Woodward's definition of "journalism"? Reporting Bush administration falsehoods as "their point of view"

››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

Appearing on the November 21 edition of CNN's Larry King Live, Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward discussed his book Plan of Attack: The Definitive Account of the Decision to Invade Iraq (Simon & Schuster, April 2004). Responding to concerns about his objectivity given the close relationships he cultivated with senior Bush administration officials while researching the book, Woodward said that the book "has some pretty tough stuff in it. At the same time, the president or others [in the government] get to express their point of view." He added: "I believe that's journalism."

But what Woodward was actually allowing his administration sources to do was something far more problematic: Under the guise of expressing their "point of view," administration officials were given a forum in which to make numerous questionable and even categorically false statements about the Iraq war, without refutation. In many instances, Woodward knew or should have known of evidence that undermined or refuted their "views." Below are several of the more flagrant examples of such statements from Plan of Attack concerning the Bush administration's use of prewar intelligence to make the case that war with Iraq was necessary because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The Office of Special Plans and the Iraqi National Congress

In the ongoing debate about whether the Bush administration manipulated intelligence in the buildup to the Iraq war, the administration and its defenders have repeatedly claimed that Congress had access to the "same intelligence" as the White House in assessing that Iraq was a serious threat. As Media Matters for America has documented, one key fact undermining such a claim is that the administration had exclusive access to alternative sources of intelligence upon which it reportedly relied significantly for prewar intelligence: the Department of Defense's Office of Special Plans (OSP) and Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group (CTEG) -- both run by then-undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas J. Feith -- and the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a group of Iraqi exiles led by Ahmed Chalabi.

Woodward devoted little attention to the OSP and INC in Plan of Attack. However, when he did reference the two intelligence sources on pages 288 and 289*, he did so in the context of repeating dubious claims by I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, then Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. Arguing that the OSP "couldn't possibly pollute the intelligence process," Libby claimed that its findings were "not given to the president or vice president." Similarly, Libby dismissed the "myth" that the INC's Chalabi had a "direct channel to pass intelligence to the Pentagon or to Cheney," alleging that "[a]ll of Chalabi's information went to the CIA. They could use it or not use it as they saw fit."

But contrary to Woodward's claim on Larry King Live, his book was not "tough" on Libby's attempt to dismiss the importance of the OSP and INC. Woodward was simply repeating claims that could have been rebutted with evidence that was publicly available well before Woodward's book went to print in April 2004. Contrary to Libby's assertions that the OSP findings were not given to President Bush or Cheney, there was evidence that Cheney personally cultivated the OSP, which received intelligence directly from Chalabi, and that this intelligence did in fact also reach Bush.

For example, a December 8, 2003, article (subscription required) in The New Republic described how Cheney's distrust for the intelligence community led him to "outsource" intelligence gathering to the OSP, which supplied the Office of the Vice President (OVP) with substantial amounts of intelligence:

From the OVP's perspective, the CIA -- with its caveat-riddled position on Iraqi WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and its refusal to connect Saddam and Al Qaeda -- was an outright obstacle to the invasion of Iraq. And, as Cheney and his staff remembered so vividly from their Pentagon days, the CIA was often wrong on the biggest security questions. So Cheney reverted to the intelligence-gathering method he had perfected at Halliburton: He outsourced.

An April 28, 2004, New York Times article, which was published shortly after the hardback edition of Woodward's book but well before the paperback edition was released in October 2004, similarly documented how Feith's CTEG analysts bypassed the CIA by presenting findings -- some of which came from Chalabi -- directly to Pentagon officials. The Times cited the analysts themselves. And journalist Seymour M. Hersh reported in the October 27, 2003, edition of The New Yorker that, by early 2002, "Chalabi's defector reports were now flowing from the Pentagon directly to the Vice-President's office, and then on to the President, with little prior evaluation by intelligence professionals."

