Exclusive: Toting up the Iraq War’s cost is staggering, including nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead. But a decade later, few of its architects in government or apologists in the press have faced accountability. Washington Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt for one, notes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
What is perhaps most remarkable about the tenth anniversary of President George W. Bush’s war of aggression in Iraq is that almost no one who aided and abetted that catastrophic and illegal decision has been held accountable in any meaningful way.
That applies to Bush and his senior advisers who haven’t spent a single day inside a jail cell; it applies to Official Washington’s well-funded think tanks where neoconservatives still dominate; and it applies to the national news media where journalists and pundits who lost jobs for disseminating pro-war propaganda can be counted on one finger (Judith Miller of the New York Times).
Yet, arguably the most egregious example of the news media failing to exact serious accountability for getting this major historical event wrong is the case of Fred Hiatt, who was the editorial-page editor of the Washington Post when it served as drum major for the invade-Iraq parade and who still holds the same prestigious position ten years later.
How is that possible? I’ve seen senior news executives dissect the work of honest journalists searching for minor flaws in articles to justify destroying their careers (i.e. what the San Jose Mercury News did to Gary Webb over his courageous reporting on Nicaraguan Contra-cocaine trafficking in the 1990s).
So how could Hiatt still have the same important job at the Washington Post after being catastrophically wrong about the justifications for going to war and after smearing war critics who tried to expose some of Bush’s lies to the American people? How could the U.S. news media be so upside-down in its principles that honest journalists get fly-specked and fired, while dishonest ones get life-time job security?
The short answer, I suppose, is that Hiatt was just doing what the Graham family, which still controls the newspaper, wanted done. From my days at Newsweek, which was then part of the Washington Post Company, I had seen this drift toward neoconservatism at the highest editorial ranks, the well-dressed and well-bred men preferred by publisher Katharine Graham and her son Donald.
But how arrogant can one ruling-class family be? And what does it say about future international crises that the Washington Post remains a highly influential newspaper in the nation’s capital? Shouldn’t the Post, at minimum, have demonstrated some commitment to journalistic integrity by shaking up its editorial page after the truth about the Iraq War deceptions became painfully apparent?
If the system were working as it should — in the months before the Iraq invasion — you might have expected the Post to have encouraged a healthy 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 pro-war bulletin board, posting neoconservative manifestos attesting to the wisdom of invading Iraq and tacking up harsh indictments of Americans who dissented from Bush’s war plans.
Post readers often learned about voices of dissent only by reading Post columnists denouncing the dissenters, a scene reminiscent of a totalitarian society where dissidents never get space to express their opinions but are still excoriated in the official media.
For instance, on Sept. 23, 2002, when former Vice President Al Gore gave a speech criticizing Bush’s “preemptive war” doctrine and Bush’s push for the Iraq invasion, Gore’s talk got scant media coverage, but still elicited a round of Gore-bashing on the TV talk shows and on the Post’s Op-Ed page.
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]
While the Post’s wrongheadedness on the Iraq War extended into its news pages with the rare skeptical article either buried or spiked Hiatt’s editorial section was like a chorus with virtually every columnist singing from the same pro-invasion song book and Hiatt’s editorials serving as lead vocalist.
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]
The Post’s martial harmony reached its crescendo after Secretary of State Colin Powell made his bogus presentation to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, accusing Iraq of hiding vast stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
The next day, Hiatt’s lead editorial hailed Powell’s evidence as “irrefutable” and chastised any remaining skeptics. “It is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction,” the editorial said. Hiatt’s judgment was echoed across the Post’s Op-Ed page, with Post columnists from Right to Left singing the same note of misguided consensus.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq on March 19-20, 2003, and months of fruitless searching for the promised WMD caches, Hiatt finally acknowledged that the Post should have been more circumspect in its confident claims about the WMD.
“If you look at the editorials we write running up [to the war], we state as flat fact that he [Saddam 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] Yes, that is a common principle of journalism, that if something isn’t real, we’re not supposed to confidently declare that it is.
But Hiatt’s supposed remorse didn’t stop him and the Post editorial page from continuing its single-minded support for the Iraq War. Hiatt was especially hostile when evidence emerged that revealed how thoroughly he and his colleagues had been gulled.
In June 2005, for instance, the Washington Post decided to ignore the release of the “Downing Street Memo” in the British press. The “memo” actually minutes of a meeting of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his national security team on July 23, 2002 recounted the words of MI6 chief Richard Dearlove who had just returned from discussions with his intelligence counterparts in Washington.
“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.
Though the Downing Street Memo amounted to a smoking gun regarding how Bush had set his goal first overthrowing Saddam Hussein and then searched for a sellable rationalization, the Post’s senior editors deemed the document unworthy to share with their readers.
