Plenty of Access, No Intelligence

With the Bush administration back in campaign mode, we were hoping that the White House press corps would not also begin behaving as though it were in the middle of a political campaign (transcribing — but not taking on — the candidates’ talking points). Alas, at least one reporter has been sucked into the vortex.

In a piece today about the vice president’s latest contribution to the campaign — “Cheney Scolds War Critics as ‘Dishonest’” — the Los Angeles Times’ Edwin Chen writes: “The president said Democrats now leveling accusations had access to the same intelligence he did before they voted to authorize military force in Iraq.” Well, did Democrats have such access? Chen doesn’t say, preferring to move on to more exciting matters like additional vice presidential scolding and counter-scolding by assorted Democratic senators.

As we urged reporters many times in 2004 — during an actual presidential campaign — when a politician’s talking point contains verifiable facts, take a break from breathlessly transcribing the back-and forth, and verify them for readers.

All Chen had to do was Google up Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus’ Washington Post piece from last week in which the duo took apart Bush’s “same intelligence” claim, and then insert into his own piece a sentence like Elisabeth Bumiller did in today’s New York Times: “Mr. Cheney echoed the argument of Mr. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in the past week that Democrats had access to the same prewar intelligence that the White House did and that they came to the same conclusion that Mr. Hussein was a threat,” Bumiller writes, before telling readers that “the administration had access to far more extensive intelligence than Congress did.”

On CNN last night Anderson Cooper at least thought to ask colleague Candy Crowley whether the White House’s “new line of defense … Congress saw the same pre-war intelligence … is that true?” Crowley’s convoluted response, unfortunately, probably confused more viewers than it enlightened. “Not precisely,” Crowley replied. “And it also depends on exactly who you’re talking to. The president is privy to different information, more detailed information, we’re told. But there was information up on Capitol Hill that — that indeed, did mirror some of what the president was seeing. There’s a big matter of dispute among Democratic senators, who say: It’s just not true. We weren’t seeing that kind of information that the president was seeing. The White House, obviously, differs. It seems that they got some of the same information, but the president had a little bit more.” Got that?

Offering readers a bit more certainty, Knight Ridder’s James Kuhnhenn and Jonathan S. Landay yesterday examined and provided “context” for four recent administration “assertions” — including the “same intelligence” claim — in a piece headlined, “In challenging war’s critics, administration tinkers with truth.” So, did Congressional Democrats have access to the same intelligence? “This isn’t true,” wrote Kuhnhenn and Landay. “The Congress didn’t have access to the President’s Daily Brief, a top-secret compendium of intelligence on the most pressing national security issues that was sent to the president every morning by former CIA Director George Tenet. … As for prewar intelligence on Iraq, senior administration officials had access to other information and sources that weren’t available to lawmakers.”

And, thanks to Kuhnhenn and Landay, that information is now readily available to another crucial demographic: reporters.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.