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Now They Tell Us

On the aluminum tubes, ElBaradei reported that they

appear to be consistent with reverse engineering of rockets. While it would be possible to modify such tubes for the manufacture of centrifuges, they are not directly suitable for it.

In short, the IAEA, after weeks of intensive inspections, had found no sign whatever of any effort by Iraq to resume its nuclear program. Given the importance the administration had attached to this matter, this would have seemed news of the utmost significance. Yet it was largely ignored. The Times, which had so prominently displayed its initial story about the aluminum tubes, buried its main article about ElBaradei’s statement on page A10. (The paper did briefly mention ElBaradei’s conclusion about the tubes in a front-page story that focused mainly on Iraq’s lack of cooperation with the inspectors.) One of the few papers to give his statement significant treatment was The Washington Post. Following up on his earlier article on the tubes, Joby Warrick incorporated the IAEA findings into a detailed analysis of the claims and counterclaims surrounding the tubes. The article cited weapons inspectors, scientists, and other experts, all of whom cast strong doubt on the administration’s arguments.3

The IAEA, Melissa Fleming observed, “was inundated with calls, but they were less of an investigative nature than about what the inspectors were finding on a daily basis. In general reporters showed little interest in more complex subjects like the aluminum tubes.” Mark Gwozdecky, the IAEA’s top spokesperson, added: “Nobody wanted to challenge the President. Nobody wanted to believe inspections had anything of value to bring to the table. The press bought into that.”

6.

The reception accorded Mohamed ElBaradei’s statement contrasted sharply with that given Colin Powell’s speech at the United Nations on February 5, 2003. The secretary of state gave a high-tech presentation of intercepted tapes, satellite photos, videos, and diagrams to demonstrate what he called “a policy of evasion and deception” by Iraq dating back to 1991. Iraq’s arsenal, Powell asserted, included mobile laboratories to produce bioweapons, unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver them, and chemical munitions plants. On the nuclear issue, Powell said that “Saddam Hussein is determined to get his hands on a nuclear bomb. He is so determined that he has made repeated covert attempts to acquire high-specification aluminum tubes from 11 countries, even after inspections resumed.” Powell also asserted the existence of a “sinister nexus” between Iraq and al-Qaeda, citing as evidence the activities of Ansar al-Islam, a militant Islamic group based in northeastern Iraq. The group, he said, operated a poison-making camp in the region and had strong links to Iraqi intelligence.

The speech, while viewed skeptically by most foreign governments, received high approval ratings in American polls—and rapturous reviews from the American press. On CNN, after General Amer al-Saadi, Saddam Hussein’s scientific adviser, appeared to offer a point-by-point rebuttal of Powell’s charges, anchor Paula Zahn brought on former State Department spokesman James Rubin to comment. Introducing Rubin, Zahn said, “You’ve got to understand that most Americans watching this were either probably laughing out loud or got sick to their stomach. Which was it for you?”

Well, really, both,” Rubin replied. The American people “will believe everything they saw,” he said. “They have no reason to doubt any of [Powell’s] sources, any of the references to human sources, any of the pictures, or any of the intercepts.”

The next day’s New York Times carried three front-page articles on Powell’s speech, all of them glowing. His presentation took “the form of a nearly encyclopedic catalog that reached further than many had expected,” wrote Steven Weisman. According to Patrick Tyler, an “intelligence breakthrough” had made it possible for Powell “to set forth the first evidence of what he said was a well developed cell of Al Qaeda operating out of Baghdad.” The speech, he wrote, was “a more detailed and well-documented bill of particulars than many had expected.”

The Washington Post was no less positive. “Data on Efforts to Hide Arms Called ‘Strong Suit of Speech’” went one headline. “Agency Coordination Helps Yield Details on Al Qaeda ‘Associate’” went another. In an editorial titled “Irrefutable,” the paper asserted that, after Powell’s performance, “it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.” The Op-Ed page ran four pieces about the speech—all of them full of praise. “An Old Trooper’s Smoking Gun,” stated the headline atop Jim Hoagland’s column. Even the normally skeptical Mary McGrory pitched in with a favorable assessment, headlined, “I’m Persuaded.”