Only after thousands of Post readers complained did the newspaper deign to give its reasoning. 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.”
But Hiatt was simply wrong in that assertion. Looking back to 2002 and early 2003, it would be hard to find any commentary in the Post or any other mainstream U.S. news outlet calling Bush’s actions fraudulent, which is what the “Downing Street Memo” and other British evidence revealed Bush’s actions to be.
The British documents also proved 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.
Further, official documents of this nature are almost always regarded as front-page news, even if they confirm long-held suspicions. By Hiatt’s and the Post’s reasoning, the Pentagon Papers wouldn’t have been news since some people had previously alleged that U.S. officials had lied about the Vietnam War.
The War on Wilson
While the overall performance of the Post’s editorial page during the Iraq War was one of the most shameful examples of journalistic malfeasance in modern U.S. history, arguably the ugliest part was the Post’s years-long assault on former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, CIA officer Valerie Plame.
Rarely have two patriotic American citizens been as shabbily treated by a major U.S. newspaper as the Wilsons were at the hands of Fred Hiatt and the Post. Joe Wilson, in particular, was endlessly derided for his courageous decision to challenge one of President Bush’s most flagrantly false claims about Iraq, i.e. that it had sought yellowcake uranium from Niger.
In early 2002, Wilson was recruited by the CIA to look into what later turned out to be a forged document indicating Iraq’s possible yellowcake purchase in Niger. The document had aroused Vice President Dick Cheney’s interest.
Having served in Africa, Wilson accepted the CIA’s assignment and returned with a conclusion that Iraq had almost surely not obtained any uranium from Niger, an assessment shared by other U.S. officials who checked out the story. However, the bogus allegation was not so easily quashed.
Wilson was stunned when Bush included the Niger allegations in his State of the Union Address in January 2003. Initially, Wilson began alerting a few journalists about the discredited claim while trying to keep his name out of the newspapers. However, in July 2003, with the U.S. military coming up empty in its WMD search of Iraq, Wilson penned an Op-Ed article for the New York Times describing what he didn’t find in Africa and saying the White House had “twisted” pre-war intelligence.
Though Wilson’s article focused on his own investigation, it represented the first time an inside Washington player had gone public with evidence regarding the Bush administration’s fraudulent case for war. Thus, Wilson became a major target for retribution from the White House and particularly Cheney’s office.
The Plame Leak
As part of the campaign to destroy Wilson’s credibility, senior Bush administration officials leaked to journalists that Wilson’s wife worked in the CIA office that had dispatched him to Niger, a suggestion that the trip might have been some kind of junket. When right-wing columnist Robert Novak published Plame’s covert identity in the Washington Post’s Op-Ed section, Plame’s CIA career was destroyed.
However, instead of showing any remorse for the harm his editorial section had done, Hiatt simply enlisted in the Bush administration’s war against Wilson, promoting every anti-Wilson talking point that the White House could dream up. The Post’s assault on Wilson went on for years.
For instance, in a Sept. 1, 2006, editorial, Hiatt accused Wilson of lying when he had claimed the White House had leaked his wife’s name. The context of Hiatt’s broadside was the disclosure that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was the first administration official to tell Novak that Plame was a CIA officer and had played a small role in Wilson’s Niger trip.
Because Armitage was considered a reluctant supporter of the Iraq War, the Post editorial jumped to the conclusion that “it follows that one of the most sensational charges leveled against the Bush White House that it orchestrated the leak of Ms. Plame’s identity is untrue.”
But does it lead to that conclusion? Just because Armitage may have been the first to share the classified information with Novak didn’t mean that there was no parallel White House operation to peddle Plame’s identity to reporters. In fact, evidence uncovered by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who examined the Plame leak, supported a conclusion that White House officials, under the direction of Vice President Cheney and including Cheney aide Lewis Libby and Bush political adviser Karl Rove, approached a number of reporters with this information.
Indeed, Rove appears to have confirmed Plame’s identity for Novak and leaked the information to Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper. Meanwhile, Libby, who was indicted on perjury and obstruction charges in the case, had pitched the information to the New York Times’ Judith Miller. The Post’s editorial acknowledged that Libby and other White House officials were not “blameless,” since they allegedly released Plame’s identity while “trying to discredit Mr. Wilson.” But the Post reserved its harshest condemnation for Wilson.
“It now appears that the person most responsible for the end of Ms. Plame’s CIA career is Mr. Wilson,” the editorial said. “Mr. Wilson chose to go public with an explosive charge, claiming falsely, as it turned out that he had debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger and that his report had circulated to senior administration officials.
“He ought to have expected that both those officials and journalists such as Mr. Novak would ask why a retired ambassador would have been sent on such a mission and that the answer would point to his wife. He diverted responsibility from himself and his false charges by claiming that President Bush’s closest aides had engaged in an illegal conspiracy. It’s unfortunate that so many people took him seriously.”
Way Off Base
The Post’s editorial, however, was at best an argumentative smear and most likely a willful lie. By then, the evidence was clear that Wilson, along with other government investigators, had debunked the reports of Iraq acquiring yellowcake in Niger and that those findings did circulate to senior levels, explaining why CIA Director George Tenet struck the yellowcake claims from other Bush speeches.
The Post’s accusation about Wilson “falsely” claiming to have debunked the yellowcake reports apparently was based on Wilson’s inclusion in his report of speculation from one Niger official who suspected that Iraq might have been interested in buying yellowcake, although the Iraqi officials never mentioned yellowcake and made no effort to buy any. This irrelevant point had become a centerpiece of Republican attacks on Wilson and was recycled by the Post.
Plus, contrary to the Post’s assertion that Wilson “ought to have expected” that the White House and Novak would zero in on Wilson’s wife, a reasonable expectation in a normal world would have been just the opposite. Even amid the ugly partisanship of today’s Washington, it was shocking to many longtime observers of government that any administration official or an experienced journalist would disclose the name of a covert CIA officer for such a flimsy reason as trying to discredit her husband.
Hiatt also bought into the Republican argument that Plame really wasn’t “covert” at all and thus there was nothing wrong in exposing her counter-proliferation work for the CIA. The Post was among the U.S. media outlets that gave a podium for right-wing lawyer Victoria Toensing to make this bogus argument in defense of Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis Libby.
On Feb. 18, 2007, as jurors were about to begin deliberations in Libby’s case, the Post ran a prominent Outlook article by Toensing, who had been buzzing around the TV pundit shows decrying Libby’s prosecution. In the Post article, she wrote that “Plame was not covert. She worked at CIA headquarters and had not been stationed abroad within five years of the date of Novak’s column.”
Though it might not have been clear to a reader, Toensing was hanging her claim about Plame not being “covert” on a contention that Plame didn’t meet the coverage standards of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Toensing’s claim was legalistic at best since it obscured the larger point that Plame was working undercover in a classified CIA position and was running agents abroad whose safety would be put at risk by an unauthorized disclosure of Plame’s identity.
But Toensing, who promoted herself as an author of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, wasn’t even right about the legal details. The law doesn’t require that a CIA officer be “stationed” abroad in the preceding five years; it simply refers to an officer who “has served within the last five years outside the United States.”
That would cover someone who while based in the United States went abroad on official CIA business, as Plame testified under oath in a congressional hearing that she had done within the five-year period.
Toensing, who appeared as a Republican witness at the same congressional hearing on March 16, 2007, was asked about her bald assertion that “Plame was not covert.”
“Not under the law,” Toensing responded. “I’m giving you the legal interpretation under the law and I helped draft the law. The person is supposed to reside outside the United States.” But that’s not what the law says, either. It says “served” abroad, not “reside.”
When asked whether she had spoken to the CIA or Plame about Plame’s covert status, Toensing said, “I didn’t talk to Ms. Plame or the CIA. I can just tell you what’s required under the law. They can call anybody anything they want to do in the halls” of the CIA.
In other words, Toensing had no idea about the facts of the matter; she didn’t know how often Plame might have traveled abroad in the five years before her exposure; Toensing didn’t even get the language of the statute correct.
At the hearing, Toensing was reduced to looking like a quibbling kook who missed the forest of damage done to U.S. national security, to Plame and possibly to the lives of foreign agents for the trees of how a definition in a law was phrased, and then getting that wrong, too.
After watching Toensing’s bizarre testimony, one had to wonder why the Post would have granted her space on the widely read Outlook section’s front page to issue what she called “indictments” of Joe Wilson, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and others who had played a role in exposing the White House hand behind the Plame leak.
Despite Toensing’s high-profile smear of Wilson and Fitzgerald, Libby still was convicted of four felony counts. In response to the conviction, the Post reacted with another dose of its false history of the Plame case and a final insult directed at Wilson, declaring that he “will be remembered as a blowhard.”
With Plame’s CIA career destroyed and Wilson’s reputation battered by Hiatt and his Post colleagues, the Wilsons moved away from Washington. Their ordeal was later recounted in the 2010 movie, “Fair Game,” starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. Though Libby was sentenced to 30 months in prison, his sentence was commuted by President Bush to eliminate any jail time.
The other costs from the Iraq War included 4,486 U.S. soldiers dead along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. The final price tag for U.S. taxpayers is estimated to exceed $1 trillion.
