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The Reporting Team That Got Iraq Right

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As the war in Iraq completes its fifth year this week, The Huffington Post is featuring interviews with and essays by those journalists, elected officials, policymakers and former military officials who spoke out early and boldly against what they saw as an inevitable disaster. They join our Iraq Honor Roll.

In the months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the reporters in the Knight Ridder Newspapers Washington D.C. bureau were virtually alone in their questioning of the Bush Administration's allegations of links between Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism. The team of Knight Ridder reporters, led by Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, John Walcott and Joe Galloway, produced stories that now read like a prescient accounting of how the Bush Administration sought to sell the war to the American people. Walcott and Landay spoke with The Huffington Post about the fifth anniversary of the war. Knight Ridder Newspapers has since merged with McClatchy Newspapers. You can read the entire Knight Ridder and McClatchy archives of their Iraq intelligence reporting by clicking here.

John Walcott, McClatchy Newspapers Washington Bureau Chief

The Knight Ridder team, and now the McClatchy team, has frequently been cited as one of the few that got it right in the run-up to the invasion. At the time a lot of people said the rest of the media was ignoring you. Is that how you and the team felt at the time?

Well we certainly didn't see anyone doing the same kinds of stories, with the exception of some stories by Walter Pincus at the Washington Post, and much, much later after the Los Angeles Times got onto Curveball. But during the period when I guess, arguably, it mattered, when it could have and should have been a debate about whether to engage in this war, I think we felt that we were fairly lonely.

What was it about the way the Knight Ridder bureau was approaching the story that made it so you didn't get lost in the same wave of reporting that overtook the rest of the press corps?

There wasn't any reporting in the rest of the press corps, there was stenography. The administration would make an assertion, people would make an assertion, people would write it down as if it were true, and put it in the newspaper or on television.

Did you guys have secret sources that no one else had access to, or was this just a question of editors approaching the job from a more traditional sense of what a reporter should actually be doing?

It's both of those things. You can't do this kind of reporting without sources and you can't develop these kinds of sources overnight. The fact that Jonathan and Warren and I, and to a great extent Joe Galloway who was also a part of this team, had been working in these vineyards for many, many years was helpful. But it begins with the second part of your question. When the administration made an assertion, a lot of people wrote it down and printed it and we looked at it and said "that doesn't make any sense. Is that true?" And we proceeded to call people. And very often, and very quickly, people said "no, that's not true," or "there is no evidence that that's true," or "they left out part of the story."

How easy or difficult was it, in your view, for the average interested citizen back in 2002 to find out what was going on in Iraq?

Very difficult. But not so much to find out what was going on in Iraq. It was very difficult for the average reader, or TV viewer or internet browser to find out the truth about Saddam's connection with Al Qaeda and international terrorism, about the real state of his nuclear weapons program, and to find out about the real honest assessment of his weapons of mass destruction program.

Of all the stories that were produced by Knight-Ridder in the run-up to the war, are there one or two that you feel were the most important?

February 13, 2002 comes to mind: Bush Has Decided To Overthrow Hussein, February 13, 2002. And the other one I would point you to is September 6, 2002, Lack Of Hard Evidence Of Iraqi Weapons Worries Top U.S. Officials; September 12, 2002: Iraq Has Been Unable To Get Materials Needed For Nuclear Bomb, Experts Say; October 4, 2002: CIA Report Reveals Analysts' Split Over Extent Of Iraqi Nuclear Threat And October 7, 2002: Some In Bush Administration Have Misgivings About Iraq Policy.

How would you compare the level of media skepticism and the caliber of reporting today on Iraq? Five years later, have you seen a shift?

I think that a lot of the media have been very quick to accept the notion that the surge has succeeded and it amounts to some kind of turning point in Iraq. And I'm not sure there is a lot of evidence to support the idea that the improvements in security are long lasting, as opposed to temporary. I think there is somewhat greater skepticism, but I think a lot of people still find it very difficult to question what to most Americans is a patriotic enterprise.

What questions are the press corps still not asking?

They range from the very classic journalism questions like "where did the money go?" All the money we've spent in Iraq to support the Iraq government, where has it gone? I think it has been very hard to play the watchdog role on the U.S. mission in Iraq. We've been fairly lonely on that. I haven't seen other people looking into [delays and mismanagement in the construction of the new U.S. Embassy in Iraq] quite as hard as Warren [Strobel] has. Basic accountability reporting has been lacking. As I said before, I think there was a kind of uncritical acceptance of the success of the surge that may be challenged in the coming weeks or months.

Jonathan S. Landay, McClatchy Newspapers National Security Correspondent

When you look back at that period in the run-up to the war, was there a send in the Knight Ridder bureau that you were being ignored?

Absolutely. It wasn't that we were being ignored, I don't know that anybody was really just paying attention. I know that our stuff was getting picked up in the Early Bird - a daily compendium of national security stories that I believe are put together by one of the offices of public affairs in the Pentagon and then circulated around the government every morning. And I know that some of our stuff was getting picked up there because I was getting backslaps from other correspondents who saw our articles in the Early Bird. That's about as far as it went. As Warren [Strobel] noted in the [Bill] Moyers documentary, some of our own newspapers didn't even run our pieces.

And what was it about the way that you and the Knight Ridder team were approaching the story from a tradecraft point of view that make it different from what the public was seeing in the Times and the Post and the Wall Street Journal?

