Media largely silent on WSJ report: Bush admin “stopped the military from attacking” Zarqawi before the start of the Iraq war

The media has remained largely silent on The Wall Street Journal's October 25 report that President George W. Bush's administration passed up several opportunities to attack and potentially kill terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi before the start of the Iraq war. The Journal article expanded on a March 2 NBC Nightly News report suggesting that the administration passed up chances to attack Zarqawi; the report noted that several former administration officials and military officers have questioned the administration's decision to hold off on such attacks. While the Bush administration has repeatedly called attention to Zarqawi, their failure to attack him in 2002 has gone virtually unreported. Zarqawi has recently made headlines in connection with the killing of 50 U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers and is, according to the Associated Press and The New York Times, “believed responsible for hundreds of killings.”

The October 25 Journal report documented several former military officers and administration officials who have questioned the administration's decision to refrain from attacking Zarqawi's camp, especially in light of the mounting “toll of mayhem” for which he is believed to be responsible:

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, who was in the White House as the National Security Council's director for combatting terrorism at the time, said an NSC [National Security Council] working group, led by the Defense Department, had been in charge of reviewing the plans to target the [Zarqawi's] camp. She said the camp was “definitely a stronghold, and we knew that certain individuals were there including Zarqawi.” Ms. Gordon-Hagerty said she wasn't part of the working group and never learned the reason why the camp wasn't hit. But she said that much later, when reports surfaced that Mr. Zarqawi was behind a series of bloody attacks in Iraq, she said “I remember my response,” adding, “I said why didn't we get that ['son of a b-'] when we could.”


[Retired] Gen. [John M.] Keane [then-U.S. Army vice chief of staff] characterized the [Zarqawi's] camp “as one of the best targets we ever had,” and questioned the decision not to attack it.

From the original March 2 NBC Nightly News report:

JIM MIKLASZEWSKI (NBC News chief Pentagon correspondent): With today's attacks, al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant with ties to Al Qaeda, is blamed for more than 700 terrorist killings in Iraq. But NBC News has learned that long before the war, the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out his terrorist group, Ansar al-Islam, perhaps kill Zarqawi himself, but never pulled the trigger. June 2002, U.S. government officials say intelligence revealed that Zarqawi and members of Al Qaeda had set up a weapons lab at Kirma in northern Iraq, producing deadly ricin and cyanide. The Pentagon quickly drafted plans to attack the camp and sent them to the White House, where, say government sources, the plans were debated to death.


MIKLASZEWSKI: Four months later, intelligence showed Zarqawi was planning to use ricin in terrorist attacks in Europe. The Pentagon drew up a second strike plan, and the White House again killed it. By then, the administration had set its course for war with Iraq.

ROGER CRESSEY (NBC terrorism analyst): People were more obsessed with developing the coalition to overthrow [former Iraqi leader] Saddam [Hussein] than to execute the president's [Bush's] policy on preemption against terrorists.


MIKLASZEWSKI: And despite the Bush administration's tough talk about hitting the terrorists before they strike, Zarqawi's killing streak continues today.

As of this writing, the October 25 Wall Street Journal report was the subject of a Paul Krugman New York Times column and two newspaper editorial pieces. It was also mentioned by CNN Crossfire co-host Paul Begala, “White House Briefing” columnist Dan Froomkin, and MSNBC host Keith Olbermann. No other major newspaper, none of the network news programs, and no primetime news shows on CNN or FOX News Channel addressed the report. On MSNBC, it was mentioned only on Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

From an October 27 Sarasota [Florida] Herald Tribune editorial, titled “Zarqawi's escape: Decision against a pre-invasion strike should be investigated”:

To the long and growing list of the Bush administration's pre-war and post-war misjudgments in Iraq, add a missed opportunity that might have averted much of the bloodshed that has marked the U.S. occupation. A great deal of the havoc in post-war Iraq -- car-bombings, kidnappings, videotaped beheadings of hostages, the recent massacre of Iraqi troops -- has been attributed to a group led by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. His followers have been blamed for more than 700 deaths. Yet, according to Monday's Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon drew up a plan, almost a year before the U.S.-led invasion, to wipe out Zarqawi's terrorist camp in northern Iraq. ... Why Bush rejected the Pentagon's plan is a matter for speculation -- and great regret. That decision, along with the administration's overall abysmal preparations for the war in Iraq, should be the subject of a congressional investigation. Zarqawi's camp was in a part of Iraq not under Saddam Hussein's control. Yet, according to a report by NBC last March, military officials have speculated that the continued presence in Iraq of Zarqawi -- an al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist who had fled Afghanistan with his followers -- may have helped bolster the administration's case for an invasion.

