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Shame on the Post's Editorial Page

By Robert Parry
April 20, 2006

If a full and truthful history of the disastrous Iraq War is ever written, there should be a chapter devoted to the pivotal role played by the Washington Post’s hawkish editorial page and the many like-minded thinkers who are published in the newspaper’s Op-Ed section.

As arguably the most influential newspaper in the nation’s capital, the Post might have been expected to encourage a healthy pre-war debate that reflected diverse opinions from experts in the fields of government, diplomacy, academia, the military and the broader American public. War, after all, is not a trivial matter.

Instead, the Post’s editorial section served as a kind of pro-war bulletin board, posting neoconservative manifestos attesting to the wisdom of invading Iraq and tacking up harsh indictments of Americans who dissented from George W. Bush’s war plans.

Yet what is perhaps most amazing is that even now – after all that’s been learned about Bush’s Iraq War deceptions – the Post’s editorial page continues to act as the administration’s hall monitor for the war, trying to keep the American people and especially Washington insiders in line.

This month, the Post published two more editorials disparaging critics of the Iraq War. One resumed the near-three-year-old campaign to tear down former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson for challenging “twisted” pre-war intelligence on Iraq; a second scolded retired generals for speaking out against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

‘Good Leak’

In an April 9 editorial, “A Good Leak,” the Post’s editors praised President Bush’s decision in June-July 2003 to declassify parts of a National Intelligence Estimate that were then leaked to favored reporters to undermine Wilson’s criticism of intelligence used to scare the American public about Iraq’s supposed nuclear weapons program.

The Post editorial bought into virtually all the administration’s spin points, accepting at face value that Bush intended simply “to make clear why he had believed that Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear weapons.” The editorial even attacked Wilson as “the one guilty of twisting the truth.”

Yet, the Post leaves out a number of key facts, including that Bush selectively declassified parts of the NIE – sections on Iraq’s alleged pursuit of enriched uranium in Africa – though his top aides knew that those points were hotly disputed by many U.S. intelligence experts when the NIE was written and had since been disproved.

The available evidence indicates that Bush’s goal was not to educate the public with “a good leak,” but to avoid getting caught in a deception that had misled the nation to war.

Ironically, that was the conclusion of a front-page news article in the Post on the same day as the editorial, April 9. The news article cited the fact that Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chose to leak information they knew to be false.

“The evidence Cheney and Libby selected to share with reporters had been disproved months before,” the Post’s news article said. “United Nations inspectors had exposed the main evidence for the uranium charge as crude forgeries in March 2003, but the Bush administration and British Prime Minister Tony Blair maintained they had additional, secret evidence that they could not disclose.

“In June [2003], a British parliamentary inquiry concluded otherwise, delivering a scathing critique of Blair’s role in promoting the story. With no ally left, the White House debated whether to abandon the uranium claim and became embroiled in bitter finger-pointing about whom to fault for the error. …

“It was at that moment that Libby, allegedly at Cheney’s direction, sought out at least three reporters to bolster the discredited uranium allegation. Libby made careful selections of language from the 2002 estimate, quoting a passage that said Iraq was ‘vigorously trying to procure uranium’ in Africa.”

In other words, what the Post’s editorial-page editors judged to be “a good leak” was part of a continued disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting Wilson’s accurate assessment about “twisted” intelligence – and keeping the American public confused.

Watchdog Press?

For a U.S. editorial board of a major newspaper to embrace, uncritically, a government’s deception of the American people turns the concept of a watchdog press upside down – and it is an especially grave offense on a life-and-death issue like war.

But the Post’s editorial board went even further, echoing long-standing Republican attacks on Wilson, who has said he traveled to Niger in 2002 at the CIA’s request and concluded from his trip that suspicions of an Iraqi uranium purchase were almost surely untrue.

The Post’s editorial, however, challenges Wilson’s honesty, claiming that “several subsequent investigations” have demonstrated that “in fact, (Wilson’s) report supported the conclusion that Iraq had sought uranium.”

But the Post’s claim is, at best, misleading and, more likely, dishonest.

According to all available evidence, Wilson told the truth, that based on his interviews with former Niger government officials, he concluded that the alleged uranium purchase almost certainly did not occur and was not even feasible given the tight international controls on Niger’s enriched uranium, called yellowcake.

Wilson did report to the CIA that he was told by former Nigerien Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki that he had suspected that an Iraqi commercial delegation to Niger in 1999 might be interested in buying yellowcake, but that the uranium topic didn’t come up at Mayaki's meeting with the Iraqis and – whatever their intentions – nothing was sold to Iraq.

In 2002, the State Department’s intelligence analysts, who had already correctly concluded that the Niger claims were baseless, reviewed Wilson’s report and believed that his information corroborated their judgment that the Iraq-yellowcake story was bogus.

However, CIA analysts, who then were pushing the Niger allegations, seized on Wilson’s comment about Mayaki suspecting that Iraq was in the market for yellowcake as corroboration for the CIA position.

That’s why the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee wrote in its July 7, 2004, assessment of the WMD intelligence that “for most analysts, the information in the [Wilson] report lent more credibility to the original CIA reports on the uranium deal, but State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research analysts believed that the report supported their assessment that Niger was unlikely to be willing or able to sell uranium to Iraq.”

