Thursday's must reads

By Tim Grieve
Published August 12, 2004 7:14AM (EDT)

The New York Times and the New Republic have already offered their mea culpas for failing to question the pre-war intelligence on Iraq. Today it's the Washington Post's turn. In a long piece full of office intrigue and a little sniping to boot, Howard Kurtz says that the Post buried stories that called into question the reasons for war.

"We did our job but we didn't do enough, and I blame myself mightily for not pushing harder," Bob Woodward, a Post assistant managing editor, told Kurtz. "We should have warned readers we had information that the basis for this was shakier" than widely believed. "Those are exactly the kind of statements that should be published on the front page."

Kurtz says the Post "published a number of pieces challenging the White House, but rarely on the front page. Some reporters who were lobbying for greater prominence for stories that questioned the administration's evidence complained to senior editors who, in the view of those reporters, were unenthusiastic about such pieces. The result was coverage that, despite flashes of groundbreaking reporting, in hindsight looks strikingly one-sided at times.

"'The paper was not front-paging stuff,'" said Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks. 'Administration assertions were on the front page. Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24 on Monday. There was an attitude among editors: Look, we're going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?'

"In retrospect, said Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., 'We were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn't be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration's rationale. Not enough of those stories were put on the front page. That was a mistake on my part.'

Across the country, 'the voices raising questions about the war were lonely ones,' Downie said. 'We didn't pay enough attention to the minority.'

The anti-war voices might have been a "lonely minority" in the management offices at the Post, where the editorial page beat a steady drum for war. But if Downie is referring to the public at large, he's engaging in a bit of revisionist history. According to the Post's own polls, approximately a third of the public opposed the war in the weeks before it began.

Of course, the national divide over Iraq has deepened considerably since then, and the New York Times explains today the effect it is having on the Kerry campaign.

Kerry faces a tough choice, David Sanger writes: "He has to portray himself as tough and competent enough to be commander in chief, yet appeal to the faction of Democrats that hates the war and eggs him on to call Mr. Bush a liar.

Kerry has done neither this week. By letting himself get sucked into a back-and-forth with Bush on Iraq, Kerry has come off looking both indecisive and insufficiently outraged by the Bush administration's misrepresentations about weapons of mass destruction.

Sanger says that "Mr. Kerry's friends concede the first rounds have gone to the president," and then he quotes Kerry confidante Sen. Joe Biden as saying, "It's frustrating as hell."

After Bush challenged Kerry last week to give a "yes or no" answer as to whether he would have gone to war, Sanger says the Kerry campaign spent the weekend debating how Kerry should respond. "'There were a lot of ideas," said one official, 'from silence, to throwing the question back in the president's face.'

"But the decision, in the end, was Mr. Kerry's. He chose to take the bait on Monday at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Asked by a reporter, he said he would have voted for the resolution - even in the absence of evidence of weapons of mass destruction - before adding his usual explanation that he would have subsequently handled everything leading up to the war differently. . . .

"Mr. Kerry's answer is being second-guessed among his supporters, some of whom argued that he should have been more wary of the trap. 'I wish he had simply said no president in his right mind would ask the Senate to go to war against a country that didn't have weapons that pose an imminent threat,' said one of Mr. Kerry's Congressional colleagues and occasional advisers.

Questions about the pre-war intelligence on Iraq will no doubt dominate the confirmation hearings for Bush's CIA nominee, Porter Goss. But if the Times has it right, it will all be for show. The Times says that Democrats are unlikely to oppose Goss' nomination.

"Privately," the Times reports, "some Democrats said the nomination put them in a difficult political position. The CIA has already gone two months without a replacement for George J. Tenet as director. The Democrats said that if they opposed the Goss nomination they expected that the White House would cast them as obstructionists who were delaying prosecution of the war on terror.

"They said they had learned that lesson the hard way. In 2002, the Democrats opposed a proposal to eliminate some protections for employees of the Department of Homeland Security. Republicans took that as an opening to portray certain Democrats as opposed to protecting the nation.

"One of those Democrats was Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia. Republicans ran a television commercial showing pictures of Mr. Cleland, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, and said Mr. Cleland 'voted against the president's vital homeland security efforts 11 times.' Mr. Cleland lost his seat. 'They've got the trump card,' a top Senate Democratic aide said of the Republicans. 'And the reality is, that despite all the intelligence problems with this White House, we do need a C.I.A. director.'

The Times also takes a look at Rudy Giuliani's emergence as a major force for the Bush-Cheney campaign. The former New York mayor, the Times says, is "directly leveraging the events of Sept. 11 in ways that President Bush and many of his closes allies have not dared."

Bush talks about Sept. 11 at every stop on the campaign trial, and Giuliani says that's appropriate. "It has to be an issue in the election," Giuliani told the Times. "Not discussing it would be like conducting an election for Abraham Lincoln and not discussing the Civil War."

The Times notes that Giuliani, like Sen. John McCain, has a rocky history with Bush and with the Republican Party generally. Giuliani endorsed McCain over Bush in 2000; six years earlier, he endorsed Democrat Mario Cuomo in the New York governor's race. And Giuliani parts ways with Bush on a number of social issues, including abortion and rights for gay Americans. But as the Republicans prepare for their own "extreme makeover" later this month -- the Republican convention will be heavy on relative moderates like Giuliani, McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger -- Giuliani is getting in line behind Bush.

Why? It's simple, the Times says: to lay the groundwork for possible Giuliani campaigns in the future. "It is not always evident when you are going to make a withdrawal from the favor bank of politics," says Kieran Mahoney, a longtime Republican consultant, "but it is always obvious when you are making a deposit."

There's someone else who may be making plans for the future today: Yaser Hamdi.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

"Four months after telling the justices in oral arguments that holding Yaser Esam Hamdi in military confinement was crucial to national security and the war on terrorism, administration lawyers told a judge Wednesday that they were negotiating arrangements to send him back to his family in Saudi Arabia. . . ."

Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court rejected -- on an 8-1 vote -- the Bush administration's claim that it was entitled to imprison so-called "enemy combatants" like Hamdi without access to lawyers or courts. Deborah N. Pearlstein, a lawyer for Human Rights First, told the Times: "The reality is that the Supreme Court handed the administration a huge defeat, and releasing Hamdi is one way of complying with that ruling."

The Bush administration offered a different explanation. Hamdi has been questioned for more than two years and has no further "intelligence value," an unnamed government official told the Times. "This is really about the passage of time. He is no longer a threat to the United States," the official said.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

War Room