Tucked inside each paper, however, were articles that questioned the quality of Powell’s evidence. In the Times, for instance, C.J. Chivers reported (on page A22) that Kurdish officials in northern Iraq were puzzled by Powell’s claims of a poison-making facility in the area. A few days later, after visiting the purported camp, he found it to be a “wholly unimpressive place” that lacked even plumbing. In the Post, Joby Warrick raised questions about Powell’s claims regarding the aluminum tubes. (This time, though, those questions were relegated to page A29). Newsweek accompanied its article on the speech with five boxes evaluating Powell’s key claims; each raised significant doubts. On his charge that Iraq had mobile biogerm labs, for instance, the magazine observed that experts believed such labs “would be all but unworkable” and that US intelligence, “after years of looking for them, has never found even one.”

In the weeks following the speech, one journalist—Walter Pincus of The Washington Post—developed strong reservations about it. A longtime investigative reporter, Pincus went back and read the UN inspectors’ reports of 1998 and 1999, and he was struck to learn from them how much weaponry had been destroyed in Iraq before 1998. He also tracked down General Anthony Zinni, the former head of the US Central Command, who described the hundreds of weapons sites the United States had destroyed in its 1998 bombing. All of this, Pincus recalled, “made me go back and read Powell’s speech closely. And you could see that it was all inferential. If you analyzed all the intercepted conversations he discussed, you could see that they really didn’t prove anything.”

By mid-March, Pincus felt he had enough material for an article questioning the administration’s claims on Iraq. His editors weren’t interested. It was only after the intervention of his colleague Bob Woodward, who was researching a book on the war and who had developed similar doubts, that the editors agreed to run the piece—on page A17. Despite the administration’s claims about Iraq’s WMD, it began, “US intelligence agencies have been unable to give Congress or the Pentagon specific information about the amounts of banned weapons or where they are hidden….” Noting the pressure intelligence analysts were feeling from the White House and Pentagon, Pincus wrote that senior officials, in making the case for war, “repeatedly have failed to mention the considerable amount of documented weapons destruction that took place in Iraq between 1991 and 1998.”

Two days later, Pincus, together with Dana Milbank, the Post‘s White House correspondent, was back with an even more critical story. “As the Bush administration prepares to attack Iraq this week,” it began, “it is doing so on the basis of a number of allegations against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that have been challenged—and in some cases disproved—by the United Nations, European governments and even US intelligence reports.” That story appeared on page A13.4

The placement of these stories was no accident, Pincus says. “The front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times are very important in shaping what other people think,” he told me. “They’re like writing a memo to the White House.” But the Post‘s editors, he said, “went through a whole phase in which they didn’t put things on the front page that would make a difference.”

7.

The Post was not alone. The nearer the war drew, and the more determined the administration seemed to wage it, the less editors were willing to ask tough questions. The occasional critical stories that did appear were, like Pincus’s, tucked well out of sight.

The performance of the Times was especially deficient. While occasionally running articles that questioned administration claims, it more often deferred to them. (The Times‘s editorial page was consistently much more skeptical.) Compared to other major papers, the Times placed more credence in defectors, expressed less confidence in inspectors, and paid less attention to dissenters. The September 8 story on the aluminum tubes was especially significant. Not only did it put the Times‘s imprimatur on one of the administration’s chief claims, but it also established a position at the paper that apparently discouraged further investigation into this and related topics.

The reporters working on the story strongly disagree. That the tubes were intended for centrifuges “was the dominant view of the US intelligence community,” Michael Gordon told me. “It looks like it’s the wrong view. But the story captured what was and still is the majority view of the intelligence community—whether right or wrong.” Not only the director of central intelligence but also the secretary of state decided to support it, Gordon said, adding,

Most of the intelligence agencies in the US government thought that Iraq had something. Both Clinton and Bush officials thought this. So did Richard Butler, who had been head of UNSCOM and who wrote a book about Iraq called “The Greatest Threat.” So it was a widely shared assumption in and out of government. I don’t recall a whole lot of people challenging that.

Yet there were many people challenging the administration’s assertions. It’s revealing that Gordon encountered so few of them. On the aluminum tubes, David Albright, as noted above, made a special effort to alert Judith Miller to the dissent surrounding them, to no avail.

