Wallace failed to challenge Standard editors on debunked story

››› ››› RYAN CHIACHIERE

On two consecutive episodes of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, on February 18 and 25, host Chris Wallace said that -- in conflict with former undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith's statement on the February 11 edition of Fox News Sunday that "[n]obody in my office said there was an operational relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda" -- Feith "did make that case" of an "operational relationship" in a memo that was the subject of a November 14, 2003, Weekly Standard article. But Wallace never asked Standard editor William Kristol, who appeared on both the February 18 and 25 programs, or executive editor Fred Barnes, who appeared on the February 25 edition, to explain the conflict on the air. The Standard article used the phrase "operational relationship" to describe the findings of a memo, produced by Feith's office, on the relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda, while Feith has reportedly stood by his comment that neither he nor anyone in his office said there was such an "operational relationship."

Feith's appearance on Fox News Sunday came two days after the Department of Defense's inspector general produced a report (PDF) that was highly critical of the work of Feith's Office of the Undersecretary for Defense Policy, specifically in regard to prewar intelligence estimates that office made about connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda. The report asserted that Feith's office "produced, and then disseminated alternative intelligence assessments on the Iraq and al-Qaida relationship, which included some conclusions that were inconsistent will the consensus of the Intelligence Community, to senior decision-makers." The inspector general also wrote that Feith's work was "inappropriate given that the intelligence assessments were intelligence products and did not clearly show the variance with the consensus of the Intelligence Community."

During the February 11 interview, Wallace asked Feith about the fact that the "9-11 Commission said a number of your conclusions were wrong," and added that "the Senate Intelligence Committee also said it was wrong." Yet, in contrast with his interview of Feith, Wallace never challenged the Standard's editors, who regularly appear on his program, on these points despite the fact that the IG's determination that Feith's work was "inappropriate," which Wallace also noted, suggests that the Standard's story, which uncritically reported segments of Feith's memo, was also suspect.

On the February 11 broadcast of Fox News Sunday, in a segment after Feith's interview, Wallace re-played Feith's comment denying that he had ever asserted an "operational relationship." Wallace asked a panel that included Kristol, Fortune magazine Washington bureau chief Nina Easton, Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot, and National Public Radio (NPR) senior correspondent Juan Williams: "What was going on here with Feith's operation in the Pentagon? Was this an honest, good faith alternative analysis of the intelligence? Or was this a bunch of top officials in the Pentagon and the White House who were trying to build a case to go to war?" Kristol asserted that "incidentally, there were links" between Al Qaeda and Iraq, pointing to the fact that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, had been in Iraq in 2002, a fact that was included in the Standard article. At no time did Wallace ask Kristol about the Standard's claim that Feith's memo showed that there was an "operational relationship" between Iraq or Al Qaeda, nor did Kristol bring up the subject.

A week later, on the February 18 edition of the show, Wallace cited the Standard article, written by Stephen Hayes, to claim that, contrary to Feith's statement on the February 11 show, Feith "did make that case in a memo he sent to the Senate Intelligence Committee in October of '03." Wallace added that "The Weekly Standard, which saw the Feith memo, described it this way: 'Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003 that involved training in explosives and weapons of mass destruction, logistical support for terrorist attacks, Al Qaeda training camps and safe haven in Iraq, and Iraqi financial support for Al Qaeda.' " On the February 25 edition of Fox News Sunday, Wallace reported that Feith "called us this week to say he stands by his statement." Wallace then asserted that the Standard "stands by its story" despite Feith's statement. However, on neither show did Wallace make any attempt to challenge Kristol and Barnes on the discrepancy, or on the 9-11 Commission's findings that discredited Hayes' Standard article, despite the appearance by both on the February 25 show.

Hayes' article, titled "Case Closed," released on November 14, 2003, and printed in the magazine's November 24, 2003 issue, attributed to "a top secret U.S. government memorandum" -- which the article identified as the Feith memorandum -- the conclusion that Saddam and bin Laden "had an operational relationship." Hayes described the memo by saying that "[m]uch of the evidence is detailed, conclusive, and corroborated by multiple sources." In a January 9, 2004, interview with Denver's Rocky Mountain News, Vice President Dick Cheney cited the article, claiming that "[i]t goes through and lays out in some detail, based on an assessment that was done by the Department of Defense and was forwarded to the Senate Intelligence Committee some weeks ago." Cheney added: "That's your best source of information."

However, as Media Matters for America has noted, following the appearance of Hayes' article, the Pentagon released a statement asserting that "[n]ews reports" about the memo "are inaccurate." It stated that the portion of the memo to which the Hayes article referred "was not an analysis of the substantive issue of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, and it drew no conclusions."

Hayes' article referred to the memo's assertion of "alleged contact between lead 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer [Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al Ani] in Prague" in making the case for a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and Wallace noted in his interview with Feith that the memo suggested that "an alleged meeting between 9-11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi agent in Prague in April 2001 was a known contact," in Wallace's words. Wallace pointed out, however, that "[t]he 9/11 commission ... concluded, 'The available evidence does not support the original Czech report of an Atta-Ani meeting.' " Though he was critical of Feith for including the meeting in the memo -- asking, "[A]ll of that was wrong, wasn't it?" -- Wallace did not challenge the Standard's reporting of it.

