Accuracy in Media

In our last commentary, we reported on the response from a senior intelligence officer to criticism of estimates about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. In late November, Stuart Cohen, a 30-year CIA veteran, published a detailed rebuttal to critics of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s programs. The Washington Post ran an abbreviated version of Cohen’s statement on its op-ed page. The Associated Press ran a wire story on Cohen’s defense of the intelligence community’s performance, but few media outlets picked up the piece.

Cohen rebutted what he labeled “ten myths” that have emerged in the current media feeding frenzy. When it republished Cohen’s rebuttal, the Post omitted three of Cohen’s myths. CIA spokesmen said that the Post made the omissions for reasons of “space.” The Post did permit Cohen and the agency to see beforehand what the paper intended to publish.

Curiously, two of the three myths dealt with criticisms voiced on Capitol Hill. Some of the most strident criticism has come from congressional Democrats, like Senators Jay Rockefeller and Carl Levin. But Republicans like Pat Roberts in the Senate and Porter Goss in the House have also expressed disappointment at the community’s performance. But Cohen writes that assessments about Iraq’s WMD have been “presented routinely” to the Hill for the past 15 years. Six different congressional committees have repeatedly reviewed the intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s programs. “These committees never came back to us with a concern of bias or an assertion that we had gotten it wrong,” Cohen writes.

Cohen also rejects the allegation that last year’s estimate was based on “single sources.” Overwhelmingly, he writes, the judgments were based on all-source intelligence. That includes, according to Cohen, human reporting, satellite imagery, and communications intelligence. Moreover, he cites the Cold War example of Soviet Colonel Oleg Penkovsky to demonstrate that the allegation lacks merit. Penkovsky’s information was so valuable, Cohen writes, that it enabled the U.S. to prevail in the Cuban missile crisis. Consequently, he concludes, this allegation is “both wrong and meaningless.”

Another allegation commonly heard is that the community relied too extensively on United Nations reporting. In a backhanded slap at Hans Blix, Cohen writes that the community “never accepted UN reporting at face value.” He admits that the withdrawal of UN inspectors in 1998 “did reduce our information about Iraq’s WMD programs,” but that the loss was offset by “friendly and allied intelligence services.” “Reasonable people,” he concludes, would have found the intelligence provided by these services “compelling.”

Cohen’s frustration is understandable. As he says, no reasonable person could have doubted the basis for many of the judgments contained in the estimate. Cohen is also correct when he reminds readers how difficult it was to find chemical munitions after the first Gulf War. As he writes, much still remains to be done in the hunt for WMD in Iraq.

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