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Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, June 04, 2004
 

Bob Woodward's WMD nearly scoop


Michael Massing has delivered a follow-up (dated June 24) to his noted article (dated February 26) on coverage of the Iraqi WMD issue by the media in general and Judith Miller in particular [1].

As a first bite at the latest Massing cherry, I'll take his opening story [2], taken from Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack:
By mid-March 2003, Woodward writes, three separate sources had told him confidentially that the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction "was not as conclusive as the CIA and the administration had suggested."

Ah. Something the Post's readers might wish to know. And Woodward a Post journo: handy, that.

Uncle Bob was on it like a flash.
This, he notes, "was troubling, particularly on what seemed to be the eve of war."

Mind like a steel trap.

He goes to Walter Pincus - a journo with some pedigree on security issues - who says that's what his sources are telling him.
Woodward then drafted five paragraphs for a possible news story and gave a copy to Pincus and the Post's national security editor.

Massing quotes some of the copy:
Some of the key US intelligence that is the basis for the conclusion that Iraq has large caches of weapons of mass destruction looks increasingly circumstantial, and even shaky as it is further scrutinized, subjected to outside analysis and on-the-ground verification, according to informed sources.

A senior Bush administration source briefed last month on the intelligence said it was "pretty thin," and might be enough to reach the legal standard of "probable cause" to bring an indictment but not enough for conviction.


One naturally winces at the sourcing; but as a lead with a Woodward-Pincus byline, you can't help feeling it would have made the Bushies do a bit more than wince.

In the event,
Both Pincus and the editor thought the draft "a little strong," and Woodward agreed. "Though the sources were excellent," he wrote, "they were only saying the evidence was skimpy. None were asserting that WMD would not be found in Iraq after a war." Instead the Post on March 16, 2003, ran a much-toned-down version by Pincus on page A17, under the headline, "US Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms."

Ah, good old A17 - the Salon des refus├ęs for work inclined to shock sensitive souls in high places!

Woodward allows himself a fatuous druther:
I did not feel I had enough information to effectively challenge the official conclusions about Iraq's alleged WMD. In light of subsequent events, I should have pushed for a front page story, even on the eve of war, presenting more forcefully what our sources were saying.

Massing cites this as an example of Woodward's MO:
This account reveals something about Woodward's method. Like most of his other books, Plan of Attack contains much information that, if disclosed in "real time," could have had an effect on the course of events. Woodward's books leave the impression that everything his subjects told him was embargoed until the book was ready for publication. In this case, however, Woodward was clearly free to reveal the doubts that some senior officials had expressed to him regarding the White House's claims about Iraq's arsenal. That he ultimately decided not to do so seems further evidence of the reluctance of the Post as well as other news organizations to challenge the administration's case for war.

But I'm not clear whether Woodward's sources provided the WMD information in the course of interviews for Woodward's book. (For such interviews, as my April 20 piece discussed [2], it seem that a pre-publication (of the book) embargo was offered.) Presumably, Woodward talks to USG people all the time, book or no book; and Pincus' sources clearly would be expecting no embargo for their revelations.

In fact, I suspect that Woodward's book, in this context, is a red herring; Woodward doesn't seem to rely on any sort of embargo as an excuse for not publishing the original version of his proposed piece.

I shall have to knock Massing's piece down half a grade, I fear.

More in due course.

  1. Which I looked at in detail on February 10, and have referred to about a dozen times since.

  2. I considered Bob Woodward's distinctive MO in a piece on April 20 - with a different example.


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