The Post Debates Dick Cheney

The Washington Post’s election-year advocacy continues this morning with a news article–not an opinion piece–by staunch Democrats Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus. The article is an attack on the administration’s position that there were connections between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, and that Iraq had active illegal weapons programs, and perhaps stocks of such weapons.
The purported basis for the Post’s story is the fact that Vice President Cheney gave two interviews over a period of nine days in which he answered questions on these topics. But Milbank and Pincus’s article is not a report on Cheney’s observations; it is rather an attempt to refute them. Their method is to alternate between paragraphs that quote Cheney, and paragraphs that rebut his statements. Throughout, they convey the impression that Cheney is being sneaky, and they are a “truth squad” setting the record straight. For example:

Cheney, asked in an interview with National Public Radio whether the administration has given up on finding the weapons Bush has alleged over the last year that Iraq possessed, said, “No, we haven’t.” He added: “We still don’t know the whole extent of what they did have. It’s going to take some additional considerable period of time in order to look in all the cubbyholes and ammo dumps and all the places in Iraq where you’d expect to find something like that.”
Cheney’s assertion came even though investigators failed to find such weapons during visits to the sites where the administration had said they would be found. Investigators have found Iraq’s weapons program to be in a primitive state.

Really? When did the administration identify the sites where illegal weapons would be found? And given the six-month run-up to the war, is there something implausible about the idea that the Iraqis could have moved them? And what investigators, exactly, have “found Iraq’s weapons program to be in a primitive state”? The only substantial post-war investigation is the one being carried out under the direction of David Kay; so far, only a portion of Kay’s interim report is public. It can be accessed here. The Post’s suggestion that Kay described Iraq’s weapons programs as “primitive” is simply false. He said no such thing. Here is just one brief excerpt dealing with biological weapons:

“With regard to biological warfare activities,…ISG teams are uncovering significant information — including research and development of BW-applicable organisms, the involvement of Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) in possible BW activities, and deliberate concealment activities.
“[T]wo key former BW scientists, confirmed that Iraq under the guise of legitimate activity developed refinements of processes and products relevant to BW agents. The scientists discussed the development of improved, simplified fermentation and spray drying capabilities for the simulant Bt that would have been directly applicable to anthrax, and one scientist confirmed that the production line for Bt could be switched to produce anthrax in one week if the seed stock were available….
“One noteworthy example is a collection of reference strains that ought to have been declared to the UN. Among them was a vial of live C. botulinum Okra B. from which a biological agent can be produced. This discovery [was] hidden in the home of a BW scientist….The scientist who concealed the vials containing this agent has identified a large cache of agents that he was asked, but refused, to conceal. ISG is actively searching for this second cache.”

Now, if the Post wants to argue on its opinion page that everything found in Iraq so far is “primitive,” that is its prerogative. But to assert, as a matter of fact, that David Kay has made any such “finding” is ridiculous.
The Post also tries to debunk Cheney’s comments on the links between Iraq and al Qaeda. In his interview with the Rocky Mountain News, Cheney drew a clear distinction:

“Well, there are two issues here….Two issues in terms of relationship. One is, was there a relationship between al Qaida and Iraq, between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, or the al Qaida and the Iraqi intelligence service? That’s one category of issues. A separate question is, whether or not there was any relationship relative to 9/11. Those are two separate questions and people oftentimes confuse them.”

On the question of Iraqi involvement in 9/11, Cheney is agnostic: “[O]n the 9/11 question, we’ve never had confirmation one way or another.”
With respect to the second question, the “general relationship” between Iraq adn al Qaeda, Cheney said:

“There are several places you can go. One place you ought to go look is an article that Stephen Hayes did in the Weekly Standard here a few weeks ago, that goes through and lays out in some detail, based on an assessment that was done by the Department of Defense and forwarded to the Senate Intelligence Committee some weeks ago…I can give you a few quick for instances, one the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
“The main perpetrator was a man named Ramzi Yousef. He’s now in prison in Colorado. His sidekick in the exercise was a man named Abdul Rahman Yasin… He fled the United States after the attack, the 1993 attack, went to Iraq, and we know now based on documents that we’ve captured since we took Baghdad, that they put him on the payroll, gave him a monthly stipend and provided him with a house, sanctuary, in effect, in Iraq, in the aftermath of…the 93′ attack on the World Trade Center.
“And you can look (Abu Mussab) al-Zarkawi, who is still out there operating today, who was an al-Qaida associate, who was wounded in Afghanistan, took refuge in Baghdad, working out of Baghdad, worked with the Ansar al Islam group up in northeastern Iraq, that produced a so-called poison factory, a group that we hit when we went into Iraq. They were involved in trying to smuggle things, manufacture and smuggle things like ricin into Europe to attack various targets in Europe with. He also, Zarkawi, was responsible for the assassination of a man named Foley, who worked for A.I.D. in Amman, Jordan, an American assigned over there. The links go back. We know for example from interrogating detainees in Guantanamo that al Qaida sent individuals to Baghdad to be trained in…chemical and biological weapons technology. These are all matters that are there for anybody who wants to look at it. A lot of it has been declassified. More, I’m sure, will be declassified in the future, and my expectation would be as we get the time. We haven’t really had the time yet to pore through all those records in Baghdad. We’ll find ample evidence confirming the link, that is the connection if you will between al Qaida and the Iraqi intelligence services. They have worked together on a number of occasions.”

