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The Post on WMDs: An Inside Story

Instead, the obstacles ranged from editing difficulties and communication problems to the sheer mass of information the newsroom was trying to digest during the march to war.

The Doubts Go Inside

From August 2002 through the March 19, 2003, launch of the war, The Post ran more than 140 front-page stories that focused heavily on administration rhetoric against Iraq. Some examples: "Cheney Says Iraqi Strike Is Justified"; "War Cabinet Argues for Iraq Attack"; "Bush Tells United Nations It Must Stand Up to Hussein or U.S. Will"; "Bush Cites Urgent Iraqi Threat"; "Bush Tells Troops: Prepare for War."


A photo released by the CIA shows vials of what the agency called potential biological weapons, recovered from an Iraqi scientist's residence. (Central Intelligence Agency via AP)

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Reporter Karen DeYoung, a former assistant managing editor who covered the prewar diplomacy, said contrary information sometimes got lost.

"If there's something I would do differently -- and it's always easy in hindsight -- the top of the story would say, 'We're going to war, we're going to war against evil.' But later down it would say, 'But some people are questioning it.' The caution and the questioning was buried underneath the drumbeat. . . . The hugeness of the war preparation story tended to drown out a lot of that stuff."

Beyond that, there was the considerable difficulty of dealing with secretive intelligence officials who themselves were relying on sketchy data from Iraqi defectors and other shadowy sources and could never be certain about what they knew.

On Sept. 19, 2002, reporter Joby Warrick described a report "by independent experts who question whether thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes recently sought by Iraq were intended for a secret nuclear weapons program," as the administration was contending. The story ran on Page A18.

Warrick said he was "going out on a limb. . . . I was struck by the people I talked to -- some on the record, others who couldn't be -- who were saying pretty persistently that these tubes were in no way suitable for uranium enrichment. On the other side were these CIA guys who said, 'Look, we know what we're talking about but we can't tell you.' "

Downie said that even in retrospect, the story looks like "a close call." He said the inability of dissenters "to speak up with their names" was a factor in some of his news judgments. The Post, however, frequently quotes unnamed sources.

Not all such stories were pushed inside the paper. A follow-up Warrick piece on the aluminum tubes did run on Page 1 the following January, two months before the war began. And The Post gave front-page play to a Sept. 10, 2002, story by Priest contending that "the CIA has yet to find convincing evidence" linking Hussein and al Qaeda.

That hardly settled the matter. On Dec. 12, 2002, investigative reporter Barton Gellman -- who would later win acclaim for his skeptical postwar stories from Iraq on WMDs -- wrote a controversial piece that ombudsman Michael Getler complained "practically begs you not to put much credence in it." The headline: "U.S. Suspects Al Qaeda Got Nerve Agent From Iraqis."

The story, attributed to "two officials with firsthand knowledge of the report" to the Bush administration "and its source," said in the second paragraph that "if the report proves true" -- a whopper of a qualifier -- it would be "the most concrete evidence" yet to support Bush's charge that Iraq was helping terrorists.

Gellman does not believe he was used. "The sources were not promoting the war. . . . One of them was actually against it," he said. "They were career security officials, not political officials. They were, however, wrong." Gellman added that "it was news even though it was clear that it was possible this report would turn out to be false."

But sources, even suspect ones, were the only game in town. "We had no alternative sources of information," Woodward said. "Walter [Pincus] and I couldn't go to Iraq without getting killed. You couldn't get beyond the veneer and hurdle of what this groupthink had already established" -- the conventional wisdom that Hussein was sitting on a stockpile of illegal weapons.

In October 2002, Ricks, a former national security editor for the Wall Street Journal who has been covering such issues for 15 years, turned in a piece that he titled "Doubts." It said that senior Pentagon officials were resigned to an invasion but were reluctant and worried that the risks were being underestimated. Most of those quoted by name in the Ricks article were retired military officials or outside experts. The story was killed by Matthew Vita, then the national security editor and now a deputy assistant managing editor.


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