I think we approached this by asking the question every time the administration made an allegation "is this true?" "Is this true" is the basic question any journalist must ask any time a government, any government, makes an assertion. Governments do things for their own reasons depending on what the administration is. There could be altruistic reasons. But particularly a government that is politicized as the Bush Administration, one has to ask that question even more intensely. So we were doing that. We were also listening to people who were coming to us and saying "we don't think this is right. We don't believe that the intelligence is as strong as the administration is making it out to be." And indeed you saw that in open source reports. I'm referring to the unclassified version of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction which everyone had available to it, including members of congress.

First you had on September 3, 2002 the famous New York Times "aluminum tubes" piece by Judy Miller and Michael Gordon. That same day you had Vice President Cheney and then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice appear conveniently on the Sunday talk shows to talk about what had been extremely classified information that had appeared that day, in the New York Times. And then on September 10 you had the same allegations made to the world by the President of the United States from the podium of the United Nations. And then the following week the President made the same assertion that these aluminum tubes were for a nuclear weapons program that Iraq had hidden from UN weapons inspectors in an address to the nation. Then you had the unclassified version of the National Intelligence Estimate, which said there is division within the intelligence community on exactly what these tubes are all about.

I raise this point because this was one data point in what we had seen was a trend by this administration of exaggerating the intelligence it had on Iraq. We began tracing It back to right after 9/11 when Warren [Strobel] did the first story quoting analysts as saying it was unlikely that Iraq was involved in the World Trade Center attack. Then he went on to disclose that the former director of the CIA [James] Woolsey had made official visits to Britain on behalf of the Pentagon to check out a cockamamie tale that Ramzi Yousef, who we have in jail for the first World Trade Center attack, was not actually Ramzi Yousef but an Iraqi agent. And then right after the US went into Afghanistan, he and John [Walcott] did a story on how the administration had made a decision to oust Saddam Hussein. And we kept asking the question "why do they keep talking about Iraq when the problem is Al Qaeda in Afghanistan? Why do they keep talking about Iraq?" And we were already in that thinking mode when we started working on the stories in the lead up to the war. We were just doing the journalism that our journalism was pushing at.

Why is it that the folks in the Knight Ridder bureau in Washington had this level of skepticism when the rest of the DC press corps didn't and the national press corps didn't? What was everyone else so concerned about?

I think that everyone else, and I have to include myself in this category until we really started peeling back into the onion - everyone was absolutely convinced that Saddam Hussein had a secret weapons program. On the Al Qaeda account, I don't think anybody ever believed that. Ever. It just made no sense. But on the weapons front, until we really started peeling into that story, I took it for granted. I think that that was the problem: that everyone took it for granted - including in the intelligence community - that he had weapons of mass destruction and it was only once we really started doing the journalism that we started seeing that it might not be true. There was this groupthink that extended beyond the intelligence community into the policymaking community and the journalistic community.

How easy or difficult was it, in your view, for the average citizen to find out what was going on in Iraq and DC?

Back then? I think the fact that you had this repetition of stories in the leading print and electronic media accounted for what we see today is still 40 percent of Americans believing that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. This administration drumbeat perpetuated by the mainstream media, except for us and a couple of other people, swung public opinion behind the invasion. I think Moyers illustrated that devastatingly in his documentary.

Looking at the present, how would you compare the level of media skepticism and the caliber of reporting today? Have you seen a shift?

I think there was a kind of almost an epiphany when two things happened. One: Joe Wilson wrote his expose on the 2003 State of the Union and raised question finally - in the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times, of the administration's case for going to war. And then secondly, nothing was found in Iraq in the invasion. Then you had people jump on that bandwagon almost, that bandwagon about the 19 or 16 words on Niger and uranium in the State of the Union address. Then you started seeing the White house Press doing what it had not done in the run-up to the war, and that was ask tough questions of the White House.

But there has also been, I think, backsliding. Last summer, when the administration started banging the drum about Iran and its involvement in Iraq, and the threat posed by Iran and how Iran was responsible for these explosively-formed penetrators. That's all well and good, they were, these penetrators were killing troops. But what this drumbeat did was two things: it obscured the fact that the majority of deaths in Iraq were still being caused by Sunni insurgents, and that this was going on in the middle of the so-called surge. And I think they were trying to tamp down expectations that the surge was going to produce some kind of miracle.

So they needed to shift public focus away from the fact that it wasn't producing a miracle, so they harped on and on about Iran's involvement and you most of the mainstream media once again beat that same drum. I did a story when the President delieverd a speech at the Naval War College, and he mentioned Iran something like 27 times in a speech about Iraq. And so I did a story about how he was bashing Iran when the majority of the deaths in Iraq were still being caused by Sunni insurgents. And they were appearing to try to divert public attention away from that aspect and they were trying to tamp down public expectations about the surge. And my story was noted first by my old boss, Clark Hoyt, who cited my story the next weekend in his column, and the following weekend Frank Rich picked up that story. And compare my story about that speech at the Naval War College and everyone else's where they picked up and ran with the Administration's line about Iran.

Is this because the DC press corps is lazy?

I can't speak for other correspondents and how they operate. I don't want to do that. I, quite frankly, don't know. And maybe that's something that academics can definitely look into. I think the press needs to be held accountable for its failures on Iraq. And, by the way, I they have done some amazing stuff since that turnaround. There has been some amazing journalism that has come out of Iraq. Good skeptical journalism that got it right. And as a result you had the right wing and the administration beating on the press - not responding to the substance that the press was reporting. So you had all these complaints that they were not reporting all this "good" stuff. In fact, if all that good stuff was happening, why did the administration feel the need to send an additional 30,000 troops to Iraq?

Interview conducted, edited and condensed by Max Follmer