepared to discuss the competing claims over the intelligence on Iraq, the press was in a good position to educate the public on the administration’s justifications for war. Yet for the most part, it never did so. A survey of the coverage in November, December, and January reveals relatively few articles about the debate inside the intelligence community. Those articles that did run tended to appear on the inside pages. Most investigative energy was directed at stories that supported, rather than challenged, the administration’s case.
On December 12, for example, The Washington Post ran a front-page story by Barton Gellman contending that al-Qaeda had obtained a nerve agent from Iraq. Most of the evidence came from administration officials, and it was so shaky as to draw the attention of Michael Getler, the paper’s ombudsman. In his weekly column, Getler wrote that the article had so many qualifiers and caveats that
the effect on the complaining readers, and on me, is to ask what, 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?
And why, he might have added, didn’t the Post and other papers devote more time to pursuing the claims about the administration’s manipulation of intelligence? Part of the explanation, no doubt, rests with the Bush administration’s skill at controlling the flow of news. “Their management of information is far greater than that of any administration I’ve seen,” Knight Ridder’s John Walcott observed. “They’ve made it extremely difficult to do this kind of [investigative] work.” That management could take both positive forms—rewarding sympathetic reporters with leaks, background interviews, and seats on official flights—and negative ones—freezing out reporters who didn’t play along. In a city where access is all, few wanted to risk losing it.
Such sanctions were reinforced by the national political climate. With a popular president promoting war, Democrats in Congress were reluctant to criticize him. This deprived reporters of opposition voices to quote, and of hearings to cover. Many readers, meanwhile, were intolerant of articles critical of the President. Whenever The Washington Post ran such pieces, reporter Dana Priest recalls, “We got tons of hate mail and threats, calling our patriotism into question.” Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and The Weekly Standard, among others, all stood ready to pounce on journalists who strayed, branding them liberals or traitors—labels that could permanently damage a career. Gradually, journalists began to muzzle themselves.
David Albright experienced this firsthand when, during the fall, he often appeared as a commentator on TV. “I felt a lot of pressure” from journalists “to stick to the subject, which was Iraq’s bad behavior,” Albright says. And that, in turn, reflected pressure from the administration: “I always felt the administration was setting the agenda for what stories should be covered, and the news media bought into that, rather than take a critical look at the administration’s underlying reasons for war.” Once, on a cable news show, Albright said that he felt the inspections should continue, that the impasse over Iraq was not simply France’s fault; during the break, he recalls, the host “got really mad and chastised me.”
“The administration created a set of truths, then put up a wall to keep people within it,” Albright says. “On the other side of the wall were people saying they didn’t agree. The media were not aggressive enough in challenging this.”
The press’s submissiveness was most apparent in its coverage of the inspections process. Responsibility for that process lay with two organizations: the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitored Iraq’s nuclear activities, and the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, which oversaw its biological and chemical programs. UNMOVIC, which was based in New York and headed by Hans Blix, got considerable coverage; the IAEA, which was based in Vienna and headed by Mohamed ElBaradei, got little.
“We were constantly frustrated,” Melissa Fleming, an IAEA spokesperson, told me. “The whole focus was on UNMOVIC, which was in New York.” According to IAEA staff members, the press gave far too much weight to what US experts or administration officials said. Jacques Baute, the head of the IAEA’s Iraq inspection team, complained that the agency had a hard time getting its story out. And that story, he explained, was that by 1998 “it was pretty clear we had neutralized Iraq’s nuclear program. There was unanimity on that.”
The IAEA’s success in dismantling Iraq’s nuclear program was spelled out in the periodic reports it sent to the UN Security Council—reports that remained posted on its Web site. And, it was broadly agreed, any effort to restart that program after 1998 would have very likely been detected by the outside world. As the Carnegie Endowment noted in a recent report (“WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications”),
Iraq’s nuclear program had been dismantled by inspectors after the 1991 war, and these facilities—unlike chemical or biological ones—tend to be large, expensive, dependent on extensive imports, and very difficult to hide “in plain sight” under the cover of commercial (that is, dual-use) facilities.
These facts, it added, were “largely knowable” in the fall of 2002, when the debate over inspections was taking place.
Bush officials, however, were loudly proclaiming otherwise. “A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of [Saddam’s] compliance with UN resolutions,” Vice President Cheney declared in his August 26 speech. “On the contrary, there is a great danger it would provide false comfort that Saddam was somehow ‘back in his box.’”
