The WaPo and Biolabs
In the comments to my post yesterday about the spin used by an ideologically-driven press to forge a particular narrative about a war with which they disagree, commenter rls pointed out this Washington Post story on a Pentagon team’s assessment of Saddam’s supposed biolabs. The tenor of the story—and this is one of the points I made yesterday—is clearly designed to suggest that the President knew full well that those supposed biolabs were no threat, but he pushed the story anyway, two days later, in his address to the nation.
[The WaPo story] is a hit piece, made to look like Bush knowingly lied when he made the statement. Did you read the piece?
HereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s what they say.
A secret fact-finding mission to IraqÃ¢â‚¬â€not made public until nowÃ¢â‚¬â€had already concluded that the trailers had nothing to do with biological weapons. Leaders of the Pentagon-sponsored mission transmitted their unanimous findings to Washington in a field report on May 27, 2003, two days before the presidentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s statement.
Sounds bad for Bush, right?
Now later on in the piece, as they say, below the fold, you get the Ã¢â‚¬Å“rest of the storyÃ¢â‚¬Â.
Intelligence analysts involved in high-level discussions about the trailers noted that the technical team was among several groups that analyzed the suspected mobile labs throughout the spring and summer of 2003. Two teams of military experts who viewed the trailers soon after their discovery concluded that the facilities were weapons labs, a finding that strongly influenced views of intelligence officials in Washington, the analysts said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“It was hotly debated, and there were experts making arguments on both sides,Ã¢â‚¬Â said one former senior official who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
So, there were three teams that inspected the mobile labs and two out of the three said they were weapons labs. Only later, after Bush made his statement, based on the majority opinion of the two out of three teams, did futher analysis accept the minority opinion. Two out of three inspectors agreed that the trailers were part of SaddamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s WMD effort. The Pentagon relied on that majority opinion, as did the administration, and no one can argue that doing so constituted either an intent to deceive or even an unreasonable decision at the time. That is, except the Post.
Instead of just reporting that the three teams did not reach a consensus and the minority report ended up being the most accuarate, the Post paints Bush as deliberately lying about the labs.
The point I am getting to is that this story could have been written many different ways, yet the Post chooses to write it as a Ã¢â‚¬Å“gotchaÃ¢â‚¬Â moment to indict Bush as a liar, when, if you read the whole story, it is anything but.
rls is correct. The way narratives are perceived, oftentimes, are determined almost completely by specific and intentional editorial decisions—made either by the writer or an editor—about where to place certain information in a story, and how much weight to give to the various components of the entire integral narrative.
Here, the Post chooses to lead with the suggestion that Bush purposely and perhaps deliberately ignored certain intelligence that proved assertions about biolabs were wrong. And already, the narrative as the Post tells it has its defenders.
Here’s ”beetroot,” from the comments:
[...] Yes, there were three teams; two said theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re weapons, but the last report, recieved before the President went before the American people to share the results of the first two, cast serious doubts on those first two.
But the President did not share that information. He was less than honest. Period.
Two out of three inspectors agreed that the trailers were part of SaddamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s WMD effort. The Pentagon relied on that majority opinion, as did the administration, and no one can argue that doing so constituted either an intent to deceive or even an unreasonable decision at the time.
The logic above suggests that all three assessments carry equal weight, when, in fact, it seems clear that what we had were initial assessments (“Those things look dangerous!Ã¢â‚¬Â Ã¢â‚¬Å“YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re right”), followed by internal debate, followed by a third mission to get a clearer assessment (“letÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s check those things out”). The third asssesment should carry the most weight. Or at least SOME weight. But it was, apparently, ignored … at least until after the first two assessments had been presented to the American people as definitive.
So IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll make the case that the administration was either:
- Ignoring the third assessment
- Ignorant of the third assessment
Either case is bad.
But of course, not only does beetroot’s assessment misunderstand the President’s role in delivering information to the nation (at some point, the President has to either accept or reject the consensus and act on it or dismiss it; but what he cannot do, given the nature of intelligence, is be frozen by the fact that it is not unanimous)—but it is rather cavalier with its framing of the timeline.
As early as the mid-1990s, weapons inspectors from the United Nations chased phantom mobile labs that were said to be mounted on trucks or rail cars, churning out tons of anthrax by night and moving to new locations each day. No such labs were found, but many officials believed the stories, thanks in large part to elaborate tales told by Iraqi defectors.
The CIA’s star informant, an Iraqi with the code name Curveball, was a self-proclaimed chemical engineer who defected to Germany in 1999 and requested asylum. For four years, the Baghdad native passed secrets about alleged Iraqi banned weapons to the CIA indirectly, through Germany’s intelligence service. Curveball provided descriptions of mobile labs and said he had supervised work in one of them. He even described a catastrophic 1998 accident in one lab that left 12 Iraqis dead.
