On February 7, two days after Colin Powell’s much-lauded presentation before the United Nations Security Council, Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus described how foreign government officials, terrorism experts and members of Congress disputed a key claim: the supposed link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Despite the article’s relevance, the Post buried it in journalistic no man’s land–page A21–where it had little effect. An article a week later by Pincus and military correspondent Dana Priest, “Bin Laden-Hussein Link Hazy,” got a similar A20 placement.
On March 16 another Pincus article, “U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms,” explained that US intelligence agencies believed the Bush Administration had exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam’s purported stocks of WMD. Its placement: A17. Two days later, Pincus and White House correspondent Dana Milbank wrote a strenuous indictment of the Administration’s rationales for war: “As the Bush Administration prepares to attack Iraq this week, it is doing so on the basis of a number of allegations against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that have been challenged–and in some cases disproved–by the United Nations, European governments and even U.S. intelligence reports.” That one managed to vault only up to A13.
It wasn’t until May 29, almost a month after Bush declared an end to major combat operations, that Pincus, along with co-writer Karen DeYoung, broke onto the front page with a story headlined “U.S. Hedges on Finding Iraqi Weapons; Officials Cite the Possibilities of Long or Fruitless Search for Banned Arms.” At that point, with guerrilla attacks rising, postwar planning in disarray and the weapons highlighted by the Bush Administration nowhere to be found, experts and politicians on Pincus’s intelligence beat–and, more important, his own editors–began to stir. In June and July, stories about Iraq-related intelligence controversies written or co-written by Pincus, Priest and Milbank appeared on the front page twenty-one times. Between July 15 and July 21, their breaking news stories were on page one seven days in a row.
The Post‘s sluggish start, followed by its abrupt shift into high gear, was not lost on readers–including its own ombudsman. “There was a disconcerting pattern of underplayed or missed stories that were not up to the coverage that followed during and after the war,” says Michael Getler, who’s written critically of his paper’s prewar failure to acknowledge dissenting voices.
Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. denies any such transformation, saying “nothing is done differently now than before.” But Getler, and other Post insiders, disagree. Getler says the Post, like the rest of the press (but with a more significant impact, since it is the most closely watched barometer of the politics and mood in Washington), failed to capture adequately the transition from Osama and Afghanistan to Saddam and Iraq, a move that drastically increased dissent across the globe. “The Post is not biased,” Getler says, “but in the summer of 2002 up through [the start of war in Iraq], they were not alert enough, early enough, to dissenting voices.”
Downie attempts to justify the paper’s prewar shortcomings on the grounds of lack of sufficient clarity and resources. “We had so much to report on all at once in the buildup to war,” he says. “Now, we have an ability to focus on fewer issues because many prewar issues [such as military deployments, UN resolutions, etc.] are no longer timely.” But these comments betray the work of his own national security reporters. They had the goods, but the Post editors chose not to display them.
Pincus, 70, who honed his skills and skepticism during his years reporting on Watergate and Iran/contra, blames a pack mentality and desire to please for the decision to bury his stories before the war began. “The Post was scared,” Pincus says. “I believe papers ought to crusade when we’re on to something.” Later, he says, when things started going badly, editors were more willing to print pieces critical of the Administration. “This is a country in which it doesn’t matter what you say if you succeed,” he says. “But if you fail, people go back and look at why.”
On August 10, Pincus and reporter Barton Gellman wrote a 5,663-word front-page report that will likely be considered the magnum opus of the intelligence fiasco, “Depiction of Threat Outgrew Supporting Evidence.” In painstaking detail they summarized and revealed how Bush, Cheney et al. “made allegations depicting Iraq’s nuclear weapons program as more active, more certain and more imminent in its threat than the data they had would support.” Pincus says the attention focused on the article, and the dozens preceding it, show the impact a Post story can have once it hits the front page.
While Pincus thinks his investigative reporting could cause the Bush Administration to choose its words and actions more carefully in the future, he sees journalism as limited in terms of what it can do now with regard to Iraq. “The problem with writing is that it doesn’t do any good for the mess we’re in,” he says.
It’s doubtful whether the Post or any other press outlet could have stopped a war the Administration was so determined to wage. But the what-ifs in Pincus’s case are hard not to contemplate: Had his February-March reporting been given its proper due, political and public support for unilateral war might have dropped.
Instead, Pincus will have to make do with smaller bits of satisfaction, like the fact that at Ari Fleischer’s last press briefing, the first two dozen questions centered on the uranium scandal. The newfound intensity of the press brings to mind, Pincus says, something Gene McCarthy told him years ago. “The press is a bunch of blackbirds,” McCarthy mused. “All are on a wire and one will go to another wire and when that bird doesn’t get electrocuted, all the birds will go to that other wire.” After more than sixteen months of too many free passes for the President, it was about time the press blackbirds–led by reporters like Pincus, Priest and Milbank–pounced on sixteen words and wouldn’t let go.