Powell and Rice on aluminum tubes, Iraqi nuclear capabilities

At several points in Plan of Attack, Woodward absolved administration officials of culpability for making false claims about Iraq's WMD capabilities by uncritically repeating their version of events: that the CIA provided a one-sided case to dupe them into believing that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program.

Administration official's "view": On page 440 of Plan of Attack, Woodward wrote that then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell "felt let down" by the CIA when he learned that CIA director George Tenet would say in a February 5, 2004, speech that "the aluminum tubes they had previously been so confident were for use as centrifuges for enriching uranium were possibly for regular artillery shells." According to Powell's account, as told by Woodward, "[H]e had challenged them [the CIA] on this before his U.N. presentation," but then-deputy CIA director John McLaughlin "had gone into a long recitation about the thickness of the walls of the tubes and the spinning rates, arguing they had to be for centrifuges," so Powell had conceded the point.

The evidence: By simply repeating that Powell "felt let down" by the CIA, Woodward absolved Powell of any complicity in overstating the administration's level of certainty that the tubes were evidence Iraq was attempting to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program. But while Powell claimed to have been duped by the CIA -- and a New York Times article published after Plan of Attack undermines that claim -- evidence available at the time, including evidence Woodward himself included earlier in the book, should have led Woodward to challenge Powell's presentation of himself as the unwitting recipient of bad intelligence.

Woodward reported on page 199 that the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) had objected to the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate's (NIE) assertion that Iraq was close to acquiring nuclear weapons, relaying the assessment that "the evidence did not add up to 'a compelling case' that Iraq had 'an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons.'" Yet at no point did Woodward mention that a primary basis for INR's dissent was the claim that the aluminum tubes were to be used as centrifuges for nuclear weapons, a claim that Powell would nonetheless push to the United Nations the following year. From the NIE:

In INR's view Iraq's efforts to acquire aluminum tubes is central to the argument that Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, but INR is not persuaded that the tubes in question are intended for use as centrifuge rotors. INR accepts the judgment of technical experts at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) who have concluded that the tubes Iraq seeks to acquire are poorly suited for use in gas centrifuges to be used for uranium enrichment and finds unpersuasive the arguments advanced by others to make the case that they are intended for that purpose. INR considers it far more likely that the tubes are intended for another purpose, most likely the production of artillery rockets.

In simply repeating Powell's claim that he had been misled, Woodward ignored the counterevidence that he had himself hinted at earlier in the book: that Powell disregarded the reservations from INR, an arm of his own department, when he pushed the aluminum tubes claim in his February 5, 2003, presentation to the United Nations. That fact was further confirmed by a July 7, 2004, report on prewar intelligence by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which noted that on February 3, 2003, the INR informed Powell that it specifically objected to his speech's proposed claim that "the aluminum tubes Iraq was seeking 'far exceed US requirements for comparable rockets.' " INR instead maintained that "the tube tolerances were similar to those of a U.S. rocket system." Nevertheless, Powell told the U.N.: "[I]t strikes me as quite odd that these tubes are manufactured to a tolerance that far exceeds U.S. requirements for comparable rockets. Maybe Iraqis just manufacture their conventional weapons to a higher standard than we do, but I don't think so."

In addition to the INR's objection to the 2002 NIE assertion, another source to whom Woodward presumably had access also provided compelling evidence that Powell ignored INR concerns. In an October 15, 2003, interview with CBS' 60 Minutes, Greg Thielmann, who analyzed the Iraqi weapons threat for Powell as the State Department's acting director of the Office of Strategic Proliferation and Military Affairs, cited the administration's decision to ignore intelligence suggesting that Iraqi aluminum tubes were not being used as centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons as evidence that "the senior administration officials have what I call faith-based intelligence. They knew what they wanted the intelligence to show."

