Apr 1 2006

Wrong on Iraq? Not Everyone

Four in the mainstream media who got it right

AP's Charles Hanley

AP’s Charles Hanley: One of the reporters who got Iraq right

When former UN chief weapons inspector David Kay told the Senate Armed Services Committee in January 2004, “We were all wrong,” he was admitting that officials had been wrong to claim Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The we-were-all-wrong trope entered the political lexicon as a mea culpa, but today the White House and its media defenders employ it as a defense of a war started over phantom weapons. We may have been wrong, they argue, but so were the Clinton administration, congressmembers of both parties and other Western intelligence agencies.

As George W. Bush’s approval ratings languished last fall, due in part to the unpopular war, the administration was searching for a “push-back” strategy against Democrats. The White House came up with a variant of the we-were-all-wrong theme, which George W. Bush delivered in a November 11 speech pointing out that while he had been wrong about the weapons, many Democrats had made the same blunder based on the same information.

“That’s why more than 100 Democrats in the House and the Senate, who had access to the same intelligence,” Bush told a Pennsylvania audience, “voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power.” The day before, Bush National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters: “Seventy-seven senators, representing both sides of the aisle . . . believed, based on the same intelligence, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and imposed [sic] an enormous threat to his neighbors and to the world at large.”

Following Bush’s speech, the White House’s media supporters took to the airwaves to echo his defense. Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund, appearing on CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight (11/11/05), told the host: “One of the things we have to recall here is, every leading Democrat, including the Democrats who had access to the same intelligence information like Jay Rockefeller, approved of the war in Iraq.” National Review editor Rich Lowry told PBS’s NewsHour host Jim Lehrer (11/11/05), “Many Democrats were saying the same thing because they were all looking at the same body of intelligence.” On November 13 Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace declared (11/13/05), “Democrats saw basically the same intelligence the president did and made statements, by and large, that were just as alarmist.”

Though the Washington Post (11/12/05) and Knight Ridder (11/15/05) debunked this partisan version of the claim, showing that the White House had access to far more extensive intelligence, the we-were-all-wrong theme does have a grain of truth to it—particularly when it comes to mainstream journalism. New York Times Baghdad bureau chief John Burns made a valid point when he told a U.C. Berkeley conference on Iraq and the media (3/18/04): “We failed the American public by being insufficiently critical about elements of the administration’s plan to go to war.” Strong cases for the general failure of mainstream journalism regarding Iraq were featured in the Columbia Journalism Review (5-6/03) and the New York Review of Books (2/26/04).

But the fact that mainstream media in general suspended critical judgment when it came to reporting on pre-war Iraq claims should not be viewed as an excuse—because, in fact, not all mainstream journalists and pundits got it wrong. Some got it right—simply by carrying out the basic journalistic tasks of checking facts and holding the powerful to account.


Scott Ritter

Scott Ritter (Photo: David Shankbone)

Scott Ritter (Photo: David Shankbone)

Scott Ritter was a media darling in 1998. A tough-talking ex-Marine officer who’d just resigned as chief UN weapons inspector, he criticized the Clinton White House and the UN for failing to support continued aggressive Iraq inspections. In the wake of his resignation, he portrayed Iraq as largely disarmed but still a continuing serious threat.

Two days after his August 26, 1998 resignation, he appeared on all three network morning shows (ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS‘s Morning Show, NBC‘s Today, 8/28/98). An editorial in the Washington Post (8/27/98) was typical of many others across the country that lionized the former inspector: “Yesterday’s resignation by Scott Ritter, perhaps the most determined and courageous of the UN weapons inspectors…stands as a damning indictment of U.S. policy on Iraq.”

As long as he was perceived as an Iraq hardliner, Ritter was a popular news source. In the years following his resignation, however, Ritter’s thinking on Iraq changed—”evolved” was the word he used in a prominent New York Times Magazine profile (11/24/02). As a result, Ritter became something of a journalist and advocate for peace. In the course of putting out two books, a documentary film and several op-ed columns, he came to believe Iraq was not the mortal threat he’d once described. It wasn’t that he thought Iraq was harmless; in fact, he remained the forceful advocate for inspections that he’d always been. But while insisting on tough inspections was once considered a hawkish position, under the Bush administration anyone who thought Saddam Hussein could be contained by anything short of a full-scale invasion was marked as a dove.

