While teams of U.N. experts scouring Iraq have yet to find any hidden caches of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, some U.S. journalists seem to have already turned up their own smoking guns. Whether out of excess zeal or simple carelessness, the media's intensive coverage of the U.N. inspections has repeatedly glided from reporting the allegation that Iraq is hiding banned weapons materials to repeating it as a statement of fact.
"The Bush administration is seeking to derail plans by the chief U.N. weapons inspector to issue another report," wrote the Washington Post's Colum Lynch (1/16/03), "fearing it could delay the U.S. timetable for an early confrontation over Iraq's banned weapons programs."
"Today Mr. Bush left it to his spokesman to answer critics who asked what precise threat Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction pose to America," reported NBC White House correspondent David Gregory (NBC Nightly News, 1/27/03).
Tony Blair, wrote Time's Michael Elliot (2/3/03), has declared that "Britain's troops will fight alongside their American counterparts if Washington judges that Saddam Hussein is not making a good-faith effort to disarm Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."
Clearly, however, it has not been demonstrated that Iraq continues to hold unconventional weapons, such as the chemical munitions it used in its war against Iran. (Iraq is barred from possessing or developing such weapons under the ceasefire agreement that ended the 1991 Gulf War.) On the contrary, the 1999 U.N. report that led to the establishment of UNMOVIC summarized the state of Iraq's disarmament this way: "Although important elements still have to be resolved, the bulk of Iraq's proscribed weapons programmes has been eliminated." (The report was issued by the U.N. Security Council's disarmament panel, whose members included senior UNSCOM officials, such as its American deputy executive director, Charles Duelfer.)
Rolf Ekeus, who led UNSCOM from 1991 to 1997, agrees with that assessment: "I would say that we felt that in all areas we have eliminated Iraq's capabilities fundamentally," he told a May 2000 Harvard seminar (AP, 8/16/00), adding that "there are some question marks left."
Iraq's failure to document its answers to those remaining "question marks" formed the basis of Hans Blix's critical January 27 progress report to the U.N.
But while Blix said he could not certify that all of the proscribed materials Iraq once possessed had been destroyed, neither did he find evidence that any remain. In private, some inspectors do not rule out the possibility that Iraq truly is free of banned weapons: "We haven't found an iota of concealed material yet," one unnamed UNMOVIC official told Los Angeles Times Baghdad correspondent Sergei Loiko (12/31/02), who added: "The inspector said his colleagues think it possible that Iraq really has eliminated its banned materials."
Yet some major news outlets seem to have made up their minds to the contrary. The Bush administration, according to CBS's John Roberts (CBS Evening News, 12/29/02), is "threatening war against Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction," while Dan Rather (CBS Evening News, 1/6/03) announced that "the CIA is being urged to make public more of its intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."
In a piece about how the United States is winning the debate at the U.N. over Iraq, the New York Times (2/2/03) claimed that "nobody seriously expected Mr. Hussein to lead inspectors to his stash of illegal poisons or rockets, or to let his scientists tell all." On January 27, CNN host Paula Zahn teased the network's upcoming live coverage of the inspectors' "highly anticipated progress report on the search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."
Through constant repetition of phrases like "the search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction," the media convey to the public the impression that the alleged banned weapons on which the Bush administration rests its case for war are known to exist and that the question is simply whether inspectors are skillful enough to find them. In fact, whether or not Iraq possesses banned weapons is very much an open question, one which no publicly available evidence can answer one way or the other. As they routinely do in other cases, journalists should make a habit of using the modifier "alleged" when referring to Iraq's alleged hidden weapons.