Will Wash. Post editorial page retract pre- and post-Iraq invasion falsehoods?

In a November 14 op-ed, Fred Hiatt, editor of The Washington Post's editorial page, attributed negative public opinion of the war in Iraq to President Bush's lack of openness, writing that “had he [Bush] been more honest from the start about the likely difficulties of war, readier to deal with them and then more open in acknowledging his failures, the public likely would be more patient.” But Hiatt -- who suggested in op-eds (reprinted here and here) in 2004 that examining the circumstances that led to the war is less important than “look[ing] forward” in Iraq -- did not address the veracity of Bush's statements in actually making the case for war. The omission is particularly noteworthy, given that Hiatt's remarks came just one week after the Post reported that in the buildup to the war, the White House had access to a report by the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) that “questioned the reliability of a captured top al Qaeda operative whose allegations became the basis of Bush administration claims that terrorists had been trained in the use of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq.”

In light of this latest indication that the White House did not seek out -- or outright ignored -- government assessments that contradicted the arguments it used to make the case for war, Hiatt passed up yet another opportunity to: 1) reassess the editorial page's failure to question the administration's claims, and 2) retract the falsehoods the editorial page put forth in promoting, and subsequently defending, the war. Below are some examples of problematic statements from Post editorials backing the Bush administration's two principal -- and faulty -- arguments for going to war: Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ties to Al Qaeda.

Post has not retracted uncritical adoption of Bush administration's pre-war claims

In a July 17, 2004, editorial, The New York Times wrote that “we were wrong about the weapons” and admitted that “we should have been more aggressive in helping our readers understand that there was always a possibility that no large stockpiles existed.” The Times was referring to its own news reporting. Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. conceded in August 2004 that the Post's news reporting failed to provide adequate coverage of those who questioned the Bush administration in the buildup to the war. “Overall, in retrospect, we underplayed some of those stories,” he said.

But the Post's editorial page, which endorsed the invasion of Iraq, has yet to retract its numerous prewar assertions that echoed those of the Bush administration and turned out to be false. Included in these assertions were claims of the administration's good faith, which the November 6 disclosure further calls into question.

For example, as the November 6 Post report noted, a February 2002 DIA report determined that it was “likely” that Al Qaeda senior military trainer Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi was “intentionally misleading the debriefers” about Iraqi efforts to train Al Qaeda to use chemical and biological weapons. The report cited the fact that, in the Post's words, al-Libi “could not name any Iraqis involved, any chemical or biological material used or where the training occurred.” Yet when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell incorporated al-Libi's account into a falsehood-laden February 5, 2003, speech before the United Nations, the Post adopted the claim in a February 6, 2003, editorial as “a powerful new case that Saddam Hussein's regime is cooperating with a branch of the al Qaeda organization that is trying to acquire chemical weapons and stage attacks in Europe.”

The editorial, titled “Irrefutable,” also asserted that after Powell's speech, “it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.” The Post still has not retracted its endorsement of Powell's U.N. address, even after evidence surfaced that Powell had reason to know that many of the claims he made in the speech were disputed at the time within the intelligence community. For example, as Media Matters for America has documented here and here, Powell apparently ignored assessments from consultants and intelligence officials at the State Department's own Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) suggesting that Iraqi aluminum tubes were not being used as centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.

Now, in light of the disclosure of the DIA report, as well as the evidence that Powell had reason to know that his “irrefutable” case was based on disputed claims, will the Post finally revisit its promotion of Powell's speech? Will it now concede that, in fact, those who doubted “that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction” were correct?

Post has distorted the record to defend its own -- and Bush administration's -- false claims

As it became increasingly clear after the invasion that the Bush administration's claims that Iraq possessed WMD and was closely connected to Al Qaeda were not true, the Post issued more false and misleading claims to defend itself and, to a lesser extent, the Bush administration.

