• Email
  • Print

Now They Tell Us’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

Michael Massing [“Iraq: Now They Tell Us,” NYR, February 26] misquoted me in his highly selective account of how he believes the press covered Iraq before the war. Though I asked him to read me back my quotes for accuracy and he reluctantly did, there is one that he missed. I did not say that as an investigative reporter, I was not an “independent intelligence analyst.” I am both an analyst and very independent. What I said was that as an investigative reporter, I could not be an independent intelligence agency.

Along with other colleagues at the Times, I wrote about the intelligence that was available from government and nongovernment sources.

Judith Miller
The New York Times
New York City

To the Editors:

Your story on the pre-war coverage of Iraq, focusing in part on The New York Times, failed to mention that I wrote several stories before the war critical of the Bush administration’s case, both on the evidence of links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, and on the basis for claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I wrote stories that revealed that analysts at the CIA felt pressured to make their reports conform to the Bush administration agenda. I did this during the same pre-war period in which your story claimed that Walter Pincus of The Washington Post was the lone journalist writing such stories. I believe that your story was misleading as a result. I have to believe that you omitted citing my stories—which I mentioned to the writer of the article when he interviewed me—in order to build his indictment against The New York Times.

James Risen
The New York Times
Washington, D.C.

To the Editors:

In his piece in your latest issue, “Now They Tell Us,” Michael Massing lambastes America’s news organizations for failing to warn the country about the Bush administration’s “deceptions and concealments” of relevant information about Iraq before launching a war in that country. He accuses us of holding back information, and of succumbing to a pack mentality by not writing things that were out of step with our competitors or contradicted the administration line.

Massing is entitled to his views, and I’m not going to dispute that in this case—as in so many cases—The Washington Post and other news organizations could have done much better. We are archetypal examples of imperfection. We do our thing at breakneck speed 365 days a year, and we make mistakes on every one of them.

But your readers are entitled to know that Massing’s account is, to put it charitably, incomplete. In his description of Post coverage of Iraq, he has done something rather like what the Bush administration appears to have done before the war. He has “cherry picked” examples that suit his thesis, ignored or distorted those that don’t.

Most of the shortcomings Massing writes about are from The New York Times, our venerable competitor, and I will have nothing to say about them. But I would like to comment on several of his points about the news media in general, and his examples involving the Post.

Massing obviously has a point of view: the war in Iraq was a bad mistake, based on faulty or distorted intelligence. The reader concludes from his piece that he always thought this, and wonders why the newspapers he read didn’t say so from the beginning. He also answers that question: we all lacked the nerve to confront the administration and the pack, so even when we knew things we held them back. For example, he writes, “The intelligence community was rent by bitter disputes over how Bush officials were using the data on Iraq. Many journalists knew about this, yet few chose to write about it.”

This assertion at the beginning of his piece is never mentioned again. He names no names, and offers no evidence. For journalists, of course, it is a nasty insult. But there is no reason whatsoever to believe it of journalists at The Washington Post; it is not true. We held back nothing that we knew.

On the broader question of Iraq’s supposed caches of weapons of mass destruction, we know now, or seem to, that the administration’s claims were “almost all wrong,” in David Kay’s memorable phrase. But literally no one outside Iraq knew that before the war. Some suspected it, but many others were sure the claims were right—including nearly every senior official of the Clinton administration involved with Iraq. From the perspective of Washington journalists, for whom accuracy and fairness are important, it was possible to report on arguments and questions about the intelligence, but there was no factual basis for reporting that everything the administration was saying was wrong or a deception. Still today, we have no smoking-gun evidence of deliberate deception.

Our job was to raise the questions. We did, again and again. Yes, the stories sometimes ran on inside pages, but does Massing really mean to imply that editors who will run a story on A10 somehow lack courage if they won’t put it on A1? That suggestion seems silly. Any story we put in the Post has our full backing, obviously, or it wouldn’t be there. Front-page play is always subjective, competitive, and easy to second-guess. But Massing’s selective account creates a misleading picture of what was in the Post.

One example: Massing writes dismissively that we “tucked” away, on page A16, an important Walter Pincus story reminding readers (who only needed reminding, because Walter had told them so earlier in several stories) that “despite the administration’s claims about Iraq’s WMD, 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….” That ran on March 16 last year.

