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Press Watch

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A month ago, when thirty-seven neoconservatives, led by William Kristol, William Bennett and Jeane Kirkpatrick, signed an open letter warning George Bush that failure to attack Iraq would "constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism," they were widely dismissed as extremists. But in one short week, the extreme became the mainstream, thanks largely to the anthrax scare and to the media's role in fanning it.

About the Author

Michael Massing
Michael Massing, a New York writer, is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and Columbia Journalism...

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On Tuesday, October 16, Senator Tom Daschle announced that the anthrax discovered in a letter sent to his office was of a "very potent" form. On Wednesday, the headlines blared. "Sign of Escalating Threat," the New York Times declared atop a story by Stephen Engelberg and Judith Miller. This "high grade" anthrax, they wrote, "finely milled so that it would float a considerable distance on the smallest of air currents," suggested that "for the first time in history a sophisticated form of anthrax has been developed and used as a weapon in warfare or bioterrorism." It also suggested that "somewhere, someone has access to the sort of germ weapons capable of inflicting huge casualties." A prime suspect, Engelberg and Miller noted, was Iraq. But, they cautioned, it was too early to say for sure whether Iraq was responsible.

On the next day's Op-Ed pages, even that caveat was missing. In the Times, Richard Butler, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, wrote that, based on his visits to Iraq from 1997 to 1999, he had concluded that "biological weapons are closest to President Hussein's heart because it was in this area that his resistance to our work reached its height." Noting reports that hijacker Mohamed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague last year, Butler observed that this "may have been an occasion on which anthrax was provided" to him.

In the same day's Wall Street Journal, former Director of Central Intelligence R. James Woolsey held forth about "The Iraq Connection," as the headline put it. The "professionally prepared and precisely sized anthrax spores" that closed down the Capitol, he wrote, made it essential to determine with whom we are "at war." Offering various bits of circumstantial evidence against Saddam Hussein, including that Mohamed Atta meeting in Prague, Woolsey urged the Bush Administration to move against Baghdad.

Meanwhile, in the Washington Post, Richard Cohen, in a column headlined "Public Enemy No. 2," noted that while it was not yet clear whether Saddam was responsible for the anthrax in Daschle's office, it didn't really matter. "Neither the United States nor the rest of the world should countenance any state--especially a rogue one--developing weapons of mass destruction," Cohen wrote. "Saddam and his bloody bugs have to go."

The next day, Tom Ridge, the director of the Office of Homeland Security, announced that further testing showed that the strain of anthrax in Daschle's mail was indistinguishable from that found in the offices of NBC in Manhattan and the National Enquirer in Florida, and, moreover, that the tests "have shown that these strains have not been, quote, unquote, weaponized."

Then, on Saturday, the Times, in a story filed by John Tagliabue from Prague, reported that Czech officials, upon investigation, had concluded that Atta had not met with an Iraqi intelligence official during his stop in Prague.

Buried on page B6, the Times story received little attention. One person who noticed it, however, was George Stephanopoulos, and he brought it up in an exchange with George Will on ABC's This Week on Sunday morning. "Iraq's fingerprints were all over the '93 bombing of the World Trade Center," said Will, one of the most vocal proponents of going after Saddam Hussein. "We know that Mohamed Atta met in Prague with Iraqi agents----"

"We actually don't know that," Stephanopoulos interrupted. "The Prague intelligence services have said they can't confirm that. They're still working on it."

"As Rumsfeld says, 'The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence,'" Will sniffed. "The fact is, there's lots of reports of contacts in Sudan and Afghanistan and in Prague that suggest that Iraq is involved. And there is a large constituency in this town desperate not to see that because it then does dictate action." In other words, Will seemed to say, Don't bother me with the facts.

Will's was not the only voice raised against Iraq on the Sunday morning talk shows. On NBC's Meet the Press, Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman urged the Administration to attack Saddam. On CBS's Face the Nation, Dr. Richard Spertzel, a former UN biochemical weapons inspector in Iraq, said that he did in fact believe the anthrax found in Daschle's office was weapons grade and that "most likely" it came "from some other country." Spertzel was followed by Jim Hoagland, a Washington Post columnist who has also vigorously advocated attacking Iraq. While we don't yet have the evidence that Iraq was involved in the anthrax incidents, Hoagland said, they "should bring home to us the danger of having a regime in place" that has the motivation.

Taking in all this, I was struck by how monolithic and unquestioning coverage had become. Because anthrax had been discovered in New York and Washington, the political and journalistic establishment suddenly seems united in wanting to attack Iraq. Here and there I found a few notes of skepticism. In the London Guardian, for instance, in a piece headlined, "Don't Blame Saddam for This One," Scott Ritter, another former weapons inspector in Iraq, observed that Iraq's main biological weapons facility was destroyed as part of the inspection process and that all the tests before the inspectors were kicked out had produced "no evidence of anthrax or any other biological agent." And Sharon Begley, in a fine article in Newsweek, noted that "thousands of scientists around the world have learned how to turn anthrax into a weapon" and that the equipment needed to do so is "not hard to acquire."

None of this, of course, rules out the possibility that Iraq does indeed have a bioterrorism capability. For the most part, though, the press seems uninterested in reporting on this or other key questions. What is the evidence of Iraq's ties to Al Qaeda? What did the UN inspectors find in Iraq, and what has been taking place there since they stopped visiting? If Iraq is shown to have ties to the anthrax attacks, or to September 11, what practically could the United States do about it? If, as the hawks seem to want, we did invade Iraq, what would the consequences be? Clearly, it's time for more facts and less opinion.

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