Iraq-Al Qaeda connection

For example, in an October 12, 2003, editorial, the Post asserted that "[f]or our part, we never saw a connection between Iraq and 9/11 or major collaboration between Saddam and al Qaeda." But while the Post may never have asserted a direct connection, in a February 13, 2003, editorial, it explicitly linked the need to invade Iraq to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks:

During the past decade the United States vowed many times to disarm Saddam Hussein, who made no secret of his hatred and enmity toward the United States; but when the Iraqi dictator resisted, the United States chose to abandon its vows rather than use the force that would have been needed to enforce them. In every case, the calculation, stated or unstated, was the same: Pay tribute, don't make trouble, and maybe nothing worse will happen.

In the ruins of Lower Manhattan in September 2001, most Americans saw evidence that this calculation was incorrect as well as craven. The nation's enemies would not be deterred or mollified by a gentle response; they would be emboldened. President Bush rightly concluded that the nation had to defend itself more vigilantly but also that no defense could succeed unless accompanied by an offensive against the terrorists and the states that sheltered them.

In a June 17, 2004, editorial, the Post defended Vice President Dick Cheney's repeated statements linking Iraq to Al Qaeda. After the September 11 Commission report found “no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States,” the Post asserted that "[a]dministration foes" who “seized on this sentence to claim that Vice President Cheney has been lying” were making an accusation “nearly as irresponsible as the Bush administration's rhetoric has been.” Although the editorial was written well over a year after the Bush administration had successfully convinced a majority of Americans to support the war, in part by promoting a virtually nonexistent relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda, the Post defended the White House by noting that "[t]he administration has not recently suggested that Iraq was behind Sept. 11."

But even this defense is false. Throughout the 2004 presidential campaign, Cheney suggested that Iraq had been involved in the 9-11 attacks by repeatedly citing a Czech intelligence report that lead 9-11 hijacker Mohammed Atta likely met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in April 2001. While Cheney did backtrack in June 2004 from his 2001 claim that such a meeting was “pretty well confirmed,” he continued to push the connection even after the 9-11 Commission concluded that "[w]e do not believe that such a meeting occurred," as The New York Times reported on June 18, 2004:

Staff Report 15, released by the commission Wednesday, detailed how a senior Iraqi intelligence officer “reportedly made three visits to Sudan” and met with Mr. bin Laden in 1994. At that meeting, the report concluded, Mr. bin Laden sought permission to establish training camps in Iraq and help in obtaining weapons, “but Iraq apparently never responded.”

“There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda also occurred after bin Laden had returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship,” the report continued. “Two senior bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between Al Qaeda and Iraq. We have no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.”

Mr. Cheney expressed a slightly different view last night, saying, “We have never been able to prove that there was a connection there on 9/11.” He went on to cite a Czech intelligence service report that Mohammad Atta, one of the lead hijackers, met a senior Iraqi intelligence official in April 2001. “That's never been proven,” he said. “It's never been refuted.”

The commission report released on Wednesday concluded: “We do not believe that such a meeting occurred,” citing phone records and other evidence that Mr. Atta had been in Florida at that time, not Prague.

Further, the Post argued that Cheney's claim that Iraq and Al Qaeda had “long-established ties” was not “contradict[ed]” by the 9-11 Commission. But this assertion is disingenuous at best. By reiterating these “long-established ties,” Cheney was not suggesting merely that Iraqi and Al Qaeda representatives had crossed paths sporadically over the years. Far from it, Cheney was evoking a direct connection between the so-called “war on terror” -- i.e., the U.S. response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- and the war in Iraq. He was repeating administration claims -- also repeated frequently by President Bush -- that Saddam Hussein had trained Al Qaeda terrorists, and an attack on Iraq was an attack on the very terrorist network responsible for 9-11.

