Excerpt: Feet to the Fire
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Editor's Note: The following excerpt, an interview from 'Feet to the Fire' by Kristina Borjesson, is reprinted with permission from Prometheus Books.
More often than any other journalist or news organization, Knight Ridder was mentioned by those in "Feet to the Fire" as the best source for post-9/11 reporting.
The person most responsible for setting this platinum standard of journalism is John Walcott.
Long after the Twin Towers had collapsed, Walcott and his crack team of reporters were virtually alone in their pursuit of what the real intelligence analysts were saying about the White House's case against Saddam.
Cumulatively, Knight Ridder's reporting damns the Bush administration in devastating detail. The thing is, for now, Knight Ridder isn't on the radar where Team Walcott's work would really count: Washington and New York. Nonetheless, Walcott persists
Besides his obvious zeal for journalistic excellence, Walcott felt an acute need to look hard at the rationales for going to war for another reason: "Unlike a lot of our competitors who write for the people who send other people to war, we write for the people who get sent to war, and for their mothers and fathers and their sisters and brothers and their sons and daughters. We don't publish in Washington and New York. We write for Columbus, Georgia, and Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and Fort Hood, Texas, and Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, where the people who get sent to war live and where they leave their families behind."
In this interview, Walcott reveals the inner workings of how he and his team do what they do, providing a fascinating window into how the very best journalism is achieved.
John Walcott: It was clear to everyone within days of 9/11 that the administration was already beginning to turn its attention to Iraq, so the reporting we did from the very start was on three tracks.
There was a terrorist track that had to do with al Qaeda, and what was known about that. There was an Afghan war track, where we formed a fairly extensive team of people from all over Knight Ridder to go to Afghanistan and cover combat operations while some of us here tried to learn what we could about al Qaeda as documents were uncovered.
So there was a terrorism track, an Afghanistan track, and almost from the beginning, an Iraq track. Literally the day after 9/11, people either close to or in the administration began talking about Iraq. As 2001 turned into 2002, it became clear that the president had made the fundamental decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Warren Strobel and I wrote a story about it on February 13, 2002, "Bush Has Decided to Overthrow Hussein."
The lead was: "President Bush has decided to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power and ordered the CIA, the Pentagon and other agencies to devise a combination of military, diplomatic and covert steps to achieve that goal, senior U.S. officials said Tuesday."
Kristina Borjesson: What were your colleagues reporting at the time?
JW: Nothing of that sort, and there's been a big semantic debate about when the decision to invade Iraq was made, because the decision to overthrow Saddam was not necessarily a decision to invade the country.
But it's becoming clearer that the decision was made a good deal earlier than the administration let on. A British memo that recently was leaked to the Sunday Times of London reported that the president had decided to invade Iraq before the end of July 2002.
Warren Strobel and I wrote a story ["'Downing Street' Memo Indicates Bush Made Intelligence Fit Iraq Policy," May 5, 2005] about it a few days after it appeared in Britain because it not only says that the decision was made much earlier than the administration has said it was, but it also reports that the administration arranged the intelligence about Iraq to support what it knew was a weak case for war:
A highly classified British memo, leaked in the midst of Britain's just-concluded election campaign, indicates that President Bush decided to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by summer 2002 and was determined to ensure that U.S. intelligence data supported his policy."
"The document, which summarizes a July 23, 2002, meeting of British Prime Minister Tony Blair with his top security advisers, reports on a visit to Washington by the head of Britain's MI-6 intelligence service. The visit took place while the Bush administration was still declaring to the American public that no decision had been made to go to war."
"There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable," the MI-6 chief said at the meeting, according to the memo.
"Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD, weapons of mass destruction."
The memo said that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
Once you begin making plans, ordering up troops, and making commitments, it gets harder and harder to stop the train. In fact, the train develops a timetable of its own. You can't get forces in motion and leave them in limbo for long periods of time. It's something of a mystery why all of this came to a head when it did, in March of 2003, but I think the best explanation is that's simply when things reached a point of no return and holding them up any further would have been impossible militarily, logistically, and politically. But as the British memo indicates, the fundamental decision to use military force to overthrow Saddam was made very early and everything else flowed from that.
A couple of things flowed from the decision to overthrow Saddam. One was that it was reasonable to assume that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was going to require military action. The United States did not have the covert means to overthrow him. We knew perfectly well that the CIA had no operations of any note inside Iraq. They had, for a long time, been relying almost entirely on exiles and defectors, so they didn't have the wherewithal to mount an internal coup against Hussein. The political situation inside Iraq was such that there was no one to work with. Saddam had killed everyone who even looked at him cross-eyed. So trying to find an opposition to support was a nonstarter, as was the idea that he would leave voluntarily. There was no prospect of that.