From an October 27 Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorial, titled “Incompetence: Zarqawi, explosives got away”:

Two news stories out of Iraq Monday illustrated again the incompetence that President Bush and his national security team have brought to the war in Iraq: In the first story, Scot J. Paltrow, a Wall Street Journal reporter, tells how the White House prevented the Pentagon from taking out terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi months before the war began. ... Here you have the perfect storm of incompetence: Before the war, the Bush administration rejected Pentagon efforts to take out Zarqawi. Following the war, the Bush administration failed to secure 377 tons of high explosives that could help Zarqawi kill more Americans. Then they tried to hide the loss. It's mind-boggling.

Host Keith Olbermann on the October 26 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann:

OLBERMANN: The terror group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is claiming responsibility for the slaughter of those Iraqi troops and tonight come new charges that the Bush administration passed up several opportunities to take out Zarqawi when it could have, well before the war began in Iraq.

Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant with ties to Al Qaeda, accused of most of the violence we have seen in Iraq since the invasion. Senior Pentagon officials now telling The Wall Street Journal that in the spring 2002, the U.S. military had Zarqawi in its sights, tracking him down in Iraq, drawing up a number of plans to go after him and sending those plans to the White House. The president personally -- say those Wall Street Journal sources -- rejected those plans, choosing instead to wait.

This is not the first time such reports have surfaced. NBC News having reported in March that the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out Zarqawi's terrorist group and perhaps Zarqawi himself, but it never pulled the trigger.

From Paul Krugman's October 26 New York Times column, titled “A Culture of Cover-Ups”:

The story of the looted explosives has overshadowed another report that Bush officials tried to suppress -- this one about how the Bush administration let Abu Musab al-Zarqawi get away. An article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal confirmed and expanded on an ''NBC Nightly News'' report from March that asserted that before the Iraq war, administration officials called off a planned attack that might have killed Mr. Zarqawi, the terrorist now blamed for much of the mayhem in that country, in his camp.

Citing ''military officials,'' the original NBC report explained that the failure to go after Mr. Zarqawi was based on domestic politics: ''the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq'' -- a part of Iraq not controlled by Saddam Hussein -- ''could undermine its case for war against Saddam.'' The Journal doesn't comment on this explanation, but it does say that when NBC reported, correctly, that Mr. Zarqawi had been targeted before the war, administration officials denied it.

From the October 25 edition of CNN's Crossfire:

BEGALA [co-host]: Today's Wall Street Journal reports that the Bush administration canceled a plan to kill Iraqi terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi before the invasion of Iraq. General John M. Keane, then the Army's vice chief of staff, called Zarqawi's camp -- quote -- “one of the best targets we ever had” -- unquote.

Former Bush national security aide Lisa Gordon-Hagerty tells the Journal there was intelligence that al-Zarqawi was in the camp and when Zarqawi began murdering American troops, she asked -- quote -- “Why didn't we get that SOB when we could?” -- unquote. Good question, Lisa. The Bush administration says one factor was -- quote -- “the president's decision to engage the international community on Iraq” -- unquote.

So, if we could kill the No. 1 terrorist in Iraq without invading, there would be less support for Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq. And so Zarqawi is alive. Scores of Americans are dead, some of them beheaded. Think about that the next time Mr. Bush lectures you about how strong he is.

From Dan Froomkin's October 25 “White House Briefing” column:

There's the Wall Street Journal weighing in with a story about how Bush apparently had the chance to kill terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi before the Iraq War, but opted not to.