CNN's Blitzer failed to note Hayes' false Iraq-Al Qaeda reporting, Cheney connections

On the July 24 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer interviewed Weekly Standard writer Stephen F. Hayes about his recently released book on Vice President Dick Cheney, Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President. During the interview, Hayes claimed that Cheney and President Bush “initially ... both thought there was a possibility that Saddam Hussein had had some role in the September 11th attacks,” and that “pretty much everybody thought” Iraq “had weapons of mass destruction, and these terrorist groups that were -- in some cases, had overlapping relationships with Saddam ... and his intelligence services.” Blitzer offered no challenge to Hayes' Iraq/Al Qaeda statements, despite the fact that Hayes wrote several articles and a book alleging connections between Al Qaeda and Iraq that were later discredited, and that Hayes' flawed work was touted by Cheney as the “best source of information” regarding the alleged connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Indeed, at no point during the interview did Blitzer note Hayes' steadfast support of the Bush administration's national security policies. Nor did CNN identify Hayes as a writer for the conservative Weekly Standard.

As Media Matters for America documented, Hayes has for years offered factually inaccurate and misleading support of Cheney and the Bush administration's foreign policy, particularly with regard to the Iraq war. Most recently, Hayes appeared on the July 22 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press and claimed that the July 17 release of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the terrorist threat to the United States “strengthens the basic case that the administration has been making that Al Qaeda remains a serious threat,” despite the fact that the NIE, as The New York Times reported, “concludes that the United States is losing ground on a number of fronts in the fight against Al Qaeda, and describes the terrorist organization as having significantly strengthened over the past two years.”

Media Matters also identified instances in which Hayes engaged in falsehoods and distortions in defense of Cheney and the administration's attempts to link Al Qaeda and Iraq. For example, on the December 9, 2005, edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, Hayes defended Cheney's December 2001 claim that 9-11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague. According to Hayes: “If you look at the front page of The New York Times in the days surrounding the vice president's claim, The New York Times was reporting the same thing.” But as Media Matters noted, even after the Times and numerous other news outlets subsequently reported in May 2002 the FBI and CIA's finding that "no evidence" existed to substantiate the claim, Cheney continued to raise the possibility of such a meeting.

Additionally, in an article in The Weekly Standard's November 24, 2003, issue, Hayes attributed to “a top secret U.S. government memorandum” -- which Hayes identified as a memorandum produced by former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith -- the conclusion that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden “had an operational relationship.” Hayes wrote of the memo: “Much of the evidence is detailed, conclusive, and corroborated by multiple sources.” In a January 9, 2004, interview with Denver's Rocky Mountain News, Cheney cited Hayes' article, claiming that "[i]t goes through and lays out in some detail, based on an assessment that was done by the Department of Defense and was forwarded to the Senate Intelligence Committee some weeks ago." Cheney added: “That's your best source of information.” However, following the publication of Hayes' article, the Pentagon released a statement asserting that "[n]ews reports" about the memo “are inaccurate,” and that the portion of the memo to which Hayes' article referred “was not an analysis of the substantive issue of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, and it drew no conclusions.”

From the July 24 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: Because I remember, [Cheney] was the defense secretary during the first Gulf War. I was the Pentagon correspondent. And there -- afterwards, for a long time, throughout the '90s, he strongly defended that decision to liberate Kuwait and then stop -- not go all the way to Baghdad to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

So what changed in his mind, because he and Colin Powell were -- who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs, as you remember -- pretty much strongly opposed that throughout the '90s?

HAYES: You're right. Vice President Cheney gave a speech when he was finishing up his term as secretary of defense in 1992 in Seattle in which he walks through the reasons, very carefully, very meticulously, why.

BLITZER: Because he was criticized for that.

HAYES: He was criticized for it. At the time, there were a lot of second-guessers saying we should have gone. We should have removed Saddam Hussein --

BLITZER: Finish the job, yes.

HAYES: -- when we had the opportunity. And he was arguing for a limited mission.

BLITZER: So what changed?

HAYES: I think September 11th changed him. The nature of the threat --

BLITZER: But did he really believe that Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis had anything to do with 9-11?

HAYES: I think initially that, you know, he and the president both thought there was a possibility that Saddam Hussein had had some role in the September 11th attacks. But, really, beyond that, it was more this broad threat of Iraq, on the one hand, a state that he thought -- and pretty much everybody thought -- had weapons of mass destruction, and these terrorist groups that were, in some cases, had overlapping relationships with Saddam and his intelligence -- and his intelligence services.

BLITZER: So it's fair to say he was pretty much surprised at all the post-mortems that have done -- that have occurred in more recent years, that there was no Saddam connection to 9-11, no weapons of mass destruction?

A lot of the stuff that's come out pretty much, I assume, in the conversations you had with him, he acknowledged that he was pretty much surprised.

HAYES: Yes. I think he -- you know, he, like everybody else, or most everybody else, thought certainly that we'd find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. So I think it's fair to say that that was a surprise.

BLITZER: And does he look back and try to, you know, get some lessons learned from his own involvement?

Because as you point out in the book, and as others have pointed out, he was deeply involved in all the details going into the war and the immediate aftermath.

HAYES: Yes, he said that to me, actually. I put that exact question to him. And he said, you know, one of the lessons here is not to underestimate this kind of an undertaking, which is, you know, a tacit admission that they did underestimate, in certain respects, what would be needed to keep Iraq together.

BLITZER: The book is entitled Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President.

The author, Steve Hayes.

Thanks for coming in, Steve.

HAYES: Thanks for having me.