CNN's Ensor offered defense of Bush's May 2003 bioweapons claim that not even White House has asserted

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

CNN's David Ensor adamantly defended President Bush against allegations that Bush may have been aware of contradictory evidence at the time of his May 29, 2003, statement that the United States had discovered biological weapons labs in Iraq, stating that the information could not feasibly have made it to the president's desk in time. But Ensor's claim that Bush could not have seen the conflicting intelligence is one that not even the White House has made in responding to questions about the issue.

On the April 12 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, national security correspondent David Ensor adamantly defended President Bush against allegations that Bush may have been aware of contradictory evidence at the time of his May 29, 2003, statement that the United States had discovered biological weapons labs in Iraq. Ensor stressed that "it's really not fair" to allege that Bush may have known about the conflicting intelligence because it arrived at the Pentagon only two days before his statement and therefore could not feasibly have made it to the president's desk in time. But in noting the timing as a defense of Bush, Ensor was making a claim -- that Bush could not have seen the conflicting intelligence -- that not even the White House has asserted.

When asked during an April 12 press briefing whether Bush had been aware by May 29, 2003, of the undermining evidence, White House press secretary Scott McClellan refused to answer the question and responded, "I'm looking into that matter." Presumably, if Ensor is correct that the evidence could not have reached the White House prior to the president's statement, McClellan would have taken the opportunity to point that out.

Moreover, in suggesting that Bush spoke sincerely when he asserted on May 29, 2003, that mobile biological weapons had been found, Ensor ignored another key fact that undermines completely his proffered defense of Bush: During the weeks and months after his May 29 assertion, the president and other senior administration officials continued to claim that biological weapons labs had been discovered in Iraq.

At issue is Bush's assertion, made during a May 29, 2003, interview on Polish televison, that U.S. forces had found two mobile labs in Iraq intended to produce biological weapons. "We have found the weapons of mass destruction," he declared. The Bush-commissioned Iraq Survey Group ultimately concluded in September 2004 that there existed "no evidence" of mobile biological weapons production. The administration has since admitted that statements such as Bush's were based on flawed intelligence.

But as The Washington Post reported on April 12, at the time of Bush's May 29, 2003, statement, "U.S. intelligence officials possessed powerful evidence that it was not true." A group of civilian weapons experts dispatched on a Pentagon-sponsored mission to Iraq to examine the trailers had transmitted a report to Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) headquarters in Washington, D.C., on May 27, 2003, in which they unanimously concluded that the purported labs were not intended for the production of biological weapons, but rather were "almost certainly designed and built for the generation of hydrogen."

The Post article immediately raised questions about whether the White House knew of the experts' unequivocal conclusion at the time of Bush's May 29, 2003, statement. When repeatedly faced with this question during an April 12 press gaggle, McClellan avoided giving a direct answer, as Salon.com's "War Room" reported. During a press briefing later that day, McClellan repeatedly emphasized that Bush's statement had been based on a white paper published on May 28, 2003, by the CIA and the DIA, which asserted that the agencies were "confident" that the labs were used for "mobile biological weapons production." When again asked whether the White House had been specifically aware of the DIA field report, McClellan responded, "I'm looking into that matter."

Despite McClellan's refusal to assert whether Bush had seen the conflicting intelligence, Ensor proceeded to do just that. Indeed, Situation Room guest host Heidi Collins at one point presented what she called a "fact check" on the story, in which she noted Ensor's assertion that "in almost every case, raw data would not arrive on the president's desk in a matter of a day or two." In a subsequent interview with Democratic political consultant Paul Begala, Collins again noted Ensor's claim that "it takes longer than 48 hours for that type of information to get to the president."

Later in the program, Ensor appeared to discuss whether the White House could have known of the field report prior to Bush's statement. During the segment, he asserted, "It would not have gone to the president's desk. He's not an intelligence officer. He's a consumer of intelligence," and concluded, "[I]t's really not fair, in a way, to accuse him [Bush] of saying the wrong thing in this particular case."

But not only did Ensor ignore McClellan's refusal to defend Bush along these lines, he overlooked the fact that the president, along with Vice President Dick Cheney, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, continued to tout the discovery of the trailers during the weeks and months after the DIA field report had reached Washington, as the weblog Think Progress noted:

