Preemptive War and the Dailies

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In the Columbia Journalism Review, Chris Mooney, an occasional contributor to Reason, surveys press coverage in the run-up to the Iraq invasion and asks, "Did Our Leading Newspapers Set Too Low a Bar for a Preemptive Attack?"

Whatever your stance toward the war, this is an excellent piece of press criticism and well worth reading in full. After looking at the nation's major dailies, Mooney concludes,

None of the papers, in fact, held the Bush administration to an adequate standard of proof when it came to launching not just a war, but a preemptive war opposed by most of the world. Given the context of 9/11 and a climate of deference to the president on matters of national security, perhaps such questioning of presidential authority seemed inconceivable. Nevertheless, had the papers shown more skepticism, we might not have as much cause today to second-guess either the Iraq war itself, or the way leading editorial pages wrote about it.

Whole thing here.

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  1. Let me put my foil hat on for a sec.

    I dunno Shannon. A certain American weapons inspector/expert on Iraq said that he knew for a fact that Iraq didn’t have any weapons and hadn’t had any since before he, along w/ the rest of the American delegation, got thrown out of the country. Of course, then he got hit in an “unrelated” pedophilia sting. I guess he’s in the 20% side though.

    Tin hat off.

    Wasn’t the uncertainty the reason why people were saying “give the inspectors more time”? Of course, had we done that, we wouldn’t have gotten to enjoy the irony of the hawks saying the same thing for months after the war.

  2. Shannon,

    “Mooney fails to note that the belief that Hussein still possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and was pursuing nuclear weapons was not a rouge assertion of the Bush administration but was instead the majority consensus view of the intelligence services of America, Britain, France and Germany, then current and former UN weapons inspectors as well as most non-government affiliated analysis.”

    This is demonstrably false. There was no “consensus.” I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself (what else can one do?), but Greg Thielmann, a former director of the Strategic, Proliferation and Military Affairs Office at the State Department’s Intelligence Bureau, has accused the White House of “systematic, across-the-board exaggeration” of intelligence as it made its case that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to the U.S. Thielmann, who left his job in September 2002, also contends that much of the intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was entirely politicized. “Senior officials made statements which I can only describe as dishonest,” he says. “They were distorting some of the information that we provided to make it seem more alarmist and more dangerous.”

    Thielmann is hardly the only intelligence agent to explain that the administration was told that some people in the intelligence community felt Hussein had WMD’s and some felt he did not. When Cheney, Rice, Powell, et al said there was “no doubt” that Hussein had WMD’s, they were lying, pure and simple.

    The loyalists who refuse to admit this obvious fact are no different from the loyalists who defended Clinton for his dishonesty.

  3. Regarding:

    “Mooney fails to note that the belief that Hussein still possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and was pursuing nuclear weapons was not a rouge assertion of the Bush administration but was instead the majority consensus view of the intelligence services of America, Britain, France and Germany, then current and former UN weapons inspectors as well as most non-government affiliated analysis.”

    You’re so right.

    Moreover, if all of those intellignece agencies had told us the complete opposite story, that Saddam had destroyed his stockpiles, I would have laughed. Why would a rational person allow their personal wealth to be sanctioned and allow themselves to be invaded over a non-issue? It just turned out that the bastard wasn’t rational.

    But regarding:

    “This destroys the entire thesis of editorial irresponsibility.”

    I disagree.

    Shultz’s First Law of Social Dynamics states explicitly that, “Jesus was right; people are sheep.” This admonition isn’t to show that Shultz is above the sheep, it’s a warning to Shultz to be wary of his inherently sheepish nature.

    I bought it too. Who could have confirmed the existence or non-existence of the stockpiles? I fell for the ol’ ad hoc ergo propter hoc. How embarrasing!

    But I’m not a news editor. A GOOD news editor’s central job is to determine what’s printable and what’s not. If something can’t be verified, their job is to make sure that the stories they publish make ambiguity abundantly clear. The news editors failed at this miserably, and we should be wary of what they tell us as a result.

    Oh, and we should be wary of what the President tells us too because, assuming he believed what he told us, it wasn’t true.

    P.S. I am so suprised he didn’t have stockpiles. Is there anyone here who honestly isn’t?

  4. Mo,

    It is true that some experts in the field like Ritter did say that Saddam had no weapons but like I said, they were in a distinct minority. Most expert critics like Blix said, “No evidence” which is a legalistic evasion of the basic questions.

    Point is, anybody that tried to get the widest, most international perspective on the likelihood that Hussein had banned weapons would have found the overwhelming consensus was that he did. Think of it in terms of due diligence on the part of editorial writers.

