How a Page 1 Mistake Was Made

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, February 18, 2007

Newspapers rarely tell readers how errors happen. But it's instructive to know how an embarrassing Page 1 mistake was made in a Feb. 9 story about a report by the Pentagon's acting inspector general, Thomas F. Gimble, on one piece of pre-Iraq war intelligence.

James Christiansen of Bethesda was among readers who were upset that 2004 quotes from a noted critic of the war, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), were confused with the inspector general's report on work by the office of Douglas J. Feith, then undersecretary of defense for policy. The work of Feith's staff supported the case for an invasion of Iraq.

Christiansen wrote: "What is presented as a new finding of the presumably impartial inspector general comes instead from a two-year-old report by one of the bitterest partisans in the Senate. I've been reading newspapers a long time, and I've seen some remarkable errors, but I don't think any has reached a level this grotesque. I hope that The Post will run a prominent Page 1 correction of this error in the print edition."

Indeed, Post editors corrected it quickly and prominently on washingtonpost.com. The next day a lengthy correction appeared on Page A2 and was mentioned in a follow-up story on Page 1.

The original story was the work of some of The Post's most experienced National Desk reporters: Walter Pincus, who has covered national security for The Post for 35 years, and investigative reporter R. Jeffrey Smith, with an assist from Karen DeYoung, associate editor and senior diplomatic correspondent. All have been members of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting teams.

The story quoted the inspector general's report as saying Feith's findings were "of dubious quality or reliability" and that Feith's office was "predisposed to finding a significant relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda." Not so. Those quotes were from a 2004 report from Levin.

To understand how the mistake was made, it's important to know that Pincus began reporting on the story the day before the inspector general's report was released. Pincus had a news release from Levin intended as Levin's opening statement for a Feb. 9 Armed Services Committee hearing on the IG report.

The Levin release quoted portions of the inspector general's report and Levin's 2004 report on Feith's prewar intelligence report. Levin's release had two blocks of quotes, each saying either "the report concluded" or "the report states." One block was from the IG report and one was from Levin's 2004 report.

Enter Smith. Late in the day, with the story already underway, he obtained a two-page unclassified summary and a briefing with bullet points from the inspector general's report. Smith alone had it, so it was a scoop for The Post. Smith wrote a substantial middle segment of the story, with Pincus and DeYoung working on the top. Smith was not involved in the error.

Pincus said that he and DeYoung looked at the general quotes in the two-page summary of the inspector general's report, then confused two blocks of quotes in the Levin release, thereby mistaking quotes from Levin's 2004 report for quotes from the IG's report.

"I originally took the words from the IG report in the body of [Levin's] opening statement that were more specific and then made the bad error of going back to that first quote on the first page in the statement without going back to see the predicate for the phrase 'in the report,' and that led to the mistake," Pincus said.

The problem was compounded by two factors: an approaching deadline and the fact that Levin and the inspector general reached some similar conclusions, though Levin's quotes were much more pointed and accusatory. The inspector general's language was more delicate, saying that Feith's intelligence report was "inappropriate" and "inconsistent" with the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community.

DeYoung said, "We work under extremely tight deadline pressure every day. That is a reason for this terrible mistake but not an excuse. There is no excuse."

Smith raised concerns about the article the day it was published; so did Michael K. Stransky, a Senate Republican committee staffer, in an e-mail. Carlos Lozada, the national security editor, wrote the detailed correction that was attached to the story on washingtonpost.com by late afternoon Feb. 9 and that appeared on Page A2 the next day. And the editorial page staff ran an op-ed piece by Feith in Wednesday's editions that presented his view of what the inspector general had concluded.

The issue of exonerating Smith in the correction was raised but rejected by Len Downie, The Post's executive editor. He said, "Our policy is that Washington Post journalism is a collective enterprise and the importance of corrections is to acknowledge and correct mistakes for our readers and for the record in the name of the newspaper, rather than parsing out individual responsibility in print for how the error occurred. That does not mean that we do not hold individuals responsible internally for errors. We do."

Unfortunately, errors can be frightfully easy to make -- and hard for an editor to catch. There's no good journalist who doesn't make them. When it happens, the only solution is quick action to correct the mistakes.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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