Filling in Bush's blanks: The media's pattern of conjuring statements beneficial to the administration

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

In reporting on the scandals and issues confronting the Bush administration, various media outlets have imputed to President Bush and members of his administration comments or statements they have not actually made. These phony statements often arise as a result of reporters misinterpreting an administration official's statement or inaccurately attributing a position or statement to an administration official.

In reporting on the scandals and issues confronting the Bush administration, a variety of media outlets have imputed to President Bush and members of his administration comments or statements they have not actually made. These phony statements often arise as a result of reporters misinterpreting an administration official's statement, then presenting it in a way that appears similar to, but is significantly different from, what was actually said. In some cases, however, reporters have attributed a position or statement to an administration official even when that official has said nothing close to what was reported.

Nuclear strikes against Iran

On the April 11 edition of CNN's American Morning, anchor Miles O'Brien reported that Bush, on April 10, had "reject[ed] reports [that said] there are contingency plans for a nuclear strike against Iran's nuclear program," and played a video clip of President Bush saying: "I know here in Washington, you know, prevention means force. It doesn't mean force, necessarily. In this case, it means diplomacy. What you're reading is wild speculation which is -- it's kind of a -- you know, it happens quite frequently here in the nation's capital." Nothing in the clip CNN aired, however, indicated that Bush ruled out -- or even directly addressed -- reports of planned nuclear strikes against Iran. During an April 10 talk at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Bush answered a question on whether the United States will allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons by saying, in part:

BUSH: But our objective is to prevent them from having a nuclear weapon. And the good news is, is that many in the world have come to that conclusion. I got out a little early on the issue by saying, axis of evil. But I meant it. I saw it as a problem. And now, many others have -- have come to the conclusion that the Iranians should not have a nuclear weapon.

The doctrine of prevention is to work together to prevent the Iranians from having a nuclear weapon. I know -- I know here in Washington prevention means force. It doesn't mean force, necessarily. In this case, it means diplomacy. And by the way, I read the articles in the newspapers this weekend. It was just wild speculation, by the way. What you're reading is wild speculation, which is -- it's kind of a -- happens quite frequently here in the nation's capital.

O'Brien apparently linked Bush's vague dismissal of "articles in the newspapers" to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh's article in the April 17 edition of The New Yorker, which reported that the Bush administration has "intensified planning for a possible major air attack" on Iran, and may be considering "the use of a bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon ... against underground nuclear sites."

O'Brien made this claim even after his colleague Wolf Blitzer correctly reported that Bush "did not actually deny" the reports of planned nuclear strikes. From the April 10 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: If diplomacy does not work, would the United States use military force to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons? The investigative journalist Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker magazine says the United States is considering several military options to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, including possibly nuclear bombs to blast Iran's underground bunkers. Today, President Bush did not actually deny that, but he did say this -- listen.

BUSH: The doctrine of prevention is to work together to prevent the Iranians from having a nuclear weapon. I know -- I know here in Washington, you know, prevention means force. It doesn't mean force, necessarily. In this case, it means diplomacy. And by the way, I read the articles in the newspapers this weekend, and it was just wild speculation, by the way. What you're reading is wild speculation, which is -- it's kind of a -- you know, it happens quite frequently here in the nation's capital.

The Plame leak

An April 13 Washington Post article by staff writer R. Jeffrey Smith carried the headline: "Libby Wasn't Ordered to Leak Name, Papers Say." But the headline is not supported by the article itself. Smith was reporting on an April 12 court filing by lawyers representing former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby -- under investigation for his role in the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson's identity -- which noted that "Mr. Libby does not contend that he was instructed to make any disclosures concerning Ms. Wilson by President Bush, Vice President [Dick] Cheney, or anyone else." That statement indicates that Libby has not testified that Bush or Cheney instructed him to leak Plame's identity. It does not indicate, contrary to Smith's headline, that Libby specifically denied that he was authorized or instructed to leak Plame's identity. Indeed, nothing in the body of Smith's article supports the claim in the headline. The first sentence of the article indicates as much:

In grand jury testimony two years ago, former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby did not assert that President Bush or Vice President Cheney instructed him to disclose the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame to reporters as part of an effort to rebut criticism of the Iraq war, Libby's lawyers said in a court filing late yesterday."

The headline turned something Libby didn't say into something he did.

