October 25, 2004

WaPo Ombudsman Asks the Right Question

Sunday the Washington Post extended a tepid endorsement for John Kerry. As one of the papers that was more than just a little bit responsible for giving the green light to George W Bush for invading Iraq without having to show there was sufficient reason, it is not too surprising that they could only come up with a weak "well at least Kerry isn't as incompetent as Bush" reason for their endorsement.

Nevertheless, their Ombudsman, Michael Getler, asked the right question about the administration's and the media's failures in taking the country to war for false reasons.

Now, here is a big shift of gears. It is nine days before the election. There have been hundreds of stories and dozens of polls. There have been four debates, countless advertisements and many efforts to fact-check them.

Yet for me, as a journalist, citizen and determined absorber of news, there remains one huge, overriding, unnerving and, in my view, still unanswered question: How could it happen that the United States was taken to war on the basis of assertions to the public that turned out to be false? The Senate's bipartisan Select Committee on Intelligence in July stated its main conclusion clearly: "Most of the major key judgments in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, Iraq's Continuing Program for Weapons of Mass Destruction, either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting."

President Bush has cited the intelligence reporting and says everybody thought Saddam Hussein had such weapons. But intelligence agencies do not start wars. Presidents do that, and the Senate committee stopped short of assessing how that intelligence was used. Kerry voted to authorize the war, and therefore has focused on how the war has been prosecuted rather than the process that led to it. That has removed a core aspect of what should have been an intense part of the campaign debate, something that was left to former Vermont governor Howard Dean and former vice president Al Gore from the distant sidelines many months ago.

We now know the names of experts at the nation's top nuclear laboratories who challenged intelligence agency findings about Hussein's alleged nuclear program. We know that others at the State Department's intelligence bureau held the same view and that Air Force experts disagreed about the purpose of Iraq's unmanned aerial drones. Were any of these dissenters ever called before Congress, even in closed session, before the war? There's no indication that they were. No indication either, according to earlier Post stories, that more than a handful of lawmakers bothered to venture across Capitol Hill to read the detailed versions of the intelligence dissents that were held in separate vaults in another building.

And what about journalism? We are supposed to be part of the systems of checks and balances in this country, the so-called fourth estate. Yet the country was taken to war on the basis of a set of facts, assurances and images that turned out not to be so. With the exception of a handful of challenging efforts before the war, the situation demonstrated journalistic limitations that should seriously trouble all of us. Getting at this story meant banging up against what some consider to be a patriotic spirit, against a determined sitting president and a convinced constituency, against classified information, against "intelligence" agencies that should know what they are talking about, and, most agonizingly, against the human costs of conflict. We fell short.

Yes, you sure did. (via The Sideshow)

Posted by Mary at October 25, 2004 12:40 AM | US Politics | Technorati links |

What kind of lame ombudsman is that? He should be more like Daniel Okrent, and attack the paper's readership instead of asking difficult questions about journalistic responsibility.

Posted by: Brad Johnson at October 25, 2004 05:06 PM