Network news coverage of declassified NIE fraught with misinformation, GOP talking points

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

Evening newscasts on ABC and NBC uncritically aired President Bush's nonsensical non-responses to questions about declassified portions of a National Intelligence Estimate; NBC and CBS presented misleading reports on the NIE's conclusions, both asserting that the declassified portion of the report at least in part backs up Bush.

In covering the September 26 release of declassified portions of the April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), ABC's World News with Charles Gibson and NBC's Nightly News uncritically aired President Bush's nonsensical non-responses to questions about the NIE, while NBC and the CBS Evening News presented misleading reports on the NIE's conclusions, both asserting that the declassified portion of the report at least in part backs up Bush.

At a September 26 press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Bush, when asked about the contents of the NIE -- which at that point was still classified -- responded in part:

BUSH: You know, to suggest that if we weren't in Iraq, we would see a rosier scenario with fewer extremists joining the radical movement requires us to ignore 20 years of experience. We weren't in Iraq when we got attacked on September the 11th. We weren't in Iraq, and thousands of fighters were trained in terror camps inside your country, Mr. President. We weren't in Iraq when they first attacked the World Trade Center in 1993. We weren't in Iraq when they bombed the Cole. We weren't in Iraq when they blew up our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. My judgment is, if we weren't in Iraq, they'd find some other excuse.

Both ABC and NBC uncritically aired portions of these comments. From the September 26 broadcast of ABC's World News:

MARTHA RADDATZ (chief White House correspondent): What the report says is that the Iraq jihad is breeding new terrorist leaders and operatives, saying, "The Iraq conflict has become the cause celebre for jihadists breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement." Mr. Bush has long argued that if the U.S. doesn't fight the terrorists in Iraq, the U.S. would be fighting them at home. The report does say, "Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves and be perceived to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight."

BUSH: We weren't in Iraq when we got attacked on September the 11th. We weren't in Iraq when they first attacked the World Trade Center in 1993. We weren't in Iraq when they bombed the Cole. My judgment is, if we weren't in Iraq, they'd find some other excuse.

RADDATZ: The report was completed in April, prompting the president to charge today that the leaking of the document was purely political.

From the September 26 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News:

DAVID GREGORY (chief White House correspondent): Appearing with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, Mr. Bush acknowledged that terrorists are using the war in Iraq to recruit followers, but added they've used other excuses in the past.

BUSH: We weren't in Iraq when we got attacked on September the 11th.

GREGORY: And the president questioned why this report, written back in April, came out now.

However, as Media Matters for America noted, Bush's comments were not responsive to the reporter's question, did not address the contents of the NIE, and, indeed, were nonsensical. In dismissing concerns about the Iraq war's effect on terrorist recruitment by claiming that "[w]e weren't in Iraq when we got attacked on September the 11th," Raddatz and Gregory could have noted that Bush appeared to be responding to an argument no one is making -- that there were no terrorist attacks before September 11, 2001. And if it is indeed true, as Bush claimed, that "if we weren't in Iraq, they'd find some other excuse," than Raddatz might have noted that the NIE concluded that the war is being effectively used to swell the ranks of terrorists and asked whether or not it was a mistake to have given the terrorists an "excuse" that they have effectively used to make the world more dangerous.

Gregory went on to report that the declassified portions of the NIE "back up" Bush's claim that "Iraq is an important front on the war on terror":

GREGORY: They felt in this political climate, with so many attacks against the White House and the party about the war, that the president had to respond. It would hurt him otherwise. And there is some context here. We've been talking about it in the report. Yes, ammunition for critics, especially on the question of how many terrorists there are, but also some findings here that back up the president, namely that Iraq is an important front on the war on terror, and if they succeed there, that it could be a real setback to the jihadist movement around the world, Brian.

Gregory, in repeating this Republican talking point, ignored the fact that the declassified portions of the NIE explained exactly why the Iraq war can be considered "an important front on the war on terror" -- because it has become "the 'cause celebre' for jihadists" who have used the war effectively to increase their ranks worldwide.

On the September 26 broadcast of the CBS Evening News, chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod reported that the declassified portions of the NIE "generally support the president":

AXELROD: The report, a survey of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, does generally support the president, saying that Al Qaeda's leadership has been seriously damaged by the war on terror. But critics of the war in Iraq will also find fuel. The Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives, it says, and that Al Qaeda is exploiting the situation in Iraq to attract new recruits.

Axelrod's characterization of the report, however, ignored other key findings:

  • "Although we cannot measure the extent of the spread with precision, a large body of all-source reporting indicates that activists identifying themselves as jihadists, although a small percentage of Muslims, are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion."
  • "We assess that the operational threat from self-radicalized cells will grow in importance to US counterterrorism efforts, particularly abroad but also in the Homeland."
  • "We assess that the underlying factors fueling the spread of the movement outweigh its vulnerabilities and are likely to do so for the duration of the timeframe of this Estimate."

Of the three networks, ABC alone reported on the existence of a second intelligence report focused specifically on the Iraq war. Raddatz, however, noted simply that the report "will not be completed until after the midterm elections." Raddatz failed to note that Rep. Jane Harman (CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, had earlier that day accused Republicans of purposely delaying the report's completion until after the elections. According to Harman:

HARMAN: I have also learned that there is a [National Intelligence Estimate] on Iraq -- specifically on Iraq -- that has been left in draft form at the National Intelligence Council. That is because some of our leaders don't want us to see it until after the election. It should be clear five years after 9-11 that we need accurate and actionable intelligence -- actionable in real time -- and we need our leaders to read that intelligence and cite it accurately. Sadly, we're doing better on the first piece; we're not doing better on the second piece.

After Raddatz's report, anchor Charles Gibson turned to ABC chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos specifically for the "Democratic reaction," but Stephanopoulos made no mention of Harman's remarks about the second Iraq intelligence report:

GIBSON: And our chief Washington correspondent, George Stephanopoulos, also joins us from our Washington bureau tonight. George, Martha gave us the president's view of all this. What's the Democratic reaction today?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Charlie, they have put out a series of statements in the last hour that all make the same point. They say the war in Iraq has made us less safe. They say that's what the report shows. I spoke with the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman, and what she says is the report shows that President Bush has it backwards. By fighting the terrorists in Iraq, it shows that it's more likely that we're gonna have to fight them here.

GIBSON: George, Secretary Rumsfeld, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said years ago, I asked him an interesting question -- he said, "Are we catching, killing or deterring more jihadists than we're creating?" And this report seems to indicate that the answer is no. It says it quite flatly. So, why would the administration release this report?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, first of all, Charlie, I think they didn't wanna get hit for keeping it secret. That's number one. But the report also does offer some validation for the president's military strategy. It says success in Iraq is a key to containing the threat. It also says that political reform, democratic reform, is a key to containing the threat. The president's made both those points. Finally, Charlie, the White House political operatives believe that if the country is focused on war, if the country is focused on the overall threat, they are gonna choose Republicans over Democrats in November.

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