KB: At the time that you were first reporting that the Bush administration was saying that he had to go, were you getting any sense of why they felt he had to go?
JW: There clearly was a fear that Saddam and al Qaeda would make common cause and that the next World Trade Center attack would include biological, chemical or radiological, or even nuclear weapons. Warren Strobel and I reported that in the February 13, 2002, story, "Bush Has Decided to Overthrow Hussein."
The president feared another attack and, I'm afraid, feared being held accountable for such a terrible thing. No administration wants something like that to happen on its watch. That's sensible enough. As time went on, the administration was talking about Saddam more and more frequently, and the decision to invade Iraq was being more and more clearly articulated.
This prompted two basic questions. One had to do with the war in Afghanistan, which was unfinished at best: What were the implications of subordinating the war against al Qaeda, the group that did attack the United States and kill three thousand people, to a new war?
Second, a decision to go to war, even a war against a third-rate power such as Iraq, is the most serious decision any president can make, and we wanted to know: What was the case for war? Why was it essential?
We thought that our readers would be particularly interested in the answers to these questions because, unlike a lot of our competitors who write for the people who send other people to war, we write for the people who get sent to war, and for their mothers and fathers and their sisters and brothers and their sons and daughters.
We don't publish in Washington and New York. We write for Columbus, Georgia, and Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and Fort Hood, Texas, and Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, where the people who get sent to war live and where they leave their families behind.
KB: But why wouldn't that be important coverage for everyone?
You'd think it would be. But the other news organizations are going to have to answer for themselves. To me, it's self-evident. Any time a country proposes a step that dramatic, one that may cost lives, one that asks our young men and women to go and kill someone else's young men and women, that should receive the toughest scrutiny. It doesn't get more serious than that. It does not. We know that not only from going to Arlington Cemetery but from going to Walter Reed Hospital. This is serious stuff. We felt that it was our duty to examine as critically as we could the case for war as the administration made it. We felt that we had to ask the questions about whether the case stood up. We felt a real responsibility to do that.
There were, from the outset, some very troubling things about what the administration was saying. They were troubling at a commonsense level. The first one was the notion that Saddam and al Qaeda were going to make common cause. Blind acceptance of this idea had red flags all over it from the very start. It simply didn't make sense.
A secular regime run by a guy with two Cognac-swilling sons is not a likely ally of a Wahhabi3 extremist. In fact, one of Osama's goals is to establish a new caliphate in the Arab world and to sweep away apostate rulers such as Saddam Hussein, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, the Saudis, King Abdullah of Jordan, and the rest of them.
So the idea that Saddam would do anything to strengthen a mortal enemy raised a lot of questions in our minds. I think that the basic fact of Saddam's secularism, despite his putting on Islamic trappings rather late in his career, and Osama's theocratic agenda were perfectly plain for anyone to see, even somebody who wasn't deeply versed in Wahhabism or the nature of Saddam's regime. I think it was fairly obvious. So to me, the question of why these two would get together, what was the likelihood of their getting together, was pretty obvious and bore looking into.
The minute we started looking into it, the answers that started coming back from people inside the government were: "No way, there's no evidence of it," and even more interestingly, "a lot of the things the administration and its allies are talking about are not true."
These people were also growing more and more alarmed by two things: First, this fixation with Iraq was beginning to detract from the war against Osama, which to this day is still unfinished. Second, intelligence information was being misused to assemble the case for war.
This started coming out in the summer of 2002. I'll give you two concrete examples of the misuse of intelligence information. The first one was the allegation that was very frequently made that Saddam had a hijacking training facility at a place called Salman Pak.
That one was being bandied about a lot both by people in the administration and by members or allies of the Iraqi National Congress. When we called folks in the government who were knowledgeable about that and asked, the answer that came back was that the intelligence indicated that Salman Pak was a counterhijacking training facility and that there was no evidence that foreign terrorists had visited the facility. There were no passport records and no overhead photography.
Now, American intelligence on this was, to put it mildly, limited because of the CIA's and other agencies' inability or unwillingness to take the risks necessary to penetrate Iraq. So you didn't necessarily want to bet the farm on what intelligence sources said. But it was interesting that there was no evidence to support the allegation that Iraq had set up an international terrorist training camp to teach people how to hijack airplanes. The evidence did suggest that what they were doing was teaching their own people how to foil hijackings, which was even more interesting because, who were they afraid might hijack their planes? Probably people like bin Laden.
