As the Bush administration returns to the airwaves to re-sell the Iraq war, critics continue to question how it got sold in the first place. In the new book Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, David Corn and Michael Isikoff look at how a system of leaks and anonymous sources allowed misleading information to wend its way from the administration to the press and back again. Corn joins Brooke to discuss the lifespan of a lie.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Seen through a media lens, that is to say, our lens, it would seem that most of the Administration's public relations resources over the past five years have been directed toward selling a war. And over the years, we've heard from many people who have watched how the White House made that sale through its official statements, well-timed leaks and scarifying rhetoric. Now that tangled tale has been served up in stunning detail in the book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal in the Selling of the Iraq War by David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation and Newsweek's Michael Isikoff.
So, on the occasion of that book and the Administration's renewed campaign to resell the war, David Corn joins us now to explain how it was done and is still being done. David, welcome to OTM.
DAVID CORN: Good to be with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, the book opens with a quote from an Austrian journalist and press critic who lived at the turn of the century, and he wrote, "How is the world ruled and how do wars start? Diplomats tell lies to journalists and then believe what they read."
DAVID CORN: Well, I think that Austrian press critic, Karl Kraus, got it pretty close to the mark. There is a feedback loop so that claims the White House made, sometimes claims that parts of the government didn't even believe, would go through the media, and then the White House would point to that to prove their case.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's try and track that process through a case study. And we thought we could do it by following the tail of the tubes.
DAVID CORN: The tubes were high strength aluminum tubes that one CI analyst believed were going to be used for nuclear centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear bombs in Iraq. They had evidence that Iraq had purchased tens of thousands of these.
Now, the problem was the top scientists at the Department of Energy looked at the tubes and said, no, they wouldn't work in these centrifuges. They're not evidence of a nuclear weapons program. And this was fought within the intelligence community behind the scenes for over a year. And yet, the one CI analyst who hung onto this point kept winning inter-agency tussles about this.
And come September 2002, Dick Cheney went on "Meet the Press" and he says, we have evidence of a nuclear weapons program going on in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. And he points to a front-page story out that day on The New York Times.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, how did that story get there?
DAVID CORN: Well, that story was written by Judy Miller and Michael Gordan. And a lot of people blame Judy Miller, whose reporting on WMD's has come under strong attack, mostly justifiably, but actually, it was Michael Gordan, the well-known, respected defense correspondent for The New York Times, who heard that there was intelligence, that there were tubes being bought, that had been intercepted even, that were evidence of a nuclear weapons program.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Judy Miller has since said on this show and elsewhere that she relied on sources that she believed were reliable. I mean, where did the press fall down on due diligence?
DAVID CORN: To be fair to Michael Gordan and to Judy Miller, you know, they are reporting what their sources are telling them. But it's a follow-up where they probably fell down more so than on the original piece.
But what happened was after they reported that piece, after Dick Cheney made it Exhibit A, David Albright, a former weapons inspector who runs a small think tank in Washington, who was privy to this dispute that had been going on between the scientists and the CIA on the tubes, calls up Judy Miller and says, what are you doing? You have it exactly backwards! And she says, well you know, you got to talk to Michael, not me.
He talks to Michael. Now, this is what happens in life. Michael Gordan is home waiting for furniture to be moved back to his home, I believe, from Russia. And Judy Miller's now in charge of writing the story. She couples it to a piece about Bush's U.N. speech. Halfway down, she notes that there was a dispute, but she gets it wrong. And she says, once again, that most of the key experts in the government believe the tubes are evidence of a nuclear weapons program.
So, she compounds the error and David Alright is even more enraged that The New York Times blew it because he knows that policymakers, other people in the media, people in Congress are reading this stuff and paying close attention.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the question is here, are we talking about a conscious White House effort to foist a piece of misinformation, or just sloppy work and ill-timed furniture delivery on the part of The New York Times?
DAVID CORN: It's both. You know, I hate to use this old cliche, but it's a perfect storm. You have a White House that is not paying attention to the dispute and is denying internally that it exists. And then when The New York Times latches on to the wrong side of the argument, they're pointing to it and taking advantage of it.
After the second Times story comes out, David Albright goes to Joby Warrick, a reporter at the Washington Post, and he gets one of the DOE scientists to talk to him and explain it. And Warrick does write a piece that notes there has been this dispute and that most scientists believe the tubes are not good evidence.
And what happens is the Washington Post prints that piece on piece A 18, and the reason why is that the editors of the Post, you know, look at the piece and they say, oh, Joby Warrick, you're just, you know, upset because you got scooped by The Times on this. So everybody's playing it wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In Monday's speech, marking the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the President continued to link Iraq to the terrible events of that day, but not explicitly. Did those commemorations, in your view, finally transcend politics, as many in the Republican Party and some in the media have claimed? Or was he still selling?
DAVID CORN: Well, of course, not. I mean, anytime a politician opens his mouth on either side, there's politics involved. In his speech, once again, going back to the sales campaign, he linked 9/11 to the war in Iraq and said that Saddam Hussein was, quote, "a clear threat."
Now, everything we've learned since the invasion of Iraq is that it was not a "clear threat." The Charles Duelfer report--who went and looked for the WMD's on behalf of the Administration--said that Saddam Hussein's WMD capability was, quote, "essentially destroyed in 1991."
And recently the Senate Intelligence Committee reports noted that there was no working operational relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. So, no connection, no WMD's. What does it mean to say that something was a clear threat? And I wish that reporters would drill down in a phrase like that and say, how do you defend this? What does this mean to say it was a "clear threat?"
And that's where the sales campaign sails ahead with rhetoric that often goes unchallenged.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But having lived and breathed the media machine of this White House, David, you've been in Washington a long while, is it really different from any other White House media machine?
DAVID CORN: Well, I think they're better in a lot of ways. You know, I.F. Stone who had the job of Washington editor of Nation long before I did said, all governments lie. And I think that's true.
And I think reporters have to know that and be more confrontational and more challenging. You can be respectful in doing it. I understand all of the anthropological and sociological reasons why it's difficult for reporters to be too confrontational, but I think the lesson of the run-up to the war is that almost you can't be confrontational enough.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David, thank you very much.
DAVID CORN: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation magazine and author, with Michael Isikoff, of Hubris: the Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]