Still playing softball: White House reporters gave Bush a pass at press conference

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

During a March 21 press conference, the White House press corps failed to challenge President Bush after he offered a misleading and evasive answer about his reasons for invading Iraq in response to a question asked by Hearst Newspapers columnist Helen Thomas.

During a March 21 press conference, the White House press corps failed to challenge President Bush after he offered a misleading and evasive answer about his reasons for invading Iraq in response to a question asked by Hearst Newspapers columnist Helen Thomas. While more than a dozen reporters subsequently asked the president questions -- many on the topic of Iraq -- none noted, for example, that there is evidence to contradict his assertion that he made the decision to go to war only after diplomatic efforts failed. None noted that his assertion he decided to invade Iraq only after Saddam Hussein "chose to deny inspectors" is false. Nor did any of the reporters note that he reportedly received evidence before the war undermining his claim to Thomas that Iraq posed a threat to the United States.

Over the course of the press conference, Bush called on 17 reporters. The third in line was Thomas, who asked him a pointed question about his rationale for invading Iraq in 2003:

THOMAS: I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your cabinet -- your cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth -- what was your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil -- quest for oil, it hasn't been Israel, or anything else. What was it?

In response, as in many previous speeches and interviews, Bush said that "no president wants war" and that American foreign policy "changed" after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Bush began his response with an explanation for why the United States attacked Afghanistan after 9-11 -- that the country had "provided safe haven for Al Qaeda" -- even though Thomas had not asked about the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. He went on to say that he "saw a threat in Iraq"; that he "worked with the world" to "solve the [Iraq] problem diplomatically"; and that he ultimately faced "the difficult decision" of whether to remove Saddam Hussein with military force after the Iraqi leader "chose to deny" United Nations inspectors. "And we did, and the world is safer for it," Bush said before calling on the next reporter.

Bush's response was rife with platitudes, evasions, and falsehoods. And, yet, no reporter who was called on subsequently challenged Bush on his response to Thomas, even though there are numerous follow-up questions they could have asked. For example:.

  • Earlier you said that you decided to take military action against Iraq only after Saddam "chose to deny inspectors." But Saddam accepted U.N. inspectors in November 2002, and on March 7, U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix requested more time for inspections, describing Iraq's cooperation as "proactive." In light of Blix's assessment, the U.N. Security Council refused to authorize an invasion. Is it not true that by threatening to launch war, you forced the inspectors to leave Iraq in March 2003?
  • You have repeatedly said that you made the decision to invade Iraq only after exhausting diplomatic efforts. Earlier in the press conference, you said that you didn't want war and that you "worked with world" to "solve this problem diplomatically." But did you not make clear to British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a January 31, 2003, meeting that the United States intended to invade Iraq even if the U.N. inspections turned up no banned weapons and you failed to get a U.N. resolution authorizing war?
  • How does your argument that you were trying to avoid war by working through the U.N. square with a claim by the former British ambassador to Washington that you asked Tony Blair to support the United States in removing Saddam Hussein from power only nine days after 9-11? Did you not broach this topic at a dinner with Blair on September 20, 2001? If not, when exactly did you and he first discuss taking military action against Iraq?
  • In his 2004 book, former Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL) disclosed that Gen. Tommy Franks, former commander of the U.S. Central Command, told him in February 2002 -- more than a year before the Iraq invasion -- that troops were being redeployed from Afghanistan to prepare for a military action with Iraq. Is this true? If not, who is not telling the truth? Did you order this redeployment? Did you know of it?

The reporters at the press conference could have also pressed him on his claim that he "saw a threat in Iraq":

  • In the lead-up to the war, you repeatedly played up the Iraqi threat. In an October 7, 2002, speech, you talked of a "threat gathering against us" and warned of a "smoking gun ... in the form of a mushroom cloud." In the same speech, you said that "Hussein still has chemical and biological weapons and is increasing his capabilities to make more." Do you now acknowledge that Hussein possessed no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) at the time of the Iraq invasion? If so, do you believe that, in 2003, Iraq posed as grave a threat to the United States as you claimed it did?
  • In making the case for the Iraqi invasion, you claimed on March 17, 2003, that the Iraqi regime "aided, trained and harbored terrorists, including operatives of Al Qaeda." But the 9-11 Commission found that no "operational relationship" existed between Iraq and Al Qaeda. In light of that finding, do you believe that, at the time of the invasion, Iraq posed as grave a threat as you claimed it did? Is the commission wrong, or were you?
  • Since the invasion, numerous reports have described considerable dissent within the intelligence community about whether Saddam actually posed a threat. Recently, National Journal reported that the CIA presented you with a memo in October 2002 that reflected the disagreement among intelligence agencies over the purpose of the aluminum tubes sought by Iraq. Did you see this memo? If so, why did you and your senior aides proceed to assert without equivocation that the tubes were intended for nuclear weapons production? If not, have you held anyone accountable for the failure to provide you with this seemingly significant intelligence? If you were briefed, what action did you then take?
  • National Journal has also reported that, in a classified briefing 10 days after September 11, you were told that the U.S. intelligence community possessed "scant credible evidence that Iraq had any significant collaborative ties with Al Qaeda." Do you remember receiving this briefing? If so, why did you and other administration officials proceed to play up the Iraq-Al Qaeda relationship in 2002 and 2003?

Bush went on to take questions from 14 more reporters. But while six of these reporters asked questions pertaining to Iraq, none pressed the president on his answer to Thomas's question.

The failure on the part of White House reporters to follow up on questions asked by others is not a new phenomenon. During a December 19 press conference, for example, the press corps repeatedly failed to challenge Bush's evasive answers about his warrantless domestic spying program, as Media Matters for America noted.

During a March 22 washingtonpost.com online chat, a reader asked Post White House reporter Peter Baker about the dearth of follow-up questions during presidential press conferences -- "either from the original questioner or from the next man or woman called." Baker responded that it would be a "good idea," but said that doing so would involve "organizing reporters," which he likened to "herding cats." In fact, asking follow-up questions would simply require that White House reporters listen carefully to the president's answers and be willing to abandon their prepared questions in favor of challenging a prior response.

Washingtonpost.com columnist Dan Froomkin addressed this issue in a December 3, 2004, Salon.com article, "Mr. President, will you answer the question?" In the piece, Froomkin noted that White House reporters often fail not only to follow up their own questions, but also to follow up their colleagues'. Froomkin quoted Thomas herself saying that the press corps should "not be so ego-attached to our own questions":

If the president deflects a really good and important question, the reporter should follow up. "You should always have a follow-up question in mind," [former Washington Post reporter Lou] Cannon says. "Instead, they ask six questions in one and then they say they have a follow" -- but it's actually a seventh, unrelated question. If need be, other reporters should follow up, rather than sticking to their scripts. "We should listen, and not be so ego-attached to our own questions," said Thomas.

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