Accuracy in Media

A veteran journalist who has covered U.S. intelligence for years recently observed that “no one pays attention to intelligence until it screws up.” Intelligence on Iraq and the Bush administration’s use of it is very much in the news now. The limited success thus far in uncovering hard evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction has led the media to speculate that the administration “politicized” intelligence to support its case against Saddam Hussein. Allegations of “politicized” intelligence are hardly new; nearly every administration faces such charges at some point in its tenure. And the intelligence community’s judgments on topics of importance are nearly always subject to dispute; it is not uncommon for disgruntled losers to use the media to air their own views. But seldom has the media’s feeding frenzy been as intense, or as biased.

The clearest public expression of the intelligence community’s judgments on Iraqi WMD may be found on the CIA’s Internet website. Posted in October 2002, the community judged that Iraq had continued its WMD programs, it had chemical and biological weapons, and “left unchecked,” it would probably have a nuclear weapon in this decade. Forget all the anonymous media sources whispering about doubts and debates inside the community; there could hardly be a more balanced presentation than presented in this report. Moreover, these judgments were consistent with the conclusions of the intelligence services of allies, and statements by members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

And what about the supposed debates? Judgments about the status of Iraq’s nuclear program are said to have been most contentious, although that is hardly news to insiders. All agreed that Iraq lacked only the capability to produce or acquire fissile material; efforts in this regard would be one clear indicator of a “reconstituted program.” Not surprisingly, then, there was great interest in Iraq’s acquisition of proscribed high-strength aluminum tubes. The tubes could be used in centrifuges to enrich uranium, but some in the community believed that the tubes were intended, instead, for Iraq’s missile program. The intelligence community’s report played it straight down the middle. It stated that all agreed that such tubes could be used for the nuclear program, but some believed that these tubes were meant for conventional weapons programs. Secretary of State Colin Powell also acknowledged the internal disputes in his February speech at the United Nations, saying “we all know there are differences of opinion.” But Powell went on to state his own case for the nuclear option.

More problematic have been reports about efforts to acquire uranium from Niger, one alternative path to Iraq’s eventual possession of fissile material. One line in President Bush’s State of the Union speech made reference to British government reports on these efforts; it was later revealed, however, that these were based on forged documents. And there was no reference to Niger uranium in the intelligence community report, nor was there any such reference in Secretary Powell’s UN speech. Administration officials later corrected the record and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice dismissed this as a “relatively small part of the case.” The Washington Post aired a brief flare-up of finger pointing between the CIA and the White House about who knew what, and when, on this subject. The mystery appears to be just how the reference got into the President’s State of the Union speech.

The media’s eagerness to “out” the administration was evident in the New York Times’ coverage of recent congressional hearings. The Times reported that, behind closed doors, a State Department intelligence analyst alleged that he had been pressured to shade his assessments to conform to the administration’s views, although he claimed never to have actually changed anything in his final reports. The Times admitted, however, that “it remains uncertain the degree to which his concerns related to Iraq or other regional issues.” Nevertheless, the report went on that this analyst was among a larger group asked about political pressure at another closed hearing. In response, “All of the intelligence officials remained silent?except for [the State Department analyst].” Damning, if true. Two days later, the Times corrected the report. In response to the question, the Times now reported that, “All said no; they did not remain silent.” The Times didn’t admit that it had been misled by its sources or that its reporting had been less than thorough.

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