Accuracy in Media

The liberal media continue to snipe at the Bush administration’s case on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. Anti-war organizations and Democratic presidential hopefuls, like Senator Bob Graham of Florida, allege that the administration’s case for Operation Iraqi Freedom was based on a “pattern of deception and denial.” In support of these allegations, the media have published a stream of anonymous leaks, reportedly from inside the government, disputing pre-war intelligence judgments on this issue.

For example, the New York Times recently ran a front page story purportedly revealing an internal dispute over the CIA’s assessment of mobile biowarfare labs captured during the war. CIA’s unclassified judgments were published on the agency’s Internet Web site and make a compelling case. The agency reported that the equipment found in the vehicles was consistent with pre-war intelligence reporting. Moreover, the agency said one of its sources, identified as a chemical engineer with direct knowledge of Iraq’s program, picked out the vehicles from among photographs of unrelated equipment.

According to the Times, however, that wasn’t good enough for the State Department’s intelligence unit. The Times revealed the contents of a classified memo from that unit to Secretary of State Colin Powell. The memo, says the Times, informs Powell that CIA’s conclusions were “premature” and not supported by the “evidence found to date.” The Times admitted that it didn’t know just what evidence the memo had cited to justify its critique of the CIA’s findings. But it quoted another anonymous official as saying the trailers could have been intended for supporting Iraqi missiles.

The Times reporter, Douglas Jehl, failed to mention that the CIA report explicitly addressed that issue. The agency evaluated a range of alternative uses for the vehicles including missile support and industrial uses. The agency reported that coalition experts had examined the trailers and were unable to identify any alternative use for these particular vehicles.

This Times criticism was not the first directed at the intelligence community’s assessment of the mobile biowarfare labs. The CIA report specifically refers to a May 13, 2003, Times article in which an agricultural expert suggests the trailers might be for biopesticide production. The agency then refuted that argument and dryly observed that the Times’ experts were “not on the scene and probably do not have complete access to the information about the trailers.”

Moreover, insiders know that the State Department’s intelligence unit always produces the most benign interpretation of any foreign threat, so its assessment this time shouldn’t be surprising. And the unit was apparently miffed at not being included in the preparation of the report. Agency sources questioned the unit’s qualification to make judgments about such matters. But after losing the internal debate, a disgruntled source leaked the memo to the press. The Times should have reported that.

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