The CIA analysts had “cherry-picked” the one fact from Wilson’s report that could be used to support their faulty judgment about the Niger uranium, while the State Department analysts, who had debunked the Niger story, also found backing for their correct assessment from Wilson’s report.

But either way, it wasn’t Wilson’s fault that the CIA and other erroneous analysts outnumbered the State Department analysts who drew the right conclusions from Wilson’s investigation.

Yet, the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Republican National Committee and the Washington Post’s editorial page did their own “cherry-picking” in seizing on the phrase “most analysts” as a way to attack Wilson’s honesty. Under any logical scrutiny, however, that argument makes no sense.

Retaliation

The Post editorial goes on to slam Wilson again, by citing the supposed findings of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who has been investigating the administration’s leak of the identity of Wilson’s wife, undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame. 

“Mr. Wilson subsequently claimed that the White House set out to punish him for his supposed whistle-blowing by deliberately blowing the cover of his wife,” the Post editorial said. “After more than 2 ½ years of investigation, Mr. Fitzgerald has reported no evidence to support Mr. Wilson’s charge.

“In last week’s court filing, he [Fitzgerald] stated that Mr. Bush did not authorize the leak of Ms. Plame’s identity. Mr. Libby’s motive in allegedly disclosing her name to reporters, Mr. Fitzgerald said, was to disprove yet another false assertion, that Mr. Wilson had been dispatched to Niger by Mr. Cheney. In fact Mr. Wilson was recommended for the trip by his wife.”

But again, the Post editorial writers have gotten almost all their facts wrong, especially the assertion that Fitzgerald didn’t find evidence to support Wilson’s claim that he had been targeted for reprisals because of his whistle-blowing.

In the court filing on April 5, 2006, Fitzgerald said his investigation uncovered government documents that “could be characterized as reflecting a plan to discredit, punish, or seek revenge against Mr. Wilson” because of his criticism of the administration’s handling of the Niger evidence.

Fitzgerald added that “the evidence will show that the July 6, 2003, Op-Ed by Mr. Wilson [in the New York Times] was viewed by the Office of Vice President as a direct attack on the credibility of the Vice President (and the President) on a matter of signal importance: the rationale for the war in Iraq. Defendant [Libby] undertook vigorous efforts to rebut this attack during the week following July 7, 2003.”

In other words, Libby’s “vigorous efforts” against Wilson were not simply part of some educational program for reporters; the goal was to defend the credibility of Bush and Cheney at a time (summer 2003) when the American people were learning that the principal argument for going to war – Iraq’s supposed stockpiles of WMD – was false.

It’s also untrue for the Post editorial to say that Fitzgerald concluded that Libby’s motive for leaking was to disprove the “false assertion” that Wilson had been sent to Niger by Cheney. A fair reading of Fitzgerald’s April 5 filing would support a conclusion that Libby was sent out in a counterattack against the threat that Wilson posed to the overall White House credibility on Iraq’s WMD, not to clarify who authorized Wilson's trip.

The Post editorial also exaggerates when claiming that Fitzgerald “stated that Mr. Bush did not authorize the leak of Ms. Plame’s identity.” The filing contains nothing definitive on this point, beyond Fitzgerald recounting Libby’s grand jury testimony which has Bush approving disclosure of selective pieces of intelligence, but doesn’t mention Plame.

The absence of Libby’s testimony about whether Bush also may have approved the leak of Plame’s identity is not proof that Bush didn’t give such authorization to others; it simply means that Libby didn’t testify to that suspicion. Libby is facing a five-count indictment for perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI.

Republican Assault

Another troubling aspect of the Post’s April 9 editorial is how closely it tracks with the long-running Republican assault on Wilson.

For years now, Republicans and their right-wing media allies have focused on tiny points of Wilson’s statements as a way to blur the larger picture – that Wilson was right about the absence of an active Iraqi nuclear program while the Bush administration was wrong.

The Post editorial page followed the Republican lead again in an April 18 editorial entitled “the Generals’ Revolt.” A sub-head characterized the Iraq War complaints from a half dozen retired generals as “finger-pointing” that should be excluded from the debate over whether Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should resign.

While acknowledging valid concerns about Rumsfeld’s mismanagement of the Iraq War, the Post editorial calls the “rebellion” of the retired generals “problematic.”

“It threatens the essential democratic principle of military subordination to civilian control – the more so because a couple of the officers claim they are speaking for some still on active duty,” the editorial said.

It then compares the Iraq War critiques by these retired generals to the opposition from the uniformed military, including then-Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefls of Staff, against President Bill Clinton’s plan to allow gays in the military.

But the comparison is faulty. For one, the retired generals are retired, not active-duty as Powell was in 1993. Also, until these half dozen or so ex-generals spoke out critically about Bush’s Iraq policies, no one in memory had ever argued that private citizens who previously served in the military should remain silent about questions of war and peace.

The Post editorial board never objected when retired generals appeared on CNN or other TV news programs supporting the Iraq War or when President Bush claimed that he was following the advice of the generals in Iraq, including some of those now out of uniform who are contradicting Bush’s claim.

