After hyping Iraqi nuclear threat in 2002-03, conservative media now doing the same with Iranian nuclear program

On the third anniversary of President Bush's premature declaration of victory in Iraq, Media Matters has compiled examples of media that sounded alarms over Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction capabilities now sounding similar alarms over Iran.

In recent months, Media Matters for America has noted numerous instances in which conservative commentators and media sources have hyped Iran's progress in developing a nuclear capability and have made assertions that contradict the public estimates provided by the United States intelligence community and independent experts. Many of these same commentators similarly touted Iraq's purported efforts to develop nuclear weapons in 2002 and early 2003 while making the case for war. On the third anniversary of President Bush's premature declaration of victory in Iraq, Media Matters has compiled examples of media that sounded alarms over Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction capabilities now sounding similar alarms over Iran:

  • In recent months, Roll Call executive editor Morton M. Kondracke has falsely claimed that “depending on who you listen to,” it will take Iran “between six months and two years” to produce “the material that they need for a nuclear weapon,” and cited unnamed “experts” to baselessly allege that Iran “will be able to have enough fissile material of their own making for a bomb some time next summer, summer 2007.” In 2002 and 2003, Kondracke similarly declared that Iraq “obviously” would become “nuclear armed,” and labeled the Iraqi foreign minister a “liar” when he said that “Iraq is totally clear of all nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.”
  • On the April 17 edition of Scarborough Country, MSNBC political analyst Monica Crowley repeatedly said that Iran “may already have” nuclear weapons. Similarly, in 2002 she said that “we do know that Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction,” including a “nascent nuclear capability.”
  • On the April 5 edition of Fox News' The Big Story, host John Gibson mischaracterized a statement by Col. Gen. Victor Yesin, the former chief of staff of the Russian Strategic Missile Troops, to declare that Yesin determined that Iran will “have the bomb literally any minute.” In mid-2002, Gibson wondered why President Bush was not being more assertive in making the case of the Iraqi nuclear threat, declaring, "[A]gainst the backdrop of all of this, why is George Bush off in Detroit today talking about schools rather than taking to a podium someplace and pounding the table about Saddam's [being] close to a bomb?" Gibson also doubted the Iraqi foreign minister's claim that Iraq was “properly clear of all nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.”
  • In late 2005, The Washington Times distorted recent comments by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general Mohamed ElBaradei regarding how soon Iran might have a nuclear weapon. In a 2003 editorial, the Times wrote that a report by ElBaradei's IAEA -- that found no evidence of Iraq reviving its nuclear weapons program since the early 1990s -- “strain[ed] credulity” and reflected a “troubling complacency” on the part of the IAEA. Instead, the Times asserted, “grim reality is that, for the past 12 years, Saddam Hussein has skillfully used deception and stalling tactics to avoid nuclear disarmament.”
  • As Media Matters previously documented, Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot and editorial writer Bret Stephens addressed the “urgency” of the “crisis” regarding Iran's attempts to enrich uranium and reported pursuit of nuclear weapons. On the April 15 edition of Fox News' The Journal Editorial Report, Gigot noted April 12 comments by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and asked Stephens if there were “any doubt in your mind that Iran intends to build a nuclear weapon and is making real progress in doing so.” Stephens answered, in part: "[O]ur estimates that the Iranians are 10 years or five years away from making a bomb were wildly exaggerated. They're going to be able to enrich uranium in the next year or two. So, it adds urgency to the crisis." In August 2002, the Journal's editorial page, headed by Gigot, forwarded the claim that “Saddam will have enough weapons-grade uranium for three nuclear bombs by 2005.” Stephens, in a November 2002 Jerusalem Post article, warned that the 105-day process of implementing United Nations Security Council resolution 1441 might lead to “a radically different, possibly more hostile, international climate,” in which “Saddam may unveil, to an astonished world, the Arab world's first nuclear bomb.”