A second example of the misuse of intelligence information occurred when the administration argued at one point that the Iraqi ambassador to Turkey, who was a former director general of the Iraqi intelligence services, had gone to Afghanistan in 1998 after the Clinton administration bombed some al Qaeda camps in retaliation for U.S. embassy bombings in Africa. They said that this gentleman had offered sanctuary in Iraq to Osama and to bin Laden's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. They also said that he had met with Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
So we asked our sources about that. It turns out that there was a record showing that the guy had gone and met with Mullah Omar and bin Laden and made such an offer. But the administration never mentioned bin Laden's answer. Bin Laden not only said no, but he turned to one of his people later on and said, "We're not going to Iraq because if we go there it will be his agenda and not our agenda."
So not only had he declined the offer, but he also had made it clear that he didn't share Saddam's agenda. He preferred to stay in Afghanistan, even at the risk of getting bombed, to pursue his own agenda rather than subordinating it to Saddam's secular agenda. The administration simply left out the second part of the story.
We reported this on October 8, 2002, in "Some in Bush Administration Have Misgivings about Iraq Policy."
The crux of that story, though, was that a growing number of military officers, intelligence professionals, and diplomats were having misgivings about the White House's rush to war:
"These officials charge that administration hawks have exaggerated evidence of the threat Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein poses -- including distorting his links to the al Qaeda terrorist network -- have overstated the amount of international support for attacking Iraq, and have downplayed the potential repercussions of a new war in the Middle East. They charge that the administration squelches dissenting views and that intelligence analysts are under intense pressure to produce reports supporting the White House's argument that Saddam poses such an immediate threat to the United States that pre-emptive military action is necessary.
"Analysts at the working level in the intelligence community are feeling very strong pressure from the Pentagon to cook the books," said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A dozen other officials echoed his views in interviews with Knight Ridder. No one who was interviewed disagreed. They cited recent suggestions by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice that Saddam and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network are working together.
The story was ignored here in Washington. We don't have a paper here. Our nearest paper is in Philadelphia. I think the administration felt, probably correctly, that it could afford to ignore us, and that, in fact, the wisest course was to ignore us, because no one else was reporting this. It was a perfectly sensible political decision on their part, and that's pretty well how it went for a year and a half. But the important thing, I think, is that almost all of the reporting we did was prompted by allegations that we knew were dubious or that simply didn't make any sense.
I'll give you another example from the famous Powell speech to the United Nations. Just off the top of my head, two things stuck out. First, there was the notion that the Iraqis had been photographed backing trucks up to secret facilities to go hide stuff. The Iraqis know to the minute when American satellites are overhead because the Soviets taught them long ago how to figure it out.
So why, if they were trying to hide something, would they back up trucks in broad daylight when they knew a satellite was passing overhead? It doesn't make any sense.
Second, knowing that virtually all of their communications had been compromised, why would Iraqi officers get on the telephone and talk about hiding stuff? It's almost as if they wanted us to believe they had WMD; as if they were trying to fool us into believing they had them. They might have wanted us to think that because their only hope of heading off an invasion would have been to make us believe that they had this stuff and were ready to use it.
KB: Why do you think we went to war?
JW: I think there was a genuine fear in the administration that Iraq somehow was going to link up and provide some material support to al Qaeda. I think there were a lot of officials who believed that Iraq had WMDs. The Iraqis had been lying, and their track record with the UN inspectors was not a very encouraging one. It was a logical enough thing to worry about. But worrying about something and having enough evidence to send people to war are two different things in my mind.
KB: What about the conflicts between the intelligence agencies and the White House?
JW: I assume Jon Landay has talked to you in some detail about how this first burst into full view during the controversy over the aluminum tubes. The administration said Saddam was trying to procure them for his nuclear weapons program, while others said that the tubes were for launching artillery rockets.
The State Department intelligence bureau and the Energy Department -- which is the repository of most of the expertise on technical matters such as this -- disagreed with the administration and registered their dissents in the National Intelligence Estimate report.7 The dissents were ignored. We found that this pattern was repeated over and over again. In fact, it was worse than that because officials who dissented tended to be punished, exiled, banished, not listened to, and not invited to meetings.
KB: What other examples can you give that you reported on about that pattern?
JW: I'm trying to go back. The best single report of that is the one that Jon Landay did on the comparison between the public version of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq and the classified version, in which they stripped all the caveats, all the dissents, and all the cautionary notes out of the public version. They ran up every red flag and produced a report that the Silberman-Robb WMD Commission says is one of the many things that was, in its words, "dead wrong."