  • POWELL: Now we found some mobile labs, we're interviewing people, we have a lot of documents that have come into our possession and we'll be examining that. [ABC's World News Tonight, 6/2/03]
  • RICE: But let's remember what we've already found. Secretary Powell on February 5th talked about a mobile, biological weapons capability. That has now been found and this is a weapons laboratory trailers capable of making a lot of agent that -- dry agent, dry biological agent that can kill a lot of people. So we are finding these pieces that were described. ... This was a program that was built for deceit and concealment. [CNBC's Capital Report, 6/3/03]
  • BUSH: We recently found two mobile biological weapons facilities which were capable of producing biological agents. [6/5/03]
  • POWELL: And I would put before you Exhibit A, the mobile biological labs that we have found. [Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, 6/8/03]
  • POWELL: The biological weapons labs that we believe strongly are biological weapons labs, we didn't find any biological weapons with those labs. But should that give us any comfort? Not at all. Those were labs that could produce biological weapons whenever Saddam Hussein might have wanted to have a biological weapons inventory. [Associated Press interview, 6/12/03]
  • POWELL: We have found the mobile biological weapons labs that I could only show cartoons of that day [February 5, 2003]. [NBC's Today, 6/30/03]
  • CHENEY: Same on biological weapons -- we believe he'd developed the capacity to go mobile with his BW production capability because, again, in reaction to what we had done to him in '91. We had intelligence reporting before the war that there were at least seven of these mobile labs that he had gone out and acquired. We've, since the war, found two of them. They're in our possession today, mobile biological facilities that can be used to produce anthrax or smallpox or whatever else you wanted to use during the course of developing the capacity for an attack. [NBC's Meet the Press, 9/14/03]
  • POWELL: And even though there are differences within the overall intelligence community, the director of central intelligence, examining all of the material with respect to that van and examining counter-arguments as to what it might be, stands behind the judgment that what we found was positive evidence of a mobile biological weapons lab, and it has not been discounted sufficiently. [ABC's This Week, 9/28/03]
  • CHENEY: In terms of the question what is there now, we know for example that prior to our going in that he had spent time and effort acquiring mobile biological weapons labs, and we're quite confident he did, in fact, have such a program. We've found a couple of semi trailers at this point which we believe were, in fact, part of that program. [National Public Radio's Morning Edition, 1/22/04]

Moreover, despite the fact that it was a Pentagon-sponsored team that debunked the claim that the labs were intended for biological weapons production, numerous high-level Defense Department officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, continued to peddle the claim for months, as the weblog TPMMuckraker documented.

Ensor's defense of Bush on The Situation Room came shortly after CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux falsely reported that McClellan had said "very clearly" in the April 12 press conference that Bush did not see the contradictory evidence until "much, much later." In fact, as Media Matters for America noted, McClellan said no such thing. Nonetheless, CNN aired Malveaux's flawed report four more times that evening (see here, here, here, and here).

From the March 12 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

COLLINS: Now, a quick fact-check on this story. We asked our national security correspondent, David Ensor, about the timeframe for intelligence information to make it from the field to the White House. How long does that take? He says in almost every case, raw data would not arrive on the president's desk in a matter of a day or two.

[...]

COLLINS: Paul, we did hear a little bit earlier today -- we did a bit earlier today from our own reporter, David Ensor, who said, you know, really, it takes longer than 48 hours for that type of information to get to the president.

BEGALA: Wait a minute. I disagree. I worked for the president. You do not send the president out to say anything unless you know. If you don't know, you say, we haven't gotten the information in yet.

Second, if it had been verified, do you think it would have gotten to him quickly? You bet. If they had found big anthrax jars in there, God forbid, they would have told him immediately. My guess is, they should have, would have, maybe even did tell him immediately otherwise. He can't just cop ignorance here at some point, although it's a good excuse generally.

[...]

COLLINS: And for more now, we want to go ahead and bring in CNN national security correspondent David Ensor. David, I think people might not have a really clear understanding of how long it takes for information like this to actually reach the highest rank of the president. Can you explain it a little bit for us?

ENSOR: Well, something like this is a field report, Heidi, done by a group of people, they were actually not government employees, but they had been asked by CIA and others to -- in the Pentagon -- to go look at these labs. So, this kind of a report is a raw field report.

It would not have gone to the president's desk. He's not an intelligence officer. He's a consumer of intelligence. It would go to the CIA or to the appropriate place in the government, where they would analyze it, compare it with other intelligence they had, and only when they were satisfied that they could draw some kind of meaningful conclusion, they would then pass that on to policymakers, possibly including the president.

So, it's really not fair, in a way, to accuse him of saying the wrong thing in this particular case. I mean, after all, in October of that year, many months later, David Kay, who was assigned by the CIA to look into these weapons, was still saying they could be bioweapons labs. February, the following year, George Tenet, the then-still director of central intelligence, was saying in a speech that he wasn't sure. So to blame the president for saying it back in May may not be fair.

COLLINS: But the fact that you said, you know, they take all the information and, of course, analyze it, and if it's deemed necessary, it then gets to the president, because it did not get to the president, does that say anything conclusive?

ENSOR: Not really. And, in fact, there was another report that came the day before -- the day after this one did that was from Pentagon and Central Intelligence people, and, in fact, I was briefed on it. This was May 28th, I believe, 2003, which said that they believed these probably were biological weapons labs. So, there was a lot of disagreement and ferment within the government over this.

The predominant view at the time, and the president correctly stated it, was that they probably were labs. That view was overcome, eventually.

So, all you have here is a story where, well, the first word that some people thought it wasn't, that they weren't labs, did come earlier. But it didn't come to the White House. So, you know --

COLLINS: Understood.

ENSOR: -- it's a murky story.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Intelligence, War in Iraq
Network/Outlet
CNN
Person
David Ensor
Show/Publication
The Situation Room
Stories/Interests
Prewar Intelligence/WMD
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