Asked about this, Miller said that as an investigative reporter in the intelligence area, “my job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq’s arsenal.” Many journalists would disagree with this; instead, they would consider offering an independent evaluation of official claims one of their chief responsibilities.

I asked Miller about her December 20, 2001, article about Saeed al-Haideri, the Chalabi-linked defector who claimed that Saddam Hussein had a network of hidden sites for producing and storing banned weapons—sites said to include the ground under Saddam Hussein Hospital. In a subsequent piece about the Bush administration’s use of defectors, Miller had stated that al-Haideri’s interviews with US intelligence had “resulted in dozens of highly credible reports on Iraqi weapons-related activity and purchases.” Yet neither UN inspectors nor the Iraq Survey Group was able to confirm any of those reports. Al-Haideri, Miller acknowledges, “might have been totally wrong, but I believe he was acting in good faith, and it was the best we could do at the time.”

To this day, neither Miller nor the Times as a whole has reported on the failure to confirm al-Haideri’s claims. Miller says that while the paper hasn’t reported on al-Haideri’s specific allegations, it did do “fifteen stories on weapons not found in Iraq.” Yet, in view of the prominence the Times had given al-Haideri’s claims, its failure to follow up on them suggests a lack of interest in correcting reports that were later contradicted by the evidence. (By contrast, the BBC show Panorama, which in September 2002 had reported some of al-Haideri’s claims, noted pointedly in a follow-up program aired in November 2003 that the Iraq Survey Group had searched for but “found none of the laboratory facilities described by Mr. Haideri, including a bunker under a hospital.”)

Looking back at her coverage of Iraq’s weapons, Miller insists that the problem lies with the intelligence, not the reporting. “The fact that the United States so far hasn’t found WMD in Iraq is deeply disturbing. It raises real questions about how good our intelligence was. To beat up on the messenger is to miss the point.”

If nothing else, the Iraq saga should cause journalists to examine the breadth of their sources. “One question worth asking,” John Walcott of Knight Ridder says, “is whether we in journalism have become too reliant on high-level officials instead of cultivating less glamorous people in the bowels of the bureaucracy. “In the case of Iraq, he added, the political appointees “really closed ranks. So if you relied exclusively on traditional news sources—assistant secretaries and above—you would not have heard things we heard.” What Walcott calls “the blue collar” employees of the agencies—the working analysts or former analysts—were drawn on extensively by Knight Ridder, but by few others.

Since the end of the war, journalists have found no shortage of sources willing to criticize the administration. (Even Colin Powell, in a recent press conference, admitted that, contrary to his assertions at the United Nations, he had no “smoking gun” proof of a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.) The Washington Post has been especially aggressive in exposing the administration’s exaggerations of intelligence, its inadequate planning for postwar Iraq, and its failure to find weapons of mass destruction. Barton Gellman, who before the war worked so hard to ferret out Iraq’s ties to terrorists, has, since its conclusion, written many incisive articles about the administration’s intelligence failures.5

The contrast between the press’s feistiness since the end of the war and its meekness before it highlights one of the most entrenched and disturbing features of American journalism: its pack mentality. Editors and reporters don’t like to diverge too sharply from what everyone else is writing. When a president is popular and a consensus prevails, journalists shrink from challenging him. Even now, papers like the Times and the Post seem loath to give prominent play to stories that make the administration look too bad. Thus, stories about the increasing numbers of dead and wounded in Iraq—both American and Iraqi—are usually consigned to page 10 or 12, where they won’t cause readers too much discomfort.

—January 29, 2004

  1. 3

    See also Bob Drogin and Maggie Farley, “After 2 Months, No Proof of Iraq Arms Programs,” Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2003, for a thorough account of how UN inspectors were “unable to corroborate Bush administration claims” about Iraq’s weapons.

  2. 4

    See Harry Jaffe, “Why Doesn’t the Post Love Walter Pincus?” The Washingtonian, September 2003, and Ari Berman, “The Postwar Post,” TheNation.com, September 17, 2003.

  3. 5

    See, especially, “Depiction of Threat Outgrew Supporting Evidence,” August 10, 2003, p. A1. Co-written with Walter Pincus, the article describes in impressive detail how the administration twisted the intelligence on the aluminum tubes.

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