“I really thought they were going to find the stuff,” said Washington Post staff writer Barton Gellman. It was the afternoon of June 23, and the “stuff” Mr. Gellman referred to was nuclear, biological or chemical weapons-anything that might fall under the heading “weapons of mass destruction,” known to the cool kids as “W.M.D.’s.”
But the not-finding has generated a lot of stories for Mr. Gellman. Reporting for a little over a month from Iraq and Kuwait, Mr. Gellman followed the frustrated and embittered forces who, time and again, came up empty in their search for the materials that were the material cause of the war in Iraq. New York Times reporter Judith Miller did much the same, and since then, The Times and The Post have been engaged in a kind of shadowy, below-the-fold duel over the Weapons That Weren’t-and the credibility of President Bush’s assertions on the road to war.
Mr. Gellman, has reported on the first U.S. task force leaving Iraq empty-handed; on a hunt that yielded vacuum cleaners, not dirty bombs; and, on June 13, on the failure of a covert, elite military unit called Task Force 20 to find any W.M.D.’s. Meanwhile, Walter Pincus-who earlier reported on the fuzzy math used in Colin Powell’s now-irrelevant presentation before the United Nations Security Council-reported on Sunday, June 22, that an internal Bush administration document cast doubt on the Iraq–Al Qaeda link at the same time the administration was publicly touting that link to the American people.
“I think The Post is more interested in pursuing the story,” said New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, speaking of W.M.D.’s.
Of course, The Times has had its share of earth-rattling breaks. There was the monumentally controversial (and much-maligned) April 21 story, in which Judith Miller reported that a scientist in Saddam Hussein’s weapons program stated that the illicit weapons were destroyed just before the war. The piece, however, also disclosed that Ms. Miller had made agreements with military officials not to visit or speak to the scientist directly, and she also submitted her copy to them for approval.
But The Times has also done strong stories on other areas in which President Bush’s credibility has appeared suspect, including James Risen’s June 8 piece, which disclosed that the two highest Al Qaeda leaders in custody had denied having ties to Saddam’s regime.
The Times , though, is clearly engaged in a bit of catch-up. As Russ Baker noted in the June 23 edition of The Nation , at the same time that Mr. Gellman was reporting on the U.S. troops’ frustration in locating W.M.D.’s, Ms. Miller was presenting a far rosier picture-indicating that the disclosure of such evidence was at hand. On June 7, however, Ms. Miller and William Broad reported that American and British intelligence analysts were disputing the Bush administration’s claim to have found two mobile bioweapons-manufacturing units in Iraq (the so-called “mysterious trailers”).
Times assistant managing editor Andrew Rosenthal, calling the April 21 story “much misrepresented,” said that the paper had covered the W.M.D. issue vigorously.
“I keep getting asked if I regret that story because they found no weapons,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “But according to this guy, there would be no weapons to be found.
“We had a reporter in an embed position with the troops asked to look for [W.M.D.’s],” Mr. Rosenthal said, referring to Ms. Miller, “with all the benefits and short-changes of the embed program. You’re able to be present when something’s going on, but you’re looking at events through a keyhole-or, as somebody said the other day, a straw-in terms of what you’re able to see.”
While defending the story, and the Times ‘ coverage, Mr. Rosenthal also admitted frustration at not being able to “get to the ultimate truth” of the W.M.D. issue.
“Even if you’re able to prove that President Bush said something in a speech he gave before the war and knew something differently,” Mr. Rosenthal said, “it still doesn’t get to what the motivation was.”
Asked if he felt The Times had ceded its W.M.D. coverage to its onetime partner in the International Herald Tribune , Mr. Rosenthal said that he didn’t want to get into a “tit-for-tat.”
“I don’t think either of us have arrived at the final thing here,” Mr. Rosenthal said.
“They’ve had some of the same limitations we’ve had-looking through a keyhole. Vital, important questions are still unanswered. And besides, I would never admit to The Post beating us on stories.”
Of course, lots of journalists are in the hunt-but it’s been the non-revelation that’s proved to be a kind of watershed moment for American reporting. Before the Jayson Blair episode changed the internal balance and the public face of The New York Times and journalism in general, much was made about the level of reporting that occurred during the fighting: the revolutionary effects of embedded reporters, the courage of the “cowboy” journalists covering the bombing of Baghdad from the Palestine Hotel.
But the big surprise has been that, in many ways, the war’s aftermath has proven to be a far better journalistic battleground.
Unlike Ms. Miller, Mr. Gellman entered the region from the United States only after the fighting had stopped-thinking, as most reporters did, that with Iraq under U.S. control, the military would ferret out Saddam Hussein’s illegal weapons, display them before the world, and that would be that. Having done his share of reporting on UNSCOM in the late 1990’s, Mr. Gellman had watched the Iraqi dictator flaunt international inspections, even as the Clinton administration used those inspections as a way of further spying on Iraq.
“It’s truly a mystery to me what happened to the concealed weapons and manufacturing capabilities after that,” Mr. Gellman said.
Whether the American people actually care is another matter. So far, polls have suggested that people want W.M.D. evidence about as much as another season of The Osbournes . Further, as Mr. Gellman pointed out, large sections of the population are not only convinced that Saddam Hussein had weapons until the war began, but that “the U.S. has been finding them already.”
“We do not do these things as a matter of public opinion,” said Post foreign editor David Hoffman. “Many times, the facts are ahead of public opinion.
“We feel like it’s important to hold [the President] accountable,” Mr. Hoffman added. “It was the reason for going to war, wasn’t it?”
And now for an Off the Record pocket-protector alert …
In an unsurprisingly drawn-out contract negotiation, Dow Jones, the parent company of The Wall Street Journal , has proposed massive health-care-benefit cuts for current employees and retirees, according to the union. During a recent session, Bruce Nelson, a Newspaper Guild representative, noted that IAPE 1096, the union that represents Dow Jones employees, was in a position to “resist” any changes to the current health-care system.
According to the official IAPE Web site account, New York labor lawyer Bernard Plum, working on the Dow Jones side, replied: “I appreciate what you’re saying and agree with much of it. At some point resistance has to give way to make a deal …. I happen to be a Star Trek fan. I’ll share the Star Trek comment about resistance-“
But, according to the account, before Mr. Plum could spin any Patrick Stewart wisdom, Kevin Chapman, an attorney for Dow Jones, interrupted and said: “I wouldn’t do that.”
Mr. Plum did not return a call seeking comment. Had Mr. Chapman finished his sentence, according to IAPE and Larry from Forbidden Planet, he most likely would have quoted an entity called the Borg, a marauding cyborg collective that takes over human minds while declaring: “Resistance is futile.”
IAPE president Ron Chen declined to comment on what Mr. Plum might have said had he finished his thought, but he did tell Off the Record that the union and Dow Jones were “very far apart.” For her part, Karen Pensiero, a spokeswoman for Dow Jones, said: “We don’t have any idea of when the contract will be settled, but we look forward to reaching an agreement as soon as possible.”
(As a matter of full disclosure, Off the Record will be attending the 2003 Comic-Con International in San Diego next month. Avengers Assemble!