Landay wrote up a whole laundry list of differences between the public and classified versions of the NIE in his February 9, 2004, article, "Doubts, Dissent Stripped from Public Iraq Assessments:"
For example, the public version declared that "most analysts assess Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program" and says, "if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon this decade." But it fails to mention the dissenting view offered in the top-secret version by the State Department's intelligence arm, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, known as the INR.
That view said, in part, "the activities we have detected do not, however, add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what INR would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons. Iraq may be doing so, but INR considers the available evidence inadequate to support such a judgment."
What the comparison showed is that while the top-secret version delivered to Bush, his top lieutenants and Congress were heavily qualified with caveats about some of its most important conclusions about Iraq's illicit weapons programs, the caveats were omitted from the public version. The caveats included the phrases, "we judge that," "we assess that" and "we lack specific information on many key aspects of Iraq's WMD programs."
These phrases, according to current and former intelligence officials, long have been used in intelligence reports to stress an absence of hard information and underscore that judgments are extrapolations or estimates.
Among the most striking differences between the versions were those over Iraq's development of small, unmanned aircraft, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs]. The public version said that Iraq's UAVs "especially if used for delivery of chemical and biological warfare [CBW] agents -- could threaten Iraq's neighbors, U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, and the United States if brought close to, or into, the U.S. Homeland."
The classified version showed there was major disagreement on the issue from the agency with the greatest expertise on such aircraft, the Air Force. The Air Force "does not agree that Iraq is developing UAVs primarily intended to be delivery platforms for chemical and biological warfare [CBW] agents," it said. "The small size of Iraq's new UAV strongly suggests a primary role of reconnaissance, although CBW delivery is an inherent capability."
The public version contained the alarming warning that Iraq was capable of quickly developing biological warfare agents that could be delivered by "bombs, missiles, aerial sprayers, and covert operatives, including potentially against the U.S. Homeland." No such warning that Iraq's biological weapons would be delivered to the United States appeared in the classified version."
Deleted from the public version was a line in the classified report that cast doubt on whether Saddam was prepared to support terrorist attacks on the United States, a danger that Bush and his top aides raised repeatedly in making their case for war. "Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW [Chemical Biological Weapons] against the United States, fearing that exposure of Iraqi involvement would provide Washington with a stronger case for making war," the top-secret report said.
Also missing from the public report were judgments that Iraq would attempt "clandestine attacks" on the United States only if an American invasion threatened the survival of Saddam's regime or "possibly for revenge."
Landay concluded that "as a result, the public was given a far more definitive assessment of Iraq's plans and capabilities than President Bush and other U.S. decision-makers received from their intelligence agencies. The stark differences between the public version and the then top-secret version of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate raise new questions about the accuracy of the public case made for a war that's claimed the lives of more than five hundred U.S. service members and thousands of Iraqis."
KB: One of the assessments mentioned in the new report from the presidential commission assigned to look into intelligence failures that came out March 30, 2005, was that they were recommending more interagency discussions, more devil's advocate exchanges among the intelligence agencies about the intelligence.
JW:The opposite was true during the prewar phase. Dissenters were punished.
KB:What, then, do the administration's prewar activities in the intelligence area amount to?
JW: They took the nation to war using a lot of bogus information. The other thing I should mention in the bogus information category is Mr. Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress. Why anyone would take at face value information from a group that was thoroughly distrusted by the intelligence professionals -- not only at the CIA but also at the DIA and the Department of State -- and that had a clear interest in encouraging an American attack, is beyond me. I just can't understand why that kind of information was accepted so uncritically.
KB: Do you think there was an orchestrated deception campaign?
JW: Yes, I wrote about this in a June 1, 2003, article: "Doubt on War Felt at Top Levels." The INC delivered the same bogus information to the news media and the Defense Department. So when the New York Times and other publications did what looked like homework and called the Defense Department and were told, "Oh yes, we've heard that too, we think that's authoritative," reporters thought they had two sources.
In fact, they had only Chalabi, as their source and as the Defense Department's source. Hearing the same information from two different directions is no guarantee that it came from two different sources.
There's a second issue here, which is the nature of your sources. There's a mistaken notion in a lot of journalism, but especially in Washington, that the value of a source is directly proportional to his or her rank.