    In the new history that Mooney et al are busy constructing, the majority of the experts were firmly convinced that Hussein was as harmless as kitten and struggled mightily to restrain the rabidly irrational Bush administration. Anybody that thought he did have the weapons were mindless dupes deceived by obviously false information.

    Now those who opposed the war congratulate themselves for their ocular wisdom when in fact that simply got lucky. Their prejudices drove them accidentally to the (possibly) correct conclusion. They were right by happenstanc,e like a stopped clock, not because the preponderance of evidence supported them.

  5. Ken,

    “I am so suprised he didn’t have stockpiles. Is there anyone here who honestly isn’t?”

    I suspect many folks here, like myself, honestly didn’t know whether or not he had stockpiles. There were several people (Scott Ritter, for example, among other ex-military/intelligence folks) who were very legitimately and reasonably saying that it had not been proved that he had WMD’s.

    So, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had and I wasn’t when it turned out he didn’t.

  6. Shannon,

    “Point is, anybody that tried to get the widest, most international perspective on the likelihood that Hussein had banned weapons would have found the overwhelming consensus was that he did.”

    Is there such a thing as an “overwhelming consensus?” I wonder. Anyway, the most recent and fullest versions of the intelligence reports given to Congress clearly show that there were many in the intelligence agency who believed that there was no evidence that Hussein had stockpiles of any weapons. This hardly makes a “consensus” and demonstrates the dishonesty of the words “no doubt.”

    “In the new history that Mooney et al are busy constructing, the majority of the experts were firmly convinced that Hussein was as harmless as kitten and struggled mightily to restrain the rabidly irrational Bush administration. Anybody that thought he did have the weapons were mindless dupes deceived by obviously false information.”

    This is so exaggerated as to be useless in a reasonable discussion.

    “Now those who opposed the war congratulate themselves for their ocular wisdom when in fact that simply got lucky. Their prejudices drove them accidentally to the (possibly) correct conclusion. They were right by happenstanc,e like a stopped clock, not because the preponderance of evidence supported them.”

    This smells like sour grapes. I myself didn’t oppose the war, I merely opposed the dishonest people who were leading us into it.

  7. Les,

    You don’t seem to understand how intelligence is vetted and presented to the political decision makers. Each department or group creates reports that divide into both majority and minority reports. The majority report reports the most probable interpretation of the data. The minority report contains the caveats and alternatives. Policy makers are assumed to make decisions based on the majority report. Otherwise, they are relying on their own amateur judgment.

    For example, in 1991 the majority reports of the CIA, the NSA and the State department, all concluded that Hussein was just rattling sabers and would not actually invade Kuwait. (That was the international consensus as well.) A small minority of analysis in several departments believed otherwise. Bush 41 followed the majority report and ignored Hussein’s threats. Consequently, Hussein invasion caught all the policy makers by complete surprise.

    Likewise, the majority reports all all US and intelligence services held that Hussein had stockpiles and programs. The idea that he did not was a distinct minority view. This was true long before Bush came into office. Why should Bush even suspected that the majority view was wrong? His predecessor definitely did not, nor did any of the members of congress that had access to the same information.

    Just because some of the minority reports were right in this case, does not mean that Bush or any other policy makers lied or were otherwise derelict. The world is not that simple.

  8. Shannon,

    Those are good points that I really do understand. I know it’s a complicated, whacky world out there and that folks like you and me have to struggle to see through all the “simple” truths to get the to subtle, complex realities of any given situation, especially in the world of politics.

    But the truth of this particular matter is rather simple. The Bush Administration was given A LOT of information analysis from a lot of people pertaining to Hussein’s WMD’s. SOME of those people claimed that he had them and SOME of those people claimed that he did not. A large enough number of analysts believed there wasn’t evidence that Hussein had WMD’s that their conclusions were included in the reports given to the administration.

    When Cheney, Rice, Powell, et al told the American people and the world that there was “no doubt” that Hussein had WMD’s, when they themselves KNEW that there WAS doubt, they lied. For instance, when they described aluminum tubes as having nuclear purposes when they’d been explicitely told that they didn’t, they were lying.

    When you’re dealing with a person (or, say, something like the State Department) which has lied over and over and over again about a variety of things for the last 50 years, and they refuse to admit that they ever lied, then it’s not unreasonable to believe that they will continue to lie whenever it suits their needs.

    Yes, it’s a complicated world, but some things are simply, inescapably, and objectively true, uncomfortable though they may be.

