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Unfit to Print?

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Buried deep in Bob Woodward’s new book, Plan of Attack, is a revealing anecdote about how the press covered the runup to the war in Iraq. By mid-March 2003, Woodward writes, three separate sources had told him confidentially that the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction “was not as conclusive as the CIA and the administration had suggested.” This, he notes, “was troubling, particularly on what seemed to be the eve of war.” When he mentioned this to Walter Pincus, a colleague at The Washington Post, Pincus told him that he had heard “precisely the same thing” from some of his sources. Woodward then drafted five paragraphs for a possible news story and gave a copy to Pincus and the Post‘s national security editor. The draft began:

Some of the key US intelligence that is the basis for the conclusion that Iraq has large caches of weapons of mass destruction looks increasingly circumstantial, and even shaky as it is further scrutinized, subjected to outside analysis and on-the-ground verification, according to informed sources.

A senior Bush administration source briefed last month on the intelligence said it was “pretty thin,” and might be enough to reach the legal standard of “probable cause” to bring an indictment but not enough for conviction.

Both Pincus and the editor thought the draft “a little strong,” and Woodward agreed. “Though the sources were excellent,” he wrote, “they were only saying the evidence was skimpy. None were asserting that WMD would not be found in Iraq after a war.” Instead the Post on March 16, 2003, ran a much-toned-down version by Pincus on page A17, under the headline, “US Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms.”

Looking back, Woodward writes,

I did not feel I had enough information to effectively challenge the official conclusions about Iraq’s alleged WMD. In light of subsequent events, I should have pushed for a front page story, even on the eve of war, presenting more forcefully what our sources were saying.

This account reveals something about Woodward’s method. Like most of his other books, Plan of Attack contains much information that, if disclosed in “real time,” could have had an effect on the course of events. Woodward’s books leave the impression that everything his subjects told him was embargoed until the book was ready for publication. In this case, however, Woodward was clearly free to reveal the doubts that some senior officials had expressed to him regarding the White House’s claims about Iraq’s arsenal. That he ultimately decided not to do so seems further evidence of the reluctance of the Post as well as other news organizations to challenge the administration’s case for war.

On May 26, The New York Times published a lengthy editors’ note belatedly acknowledging that the paper’s pre-war coverage “was not as rigorous as it should have been.” According to the note, which appeared at the bottom of page A10, accounts of Iraqi defectors were not analyzed with sufficient skepticism, and “articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display” while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question “were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.” Without explicitly mentioning it, the note incorporated many of the criticisms in my article “Now They Tell Us,” appearing in the February 26, 2004, issue of The New York Review.1

The Times deserves credit for running a detailed mea culpa. Yet the note seems less than forthright. First, it does not cite the author of any of the articles. Rather, it lays the blame on “editors at several levels” who “should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism” but who “were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.” This is convenient for the Times, since some of those editors were part of Howell Raines’s regime and have since departed. Nowhere does the note mention Judith Miller, who wrote or co-wrote four of the six main articles cited by the paper. Michael Gordon, whose byline appeared on two of them, is mentioned, but only as the author of a letter that he sent to The New York Review in response to my article—a letter that, the Times states, “could serve as a primer on the complexities” of intelligence reporting. The note gives no hint that Gordon’s own reporting has come in for serious questioning. Such an omission seemed perplexing.

The Times‘s note closes with a pledge “to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight” on the story of Iraq’s weapons. That’s welcome. But the note’s lack of candor does not inspire confidence. What’s more, the paper’s recent coverage of the war seems marred by some of the same flaws that were present in its prewar reporting. This is apparent in its initial response to the Abu Ghraib scandal. When 60 Minutes II aired photos of US soldiers committing abuses at the prison in Iraq, the images quickly flashed around the world. On the next day, Thursday, April 29, the Times ran a modest story about the abuses that appeared at the bottom of page A15; none of the photos appeared. By Friday, the photos were receiving heavy play in both the European press and on Arab satellite TV; in the United States, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, Newsday, and the New York Daily News all ran at least one of the photos. The Times, by contrast, ran no article and published no photos.

