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The Post on WMDs: An Inside Story

"Journalistically, one of the frustrations with that story was that it was filled with lots of retired guys," Vita said. But, he added, "I completely understood the difficulty of getting people inside the Pentagon" to speak publicly.

Liz Spayd, the assistant managing editor for national news, says The Post's overall record was strong.


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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"I believe we pushed as hard or harder than anyone to question the administration's assertions on all kinds of subjects related to the war. . . . Do I wish we would have had more and pushed harder and deeper into questions of whether they possessed weapons of mass destruction? Absolutely," she said. "Do I feel we owe our readers an apology? I don't think so."

Digger or Crusader?

No Post reporter burrowed into the Iraqi WMD story more deeply than Pincus, 71, a staff member for 32 of the last 38 years, whose messy desk is always piled high with committee reports and intelligence files. "The main thing people forget to do is read documents," said Pincus, wielding a yellow highlighter.

A white-haired curmudgeon who spent five years covering the Iran-contra scandal and has long been an expert on nuclear weapons, Pincus sometimes had trouble convincing editors of the importance of his incremental, difficult-to-read stories.

His longevity is such that he first met Hans Blix, who was the chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, at a conference in Ghana in 1959.

"The inspectors kept getting fed intelligence by our administration and the British and the French, and kept coming back and saying they couldn't find" the weapons, Pincus said. "I did one of the first interviews with Blix, and like everyone else he thought there would be WMDs. By January and February [of 2003], he was starting to have his own doubts. . . . What nobody talked about was how much had been destroyed," either under U.N. supervision after the Persian Gulf War or during the Clinton administration's 1998 bombing of Iraqi targets.

But while Pincus was ferreting out information "from sources I've used for years," some in the Post newsroom were questioning his work. Editors complained that he was "cryptic," as one put it, and that his hard-to-follow stories had to be heavily rewritten.

Spayd declined to discuss Pincus's writing but said that "stories on intelligence are always difficult to edit and parse and to ensure their accuracy and get into the paper."

Downie agreed that difficulties in editing Pincus may have been a factor in the prewar period, because he is "so well sourced" that his reporting often amounts to putting together "fragments" until the pieces were, in Downie's word, "storifyable."

Some editors, in Pincus's view, also saw him as a "crusader," as he once put it to Washingtonian magazine. "That's sort of my reputation, and I don't deny it," he said. "Once I get on a subject, I stay with it."

On Jan. 30, 2003, Pincus and Priest reported that the evidence the administration was amassing about Baghdad hiding weapons equipment and documents "is still circumstantial." The story ran on Page A14.

Some of the reporters who attended the daily "war meetings," where coverage was planned, complained to national editors that the drumbeat of the impending invasion was crowding out the work of Pincus and others who were challenging the administration.

Pincus was among the complainers. "Walter talked to me himself," Downie said. "He sought me out when he was frustrated, and I sought him out. We talked about how best to have stories be in the kind of shape that they could appear on the front page." Editors were also frustrated, Downie said. "Overall, in retrospect, we underplayed some of those stories."


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