MEDIA WATCH: Bush administration taken to task for hyped-up WMD claims

In the months before the war in Iraq, President Bush repeatedly stated that Saddam Hussein's chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMD) posed "a grave, immediate threat" to US national security. With the war over for more than two months and scant evidence of any WMD, the President is likely hoping that his words don't come back to haunt him, the way that his father's famous "Read my lips" pledge against taxes did.

In the months before the war in Iraq, President Bush repeatedly stated that Saddam Hussein's chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMD) posed "a grave, immediate threat" to US national security. With the war over for more than two months and scant evidence of any WMD, the President is likely hoping that his words don't come back to haunt him, the way that his father's famous "Read my lips" pledge against taxes did.

In his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush cited Iraq's WMD capabilities as consisting of 30,000 warheads, 500 tons of chemical weapons, 25,000 liters of anthrax, and 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin. But in the absence of any proof to support these claims, the media has reported increasingly frequent and aggressive accusations that the Bush administration overstated how much of a clear and present danger Iraq's WMD posed to the US in order to rally public opinion for a preemptive strike against Iraq.

Thomas Powers, an author on intelligence issues, wrote a lengthy column in The Boston Globe (June 15) arguing, "It is apparent that President Bush persuaded Congress to vote for war with intelligence claims that were exaggerated, manipulated, in one case fabricated, and frequently plain wrong."

Although unproven, the charges, according to an increasingly skeptical media, are already threatening the Bush administration's credibility.

Within the reports alleging that Iraq's WMD capabilities had been misrepresented, there was some discussion about exactly how this happened and who was to blame for it. Some of these reports pointed out that the intelligence supplied to the administration was flawed, while others have charged that the administration had been selective in citing intelligence reports that fit its predetermined policy objectives, disregarding any conflicting reports and downplaying the lack of consensus on the issue within the US intelligence community.

The charges have put the Bush administration on the defensive. It has responded to the accusations by insisting that Iraq's WMD will be found in due time. Media reports that offered a defense of the Bush administration only appeared half as often as the charges that the intelligence data had been hyped. Administration defenders argued that Bush and his top aides did not intentionally deceive the American public and governments of other nations. However, in the judgment of the St. Petersburg Times (June 8), "The administration's statements since the war have done little to ease the doubts."

One-third of the analyzed media coverage interpreted the debate over the WMD claims as weakening the authority and leadership of the US in the war against terrorism, especially in the context of waging preemptive strikes, when accurate intelligence is all the more critical. These reports rhetorically asked if the American public or foreign countries would believe the Bush administration if it said that Iran, North Korea, or Syria were posing an immediate threat.

Recent public opinion polls show that the majority of Americans think the removal of Saddam was the right thing to do, whether or not WMD are found. Even so, the charges that the US-led coalition went to war in Iraq under false pretenses have yet to be put to rest.

  • Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.

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