Fox News hosts and guests touted discredited report that WMDs were found in Iraq

››› ››› JULIE MILLICAN

On June 21, hosts and guests on several Fox News programs hyped a false assertion by Sen. Rick Santorum and Rep. Peter Hoekstra that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, despite the network's own reporting that discredited the claim.

During nearly every Fox News program from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET on June 21, Fox News hosts and guests touted the disclosure, announced by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI), of the existence of hundreds of chemical munitions in Iraq, which Santorum and Hoekstra claimed proved the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), the key argument in the Bush administration's case for invading Iraq. Santorum and Hoekstra made the claim at a press conference that Fox News covered live that evening, and throughout the evening, Fox News hosts highlighted these claims as "vindicat[ing]" -- in the words of Fox host Sean Hannity -- the Bush administration's prewar WMD claims. In fact, soon after the press conference, intelligence officials confirmed that the pre-1991 shells were not the WMDs that the Bush administration cited in its argument for war. Moreover, the Iraq Survey Group's September 2004 final report (also known as the Duelfer report) had already noted that "a small number of old, abandoned chemical munitions" were discovered after the invasion, as the weblog Think Progress noted.

At the press conference, Santorum and Hoekstra announced that a recently declassified intelligence-report summary showed that WMDs, specifically chemical weapons, were present in Iraq prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Santorum and Hoekstra said U.S. troops have recovered at least 500 of these chemical munitions. Santorum told reporters:

Congressman Hoekstra and I are here today to say that we have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, chemical weapons. It's a document that was developed by our intelligence community which for the last two and a half months I have been pursuing. And thanks to the help of the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was ultimately -- he was able to get it in his hands, and I was able to look for, and look at.

[...]

This is an incredibly -- in my mind -- significant finding. The idea that, as my colleagues have repeatedly said in this debate on the other side of the aisle, that there are no weapons of mass destruction is, in fact, false.

We have found over 500 weapons of mass destruction. And in fact have found that there are additional weapons of mass -- chemical weapons, still in the country, that need to be recovered.

Pentagon officials and the intelligence community quickly dismissed Santorum and Hoekstra's claims. As CNN national security correspondent David Ensor reported on CNN's The Situation Room shortly after the announcement, "Charles Duelfer, the CIA's weapons inspector, tells us the weapons are all pre-Gulf War-vintage shells, no longer effective weapons. Not evidence, he says, of an ongoing WMD program under [former Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hussein." The Washington Post also reported June 22 that "[n]either the military nor the White House nor the CIA considered the shells to be evidence of what was alleged by the Bush administration to be a current Iraqi program to make chemical, biological and nuclear weapons." From the Post:

The lawmakers pointed to an unclassified summary from a report by the National Ground Intelligence Center regarding 500 chemical munitions shells that had been buried near the Iranian border, and then long forgotten, by Iraqi troops during their eight-year war with Iran, which ended in 1988.

The U.S. military announced in 2004 in Iraq that several crates of the old shells had been uncovered and that they contained a blister agent that was no longer active. Neither the military nor the White House nor the CIA considered the shells to be evidence of what was alleged by the Bush administration to be a current Iraqi program to make chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Last night, intelligence officials reaffirmed that the shells were old and were not the suspected weapons of mass destruction sought in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

Indeed, even Fox News was apparently aware of the reported ineffectiveness of the chemical weapons touted by Santorum and Hoekstra. During Special Report -- which airs at 6 p.m. ET -- host Brit Hume reported on the Defense Department's reaction to Santorum and Hoekstra's claims, noting: "the Defense Department is saying tonight about all this that, 'Well, yes, they were found, and yes, they were -- though degraded -- weapons of mass destruction, but they were not the weapons of mass destruction that we believed were there.' " Additionally, as Fox News host Alan Colmes noted later that evening during an interview with Santorum on Hannity & Colmes, at least one "defense official" informed Fox News chief Washington correspondent Jim Angle that the weapons "could not have been fired ... because they'd already been degraded," and "that these are not the WMDs this country and the rest of the world believed Iraq had and not the WMDs for which this country went to war." Colmes continued: "So, the chest-beating that the Republicans are doing tonight, thinking this is a justification, is not confirmed by the Defense Department."