February 5, 2003:
“We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails,” Powell said in the Feb. 5, 2003, speech. Thanks to those descriptions, he said, “We know what the fermenters look like. We know what the tanks, pumps, compressors and other parts look like.”
The trailers discovered in the Iraqi desert resembled the drawings well enough, at least from a distance. One of them, a flatbed trailer covered by tarps, was found in April by Kurdish fighters near the northern city of Irbil. The second was captured by U.S. forces near Mosul. Both were painted military green and outfitted with a suspicious array of gear: large metal tanks, motors, compressors, pipes and valves.
May 25, 2003:
The technical team was assembled in Kuwait and then flown to Baghdad to begin their work early on May 25, 2003. By that date, the two trailers had been moved to a military base on the grounds of one of deposed president Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad palaces. When members of the technical team arrived, they found the trailers parked in an open lot, covered with camouflage netting.
Leaders of the Pentagon-sponsored mission transmitted their unanimous findings to Washington in a field report on May 27, 2003, two days before the president’s statement.
May 28, 2003:
A day after the team’s report was transmitted to Washington—May 28, 2003—the CIA publicly released its first formal assessment of the trailers, reflecting the views of its Washington analysts. That white paper, which also bore the DIA seal, contended that U.S. officials were “confident” that the trailers were used for “mobile biological weapons production.”
On May 29, 2003, 50 days after the fall of Baghdad, President Bush proclaimed a fresh victory for his administration in Iraq: Two small trailers captured by U.S. and Kurdish troops had turned out to be long-sought mobile “biological laboratories.” He declared, “We have found the weapons of mass destruction.”
Kay, in an interview, said senior CIA officials had advised him upon accepting the survey group’s leadership in June 2003 that some experts in the DIA were “backsliding” on whether the trailers were weapons labs.
Spring and Summer 2003:
Intelligence analysts involved in high-level discussions about the trailers noted that the technical team was among several groups that analyzed the suspected mobile labs throughout the spring and summer of 2003. Two teams of military experts who viewed the trailers soon after their discovery concluded that the facilities were weapons labs, a finding that strongly influenced views of intelligence officials in Washington, the analysts said. “It was hotly debated, and there were experts making arguments on both sides,” said one former senior official who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
Summer and Fall 2003
Throughout the summer and fall of 2003, the trailers became simply “mobile biological laboratories” in speeches and press statements by administration officials. In late June, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell declared that the “confidence level is increasing” that the trailers were intended for biowarfare. In September, Vice President Cheney pronounced the trailers to be “mobile biological facilities,” and said they could have been used to produce anthrax or smallpox.
October 2, 2003:
David Kay, the group’s first leader, told Congress on Oct. 2 that he had found no banned weapons in Iraq and was unable to verify the claim that the disputed trailers were weapons labs.
February 5, 2004:
Still, as late as February 2004, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet continued to assert that the mobile-labs theory remained plausible. Although there was “no consensus” among intelligence officials, the trailers “could be made to work” as weapons labs, he said in a speech Feb. 5.
The survey group’s final report in September 2004—15 months after the technical report was written—said the trailers were “impractical” for biological weapons production and were “almost certainly intended” for manufacturing hydrogen for weather balloons.
If you look at this timeline, one thing jumps out. Bush’s May 29, 2003 statement, which certainly appears to be wrong based on what we know now, was not clearly a lie or a mistake at the time. The fact that there was some dispute over whether the trailers were mobile bio-weapons labs does not alter the fact that the day before the President spoke, the CIA and DIA had issued a report concluding that:
U.S. officials were “confident” that the trailers were used for “mobile biological weapons production.”
Let’s remember as well, that this was post-invasion, not pre-invasion.
So. Is this another instance of Bush “lying”? Or is another instance of an ideological media looking for a scandal that will resonate with Americans—or better, acting to give the appearance of impropriety where there was nothing but good-faith error?
To those who understand the way intelligence works—and who don’t expect the President to spend time in his speeches talking about minority reports not believed, at the time, to reflect the consensus view—the answer is quite obvious the latter.
But to those who have view everything through a begged question (“we know Bush is a liar”), every new instance of a mistake in intelligence assessment is further proof of his perfidy—as if Bush himself pored over the intelligence information and made his own determinations to distrust what the majority of the intelligence community was saying in order to carry out his war for oil or Daddy or imperialism or whatever his supposed nefarious motive was for invading Iraq.
Keep in mind, too, that this is but one bit of the larger WMD question, which was itself only one piece in the larger case for war against Iraq spelled out in the bi-partisan joint resolution authorizing the use of force.
See also, Captain’s Quarters, Junkyard Blog, Confederate Yankee; In the Bullpen; The Anchoress; Flopping Aces; Martin’s Musings, Sister Toldjah, and Blue Crab Boulevard; and for a dissenting opinion, Mahablog