With the exception of ABC's This Week, the Sunday morning news talk shows passed up opportunities to question top Bush administration officials about a report published that morning that the United States lied to Asian allies about North Korea's role in the sale of nuclear material to Libya. Except for This Week's George Stephanopoulos, no Sunday morning host brought up the story in The Washington Post, which relied on unnamed officials with knowledge of a U.S. intelligence briefing to allies, with administration officials. The officials appeared on the occasion of the second anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq.
The Post article exposed deception on the part of the United States to increase pressure on North Korea:
In an effort to increase pressure on North Korea, the Bush administration told its Asian allies in briefings earlier this year that Pyongyang had exported nuclear material to Libya. That was a significant new charge, the first allegation that North Korea was helping to create a new nuclear weapons state.
But that is not what U.S. intelligence reported, according to two officials with detailed knowledge of the transaction. North Korea, according to the intelligence, had supplied uranium hexafluoride -- which can be enriched to weapons-grade uranium -- to Pakistan. It was Pakistan, a key U.S. ally with its own nuclear arsenal, that sold the material to Libya. The U.S. government had no evidence, the officials said, that North Korea knew of the second transaction.
Pakistan's role as both the buyer and the seller was concealed to cover up the part played by Washington's partner in the hunt for al Qaeda leaders, according to the officials, who discussed the issue on the condition of anonymity. In addition, a North Korea-Pakistan transfer would not have been news to the U.S. allies, which have known of such transfers for years and viewed them as a business matter between sovereign states.
Even though each major Sunday morning show featured a top Bush administration defense official, the topic was brought up on only ABC's This Week, on which Stephanopoulos asked Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld about the Post report:
STEPHANOPOULOS: OK, let me ask you about this story. It says: "U.S. misled allies about nuclear export." And according to this story this morning, it said that the United States, at the beginning of this year, told Asian allies that North Korea was selling nuclear materials to Libya. It turns out, in fact, according to U.S. intelligence, that it was Pakistan that was buying the materials for North Korea and selling it to Libya. And the Post goes on to say: Pakistan's role as both the buyer and the seller was concealed to cover up the part played by Washington's partner in the hunt for Al Qaeda leaders. Is that true?"
RUMSFELD: I have no idea. I've never heard anything like that. And it wouldn't be the Department of Defense that would be involved anyway. It would be intelligence agencies.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But this is something you'd be aware of.
RUMSFELD: I'm not --
STEPHANOPOULOS: In other words, nuclear materials, you know nothing about this?
RUMSFELD: I know a good deal about the flow and interaction and proliferation that took place in the A.Q. Kahn network. I know a good deal about what North Korea has been doing.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But that's the question: Is it still going on?
RUMSFELD: I know nothing about the front-page Washington Post article.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you know anything, then, about Pakistan buying weapons, buying nuclear materials from North Korea and selling it to Libya?
RUMSFELD: I do not personally. And the implication that the United States misled allies, I would -- which is the essence of what you're saying --
STEPHANOPOULOS: The Post headline, yes.
RUMSFELD: -- yes, what you're saying, I'm not in the position to comment on it, because they just have no knowledge of it.
But the other Sunday morning shows ignored the issue:
- Fox Broadcasting Company's Fox News Sunday hosted Rumsfeld. Host Chris Wallace did not ask Rumsfeld about the Post article.
- NBC's Meet the Press had Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on to talk about the war in Iraq. The Post article did not come up, though host Tim Russert did ask about U.S. concerns regarding North Korea's nuclear capabilities, and Myers brought up the six-party talks regarding North Korea.
- CNN's Late Edition hosted Lt. Gen. Stephen Whitcomb, the top U.S. Army commander in Kuwait. Host Wolf Blitzer did not ask about the Post article.
- On CBS News' Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer interviewed Myers. The words "Pakistan," "nuclear," and "North Korea" do not appear in the transcript.
A search of the Nexis database of ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, Fox News Channel and CNN transcripts for "Pakistan and nuclear" from March 20 to March 24 produced no references to the article or its allegations.
In addition, reporters did not mention the allegations in the daily State Department press briefings of March 21, March 22 or March 23. NBC's Rosalind Jordan did not bring it up in her March 21 interview with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Beijing, nor did the topic arise in Rice's press conference in China, which included U.S. major media representatives.