CNN host Lou Dobbs similarly reported on April 13 that "Libby says neither the president nor the vice president authorized him to leak the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame." As with Smith's article, Dobbs presented nothing to back up that assertion. From the April 13 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight:

DOBBS: Former vice president chief of staff Scooter Libby is confirming that President Bush authorized him to give reporters selected pieces of intelligence on Iraq, but Libby says neither the president nor the vice president authorized him to leak the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Libby is accused of lying to investigators about whether anyone in the Bush White House revealed the identity of the undercover operative. Papers filed by his attorneys last night say, quote, "Mr. Libby's actions were authorized at the highest levels of the executive branch," and it's a, quote, "fairytale" to believe otherwise. Libby's attorneys also said they will call presidential adviser Karl Rove as a witness.

Dobbs reported this after his colleague, CNN national correspondent Bob Franken, correctly reported on the April 13 edition of The Situation Room that nothing in the court filing "constituted a direct denial." From the April 13 Situation Room:

FRANKEN: Heidi [Collins, anchor], Scooter Libby's lawyers were making an effort in their filing to undo the impression that had been left last week by the special prosecutor that the president and vice president were involved directly into the campaign to discredit Joe Wilson, who is the administration critic, by exposing the identity of a CIA operative wife, Valerie Plame.

It was in a footnote. It was buried on page 21 of the motion. It said, "We emphasize that consistent with his grand jury testimony, Mr. Libby does not contend that he was instructed to make any disclosures concerning Miss Wilson by President Bush, Vice President Cheney, or anyone else." Very, very interesting wording. There was nothing that constituted a direct denial.

The alleged Iraqi "biological weapons labs"

On the April 12 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, national security correspondent David Ensor defended Bush from allegations that he may have been aware of contradictory evidence at the time of his May 29, 2003, statement that the United States had discovered biological weapons labs in Iraq. As Media Matters for America noted, Ensor offered a defense of the administration that not even the White House had adopted. Ensor also claimed that in 2003: "The predominant view at the time, and the president correctly stated it, was that they probably were labs. That view was overcome, eventually." Bush, however, did not say the two small trailers captured by American forces in Iraq shortly after the 2003 invasion "probably were labs" -- he stated affirmatively that the trailers were, in fact, "two mobile biological weapons facilities which were capable of producing biological agents," and was referring to those trailers when he said during a May 29, 2003, interview on Polish television: "We have found the weapons of mass destruction."

Also on the April 12 edition of The Situation Room, CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux reported that White House press secretary Scott McClellan had earlier that day said "very clearly" that President Bush did not see a May 27, 2003, intelligence report that contradicted his declaration two days later that the United States had discovered biological weapons labs in Iraq. But, as Media Matters documented, McClellan made no such denial. Rather than denying it to reporters, McClellan said: "I'm looking into that matter."

Bush "admitting mistakes"

In an April 14 "Web Exclusive" Newsweek column, senior White House correspondent Richard Wolffe and White House correspondent Holly Bailey credited Bush for "conceding" a mistake, noting that "for George W. Bush the hardest word has always been 'mistake.'" Wolffe and Bailey wrote that Bush "has spent several months hinting at mistakes, even spinning about mistakes, without really conceding one -- until now," and quoted Bush from an April 10 talk he gave at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, in which he allegedly conceded this "mistake."

The language Bush used, however, is not as radical a departure from his past speeches as Wolffe and Bailey suggested. He said on April 10 that "[w]e have learned from our mistakes" in Iraq, and "[w]e've adjusted our approach to meet the changing circumstances on the ground." This is markedly similar to comments he made at a December 19, 2005, press conference:

BUSH: For example, I'm fully aware that some have said it was a mistake not to put enough troops there immediately -- or more troops. I made my decision based upon the recommendations of Tommy Franks, and I still think it was the right decision to make. But history will judge.

I said the other day that a mistake was trying to train a civilian defense force and an Iraqi army at the same time, but not giving the civilian defense force enough training and tools necessary to be able to battle a group of thugs and killers. And so we adjusted.

In a March 20 speech in Cleveland, Bush remarked upon the success of military and reconstruction efforts in the Iraqi city of Tal Afar, and acknowledged -- without getting into specifics -- that the "strategy that worked so well in Tal Afar did not emerge overnight -- it came only after much trial and error." Wolffe and Bailey appeared to draw a vast, unexplained distinction between acknowledging "error" and admitting "mistakes."

Moreover, Bush did not actually admit to a specific "mistake" in his April 10 speech, as Wolffe and Bailey suggested he did. As noted above, he said simply that "[w]e have learned from our mistakes" and "adjusted our approach." As Media Matters for America has noted, statements of this sort are not new to Bush's public comments -- he often speaks in vague, ambiguous terms about tactical errors, which he tempers with consistent reaffirmation of the decision to go war in Iraq.

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