January 26, 2004

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?: Part DXVII

A completely phony headline in the New York Times. The White House is not "less certain" about Saddam Hussein's weapons than it used to be. It is more certain that it ever was: it is certain that he had only trivial amounts of chemical and biological weapons and weapon-making capability, and no nuclear weapons program at all.

In the past, the White House pretended to be certain that it knew that Saddam Hussein had powerful stockpiles. But it knew that it wasn't certain--what it had were some intelligence guesses that had then been warped in the direction of magnifying the threat by Rumsfeld's and Cheney's people, and then warped again to magnify the threat to rally support for the war.

Less Certainty in White House on Iraq’s Arms: By JAMES RISEN | Published: January 27, 2004: The White House began to back away on Monday from its assertions that Iraq had illegal weapons, saying it now wanted to compare prewar intelligence assessments with what may be actually found there. The evolving position followed sharp public words from the C.I.A.'s former chief weapons inspector, David A. Kay, comments that increased pressure on the C.I.A. and intensified the political debate in Washington over who was responsible for shaping the prewar intelligence that President Bush used to justify toppling Saddam Hussein. On Monday White House officials were no longer asserting that stockpiles of banned weapons would eventually be found.

It would be very nice to have a New York Times that didn't print such phony headlines, wouldn't it?

Posted by DeLong at January 26, 2004 08:47 PM | TrackBack


I don't really get this. What we *know* is that the White House *appears* less certain than they used to be.

I know what I think they really think; but I don't know what's true. Well, again, I know that it's true that the White House is acting more uncertain about WMDs than they were. I don't think headline writers should be psychoanalysts.

Posted by: Keith M Ellis on January 26, 2004 09:23 PM


Prof. DeLong writes, "It would be very nice to have a New York Times that didn't print such phony headlines, wouldn't it?"

I can live with the headline. It would be nice to have a New York Times that didn't print phony stories.

Posted by: Charles on January 26, 2004 09:43 PM


To expand on the previous comment, consider that The New York Times has recently had a scandal in which two reporters were found to have committed serious breaches of journalistic ethics; the New York Times is additionally the source of several major hoaxes (e.g., "Whitewater", the Wen Ho Lee case) and several minor hoaxes (e.g., Gore and the Iranian subs, Gore and Love Canal). Its current editor was caught in a number of serious factual errors in his defense of the papers Whitewater coverage. Several writers, notably Judith Miller, are accidents waiting to be discovered.

Even correcting for volume, this is a terrible record.

The Times is given exceptional credence because it deals with foreign policy issues and clearly has ins to the State Department. Since most American papers couldn't find Nicaragua without Mapquest, this give The Times a mystique. It is regarded as somehow wiser than the rest.

In reality, The Times' grasp of foreign policy is shaky at best. For example, it cheerled the coup attempt against Hugo Chavez and was forced to eat its words.

There is one thing that I will give The Times credit for. Ten years too late, it does re-examine the record and produce a more accurate second draft of history.

Posted by: Charles on January 26, 2004 10:04 PM


I'm with Keith and Charles (well, first-generation Charles). I don't think the Times deserves special credit for this headline, but as headlines go, it seems pretty reasonable. And the first sentence of the piece is damning -- "began to back away" is not a sentence that any White House wants to hear about itself.

Posted by: Steve Carr on January 26, 2004 10:10 PM


Why are you assuming the Bush White House to be rational on this topic?

Posted by: Dimmy Karras on January 26, 2004 10:27 PM


On a vaguely related topic, the NYT reports today that Cheney has undertaken a charm offensive in Europe. (I love putting "Cheney", "charm" and "offensive" in the same sentence.)


I wonder if this is in any way related to the effort to get the UN into, and the US partially out of, Iraq, as Brad/Kevin Drum/WP noted yesterday. Time to play nice.

Posted by: K Harris on January 27, 2004 05:40 AM


"...intensified the political debate in Washington over who was responsible for shaping the prewar intelligence that President Bush used to justify toppling Saddam Hussein."

