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DON’T LOOK BACK (PART 4)! Powell pimped some iffy Scuds. Bob Woodward knew how to spin them:

MONDAY, MAY 24, 2004

DEJA NOUS: No, of course, it’s no In America. But we do recommend the re-release of The Battle of Algiers (1965). The first half of the film is better drama, but the second half becomes simply eery as a preview of Abu Ghraib. Toward the end, the script seems to come from this past months’s newspapers; it provides a remarkable bit of deja vu. And of course, since the French (and French-looking) lose out in the end, Fox pundits can enjoy this film too.

Our current series—Don’t look back!

READ EACH EXCITING INSTALLMENT: The press corps snoozed on the road to Iraq. We look at a few favorite stories:

PART 1: Pundits snoozed on the road to Iraq. Jim Lehrer has a strange explanation. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/17/04.

PART 2: When Hamza did Hardball, the public got hoaxed. Why won’t the press corps discuss it? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/19/04.

PART 3: Why is Zarqawi still walking around? The press corps keeps dodging the topic. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/22/04.

And now, for today’s final episode:

DON’T LOOK BACK (PART 4): It would have been “difficult” to “go against the grain” in the months leading up to Iraq, Lehrer said. And yes, the pattern seems to be holding; even today, the press corps seems to find it “difficult” to look back on that period. Even today, awkward story lines get ignored–and the conduct of press corps favorites gets puffed. Let’s consider a final example. Let’s review the way Bob Woodward looked back at the corps’ greatest icon, Colin Powell.

On February 5, 2003, Powell went before the United Nations to argue for war in Iraq. Six months later, on August 9, the Associated Press published a lengthy story, showing that much of what Powell said had turned out to be faulty or bogus. But today, within the mainstream press, everyone knows how to play this topic. For example, here was Woodward with Tim Russert on the April 25 Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: Colin Powell had deep, deep misgivings about this war...Despite Secretary Powell being somewhat semi-despondent, I think is the phrase you used in the book, he went to the United Nations and made the case against Saddam Hussein, in favor of his possession of weapons of mass destruction, and key elements of that case have now proven to be faulty.

WOODWARD: That’s right. And he spent four days going through the CIA intelligence on this, Powell did, and he was very skeptical. He called in his deputy, Armitage, and he said, “You’re coming with me,” on a Sunday, and they asked questions and they didn’t go far enough. They weren’t skeptical enough. I think when Powell made that presentation, he believed it.

Everyone knows to agree with those points. Powell was “very skeptical” and asked lots of questions–but he just wasn’t skeptical enough. He tried–but he didn’t go far enough. And of course, one more thing must always be said. Powell believed his UN presentation.

But Woodward’s strange book doesn’t really seem to support this pleasing recitation. Yes, Plan of Attack persistently says how careful Powell was with his facts. Here, for example, is the book’s first snapshot of the way Powell built his presentation:

WOODWARD (page 292): As Powell was preparing his presentation, Cheney called.

Colin, the vice president said, look carefully at the terrorism case that Scooter [Libby] prepared. Give it a good look.

Sure, Dick, Powell said. He generally used the vice president’s name when they were alone. Cheney was not ordering him or trying to direct him. It was just a request to take a serious look.

Powell looked at it. Four Mohammad Atta meetings in Prague. That was worse than ridiculous. He pitched it.

This sets the tone for Plan of Attack’s section on Powell’s UN presentation. Powell is the constant skeptic. “Powell found much of the intelligence murky,” Woodward writes on page 298. Page 299: “The more Powell dug, the more he realized that the human sources were few and far between on Iraq’s WMD. It was not a pretty picture.” Eventually, Powell calls in his trusted aide, Richard Armitage, and they marvel at how “iffy” the intel is. On page 309, Powell finds the intel too “inferential.” These repeated portraits lead to the picture Woodward sketched on Meet the Press.

But as happens so often in Woodward’s strange book, we’re told one thing but shown another. Repeatedly, Woodward says that Powell was a skeptic. What, by contrast, does he show us? He shows us Powell including “iffy,” “murky,” “inferential” material in his UN speech! At one point, for example, Woodward describes the way Powell crafted his claim about Iraqi Scuds:

WOODWARD (page 309): It had been four very, very difficult days for Powell as he sorted through the intelligence reports. So much was inferential, he thought. The intelligence people kept repeating that Saddam had a few dozen Scud missiles. “The Scuds are not anything anyone has seen,” he said. As he read, he saw that previous U.N. inspectors had accounted for something like 817 of the 819 Scuds. But there was other information suggesting that some still remained, so he agreed to refer vaguely to “up to a few dozen Scud-variant” missiles.
Speaking of “murky,” by the way, how about Woodward’s prose in this passage? He seems to say that UN inspectors “had accounted for” all but two of the Scuds, and he quotes Powell making an odd (but suitably skeptical) comment to someone he fails to identify. As usual, we’re told how “difficult” it was for poor Powell. But what are we actually shown in the end? Powell crafts a murky statement which seems designed to obscure the fact that he has no real evidence of any Scuds. But then, we see such episodes all through this part of the book, always obscured by Woodward’s cheerleading. For example, here’s how Powell decided to use an intercepted phone conversation:
WOODWARD (page 299): What was the best they had? Powell and Armitage reviewed an intercepted conversation between two senior officers of the Republican Guard...The intercept, from the day before inspections began in November, showed a colonel telling a brigadier general that he had a modified vehicle from the al-Kindi company, which in the past had been involved with WMD. The colonel then contradicted himself, saying, “We evacuated everything. We don’t have anything left.” It was suggestive, and potentially incriminating, but what he was talking about was not clear. No one could tell from this intercept or any other intelligence. An alternative explanation was that the colonel and the general just wanted to make sure they had complied. Powell decided to use it because it involved senior officials and the “evacuated” quote seemed strong.
“No one could tell” what they were talking about, but Powell decided to use it anyway. But then, this part of Plan of Attack is larded with such examples–examples in which Powell decides to use “murky,” “iffy,” “inferential” material. (Woodward shows Powell stretching the info on Zarqawi, for example. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/22/04.) But Woodward always knows how to play it. Woodward shows us Powell stretching the intel. But he tells us how “skeptical” Powell was–and that is what he told Tim Russert when he went on Meet the Press. Russert knew not to object.

But that’s the way it seems to go inside this mainstream “press corps.” As Jim Lehrer so aptly said, it would have been “difficult” to deal with certain topics when Bush was saying something different. And even today, it seems too hard to talk about certain matters. In Washington, “brilliant lifestyles” are more easily maintained if certain awkward tales don’t get told. Powell is a press corps icon. The truth here is just never told.

So we think Jim Lehrer provided a service when he played some Hardball last month. He helped us see the kinds of concerns that drive the mainstream press corps. In Lehrer’s case, he has his novels to write, and his parties to attend, and all of this would be more “difficult” if he went “against the grain” on Iraq. According to Lehrer’s own account, that’s why certain stories got dumped as pundits snoozed on the road to Iraq. We’d have to guess that this explains why certain stories get ignored even now.

MUCH TOO DIFFICULT: And then, there’s the story you never hear discussed. Why in the world did the State Department accept those “crudely forged documents” about uranium in Niger? When the UN finally got the docs, they quickly saw that the docs had been forged. But somehow, Powell and others hadn’t noticed. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/30/03, with links to Seymour’s Hersh’s piece in The New Yorker.

No, this story doesn’t seem to make sense. Yes, it does suggest gross misconduct. For that reason, it’s a “difficult” thing to discuss. Is that why this tale’s dead and gone?

THOSE IFFY SCUDS: On August 9, 2003, Charles Hanley penned a 2600-word AP report about the Powell presentation. “Six months after that Feb. 5 appearance, [Powell’s] file does look thin,” Hanley judged. Here’s the part of Hanley’s report which dealt with those iffy Scuds:


Powell said “intelligence sources” indicate Iraq had a secret force of up to a few dozen prohibited Scud-type missiles. He said it also had a program to build newer, 600-mile-range missiles, and had put a roof over a test facility to block the view of spy satellites.

No Scud-type missiles have been reported found. In the 1990s, U.N. inspectors had reported accounting for all but two of these missiles. No program for long-range missiles has been uncovered. Powell didn’t note that U.N. teams were repeatedly inspecting missile facilities, including looking under that roof, and reporting no Iraqi violations of U.N. resolutions.

Ugh. According to Hanley, Powell had forgotten to say that UN inspectors were under that troubling roof.

For the record, the Scuds were the last of seventeen topics explored in Hanley’s report. According to Hanley, Powell had come up short again and again. But little was made of the AP report. Some stories are just too “difficult.”

By the way, Plan of Attack includes an Epilogue. Here’s the way it starts:

WOODWARD (page 401): On March 20, [2003,] the first full day of the war, General Franks reported that Special Forces were in partial control of the vast western desert area–25 percent of Iraq’s territory, which enabled them to prevent Scud missile firings–as well as the southern oil fields...
We don’t quite understand that either. For the record, Barton Gellman had described the same sweep into the western desert in the Washington Post:
GELLMAN (6/13/03): A “direct action” team from Task Force 20 swept into a military base in Iraq’s western desert, near Qaim, to preempt the firing of chemical-armed Scud missiles that U.S. intelligence suspected of being at the site. The team killed the Iraqi garrison guards but found no missiles.
Oops! The team “found no missiles,” Gellman reports. Woodward tells a more pleasing tale. In his typically murky narration, the heroic sweep seems to prevent the non-existent missiles from firing. But so it goes as the Washington press tells its unexamined group tales.