I think that the relationship is more often the inverse for two reasons: The first one is that in any bureaucracy, whether it's a company, a newspaper, a television network, or a government, information flows from the bottom up. Not from the top down. There are many, many more people at the bottom of the pyramid collecting information, sorting it and passing it up, than there are at the top. The people at the top almost universally rely on their subordinates for information. They don't have time to read everything that people at lower ranks with more specialized jobs read. Often they don't have the same expertise. They don't speak the language. They haven't spent time in the culture. They're simply not as expert; that's not their job.
The second reason is the obvious one, which is that the higher you go in any hierarchy, the more political people become and the more what they tell you is prepackaged or spun. So if you confine yourself to reporting on people you go to cocktail parties with, and whose names you like to drop to impress other people, you are exposing yourself to a much greater risk of being spun by people who are, first of all, more skilled at spin, and second, whose job it is to spin you.
What we did was burrow down into all of the bureaucracies to the people who were not just reading the cables but writing them; not just reading the analysis but writing it; and not just reading the reports but making them. That's where we found a real cognitive dissonance between what was being said and believed at the middle levels and what we were hearing at the top levels. Now I don't want to go too far with that because there were also people at very high levels in this administration who shared the doubts of the people below them.
KB: One of the most fascinating things that I've discovered doing this book is that among this nation's top messengers there really is no consensus about why we went to war.
JW:Yes, and I don't have an answer for you on that one. You've heard all the speculation, and I don't know what the real answer is. The one thing I will say is that I do believe there was a genuinely deep, deep fear that another attack was coming and that somehow Saddam would seize an opportunity with al Qaeda to strike back at the United States in some much more dramatic way. There was a very deep-seated fear of that.
KB: Why was he so much on the radar for that when he was pretty much contained?
JW:He was contained, but it was reasonable to think that he was trying to keep his weapons programs alive. He was a thoroughly bad actor on the international scene and at home.
KB:Yes, but he wasn't particularly effective.
JW: He was never particularly effective and, second, he had no particular track record of international terrorism. The now-deceased Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal provides an instructive example. Abu Nidal was a terrible problem when he was based in Libya. When he relocated to Iraq, he ceased being a problem because the Iraqis sat on him and wouldn't let him do anything. The same is true of a much lesser known fellow named Abu Ibrahim, who was a Palestinian bomb maker. Once he was in Saddam's clutches, Saddam pretty well sat on him. So there was not a big record of Iraq being a big exporter of terrorism.
KB: I don't know there was any record.
JW: No, there really wasn't. There is the one contentious incident of Saddam allegedly trying to assassinate the president's father in Kuwait. There are questions about that. Once again, there's dissent within the intelligence community about that, but if it were my father, I might be inclined to take it a little more seriously, too.
KB: Well, you might be inclined to look into it to see exactly who it was.
JW:I think the president said at one point, "He tried to kill my dad."
KB: What was he basing that on?
JW:That he was a thoroughly bad guy. He was a terrible person.
KB: He was a friend to the United States in the past, though.
JWNo, he was the enemy of our enemy. He was never America's friend.
KB: He was the guy who we were dealing with and we certainly helped him.
JW: In that case, I think you could make a case and probably still can today that Iran was a much greater threat to American interests and American lives than Iraq was and had claimed more of them through its surrogates in Lebanon and elsewhere.
KB: I think you're right about that.
JW: And that Iran was an active exporter of terrorism, as opposed to Iraq, which was less so.
KB: Absolutely. The Europeans have a lot of direct personal experience with Iran, particularly the French What I found fascinating with the prewar coverage was we went to Afghanistan looking for Osama and al Qaeda, which made sense, and then all of a sudden we were going to Iraq, and no one seemed to question the leap of logic there when it happened.
JW: A lot of it rests on Ramzi Yousef. The administration sent Jim Woolsey to Wales to interview the South Wales Constabulary to try to prove that Yousef was an Iraqi and to forge a link between him and Iraq. He came up empty on the connection between Yousef and Iraq.
Clearly there was an effort to find every potential link, but my impression is that when that effort fell short, they began stretching the truth, as in the case of the Iraqi ambassador to Turkey.
KB: The other thing that I find interesting is why, if you have this fear that he's going to be involved in terrorism, why don't you just tell the public? Why don't you just give that as the reason for going to war? Because it seems like the WMDs and the connection to al Qaeda were pretexts.
JW: I don't know. I can't say that. I'm not sure anyone can say that they're pretexts.