Other evidence published before Plan of Attack also contradicts Woodward's suggestion that Powell had little reason to question CIA intelligence suggesting that the aluminum tubes were evidence of a reconstituted nuclear weapons program. A January 9, 2003, report by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general Mohamed ElBaradei noted that the IAEA's investigation into the tubes had thus far determined that they were intended for use with conventional weapons: "[T]he IAEA's analysis to date indicates that the specifications of the aluminium tubes sought by Iraq in 2001 and 2002 appear to be consistent with reverse engineering of rockets." Woodward did not mention ElBaradei's statement on the tubes when he noted on page 293 of Plan of Attack ElBaradei's assessment that "[w]e have to date found no evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear weapons program."

Even Powell's suggestion that the CIA itself hid any doubts about the aluminum tubes from him is contradicted by evidence that Woodward presumably was aware of at the time he was writing his book. According to a "senior administration official" cited in an October 3, 2004, New York Times report, the CIA was "indeed candid about the differing views" on the aluminum tubes during meetings with the National Security Council. The same administration official "also spoke to senior officials at the Department of Energy about the tubes, and a spokeswoman for the department said in a written statement that the agency 'strongly conveyed its viewpoint to senior policy makers.' "

It is true that the Times report was published after the hardback edition of Woodward's book was released and just days before the release of the paperback edition. But given Woodward's description of his sweeping access to sources, it seems reasonable to assume that he had heard as well what the Times subsequently reported. While the Times appears to have relied on a handful of sources in the White House and the CIA, Woodward described the extensive research he did in preparing the book:

Information in the book comes from more than 75 key people directly involved in the events, including war cabinet members, the White House staff and officials serving at various levels of the State and Defense Departments and the Central Intelligence Agency. The interviews were conducted on background, meaning I could use the information but not identify the sources of it in the book.

Administration official's "view": On p. 441 of Plan of Attack, Woodward repeated then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's assertion that "the CIA's intelligence on Iraq WMD was among the most categorical she had ever seen."

The evidence: Even if the CIA intelligence could have been considered "categorical" -- and subsequent evidence suggests that Rice might have misled on even that question -- Woodward neglected to mention that the CIA's "categorical" evidence cited by Rice was undermined by the INR's dissent in the NIE on nuclear weapons, which, again, Woodward documented earlier in Plan of Attack. The INR had cited the Department of Energy, which had earlier voiced a similar objection, a fact Woodward was presumably aware of given his extensive quoting from the NIE on pages 197-199 of his book. As Vanity Fair summarized in a May 2004 article: "The document [the NIE] did note that the D.O.E.'s experts didn't think the tubes were meant for centrifuges, and the State Department didn't, either."

Further, the October 3, 2004, New York Times report identified several reasons that the intelligence on Iraqi WMD was not as uniform as Rice claimed. First, there is the evidence that the CIA had emphasized its doubts about the aluminum tubes to the National Security Council. Further, the Times report noted that almost a year before she appeared on CNN's Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer and said the tubes were ''only really suited for nuclear weapons programs," experts at the Energy Department conveyed their assessment directly to Rice that "the tubes were likely intended for small artillery rockets"

National Intelligence Estimate, Bush's State of the Union address

Woodward also apparently ignored the INR's lengthy dissent about Iraq nuclear capabilities when he reported on how the NIE was constructed. On page 197 of Plan of Attack, Woodward wrote that among the National Foreign Intelligence Board, the heads of the intelligence agencies that approved the NIE, "[n]o one disputed the central conclusions." In fact, in addition to skepticism of the aluminum tubes claims, INR also stated in the NIE that "the claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa" were "highly dubious." Woodward also appeared to excuse Bush's adoption of that claim, writing on page 294 that "Tenet and the CIA had excised" it from a Bush speech in late 2002, but it had appeared in Bush's January 27, 2003, State of the Union address because "Tenet had not reviewed the State of the Union speech, and [then-deputy national security adviser Stephen J.] Hadley had forgotten the earlier CIA warning."

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
Stories/Interests
CIA Leak Investigation
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