Who's responsible? Hmmm. Damn, I'm not sure. I thought a president was supposed to be held respnonsible for the acts of his administration, but if we've changed the rules...Well, then heck, let's blame Valarie Plame; she's ex-CIA (we all know that now, thanks to someone somewhere). Or, hell, let's blame it all on Iraqi intelligence for misleading us...Oh, wait, that again means admitting an error by the administration.

Let's just blame my neighbor Carla. I don't like her, and she looks like she could lead the CIA astray. Case closed/problem solved.

Posted by: Rick Pietz on January 27, 2004 06:18 AM


K Harris
"Cheney charm offensive"
But does it actually fly in Europe? The same way the Bush visit charmed the Brits? Not too far, I think.
Good holiday destination, though, provided the locals don't recognize you as American.
Must be a pretty private charm session.
I agree that it must be bargaining time with the UN support/ US withdrawal issue. It seems to me that the Europeans have the trump card in negotiating around that Nov date.

Posted by: calmo on January 27, 2004 07:23 AM


Keith M. Ellis says

I don't think headline writers should be psychoanalysts.

which I can agree with. But I don't think it applies here. I do think it is reasonable for journalists, even headline writers, to make deductions. If the white house never had real evidence of wmd, and if the white house has access to the best American intelligence available, then one of the following must be true:

- they were not certain.

- they were certain, but had no evidence to support their certainty, in which case it is an odd kind of certainty (perhaps it's a faith based initiative thing?)

- they were certain based on their own false intelligence. In which case, your system of government isn't working very well.

Well, this is just another attempt to say what others in the thread have said. So either people get this or they don't.

Posted by: Tom Slee on January 27, 2004 08:11 AM


The problem with the headline is that it alludes to the thought processes of administration officials. That is something the Times cannot know, unless you accept as a given the preposterous notion that Bush admin. officials always, and only, say what they believe. The article more accurately focuses on the statements, not the thoughts, of those in the administration.

Posted by: markg on January 27, 2004 08:48 AM


"for shaping the prewar intelligence that President Bush used to justify toppling Saddam Hussein."

And its not like we, you know, went to war or anything that would get people killed. We just "toppled Saddam Hussein".

Posted by: flory on January 27, 2004 09:14 AM



Interesting you should raise the question of the European response, given what we have heard from UN Secretary General Annan today. He says the UN will not provide troops, but that a multi-national force should go in instead. (Isn't that what we already have?) While it is not absolutely necessary for a multi-national force to have an expanded European contingent, it seems a reasonable way to do.

We have a distinct diplomatic advantage - size and power - which may mean that we don't need to be particularly good at charm in order to sway our (former?) European allies. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. I think widers international representation in the occupying force is probably a good thing in itself. On the other hand, giving Bush politically advantageous timing for a reduction in US presence in Iraq is far from optimal, from an electoral point of view.

Posted by: K Harris on January 27, 2004 09:32 AM


Maybe it's just me, but when I saw the headline and first couple of grafs of the piece I thought the Times was going for a bit of dry humor at the Administration's expense. I hear a kind of deprecatory cough when Risen notes it as an "evolving position" as the boys try to wriggle their way out of the straitjacket David Kay's slapped on over them. Or, I'm just pathetically eager to find even a hint of a crack in the Great Stone Face of the Times' ARPC (administration-related political correctness).

Reading A1 (http://blogs.salon.com/0003364/), the NY Times front page project.

Posted by: Michael on January 27, 2004 10:10 AM


The problem with headlines is that the word choice is made on what fits the alloted space - not what's accurate. Also, they are often written by copy editors, the lowest part of the journalism food chain.

Posted by: Zach on January 27, 2004 10:20 AM


Pentagon Speak: The euphonism (and tactic) for revelations which intend to inspire confidence in previously declared - but bogus - positions is called "the slow roll". We are being "slowly rolled" now! This will continue through several more "evolving" anouncements (with commensurate passage of time) before the obvious facts are either obscured or overshadowed by newer crises or events.

Watch for more "slow roll" stories.

