Reporting Zarqawi's death, broadcast, cable and major newspaper reports failed to note Bush administration's reported refusal to eliminate him before Iraq war

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN, ROB MORLINO & LEE FANG

Despite extensive reporting on June 8 on the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, broadcast and cable news reports made no reference to reports from 2004 that the Bush administration had as many as three opportunities to eliminate Zarqawi and his terrorist training camp prior to the Iraq war. Newspaper reports published June 9 likewise omitted mention of those missed opportunities.

A Media Matters for America review of extensive broadcast reporting on June 8 on the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the self-proclaimed Al Qaeda leader in Iraq, found that the three cable networks, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, as well as nightly news reports on NBC, CBS, and ABC, made no reference to widespread reports from 2004 that the Bush administration had as many as three opportunities to eliminate Zarqawi and his terrorist training camp prior to the Iraq war, but elected to wait because killing Zarqawi "could undercut its case for war against Saddam [Hussein]," in the words of NBC News chief Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski. Articles in The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal published June 9 also omitted that information, although The New York Times ran an op-ed in its June 9 edition that noted, "It has been reported that twice the administration passed on the opportunity to attack his camp in the Kurdish area of Iraq, evidently believing that it would detract from the more important goal of toppling Saddam Hussein." In addition, White House press secretary Tony Snow received no questions from reporters about those alleged forgone opportunities during Snow's 50-minute White House press briefing on June 8, in which the press corps and Snow focused exclusively on Zarqawi's death.

As The Carpetbagger Report weblog noted on June 8, in a March 2, 2004, report, NBC News outlined the administration's repeated failures to eliminate Zarqawi. According to NBC News, in June 2002, the Pentagon identified Zarqawi at a weapons production facility in Kirma, Iraq, and drew up "airtight" plans to use cruise missiles and air strikes to eliminate the terrorist leader; the plan was reportedly "debated to death" in the National Security Council. Then, in response to "intelligence [that] showed Zarqawi was planning to use ricin in terrorist attacks in Europe," the Pentagon again submitted plans for an air strike in October 2002 -- but again the administration refused. In January 2003, at the height of the administration's push for the invasion of Iraq, British police reportedly arrested a group of terror suspects in London connected to the ricin camp in Kirma, and the Pentagon submitted its third attack plan for eliminating Zarqawi. But, as NBC News reported, by that time, "Zarqawi and many of his followers were gone":

Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi's operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.

The United States did attack the camp at Kirma at the beginning of the war, but it was too late -- Zarqawi and many of his followers were gone. "Here's a case where they waited, they waited too long and now we're suffering as a result inside Iraq," [former National Security Council member Roger] Cressey added.

Parts of the NBC News report were subsequently confirmed by The Wall Street Journal (subscription required), which noted that, as the post-Saddam insurgency grew increasingly violent, questions were raised about why the administration failed to strike at Zarqawi's camp given that President Bush had said "he relentlessly would pursue and attack fleeing al Qaeda fighters regardless of where they went to hide." The Journal also reported that military officials considered the intelligence on his whereabouts "sound" and "one of the best targets we ever had." Later, Washington Monthly's Political Animal weblog author Kevin Drum noted that the reports of several instances in which the Pentagon submitted strike plans against Zarqawi to the White House before the war were confirmed by an on-the-record statement by former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, who directed the agency's unit assigned to tracking Osama bin Laden.

In the June 9 op-ed on Zarqawi, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, co-authors of The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right (Times Books, October 2005) and senior fellows at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Council on Foreign Relations, respectively, noted:

Top military intelligence officials knew he was in Iraq and traveling around the country before the United States invasion, but they did not fully recognize that he was preparing for an insurgency. The Bush administration found it more useful to point to Mr. Zarqawi as a link between the regime of Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, which, at the time, he was not. It has been reported that twice the administration passed on the opportunity to attack his camp in the Kurdish area of Iraq, evidently believing that it would detract from the more important goal of toppling Saddam Hussein.

Nevertheless, the newspaper's own news reporting and editorial on Zarqawi did not acknowledge those opportunities.

Ignoring evidence that the United States could have eliminated Zarqawi years ago, cable news reports largely focused on Zarqawi's role in the Iraq insurgency after the fall of Saddam's regime in their June 8 coverage. Miklaszewski, who wrote the original NBC News report on the missed opportunities, appeared on MSNBC's Imus in the Morning to discuss Zarqawi's death, but made no mention of his own earlier reporting. Following Imus, MSNBC News Live (daily, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET) covered the story throughout the morning, but, again, did not mention Miklaszewski's 2004 report.

Similarly, on June 8, Fox & Friends and Fox News Live made no mention of the failure to capitalize on the Pentagon's attempts to launch air strikes against Zarqawi. On Fox & Friends, anchor Brian Kilmeade recounted a brief history of Zarqawi, including Zarqawi's move to northern Iraq prior to the start of the war, but did not mention any of the Pentagon's plans to eliminate him during that time. Afternoon and prime-time programs on Fox News also reported extensively on Zarqawi's death, but did not note any of the prewar opportunities to eliminate him.*

CNN devoted several segments to the story on June 8, including one on Zarqawi's "chilling resume" by London-based senior international correspondent Nic Robertson during the 11 a.m. ET hour of CNN Live Today. Robertson's report noted Zarqawi's connection to the London ricin plot, and that, beginning in July 2004, the Bush administration offered a $25 million reward for information leading to his capture. But Robertson omitted any mention of reports that the administration passed up opportunities to kill him to avoid undercutting its case for war. Earlier, on American Morning, anchor Miles O'Brien had interviewed CNN correspondent John Vause and noted: "There have been several opportunities [to eliminate Zarqawi], including one case where Zarqawi was actually held by coalition forces. They didn't know who he was." O'Brien also touted Zarqawi's death: "[N]ot only was it a decapitation, but it was also a very crippling blow to the mid- and lower-level aspects of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and a significant blow to that component of the insurgency that the U.S. military is contending with there.