JW: I think it's entirely likely that the vice president, his chief of staff, the president, and others honestly were convinced that Saddam had these weapons squirreled away and was likely to give them to somebody to use against Americans, either at home or somewhere else in the world. Now, was that an uncritical belief? Was that belief accepted too readily? Clearly it was, because now we have stacks and stacks of reports saying that that was not the case and that no evidence has been found to support that allegation. But did they believe it at the time? Yes, I think they probably did.
KB: So that basically means then that there is a crisis within our intelligence services.
JW: I think there are two crises. First of all, it is tragic that our intelligence services did not have enough reliable information to provide an antidote to the unreliable information that was being spooned up by others in their own self-interest. I think that's highly unfortunate.
I also think that the report looking into intelligence failures released on March 31, 2005, by the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, as well as other reports, suggests that the same is true of the intelligence on North Korea.
If anything, North Korea is an even harder target than Iraq was. In Iran, we've had two networks of agents taken down. We've never really been able to penetrate the high levels of the Iranian government or its nuclear program. So there's a problem there. The second problem is the relationship between the intelligence community and policymakers and the ability of policymakers to skew intelligence reports, to be selective about what they choose to believe and to use carrots and sticks to get intelligence community members to tell them what they want to hear. The tendency to please the boss is powerful in any institution.
We've seen a lot of private businesses, including newspapers, fall victim to that syndrome, so it's not unique to this administration or to government. But when you are dealing with something as serious as going to war, it becomes a serious issue when policymakers are deciding that they'll ignore this department and they'll ignore that opinion, and that they'll create their own intelligence office to tell them the kinds of things they want to hear.
They were looking for reasons to go to war, and they knew they had to make a public case for it. In a democratic society and in the world community, they made every effort to collect allies for this venture using the same kinds of information. They needed to put together a campaign that suggested that risking thousands of lives was not just justified but necessary.
KB: So they ignore the institutions that are supposed to provide them with this service and they actually create ad hoc groups and offices to come up with what they want to hear.
JWCorrect. Is there something wrong here? There are two things wrong here.
First of all, the deep distrust that a lot of people in this administration had for the intelligence community is pretty well founded. The intelligence community did not perform well in Iraq. It isn't performing well in Iran, isn't performing well in North Korea, missed the Indian nuclear test, and missed the sale of Chinese Silkworm missiles the size of boxcars to Saudi Arabia. Not a great track record.
They had all sorts of problems: counterintelligence problems, intelligence collection problems, and analytical problems. So that distrust is not crazy in any way, shape, or form. The CIA long ago became bureaucratized and risk-averse, partly in the wake of the Church and Pike Commission reports.13 Almost all of its agents were operating out of embassies. There were very few so-called NOCS or nonofficial cover agents.
So the idea of trying to be more aggressive and setting up your own operation to bypass this very troubled agency is there from the start. And it's compounded in Afghanistan where the Department of Defense is frustrated once again at the absence of an on-the-ground network there and has to build one from scratch after 9/11. Rumsfeld is on the record as being impatient waiting for the CIA and having to depend on it, so that heightens the notion that some officials held: "If we want to do this right, we've got to do it ourselves, and we can't wait for them."
So that's not crazy. The problem -- and maybe the irony -- here is that a lot of the people who believe this had as their scripture the "B team" exercise of the 1970s,14 Paul Wolfowitz chief among them. He's a very smart guy and a much more complicated fellow than the caricature would have it.
KB: I wish our press would do a better job of telling us who these people are.
JW: It's hard to get anybody to read things like that. Believe me, Paul is a very complicated person, and you're starting to see it a little bit now as he talks about this World Bank job. He talks about his experience as US ambassador in Indonesia, when he was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and when he really tangled with the Reagan administration about Marcos.
The president's inclination was to stick with Marcos, and Paul and a few others argued, "No, we should be pressuring the guy to leave." That's not the side of Paul you ever hear about, but it's true.
Anyway, the "B team" exercise crystallized a lot of the belief that you couldn't really fully trust the agency and that you ought routinely to second-guess them. The trouble, in my judgment, is that this B team didn't set up another B team to second-guess themselves.
KB: Did they want to be second-guessed?
JW: Nobody likes to be second-guessed.
KB: Well, no, but you do when you are considering such an extreme activity as war.
JW:I would want to be a little more careful, for example, with the information from defectors and exile groups, not just the INC but the Kurdish17 groups and walk-ins like "Curveball."
KB: With respect to Curveball, it's been a given for a long time that you can't trust a defector because he wants asylum and is going to blow as much smoke as he can to get the best deal.
JW: That's somewhere in the first week of case officer training, absolutely, but it's also human nature to believe what you want to believe and to filter out what you don't want to believe. What you have to do in government, and in intelligence work as in journalism, is to set up procedures that don't allow you to do that. And they didn't.