In September 2002, Scott Ritter stepped in the path of the White House’s PR blitz, challenging the administration and quickly becoming one of very few prominent critics of the looming war. In a Chicago Tribune op-ed (9/10/02), Ritter exposed a deception on the part of Vice President Dick Cheney that should have sent reporters scurrying to catch up. Cheney claimed in an August 2002 speech (8/26/02) that the Iraqi regime had been “very busy enhancing its capabilities in the field of chemical and biological agents,” and continued “to pursue the nuclear program they began so many years ago.” To back this up, Cheney added, “We’ve gotten this from the firsthand testimony of defectors, including Saddam’s own son-in-law”—a reference to Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel, the former Iraqi weapons chief and Iraq’s highest ranking defector. (See Extra!, 5-6/03.)

Ritter pointed out that Cheney was omitting an inconvenient part of Kamel’s story:

Throughout his interview with UNSCOM, a UN special commission, Hussein Kamal reiterated his main point—that nothing was left. “All chemical weapons were destroyed,” he said. “I ordered destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons—biological, chemical, missile, nuclear—were destroyed.”

In a Baltimore Sun column (9/1/02) calling for the resumption of inspections, Ritter pointed out that earlier inspections had been able to verify a “90 percent to 95 percent level of disarmament,” including “all of the production facilities involved with WMD” and “the great majority of what was produced by these facilities.”

As for the remainder, Ritter told the Guardian (9/19/02), “We have to remember that this missing 5 to 10 percent doesn’t necessarily constitute a threat.” Chemical and biological weapons such as sarin and tabun, he explained, “have a shelf-life of five years.” “Even if Iraq had somehow managed to hide this vast number of weapons,” said Ritter, “what they are now storing is nothing more than useless, harmless goo.”

Ritter summed up his alternative to war on CNN‘s American Morning (9/9/02):

I’m not giving Iraq a clean bill of health. But, again, we’re talking about war here…. Let’s get the inspectors back in, let’s get them to find out what the ultimate disposition of these weapons programs are, and if Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction program, thank goodness, we just defused a war.

Ritter’s dissent from the war program put him back in the public eye, but he was no longer a media darling (See Extra!, 9-10/03). Ritter may have changed his mind about the Iraq threat, but elites had had a similar conversion about the value of inspections; Ritter alone, however, was dubbed a “flip-flopper” (Chicago Tribune, 9/23/02). A trip to Baghdad where he urged Iraqi officials to allow inspections and warned Americans that attacking Iraq would be a “historic mistake” was singled out in a critical profile in the New York Times Magazine (11/24/02). At CBS Evening News (9/30/02), correspondent Tom Fenton said that Ritter “is now what some would call a loose cannon.”

CNN was especially harsh. Appearing on CNN‘s Sunday Morning (9/8/02), CNN news executive Eason Jordan told Catherine Callaway: “Well, Scott Ritter’s chameleon-like behavior has really bewildered a lot of people…. U.S. officials no longer give Scott Ritter much credibility.” When Paula Zahn interviewed Ritter (CNN American Morning, 9/13/02), she suggested he was in league with Saddam Hussein: “People out there are accusing you of drinking Saddam’s Kool-Aid.”

Though the absence of WMDs vindicated his views on the Iraq threat and the value of inspections, it didn’t result in his media rehabilitation. Instead of being sought out and consulted for how he got things right, he became largely invisible. Ritter appeared 19 times on the three major networks’ news broadcasts in the year before the war started (3/20/02-3/19/03). In the year following the attack (3/20/03-3/20/04), he appeared just once (CBS, 8/20/03).


Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay

Jonathan Landay (Photo: New America Foundation)

Jonathan Landay (Photo: New America Foundation)

Knight Ridder“s Washington bureau didn’t take the White House propaganda campaign at face value either. In a September 6, 2002 story, “Lack of Hard Evidence of Iraqi Weapons Worries Top U.S. Officials,” the newspaper chain’s Jonathan Landay reported, “Senior U.S. officials with access to top-secret intelligence on Iraq say they have detected no alarming increase in the threat that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein poses to American security and Middle East stability.” Throughout the run-up to the war, Landay and his Knight Ridder colleague Warren Strobel filed story after story raising questions about Bush administration claims, with headlines like “Some in Bush Administration Have Misgivings About Iraq Policy” (10/8/02) and “Infighting Among U.S. Intelligence Agencies Fuels Dispute Over Iraq” (10/27/02).

