Inspection Misdirection

Covering a speech by President Bush in Tennessee today, in which the president defended his decision to invade Iraq, Deb Reichmann of the Associated Press writes: “Saddam refused to open his country to inspections, Bush said.”

That jogged our memory. Back in January, the president incorrectly asserted during a press conference that Saddam “did not let” U.N. weapons inspectors into Iraq. In reality, Saddam did let inspectors in. Campaign Desk at the time criticized the White House press corps for not calling Bush on the falsehood.

To read Reichmann’s report from Tennessee, one might be left with the impression that the president hasn’t changed his story to correspond more closely to reality.

One would be wrong.

Here is what the president actually said today, according to the White House transcript:

In 2002, the United Nations Security Council yet again demanded a full accounting of Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs. As he had for over a decade, Saddam Hussein refused to comply. In fact, according to former weapons inspector David Kay, Iraq’s weapons programs were elaborately shielded by security and deception operations that continued even beyond the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Bush was referring to United Nations demands that Saddam account for his weapons — demands to which Saddam responded by releasing a lengthy report. The Bush administration has long maintained that report left some weapons materials unaccounted for. In fact, as Bush and other politicians so often do, he chose his words today carefully to ensure that they can’t definitively be shown to be untrue.

What we have here is a good example of the two-pronged challenge that hapless readers so often face: In addition to being fed artfully-phrased spin by the candidates, they also have to contend with reporters who seem unable even to render that rhetoric accurately — much less explain to readers where it falls short.

It’s amazing any of us know anything at all.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.