KB: I was asking one big reporter about the weapons of mass destruction story and this reporter said, "Look, the only thing we could do was report what the administration was saying," and "how are we going to confirm this story, we can't go and do a needle-in-the-haystack tour of Iraq and do a physical inventory." When I was talking to Jon Landay, he said that he went through this whole analytical process of trying to figure out how to find out if the statement was true or not and he asked himself, "If Saddam had these WMDs, what facilities would he have, and so on, and what could be easily seen," and he investigated that.
JW: Look, I can't emphasize strongly enough the fact that an awful lot of the things the administration alleged didn't make sense and raised big questions: Saddam was going to put a biological weapons facility in his own basement? A Kurdish defector had complete access to Iraq's most secret weapons programs?
KB: How does this nonsense become real?
JW: I can't answer that. All I can say is that it didn't become real here. And it doesn't make any sense to me that it was treated as real elsewhere. Why would you believe that Saddam would have given a Kurd access to his most sensitive facilities? Why would you believe he would put a biological weapons facility in his own basement?
KB: Reading your prewar reporting, which is all about raising these questions, I'm surprised that nobody ever called you from various places, the State Department or the Pentagon, for example. Another reporter I spoke to said the Pentagon absolutely believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
JW: No, they didn't. It depends on who you ask. If you ask about Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith,19 he believed it. Donald Rumsfeld believed it. Paul Wolfowitz believed it. Remember what I told you. You have to talk to the lower-echelon people who were most expert and actually handled the information in the first instance.
KB: I'm just telling you this reporter has been in the Pentagon for almost two decades. And this reporter's sources were saying, "We believe it."
JW: You didn't have to go very far to find people who had doubts. Having said that, no one ever told us absolutely that he didn't have them. It took two years of going through the place with a fine-toothed comb to be able to say with some certainty that he didn't have them. So no one ever told us he didn't have them, but what they did tell us was, "This piece of information has been twisted, this piece of information got left out, this doesn't make any sense, this contradicts what they're saying." That's the most that people could say. But going back to where I started, if what you're talking about is making a decision to go to war, those dissents, questions, and loopholes become pretty important. So the contrast between people at the most expert levels across the government saying, "We're not so sure," and people at the top level saying, "We're absolutely sure," was really striking.
KB: The other thing is that the leadership of the country has instant and continuous access to the mass consciousness media, to television, so if they want to send out a message that is quite different from that of their experts, they can.
JW: That's right, sure.
KB: So Knight Ridder, and I say this with all due respect, was, in a sense, reporting the experts' messages from inside a paper bag.
JW: That's correct. I don't disagree with that at all. It wasn't just television; it was the most powerful print institutions in the country or in the world that were reporting mostly what the leadership was saying.
KB: Yes, but TV is what really matters with the public.
JW: Yes, but TV get its lead from reading the New York Times What I'm suggesting is that the likelihood of a major television network taking a reporting tack very different from that of the Times is nil.
KB: It's less than nil, because even what they would take from the New York Times would be dry-cleaned. That's the nature of their business.
JW:Sure. So if you were setting out to influence public opinion, how would you do it?
KB: You have to go on TV.
JW: Yes, but if you were going to set the tone, to establish that it's a given that he has all this stuff and that he's a great danger to us
KB: You just send that message over and over and over.
JW:They're very good at this "message discipline," as they call it. The repetition was very effective. So effective, in fact, that we still have a healthy percentage of people -- not all of them Fox News viewers -- who still believe that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and somehow was involved in 9/11.
KB: This is the most troubling aspect to me. Fox, let's face it, only has 1.8 million viewers. That's pretty small. We have more than 295 million people in this country. How can so many of these people still believe this?
JW: Because the most powerful institutions in our country, both in media and government, said it was so. It's a pretty potent alliance.
KB: Did you come under any pressure from the administration?
JW: Oh, Lord, we sure did. It was the usual. It works in a couple of ways. Again, it's carrots and sticks. You don't get phone calls returned, you get taken off the call lists, you can't travel with Rumsfeld or Cheney, you get berated, and there are the usual phone calls
They made accusations: "The story was inaccurate," "You're looking for trouble here" -- the usual stuff. It's all the normal Washington game.
KB: But no active campaign to silence you.
