Accuracy in Media

The Washington Post recently ran a long article about the ongoing search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Written by Barton Gellman, the article was prominently featured on the front page of the Post’s October 26 Sunday edition. Gellman’s conclusion, that inspectors have yet to find any evidence of a reconstituted Iraqi nuclear program, was devastating to the Bush administration. If the article had been accurate, that is.

Gellman claims that weapons inspectors required little effort to conclude that pre-war allegations about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program were “insubstantial” or “untrue.” He writes that the inspectors have determined that Iraq has done “no significant arms-related work” since the end of the first Gulf War. He implies that these judgments are being withheld from the public by David Kay, the chief weapons inspector in Iraq, and the CIA.

In addition to “records” reviewed, he claimed the Post has interviewed “arms investigators” from the U.S., U.K., and Australia. The only such “investigator” identified is Brigadier General Stephen D. Meekin, commander of the Joint Captured Enemy Material Exploitation Center, identified by Gellman as the largest of six units “that report to Kay.” Gellman writes that Meekin’s team had uncovered the aluminum tubes, cited by the CIA and the administration before the war as evidence of Iraq’s efforts to reconstitute its nuclear program. Meekin told Gellman, however, that investigators have determined the tubes to be “innocuous.” Gellman quotes Meekin as saying the “tubes were used for rockets.”

But within a week, Kay and Meekin had issued rebuttals to Gellman’s claims. Instead of running their letters on the editorial page, the Post chose to bury these in its “Free for All” page deep inside the Post’s Saturday edition. Meekin wrote that Gellman had misrepresented both Meekin’s mission and his comments on the aluminum tubes. Meekin stressed that he had told Gellman that his unit’s job was focused on Iraq’s conventional arms program.

He wrote that he had not given Gellman “assessments or views” on the status of Kay’s nuclear inspections. Meekin also disputed Gellman’s interpretation of his judgment that the aluminum tubes were “innocuous.” He wrote that he had made clear that the reference was to the contribution of the tubes within the context of Iraq’s overall conventional capabilities. He wrote, “I did not make any judgment on the suitability of the 81- millimeter aluminum tubes as components in a nuclear program.”

Kay’s letter affirmed that Meekin has never reported to him in any capacity and he called Gellman on several other key points in the article. Kay’s bottom line: Gellman’s article gave the “false impression” that judgments about Iraq’s nuclear program could already be made. Too much work remained to be done, wrote Kay, before any conclusions can be drawn. Shortly thereafter, the Post published two more corrections on its Internet website. The Post noted that Gellman had misstated the size of the work force searching for WMD by a factor of ten. And he overstated the technical credentials of one scientist working on Kay’s team.

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