Accuracy in Media

CIA Director George J. Tenet appeared on Capitol Hill recently to discuss threats to U.S. national security. He said that the U.S. has made “notable strides” in the war on terrorism, particularly against al-Qaeda. But Tenet said the war is far from over. In particular, the U.S. has uncovered new plots to recruit pilots and evade security in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. More ominously, he warned about terrorists’ increasing efforts to acquire chemical or biological weapons. And al-Qaeda “continues to pursue its strategic goal of obtaining a nuclear capability.”

But the media devoted most coverage to sharp exchanges between Tenet and Senate Democrats. They wanted Tenet to admit the White House hyped pre-war intelligence. Tenet defended his agency’s performance and reminded Senators that the search for weapons of mass destruction is far from over. But Senate Democrats, especially Carl Levin and Ted Kennedy, want to give Tenet and the agency a new mission.

They want the CIA to be a truth squad that follows policy makers around correcting distortions of intelligence. Levin wondered why Tenet didn’t have someone in his office tasked specifically with monitoring public statements by the Vice President and other administration officials.

The USA Today’s John Diamond portrayed Tenet as admitting that the CIA had been “wildly inconsistent” in its policing of White House pronouncements on Iraq before the war. That’s a distortion of what Tenet actually said; “wildly inconsistent” applied only to the President’s State of the Union reference to British reports about Iraqi interest in African uranium. Diamond also reported that Tenet couldn’t recall Cheney’s statement on Meet The Press that Saddam Hussein had “reconstituted his nuclear weapons.” But Cheney’s office issued a correction saying that Cheney had meant to say “nuclear programs” not nuclear weapons. So what was Tenet supposed to correct?

The New York Times’ Douglas Jehl claimed that Tenet is “widely seen as having the responsibility to prevent intelligence from being distorted for political purposes.” Jehl doesn’t say who sees this as Tenet’s mission, nor does he reveal just how he is supposed to accomplish this. Tenet said that he “privately” corrected misstatements about Iraqi intelligence by Cheney. But he also said that he is doing his job “the way I did it in two administrations,” a reference to his tenure as CIA Director under Bill Clinton.

The prize for distorted reporting, however, should go to NBC Nightly News’ Andrea Mitchell. She had Tenet apologizing for mistakes made by the CIA before the war. Actually, Tenet said, “If we were in error,” the agency would apologize. She also bungled the account of Cheney’s Meet the Press appearance. She gets the quote right, but then has Cheney saying later that he misspoke, implying that he didn’t mean to say Hussein was reconstituting his program. Finally, she didn’t show Tenet telling Senator Kennedy that he didn’t believe the administration had misrepresented prewar intelligence on Iraq. Instead, she ran an edited clip that seems to show Tenet equivocating on that question.

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