MONDAY, MAY 24, 2004
DEJA NOUS: No, of course, its 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 monthss 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.
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.And now, for todays final episode:
DONT 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 ignoredand the conduct of press corps favorites gets puffed. Lets consider a final example. Lets 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.Everyone knows to agree with those points. Powell was very skeptical and asked lots of questionsbut he just wasnt skeptical enough. He triedbut he didnt go far enough. And of course, one more thing must always be said. Powell believed his UN presentation.
But Woodwards strange book doesnt 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 books first snapshot of the way Powell built his presentation:
WOODWARD (page 292): As Powell was preparing his presentation, Cheney called.This sets the tone for Plan of Attacks section on Powells 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 Iraqs 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 Woodwards strange book, were 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 Woodwards 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, were 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 Woodwards cheerleading. For example, heres 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 dont 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 examplesexamples 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 wasand that is what he told Tim Russert when he went on Meet the Press. Russert knew not to object.
But thats 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 dont 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 Lehrers 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 Lehrers own account, thats why certain stories got dumped as pundits snoozed on the road to Iraq. Wed have to guess that this explains why certain stories get ignored even now.
MUCH TOO DIFFICULT: And then, theres 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 hadnt noticed. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/30/03, with links to Seymours Hershs piece in The New Yorker.
No, this story doesnt seem to make sense. Yes, it does suggest gross misconduct. For that reason, its a difficult thing to discuss. Is that why this tales 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, [Powells] file does look thin, Hanley judged. Heres the part of Hanleys report which dealt with those iffy Scuds:
SCUDS, NEW MISSILESUgh. 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 Hanleys 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. Heres 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 area25 percent of Iraqs territory, which enabled them to prevent Scud missile firingsas well as the southern oil fields...We dont 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 Iraqs 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.