Massing does not note that this was one of eight long stories that dominated the front section of that Sunday’s Post, every one of which was a different kind of warning to readers that Bush was taking a huge gamble by going to war. It was, if I may say so, a remarkable package of tough journalism.

Two of the stories began on the front page, under the headlines “Audacious Mission, Awesome Risks,” an account of the potentially dangerous military war plan, and “Bush Bets Future on Success in Iraq,” which introduced a series of separate articles on the gambles the President was taking politically, diplomatically, economically, and by risking escalated terrorism against the US in response to war.

Inside that A section readers found stories under these headlines: “US Risks Isolation, Breakdown of Old Alliances…”; “Stability of Regional Politics Is at Stake…”; “Striking Iraq Could Fuel Further Attacks on US”; “Economic Costs Could Weaken Bush Politically”; “US Missteps Led to Failed Diplomacy”; and Pincus’s story, “US Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms.”

If Massing is to be believed, the reporters and editors responsible for that Sunday paper, published four days before war began, were among those who “began to muzzle themselves” during the run-up to war. “The nearer the war drew, and the more determined the administration seemed to wage it,” he assured your readers, “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.” This is laughable.

I want to quote just one more Post story so that your readers—few of whom, alas, see our paper every day—can understand why Massing’s piece so exasperates us. This one, by one of our White House correspondents, Dana Milbank, was published prominently on our front page on October 22, 2002. It ran to more than 1,600 words, a long story. Its headline said, “For Bush, Facts Are Malleable.” This is how it began:

President Bush, speaking to the nation this month about the need to challenge Saddam Hussein, warned that Iraq has a growing fleet of unmanned aircraft that could be used “for missions targeting the United States.”

Last month, asked if there were new and conclusive evidence of Hussein’s nuclear weapons capabilities, Bush cited a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency saying the Iraqis were “six months away from developing a weapon.” And last week, the president said objections by a labor union to having customs officials wear radiation detectors has the potential to delay the policy “for a long period of time.”

All three assertions were powerful arguments for the actions Bush sought. And all three statements were dubious, if not wrong. Further information revealed that the aircraft lack the range to reach the United States; there was no such report by the IAEA; and the customs dispute over the detectors was resolved long ago….

A Time magazine cover story this month [February 16, 2004] asked, “Does Bush Have a Credibility Gap?” Dana Milbank of the Post answered that question persuasively in the affirmative on our front page sixteen months earlier—once he managed to take his muzzle off and escape from the pack.

Robert G. Kaiser
Associate Editor and
Senior Correspondent
The Washington Post
Washington, D.C.

Michael Massing replies:

Judith Miller is simply wrong. During my hours of interviews with her, she requested that I read back all of the quotes that I wanted to use, and I readily agreed. I distinctly remember reading back the quote in question, and I distinctly remember her approving it. I did this not “reluctantly” but willingly and patiently, precisely so that I could guarantee accuracy and avoid the type of claim she is now making. In any case, it’s revealing that Miller challenges nothing else in my article, which is filled with examples of what I argued were serious shortcomings in her reporting.

While researching my piece, I did a Nexis search of all the articles James Risen wrote or co-wrote in the period between September 1, 2002, and March 19, 2003, when the war began. Of the forty-seven stories bearing his byline, only three or four could qualify as offering an independent look at the administration’s handling of the intelligence on Iraq. And only one of them appeared on the Times‘s front page—an October 21, 2002, report on how Czech officials had backed off claims that September 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague months before the attacks. This corrected a front-page report that the Times had run a year earlier claiming that such a meeting had taken place. Other than that, Risen’s output struck me as unremarkable, especially on the issue of weapons of mass destruction, the main focus of my article.

My article mentioned Walter Pincus as one journalist who developed strong reservations about Colin Powell’s speech at the United Nations. I cannot find a single article that Risen wrote challenging any aspect of that speech. Nor does he seem to have written anything of note on the key issue of Iraqi defectors and how they influenced the intelligence debate on Iraq. Of particular note, Risen wrote nothing about the reliability of the Iraqi defector Khidhir Hamza. As my article noted, Risen, together with Judith Miller, had in 1998 written a front-page account for the Times about Hamza’s work as a senior nuclear official in Iraq in the 1980s. By 1999, Hamza had begun making many wild claims about Iraq’s efforts to reconstitute its nuclear program, and by 2002 he had been widely discredited. Nonetheless, he was continually cited by President Bush and other US officials to bolster their claims that Iraq was actively seeking to build a nuclear weapon. Here was a case crying out for scrutiny. Yet Risen never touched it.

The piece of Risen’s that particularly caught my attention appeared on March 23, 2003—four days after the start of the war. Headlined “CIA Aides Feel Pressure in Preparing Iraqi Reports,” it reported that “for months” some CIA analysts had “privately expressed concerns” that they “have faced pressure in writing intelligence reports to emphasize links between Saddam Hussein’s government and Al Qaeda.” According to the article, “many veteran analysts” were comparing the current climate at the agency “to that of the early 1980s, when some CIA analysts complained that they were under pressure from the Reagan administration to take a harder line on intelligence reports relating to the Soviet Union.” This is striking information, especially in light of all the postwar revelations about the Bush administration’s manipulation of the data on Iraq. That the Times would run such a piece only after the war had begun, and would bury it on page B10, reinforces my sense that the paper’s coverage was a case of too little, too late.

As to Robert Kaiser’s letter, I should point out that my article did praise several stories published in the Post. This said, I was very much aware of the article he mentions by Dana Milbank. It appeared at a time (mid- to late October 2002) when, as my article notes, many news organizations were beginning to report on the debate going on among intelligence analysts. I mentioned the Post as one of a half-dozen or so news outlets that were running pieces about this. It was the relative silence that set in in November and that extended until the start of the war that seemed so troubling. In my research, I had heard that Milbank’s piece may have played a part in this, so angering White House officials that they had tried to isolate and discredit him—actions that, it was said, had had an inhibiting effect on other White House reporters. Eager to learn more about this, I tried to contact Milbank, leaving him two phone messages and sending him an e-mail. He never responded. As a result, I reluctantly omitted mention of his story from my article.

Ken Auletta did manage to speak to Milbank for his January 19, 2004, article in The New Yorker about the White House press corps (“Fortress Bush”). According to Auletta, Milbank’s article had in fact “enraged” the White House, and several top Bush officials had complained to Post national editor Maralee Schwartz about Milbank, suggesting that he “might be the wrong person for the job.” Milbank himself told Auletta that the White House tried to freeze him out and for a while stopped returning his calls. Auletta goes on to note that in subsequent months, as the administration pressed its claims about the Iraqi threat, there were “increasing complaints that the press was not being rigorous in its examination of such claims.” Auletta’s description of a White House exercising tight control over the flow of information, and of White House reporters making strenuous efforts to cultivate sources, dovetails with my own analysis of why the press became so docile in the months from late October until the start of the war.

Kaiser skips over virtually this entire period. Instead, he mentions a “package” of articles the Post ran on March 16, 2003, a few days before the start of the war. These articles did offer a sharp look at the potential consequences of the impending conflict. It’s almost as if the Post, waking from a long slumber, was finally grappling with the enormity of the events about to unfold. Significantly, none of these articles (aside from Pincus’s) sought to evaluate the administration’s case for going to war—the point on which I argued the coverage was most lacking.

Kaiser fails to mention another article that appeared in that same day’s issue of the Post, by Michael Getler, the paper’s ombudsman. Writing in his weekly col-umn, Getler noted a “perplexing flaw” in the paper’s coverage “that has persisted throughout this long run-up to a controversial war”—a “pattern in the news pages of missing, underplaying or being late” on various stories “with respect to public voices of dissent or uncertainty.” As examples, Getler cited the resignation of diplomat John Brady Kiesling, the reservations of Brent Scowcroft, the warnings of three retired four-star generals, the large antiwar rallies in Europe and Washington, the criticism of Senator Robert Byrd, and the estimates of the war’s cost—all of which, Getler argued, had been downplayed or ignored by the Post. In short, the Post‘s in-house critic detected many of the same deficiencies I described in my article.

Finally, I object to Kaiser’s imputing to me a position on the war. It is no fairer of him to do this than it would be for me to assert, on the basis of his letter, that he supported the war. The discussion should focus solely on the journalistic record, and there is nothing in Kaiser’s letter to alter my view that on this most critical of stories, the Post, like most other news organizations, did not do its job.

(A further exchange on Mr. Massing’s article will be published in the next issue.)

  • Email
  • Print