By: Greg Mitchell
In Sunday’s 10,000-word indictment of the Bush administration’s misuse of prewar intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear capabilities, The New York Times did not spare itself in apportioning blame in the fateful rush to war. Readers had to dig deep into the massive story, and understand some of the subtleties in the self-criticism, but it was there.
The story, which runs more than three full pages, gained wide play on the Sunday TV talk shows. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said the administration had nothing to apologize for. The Kerry campaign has already quoted from it in a commercial. It’s likely to have even wider impact in the days ahead.
Times reporters David Barstow, Jeff Gerth and William J. Broad provide much evidence that the administration was well aware of severe doubts among its own experts and advisers concerning Iraq’s nuclear program, and the “aluminum tubes” that could have been part of it, when it made its case for war before the media, Congress, and the United Nations. Like so many other stories in the past week, it draws on leaks from CIA insiders and unnamed administration officials.
The first hint of self-criticism in the Times article comes just past the midway point, when the writers observe that on Sept. 8, 2002, the top article on page one of their newspaper “gave the first detailed account of the aluminum tubes. The article cited unidentified senior administration officials who insisted that the dimensions, specifications and numbers of tubes sought showed that they were intended for a nuclear weapons program.”
That Sept. 8 story went on to quote an unnamed senior administration official saying that the closer Saddam Hussein “gets to nuclear capability, the more credible is his threat to use chemical and biological weapons. Nuclear weapons are his hole card.”
Today’s Times story dryly observes: “The article gave no hint of a debate over the tubes,” adding, “The White House did much to increase the impact of The Times article.”
Vice President Cheney, in fact, specifically cited the Times story in stating, later that day, that he knew with “absolute certainty” that Saddam was buying the tubes to build nuclear weapons.
The Times reporters, however, do not identify the names of the authors of that crucial Sept. 8, 2002, article: Judith Miller and Michael Gordon.
The next self-criticism, equally damning, appears a few paragraphs later. It describes how the Times, on Sept. 13, 2002, made the first public mention of the internal tubes debate. Did the paper play it up? No, the editors put it on Page A13. Did tha article raise a red flag? Not exactly. It quoted an unnamed senior administration official dismissing the debate as a “footnote” and reported that the “best technical experts and nuclear scientists at laboratories like the Oak Ridge supported the CIA assessments.”
Today, however, the Times revealed that the vast majority of scientists and nuclear experts at the Energy Department’s labs, in fact, disagreed with the CIA assessment. And the same day the Sept. 13 article appeared in the Times, the Energy Department “sent a directive forbidding employees from discussing the subject with reporters.”
The third self-criticism in Sunday’s story describes how, on Sept. 23, 2002, a respected Washington arms control group, the Institute for Science and International Security, released a report based on information from Energy Department insiders, which the Times today calls “the first public airing of facts that undermined the most alarming suggestions about Iraq’s nuclear threat.”
But this critical report got “little attention,” the reporters admit. The Washington Post ran a brief article on Page A18, and many other newspapers, including the Times, “ran nothing at all.”
Finally, much later in today’s story, the reporters note that their paper, on January 10, 2003, reported that the International Atomic Energy Agency was challenging the “key piece of evidence” behind “the primary rationale for going to war.” The article, the paper said, in passing, appeared on Page A10.
Sunday’s article ends with a damning indictment of Secretary of State Powell for giving credibility to the aluminum tube theory in his speech before the United Nations on February 5, 2003. It does not mention, however, that the Times, like most major newspapers, did not at the time dispute Powell’s assertions. As the paper concludes today’s story, “Six weeks later, the war began.”