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The Post on WMDs: An Inside Story

The Woodward Factor

Bush, Vice President Cheney and other administration officials had no problem commanding prime real estate in the paper, even when their warnings were repetitive. "We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power," DeYoung said. "If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said." And if contrary arguments are put "in the eighth paragraph, where they're not on the front page, a lot of people don't read that far."

Those tendencies were on display on Feb. 6, 2003, the day after Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a multimedia presentation at the United Nations -- using satellite images and intercepted phone calls -- to convince the world that Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction.

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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An accompanying front-page story by DeYoung and Pincus examined Powell's "unprecedented release of U.S. intelligence." Not until the ninth paragraph did they offer a "however" clause, saying that "a number of European officials and U.S. terrorism experts" believed that Powell's description of an Iraqi link to al Qaeda "appeared to have been carefully drawn to imply more than it actually said."

Warrick focused that day on the secretary's assertion, based on human sources, that Iraq had biological weapons factories on wheels. "Some of the points in Powell's presentation drew skepticism," Warrick reported. His piece ran on Page A28.

Downie said the paper ran several pieces analyzing Powell's speech as a package on inside pages. "We were not able to marshal enough evidence to say he was wrong," Downie said of Powell. "To pull one of those out on the front page would be making a statement on our own: 'Aha, he's wrong about the aluminum tubes.' "

Such decisions coincided with The Post editorial page's strong support for the war, such as its declaration the day after Powell's presentation that "it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction." These editorials led some readers to conclude that the paper had an agenda, even though there is a church-and-state wall between the newsroom and the opinion pages. Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, not Downie, runs the opinion side, reporting to Post Co. Chairman Donald Graham.

In mid-March, as the administration was on the verge of invading Iraq, Woodward stepped in to give the stalled Pincus piece about the administration's lack of evidence a push. "We weren't holding it for any political reason or because we were being pressured by the administration," Spayd said, but because such stories were difficult to edit at a time when the national desk was deluged with copy. "People forget how many facets of this story we were chasing . . . the political ramifications . . . military readiness . . . issues around postwar Iraq and how prepared the administration was . . . diplomacy angles . . . and we were pursuing WMD. . . . All those stories were competing for prominence."

As a star of the Watergate scandal who is given enormous amounts of time to work on his best-selling books, Woodward, an assistant managing editor, had the kind of newsroom clout that Pincus lacked.

The two men's recollections differ. Woodward said that after comparing notes with Pincus, he gave him a draft story consisting of five key paragraphs, which said the administration's evidence for WMDs in Iraq "looks increasingly circumstantial and even shaky," according to "informed sources." Woodward said Pincus found his wording too strong.

Pincus said he had already written his story when Woodward weighed in and that he treated his colleague's paragraphs as a suggestion and barely changed the piece. "What he really did was talk to the editors and made sure it was printed," Pincus said.

"Despite the Bush administration's claims" about WMDs, the March 16 Pincus story began, "U.S. intelligence agencies have been unable to give Congress or the Pentagon specific information about the amounts of banned weapons or where they are hidden, according to administration officials and members of Congress," raising questions "about whether administration officials have exaggerated intelligence."

Woodward said he wished he had appealed to Downie to get front-page play for the story, rather than standing by as it ended up on Page A17. In that period, said former national security editor Vita, "we were dealing with an awful lot of stories, and that was one of the ones that slipped through the cracks." Spayd did not recall the debate.

Reviewing the story in his glass-walled office last week, Downie said: "In retrospect, that probably should have been on Page 1 instead of A17, even though it wasn't a definitive story and had to rely on unnamed sources. It was a very prescient story."

In the days before the war, Priest and DeYoung turned in a piece that said CIA officials "communicated significant doubts to the administration" about evidence tying Iraq to attempted uranium purchases for nuclear weapons. The story was held until March 22, three days after the war began. Editors blamed a flood of copy about the impending invasion.

Whether a tougher approach by The Post and other news organizations would have slowed the rush to war is, at best, a matter of conjecture.

"People who were opposed to the war from the beginning and have been critical of the media's coverage in the period before the war have this belief that somehow the media should have crusaded against the war," Downie said. "They have the mistaken impression that somehow if the media's coverage had been different, there wouldn't have been a war."

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