Accuracy in Media

On March 9, CIA Director George J. Tenet testified about threats to our national security before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Most of the mainstream media focused on Democrat Senators Ted Kennedy and Carl Levin challenging Tenet to admit that the Bush administration had hyped pre-war intelligence on Iraq. NBC Nightly News’ Andrea Mitchell took the same approach but then failed to note that Tenet, a former Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill, did not take the bait and explicitly denied that the Bush administration had manipulated the intelligence.

To make matters worse, Mitchell falsely claimed that Tenet had apologized for allegedly getting the intelligence wrong.

The Mitchell story serves as a case study of how to manipulate the news in order to make a political point.

Tom Brokaw opened Mitchell’s segment by saying that the “senators zeroed in on the possibility the president and his senior advisors overstated the dangers in their eagerness to go to war.” Of course, he failed to mention that questions of that nature only came from Democrats, but left it to Mitchell to drive the point home.

For example, during the actual hearing, Kennedy asked Tenet straight out if Tenet thought the administration “misrepresented the facts to justify the war.”

Sen. KENNEDY: All right. On that then?but do you believe the administration, then misrepresented the facts to justify the war?

Mr. TENET: No, sir, I don’t.

Tenet’s response couldn’t be clearer, but Mitchell and her editors ignored that exchange and selected another clip edited to depict Mr. Tenet as somewhat more equivocal in his response. This is what viewers saw on the Nightly News.

Sen. KENNEDY: Did you ever tell him, ‘Mr. President, you’re overstating the case?

Mr. TENET: Well, Senator, I do the intelligence. They then take the intelligence and assess the risk and make a policy judgment about what they think about it.

But C-SPAN and a Federal News Service transcript show the exchange as follows:

Sen. KENNEDY: All right. Did you ever tell him that he was overstating the case? You see him every other morning after he makes these statements. Did you ever tell him, “Mr. President, you’re overstating the case?” Did you ever tell Condoleezza Rice? Did you ever tell the Vice President that they were overstating the case? And if you didn’t, why not?

MR. TENET: Well, Senator, I do the intelligence. They then take the intelligence and assess the risk and make a policy judgment about what they think about it. I engage with them every day. If there are areas where I thought someone said something they shouldn’t say, I talked to them about it. There are instances, obviously, with regard to the State of the Union speech where I felt the responsibility to say something that the president said should not have been in that speech.

But I will tell you that I’ve now worked on Iraq in consecutive administrations and I have watched policymakers take language from intelligence and translate it into language where they do the risk calculus. They think about what the policy implications are and then talk about it in ways that we may not necessarily talk about.

But Mitchell was not done. She saved her worst for later in the segment. There she has Tenet apologizing for mistakes supposedly made by the Intelligence Community. Viewers saw the following:

Mitchell: Tenet has apologized.

Tenet: If we were in error, then we have to be willing to stand up and say so.

But Mitchell took that snippet out of a much longer response by Tenet to a question from Senator Hillary Clinton. Again from C-SPAN and the FNS transcript:

SEN. CLINTON: All right. Also, with respect to this continuing question about the quality of intelligence — and I do think that, frankly, the people we should be talking to in closed, open or any session are the people who are the policymakers because I think you’ve made very clear what you have tried to do with respect to providing intelligence. But I was struck by a comment by Mr. Kay that was reported in the British newspapers, in The Guardian, last Wednesday. David Kay said, and I quote, “It was time for President Bush to come clean with the American people and admit that he and his administration were wrong about the presence of WMD.”

And Dr. Kay went on to say that he was worried that our intelligence would lose credibility not only among our allies, but I would assume among others as well. And concluded by saying the next time you have to go and shout there’s fire in the theater, people are going to doubt it.

I don’t think any of us on this committee doubt the seriousness of the threats we face. And I am personally very grateful and impressed with all the work that has gone on to roll up networks and diminish their effectiveness. But it is, I think, a legitimate point that Dr. Kay makes that if we’re going to be waging an ongoing struggle against terrorism, it’s clear that we have to rely on intelligence and we have to persuade others of the intelligence.

Do you have a response to Dr. Kay’s comment?

MR. TENET: Yeah. I would say, Senator, first of all, whether we were wrong or right is an important professional judgment for us to reach. That’s why we’re going through all of this. I would say that we’re — and I’ve said publicly — we’re not going to be all wrong or all right. We have to critically — and we are, and the committees are — assess every bit of intelligence we collected, what our shortfalls were. I tried to get up in a public statement at Georgetown to basically say, “Here’s my bottom lines today; here’s what I think was good, here’s what I think didn’t work so well. Here’s where I think we are in all of these major files.” There is no other community of people that take this as seriously as we do. Our credibility matters. It matters on terrorism and proliferation and other issues.

So, open, honest debate; telling the truth; standing up when we come to conclusions is what we’re about in this country. And, you know, many of our allied services, quite frankly, saw this the same way as we saw it. We’re all playing off the same sheet music. Well, that’s just not good enough. In this society, we have to give people the confidence that we know what we’re doing, and if we were in error, then we have to be willing to stand up and say so.

The only thing I’d say is I think that men and women on the ground in Baghdad who work at the ISG, who I visited two or three weeks ago, don’t believe their job is done. They still think they have a lot of work to do. And I think we need some patience to find out the additional data that they will give us. And we’ll report it honestly.

To us, Mitchell’s coverage of this hearing went beyond simple bias, but represented the worst form of dishonest reporting. Mitchell has been NBC News’ Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent since 1994 and her biography identifies her as a “long-time analyst of the intelligence community.” But reporting like that would never pass muster in the real world of intelligence.




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