Several June 8 reports on National Public Radio's Morning Edition likewise omitted mention of those missed opportunities, but did note that Zarqawi was held at one point in Fallujah, Iraq, by the Iraqi military before being released when he was not properly identified, but did not report on the opportunities the administration had to kill him before the war. A separate report on Zarqawi's legacy merely noted that "U.S. intelligence services had tracked Zarqawi for years, starting well before the war in Iraq." In yet another report, entitled "Bush Closely Followed Zarqawi Chase," NPR White House correspondent David Greene noted that Bush has "been talking about [Zarqawi] in speech after speech -- his interest in Zarqawi was well known," but made no mention of the NBC News report.

* Review of Fox News on June 8, coverage from 6 a.m. to noon ET; Factiva transcripts for afternoon and primetime coverage beginning at 4 p.m.

From the June 8 edition of CNN's American Morning:

O'BRIEN: John, let's talk about the attempts to get Zarqawi in the past. There have been several opportunities, including one case where Zarqawi was actually held by coalition forces. They didn't know who he was. A lot of people have been saying, including the foreign minister who we spoke with just a little while ago, that that videotape, which was released in April, might have been a significant lead for those that were pursuing Zarqawi.

VAUSE: Well, by looking at that videotape, we understand from Jordanian officials that they managed to piece together precisely where Zarqawi may have been hiding, and from there, that led to intelligence and tips from the local residents. And they pieced all of this together, managed to work out that Zarqawi was in this one particular area of Baghdad. A lot of that information, as we heard from the foreign minister on American Morning just a short time ago, a lot of that information, a lot of clues coming from that particular videotape. It -- at the time, some suggested that Zarqawi was getting overconfident, that this was reckless. Others suggested that because he'd lost so many close aides that he was on the run, that the coalition forces had him -- had him up against the ropes, that he really had to release this video, had to show his face, show him in all those poses with the automatic weapons and looking like some kind of military commander pointing at maps and that kind of thing, he needed to do that to bolster his image to win more support. But it appears now that that could have been in fact that video which led to his downfall.

[...]

O'BRIEN: It sounds like what happened here was not only was it a decapitation, but it was also a very crippling blow to the mid- and lower-level aspects of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and a significant blow to that component of the insurgency that the U.S. military is contending with there.

From the June 8 edition of CNN Live Today:

CAROL LIN (anchor): A martyr, a monster -- two completely opposing views being used to describe Abu Musab al-Zarqawi this morning as news of his death spreads. CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson gives us a look at al-Zarqawi's chilling resume.

ROBERTSON: Iraq was where Zarqawi made a name for himself. In less than a year, murdering his way to be one of the most wanted terror suspects in the world linked to Osama bin Laden.

JONATHAN STEVENSON (terrorism analyst): Zarqawi has -- has emerged as a player, a global player in the Al Qaeda network, having recently been formally, in a way, anointed as bin Laden's protégé in Iraq.

ROBERTSON: In a letter said to be from Zarqawi to bin Laden, intercepted by U.S. forces in Iraq, Zarqawi promised his support if bin Laden approved his plans for starting a civil war in Iraq. He claimed to be the man in the mask minutes later, in this rare video, beheading [American contractor] Nick Berg. He also claimed to be the mastermind behind even bloodier attacks like this one, killing dozens of Shi'a Muslims in their holy city, Karbala. As the death toll at the hands of his Sunni Muslim suicide bombers grew, his group changed their name from Al-Tawhid wal Jihad to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the ancient name for Iraq. But the chilling resume of this 38-year-old Jordanian began long before the war in Iraq -- wanted for the 2002 murder of U.S. diplomat Lawrence Foley in Jordan; linked to chemical weapons plots in Europe.

M.J. GOHEL (CEO of the Asia-Pacific Foundation): Al-Zarqawi has been connected to virtually all the dangerous cells which have been operating in Europe: the ricin cell in the U.K., the cell in Germany, also in Italy.

ROBERTSON: Even before the war in Iraq, however, Zarqawi had been singled out by the Bush administration as a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime.

COLIN POWELL (former Secretary of State): We know of Zarqawi's activities in Baghdad.

ROBERTSON: The U.S. put a reward on Zarqawi's head and was on his trail, and had increased the reward to $25 million. Although they once thought they came close to catching him, a massive offensive and a suspected stronghold of Fallujah failed to net him. In that letter to bin Laden, Zarqawi recognized he was a hunted man. "The future has become frightening," he wrote. "Eyes are everywhere." Eyes that finally found Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Nic Robertson, CNN, London.

From the June 8 broadcast of NPR's Morning Edition:

GREENE: This is the guy who the president has been talking about in speech after speech. His interest in Zarqawi was -- was well known, so for the president's national security adviser, for the secretary of state, for the military to keep him abreast because they knew that they would view this killing if it happened as pretty significant. I don't think it's too unusual, but, that said, the president does like to stay away from the details and, as he often talks about, let the operational decisions to the military.

From the June 8 broadcast of Fox & Friends:

KILMEADE: Jailed in '99, went over when he was fighting the Soviets. He goes to jail in Jordan. They say, "I have a good idea -- let's give everyone amnesty if you promise not to reek any havoc." Wrong. He goes over to Afghanistan, there are reports that he fought in Tora Bora. That war is over. They lose. He gets out, goes to northern Iraq, forms his own organization, and then when the invasion happens, he starts hitting. Maybe his first big hit was against that U.N. building that woke everyone up to maybe a powerful insurgency that was going to give us a lot of trouble, which we are experiencing right -- today.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
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