Yet such revelations did not hinder Fox News hosts and guests from playing up the purported WMD discovery or from attacking those who have pointed out that the United States did not find WMD in Iraq after the 2003 invasion:

  • The Big Story with John Gibson
    Host John Gibson twice declared that "in fact, WMD[s] were found in Iraq" and noted "even today, Democrats are saying, you hear it every day, 'No WMD, no WMD,' and there are some that have been found." Also appearing on the program, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol assessed that the report showed the Bush administration's reluctance to revisit the prewar WMD claims "was a huge mistake" because "[t]hey have allowed to go unchallenged for two or three years the notion that the war was based at best on a terrible mistake and at worst on a lie."
  • Special Report with Brit Hume
    Despite acknowledging that the recovered munitions "were not the" WMDs cited as justification for war, Hume still commented that a report on the Santorum and Hoekstra story was "remarkable" and wondered why "the [Bush] administration, which has known this for some time obviously, [has] not been trumpeting this information." The Duelfer report noted in 2004 the existence of a small number of chemical munitions that were left over from before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
  • The O'Reilly Factor
    Host Bill O'Reilly repeatedly chided his guest Rev. Al Sharpton for being "a 'Bush lied' [about Iraqi WMD capabilities] guy" and asked if Sharpton was going to "write an apology letter to Bush." O'Reilly asserted that the discovery "is the real deal" and again reminded Sharpton: "I'm happy you're going to apologize for the [remarks on the lack of] weapons of mass destruction. ... Can't wait for the WMD apology." Also on The O'Reilly Factor, former speaker of the House and current Fox News analyst Newt Gingrich remarked that "those people who claimed there were no weapons of mass murder, in this case, are just plain wrong. ... For all the people who were so confident that George W. Bush lied and so confident that there was no weapons of mass destruction, 500 chemical weapons should at least make them slow down ... and rethink." O'Reilly responded that the administration's critics "don't care" about the munitions discovery, adding that it was "really an important part of who's telling the truth and who isn't."
  • Hannity & Colmes
    Even after Colmes reported the weapons discovery to be less than noteworthy, co-host Sean Hannity still insisted that "the president of the United States has been vindicated tonight" and argued to Colmes "[i]t's time tonight for your liberal friends that attacked the president, for them to come out and admit they were wrong and apologize."

From the June 21 edition of Fox News' The Big Story with John Gibson:

GIBSON: This is a Fox News Alert. That's a live shot from the Senate gallery, where a news conference is going to be held shortly by Senator Rick Santorum and Congressman Pete Hoekstra. They've finally managed to declassify Pentagon information which shows that, in fact, WMD was found in Iraq.

Five hundred chemical munitions had been found, containing mustard gas and sarin gas. Pre-'91 is the best estimate for these munitions, but the significance is they show that Saddam Hussein had not destroyed or gotten rid of all his chemical weapons. Senator Santorum and Congressman Hoekstra apparently worked for some time to get this information declassified. We'll bring you that news here when it happens.

[...]

GIBSON: Senator Rick Santorum announcing kind of a startling find, that at least 500 chemical munitions, mustard gas and sarin gas, have been found in Iraq. These are artillery shells mostly that have been loaded with the gas, had been in the possession of Saddam Hussein pre-'91, and he had not gotten rid of them as he had promised in the Gulf War agreement. And in fact, WMD were found in Iraq.

Let's talk about this with Fox News political analyst and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol. So Bill, there -- you know, as the senator points out, there -- even today, Democrats are saying, you hear it every day, 'No WMD, no WMD,' and there are some that have been found.

I guess my first question -- I'm sure you don't know the factual answer, but why would it - why would a senator have to fight to get documents like this declassified?

KRISTOL: That is the first question from me, John. My colleague Steve Hayes at the Weekly Standard has actually been fighting to get these documents for a couple of years. Congressman Hoekstra, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has really done heroic work.

But who are they fighting? They are fighting the Bush administration. It's really kind of remarkable. You would think the Bush administration, the Defense Department, the CIA, would want to strengthen the case for the war in Iraq. And the fact is Saddam did not comply with the U.N. requirements that he accounts for all of his missing chemical, biological -- chemical and biological material.

We don't know how much of it is sitting around still there, whether it was shipped out of the country. Some of it he did get rid of. He never came clean. That's a fact and there's now -- there's been evidence for quite a while of that fact. And the Bush administration has been amazingly timid and I would even say has resisted the efforts of, of people like Senator Santorum or Congressman Hoekstra to bring these facts to light.

GIBSON: They appear -- by they, I mean the Bush administration -- appeared to be unwilling to get into this fight again as if they got such a horrible black eye over it the first time, they just don't want to get in the ring on this issue again.

KRISTOL: I think it's absolutely right. And I think it's been a huge mistake. They have allowed to go unchallenged for two or three years the notion that the war was based at best on a terrible mistake and at worst on a lie.

You know, I remember when this whole debate began two and a half years ago and I would call up people in the White House and say, "Why are you not rebutting this?" They would say, "Oh come on, people will never believe that President Bush lied us into the war. And we don't want to get back into that whole fight."

Some of our intelligence was bad, let's move on. It was a huge mistake then, it's been a mistake for two years since. Now you have intelligence agencies like parts of the CIA that have an investment almost in not letting the truth come out. I really give Congressman Hoekstra and Senator Santorum a lot of credit for pushing an administration governed by their own party very, very hard to get these documents out. And some of the reporters, including my colleagues Steve Hayes and others, incidentally, have really fought hard to get the information out. And it really confirms the fact that I think that Saddam remained a real menace.

From the June 21 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

HUME: And did the U.S. troops find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after all? We'll look into that after headlines.

[...]

HUME: Jim, another issue arose today in Washington, kind of out of nowhere, it seemed. You had two senior Republican members of Congress saying that they had now learned from the administration that some weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. What about it?

ANGLE: That is right. Back in April, Senator Rick Santorum was told by someone that there was information that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. He sent letters to the Defense Department trying to find out about this -- this was back in April -- pressed them again more recently, and only today were parts, but a small part, both these men say, of that report declassified, and it was announced by both of them at a news conference just moments ago.

[begin video clip]

SANTORUM: Congressman Hoekstra and I are here today to say that we have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, chemical weapons. It's a document that was developed by our intelligence community which for the last two and a half months I have been pursuing. And thanks to the help of the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was ultimately -- he was able to get it in his hands and I was able to look for, and at.

HOEKSTRA: This says weapons have been discovered. More weapons exist, and they state that Iraq was not a WMD-free zone, that there are continuing threats from the materials that are or may still be in Iraq.

[end video clip]

ANGLE: Now, Brit, these are pre-1991 weapons. It is believed they are both sarin-gas- and mustard-gas-filled munitions. It does not tell you that Saddam had an ongoing chemical weapons program, but It does tell you that his claims that all chemical weapons and all other weapons had been destroyed was clearly a lie. It also tell you that inspections did not turn up a fairly sizable stash of chemical weapons.

HUME: Very quickly, why is the administration, which has known this for some time obviously, not been trumpeting this information?

ANGLE: They have not been cooperative. Both these men complained today that very little of this information was declassified. They're going to ask for more to be declassified. They're saying the administration just doesn't want to go back to that debate.

HUME: All right, Jim. Thanks. Remarkable.

[...]

HUME: That's the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, joined by Rick Santorum, a member of the Republican leadership in the Senate, who were making public today a document, an unclassified document, which constitutes a summary of chemical munitions that the Pentagon now acknowledges have been found -- were found in Iraq, recovered since May of 2004. Some key points here regarding these weapons. It is said that since 2003, the coalition -- this is what the Pentagon is saying in this document. I believe we have a graphic on this. Since 2003 coalition forces have recovered approximately 500 weapons -- 500 munitions which contained degraded mustard or sarin nerve gas. There were weapons not declared by Saddam, which means that the assertions that he had made that he had no weapons were probably not true, although these weapons date, apparently, to the pre-'91 period. And the Defense Department is saying tonight about all this that, "Well, these, yes, they were found, and yes, they were -- though degraded -- weapons of mass destruction, but they were not the weapons of mass destruction that we believed were there."

From the June 21 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:

O'REILLY: Before we get to the war strategy, my key points. Senator Rick Santorum held a press conference today, late this afternoon, said documents recently released now show sarin mustard gas was in the possession of Saddam, and Santorum said, "You know, all people who said 'no weapons of mass destruction' lied." Now, is this a big story to you? I didn't play it up big, I always knew that he had some sarin, mustard gas, ricin. Is it big to you?

GINGRICH: Well, it's only big in the sense that 500 chemical warheads, gas that is as decisive as sarin, which is a very, very dangerous weapon, means, A, that Saddam was lying to everybody and B, that those people who claimed there were no weapons of mass murder, in this case, are just plain wrong. I mean, it would be nice if The New York Times conceded that 500 weapons that were still there is in fact a serious proof that Saddam was actively violating the entire agreement with the U.N., and it would be a sign to me that it's possible that we're going to find more things over time.

O'REILLY: You know, I believe that, too. I believe he did have the sarin gas, the mustard gas, and that he got rid of a lot of it, and played the games and all of this. But overall, right now, I think the important thing is, how are we going to win this thing in Iraq?

GINGRICH: I agree with that. But I just think, for all the people who were so confident that George W. Bush lied and so confident that there was no weapon of mass destruction. Five hundred chemical warfare shells should at least make them slow down a little bit and rethink.

O'REILLY: Nah, it won't. They don't care.

GINGRICH: But I think it's an important part of how we win in the long run.

O'REILLY: It's really an important part of who's telling the truth and who isn't.

GINGRICH: That's exactly right, now let's come to your talking points tonight, which I could not agree with more. I am really saddened that Americans don't react with intense fury at the idea of two of our young men in uniform being viciously tortured and then beheaded by evil people. I'm saddened that on the left, you don't have Democrats saying we need to go out and beat these people.

[...]

O'REILLY: Before we get to the oil, late today, Rick Santorum, senator from Pennsylvania, announced that 500 shells full of sarin and mustard gas have been found in Iraq. Declassified documents now show that. You were a "Bush lied" guy about WMDs, weren't you? If I remember --

SHARPTON: Well, not only was I, there were a lot of people. And again, we have to see what, in fact, Mr. Santorum has. It would be hard for me to believe even after this administration has conceded there were no weapons, that now all of a sudden, in the middle of Rick's campaign, by the way, he comes up with something. I mean --

O'REILLY: Well, say they did find the mustard gas and the sarin, are you going to write an apology letter to Bush, saying, I said you were a liar but you're not?

SHARPTON: He may be more shocked than I am if they in fact find --

O'REILLY: I think if it's true, he didn't lie.

SHARPTON: If it's true it does not mean the sources that he had, and the information he had was correct. It could be totally, totally false. Again, or totally something that was something -- we'll see.

O'REILLY: I don't think so. I think this is the real deal. But I'm just wondering, because you were a "Bush lied" guy.

SHARPTON: And still am, but I'll wait and see.

O'REILLY: But if you're wrong, you'll apologize?

SHARPTON: If I'm wrong I will apologize.

O'REILLY: Right here on this program?

SHARPTON: Right on this program.

[...]

O'REILLY: I'm happy you're going to apologize for the weapons of mass destruction.

SHARPTON: And I'm happy you're going to join us on the picket line in front of British Petroleum.

