Media malfeasance on Saddam report

Stephen Hayes at the Weekly Standard reviews the media reporting of the Pentagon analysis released this week on documents seized by the US in the invasion of Iraq — and gives a ringing condemnation, and not just to the media but also to the Pentagon and the White House. The report’s authors demanded a release of the full report when they saw the media spinning their work into a message that belied everything they had written. However, the blame falls mainly on their own organization, as Hayes reports:

How can a study offering an unprecedented look into the closed regime of a brutal dictator, with over 1,600 pages of “strong evidence that links the regime of Saddam Hussein to regional and global terrorism,” in the words of its authors, receive a wave-of-the-hand dismissal from America’s most prestigious news outlets? All it took was a leak to a gullible reporter, one misleading line in the study’s executive summary, a boneheaded Pentagon press office, an incompetent White House, and widespread journalistic negligence.

Oh, is that all? In other words, business as usual since 2003. Hayes explains this specific set of circumstances:

On Monday, March 10, 2008, Warren P. Strobel, a reporter from the McClatchy News Service first reported that the new Pentagon study was coming. “An exhaustive review of more than 600,000 Iraqi documents that were captured after the 2003 U.S. invasion has found no evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime had any operational links with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida terrorist network.” McClatchy is a newspaper chain that serves many of America’s largest cities. The national security reporters in its Washington bureau have earned a reputation as reliable outlets for anti-Bush administration spin on intelligence. Strobel quoted a “U.S. official familiar with the report” who told him that the search of Iraqi documents yielded no evidence of a “direct operational link” between Iraq and al Qaeda. Strobel used the rest of the article to attempt to demonstrate that this undermined the Bush administration’s prewar claims with regard to Iraq and terrorism.

With the study not scheduled for release for two more days, this article shaped subsequent coverage, which was no doubt the leaker’s purpose. Stories from other media outlets tracked McClatchy very closely but began to incorporate a highly misleading phrase taken from the executive summary: “This study found no ‘smoking gun’ (i.e. direct connection) between Saddam’s Iraq and al Qaeda.”

It’s hard to believe that the Pentagon and the White House have still not figured out the dynamics of war reporting in this age. Any report with this kind of impact will be the target of leaks, and probably by those least inclined to support the war. The leaks will go to others who don’t support the war, and they will get the first opportunity to define reality in the media. This is exactly what happened to this report on the Harmony documents; it’s a textbook case of media spin.

In fact, as I noted yesterday, the captured Iraqi documents show that Saddam Hussein funded at least two al-Qaeda groups, including Ayman al-Zawahiri’s group Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He also created and funded terrorist groups in Somalia in 1993 to attack the US troops there at the time. Another group which received funding, the Bahrain-based Army of Mohammad, received funding specifically because they intended to target America and Americans, with full knowledge that the AoM received its direction from Osama bin Laden.

Because the media relied on a politically-motivated leak and didn’t actually read the report before telling people what it said, they essentially reported a lie to the American public. Instead of getting ahead of this, or at least right behind it, the Pentagon and the White House dithered for most of the week about how to respond. It took three days before they finally released the entire report to the public, and the delay became a story in itself. What was the Bush administration hiding? Only their own incompetence at public relations, as it turned out.

The full report shows clearly that Saddam Hussein had made himself one of the most significant sponsors of terrorism in the world. While much of it intended to keep his own people from killing him, a significant portion was directed towards the US, and some of that funded and supported Osama bin Laden. That story, however, won’t get told, thanks to the malfeasance of media that prefers leaks over source material and an administration that hasn’t learned a thing about messaging in five years.