Wallace also failed to press the Standard editors on another now-debunked claim from the Feith memo: that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was cooperating with the Iraqi government. Indeed, on the February 11 edition of Fox News Sunday, rather than respond directly to a question about Feith's denial that Feith had used the term "operational relationship," Kristol said, "Mr. Zarqawi -- he was in Saddam's Iraq. So are people still going to say no links between Saddam and Al Qaeda?" Consistent with Kristol's claim, the Standard article stated: "Colin Powell, in his February 5, 2003, presentation to the U.N. Security Council, revealed the activities of Abu Musab al Zarqawi," adding that "[r]eporting in the memo expands on Powell's case and might help explain some of the resistance the U.S. military is currently facing in Iraq." However, a Senate Intelligence report released September 8, 2006, asserted flatly that "the regime did not have a relationship with, harbor, or turn a blind eye toward Zarqawi." The report also noted that "postwar information from an al-Qaeda detainee revealed that Saddam's regime 'considered Zarqawi an outlaw,' and blamed his network, operating in Kurdish-controlled northern-Iraq, for two bombings in Baghdad."

Also, when the Standard initially published Hayes' article, Barnes touted it on Fox News Sunday, then hosted by Tony Snow (now the White House press secretary), saying, "It's clear that there was a strong connection" between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Barnes also said, "[Y]ou cannot call that report 'speculative.' It is filled with details. It doesn't speculate at all. There is no speculation in there." He went further, challenging NPR's Williams, who had cast doubt upon the report, "These are hard facts, and I'd like to see you refute any one of them." Wallace did not note that Barnes' claim proved to be false, nor did he ask Barnes to retract or clarify his comments in light of the Senate report, the 9/11 Commission report, other reporting on the memo, and Feith's denial.

Both the The Weekly Standard and Fox Broadcasting Co. are owned by News Corp.

From the February 25 edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday:

WALLACE: Thank you, panel. See you next week.

Last Sunday, we told you about former Pentagon official Douglas Feith denying his office ever said there was an operational relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.

We also told you The Weekly Standard magazine reported on a memo from Feith's office that it said argued there was such a relationship. Well, Mr. Feith called us this week to say he stands by his statement. Meanwhile, The Weekly Standard stands by its story.

From the February 18 edition of Fox News Sunday:

WALLACE: Thank you, panel. See you next week.

Now, a follow-up to our interview last Sunday with former undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith. Many of you wrote in asking us to check out Feith's claim that he's being unfairly accused of hyping the threat from Saddam Hussein.

First, here's what he said to us.

FEITH [video clip]: Nobody in my office ever said there was an operational relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda. It's just not correct. I mean, words matter.

WALLACE: But it turns out he did make that case in a memo he sent to the Senate Intelligence Committee in October of '03.

The Weekly Standard, which saw the Feith memo, described it this way. "Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003 that involved training in explosives and weapons of mass destruction, logistical support for terrorist attacks, Al Qaeda training camps and safe haven in Iraq, and Iraqi financial support for Al Qaeda."

Later, Vice President [Dick] Cheney said the article was "the best source of information" on the Iraq-Al Qaeda connection.

From the February 11 edition of Fox News Sunday:

FEITH [video clip]: Nobody in my office ever said there was an operational relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda. It's just not correct. I mean, words matter.

WALLACE: That was former undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith a few moments ago here on Fox News Sunday talking about the controversy over prewar intelligence.

And we're back now with Paul [Gigot], Nina [Easton], Bill [Kristol], and Juan [Williams].

So, Paul, what was going on here with Feith's operation in the Pentagon? Was this an honest, good faith alternative analysis of the intelligence? Or was this a bunch of top officials in the Pentagon and the White House who were trying to build a case to go to war?

[...]

KRISTOL: Look, generally speaking, we have underplayed over the last 20 years -- our intelligence has underestimated the rapidity of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the amount of state sponsorship of terrorism.

And after a year, incidentally, of everyone saying oh, Iran, very minimal role in Iraq, they wouldn't do anything there, it's a Sunni insurgency, why would the Iranians be playing around there, it turns out they are providing, it seems, the explosive devices that are by far the most damaging and dangerous for U.S. troops there.

So there are connections between terrorists and state sponsors of terrorism, including connections between religious states and secular -- secular states and religious terrorists and vice versa.

And so I think, in fact, to the degree that this is being promoted now, it's an attempt to prevent political leaders from making judgments about how dangerous certain states are because of their relationships to terrorists.

WALLACE: But wait a minute. When you say "promoted," this is a report by the Pentagon inspector general. What's promoted?

KRISTOL: Well, I believe it's a report at the request of the Senate committee, and the hearing was the Senate hearing.

WALLACE: But it wasn't done by [Sen. Carl] Levin [D-MI, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee]. This was done back when the Republicans were in control.

KRISTOL: Well, it was done by an inspector general, who is nonpartisan. And if we're going to have the standard that, you know, no one gets to ever question the intelligence agencies, and no one gets to say, "Look, we think there are links here, we're not certain if they're operational but they're dangerous enough," that's a standard to which people are going to be held, and if they're going to be second-guessed -- incidentally, there were links.

Where was Zarqawi in 2002, if we can get back to the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq? Al Qaeda in Iraq. Mr. Zarqawi -- he was in Saddam's Iraq. So are people still going to say no links between Saddam and Al Qaeda?

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