May 10 2006

Rumsfeld Challenged

Media mishandle Rumsfeld-McGovern exchange

It is not often that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld finds himself aggressively questioned about the Iraq War. When that happened at a May 4 event, many in the media seemed not to know what to make of it.

During an appearance at the Southern Center for International Studies in Atlanta, Rumsfeld was confronted by several anti-war protesters, and was asked pointed questions from the audience by Ray McGovern, a retired CIA analyst. McGovern specifically queried Rumsfeld about his previous claims about the locations of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, as well as his assertion that there was “bulletproof” evidence of a connection between Iraq and Al-Qaeda.

To some, the questions raised by McGovern were tantamount to heckling—as one May 4 Associated Press headline put it, “Rumsfeld Heckled by Anti-War Protesters During Atlanta Speech.” That was echoed by CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien, who said (5/5/06) that Rumsfeld “was heckled by opponents of the war in Iraq. Among them, was Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst, who asked him about previous claims weapons of mass destruction were in Iraq.” CNN‘s Wolf Blitzer framed it all as a distraction from more serious issues (5/4/06): “Aside from the anti-Rumsfeld ranting, the defense secretary did get a chance to talk some substance on the war on terror.” Though some antiwar protestors in the audience did interrupt Rumsfeld’s speech with shouts and banners, McGovern asked his questions after being called on during the designated question-and-answer period, so it’s hard to know why that might be called “heckling” or “ranting.”

Other outlets were hard-pressed to find much news value at all in the exchange. The New York Times and USA Today (5/5/06), for example, ran tiny mentions of McGovern’s questioning of Rumsfeld about his statements regarding the location of Iraq’s WMDs and the country’s ties to Al-Qaeda. Ironically, the Times made the incident the centerpiece of its May 7 editorial, apparently assuming that its readers were informed about the substance of the matter from other news sources. The Washington Post (5/5/06) ran an AP account of the Rumsfeld speech; the Los Angeles Times (5/5/06), to its credit, actually addressed what should have been the central issue—whether McGovern was right about Rumsfeld’s exaggerations and inaccuracies.

The story seemed to be bigger on TV news—all three network newscasts ran stories about it on May 4—but some curious tendencies were evident. ABC World News Tonight played a long clip, but offered no context about who was right on the facts. On CBS, after anchor Bob Schieffer announced that Rumsfeld “ran head on into hecklers that included a former CIA analyst,” reporter David Martin said that McGovern “waited his turn to ask a question and then went for Rumsfeld’s throat.”

Apart from the somewhat violent metaphor, Martin gave Rumsfeld a little help on the substance of the matter. After showing a clip of McGovern asking Rumsfeld to explain his claims of “bulletproof” links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, Martin offered as a response that insurgent leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi “is certainly in Iraq now.” NBC Nightly News reporter Jim Miklaszewski, saying the “protests turned personal and ugly,” also seemed eager to help Rumsfeld’s case, summarizing that “Rumsfeld appeared to pretty much hold his own during today ‘s protest.”

That is a curious assessment, given that the facts in dispute cut against Rumsfeld. McGovern asked why Rumsfeld had claimed he knew where the weapons of mass destruction were hidden in Iraq; despite Rumsfeld’s denial, he did in fact say exactly that during an interview on ABC on March 30, 2003. Asked about the U.S. military’s failure to find weapons of mass destruction, he responded: “We know where they are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat.” McGovern accurately quoted this statement during his questioning.

As to the question regarding Iraq’s relationship with Al-Qaeda, Rumsfeld could only point to Zarqawi’s presence in Iraq (Zarqawi has long been considered leader of the terrorist group Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and is now apparently the head of Council of Holy Warriors). But Zarqawi’s pre-war links to either Al-Qaeda or the Iraqi government are dubious (Washington Post, 2/13/03), and subsequent investigations have done little to bolster Rumsfeld’s line. In fact, at times Rumsfeld has acknowledged as much; as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted (5/8/06), Rumsfeld once said of the linking of Iraq to Al-Qaeda (10/4/04), “To my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two.”

Despite the fact that the facts support McGovern, CNN Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre managed to muddy the water in a brief “fact check” segment on the network’s American Morning show (5/5/06), saying of Rumsfeld’s claims about the location of Iraq’s weapons:

“What Rumsfeld is saying is that when he said, ‘We know where they are,’ what he was referring to were the sites where the weapons were believed to be based on the intelligence, not absolute knowledge of the intelligence. It is a fine point that Rumsfeld’s making. Usually he’s very precise in what he says, so that he can’t be pinned down later. In this case, he wasn’t precise, and it’s coming back to haunt him.”

In fact, Rumsfeld was precise in his original remarks—precisely wrong. Later that day, McIntyre claimed on Lou Dobbs Tonight that Rumsfeld is “usually very careful not to say anything that could come back to haunt him,” which is only true in the sense that Rumsfeld’s inaccurate pronouncements over the past several years have generally been glossed over by the mainstream press (See Extra!, 3-4/02; FAIR Action Alert, 9/20/02; Extra!Update, 12/03).

CNN‘s McIntyre also raised—albeit inadvertently—a key issue when he remarked that McGovern “is learning something we’ve all learned in questioning Rumsfeld, that when you question him about something he said, you better have the quote accurate, and he does.” It goes without saying that reporters should be accurate in their questioning. A more pertinent question, though, is why so few reporters have put these questions to Rumsfeld. It speaks volumes about the state of the press corps that a question from the audience at an event can expose Rumsfeld’s deceptions in a way that regular press conferences with reporters have not.

To read a transcript of the McGovern-Rumsfeld exchange, go to: