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Stories pushed aside in march to war

As violence continues in postwar Iraq and U.S. forces have yet to discover any WMDs, some critics say the media, including The Washington Post, failed the country by not reporting more skeptically on President Bush's contentions during the run-up to war.
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Days before the Iraq war began, veteran Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus put together a story questioning whether the Bush administration had proof that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction.

But he ran into resistance from the paper's editors, and his piece ran only after assistant managing editor Bob Woodward, who was researching a book about the drive toward war, "helped sell the story," Pincus recalled. "Without him, it would have had a tough time getting into the paper." Even so, the article was relegated to Page A17.

"We did our job but we didn't do enough, and I blame myself mightily for not pushing harder," Woodward said in an interview. "We should have warned readers we had information that the basis for this was shakier" than widely believed. "Those are exactly the kind of statements that should be published on the front page."

As violence continues in postwar Iraq and U.S. forces have yet to discover any WMDs, some critics say the media, including The Washington Post, failed the country by not reporting more skeptically on President Bush's contentions during the run-up to war.

An examination of the paper's coverage, and interviews with more than a dozen of the editors and reporters involved, shows that The Post published a number of pieces challenging the White House, but rarely on the front page. Some reporters who were lobbying for greater prominence for stories that questioned the administration's evidence complained to senior editors who, in the view of those reporters, were unenthusiastic about such pieces. The result was coverage that, despite flashes of groundbreaking reporting, in hindsight looks strikingly one-sided at times.

"The paper was not front-paging stuff," said Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks. "Administration assertions were on the front page. Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24 on Monday. There was an attitude among editors: Look, we're going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?"

'A mistake on my part'
In retrospect, said Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., "we were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn't be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration's rationale. Not enough of those stories were put on the front page. That was a mistake on my part."

Across the country, "the voices raising questions about the war were lonely ones," Downie said. "We didn't pay enough attention to the minority."

When national security reporter Dana Priest was addressing a group of intelligence officers recently, she said, she was peppered with questions: "Why didn't The Post do a more aggressive job? Why didn't The Post ask more questions? Why didn't The Post dig harder?"

Several news organizations have cast a withering eye on their earlier work. The New York Times said in a May editor's note about stories that claimed progress in the hunt for WMDs that editors "were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper." Separately, the Times editorial page and the New Republic magazine expressed regret for some prewar arguments.

Michael Massing, a New York Review of Books contributor and author of the forthcoming book "Now They Tell Us," on the press and Iraq, said: "In covering the run-up to the war, The Post did better than most other news organizations, featuring a number of solid articles about the Bush administration's policies. But on the key issue of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the paper was generally napping along with everyone else. It gave readers little hint of the doubts that a number of intelligence analysts had about the administration's claims regarding Iraq's arsenal."

The front page is a newspaper's billboard, its way of making a statement about what is important, and stories trumpeted there are often picked up by other news outlets. Editors begin pitching stories at a 2 p.m. news meeting with Downie and Managing Editor Steve Coll and, along with some reporters, lobby throughout the day. But there is limited space on Page 1 -- usually six or seven stories -- and Downie said he likes to feature a broad range of subjects, including education, health, science, sports and business.

Woodward, for his part, said it was risky for journalists to write anything that might look silly if weapons were ultimately found in Iraq. Alluding to the finding of the Sept. 11 commission of a "groupthink" among intelligence officials, Woodward said of the weapons coverage: "I think I was part of the groupthink."

Given The Post's reputation for helping topple the Nixon administration, some of those involved in the prewar coverage felt compelled to say the paper's shortcomings did not reflect any reticence about taking on the Bush White House. Priest noted, however, that skeptical stories usually triggered hate mail "questioning your patriotism and suggesting that you somehow be delivered into the hands of the terrorists."

Instead, the obstacles ranged from editing difficulties and communication problems to the sheer mass of information the newsroom was trying to digest during the march to war.

Doubts go inside
From August 2002 through the March 19, 2003, launch of the war, The Post ran more than 140 front-page stories that focused heavily on administration rhetoric against Iraq. Some examples: "Cheney Says Iraqi Strike Is Justified"; "War Cabinet Argues for Iraq Attack"; "Bush Tells United Nations It Must Stand Up to Hussein or U.S. Will"; "Bush Cites Urgent Iraqi Threat"; "Bush Tells Troops: Prepare for War."

Reporter Karen DeYoung, a former assistant managing editor who covered the prewar diplomacy, said contrary information sometimes got lost.

"If there's something I would do differently -- and it's always easy in hindsight -- the top of the story would say, 'We're going to war, we're going to war against evil.' But later down it would say, 'But some people are questioning it.' The caution and the questioning was buried underneath the drumbeat. . . . The hugeness of the war preparation story tended to drown out a lot of that stuff."

Beyond that, there was the considerable difficulty of dealing with secretive intelligence officials who themselves were relying on sketchy data from Iraqi defectors and other shadowy sources and could never be certain about what they knew.

On Sept. 19, 2002, reporter Joby Warrick described a report "by independent experts who question whether thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes recently sought by Iraq were intended for a secret nuclear weapons program," as the administration was contending. The story ran on Page A18.

Warrick said he was "going out on a limb. . . . I was struck by the people I talked to -- some on the record, others who couldn't be -- who were saying pretty persistently that these tubes were in no way suitable for uranium enrichment. On the other side were these CIA guys who said, 'Look, we know what we're talking about but we can't tell you.' "

Downie said that even in retrospect, the story looks like "a close call." He said the inability of dissenters "to speak up with their names" was a factor in some of his news judgments. The Post, however, frequently quotes unnamed sources.

Not all such stories were pushed inside the paper. A follow-up Warrick piece on the aluminum tubes did run on Page 1 the following January, two months before the war began. And The Post gave front-page play to a Sept. 10, 2002, story by Priest contending that "the CIA has yet to find convincing evidence" linking Hussein and al Qaeda.

That hardly settled the matter. On Dec. 12, 2002, investigative reporter Barton Gellman -- who would later win acclaim for his skeptical postwar stories from Iraq on WMDs -- wrote a controversial piece that ombudsman Michael Getler complained "practically begs you not to put much credence in it." The headline: "U.S. Suspects Al Qaeda Got Nerve Agent From Iraqis."

The story, attributed to "two officials with firsthand knowledge of the report" to the Bush administration "and its source," said in the second paragraph that "if the report proves true" -- a whopper of a qualifier -- it would be "the most concrete evidence" yet to support Bush's charge that Iraq was helping terrorists.

Gellman does not believe he was used. "The sources were not promoting the war. . . . One of them was actually against it," he said. "They were career security officials, not political officials. They were, however, wrong." Gellman added that "it was news even though it was clear that it was possible this report would turn out to be false."

But sources, even suspect ones, were the only game in town. "We had no alternative sources of information," Woodward said. "Walter [Pincus] and I couldn't go to Iraq without getting killed. You couldn't get beyond the veneer and hurdle of what this groupthink had already established" -- the conventional wisdom that Hussein was sitting on a stockpile of illegal weapons.

In October 2002, Ricks, a former national security editor for the Wall Street Journal who has been covering such issues for 15 years, turned in a piece that he titled "Doubts." It said that senior Pentagon officials were resigned to an invasion but were reluctant and worried that the risks were being underestimated. Most of those quoted by name in the Ricks article were retired military officials or outside experts. The story was killed by Matthew Vita, then the national security editor and now a deputy assistant managing editor.

"Journalistically, one of the frustrations with that story was that it was filled with lots of retired guys," Vita said. But, he added, "I completely understood the difficulty of getting people inside the Pentagon" to speak publicly.

Liz Spayd, the assistant managing editor for national news, says The Post's overall record was strong.

"I believe we pushed as hard or harder than anyone to question the administration's assertions on all kinds of subjects related to the war. . . . Do I wish we would have had more and pushed harder and deeper into questions of whether they possessed weapons of mass destruction? Absolutely," she said. "Do I feel we owe our readers an apology? I don't think so."

Digger or crusader?
No Post reporter burrowed into the Iraqi WMD story more deeply than Pincus, 71, a staff member for 32 of the last 38 years, whose messy desk is always piled high with committee reports and intelligence files. "The main thing people forget to do is read documents," said Pincus, wielding a yellow highlighter.

A white-haired curmudgeon who spent five years covering the Iran-contra scandal and has long been an expert on nuclear weapons, Pincus sometimes had trouble convincing editors of the importance of his incremental, difficult-to-read stories.

His longevity is such that he first met Hans Blix, who was the chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, at a conference in Ghana in 1959.

"The inspectors kept getting fed intelligence by our administration and the British and the French, and kept coming back and saying they couldn't find" the weapons, Pincus said. "I did one of the first interviews with Blix, and like everyone else he thought there would be WMDs. By January and February [of 2003], he was starting to have his own doubts. . . . What nobody talked about was how much had been destroyed," either under U.N. supervision after the Persian Gulf War or during the Clinton administration's 1998 bombing of Iraqi targets.

But while Pincus was ferreting out information "from sources I've used for years," some in the Post newsroom were questioning his work. Editors complained that he was "cryptic," as one put it, and that his hard-to-follow stories had to be heavily rewritten.

Spayd declined to discuss Pincus's writing but said that "stories on intelligence are always difficult to edit and parse and to ensure their accuracy and get into the paper."

Downie agreed that difficulties in editing Pincus may have been a factor in the prewar period, because he is "so well sourced" that his reporting often amounts to putting together "fragments" until the pieces were, in Downie's word, "storifyable."

Some editors, in Pincus's view, also saw him as a "crusader," as he once put it to Washingtonian magazine. "That's sort of my reputation, and I don't deny it," he said. "Once I get on a subject, I stay with it."

On Jan. 30, 2003, Pincus and Priest reported that the evidence the administration was amassing about Baghdad hiding weapons equipment and documents "is still circumstantial." The story ran on Page A14.

Some of the reporters who attended the daily "war meetings," where coverage was planned, complained to national editors that the drumbeat of the impending invasion was crowding out the work of Pincus and others who were challenging the administration.

Pincus was among the complainers. "Walter talked to me himself," Downie said. "He sought me out when he was frustrated, and I sought him out. We talked about how best to have stories be in the kind of shape that they could appear on the front page." Editors were also frustrated, Downie said. "Overall, in retrospect, we underplayed some of those stories."

The Woodward factor
Bush, Vice President Cheney and other administration officials had no problem commanding prime real estate in the paper, even when their warnings were repetitive. "We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power," DeYoung said. "If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said." And if contrary arguments are put "in the eighth paragraph, where they're not on the front page, a lot of people don't read that far."

Those tendencies were on display on Feb. 6, 2003, the day after Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a multimedia presentation at the United Nations -- using satellite images and intercepted phone calls -- to convince the world that Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction.

An accompanying front-page story by DeYoung and Pincus examined Powell's "unprecedented release of U.S. intelligence." Not until the ninth paragraph did they offer a "however" clause, saying that "a number of European officials and U.S. terrorism experts" believed that Powell's description of an Iraqi link to al Qaeda "appeared to have been carefully drawn to imply more than it actually said."

Warrick focused that day on the secretary's assertion, based on human sources, that Iraq had biological weapons factories on wheels. "Some of the points in Powell's presentation drew skepticism," Warrick reported. His piece ran on Page A28.

Downie said the paper ran several pieces analyzing Powell's speech as a package on inside pages. "We were not able to marshal enough evidence to say he was wrong," Downie said of Powell. "To pull one of those out on the front page would be making a statement on our own: 'Aha, he's wrong about the aluminum tubes.' "

Such decisions coincided with The Post editorial page's strong support for the war, such as its declaration the day after Powell's presentation that "it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction." These editorials led some readers to conclude that the paper had an agenda, even though there is a church-and-state wall between the newsroom and the opinion pages. Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, not Downie, runs the opinion side, reporting to Post Co. Chairman Donald Graham.

In mid-March, as the administration was on the verge of invading Iraq, Woodward stepped in to give the stalled Pincus piece about the administration's lack of evidence a push. "We weren't holding it for any political reason or because we were being pressured by the administration," Spayd said, but because such stories were difficult to edit at a time when the national desk was deluged with copy. "People forget how many facets of this story we were chasing . . . the political ramifications . . . military readiness . . . issues around postwar Iraq and how prepared the administration was . . . diplomacy angles . . . and we were pursuing WMD. . . . All those stories were competing for prominence."

As a star of the Watergate scandal who is given enormous amounts of time to work on his best-selling books, Woodward, an assistant managing editor, had the kind of newsroom clout that Pincus lacked.

The two men's recollections differ. Woodward said that after comparing notes with Pincus, he gave him a draft story consisting of five key paragraphs, which said the administration's evidence for WMDs in Iraq "looks increasingly circumstantial and even shaky," according to "informed sources." Woodward said Pincus found his wording too strong.

Pincus said he had already written his story when Woodward weighed in and that he treated his colleague's paragraphs as a suggestion and barely changed the piece. "What he really did was talk to the editors and made sure it was printed," Pincus said.

"Despite the Bush administration's claims" about WMDs, the March 16 Pincus story began, "U.S. intelligence agencies have been unable to give Congress or the Pentagon specific information about the amounts of banned weapons or where they are hidden, according to administration officials and members of Congress," raising questions "about whether administration officials have exaggerated intelligence."

Woodward said he wished he had appealed to Downie to get front-page play for the story, rather than standing by as it ended up on Page A17. In that period, said former national security editor Vita, "we were dealing with an awful lot of stories, and that was one of the ones that slipped through the cracks." Spayd did not recall the debate.

Reviewing the story in his glass-walled office last week, Downie said: "In retrospect, that probably should have been on Page 1 instead of A17, even though it wasn't a definitive story and had to rely on unnamed sources. It was a very prescient story."

In the days before the war, Priest and DeYoung turned in a piece that said CIA officials "communicated significant doubts to the administration" about evidence tying Iraq to attempted uranium purchases for nuclear weapons. The story was held until March 22, three days after the war began. Editors blamed a flood of copy about the impending invasion.

Whether a tougher approach by The Post and other news organizations would have slowed the rush to war is, at best, a matter of conjecture.

"People who were opposed to the war from the beginning and have been critical of the media's coverage in the period before the war have this belief that somehow the media should have crusaded against the war," Downie said. "They have the mistaken impression that somehow if the media's coverage had been different, there wouldn't have been a war."