Iraq today remains a violently divided society where the Shiite and Sunni communities are deeply estranged and where the former Sunni authoritarian regime has been replaced by an authoritarian Shiite regime. Whereas Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was considered a bulwark against Iran, the current Iraqi government is an ally of Iran.
Except for some retirements and deaths (including Michael Kelly who died in a vehicle crash in Iraq), the editorial pages of the Washington Post and the roster of star columnists remain remarkably similar to what they were a decade ago. Fred Hiatt is still the editor in charge.
[For a limited time, you can purchase Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush family for only $34. For details, click here.]
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
Fred Hiatt should be stripped, scourged, and nailed to a cross.
Perhaps, if often speculate, the WP (and other news outlets) have so many bad/credulous journalists because the salaries of those ‘journalists’ are being paid by someone beside the WP…
In March of 2003 I had students at Southern NH University watch the President’s speech announcing the imminent beginning of combat operations. When it wasover I told my class of public speaking studetns that the president had just told them a string of lies…. The next morning the chairman of my department told me to shut up or lose my job. I told him that the truth was a perfect defense, and he scoffed.
Fred Hiatt, et al., made that possible.
After reading the article I can finaly undertstand why the POST entertains so many bad journalists. The PoST does not get rid of them because they advocate the [olicies of the Grahams and editorial board. Specifically I have always wondered why this once proud paper would keep George Will as a columnist and now I know.
The WashPost is good only for those Washington people who aren’t on anybody’s daily distribution list for talking points. And if you’re not receiving talking points, how can you possibly attend a Washington cocktail party?
borat . . . how obtuse of you to say so. . . I mean, where WERE you in May of 2003? Were you paying attention AT ALL?
I am surprised that Robert Parry is upset that the WaPo has not apologized for its cheerleader role in the run up to the Iraq war. What American news media has? And isn’t it the WaPo’s job to generally put forth the menu du jour of
an Administration about what policy is in American “national interest.” Of course, Cheney was clever to bring a gaggle
of neocons on board to help sell the war in the media (talk shows, op eds, forums, et cet) and to make sure the
organized Jewish community would not challenge the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld “democracy promotion” war. What a shame that so many Iraqis and young Americans were sacrificed for this craven crew, the real Axis of Evil.
The anointing of GW Bush was the final nail in the coffin of the American republic. Its resurrection will be costly.
Which assumes, of course, that there will be a resurrection. More likely, the US has been wounding itself with a series of self-inflicted cuts from which recovery is no longer possible.
Pilots refer to a “graveyard spiral.” Look out the window, and you will see America spinning downward.
If that resurrection is not all but impossible.
And besides that, The Post, Mr. Hiatt, and Post columnists are now beating the drums for war with Iran. Same players, same tune.
WaPoo, as well as the rest of the propagandizing MSM should be shut down completely and disbanded. The First Amendment of the US Constitution gives us the right to Freedom of Speech. That right does not include the freedom to lie for the purpose of stealing elections, and covering up government malfeasance and corporate criminals.
Another commentator I would like to see brought to account is Edward Luttwak, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, whose column was published in a Canadian newspaper but probably many U.S. papers as well. He wrote: “While the chattering classes continue to ask irrelevant questions about the future of Iraq after a successful war, the issue for Mr. Bush is America’s security, not Iraq’s. And while conventional-minded army officers keep leaking stories to argue tht Mr. Hussein cannot be defeated by air poower. commandoes and rag-tag exiles, but noly by 265,731 army troops deployed over many months, actual preparations have made much progress.”
Bob, great that you have called Hiatt (and Toensing) and the Graham family out on this.
Thank you so much, Robert. There is little hope though that the corporate media will ever take seriously the media’s responsibility to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
Israeli influence helped shape both US papers “of record,” the Post and the NY Times. In addition to what the Post did to support going to war in Iraq, the Times ran stories by Judith Miller, a staunch Israeli supporter and pal of Irving “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, who was rumored to be connected to Israeli intelligence while working for the Bush administration. Miller was also an a very old friend of Times’s editor, Sulzberger. She pushed a series of articles promoting war based on the non-existent WMDs.
Israel wanted a weakened Iraq and promoted a more disunified Arab world, just as Israel has pushed for the overthrow of governments in Libya, Syria, and Iran.
WQhoever controls the message will control the people. The Grahams, Murdochs and now possibly the Koch brothers know the value of controlling the message and framing the debates.
This has been going on since the repeal of the Fairness Docrtine and Telecomm Act in 1996. With only a handful of entities owning over 90 percent of the media we will continue to be manipulated and lied to.
A democracy requires an informed citizenry. A plutocracy disguised as a democracy cannot survive with an informed citizenry.
That act was made in 1986, during the Reagan administration.