Many journalists echoed this line. Seeking out former weapons inspectors for comment, they generally “gravitated to the most negative ones,” Jacques Baute said. An example was David Kay. According to the IAEA, his background in nuclear and weapons matters was very limited—he has a Ph.D. in international affairs—and he spent no more than five weeks as an inspector in Iraq in 1991. This was far less time—and far longer ago—than was the case for many other inspectors.
Recently, Kay, after stepping down as the top US weapons investigator in Iraq, said that he thought Iraq had largely abandoned the production of illicit weapons during the 1990s and that one key reason was the tough UN inspections. Before the war, however, Kay often declared his contempt for inspections to reporters—including Judith Miller. On September 18, 2002, for instance, in an article headlined “Verification Is Difficult at Best, Say the Experts, and Maybe Impossible,” Miller quoted a variety of officials and former inspectors about the nearly insurmountable obstacles inspectors would face if they returned to Iraq. David Kay, identified as “a former inspector who led the initial nuclear inspections in Iraq in the early 1990’s,” was quoted as saying of the inspectors that “their task is damn near a mission impossible.” Miller also cited Khidhir Hamza, the defector she had written about in 1998. Identified as having “led part of Iraq’s nuclear bomb program until he defected in 1994,” he was quoted as estimating that “Iraq was now at the ‘pilot plant’ stage of nuclear production and within two to three years of mass producing centrifuges to enrich uranium for a bomb.” Iraq, he added, “now excelled” in hiding nuclear and other unconventional weapons programs.
In fact, Hamza never produced any convincing sources for these statements. Contrary to Miller’s description, he had resigned from Iraq’s nuclear program in 1990 and had no firsthand knowledge of it after the Gulf War. After coming to the United States, he had gone to work for David Albright’s Institute for Science and International Security, but by 1999 his claims about Iraq’s weapons programs had become so inflated that Albright felt he could no longer work with him, and Hamza left the institute. The following year he came out with a book, Saddam’s Bombmaker: The Terrifying Inside Story of the Iraqi Nuclear and Biological Weapons Agenda (written with Jeff Stein), that, Albright says, “made many ridiculous claims.” In light of this, he adds, he was surprised to see that Judith Miller continued to rely on Hamza. “Judy should have known about this,” Albright says. “This is her area.”
“Hamza had no credibility at all,” one IAEA staff member told me. “Journalists who called us and asked for an assessment of these people—we’d certainly tell them.” Miller said she believed Hamza was a credible source because he was very useful to the administration. After the war, she noted, the administration sent him to Iraq to work on atomic energy matters. Yet the administration’s reliance on defectors like Hamza was itself highly controversial and deserving of scrutiny. Few journalists provided it, though. In the months leading up to the war, Hamza was a popular source for journalists and a frequent guest on TV news shows. (In fairness, it should be noted that Judith Miller, along with Julia Preston, wrote an article for the Times in late January that, based on a two-hour interview with Hans Blix, described his differences with the Bush administration over its “assertions about Iraqi cheating” and “the notion that time was running out for disarming Iraq through peaceful means.”)
In late November 2002, UN inspectors finally returned to Iraq. Shortly after, Iraq submitted to the UN a 12,000-page declaration stating it had no weapons of mass destruction. Iraq’s failure to account for large stocks of banned weapons uncovered prior to 1998 fed suspicions that it still had such weapons. Nonetheless, IAEA inspectors felt confident that they could get a reliable reading of the status of Iraq’s alleged nuclear program. They had more than a hundred sites they wanted to visit, based on interviews with defectors, data collected from previous inspections, satellite photos, and information provided by the CIA and other US intelligence agencies. Over the summer, IAEA specialists had detected in satellite photos new construction at sites where nuclear activity had taken place in the past. Visiting them, however, inspectors found no suspicious activity. The inspectors also took samples from rivers, canals, and lakes, testing for the presence of certain radioisotopes. None was found.
Finally, the inspectors investigated Iraq’s attempted purchase of aluminum tubes. They examined rocket production and storage sites, studied tube samples, and interviewed key Iraqi personnel. From this they determined that the tubes were consistent with use in conventional rockets, as Iraq had maintained.
On January 9, 2003, Mohamed ElBaradei issued a preliminary report on the inspectors’ work. “To date,” it noted,
no new information of significance has emerged regarding Iraq’s past nuclear programme (pre-1991) or with regard to Iraq activities during the period between 1991 and 1998. To date, no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities has been detected, although not all of the laboratory results of sample analysis are yet available.