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
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
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 , 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
 and January  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,
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
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
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
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.