Mar
06
2000

There They Go Again: The Washington Post's Iraq Tall Tale

Since January 1999, the Washington Post has spun a tall tale about the 1998 collapse of U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq and the U.S./British airstrikes that followed. Not only has the Post rewritten Iraqi history, but the paper's new version of events contradicts its own coverage from the time of the airstrikes. Despite running several letters to the editor pointing out the mistake, the paper has repeated the error again and again. How many times can one newspaper get the same fact wrong?

The story centers on the Iraq crisis that broke out on December 16, 1998. Richard Butler, head of the United Nations weapons inspection team in Iraq,had just released a report accusing the Iraqi regime of obstructing U.N. weapons checks. On the basis of that report, President Clinton announced he would launch airstrikes against Iraqi targets. Out of concern for their safety, Butler withdrew his inspectors from Iraq, and the U.S./British bombing proceeded.

The Washington Post reported all these facts correctly at the time: A December 18 article by national security correspondent Barton Gellman reported that "Butler ordered his inspectors to evacuate Baghdad, in anticipation of a military attack, on Tuesday night."

But in the 14 months since then, the Washington Post has again and again tried to rewrite history--claiming that Saddam Hussein expelled the U.N.inspectors from Iraq. Despite repeated attempts by its readers to set the record straight in letters to the editor, the Post has persisted in reporting this fiction.

Not only did Saddam Hussein not order the inspectors' retreat, but Butler's decision to withdraw them was--to say the least--highly controversial. The Washington Post (12/17/98) reported that as Butler was drafting his report on Iraqi cooperation, U.S. officials were secretly consulting with him about how to frame his conclusions.

According to the Post, a New York diplomat "generally sympathetic to Washington" argued--along with French, Russian, Chinese, and U.N.officials--that Butler, working in collusion with the U.S., "deliberately wrote a justification for war." "Based on the same facts," the diplomat said, "he [Butler] could have just said, 'There were something like 300 inspections and we encountered difficulties in five.'"

What follows is a chronology of the Washington Post's 14-month reign of error. On at least five separate occasions, the Post falsely reported that Saddam Hussein expelled the U.N. weapons inspectors in December 1998. In three of these instances, the gaffe was made by foreign affairs columnist Fred Hiatt or by the Post editorial page, which Hiatt now edits.

Of course, the Post is not alone. The New York Times made the same mistake seven times (1/8/99, 4/16/99, 8/20/99, 10/28/99, 11/18/99, 12/17/99, 2/1/00) before finally printing a correction on February 2, 2000. The Chicago Tribune (12/18/99), Boston Globe (10/21/99), Washington Times (11/5/99), AP(12/2/99), Newsweek (8/30/99), USA Today (12/9/99) and NBC News (12/19/99) have all made the same error.

JANUARY 10, 1999 "The Many Policies on Iraq" (Op-Ed) By Fred Hiatt

"It was because Saddam Hussein kicked out United Nations weapons inspectors that Clinton finally authorized a three-day bombing campaign last month."

JANUARY 16, 1999 "A Pretext for Bombing" (Letter to the Editor) Jenifer Dixon, Washington, D.C.

"Contrary to Fred Hiatt's assertion [op-ed, Jan. 10] that 'it was because Saddam Hussein kicked out United Nations weapons inspectors that Clinton finally authorized a three-day bombing campaign last month,' Iraq did not 'kick out' the inspectors--nor was it even accused of doing so."

JULY 25, 1999 "Out of Sight, Out of Control" (Op-Ed) By Fred Hiatt

"It's been nearly a year since United Nations disarmament inspectors could do their jobs in Iraq, and eight months since they were kicked out altogether. The Clinton administration professes little concern, saying it sees no sign that Saddam Hussein is rebuilding his nuclear or poison weapons."

AUGUST 30, 1999 "U.S. Air Raids on Iraq Become an Almost Daily Ritual; As Fighters Retaliate for Threats, Mission Faces Allies' Questions" (News article) By Roberto Suro

"More than a year has passed since Iraq shut down the U.N. weapons inspection program that President Clinton so often proclaimed essential to keeping the peace, and the administration faces an uphill diplomatic effort to impose a new inspection regime."

SEPTEMBER 16, 1999 "The Impeachment Bombings" (Letter to the Editor) Sam Husseini, Washington, D.C.

"In 'U.S. Air Raids on Iraq Become an Almost Daily Ritual' [news story, Aug. 30], it is asserted that 'more than a year has passed since Iraq shutdown the U.N. weapons inspection program that President Clinton so often proclaimed as essential to keeping the peace.' This is inaccurate. The weapons inspection program was shut down when its head, Richard Butler,withdrew the inspectors in December 1998 following the release of a self-contradictory report."

NOVEMBER 16, 1999 "U.N. Nears Pact on Iraq Inspections; Security Council May Ease Sanctions" (News article) By John Lancaster and Colum Lynch

"Nearly a year after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ejected international arms inspectors from his country, members of the U.N. Security Council are nearing agreement on a resolution that could lead to the resumption of inspections aimed at preventing Baghdad from acquiring illegal weapons, U.S.and allied officials said yesterday."

NOVEMBER 25, 1999 "Leaving Iraq" (Letter to the Editor) Hussein Ibish, Washington, D.C.

"The Post is mistaken in its claim that 'Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ejected international arms inspectors from his country' ['U.N. Nears Pact on Iraq Inspections,' front page, Nov. 16]. In December 1998 Richard Butler, head of the weapons inspection program, withdrew his team from Iraq after issuing a report to the United Nations."

FEBRUARY 22, 2000 "Sanctions Sanctimony" (Editorial)

"The sanctions would disappear if Saddam accounted for all his weapons of mass destruction, as promised. Instead, he refuses to permit even a weaker U.N. weapons inspection team to replace the one he earlier kicked out."

ACTION: Please contact Washington Post ombudsman E.R. Shipp and ask her why the Washington Post has misreported the U.N. weapons inspections story, even after being repeatedly corrected by readers.

CONTACT: E.R. Shipp, Ombudsman

Washington Post

ombudsman@washpost.com