The Long and Winding WMD Report

Capping off a pretty somber news week, today the big dailies give the full-court press to yesterday’s report on pre-war WMD intelligence. Reading through the coverage, which the New York Times simply owned, we were struck by the similarities in some of the stories — and the outright omissions in others. To be fair, digesting a 600-plus page report in a few hours is a pretty daunting task. Still, someone did it well, and others didn’t — and that’s where we come in.

The New York Times’ Todd S. Purdum filed a front-page story which stands head-and-shoulders as the best read of the bunch.

You can almost hear liberal hearts breaking when Purdum writes that the commission “found no evidence that intelligence had been politically twisted to suit preconceptions about Iraq’s unconventional weapons programs.” But he’s also not bashful to assert that the commission “left little doubt that President Bush and his top aides had gotten what they wanted, not what they needed, when they were told that Saddam Hussein had a threatening arsenal of illicit weapons.”

Scott Shane and David E. Sanger also contributed a long piece to the Times package, taking a broader view of the commission’s finding and recommendations for intelligence reform. While Purdum touches on the charges that the administration strong-armed intelligence officials into coming around to their way of thinking, Shane and Sanger note, “The commission provides a strange sort of exoneration for the Iraqi National Congress and Ahmad Chalabi, the onetime Pentagon favorite who was accused of fueling the drive to war by providing false information about Mr. Hussein’s arsenals to American officials and the news media.”

Speaking of Chalabi, the Wall Street Journal takes the occasion to run a smug little editorial claiming that “the report blows apart the myth that intelligence provided by Iraqi politician and former exile Ahmed Chalabi suckered the U.S. into going to war.” The Journal, in an attempt to clear Chalabi’s name, launches a counteroffensive against (get ready for it): the media in general, Ted Kennedy, Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Tim Russert, the Los Angeles Times, Joe Klein, and Evan Thomas and Mark Hosenball of Newsweek for blaming Chalabi for the bulk of faulty intelligence.

But the Journal is wearing its own kind of blinders on this one. While it’s true that the report found little evidence of undue influence by Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC) in American intelligence assessments, as Knight Ridder pointed out in March 2004, and CJR reported a few months later, that doesn’t mean that the INC didn’t have a role in spreading an alarmist vision of Iraq’s weapons programs. What the Journal fails to note are the well-documented allegations that Chalabi’s group in many ways worked above the heads of the United States’ intelligence services — thus their actions fell well outside of the narrow mandate the commission’s members operated under.

For example, in October 2003, Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker that throughout 2002, “Chalabi’s defector reports were now flowing from the Pentagon directly to the vice president’s office, and then on to the president, with little prior evaluation by intelligence professionals.”

There is also the case of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, which was tasked with “re-analyzing” CIA intelligence to look for instances of Iraqi sponsorship of terrorism that the CIA might have missed. As Franklin Foer pointed out in The New Republic in July 2004, this approach “led the Bush administration to … uncritically swallow testimony from defectors provided by the Iraqi National Congress.”

So while the report many rightly conclude the INC had little direct influence on the “intelligence-gathering community,” that hardly means it had little influence on the false public perception of a threat — a somewhat more fluid point than the Journal sees fit to make in its triumphal little jig.

Then we have the case of “Curveball,” an Iraqi defector U.S. analysts never actually met, but whose information served as the basis for a good chunk of Colin Powell’s infamous presentation to the United Nations. The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus and Peter Baker tackle this angle while writing an essentially forward-looking piece highlighting the recommendations the committee made for reforming American intelligence operations.

Similarly, the Los Angeles Times picks up on the Curveball angle, adding little of value to the Times and Post coverage.

Finally, proving that there’s nothing like making a complex story fit into a nice, neat box, USA Today chimes in with a bloodless little story that essentially repeats the more mundane aspects of the far-superior stories filed by its New York and Washington counterparts.

Sometimes bad reporting makes you appreciate the good stuff all the more.

Paul McLeary

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.