Knight Ridder‘s skeptical reporting stood apart from the more credulous coverage regularly put forth by most other mainstream outlets. When the New York Times reported on the aluminum tubes story, “U.S. Says Hussein Intensified Quest for A-Bomb Parts” (9/8/02), it emphasized the White House view that the tubes were hard evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program, and downplayed dissenting views. Knight Ridder published a very different piece, “CIA Report Reveals Analysts’ Split Over Extent of Iraqi Nuclear Threat” (10/4/02), recording strong dissent by prominent experts and portraying the tubes’ purpose as anything but a settled issue. Indeed, in the end, the dissenters were right.

Strobel and Landay received accolades for their tough reporting from some journalism establishment outlets. “Almost alone among national news organizations, Knight Ridder had decided to take a hard look at the administration’s justifications for war,” wrote Michael Massing in the New York Review of Books (2/26/04). Writing in the American Journalism Review (8-9/04), Steve Ritea commended the Knight Ridder reporters:

For about a year and a half, the pair had filed compelling stories on the issue and, on many occasions, it seemed like they were banging the drum alone. It wasn’t until earlier this year, when it became increasingly apparent Hussein had not been stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, that other news outlets grew more critical of the administration.

But when it counted, Knight Ridder‘s reporting too often went unnoticed—in part because more powerful media outlets were too timid or arrogant to attempt to build on Knight Ridder‘s many scoops.


Charles J. Hanley

Charles J. Hanley has had his hand in some big stories. He was the lead Associated Press reporter on the No Gun Ri story (9/29/99), a dramatic Pulitzer Prize-winning 1999 investigative report documenting a massacre of civilians by American soldiers during the Korean War (Extra!, 9-10/00). He was also part of a team of AP reporters that published the first media survey of Iraq’s civilian dead in June 2003 (6/11/03). But some of Hanley’s most important reporting occurred as he covered the weapons inspections in the run-up to the Iraq War.

The centerpiece of Hanley’s reporting on the inspections was a special analysis published on January 18, 2003, “Inspectors Have Covered CIA’s Sites of ‘Concern’ and Reported No Violations.” Hanley’s story documented several Iraqi facilities where Bush administration claims had failed to hold up to inspection.

For instance, in October 2002 the CIA warned that commercial satellite photos showed that Iraq was reconstituting its clandestine nuclear weapons program at Al Tuwaitha, a former nuclear weapons complex. The “intelligence” found its way into the White House’s case for war. On October 7, 2002 George W. Bush told a Cincinnati audience (New York Times, 10/8/02), “Satellite photographs reveal that Iraq is rebuilding facilities at sites that have been part of his nuclear program in the past.”

As Hanley reported, when inspectors returned to Iraq, they visited the Al Tuwaitha site and found no evidence to support Bush’s claim. “Since December 4 inspectors from [Mohamed] ElBaradei’s International Atomic Energy Agency have scrutinized that vast complex almost a dozen times, and reported no violations.” The same was true of site after site, as Hanley reported:

In almost two months of surprise visits across Iraq, UN arms monitors have inspected 13 sites identified by U.S. and British intelligence agencies as major “facilities of concern,” and reported no signs of revived weapons building, an Associated Press analysis shows.

Hanley’s story should have been one of the most important of the pre-war period. By debunking the very claims that had been advanced as proof of an Iraqi threat, Hanley’s analysis ought to have cast severe doubt on the White House’s entire evaluation of the Iraqi threat.

Instead, less than a month after the analysis was published, when Secretary of State Colin Powell made his big war pitch to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003, repeating claims about the Iraq threat that would be debunked in the coming months and years, the press largely accepted Powell’s claims at face value and applauded his performance (Extra!, 3-4/03). One of the few pieces to subject the speech to critical scrutiny: Hanley’s February 7, 2003 report, which began, “Iraqi officials on Friday took foreign journalists to missile assembly and test sites spotlighted in Colin Powell’s anti-Iraq UN presentation, to underscore the fact that the installations have been under UN scrutiny for months.”

[Corrected version 4-4-06]