The facts on the nuclear capabilities of Iran in 2006 and Iraq in 2003

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently announced that his country had enriched a small quantity of uranium and was researching technology to enhance its enrichment capabilities -- a necessary step to produce the highly enriched uranium necessary for a nuclear weapon. As Media Matters has documented, The New York Times reported on March 5 that “American intelligence agencies say it will take 5 to 10 years for Iran to manufacture the fuel for its first atomic bomb.” After Ahmadinejad's announcement, an April 17 Times article reported that intelligence agencies would be forced to revise the current estimate of 5 to 10 years only in the event that Iran succeeded in implementing more advanced centrifuges. Thomas Fingar, the deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, “said the official view of the [U.S.] intelligence agencies remained that Iran was unlikely to have nuclear weapons before 2010 at the earliest,” according to an April 14 New York Times article. A March 27 issue brief on Iran's nuclear program by David Albright and Corey Hinderstein of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) stated that “Iran could have its first nuclear weapon in 2009.” They noted, however, that "[t]his result reflects a worst case assessment, and Iran can be expected to take longer," because “Iran is likely to encounter technical difficulties”:

Given another year to make enough HEU [highly-enriched uranium] for a nuclear weapon, where some inefficiencies in the plant are expected, and a few more months to convert the uranium into weapon components, Iran could have its first nuclear weapon in 2009. By this time, Iran is assessed to have had sufficient time to prepare the other components of a nuclear weapon, although the weapon may not be small enough to be deliverable by a ballistic missile.

This result reflects a worst-case assessment, and Iran can be expected to take longer. Iran is likely to encounter technical difficulties that would delay bringing a centrifuge plant into operation. Factors causing delay include Iran having trouble in the installation of so many centrifuges in such a short time period, or Iran taking longer than expected to overcome difficulties in operating the cascades as a single production unit or commissioning the secret centrifuge plant.

Media Matters has also documented a recent disagreement between IAEA officials and U.S. officials over Iran's road to nuclear weapons capabilities. On March 23, Knight Ridder reported that, based on a recent IAEA briefing on Iran's nuclear progress, “U.S. officials and a foreign diplomat” expressed concern that Iran's progress on a network of 164 centrifuges indicated that Iran would be “two to three years away” from a nuclear weapon if it overcame numerous “technical hurdles.” On March 25, the Associated Press reported that a senior IAEA official called the U.S. claims about the briefing “pure speculation and misinformation,” and that a “diplomat in Vienna” -- where the IAEA is headquartered -- “said some U.S. administration officials were misrepresenting” the briefing. The official claimed that "[i]t comes from people who are seeking a crisis, not a solution" to the confrontation over Iran.

Regarding Iraq's supposed nuclear program, the Iraq Survey Group's final report to President Bush in 2004 contained the following key judgments:

Iraq Survey Group (ISG) discovered further evidence of the maturity and significance of the pre-1991 Iraqi Nuclear Program but found that Iraq's ability to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program progressively decayed after that date.

  • Saddam Husayn ended the nuclear program in 1991 following the Gulf war. ISG found no evidence to suggest concerted efforts to restart the program.
  • Although Saddam clearly assigned a high value to the nuclear progress and talent that had been developed up to the 1991 war, the program ended and the intellectual capital decayed in the succeeding years.


Initially, Saddam chose to conceal his nuclear program in its entirety, as he did with Iraq's BW program. Aggressive UN inspections after Desert Storm forced Saddam to admit the existence of the program and destroy or surrender components of the program.

From the January 3, 2003, edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

KONDRACKE: Right. You don't -- I don't think they think they can handle two acknowledged crises at the same time with the same intensity. For one thing, they don't have the military force to use that option on -- in both cases. Furthermore, the -- they're down the line on Iraq. We are committed to ending this Saddam Hussein regime or at least his weapons of mass destruction program. We are far down that road. We're not going to stop down that road.

And we've got the world on our side in this case. So we got to get it done firsthand then we can shift over to North Korea with presumably the same intensity, although by different means. What we are trying to do with Iraq is to prevent it from being a North Korea. If we let Iraq go down the road that it's going down, it will be nuclear armed, too, and then we will be just as dissuaded, deterred from using military options there as we are on North Korea now.

From the October 9, 2002, edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

BRIT HUME (host): Let me ask this question about that argument. If we make that argument, if that argument is advanced as a reason for not going after him --

KONDRACKE: Then we can never go after him.

HUME: Then what happens if he gets nuclear weapons?


HUME: Then he's invulnerable, utterly.

KONDRACKE: That's the point I was going to make. So we're deterred now by chemical and biological weapons. How much more would we be deterred when he finally gets nuclear weapons? And he obviously is going to do that. Then he's got us blackmailed three ways.

