Bob Woodward, whose reporting (or lack of) on the White House and WMD in the run-up to the war in Iraq has drawn much criticism, continues to shirk much of the blame. The latest evidence is in an interview this week with the news editor of the Reno News & Review in Nevada. In it, Woodward's reveals that his attitude about Saddam and WMD was guilty-until-proven-innocent -- and he still defends that approach, which helped pave the way for more than five years of war.
In a maddening but revealing exchange, Woodward admits that he felt the evidence for WMD was "skimpy" but he took the word of his inside sources who said it was adequate. At another point he reveals that he knew there was no "smoking gun" -- and that there should be one before going to war -- but hey, what more could he do?
Finally, he claims that we couldn't just take Saddam's word that he had no WMD. His questioner points out that we did have weapons inspectors on the ground just before the war, who were finding nothing.
The interviewer, Dennis C. Myers, caught Woodward while he was in town for a scholarship dinner. After chatting about other media-related matters, Myers (a thoughtful fellow who has corresponded with me in the past) asked whether Woodward thought there was less scrutiny of "deception" in Washington by the press than in the past. Woodward replied, "I think there's an awful lot of scrutiny going on. I think there should be more, and I think it should be tougher, but there's a lot."
Myers then dropped a bomb: "It's said fairly commonly in journalism circles that people actually died in Iraq because reporters did not do their jobs. Do you believe that?"
Woodward, not getting it (or pretending not to), replied: "In what way?"
"There were sources out there who could have been tapped to find out about weapons of mass destruction, about things like that, and it didn't happen," Myers explained.
Woodward (according to Myers' transcript): "Well, it did happen and it was really hard and -- [pause]"
Myers: "For example, you guys didn't find what Knight Ridder folks found [about WMD]."
Woodward: "Yes, but if you go back and look at those stories, it's not clear what they had."
This is balderdash. It's actually quite clear what they had: strong testimony that the evidence for WMD was extremely questionable.
Woodward admits, "I fault myself mightily for not being aggressive enough on that. But I had sources who told me the evidence on WMD is skimpier than they say and we were going to do a big story about it, and I went back to the sources and I said, 'Okay, the evidence is skimpier, but do you still believe that there is WMD in Iraq?' 'Oh, yes.' They all -- all the sources believed it. They didn't say it didn't exist, they said the evidence is skimpier.
"And I ran a story before the war on the front page of the Washington Post saying there's no smoking gun evidence of WMD. Now, I should have known, if there's no smoking gun, you don't have it. Should have been more aggressive. But how do you penetrate that without going to Iraq under Saddam, knock on -- you know, and say, 'Hey, I'd like to investigate your WMD.' Not going to get very far."
But Myers jumps in: "But there were people who were there. They were arms inspectors and they were disdained by the press back here."
Woodward replies incoherently: "No, that's not true. I mean, we ran stories on it and Hans Blix, who was the chief weapons inspector for the U.N., said before the war he had inspected 300 sites and found no WMD, but he could not yet say there was not [WMD]."
This is a gross rationalization, of course. Blix was adamant about the progress being made, the surprising absence of any evidence of WMD, and naturally could not prove a "negative" -- that there were no WMD at all -- in just a few weeks.
Woodward seems to want it both ways: Get credit for admitting he could have been tougher while claiming that there really wasn't much more he could do. In this, his explanation perfectly mirrors the argument of nearly everyone in the mainstream media.
Greg Mitchell's new book is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq. It features a preface by Bruce Springsteen and a foreword by Joe Galloway. Mitchell is editor of Editor & Publisher.