  9. Les,

    I think I can agree with you, if you’re saying that the problem was with the certainty to which the Administration was testifying.

    They didn’t really know for sure, but they said they did, and that’s your problem, right?

  10. To re-instate Saddam is only JUST since he was wrongly toppled.

  11. Ken,

    That’s really it. If they had been talking about anything besides something that would lead to war (a rather serious venture, IMHO), it would be easier to shrug my shoulders about it. Plus, beyond the “we suspect” and “we know” issue, there are the cases of specific lying as in the instance of the aluminum tubes.

  12. That’s a question that needs to be asked.

    How the hell did these politicians circumvent the press?

    After all, we have a government of the media, by the media, for the media. It’s a travesty that democratically elected officials can be allowed to lie. Bring ’em up before Dan Okrent, I say…

  13. the thread is probably dead but…

    There were several people (Scott Ritter, for example, among other ex-military/intelligence folks) who were very legitimately and reasonably saying that it had not been proved that he had WMD’s.

    but Ritter is a blatant example of the various spinning that goes on:

    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/middle_east/july-dec98/ritter_8-31.html

    I think the danger right now is that without effective inspections, without effective monitoring, Iraq can in a very short period of time measure the months, reconstitute chemical biological weapons, long-range ballistic missiles to deliver these weapons, and even certain aspects of their nuclear weaponization program.

    http://www.google.com/search?q=%22scott+ritter%22+1998

  14. codebang,

    That was in ’98 when Ritter was talking about the importance of continuing the inspection process instead of using inspectors as spys and declaring a policy of regime change which discouraged the Iraqis from cooperating. Before the war he was arguing that there wasn’t evidence that the Iraqis had done the things he warned that they COULD do.

    From a TIME interview:

    “Why couldn’t Saddam have obtained the capacity to produce WMD since 1998 when the weapons inspectors left?”

    “I am more aware than any UN official that Iraq has set up covert procurement funds to violate sanctions. This was true in 1997-1998, and I’m sure its true today. Of course Iraq can do this. The question is, has someone found that what Iraq has done goes beyond simple sanctions violations? We have tremendous capabilities to detect any effort by Iraq to obtain prohibited capability. The fact that no one has shown that he has acquired that capability doesn’t necessarily translate into incompetence on the part of the intelligence community. It may mean that he hasn’t done anything.”

    That doesn’t sound like spin to me.

    The rest of the interview is here:

    http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,351165,00.html

  15. Not a bad piece, but far too selective in its evidence and simplistic in its interpretation. The idea, pushed by many against the war, that somehow American papers were too easy on Bush and his plans (regardless of the facts available and political climate of the time), simply doesn’t pass the smell test.

  16. Tony, traditionally the thesis statement is followed by supporting paragraphs. Looking forward to them.

  17. Does anyone else think the US is as much a theocracy as is Iran?
    I mean, as an instrument of god, our Prez says jump, and, on the way up, we ask how high?

  18. Hey, why do you think they call it “Hit & Run”? If you want to, however, you can go back and find both numerous contemporaneous questions about the war and plenty of concerns and complaints about things that haven’t materialized. Furthermore, people who lose in the court of public opinion always complain that they would have won the day if only they’d been heard, even when they had been heard.

  19. Why does a thesis statement have to be followed by supporting paragraphs? Are we in elementary school? Are five paragraphs required for any argument? Should any argument on here heavily cite previous research on these issues? Produce original evidence?

  20. Roger Sweeny said:
    “Still, Shannon Love, wouldn’t it have been nice if the dailies had said, “Why this particular tyrant now when we need to focus on Osama?”

    Isn’t that a statement masquerading as a question? It assumes a “need to focus on Osama.” And if there is a “need to focus on Osama”, then the question pretty much answers itself, “no reason at all.”

    That’s not wanting the dailies to ask hard questions. That’s wanting them to give you the answer you already have.”

    Listen Sweeny, I’m Irish.
    So we got you, Shannon and me. And maybe some others.

    Why does it always come down to just us Irish wantin’ to fight?
    So I asked a question masquerading as a statement. Shillelagh me!

  21. You gotta love articles like these. Too little too late and does little for future crisis.

    But to a slight defense of major media, the hawks did a great job equating questioning the prez to treason. Take note for the future, if you get the pro-whatever group labeling dissension as treason, thats when the real tough questions ought to begin.

  22. Yes, Ruthless, I do think we have become a Theocracy. It is my opinion that the Christianists have taken over and I think that is a bad thing. No supporting documentation follows, so I must not have made a valid point. ( Which I didn’t. I stated an opinion.)

