How Press editorial boards were duped by Bush & Powell

Reply Wed 31 Mar, 2004 11:51 pm

Here's what these six editorial pages did write, during the crucial six-week period between Powell's speech and the beginning of hostilities on March 19, 2003. They ranged from hawkish without a shade of doubt (The Wall Street Journal and, to a lesser extent, the Chicago Tribune), to prowar but conflicted (The Washington Post and USA Today), to antiwar without United Nations approval (The New York Times and Los Angeles Times). None of these six unconditionally opposed war. Neither did any of them throw their weight behind intellectually appealing, but nevertheless unofficial, prowar arguments. These included the so-called "liberal hawk" position, which focused less on Hussein's status as an imminent threat and more on the moral case for overthrowing a murderous tyrant. In other words, of the six papers we studied, for the most part, the ones that supported war also accepted Bush's justifications for it.

None of the papers, in fact, held the Bush administration to an adequate standard of proof when it came to launching not just a war, but a preemptive war opposed by most of the world. Given the context of 9/11 and a climate of deference to the president on matters of national security, perhaps such questioning of presidential authority seemed inconceivable. Nevertheless, had the papers shown more skepticism, we might not have as much cause today to second-guess either the Iraq war itself, or the way leading editorial pages wrote about it. Not only do we have grounds today to question Powell's assertion, but considerable grounds existed at the time. British papers like the Independent and Guardian scoffed at the claim. The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times weren't convinced, either. The latter noted that Powell had failed to prove that al-Zarqawi had strong al Qaeda ties, and pointed out that Ansar-al-Islam operated out of a Kurdish-controlled area of Iraq beyond the control of Saddam Hussein.

Nevertheless, all four prowar papers accepted Powell's claim. Furthermore, during the period studied for this article, none of these papers seriously questioned the Bush administration's regular assertion of other operational links that Powell didn't mention (such as the claim that the 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague) or the administration's wanton efforts to link Saddam Hussein and 9/11 rhetorically. Therefore, these papers' ringing endorsement of Powell's claim can, at the very least, be read as a passive acceptance of the administration's larger strategic campaign to link Iraq with al Qaeda.

The Chicago Tribune also endorsed Powell's al Qaeda evidence; the secretary of state, wrote the paper, "fleshed out evidence that Iraq harbors an active terrorist network linked to Al Qaeda." In an interview, the Tribune's editorial page editor, Bruce Dold, defended that description, calling the al Qaeda issue an "open question." Absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has pointed out with respect to Iraq and al Qaeda collaboration. But at some point, the burden of proof should shift onto those continuing to assert an Iraq-al Qaeda link without compelling evidence.

Although before Powell's speech USA Today had questioned the Iraq-al Qaeda connection, the paper wrote that Powell had made "the most convincing case to date" that it did indeed exist. Today, editorial page editor Carol Stevens comments, "We found the idea of a cell operating in Iraq credible after listening to Powell, but I don't think we ever found it credible that there was an operational connection" between Iraq and al Qaeda. The paper did not make that distinction in its editorials at the time, however.

The Washington Post has also proven willing to reassess the subject of Iraq-al Qaeda connections. Like USA Today, before Powell's speech the Post had seemed unconvinced that such ties existed. But the paper concluded that Powell offered "a powerful new case" that Hussein was in cahoots with a branch of al Qaeda. In a lengthy October 2003 editorial entitled iraq in review, however, the Post seemed to swing back again, accusing administration officials like Dick Cheney of pushing "exaggerated" ties between the two groups, adding, "For our part, we never saw a connection between Iraq and 9/11 or major collaboration between Saddam and al Qaeda."

By e-mail, the Post's editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, clarified that Powell's al-Zarqawi evidence would not have constituted a "major" collaboration by the standard set forth in the paper's October iraq in review editorial. Yet though the Post now says it wasn't convinced that Iraq was working with bin Laden, during the period between Powell's speech and war, it did not challenge Bush administration insinuations to this effect. Reviewing the evidence today, El Baradei appears to have been vindicated on all counts. As the former chief U.S. weapons inspector, David Kay, told Congress last October, "We have not uncovered evidence that Iraq undertook significant post-1998 steps to actually build nuclear weapons or produce fissile material." In the weeks before war, however, the four prowar papers largely shrugged off El Baradei's critique (which thoroughly anticipated Kay's eventual conclusion, announced this January, that Iraq lacked a "reconstituted, full-blown nuclear program"). The Chicago Tribune didn't even mention it. The editorial pages' nationalistic impulse was only strengthened by the 9/11 context, suggests the University of Washington's Domke. Against the backdrop of terrorist threats and a strong emphasis on national security, major newspaper editorial boards tended to play it safe, deferring to the president and his advisers when it came to protecting Americans. Thus Powell's claims were instantly ratified, El Baradei's ignored or dismissed. "Because the papers started from that position" of giving the administration the benefit of the doubt, says Domke, "they let down their guard."

Generally, the antiwar papers did not dismiss international evidence in a knee-jerk fashion. If these papers had a major shortcoming, it was, instead, something they shared with the prowar pages to a much greater extent: a passive willingness to write about the Iraq debate on the president's own terms. By closely following the back and forth at the United Nations, they often missed the forest for the trees.

There were no angels at the UN (except possibly the Canadians, who advanced a very workable compromise plan for stepped-up Iraq inspections that could have resolved the impasse). The Bush team may have been committed from the outset to war and was diplomatically obtuse, but the French and their allies took a hypocritical stance in first supporting Iraqi disarmament Resolution 1441 and then blocking serious measures to enforce it.

When prowar papers ventured into these waters, they tended to selectively slam the French. When the antiwar Times covered UN happenings, meanwhile, they inevitably wound up even-handedly criticizing both the administration and the French alike. This framing aided the Bush administration by centering the debate around whether UN Resolution 1441 should have been enforced, or whether the United States should still go to war without the UN, instead of around more central issues. Just because the UN was behaving hypocritically didn't make it incumbent upon the U.S. to wage war on that body's behalf just for the sake of consistency, after all. To determine whether the United States should go to war alone, it was far more important to weigh such matters as the Bush administration's preemptive war doctrine, whether Iraq posed an imminent threat to the United States, and whether this country could be expected to effectively handle the postwar period and leave Iraq better off than it was before. But though in some cases the newspapers discussed these topics earlier, they paid relatively scant attention to them during this crucial period.

As a group, the papers failed to exercise skepticism at this exacting a level. It's not that they should have magically intuited that Iraq didn't have any weapons at all. They simply should have demanded more proof that they could verify with their own eyes.

Given that the case for war against Iraq appears far weaker today, and that the White House's intelligence claims have lost their authority, what does that say about these six editorial pages that took Colin Powell's claims almost entirely at face value? "All these papers are on notice," says Thomas Powers, a highly respected writer on intelligence issues for The New York Review of Books and author of Intelligence Wars: American Secret History from Hitler to al-Qaeda. "They've seen what happened. They were hustled." To the Post's credit, the newspaper has shown a refreshing willingness to reconsider that best judgment. For other pro-war papers, as for the Bush administration, that day of reckoning has not yet arrived.
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