Unfit to Print?

1.

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…


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