Wash. Post staff writer Dana Priest used falsehood to defend Powell U.N. speech leading up to Iraq war

On December 14, Washington Post national staff writer Dana Priest made the unsupported assertion that the Bush administration did not intentionally propound dubious or false information regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 5, 2003, speech to the United Nations Security Council. Defending the administration on the December 14 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews against Matthews's assertion that the Powell speech was “a pack of lies,” Priest said that the administration “didn't cook up the sales pitch. They were wrong about the facts, but there's no indication that they knew that they were wrong, and then they put it out there.” But accounts by Bush administration and U.N. intelligence officials and consultants documented by CBS News, the Associated Press, and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) indicate that the administration and CIA were aware at the time that much of the information provided in Powell's speech was suspect.

A discussion on the show about President Bush's decision to award former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet a Presidential Medal of Freedom prompted the following exchange between Priest and Matthews:

MATTHEWS: They're giving a medal to a guy for getting us into war under false pretenses? You give a guy the Medal of Freedom for that? That medal used to go to --

PRIEST: He did not give the Medal of Freedom to George Tenet because he miscalculated the WMD report. He gave it to him for the work that the CIA did inside Iraq, and before that war, and also the war in Afghanistan.

MATTHEWS: You mean the sales pitch they cooked up for Colin Powell to deliver at the U.N. It was all a pack of lies.

PRIEST: No, they didn't cook up the sales pitch. They were wrong about the facts, but there's no indication that they knew that they were wrong, and then they put it out there. There's a big difference.

But the evidence contradicts Priest's assertion that the Bush administration and CIA realized only later that much of the information in Powell's speech was contradicted by available intelligence. As CBS' 60 Minutes has documented, numerous U.S. intelligence officials and consultants told the administration that much of the information in Powell's speech was incorrect ahead of time. In an interview with 60 Minutes on October 15, 2003, Greg Thielmann, who analyzed the Iraqi weapons threat for Powell as the State Department's acting director of the Office of Strategic Proliferation and Military Affairs, cited the administration's decision to ignore intelligence suggesting that Iraqi aluminum tubes were not being used as centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons as evidence that “the senior administration officials have what I call faith-based intelligence. They knew what they wanted the intelligence to show.” Oak Ridge National Laboratory consultant Houston Wood, who, according to CBS, is “among the world's authorities on uranium enrichment by centrifuge,” said he was “flabbergasted” that the administration continued to push the centrifuge argument. The administration's refusal to accept intelligence contradicting their aluminum tube theory was documented in greater detail by the New York Times on October 3, 2004 (reprinted here). CBS also noted that Stephen Allison, a U.N. inspector in Iraq prior to the war, described the satellite photos used in Powell's speech as “notoriously misleading.”

Evidence that the administration disregarded the available intelligence contradicting Powell's claims about WMD was thoroughly documented in an August 10, 2003, report by Associated Press special correspondent and 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner Charles J. Hanley. According to Hanley, among the false statements made by Powell that had already been cast into doubt by intelligence available at that time were the following:

  • "'We have no indication that Saddam Hussein has ever abandoned his nuclear weapons program,' Powell said. Chief U.N. nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei told the [U.N. Security] council two weeks before the U.S. invasion, 'We have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq.' On July 24, Foreign Minister Ana Palacio of Spain, a U.S. ally on Iraq, said there were 'no evidences, no proof' of a nuclear bomb program before the war."
  • “Powell said 'most United States experts' believe aluminum tubes sought by Iraq were intended for use as centrifuge cylinders for enriching uranium for nuclear bombs. Energy Department experts and Powell's own State Department intelligence bureau had already dissented from this CIA view, and on March 7 the U.N. nuclear agency's ElBaradei said his experts found convincing documentation -- and no contrary evidence -- that Iraq was using the tubes to make artillery rockets.”
  • “Powell noted Iraq had declared it produced 8,500 liters of the biological agent anthrax before 1991, but U.N. inspectors estimated it could have made up to 25,000 liters. None has been 'verifiably accounted for,' he said. ... The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), in a confidential report [issued in September 2002]...said that although it believed Iraq had biological weapons, it didn't know their nature, amounts or condition. Three weeks before the invasion, an Iraqi report of scientific soil sampling supported the regime's contention that it had destroyed its anthrax stocks at a known site, the U.N. inspection agency said May 30.”
  • “Powell showed video of an Iraqi F-1 Mirage jet spraying 'simulated anthrax.' He said four such spray tanks were unaccounted for, and Iraq was building small unmanned aircraft 'well suited for dispensing chemical and biological weapons.' According to U.N. inspectors' reports, the video predated the 1991 Gulf War, when the Mirage was said to have been destroyed, and three of the four spray tanks were destroyed in the 1990s.”
  • “Powell said Iraq produced four tons of the nerve agent VX. 'A single drop of VX on the skin will kill in minutes. Four tons,' he said. Powell didn't note that most of that four tons was destroyed in the 1990s under U.N. supervision. Before the invasion, the Iraqis made a 'considerable effort' to prove they had destroyed the rest, doing chemical analysis of the ground where inspectors confirmed VX had been dumped, the U.N. inspection agency reported May 30. Experts at Britain's International Institute of Strategic Studies said any pre-1991 VX most likely would have degraded anyway.”
  • "'We know that Iraq has embedded key portions of its illicit chemical weapons infrastructure within its legitimate civilian industry,' Powell said. ... [The] DIA report ... said there was 'no reliable information' on 'where Iraq has -- or will -- establish its chemical warfare agent-production facilities.' Many countries' civilian chemical industries are capable of making weapons agents, and Iraq's was under close U.N. oversight. The DIA report suggested international inspections, swept aside by the U.S. invasion six months later, would be able to keep Iraq from rebuilding a chemical weapons program."
  • “Powell said 122-mm chemical warheads found by U.N. inspectors in January might be the 'tip of an iceberg.' The warheads were empty, a fact Powell didn't note.”

As The Boston Globe reported on September 14, 2004, Powell insists that although “US intelligence officials already knew many of the claims [in his speech] about weapons and terrorist ties were suspect ... they had not informed him or other senior policy makers about their doubts.” But as FAIR has documented (citing The Washington Post), even if Powell wasn't personally aware that many of the claims he was making before the U.N. were false, he overstated them to argue for the war: “Powell embellished an intercepted conversation about weapons inspections between Iraqi officials to make it sound more incriminating, changing an order to 'inspect the scrap areas and the abandoned areas' to a command to 'clean out' those areas. He also added the phrase 'make sure there is nothing there,' a phrase that appears nowhere in the State Department's official translation.”