Accuracy in Media

The CIA’s chief weapons inspector, David Kay, has delivered his interim report to Congress on the search for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. In just three months, Kay’s inspection team has uncovered “dozens of WMD program activities and significant amounts of equipment” that Iraq concealed from the 2002 United Nations inspections. The clearest violations involved efforts to circumvent U.N. imposed restrictions on ballistic missiles. On Fox News Sunday, Kay said that his team’s discoveries “would have been headline news” just a year ago. But most of the coverage has buried that finding, if reported at all.

Instead, the media have focused on Kay’s report that his team has yet to uncover WMD stockpiles. Many commentators agreed that this represents a major setback for the Bush administration. Even members of the President’s own party, like Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, expressed “disappointment” at the failure of Kay’s team to produce a “breakthrough.”

Kay’s report to Congress is still classified, but an unclassified summary was posted on the CIA’s website. In it, Kay reports that his team uncovered new evidence of an Iraqi bio-warfare (BW) program including laboratories, new research on potential bio-warfare agents, and a prison complex “possibly used in human testing” of such agents. Kay told Fox News’ Tony Snow that the Iraqis were working on “new strains” of BW agents that should have been reported to the United Nations, but weren’t. He also said that his team was investigating another “weapons cache” which contains anthrax. The worst news was that the Iraqi Intelligence Service seems to have been in charge of the BW program.

With regard to chemical weapons (CW), Kay said the search has only just begun. The media were quick to emphasize the team’s failure to uncover an active CW production capability or CW stockpiles. But the team has yet to inspect 120 ammunition storage sites, many exceeding 50 square miles in size. The Iraqis routinely stored their chemical munitions, many of which are unmarked, at these sites. The search goes on, but the remaining effort is enormous, according to Kay.

Critics have charged that the Bush administration based much of its case for war on Saddam Hussein’s reconstitution of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. The Kay report says that, based on its work thus far, the team believes there should be no doubt about Saddam’s desire to obtain nuclear warheads. By 2000, Saddam had apparently run out of patience with U.N. imposed sanctions and was anxious to restart the program. Around 1999, the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission started expanding its lab complex and increasing its overall funding. As suspected, Iraq retained a cadre of nuclear scientists and had put them to work on “nuclear-related dual-use technologies.” The team also found 2002 evidence of some interest in reconstituting a uranium enrichment program.

But Kay is blunt on the failure thus far to find any evidence “that Iraq undertook significant post-1998 steps to actually build” warheads or produce fissile material. There is no mention in the report of the aluminum tubes the administration charged Iraq was seeking for its enrichment program, although Kay did report finding “some evidence” that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa. For the media, this represented the clearest evidence that the administration had “hyped” the threat before the war. There were numerous references to the purported administration claim that Saddam could have a nuclear warhead within a year. But these accounts failed to mention that these were based on the assumption that Iraq would successfully obtain fissile material abroad. On ABC’s Sunday program “This Week,” Kay said he had seen nothing thus far to cause him to doubt that assessment. But Kay cautioned that his team “probably knew the least about and [has] the least confidence” in its assessments of Iraq’s nuclear program.

On television, Kay emphasized that the key word in his report is “yet.” His team has been on the ground in Iraq for only three months and has encountered serious obstacles to its work. The report chronicles some of the challenges faced: the systematic destruction of computer evidence, including the erasure and destruction of hard drives; the shredding and burning of files; and, the sanitization of labs by the removal of equipment and even “nameplates from office doors.” Kay said that one Iraqi WMD scientist had been murdered after he was interviewed and another had been shot six times. That alone would indicate that Kay’s team still has much work ahead before a final judgment can be made on Iraq’s WMD programs.

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