You know, right now, we're apparently not going to be blackmailed at all. Except some people would allow themselves to be blackmailed by the prospect of chemical and biological weapons used against our troops. It is a risk.

But it seems to me that he's a menace, by the very fact that he's got chemical and biological weapons. He could turn them over to somebody else, which was not a point covered in the [former CIA director George] Tenet memo. And therefore, he's got to be taken out.

From the September 21, 2002, edition of Fox News' The Beltway Boys:

KONDRACKE: Well, the hot story of the week is this U.N. standoff. I mean, Saddam Hussein comes up with this phony pledge to let in U.N. weapons inspectors, and all of a sudden, you get people heading for the, for the high grass. And this week, President Bush made a very strong case that the U.N. has got to act, and the Iraqi foreign minister made a, made a statement of his own.

FRED BARNES (host): Yes.

KONDRACKE: Here, watch.

[begin video clip]

BUSH: There are no negotiations to be held with Iraq. They have nothing to negotiate. They're the people who said that they would not have weapons of mass destruction. The negotiations are over. It is up to the U.N. Security Council to lay out resolutions that confirm what Iraq has already agreed to. See?

Secondly, I don't trust Iraq, and neither should the free world.

NAJI SABRI (Iraqi foreign minister): The U.S. administration wants to destroy Iraq in order to control the Middle East oil, and consequently control the politics as well as the oil and the economic policies of the whole world.

Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby declare before you that Iraq is totally clear of all nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

[end video clip]

BARNES: Do you believe that?

KONDRACKE: Liar, liar, is my, is my immediate reaction.

BARNES: Yes, yes.

From the October 8, 2002, edition of Fox News' Fox Wire:

RITA COSBY (host): Well, now what does Bush do now, though, Monica? I mean, now he's hearing from this chorus of people he certainly admires and respects. Does he still go full steam ahead? He's come out and said, “It's an axis of evil.” He's sort of, in a little bit of a bind.

CROWLEY: Well, I think, frankly, that the president has already made up his mind, and I respect [Fox News political contributor] Ellis [Henican]'s point of view on this, but I think he's wrong. I think we [are] facing an imminent threat, because we do know that Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction. He has these programs going, the U.N. weapons inspectors -- it's been four years since they've been inside that place, and they had them back then. This guy gassed his own people. We know he has chemical weapons, we know he has biological, and he has a nascent nuclear capability.

From the May 6, 2002, edition of Fox News' The Big Story with John Gibson:

GIBSON: After the Gulf War, Iraq agreed to destroy all its nuclear weapons, but many doubt Saddam followed through and wonder if Iraq's nuclear program is back in full swing.

This week's Time magazine reported that getting answers to that question is proving very difficult.

Jay Carney is Time's White House correspondent, and he joins us now from Washington.

So, Jay, Time reports that Saddam Hussein is inches or feet or yards or miles from getting a nuclear bomb?

CARNEY: From those choices, I'd say yards.

What we're looking at is -- actually, he never had nuclear weapons before, but he was -- he did have a nuclear program, and he obtained the various trigger devices and housing -- shell housings and things like that that he needed. What he didn't have was enriched uranium, which is, obviously, a key element to building a nuclear weapon.

The -- during the inspections, they managed to destroy 40 nuclear production sites, including three enriched -- you know, uranium-enrichment facilities. We think -- we, the United States, think that he's back at this, trying to enrich his own uranium and trying to buy uranium on the black market, which isn't a very easy thing to do. Experts estimate that, within three to six years, he would have what he needed to make that nuclear bomb.

GIBSON: That three to six years is by the enriching-his-own-plutonium route, but, if he were able to buy it, it would be much quicker, wouldn't it?

CARNEY: It would, and then you have a situation where, if he's able to buy it, either from stolen materials from Russia or elsewhere, then he probably has the components of a -- you know, of a simple nuclear weapon.

What he doesn't have is a delivery device that could take it very far, and this is where the issue of terrorists arises, because one thing he could do is hand a weapon over -- a crude device over to terrorists who might try to transport it to the United States or Europe and use it there on-site.