Rather than following the facts and logic to a conclusion, the Post editorials seem to start with an ideological conclusion – that Bush must be defended – and then cobble the available spin points together into some dubious argument.

Long Pattern

These two editorials in April also do not stand alone. They are part of a long pattern at the Post to ignore or denigrate Iraq War critics – both in the news columns and on the opinion pages.

Sometimes before the Iraq invasion, Post readers learned about voices of dissent by reading Post columnists denouncing the dissenters. For instance, when former Vice President Al Gore gave a speech about Iraq and Bush’s “preemptive war” doctrine on Sept. 23, 2002, his talk got scant press coverage, but did elicit a round of Gore-bashing on the TV talk shows and on the Post’s Op-Ed page. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Politics of Preemption.”]

Post columnist Michael Kelly called Gore’s speech “dishonest, cheap, low” before labeling it “wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible.” [Washington Post, Sept. 25, 2002] Post columnist Charles Krauthammer added that the speech was “a series of cheap shots strung together without logic or coherence.” [Washington Post, Sept. 27, 2002]

When reading the Post’s pre-war coverage, there was a whiff of totalitarianism in which dissidents never get space to express their opinions but are still excoriated by the official media. When the state speaks, however, the same media hails the government’s brilliance.

For instance, after Secretary of State Powell’s now-infamous speech to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, a Post editorial called his arguments “irrefutable,” adding: “it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.”

That judgment was echoed across the Op-Ed page by Post columnists from Right to Left, a solid wall of misguided consensus.

But the Post’s gullibility about Powell’s testimony wasn’t an exception. As a study by Columbia University journalism professor Todd Gitlin noted, “The [Post] editorials during December [2002] and January [2003] numbered nine, and all were hawkish.” [American Prospect, April 1, 2003]

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the failure to discover evidence supporting the administration’s pre-war claims, editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt acknowledged that the Post should have been more skeptical.

“If you look at the editorials we write running up [to the war], we state as flat fact that he [Hussein] has weapons of mass destruction,” Hiatt said in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review. “If that’s not true, it would have been better not to say it.” [CJR, March/April 2004]

Repeat Offenders

But Hiatt’s supposed remorse hasn’t stopped him and the Post editorial page from continuing their assault on anyone who questions Bush’s Iraq War strategy.

On Feb. 7, 2005, Hiatt penned a column under his own name, entitled “Bad News Donkeys,” in which he chastised Sen. John Kerry and other Democrats for not showing enough enthusiasm over the Jan. 30, 2005, elections in Iraq.

Hiatt wrote that Kerry “grumped” his answer about the Iraq election when the senator told NBC’s Tim Russert that “I think it’s gone as expected.” Days later when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pressed for a clearer exit strategy for U.S. troops, Hiatt judged that her comments “sounded grudging and morose.”

In case Post readers hadn’t gotten Hiatt’s point, he finished up his column comparing the Democrats to the sad-sack character Eeyore in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

Though the Jan. 30, 2005, election turned out to be more a mirage than an oasis, the Post’s editorial page was back asserting its august judgments again in June 2005 after thousands of readers complained that the Post was ignoring the “Downing Street Memo” and other evidence of Bush’s Iraq War deceptions.

On June 15, 2005, the Post’s lead editorial asserted that “the memos add not a single fact to what was previously known about the administration’s prewar deliberations. Not only that: They add nothing to what was publicly known in July 2002.”

While that claim may be true in a way – because some people indeed were challenging Bush’s case for war, albeit without the damning details – the problem was that the Post and other pro-war news outlets were treating those skeptics as fringe characters who should be ignored.

Looking back to 2002 and early 2003, it would be hard to find any “reputable” commentary in the mainstream U.S. press calling Bush’s actions fraudulent, which is what the “Downing Street Memo” and other British evidence have since revealed Bush’s actions to be.

The British documents prove that much of the pre-war debate inside the U.S. and British governments was how best to manipulate public opinion by playing games with the intelligence.

On July 23, 2002, for instance, Blair met with his top foreign policy advisers to review the Iraq situation. According to the minutes, which became known as the “Downing Street Memo,” Richard Dearlove, chief of the British intelligence agency MI6, described a recent trip to Washington at which he discussed Iraq with Bush’s top national security officials.

“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,” Dearlove said.

One might have thought that this pattern of official deception – effectively making fools out of the Post’s editorial page and, to a lesser extent, the news columns – would have stirred up some outrage from Hiatt and his boss, Washington Post Chairman Donald Graham.

But Hiatt and Graham seem to be beyond shame, or perhaps they are committed neoconservatives who simply won’t let facts get in the way of their ideological convictions.

Now, despite even more evidence of the Bush administration’s pre-war lies, the Post editorial board is back at its role trying to construct a consensus by marginalizing Ambassador Wilson and silencing the retired generals.

The Post’s goal apparently is to protect George W. Bush from public outrage over his Iraq War deceptions – that have led to so much death, injury and destruction – while sparing the Post’s editors from the journalistic disdain that they have so richly earned.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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