Wash. Post hired Bush speechwriter Gerson but never corrected Gerson's Iraq falsehoods repeated on its editorial page

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

The Washington Post has hired Michael Gerson -- who as President Bush's chief speechwriter from 2001-2005 crafted the false and misleading rhetoric the Bush administration used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq -- to be an op-ed columnist. The Post editorial board repeated without question some of that false and misleading rhetoric in its support of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and has passed up several opportunities to re-examine its support of the Bush administration's push for war.

The Washington Post recently announced that it had hired former Bush aide Michael Gerson as an op-ed columnist. Gerson, as President Bush's chief speechwriter from 2001-2005, wrote or contributed to most of the administration's major speeches -- such as President Bush's State of the Union addresses and former Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 5, 2003, speech to the United Nations -- and crafted the false and misleading rhetoric the Bush administration used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Post editorial board repeated without question some of that false and misleading rhetoric in its support of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and its continued justification for that support.

The Post has since acknowledged that the Bush administration misused prewar intelligence -- an October 7, 2004, editorial noted that "[t]he administration's culpability in ignoring uncertainties in that intelligence, in failing to ask hard questions and in publicly exaggerating flawed estimates has not been thoroughly examined." However, as Media Matters for America has noted, the Post editorial board has had several opportunities to re-examine its own writing in support of the Bush administration's push for war with Iraq. The board could have done so, for example, when reports came out that White House officials ignored intelligence assessments contradicting their claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction; or upon the public disclosure of the Downing Street Memo, which indicated that the Bush administration was manipulating intelligence in order to justify war with Iraq. But the Post editorial page has resisted a re-examination of its coverage of the Bush administration's Iraq war claims. And it has not retracted the various false Bush administration claims it uncritically published on its pages.

As media critic Jeff Cohen noted on September 14, Michael Isikoff and David Corn, in their book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War, wrote that it was Gerson who crafted the false and misleading rhetoric President Bush used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and it was the Post editorial board that repeated without question that false and misleading rhetoric in its unwavering support of war with Iraq. Cohen wrote:

In their new book Hubris, Michael Isikoff and David Corn write that it was Gerson who --

  • inserted references to the yellowcake-from-Niger tale into various Bush speeches, including the 2003 State of the Union.
  • helped prepare Secretary of State Colin Powell's dishonest and bellicose speech to the U.N.
  • conceived Team Bush's trademark paranoid "soundbite" warning of a potential Iraq nuclear program: "The first sign of a smoking gun might be a mushroom cloud."

[...]

Speechwriter Gerson should be right at home at the Washington Post. From September 2002 through February 2003, the Post editorialized 26 times in favor of the Iraq war. As Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman have documented, its op-ed page was also dominated by hawks screaming for war. War skeptics were denounced as "fools" and "liars" and worse -- and the skeptics were not given space to respond.

As Gerson's "smoking gun/mushroom cloud" soundbite took flight, Al Gore made an Iraq speech questioning "preemptive war." On the Post op-ed page, Gore's speech was "dishonest, cheap, low" and "wretched ... vile ... contemptible." And that was all in one column. Another called it "a series of cheap shots."

By contrast, the error-filled Colin Powell speech at the U.N. (that Gerson worked on) was hailed at the Post with almost Pravda-like unanimity. An editorial -- headlined "Irrefutable" -- declared: "It is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction." And the Post op-ed page from right to "left" embraced Powell's speech.

One of the 26 editorials Cohen mentioned was from January 29, 2003, and dealt with Bush's State of the Union address from the night before. In that address, Bush uttered the now-infamous "16 words" (to which Cohen alluded) to support his case for war: "[T]he British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Bush also made various other claims about Iraq's purported ability to produce chemical and biological weapons, and the existence of "mobile biological weapons labs."

The Post editorialized the following day on the "strong" case Bush laid out against Saddam Hussein:

When at last he turned to the crises abroad, Mr. Bush restated his administration's approach to North Korea without making any clearer a policy that has appeared mostly muddled in recent weeks. On Iraq, where American soldiers could be fighting and dying in a few weeks' time, Mr. Bush chose to focus once again on Saddam Hussein's defiance of the United Nations' demand for disarmament. He reprised, again, Iraq's failure to account for biological and chemical weapons or materials and its attempts to block or deceive U.N. weapons inspectors. But Mr. Bush revealed little of the intelligence the administration says it has on the Iraqi arsenal, and he said little about what the costs of a war might be, or about the commitment the United States would make to a postwar Iraq. His case against Saddam Hussein was strong; but it left him with much still to do in the coming weeks.