GIBSON: Well, that's a pretty scary possibility, but let's go back to the delivery device. I thought that your magazine reported that, in a recent military parade, a heretofore unknown rocket was displayed, and he got all excited, firing his gun in the air and cheering, as this passed by the reviewing stand. Doesn't that rocket have some considerable range that could threaten countries that don't feel threatened right now?

CARNEY: We don't know much about that rocket. It's -- it was somebody who said they saw this and that Saddam got excited. We don't know how -- you know, how high-quality the rocket is and how long-range, but it did appear to be a longer-range rocket, and -- which may -- and -- which is banned under the U.N. sanctions that he's currently still operating under, and that could potentially threaten Europe and certainly some of his further neighbors, including Israel.

GIBSON: Well, then, against the backdrop of all of this, why is George Bush off in Detroit today talking about schools rather than taking to a podium someplace and pounding the table about Saddam's close to a bomb?

CARNEY: Well, a couple of reasons. One, you know, the president has been making that case somewhat. He's been enormously distracted by the Middle East. He does have a domestic agenda, and he does have a midterm election this fall. He's a very busy man.

From the September 19, 2002, edition of Fox News' The Big Story with John Gibson:

GIBSON: The president asks Congress to OK a military strike against Saddam, but the Iraqi foreign minister says there's no need.

SABRI [video clip]: Iraq is properly clear of all nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

GIBSON: Sure. The president also wants the U.N. to get a move on the resolution against Iraq as the time line for weapons inspectors gets very vague.

From a January 29, 2003, Washington Times editorial:

While most of the public's attention was focused Monday on chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix and his report on Iraqi chemical and biological weapons programs, the International Atomic Energy Agency released its own report on Saddam Hussein's efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

In stark contrast to Mr. Blix's statement, which detailed Iraq's record of cheating and violations of U.N. disarmament resolutions, the statement made by IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei reflects a troubling complacency. In that statement, and in one interview after another during the past week, Mr. ElBaradei has said that the IAEA has found no evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear-weapons program since the early 1990s.

Mr. ElBaradei's assertions have received a warm reception in The Washington Post and the New York Times, both of which ran stories suggesting that his analysis debunked President Bush's statements about the dangers posed by Iraq. But it strains credulity to believe, based on just two months of inspections of a police state the size of California [and given the reality that critical research can be carried out in hidden underground facilities and in private homes], that weapons inspectors would be able to determine with any degree of confidence that Saddam isn't trying to build nuclear weapons.

Indeed, a careful reading of Mr. ElBaradei's statement to the Security Council leaves plenty of room for skepticism. Several experts on nuclear proliferation issues, among them former U.N. weapons inspector David Kay, told The Washington Times yesterday that Mr. ElBaradei is exaggerating the IAEA's success in halting Iraq's nuclear program from 1991-98, when the agency was able to conduct inspections in that country. For example, Mr. ElBaradei claimed that by the end of 1992, the IAEA “had largely destroyed, removed or rendered harmless all Iraqi facilities and equipment relevant to nuclear weapons production.” Moreover, by December 1998, when Saddam threw all weapons inspectors out of the country, “we were confident that we had not missed any significant component of Iraq's nuclear program.” There is no evidence as yet that Iraq has revived the program since that time, he added.

But, as the Nuclear Control Institute [NCI], a Washington-based research group, noted in a recent study, Iraq “continues to withhold important information about its nuclear program -- weapons design, procurement logs, experiment data, an accounting of nuclear materials and the documentation of foreign assistance. Iraq retains physical infrastructure needed to build a nuclear weapon ... Should Iraq acquire fissile material, it would be able to build a nuclear weapon within a year.” NCI also noted that much of the evidence of Iraqi nuclear development was not uncovered by IAEA inspections, but was learned from Saddam's son-in-law, who defected in 1995.

Mr. Kay said yesterday that Mr. ElBaradei in effect tried to “whitewash” the fact Saddam has continued to keep his nuclear-weapons scientists together working for Iraq's atomic energy commission.

The grim reality is that, for the past 12 years, Saddam Hussein has skillfully used deception and stalling tactics to avoid nuclear disarmament. President Bush realizes that this intolerable state affairs must not continue.

Kay later served as the original head of the CIA's Iraq Survey Group. He resigned in January 2004 and told the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 28, 2004, that, regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, “we [in the intelligence community] were almost all wrong, and I certainly include myself here.”