Feb
10
2003

A Failure of Skepticism in Powell Coverage

Colin Powell at the UN.

Colin Powell at the UN.

In reporting on Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 5 presentation to the United Nations Security Council, many journalists treated allegations made by Powell as though they were facts. Reporters at several major outlets neglected to observe the journalistic rule of prefacing unverified assertions with words like "claimed" or "alleged."

This is of particular concern given that over the last several months, many Bush administration claims about alleged Iraqi weapons facilities have failed to hold up to inspection. In many cases, the failed claims--like Powell's claims at the U.N.--have cited U.S. and British intelligence sources and have included satellite photos as evidence.

In its report on Powell's presentation, the New York Daily News (2/6/03) accepted his evidence at face value: "To buttress his arguments, Powell showed satellite photos of Iraqi weapons sites and played several audiotapes intercepted by U.S. electronic eavesdroppers. The most dramatic featured an Iraqi Army colonel in the 2nd Republican Guards Corps ordering a captain to sanitize communications." The Daily News gave no indication that it had independent confirmation that the photos were indeed of weapons sites, or that individuals on the tapes were in fact who Powell said they were.

In Andrea Mitchell's report on NBC Nightly News (2/5/03), Powell's allegations became actual capabilities of the Iraqi military: "Powell played a tape of a Mirage jet retrofitted to spray simulated anthrax, and a model of Iraq's unmanned drones, capable of spraying chemical or germ weapons within a radius of at least 550 miles."

Dan Rather, introducing an interview with Powell (60 Minutes II, 2/5/03), shifted from reporting allegations to describing allegations as facts: "Holding a vial of anthrax-like powder, Powell said Saddam might have tens of thousands of liters of anthrax. He showed how Iraqi jets could spray that anthrax and how mobile laboratories are being used to concoct new weapons." The anthrax supply is appropriately attributed as a claim by Powell, but the mobile laboratories were something that Powell "showed" to be actually operating.

Commentator William Schneider on CNN Live Today (2/6/03) dismissed the possibility that Powell could be doubted: "No one disputes the findings Powell presented at the U.N. that Iraq is essentially guilty of failing to disarm." When CNN's Paula Zahn (2/5/03) interviewed Jamie Rubin, former State Department spokesperson, she prefaced a discussion of Iraq's response to Powell's speech thusly: "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?"

Journalists should always be wary of implying unquestioning faith in official assertions; recent history is full of official claims based on satellite and other intelligence data that later turned out to be false or dubious. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the first Bush administration rallied support for sending troops to Saudi Arabia by asserting that classified satellite photos showed the Iraqi army mobilizing on the Saudi border. This claim was later discredited when the St. Petersburg Times obtained commercial satellite photos showing no such build-up (Second Front, John R. MacArthur). The Clinton administration justified a cruise missile attack on the Sudan by saying that intelligence showed that the target was a chemical weapons factory; later investigation showed it to be a pharmaceutical factory (London Independent, 5/4/99).

In the present instance, journalists have a responsibility to put U.S. intelligence claims in context by pointing out that a number of allegations recently made by the current administration have already been debunked. Among them:

* Following a CIA warning in October that commercial satellite photos showed Iraq was "reconstituting" its clandestine nuclear weapons program at Al Tuwaitha, a former nuclear weapons complex, George W. Bush told a Cincinnati audience on October 7 (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."

When inspectors returned to Iraq, however, 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(IAEA) have scrutinized that vast complex almost a dozen times, and reported no violations," according to an Associated Press report (1/18/03).

* In September and October U.S. officials charged that conclusive evidence existed that Iraq was preparing to resume manufacturing banned ballistic missiles at several sites. In one such report the CIA said "the only plausible explanation" for a new structure at the Al Rafah missile test site was that Iraqis were developing banned long-range missiles (Associated Press, 1/18/03). But CIA suggestions that facilities at Al Rafah, in addition to sites at Al Mutasim and Al Mamoun, were being used to build prohibited missile systems were found to be baseless when U.N. inspectors repeatedly visited each site (Los Angeles Times, 1/26/03).

* British and U.S. intelligence officials said new building at Al-Qaim, a former uranium refinery in Iraq's western desert, suggested renewed Iraqi development of nuclear weapons. But an extensive survey by U.N. inspectors in December reported no violations (Associated Press, 1/18/03).

* Last fall the CIA warned that "key aspects of Iraq's offensive [biological weapons] program are active and most elements are more advanced and larger" than they were pre-1990, citing as evidence renewed building at several facilities such as the Al Dawrah Vaccine Facility, the Amiriyah Serum and Vaccine Institute, and the Fallujah III Castor Oil Production Plant. By mid-January, inspectors had visited all the sites many times over. No evidence was found that the facilities were being used to manufacture banned weapons (Los Angeles Times, 1/26/03).

The Associated Press concluded in its January 18 analysis: "In almost two months of surprise visits across Iraq, U.N. 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."

Regarding the number of allegations made by the Bush and Blair governments that have washed out on inspection, former U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq Hans von Sponeck told the British newspaper the Mirror (2/6/03) following Powell’s U.N. presentation:

The inspectors have found nothing which was in the Bush and Blair dossiers of last September. What happened to them? They are totally embarrassed by them. I have seen facilities in pieces in Iraq which U.S. intelligence reports say are dangerous.The Institute of Strategic Studies referred to the Al Fallujah Three castor oil production unit and the Al Dora foot and mouth center as "facilities of concern." In 2002 I saw them and they were destroyed, there was nothing. All that was left were shells of buildings. This is a classic example of manipulating allegations, allegations being converted into facts.

Responsible journalists should avoid playing a part in such a conversion by making a clear distinction between what has been alleged by the U.S. government and what has been independently verified.