After examining The Washington Post's coverage of prewar intelligence on Iraq, executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. admitted that the newspaper did not give “proper play” to stories that could have been seen as challenging the Bush administration's pro-war arguments. Despite this admission, it appears the Post is following the same pattern in its coverage of intelligence on Iran's nuclear capability.
In August 2004, Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. admitted that in the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Post had granted prominent coverage to the Bush administration's pro-war arguments while “not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn't be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration's rationale.” Downie added, “Not enough of those stories were on the front page.” But despite this mea culpa, as the weblog A Tiny Revolution noted, the Post appears to be following a similar pattern in its coverage of intelligence on Iran's nuclear capability. Indeed, on August 24 the Post published an article on a House Intelligence Committee report supporting “the White House position that the Islamic republic is moving forward with a nuclear weapons program and that it poses a significant danger to the United States.” Several weeks later, a September 14 Post article reported that U.N. inspectors had refuted many of the claims in the House report and deemed it “outrageous and dishonest.” But while the original article supporting the Bush administration's claims about on Iran had run on the front page, the follow-up piece calling into question the basis for the White House's argument ran on Page A17.
The Post's tendency to bury those stories challenging Bush's pro-war arguments on Iraq was clearly evident in the six months leading up to the war. The White House campaign to drum up support for military action against Iraq escalated in late August and early September 2002. During that period, the Post ran several front-page articles that -- beneath alarming headlines -- highlighted the administration's assertions regarding the Iraqi threat:
- Cheney Says Iraqi Strike Is Justified: Hussein Poses Threat, He Declares, Dana Milbank, Page A01, 8/27/02
- Bush, Blair Decry Hussein: Iraqi Threat Is Real, They Say, Karen DeYoung, Page A01, 9/8/02
- War Cabinet Argues for Iraq Attack: Bush Advisers Cite U.S. Danger, Mike Allen, Page A01, 9/9/02
On September 19, 2002, however, Washington Post staff writer Joby Warrick highlighted “a report by independent experts” that challenged a key piece of evidence backing up the administration's argument that Saddam Hussein had revived his nuclear weapons program. As Warrick explained, the report from the Institute for Science and International Security had cast doubt over “whether thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes recently sought by Iraq were intended for a secret nuclear weapons program.” But in contrast to the front-page articles cited above, Warrick's reporting was relegated to Page A18.
In the months following Warrick's piece, the Post published several other front-page articles emphasizing the administration's claims regarding Iraq's nuclear weapons capability and purported ties to Al Qaeda:
- Bush Cites Urgent Iraqi Threat, Karen DeYoung, Page A01, 10/8/02
- U.S. Suspects Al Qaeda Got Nerve Agent From Iraqis, Barton Gellman, Page A01, 12/12/02
But again, when Post staff writers Walter Pincus and Dana Priest reported on January 30, 2003, that senior administration officials considered “still circumstantial” the White House's evidence against Iraq, their article appeared on Page A14.
As the debate over the war moved to the United Nations in February 2003, the Post ran numerous front-page articles that presented both the administration's case for the invasion and the skepticism voiced among many U.N. members. But, in the week prior to the March 20 U.S. invasion, when the Post published an article by Pincus that cited serious doubts among “senior intelligence analysts,” it appeared on Page A17. Similarly, an article co-written by Pincus and Milbank stating that Bush administration claims against Saddam had been “challenged -- and in some cases disproved -- by the United Nations, European governments and even U.S. intelligence reports” appeared on Page A13.
Pincus would later tell journalist Michael Massing in 2004 that his editors had failed to “put things on the front page that would make a difference.” From Massing's article "Now They Tell Us," in the February 26, 2004, issue of The New York Review of Books:
The placement of these stories was no accident, Pincus says. “The front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times are very important in shaping what other people think,” he told me. “They're like writing a memo to the White House.” But the Post's editors, he said, “went through a whole phase in which they didn't put things on the front page that would make a difference.”
Several months after Massing's article, Post media writer Howard Kurtz examined the newspaper's prewar reporting and determined that the Post “published a number of pieces challenging the White House, but rarely on the front page.” From Kurtz's August 12, 2004, article:
An examination of the paper's coverage, and interviews with more than a dozen of the editors and reporters involved, shows that The Post published a number of pieces challenging the White House, but rarely on the front page. Some reporters who were lobbying for greater prominence for stories that questioned the administration's evidence complained to senior editors who, in the view of those reporters, were unenthusiastic about such pieces. The result was coverage that, despite flashes of groundbreaking reporting, in hindsight looks strikingly one-sided at times.
“The paper was not front-paging stuff,” said Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks. "Administration assertions were on the front page. Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24 on Monday. There was an attitude among editors: Look, we're going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?"
Kurtz went on to quote Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. weighing in on the newspaper's editorial decisions in those crucial months leading up to the war:
In retrospect, said Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., “we were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn't be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration's rationale. Not enough of those stories were put on the front page. That was a mistake on my part.”
Across the country, “the voices raising questions about the war were lonely ones,” Downie said. "We didn't pay enough attention to the minority."
But despite Downie's admission that the placement of the stories challenging the White House's pro-war arguments had been a “mistake,” there is evidence that this pattern is repeating itself as the administration considers military action against Iran. In an August 24 front-page article, Post staff writer Dafna Linzer highlighted a report produced by the GOP-led House Intelligence Committee that, in her words, “fully backs the White House position that the Islamic republic [Iran] is moving forward with a nuclear weapons program and that it poses a significant danger to the United States” and “chides the intelligence community for not providing enough direct evidence to support that assertion.”
The House report provoked strong criticism from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). On September 12, the IAEA submitted a letter that documented what it said were five significant errors relating to the committee's central assertions on the status of the Iranian nuclear program. But when Linzer penned a September 14 follow-up article on the IAEA's objections, which also reported that “privately, several intelligence officials said the committee report included at least a dozen claims that were either demonstrably wrong or impossible to substantiate,” it appeared on Page A17.