Accuracy in Media

Media criticism of intelligence estimates on Iraq continues. On January 11, the New York Times editorialized that “nine months of fruitless searching” for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proves the Bush administration’s case for war was “way off base.” The editorial cites three recent reports from non-governmental sources to support its judgment that the administration seriously misled the Congress and the American public.

First is a report from the Carnegie Endowment that the Times says proves that intelligence analysts caved to “intense pressure” to produce more “alarmist” estimates in 2002. Carnegie professes to detect a “dramatic shift” in 2002 intelligence assessments of Iraqi WMD compared to earlier estimates. It attributes this shift to the creation of a Pentagon intelligence unit and visits by Vice President Cheney to the CIA.

But Carnegie is more cautious than the Times on the impact of this “pressure.” Read closely, the report says only that it “suggests, but does not prove” that intelligence judgments were politicized. The report admits that political pressures on the intelligence community are “not unusual.” The Clinton administration, for example, was particularly adroit at ignoring or discrediting intelligence that did not support its policies.

The Times also cites an investigative report by the Washington Post that concluded Saddam Hussein’s WMD arsenal existed only on paper. Barton Gellman drew that conclusion after interviewing Iraqi scientists and unnamed members of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG). In a separate interview, however, Gellman admitted that it was “very hard to find scientists willing to meet, willing to be quoted by name, and willing to say anything more than the party line that there was absolutely nothing to Iraq’s WMD programs after 1990.” He also said that before the war “the government’s public statements did not stray too far from the consensus among [intelligence] analysts.”

The last source for the Times is a former Clinton administration official who wrote a book in 2002 outlining the case for war on Iraq. But he traces the purported shift in the intelligence community’s perception of the WMD threat to the mid-1990s, long before the Bush administration. He acknowledges that the ISG’s discoveries thus far do “indicate that Iraq was retaining its [WMD] programs.” He also said that, before the war, the intelligence services of other countries were a “hundred percent certain that Saddam had these programs.”

To make its case, the Times has to ignore several facts. The ISG has discovered “dozens of WMD-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment” concealed by the Iraqis before the UN inspections in 2002. The critics also minimize the difficulties confronting inspectors in Iraq. A CIA officer recently said that “more than one or two” Iraqi scientists were murdered after talking to weapons inspectors. There are also reports of bomb and mortar attacks on the inspectors’ facilities. Given all this, the Times should be a little more patient before it indicts the administration or the intelligence community.

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