On the day after the invasion began, March 20, 2003, the Post editorialized on the war using language similar to what Gerson had used in Bush's address. Bush said:

BUSH: Today, the gravest danger in the war on terror, the gravest danger facing America and the world, is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. These regimes could use such weapons for blackmail, terror, and mass murder. They could also give or sell those weapons to terrorist allies, who would use them without the least hesitation.

The Post editorialized:

Yet, even if the operation does not go smoothly or fast, it must go forward. Saddam Hussein has threatened his neighbors, and the United States, with war and weapons of mass destruction for two decades; he has violated the cease-fire that ended the Persian Gulf War and defied multiple disarmament orders from the United Nations Security Council. The war that has now begun stands to end the single greatest threat to peace in the Middle East; it will help establish that rogue states will not be allowed to stockpile chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in defiance of the international community.

As noted above, the Post has been critical of the administration's use of prewar intelligence. Despite such criticism, however, the Post editorial board has stood firmly behind Bush and Gerson's "16 words." According to an April 9 editorial titled "A Good Leak":

Mr. Wilson originally claimed in a 2003 New York Times op-ed and in conversations with numerous reporters that he had debunked a report that Iraq was seeking to purchase uranium from Niger and that Mr. Bush's subsequent inclusion of that allegation in his State of the Union address showed that he had deliberately "twisted" intelligence "to exaggerate the Iraq threat." The material that Mr. Bush ordered declassified established, as have several subsequent investigations, that Mr. Wilson was the one guilty of twisting the truth. In fact, his report supported the conclusion that Iraq had sought uranium.

The editorial was referring to former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who traveled to Niger in 2002 at the behest of the CIA to investigate reports that Iraq had sought uranium from that country. Wilson concluded that no uranium transaction had taken place or could take place. As Media Matters noted when the Post published its editorial, the claim that Wilson was "guilty of twisting the truth" echoed false Republican and conservative talking points, and was not supported by the newspaper's reporting. Media Matters also noted that the CIA viewed Wilson's report as supportive of its contention that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa, but the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) believed the report backed its assessment that Niger was likely unwilling and unable to supply uranium to Iraq. Former CIA director George Tenet asserted in a July 11, 2003, statement that Wilson's Niger findings "did not resolve whether Iraq was or was not seeking uranium from abroad," as Post staff writers Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank reported on October 25, 2005. The Senate Intelligence Committee's 2004 "Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq" did conclude, however, that INR's assessment -- which Wilson's statements supported -- of Iraq's nuclear program as a whole was the correct assessment based on the intelligence available at the time.

As recently as September 1, 2006, the Post editorialized: "Mr. Wilson chose to go public with an explosive charge, claiming -- falsely, as it turned out -- that he had debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger and that his report had circulated to senior administration officials."

In his January 20, 2004, State of the Union address, Bush backed away from claims of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, instead opting for the more ambiguous term, "weapons of mass destruction related program activities," in justifying the war. From Bush's speech:

BUSH: Some in this chamber, and in our country, did not support the liberation of Iraq. Objections to war often come from principled motives. But let us be candid about the consequences of leaving Saddam Hussein in power. We're seeking all the facts. Already, the Kay Report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations. Had we failed to act, the dictatator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day. Had we failed to act, Security Council resolutions on Iraq would have been revealed as empty threats, weakening the United Nations and encouraging defiance by dictators around the world. Iraq's torture chambers would still be filled with victims, terrified and innocent. The killing fields of Iraq -- where hundreds of thousands of men and women and children vanished into the sands -- would still be known only to the killers. For all who love freedom and peace, the world without Saddam Hussein's regime is a better and safer place.

In a January 21, 2004, editorial, the Post chastised Bush for trying "to cover the gap between what he described and what has been found with a brief and tortured reference to 'weapons-of-mass-destruction-related program activities.' " A week later, however, the Post editorial board found little problem with Bush's and Gerson's rhetorical gymnastics, and claimed that Bush's language was backed by the report of the Iraq Survey Group. From the Post's January 29 editorial:

President Bush and most of his aides have quietly backed away from their once-unambiguous assertions that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Bush now speaks of "weapons-of-mass-destruction-related program activities" or, as he did Tuesday, doggedly insists that Saddam Hussein was a "danger." Mr. Kay's team has documented those activities, and the former inspector agrees with the president's characterization of Saddam Hussein -- as do we.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
Network/Outlet
The Washington Post
Person
Michael Gerson
Stories/Interests
Prewar Intelligence/WMD
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