How One News Desk Got Iraq Right When Others FailedBreaking News
tags: media, Iraq War, journalism
JOHN WALCOTT is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He headed Knight Ridder’s Washington, D.C., bureau and eight international bureaus from 2002 to 2009.
Twenty years ago, the George W. Bush administration invaded Iraq to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and eliminate the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) officials said he had. Getting the American public to support a war against a country that had not attacked the United States required the administration to tell a convincing story of why the war was necessary. For that, it needed the press.
I was Knight Ridder’s Washington, D.C., bureau chief at the time, and among other duties handled our national security coverage. This gave me a front-row seat to Washington’s march to war and the media’s role in it. As the Bush administration began making its case for invading Iraq, too many Washington journalists, caught up in the patriotic fervor after 9/11, let the government’s story go unchallenged. At Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, we started asking questions and publishing stories that challenged the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq had an active WMD program and ties to al Qaeda. One thing that set Knight Ridder’s coverage apart was our sourcing—forgoing senior officials in Washington for experts and scientists inside and outside the Beltway and more junior staffers and military officers much closer to the relevant intelligence.
Such an approach would also have helped U.S. policymakers. The failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq show what happens when top officials ignore their subordinates or assemble their own teams of analysts to confirm their biases—and when journalists become stenographers for them. Unfortunately, 20 years on, there is little evidence that the Washington press corps has learned this lesson. If anything, today’s bleak media environment has only made it harder to get the story right.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, as a pillar of smoke rose from the Pentagon across the Potomac, Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau set out, like our competitors, to confirm what we all suspected—that al Qaeda was behind the attacks. We were an experienced group of journalists, with years spent developing sources in the intelligence community and the military. I had reported and edited for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and U.S. News and World Report.
Knight Ridder also had two superb national security reporters in Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, who later were reinforced by Joe Galloway, arguably the greatest war correspondent of the Vietnam era. Other news organizations also had formidable talent, along with larger staffs, bigger budgets, better reputations, and broader reach. Yet in the early days after 9/11, they didn’t seem to be noticing the red flags that the Knight Ridder team had already started seeing.
The first flag appeared just days after the attacks, when Strobel came back to the office and reported that Bush administration officials had been discussing not only the al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts in Afghanistan but also Iraq. That made little sense. Saddam’s history of supporting terrorism was less compelling than that of the dictators Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya or Hafez al-Assad of Syria, not to mention Iran’s ayatollahs. Saddam had given Abu Nidal, one of the most notorious Palestinian terrorists, limited support—but had expelled him in 1983. Abu Nidal returned to Iraq in 2002, only to die under mysterious circumstances. Some U.S. intelligence officials thought Saddam ordered his death in an attempt to deprive the United States of one casus belli.