From the Archive: The purchase of the Washington Post by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos gives the newspaper a chance to shed its neocon ideology and get back to sound journalism. But that will require a housecleaning of top editors and columnists who turned the Post into the neocons’ flagship, like Fred Hiatt, Robert Parry wrote in March 2013.
By Robert Parry (Originally published on March 19, 2013)
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.
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). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.