Milbank and Pincus are unable, of course, to challenge the specific points made by Cheney. So they omit Cheney’s specifics, and then resort to deception:

[I]n the Rocky Mountain News interview, Cheney referred those seeking a general relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda to a Weekly Standard article ‘based on an assessment that was done by the Department of Defense and forwarded to the Senate intelligence committee some weeks ago.’ The November article asserted that an Oct. 27 memo from the Pentagon said Osama bin Laden and Hussein had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003.
When the article was published, the Pentagon said it was ‘inaccurate’ that the Defense Department confirmed new information to the Senate committee about an Iraq-al Qaeda link, and that the memo was “not an analysis of the substantive issue of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, and it drew no conclusions.” The Pentagon also said the leak of the document was “deplorable and may be illegal.”

The Post’s treatment of the Defense Department report to the Senate Intelligence Committee is breathtakingly dishonest. It seeks to create the impression that the Pentagon disavowed the report, and said it was “inaccurate.” That is nonsense. As set forth in the Pentagon’s press release on the memo, which Milbank and Pincus quote selectively, the memo was sent “in response to follow-up questions from [Under Secretary Douglas Feith’s] July 10 testimony. One of the questions posed by the committee asked the department to provide the reports from the intelligence community to which he referred in his testimony before the committee. These reports dealt with the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda.”
The Defense Department’s memo was essentially a cover letter; it attached “a classified annex containing a list and description of the requested reports, so that the committee could obtain the reports from the relevant members of the intelligence community.” The specific intelligence reports on connections between Iraq and al Qaeda came from the CIA, the NSA and the DIA. The Pentagon’s press release says that “The provision of the classified annex to the Intelligence Committee was cleared by other agencies and done with the permission of the intelligence community.” So the intelligence agencies signed off on all of the reports that were included in the annex. The Defense Department has never said that these intelligence reports, now cited by the Vice President, were anything other than accurate. The only thing it denied in its press release was that the Defense Department had independently “confirmed” their accuracy.
Milbank and Pincus’s indignation about the fact that the Pentagon’s letter and annex were leaked is laughable, coming from the newspaper that published the Pentagon Papers. Whether a leak is a good thing or a bad thing at the Post depends entirely on the spin that can be given the resulting news story.
The Post concludes its article with a last shot at Cheney:

Cheney, in the NPR interview, said intelligence pointing to stockpiles of anthrax and VX nerve agent came from the United Nations. “This isn’t something we dreamed up or something that was thought about at the CIA,” he said. “Everybody believed it, and had good reason to believe it.”
The United Nations said Iraq had not accounted for the destruction of its anthrax and VX agents but did not assert that Iraq still had such stockpiles. Iraq said it had disposed of the weapons but did not say how.

Again, the Post’s “correction” of Cheney misses the mark. Here is what Cheney said on NPR: “The U.N. got it from the Iraqis–that they did have large stocks of anthrax, large stocks of VX.” Cheney obviously didn’t say that the Iraqis made this admission in the fall of 2003; he referred to Iraq’s disclosures to the U.N., culminating in September 1997, which admitted that Iraq had produced large quantities of the banned weapons. In its 1999 UNSCOM report, the United Nations concluded that Iraq had under-reported its production of those materials, including anthrax and VX, had systematically lied to and deceived the U.N. inspectors, and had wholly failed to account for the weapons’ current whereabouts. (See, for example, paragraph 85.) And the U.N., in its March 2003 UNMOVIC report, concluded: “Based on all the available evidence, the strong presumption is that about 10,000 litres of anthrax was not destroyed and may still exist.”
So what Cheney said was precisely accurate. The Iraqis told the U.N. that they had large stocks of biological weapons. And the Post fails to report that in addition to that historical fact, the U.N. also said, in the fall of 2003, that there was a “strong presumption” that large quantities of anthrax may still be in Iraq.
It is hard to see this kind of shoddy journalism as anything other than a part of the Democrats’ 2004 campaign.