Four of six major papers left out prescient warnings in coverage of 2002 Iraq war vote

A December 4 Washington Post article pointed out that the newspaper's own reporting from October 2002 on the House's passage of the Iraq war resolution failed to quote a single Democrat expressing concerns about “postwar challenges,” though many had done so. Media Matters found that contemporaneous articles from three other major print outlets also left out any mention of such warnings.

In a December 4 article, Washington Post staff writer Walter Pincus highlighted the congressional Democrats who voted against the October 2002 Iraq war resolution and who predicted at the time that the Bush administration was not prepared for certain “postwar challenges” -- warnings that, in Pincus' words, “turned out to be correct.” He further pointed out that the Post, in its two October 11, 2002, articles on the resolution's passage in the House, failed to quote a single Democrat voicing these prescient concerns.

Expanding on Pincus' critique, Media Matters for America reviewed the coverage by five other major print outlets -- The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Associated Press. Our survey found that some did better than others in their coverage of the Democratic opposition to the resolution. But like the Post, three of these five outlets failed to mention the numerous Democrats who warned of “postwar challenges” during the congressional debate on the resolution.

From Pincus' December 4 article, headlined “Democrats Who Opposed War Move Into Key Positions”:

Although given little public credit at the time, or since, many of the 126 House Democrats who spoke out and voted against the October 2002 resolution that gave President Bush authority to wage war against Iraq have turned out to be correct in their warnings about the problems a war would create.

Throughout the article, Pincus cited the numerous House Democrats who, during the floor debate on H.J.R. 114 -- the resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq -- warned of the administration's apparent failure to prepare for conditions in post-invasion Iraq. They included:

  • Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (SC), who “predicted during the House floor debate that 'the outcome after the conflict is actually going to be the hardest part, and it is far less certain.' ... 'We do not want to win this war, only to lose the peace and swell the ranks of terrorists who hate us,' Spratt said.”
  • Rep. Ike Skelton (MO), who stressed the need for “a plan for rebuilding of the Iraqi government and society, if the worst comes to pass and armed conflict is necessary” and noted the “extreme difficulty of occupying Iraq with its history of autocratic rule, its balkanized ethnic tensions and its isolated economic system.”
  • Rep. David R. Obey (WI), who “spoke then about poor preparation for postwar Iraq, a concern he developed after listening to State Department officials.”
  • Rep. Tammy Baldwin (WI), who ''spoke of the 'postwar challenges,' saying that 'there is no history of democratic government in Iraq,' that its 'economy and infrastructure is in ruins after years of war and sanctions' and that rebuilding would take 'a great deal of money.' ''
  • Rep. Barbara T. Lee (CA), who “raised questions in the floor debate that remain unanswered. 'What is our objective here,' she asked four years ago, 'regime change or elimination of weapons of mass destruction?' ”

After reporting on the questions raised by these Democrats, Pincus went on to note that the Post, in its two October 11, 2002, articles on the House's approval of the resolution a day earlier, failed to quote a single Democrat expressing such concerns:

The day after the House vote, The Washington Post recorded that 126 House Democrats voted against the final resolution. None was quoted giving a reason for his or her vote except for Rep. Joe Baca (Calif.), who said a military briefing had disclosed that U.S. soldiers did not have adequate protection against biological weapons.

“As a veteran, that's what hit me the hardest,” he said.

Lee was described as giving a “fiery denunciation” of the administration's “rush to war,” with only 14 colleagues in the House chamber to hear her. None of the reasons she gave to justify her concerns, nor those voiced by other Democratic opponents, was reported in the two Post stories about passage of the resolution that day.

Indeed, Baca was the only Democratic critic quoted in the October 11 article by Post staff writers Jim VandeHei and Juliet Eilperin, which ignored the warnings issued by numerous Democrats of the lack of a postwar plan as their rationale. Likewise, in his October 11 column on the congressional debate, Post columnist Dana Milbank noted Lee's “fiery denunciation” of the resolution and quoted the general criticism voiced by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), but ignored the other Democrats' specific concerns regarding the aftermath of the invasion:

With passage assured, most of the day's passion came from opponents, who numbered a greater-than-expected 133 in the House. Rep. Barbara T. Lee (D-Calif.), who last year opposed military action in Afghanistan, kicked off the debate at 9 a.m. with a fiery denunciation heard by all of 14 members on the floor and a lone reporter in the gallery. “Before us is a question of life and death,” she said. “We do not need to rush to war!”

In the Senate, Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), perennial defender of congressional prerogatives, had all the passion. “Thirty eight years ago, I, Robert C. Byrd, voted on the Tonkin Gulf resolution!” he began. “For all those spouting jingoes about the need to go to war with Iraq now, go down on the capital mall and look at the Vietnam memorial.”


As a vote neared, liberals made a last stand. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), offered a pacifist plea: “Faith, America! Courage, America! Peace, America!” One Democrat applauded.

But the Post was not the only national newspaper to ignore the postwar concerns voiced by Spratt, Skelton, Baldwin, and other Democrats:

  • In their October 11 article on the approval of the war resolution, Wall Street Journal staff writers David Rogers and Carla Anne Robbins simply included quotes from Byrd and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) criticizing it in general terms. The Journal quoted Byrd saying, “We're handing this over to the president of the United States, and when we do that, we can put a sign on top of this Capitol and we can say 'Gone Home, Gone Fishing, Out of Business.' ” The article went on to note the following statement from Kennedy: “Yes, we may reach a point where our only choice is conflict. ... But we are not there yet. The evidence does not take us there, events do not compel us there.”
  • In an October 11 article on both the House and Senate's passage of H.J.R. 114, Associated Press writer Jim Abrams reported that many Democrats were “unwilling to give open-ended war-making authority to the president.” The article offered no further detail regarding the questions raised by Democrats regarding the probable “postwar challenges.”
  • USA Today staff writer Kathy Kiely's October 11 article on the Democratic opposition to the war resolution consisted of a single quote from Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), who said, " 'Shoot now and ask questions later' has never been the American way, and it should not be now."

By contrast, in their October 11 New York Times article on the congressional debate, reporters Alison Mitchell and Carl Hulse noted that some “Democrats, like Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, were determined to vote against the measure, saying there were still many questions about how a war would be waged, what its costs would be and how long it would last.” The article went on to quote Kennedy saying, “We have very little understanding about the full implications in terms of an exit strategy.”

Similarly, an October 11 Los Angeles Times article by Nick Anderson and Richard Simon reported that Democratic dissenters had expressed concerns regarding the effect of an Iraq invasion on regional stability, arguing that the Bush administration's “go-it-alone approach ... would hamper efforts to build a global coalition against Iraq and could ignite a tinderbox in the Middle East.”