A day later, on Saturday, May 1, the scandal made the Times‘s front page. “Bush Voices ‘Disgust’ at Abuse of Iraqi Prisoners” ran the headline atop a story about the President’s comments, made in the White House Rose Garden. In other words, the Times‘s initial front-page story on Abu Ghraib concentrated not on the abuses themselves but on the President’s response to them. And no photo of the abuses appeared on the front page. One had to jump, along with the story, to page A5 to see two of the photos. The article, which described the furor the photos had caused around the world, contained a note from the Times‘s executive editor, Bill Keller, explaining why the Times had not run them earlier. The paper’s news desk, Keller said, had held off because it “could not, in the time available, ascertain their authenticity.”

This seems dubious. Two days earlier, the Times, in its initial article about the scandal, had specifically noted that the photos shown on CBS had been verified by military officials. A survey of the paper’s recent coverage of Iraq suggests that something deeper is at work. For months, the Times has seemed slow to recognize important news developments out of Iraq and to give them the attention they deserve. Aside from the Abu Ghraib scandal, which has lately taken over the Times‘s coverage, the paper has seemed intent on keeping bad news off the front page, especially when it reflects poorly on the Bush administration. Some examples:

å? On May 5, the Bush administration announced that it was going to request $25 billion more for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This came six months after Congress had approved $87 billion for such operations on the assurance from the administration that that amount would last through the end of 2004. The new request was yet another sign that the war was proving far more costly than originally forecast, and The Washington Post announced the news in a two-column headline on its front page (“$25 Billion More Sought to Fund Wars; White House Hoped to Delay Request until After Election”). In the Times, though, the news received a one-sentence “reefer” on its front page, directing readers to a ho-hum account on page A22. “Lawmakers,” it blandly noted, “said they expected to comply with the request.” It was not until May 14, after a contentious hearing at which senators from both parties attacked the administration’s request, that the Times felt the story was fit for its front page.

å? On May 7, The Wall Street Journal carried an explosive front-page report revealing that the Red Cross in February had sent the Bush administration a report detailing widespread abuses against Iraqi prisoners by US military intelligence personnel. According to the Journal, the twenty-four-page report presented a portrait of prisoner treatment “that is at odds with statements by administration officials that abuse wasn’t condoned by military commanders and was limited to a handful of low-ranking soldiers.” Normally, such reports are kept confidential; the Journal‘s disclosure of its contents marked a critical moment in the unfolding of the scandal, and the news made front pages around the world. Not in the Times, however. Not until May 11 did it run a modest story summarizing the report’s findings, tucked away on page A11. Readers reliant on the Times would have had a hard time understanding the huge impact the document has had.

å? On May 9, The Washington Post ran an eye-catching front-page article by Thomas Ricks on rising dissent among senior US military officers over the Bush administration’s conduct of the war. One senior general told Ricks that the United States is already on the road to defeat. Other officers said that “a profound anger is building within the Army” with Donald Rumsfeld, “whom they see as responsible for a series of strategic and tactical blunders over the past year.” The Times had nothing at all comparable, on this or any other day. It did, however, find space on that day’s front page for a reassuring piece about how US brands like Ford and Coca-Cola were continuing to sell well abroad despite international disapproval of US actions in Iraq.

The Times does show flashes of independent reporting. On April 28, for instance, it ran an incisive front-page piece by Eric Schmitt on how the US siege of Fallujah was a “case study in mistaken assumptions, dashed hopes, rivalry between the Army and the Marine Corps, and a tragedy that became a trigger….” And, as the prison scandal unfolded, the Times—mobilizing its staff—produced many revealing accounts, including a May 13 piece on the harsh methods used by the CIA to interrogate top al-Qaeda figures, and several vivid reports by Ian Fisher about former Iraqi prisoners who had been horribly treated at the hands of US guards. As this shows, the Times remains adept at “flooding the zone,” in the phrase of former executive editor Howell Raines, offering many dramatic reports about a story once it’s been ratified as important. And the paper’s editorials on Iraq have been withering about US actions in Iraq. In general, however, the Times has seemed cautious and complacent. With few exceptions, its editors have purged the front page of any signs of blood or death; reports of US casualties are usually relegated to inside pages, and photos seem selected more for their visual appeal than for what they might reveal about the terrible realities of war.

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    Exchanges with critics of that article appeared in the issues of March 25 and April 8. This summer New York Review Books will publish a book containing the original article as well as an earlier one, “The Unseen War,” from the May 29, 2003, issue, along with an epilogue, from which this essay is drawn.

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