“Staff Statement 15” of the report documented not only that Iraq did not collaborate with Al Qaeda in any of Al Qaeda's attacks against the United States, but Iraq also did not provide Al Qaeda with training, funding, or any other assistance worthy of note. In fact, the report mentioned only sporadic meetings between Iraq and Al Qaeda, the most prominent of which was a 1994 meeting between a senior Iraqi intelligence officer and Osama bin Laden. But that meeting “resulted in nothing,” as The Nation Washington editor David Corn noted in a June 26, 2004, letter to the editor that cited the commission's report in criticizing the Post's editorial:

Your paper claimed that the commission did not “contradict what Mr. Cheney actually said -- and President Bush backed up -- earlier this week: that there were 'long-established ties' between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.” But regarding these “ties,” the report said bin Laden “explored possible cooperation with Iraq” in the early 1990s, and one Iraqi intelligence officer “finally” met with him in 1994. Bin Laden “is said to have requested” assistance from Iraq, but “Iraq apparently never responded.”

How does a meeting from 10 years ago (that resulted in nothing) -- as well as possible but unconfirmed contacts that happened in 1996 -- become “long-established ties”? Let's be honest about the use of language. By deploying this phrase, Cheney meant to suggest that an active relationship existed between al Qaeda and Iraq.

Your paper tries to have it both ways. After chastising Bush critics, it acknowledges that Cheney has overstated “rather tentative ties” between bin Laden and Hussein. But if your paper believes the links were “rather tentative,” how can it endorse Cheney's use of the term “long-established ties”? More importantly, how can it denounce the critics for reasonably pointing to the commission's report as evidence that President Bush and Vice President Cheney did not tell the truth about the al Qaeda-Iraq connection before the war? The Bush administration did not maintain war was necessary because of “rather tentative” ties. The misleading assertions of the administration -- not the justifiable response of the critics -- remain the main story.

In light of the revelation that the Bush administration disregarded the DIA, or at best did not canvass all available intelligence, in repeatedly using the claims of the discredited Al Qaeda operative to allege a link between the terrorist organization and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, will the Post now revisit the false arguments and twisted logic it employed to defend the administration's arguments for such a connection?

Bush administration use of intelligence

The Post's position on how the Bush administration misused the available intelligence in the buildup to the war is also problematic. The Post conceded in an October 12, 2003, editorial that it was still “at issue” whether President Bush could “be trusted not to distort” the available intelligence “in pursuit of his own agenda,” and wrote in an October 7, 2004, editorial that "[t]he administration's culpability in ignoring uncertainties in that intelligence, in failing to ask hard questions and in publicly exaggerating flawed estimates has not been thoroughly examined." The Post subsequently concluded in editorials on October 24, 2004, and June 15, 2005, that the Bush administration had in fact “exaggerat[ed]” the intelligence.

Yet while the Post established that the Bush administration exaggerated the findings of the evidence it possessed, the newspaper has not addressed evidence that the administration cherry-picked the evidence it chose to highlight, ignoring assessments that contradicted the arguments it used to promote the war. Rather, the Post often suggested that the intelligence was uniform in suggesting that Iraq was a significant threat. For example, discussing the Iraq Survey Group's finding that “Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction, and most of its programs to produce them were dormant” when the United States invaded, the October 7, 2004, editorial wrote that “in reality no president could have known what is known now,” without mentioning that the administration knew much of the intelligence it was citing at the time was disputed within the Intelligence Community.

Similarly, the June 15 editorial -- in dismissing the Downing Street Memo, a secret British intelligence document indicating that intelligence officials there believed that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” by the Bush administration to support its case for war -- suggested that the administration had uniform intelligence assessments. The editorial asserted that “the memos provide no information that would alter the conclusions of multiple independent investigations on both sides of the Atlantic, which were that U.S. and British intelligence agencies genuinely believed Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.” In fact, while the Downing Street Memo itself may not have included concrete information that would alter conclusions that Iraq possessed WMD, the Post knew then, and we know even more now, of other reports that did include information that would alter that conclusion. While the recently surfaced DIA report is the latest sign that the administration selectively cited intelligence that Iraq possessed such weapons, other evidence has existed for some time, such as evidence that Powell ignored intelligence assessments in his U.N. address.

Will the Post now revisit evidence that the Bush administration not only exaggerated the intelligence it had, but ignored intelligence that contradicted its arguments for war?