Kondracke: Media, Bush at Fault for Faulty Reporting on Iraq WMD Findings

Posted October 8, 2003 at 9:25am

Chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay says he was “amazed” at U.S. press coverage of his findings in Iraq, but he shouldn’t have been — and it’s partly the fault of the Bush administration.

And the administration also has itself to blame for the trouble it’s in because someone disclosed the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame in apparent retaliation for her husband Joseph Wilson’s challenge to claims that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa. [IMGCAP(1)]

Both cases — plus continuing reports of chaotic conditions in post-war Iraq — have driven down Bush’s polling numbers, even in such previous areas of strength as integrity and foreign policy leadership.

There were two stories to tell about the Kay report: 1) that Kay’s inspectors have yet to find actual weapons of mass destruction and 2) that they found abundant evidence of weapons activity and efforts to conceal them.

Whoever concocted the press strategy for unveiling the Kay findings last week should have known that the media, if permitted to do so, would fasten on the first and ignore the second if given any chance to do so.

Some media bias against Bush may be involved. The media’s fascination with bad news certainly was. And so was the administration’s constant response, when asked about WMD, that “we’ll wait to see what David Kay finds.”

So, President Bush’s public relations people should have figured out a way — whether by leaks or public statements — to get a combined story out, preferably in once sentence: no WMD yet, but overwhelming evidence of Iraqi experimentation, preparation and massive deception.

The media deserves blame for not reading Kay’s interim report and fairly representing it. The New York Times headline was “No Illicit Arms.” The Washington Post, “No Banned Weapons.” USA Today, “No Illegal Weapons.”

Reporting on the report opened the way for another distortion, repeated both in the media and by Democrats — that Kay’s findings demolished Bush’s claim that Iraq presented an “imminent” danger justifying war.

In fact, Bush said no such thing. In fact, in his State of the Union message this year, he said, “Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all words, all recriminations would come too late. Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option.”

The entire, legitimately controversial Bush doctrine of preemption is not that the U.S. will strike only when an attack is imminent, but before a rogue state with WMD can pass weapons off to a terrorist group.

If Hussein in fact possessed no actual WMD, but merely had multiple weapons-research programs, that would undercut Bush’s argument for war.

Bush, the CIA and Secretary of State Colin Powell all said without reservation that Iraq did possess chemical and biological weapons.

The failure to find them does not represent a lie on Bush’s part, but it does represent a massive failure of U.S. intelligence — but also French, Italian and British intelligence, all of which concurred that Iraq had WMD.

Parts of U.S. intelligence — specifically, special operations commandos — have done a spectacular job behind enemy lines in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But those responsible for knowing what’s going on in Iraq have done a miserable job and deserve a rough going-over from their overseers in Congress — as has started to happen with a preliminary report from the House Intelligence Committee.

That said, what Kay’s inspectors have found so far — including vials of active botulinum toxin and evidence that Hussein contracted to buy ballistic missiles from North Korea — should incline objective observers to give Kay more time to get to the bottom of the WMD issue.

Kay said on Fox News Sunday that Iraqi generals have told him their military possessed chemical weapons, but don’t know where they are now.

Kay said his people have searched only 10 of 130 weapons depots containing 600,000 tons of munitions — a third of the U.S. supply. He also said that weapons might have been moved to Syria, Iran or Jordan.

Meantime, in the Plame leak, it would be helpful if three things happened: first, Attorney General John Ashcroft should recuse himself from any personal involvement in the investigation while not giving in to Democratic demands for an outside investigator. Career FBI and Justice Department personnel can handle it.

Second, any journalists besides columnist Bob Novak who were told about Plame’s identity should write stories about the fact — not revealing confidential sources, but verifying that there was a systematic effort to unmask her.

And, third, Bush should be prepared to fire whoever did the leaking, regardless of his or her identity or value to him. Bush has made such a fetish about secrecy, especially about intelligence matters, that his credibility will be in doubt if he doesn’t act forcefully in this matter.

In fact, he’s already lost credibility — and not just among Democrats. The latest CBS/New York Times poll indicates that only 35 percent of voters think Bush has brought more honesty and integrity to government than previous administrations.

Only 18 percent regard him as less honest than others, but 45 percent judge him as no different from his predecessors. That’s a big loss.