O'REILLY: OK. Reverend Sharpton, everybody. Can't wait for the WMD apology.

From the June 21 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:

COLMES: Hey, Congressman and Senator, it's Alan Colmes. Senator, the Iraq Survey Group -- and let me go to the Duelfer report -- says Iraq did not have the weapons that our intelligence believed were there. And Jim Angle, who reported this for Fox News, quotes a defense official who says these were pre-1991 weapons that could not have been fired as designed because they'd already been degraded, and the official went on to say that these are not the WMDs this country and the rest of the world believed Iraq had and not the WMDs for which this country went to war. So the chest-beating that the Republicans are doing tonight, thinking this is a justification, is not confirmed by the Defense Department.

SANTORUM: Well, I'd like to know who that Defense Department spokesperson is. The fact of the matter is, I'll wait and see what the actual Defense Department formally says or, more importantly, the administration formally says. This report is very, very clear.

[...]

HANNITY: You know something, Ann? This finally -- I never doubted for a second that this day would come, because we knew he had them. It's funny to watch liberals. "Bush lied. He hyped. He misled." And now, "Well, there's only 500 of them. Well, wait a minute, but where are the post-'91 weapons?" We didn't say he had weapons of mass destruction post-1991. "They're degraded." OK, would we bury them in a liberal's backyard? I doubt it. You know, it's - they --

COULTER: Maybe near a nuclear power plant.

HANNITY: How about liberals now apologize to the country? How about, for the exploitation --

COULTER: Oh, there are so many things for them to apologize to, I just don't think I can bear to listen to it that long. What we've found out today is that there are more weapons of mass destruction. They found plenty of weapons of mass destruction.

HANNITY: Five hundred, but that's not enough.

COULTER: Right. But, I mean, until now, we didn't know about the stockpiles, which gives yet another reason for having gone to war in Iraq, in addition to all the ones the president gave about the humanitarian reasons, freeing Iraqis from the rape rooms, from this barbaric dictator, establishing a democracy in the Middle East, and getting a foothold for our military in this barbaric part of the world. This is yet another reason -- and we see, again, the affection Democrats have for terrorists, that they want to rush in and say, "Oh, well, they weren't that bad, these weapons of mass destruction."

[...]

HANNITY: And this is a Fox News Alert. As we told you earlier in the program tonight, a newly declassified portion of an Army report says that coalition forces have found chemical weapons in Iraq. At least 500 munitions containing mustard gas and sarin gas have been found since the invasion of 2003. Alan, the president of the United States has been vindicated tonight.

COLMES: I disagree.

HANNITY: Hang on.

COLMES: I disagree.

HANNITY: Let me finish my point.

Saddam Hussein told the world, told the U.N. that he had destroyed all weapons. He didn't say pre-'91 weapons --

COLMES: We know he lied. We already knew that.

HANNITY: Can I finish? He never said pre-'91, never said post-'91. He never said degraded, not degraded. It's time tonight for your liberal friends that attacked the president, for them to come out and admit they were wrong and apologize.

COLMES: Because they weren't, because nothing has been -- let me respond. Nothing has been found. Nothing has been said that contradicts that.

HANNITY: Five hundred. Five hundred have been found.

COLMES: The fact of the matter is the number is irrelevant.

HANNITY: Oh, five hundred's not enough.

COLMES: Our defense official reporting to Jim Angle says these were degraded weapons. They're pre-1991. This is exactly what the Iraq Survey Group, the administration's own group, said that it found, that it had pre-1991 weapons. And that is what --

HANNITY: Saddam Hussein told the world he had destroyed all weapons -

COLMES: Right, right. We know that.

HANNITY: -- not pre-, not post-'91, not degraded. He said he destroyed them all. And we found 500 of them tonight. Five hundred!

COLMES: We already know it. We already know he lied. That's exactly what the ISG [Iraq Survey Group] was talking about.

HANNITY: And the liberal attacks against the president were dead wrong.

COLMES: There's no evidence of that.

HANNITY: We have 500 --

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