The Postwar Post’s Nuclear Truths

The Postwar Post’s Nuclear Truths


At the end of October, The Washington Post published a ground-breaking 3,200-word front-page story about Iraq’s prewar nuclear weapons program. Post reporter Bart Gellman‘s reporting provided painstaking detail and overwhelming evidence to reveal what David Kay’s inspectors have concluded (that Iraq had no WMD programs) but have been afraid to admit.

After the Post published Kay’s cagey rebuttal of the piece’s findings, without reply, given the Post‘s policy of not responding to letters about its stories, some readers concluded that the paper was acknowledging that Kay’s assertions letter were correct.

But, Gellman and the Post‘s editors say they stand by the story 100 percent, as Gellman’s convincing rebuttal to Kay–which was sent to “Iraq News,” a listserv run by neocon pundit Laurie Mylroie–strongly shows. Gellman’s letter, which we’ve reprinted below, should be widely circulated to counter a campaign underway–led by rightwing newspapers like the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post, internet columnists like Matt Drudge, and think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute–to discredit Gellman’s invaluable reporting and obscure the way the Bush Administration willfully deceived the American public.


Dear Laurie,

Out of respect for you and the readership of Iraq News, I ask that you update a controversy you described in an earlier edition. It had to do with a story I wrote about the investigation of Iraq’s prewar nuclear weapons program. David Kay, who declined to provide any answers for that story, and Brig. Gen. Stephen Meekin, whom I quoted, wrote in challenge of what I reported. They said, in effect, that I rendered Meekin’s remarks incorrectly and that he was, in any case, neither involved in the WMD hunt nor qualified to pass judgments.

The Washington Post does not reply in print to letters and columns about our stories. Some readers, yourself perhaps included, concluded from this silence that The Post acknowledged the Kay and Meekin letters to be correct or our story to be wrong. We did not. Quite the reverse.

Since then, Leonard Downie, the executive editor, has sent an unpublished letter to David Kay. In it he said he reviewed my raw notes, the full context of two lengthy conversations with Meekin, the identities of my confidential sources and the information those sources supplied. On the basis of that investigation, Downie told Kay the Post is standing by the story without reservation. I believe he is prepared to release his letter to other interested parties.

For our internal review, I provided line by line answers to the Kay and Meekin letters. I will summarize my replies to the three points you highlighted in your previous email. If you reread the two letters closely, you will find that none of these three points are actually in dispute.

1. Meekin’s unit was, by all accounts, integrated into the Iraq Survey Group when the ISG stood up in June. As a general officer and leader of a major ISG component — this is according to Meekin, confirmed by DOD — Meekin reports direct to Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, the ISG’s commander. Meekin is also the ranking Australian officer in the ISG, which means that he retains some elements of national command over all his countrymen there. Dayton, of course, operates under the direction of David Kay. The survey group is a joint, combined and interagency task force, which blurs “reporting” chains to some degree. Kay makes use of that ambiguity in his artful denial that Meekin reports to him.

In ordinary English, Kay is in charge of the weapons hunt and Meekin works for him. Saying otherwise is roughly like saying the leaders of the DCI Counterterrorism Center don’t work for George Tenet (because those leaders report through others, and include personnel from the FBI) — except that there are several layers between the CTC and Tenet and only one between Meekin and Kay.

2. Meekin’s unit did indeed have (as Kay said) a major conventional mission — collecting and analyzing Iraqi radars and SAMS and so on. It also had, according to Meekin and all U.S. officials who spoke of it, two major missions specific to WMD. One was to find delivery systems for CW/BW/nuclear payloads (bombs, warheads, etc.). The other was what Meekin called a “due diligence or counterproliferation mission” to prevent the dispersal of materials that could be used to produce WMD. It was in the latter context that I interviewed Meekin for most of an hour on the aluminum tubes. It’s true that among the reasons he cited for calling them innocuous is that the tubes posed no conventional threat to coalition troops. But that part of the conversation took less than a minute, because Meekin did not need many words to persuade me that a rocket body without motor, fins or warhead is fairly benign. The rest of the conversation had to do with the possible use of the tubes as centrifuges, or evidence that would bear on that question.

3. Meekin is not the person responsible for making the nuclear judgment on the tubes, but he did accurately reflect the judgment of those who are. (Please note that Kay writes carefully around this point. He says for himself that it is too soon to make a judgment, but he does not dispute that my story accurately described the judgment of nuclear team leaders.) From confidential sources I know authoritatively what the nuclear team has reported, and the story noted that those sources were afraid to be named. Meekin’s value was that he spoke on the record, which is highly prized by our editors and readers alike. As for qualifications, Meekin (a) is director-general of scientific and technical assessment for Australia’s Defence Intelligence Organisation, (b) commands a staff of subject matter experts with similar background, including in dual use technology, (c) borrowed experts from other ISG units when his mission required them, specifically including the nuclear team for the tubes, and (d) was describing — accurately, as I already knew — the views of his colleagues most directly involved in the question. He need not be a nuclear expert himself to be a credible source in light of these credentials.

I think I am as surprised as anyone at the absence of evidence for Iraqi biological, chemical and missile programs. (Neither I nor most of the experts in the field thought a nuclear program had been revived.) I made some bets before the war that such evidence would be found. That’s what I like about my business. It’s empirical, and I don’t get paid for predictions. I have followed the developing facts to the best of my ability.

It must be tempting, but it’s silly, to suppose that my editors or I are looking for a story that discounts the threat. My Unscom series of 1998, linked on the home page below, did as much to highlight Iraq’s obstruction of inspectors — and the Clinton administration’s inability to address it in the U.N. — as any journalism of its day. I’d like as much as you would to find out how the story ends, and I’m not done looking.

Thank you for enabling me to reach your important audience with this reply.

Barton Gellman, The Washington Post

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