JW:It was an active campaign to discredit us with other reporters, but I'll tell you in all honesty that if we had been the New York Times on the Pentagon Papers or the Washington Post on Watergate, we would have gotten a lot more heat. Although we're bigger than either of those organizations by quite a lot in terms of the number of readers, our national reach, and our presence in a lot of key electoral states, we're under the radar most of the time.
KB: Well, you don't have a presence in this town.
JW: No, we don't, but the Internet is changing that. By the way, I don't think the New York Times did a terribly good job on the prewar reporting, but they do a very good job on any number of other things. It's one of the best papers in the country.
KB: I spoke to Walter Pincus at the Washington Post. Walter was interesting because he was talking about how all his reports asking the pertinent prewar questions were ending up on page seventeen. Who makes the decisions on your papers for what gets on the front page?
JW: Each paper makes its own decisions. The important thing is that there was never any second-guessing, much less pressure, from above my head about any of the prewar reporting. Never once did anyone at corporate, from Tony Ridder on down, do anything but encourage us to keep doing what we were doing or express anything other than pride in what we were doing, even though they came under pressure.
I don't think the president ever called them and I don't think the vice president ever called them, but friends in local Republican parties and local activists came at them. I'm sure they were attacked in blogs when they ran stuff that Republicans didn't like. But never once did any of that roll back.
At that level, we had nothing but support. The bottom line is very simple: we could not have done what we did throughout this entire period without the support of my boss, Clark Hoyt, who is the Washington editor, and the total support of his boss, Jerry Ceppos, the vice president for news, and his boss, Tony Ridder.
KB: I'm very interested in the fact that your reporters here, Jon Landay and Warren Strobel, are still pursuing the prewar story.
JW:Sure, because there are still some unanswered questions. You've asked a lot of them that I can't answer.
KB: One reporter told me that he thought that the reason we went to war was predetermined even before Bush came into office, and that this was clear from the "Clean Break" document and from the Project for a New American Century.
JW: That's not a plan to go to war, but there are a number of very sensible reasons for thinking that way. First, the continued reliance on Saudi Arabia doesn't look like a very good bet. We're coming very quickly to a generational change in that country. The "Sudairi seven," the seven members of the royal family, are all elderly, and the next generation is much larger, on the order of two thousand princes, and much more diverse. They range from very pro-Western and English-educated to Osama types.
So the stability of Saudi Arabia can't be taken for granted in terms of it continuing to provide military bases for the United States, which were very important during and after the first Gulf War, and in terms of it being a reliable provider of oil and a regulator of the global oil market. It was sensible to look around for other ways to secure America's economic and military interests in that part of the world.
For reasons we talked about before, Iraq looked like a pretty decent candidate. It had a highly unpopular tyrannical minority regime that was hated by 80 percent of the country's people. That's not a bad place to start. It has a tradition of secular rule, again, thanks to Saddam. There was no highly organized radical Islamic movement, no Iraqi Islamic Jihad, and no Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood to speak of.
You also have to look at going into Iraq in terms of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. When Arafat was still alive, you didn't have the hopes that the new PLO chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, and company have raised in terms of discussing peace with Israel. That picture looked pretty bleak with Arafat in power. So if you could knock out another one of the props underneath Palestinian radicalism -- it's not the only one, but there aren't too many left -- by getting Iraq under control and willing to sign a peace treaty with Israel, you might finally be able to bring the Palestinians around to accepting the fact that they've got to make a deal.
The plan was to install Ahmed Chalabi. And the idea of having American military bases in Iraq constraining the ability of both the Iranians on one side and the Syrians on the other to misbehave and having a friendly government headed by Chalabi in Baghdad willing to allow these bases seemed like a good one. Remember, another part of Chalabi's sales pitch was that he would sign a peace treaty with Israel. So if you believe he could deliver on that, what would the effect be on the Palestinians if an Iraqi government did a complete 180 and did what the Egyptians first did and signed a formal peace treaty with Israel? That looks pretty attractive.
KB: As a journalist who's been in that region and had experience in that region, what is your response to that?
JW: Analytically, it's a pipe dream. I'm afraid that Iraq may not be nearly as fertile soil for democracy as it might appear to be, because of the ethnic divisions. I have to admit that, as I sort of "B team" myself, a Lebanese-style civil war weighs very heavily in my thinking, maybe too heavily, because they're two completely different countries with two completely different histories. But I see Sunnis and disenfranchised Shia and Kurds, and I tend to see Lebanon, which may be a mistake, but there it is.
Kristina Borjesson is an investigative journalist and the author/editor of 'Into the Buzzsaw' and 'Feet to the Fire.' John Walcott is Washington bureau chief for Knight Ridder.