  23. Yes, Ruthless, I do think we have become a Theocracy. It is my opinion that the Christianists have taken over and I think that is a bad thing. No supporting documentation follows, so I must not have made a valid point. ( Which I didn’t. I stated an opinion.)

  24. Sorry for the double post.

  25. Mooney fails to note that the belief that Hussein still possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and was pursuing nuclear weapons was not a rouge assertion of the Bush administration but was instead the majority consensus view of the intelligence services of America, Britain, France and Germany, then current and former UN weapons inspectors as well as most non-government affiliated analysis. This destroys entire thesis of editorial irresponsibility.

    The overall consensus of experts in the field easily ran 80-20 for the existence of banned weapons. Editorialist who contacted as many independent experts has possible received the same rough viewpoint as the Bush administration advanced.

    There is a massive Ministry-of-Truth-esq rewrite going on where everybody except the Bush administration now claims that they knew for a fact all along that Hussein had no WMD stockpiles.

  26. Still, Shannon Love, wouldn’t it have been nice if the dailies had said, “Why this particular tyrant now when we need to focus on Osama?”
    How hard would that have been?

    Really, wasn’t Dubya just resurrecting an old UN agenda item that had been tabled?

  27. I know it isn’t the main point of the article, but I’m really getting sick of comments like, “a preemptive war opposed by most of the world”. Not only is it completely meaningless in that it doesn’t qualify “most” (let alone note that “most” of the world is run by governments that are non-democratic, which makes the statement even more questionable), but shouldn’t the popularity of an action be irrelevant to it’s rightness, especially to libertarians? Support the war or not, but don’t pretend to give a shit what the foreigners think about it.

  28. Ruthless,

    Still, Shannon Love, wouldn’t it have been nice if the dailies had said, “Why this particular tyrant now when we need to focus on Osama?”

    Isn’t that a statement masquerading as a question? It assumes a “need to focus on Osama.” And if there is a “need to focus on Osama”, then the question pretty much answers itself, “no reason at all.”

    That’s not wanting the dailies to ask hard questions. That’s wanting them to give you the answer you already have.

  29. Hi Les,

    this thread is probably dead (RIP), but…

    Ritter ’98 (Ritter is the author):
    (http://www.fas.org/news/iraq/1998/12/21/981221-scott.htm)

    Even today, Iraq is not nearly disarmed. UNSCOM lacks a full declaration from Iraq concerning its prohibited capabilities, making any absolute pronouncement about the extent of Iraq’s retained proscribed arsenal inherently tentative. But, based on highly credible intelligence, UNSCOM suspects that Iraq still has biological agents like anthrax, botulinum toxin, and clostridium perfringens in sufficient quantity to fill several dozen bombs and ballistic missile warheads, as well as the means to continue manufacturing these deadly agents. Iraq probably retains several tons of the highly toxic VX substance, as well as sarin nerve gas and mustard gas. This agent is stored in artillery shells, bombs, and ballistic missile warheads. And Iraq retains significant dual-use industrial infrastructure that can be used to rapidly reconstitute large-scale chemical weapons production.

    from your link:
    http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,351165,00.html

    I have never given Iraq a clean bill of health! Never! Never! I’ve said that no one has backed up any allegations that Iraq has reconstituted WMD capability with anything that remotely resembles substantive fact.To say that Saddam’s doing it is in total disregard to the fact that if he gets caught he’s a dead man and he knows it. Deterrence has been adequate in the absence of inspectors but this is not a situation that can succeed in the long term. In the long term you have to get inspectors back in.

    back to my original Ritter’98 (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/middle_east/july-dec98/ritter_8-31.html)


    this administration’s saying, wait a minute, we can’t go forward with aggressive inspections because they will lead to a confrontation with Iraq, but let’s understand the confrontation is because Iraq will not comply with the law passed by the Security Council. So we weren’t allowed to do our job out of fear of a confrontation in which the United States would not be able to muster the required support of the Security Council to respond effectively or to respond in a manner which they had said they would respond in Resolution 1154.

    I’m sorry, I still hear a whirring sound as something undergoes rotational forces.

    cheers

  30. It all depends on what you think the primary purposes of the war are.

    My take
    1. Oust Saddam
    2. Hold some valuable real estate after losing our Saudi lease
    3. Introduce Democracy to the region (the Kurds were a start)
    4. Pressure Syria and Iran
    5. Possible Side benefits (uncovering for the public [the CIA knew] the Libya/Pakistan nukes connection
    6. Intimidation of some rogue states.
    7. Keep Saddam from offering Osama his hospitality.

