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Memos, 'Wing Nuts' and 'Hit Lists'

By Michael Getler
Sunday, June 19, 2005

The bulk of the mail last week, by far, was focused once again on the "Downing Street Memo." This is the memo produced by a national security aide to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, based on notes taken in a meeting with Blair and his top advisers on July 23, 2002, eight months before the invasion of Iraq. It is marked "Secret and strictly personal -- UK eyes only" but was leaked to the Sunday Times of London and published May 1.

Included in the note-taker's account was an assessment by the chief of British intelligence, after returning from a visit to Washington, that: "Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

The memo, and the coverage and interpretation of it, continue to generate contention, especially among critics of the war and Bush administration policy. The overwhelming majority of e-mails I received last week seemed to have been prompted by a write-in campaign sponsored mostly by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a liberal, self-described media watchdog organization.

Their target this time was a column by Post staff writer Dana Milbank on June 8 in which the term "wing nuts" was used. Many of the e-mailers said the reference disparaged the real concerns of many people that the administration misrepresented the situation that led the country to war.

Milbank is one of the paper's most talented and observant reporters. On the other hand, for the past several months he has also been serving as a columnist, frequently writing observations that go beyond straight reporting in a column labeled "Washington Sketch" that appears in the news pages of the A-section. On Friday, for example, The Post covered an unofficial antiwar hearing on Capitol Hill only in a Milbank column. Several readers found this inappropriate.

Unfortunately, it has never been announced or explained to Post readers that reporter Milbank is also now columnist Milbank. The reference to "wing nuts," as in left-wing nuts and right-wing nuts, appeared in the June 8 column, not a "news story," as many e-mailers wrongly stated. This is also understandable because FAIR neglected to tell its subscribers that this was clearly marked as a "Washington Sketch" and not a news story.

Milbank's column was about the June 7 Bush-Blair news conference in Washington and it reported that "Democrats.com, a group of left-wing activists" had sent e-mails offering a "reward" for anyone who could get an answer from Bush about the report that intelligence had been "fixed" around Iraq policy. Later in the column, Milbank wrote that a reporter who did ask such a question, and who had no idea of the activists' e-mails, "wasn't trying to satisfy the wing nuts."

Post Assistant Managing Editor Liz Spayd said "the term referred to one specific group" and not everyone who was questioning coverage of the memo. As for the term "wing nuts," she said "that word is probably sharper than it should have been." I agree. It was a needless red flag that undoubtedly would be read as disparaging beyond the group that Milbank was referring to. But columnists do get more leeway and the term has infiltrated political discussion in these heated times.

Here's Milbank's view: "While you have been within your rights as ombudsman over the past five years to attempt to excise any trace of colorful or provocative writing from the Post, you are out of bounds in asserting that a columnist cannot identify as 'wingnuts' a group whose followers have long been harassing this and other reporters and their families with hateful, obscene and sometimes anti-Semitic speech."

Much of the mail criticizing Milbank was also directed at op-ed columnist Michael Kinsley, who, in a June 12 column, said leftist activists' continued focus on the memo showed an ability to develop "a paranoid theory." Later in the week, The Post's editorial page also weighed in on the Downing Street memos (another has been leaked), saying: "They add nothing to what was publicly known in July 2002." That also brought mail.

I have a different view. The July 23 memo is important because it is an official document produced at the highest level of government of the most important U.S. ally. Its authenticity has not been disputed. Whatever some people said or wrote three years ago, there has never been -- except for this memo -- any official, authoritative claim or confirmation that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." Blair denied that at the news conference. But could the secret minutes of such a meeting be wrong? Maybe there's a different interpretation, or maybe "fixed" means something different in British-speak.

Or maybe Blair could produce the former intelligence chief, and the note-taker, for a news conference or open parliamentary session and let reporters or legislators ask for an elaboration on the assessments in the memo.

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A story on June 10 by staff writer Robin Wright seemed to violate The Post's guidelines on use of anonymous sources and drew criticism from a few readers. The lead said, "Bush administration officials alleged yesterday that Syria has developed a hit list targeting senior Lebanese political figures in an attempt to regain control of its neighboring state." But the quotes supporting this claim came from only one unidentified "senior administration official" who said the information came from "a variety of credible Lebanese sources."

Wright says that she had multiple sources. But that was not evident in the story. The story essentially laid out the case regarding Syrian activities. The New York Times, reporting the same story, pointed out that the official volunteered the information to reporters from at least two news organizations and that it was meant as a signal to Syria. The Times story questioned a spokesman for the official about why the assertions could not be made openly. It said intelligence officials could not immediately substantiate the information's reliability, and quoted a State Department official as saying that no one in the administration had seen the "hit list" and that its existence could not be independently verified.

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail atombudsman@washpost.com.

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