Posted by: don majors on January 27, 2004 10:51 AM


When I read this story this morning, I was reminded of a story by Ephraim Kishon, in which he describes his loss of hair. When he's down to 3 hairs (and two have fallen out) he writes 'I guess I have to own up to having a certain amount of baldness' (or words to that effect) This is the Bush White House: When every one else has realised that there are no WMDs and there were no WMDs, they say 'Well, maybe not QUITE as many as we thought'

Posted by: mecki on January 27, 2004 11:02 AM



American soldiers 376
British soldiers 24
Coalition soldiers 40
440 Since May 2

American 515
British 57
Coalition 40
612 Since March 20


American soldiers ~2940 Since March 20

Note: American forces have fallen to 130,000
British forces have risen to 12,000
Coalition forces have risen to 12,000

Posted by: lise on January 27, 2004 11:46 AM


I think that the big unreported story is the whole undercurrent of reaction to the lack of WMDs. I see a lot of backpedaling from Bush's supporters, and some cautious opportunism from his detractors. What I don't see is any genuine outrage or even surprise. So I can only conclude that everyone treated it as a HUNCH the whole time. If there was a single senator who really voted for war authorization based on what was supposed to be compelling intelligence, then we'd be hearing loud calls for an investigation--and not just some trial balloons to see if this can be turned against the Bush administration.

I believe that most war opponents were skeptical of the evidence supporting the existence of WMDs. On the other hand, very few people were in a position to go out on a limb and actually say that none would be found. Scott Ritter did say this, as did Denis Halliday (I think Robin Cook also falls into this camp, but I don't have quote handy--something about no WMDs in the sense that we usually mean).

The new lie (David Kay repeats it) is that everyone is surprised by this outcome. I think we'll be hearing a lot of this, and it might well stick. But what's clear to me is that nobody really thought there was more than a hunch that Saddam had retained WMDs or was working on new ones. Because if it was supposed to be more than a hunch, and it hasn't panned out at all, then we'd be in serious (bipartisan?!?) discussions about a complete overhaul of our flawed intelligence program.

Posted by: Paul Callahan on January 27, 2004 12:07 PM



May I offer another possible explanation for the lack of shock when the curtain was finally pulled aside? For many opponents of the war, the presence or absence of illicit weapons was a side issue. Such weapons in Iraqi's possession would have been no threat to the US. There was no delivery system. The UN had driven whatever illicit weapons Iraq might have had underground and bringing them back out from underground would have alerted US intelligence. Iraq had no workable relationship with international terrorist organizations, nor did it share a common purpose with them (OK, they despised each other). Thus there was no justification in international law or in precedent for the US to attack Iraq. The fact that a particular assertion which did not justify war, but which did not justify war, proved false is not the big issue. The shock was back when all those other lies were being told, when Bush was asserting that the rules applied to everybody else, but not to him, that he would set the example of discretionary invasion as a precedent for other arrogant governments to follow, that was the shock.

In the interim, we have seen so much that is just flat out dishonest from this crew, that learning the entire weapons business was just made up to justify war is not really a shocker.

Posted by: K Harris on January 27, 2004 01:14 PM


K Harris: I can understand why the opposition to the war isn't shocked, as you explain. There's also no surprise that neocons intent on war all along aren't expressing a lot of shock.

The part that I find interesting (and no I'm not shocked; that's how bad it's become) are the members of congress (particularly some Democratic senators--particularly one in California I can think of) who assured their anti-war constituents that they were privy to very good intelligence that would justify war if only they could reveal it.

These are the people who ought to be screaming bloody murder right now, but they're not. Could it be that the whole time, the open secret was that the case was built on a hunch that Saddam must have WMDs even though we had no evidence at all. Personally, it seemed like a good hunch to me, and I am a little surprised, even though I opposed the war and thought that 12 years of sanctions, periodic bombings, and the restoration of UN Weapons inspections were an effective containment policy to any threat Iraq might have posed.

Posted by: Paul Callahan on January 27, 2004 01:58 PM


"A certain amount of baldness".

I think that mecki has succeeded in brand-naming the Bush communication strategy.

Posted by: zizka / John Emerson on January 27, 2004 07:49 PM


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