    Say I made a whole list and other than the nuke stuff and Libya never mentioned WMDs.

    No properly functioning war time government is going to give away it’s strategy on the front page of the Chicago Tribune.

    Which comes to the real problem in the war: Do you trust George W. to run the war or not?

    Personally I like VDH find the tangible results encouraging. The largest contingent of troops currently in the coalition are Iraqi. 200,000 and growing.

  31. Shannon Love,

    “…the intelligence services of … France …”

    Actually, French intelligences never stated that Saddam had such weapons; they stated that there was a possibility that they existed. A velief that they exist and a belief that there is a possibility of their existance are two different things. BTW, this was Blix’s position as well. Thus, if anyone is doing a re-write here its you. Please, quit repeating this canard.

  32. Shannon,

    “You don’t seem to understand how intelligence is vetted and presented to the political decision makers.”

    Actually, you don’t understand this. Its obvious that you have been carefully miseducated on these matters.

    “The majority report reports the most probable interpretation of the data.”

    Bullshit; the majority report is as often a repeat of the political and policy perogatives of either the agency making the report or the actualy political actors involved. Indeed, the majority reports tend to be simply the re-confirmation of the echo chamber already in place.

    “Policy makers are assumed to make decisions based on the majority report.”

    Why is that? That hasn’t been the case historically.

    “For example, in 1991 the majority reports of the CIA, the NSA and the State department, all concluded that Hussein was just rattling sabers and would not actually invade Kuwait.”

    I think you mean 1990. BTW, those in the CIA who were assigned to deal with this area of the world predicted the invasion months in advance. It was the political appointees at the CIA, etc. who dropped the ball.

    “(That was the international consensus as well.)”

    Actually, that is also incorrect; both Thatcher and Mitterand sent memos to Bush about the Iraqi build-up and that their security and intelligence agencies were concerned about the possibility of an invasion.

    “Consequently, Hussein invasion caught all the policy makers by complete surprise.”

    Wrong.

    “Likewise, the majority reports all US and intelligence services held that Hussein had stockpiles and programs.”

    Wrong; as I wrote above, the DGSE (French CIA) never stated that Hussein had such stockpiles; they claimed that it was a possibility, but that there was no assurance that they really existed. Indeed, this was also the position of Blix (and thus the UN Weapons inspectors). Furthermore, the Bush adminsitration actually ignored its own best experts on the “aluminum tubes” issues; such as the scientists down at Oakridge in Tennessee.

    “The idea that he did not was a distinct minority view.”

    As was the notion that he actually have them; the majority view was there was the possibility of their existance.

  33. So why would SH prevent inspections if his installations were clean of WMD’s or the tech needed to make them? Besides all the reasons posted above, there is that bit about Saddam’s boffins lying to Saladin-reincarnate about what they had and what they were dreaming up.

    In the event that we do not find the WMD smoking gun this is the only explanation that would make any sense. Saddam wanted the program and was willing to endure crippling sanctions to have it. However, his henchmen were unable to deliver and, unwilling to be on the receiving end of Saddam’s zero-defects program, they faked it. In the process of making Saddam believe he had a functioning program they could easily have sucked U.S. intelligence into the deception. In fact, deceiving U.S. intelligence in this way would have been important to them. It would not have been conducive to a long life if the United States had come to Saddam and told him they had discovered he had no WMD program and all of his most trusted advisers were lying.

    Jim Lacey in National Review, 15 May, 2003.

    http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-lacey051503.asp

    I don’t know if I buy it, but it would be a different kind of intelligence failure – freelance disinformation.

    I still think the proper justification for taking out Iraq was its not-that-convincing ties to the terror network that is behind attacks on the U.S. and its allies. There’s some proof of those links for activity older than a year ago, but it isn’t ironclad.

    Kevin

  34. >I still think the proper justification for taking out Iraq was its not-that-convincing ties to the terror network…

    To clarify: if those links are proved to be convincing, then I will be sold on the invasion, but not until.

    Kevin

  35. I’m really getting sick of comments like, “a preemptive war opposed by most of the world”.

    Me too. Mr. Mooney coughed up his credibility, and any chance I would read the article, with this statement. In addition to the more principled flaws with this argument, it is simply factually false. “Most of the world” either took no position on the war or supported the US. It is only if you narrow your focus to Old Europe, and, perhaps, Mideast dictatorships, that you can say that most of the world opposed (in any active meaningful sense) the war.

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