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April 12, 2006
The Minority Report (Updated and Bumped)

The Washington Post runs a deceptive and dishonest report about the evaluation of the Iraqi trailers that had been identified as biological weapons labs prior to the invasion in March 2003. Their front-page story announces breathlessly that the Bush administration ignored the findings of a team of experts who concluded that the trailers could not have acted as portable bioweapons platforms prior to a Bush announcement of exactly the opposite -- but below the fold, they tell a different story.

Let's take a look at the lead first:

On May 29, 2003, 50 days after the fall of Baghdad, President Bush proclaimed a fresh victory for his administration in Iraq: Two small trailers captured by U.S. and Kurdish troops had turned out to be long-sought mobile "biological laboratories." He declared, "We have found the weapons of mass destruction."

The claim, repeated by top administration officials for months afterward, was hailed at the time as a vindication of the decision to go to war. But even as Bush spoke, U.S. intelligence officials possessed powerful evidence that it was not true.

A secret fact-finding mission to Iraq -- not made public until now -- had already concluded that the trailers had nothing to do with biological weapons. Leaders of the Pentagon-sponsored mission transmitted their unanimous findings to Washington in a field report on May 27, 2003, two days before the president's statement.

Sounds damning, and if that was the only report on the trailers, it certainly would be. What the Post neglects to mention in its sensationalist zeal is that this was one of several teams that investigated the trailers, and the totality of their evaluations came to a different conclusion that that of the leakers who supplied this story. Skip down to the 12th paragraph, which is when Joby Warrick finally gets around to providing the context:

Intelligence analysts involved in high-level discussions about the trailers noted that the technical team was among several groups that analyzed the suspected mobile labs throughout the spring and summer of 2003. Two teams of military experts who viewed the trailers soon after their discovery concluded that the facilities were weapons labs, a finding that strongly influenced views of intelligence officials in Washington, the analysts said. "It was hotly debated, and there were experts making arguments on both sides," said one former senior official who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

The Pentagon didn't send one team of experts to review the trailers; they sent three, presumably to get a diverse analysis of the evidence, especially since the pre-war intel on WMD had come up remarkably short. That sounds like a prudent strategy to me, having competing teams research the same equipment and evidence to develop independent analyses to present to the Pentagon. They did so, and two of the three teams provided conclusions that fit the pre-war intel, while one did not.

So where's the issue? It turns out that the minority report was the correct analysis after all, of course, but at the time Bush spoke it was just that -- a minority report. To put it in advertising terms, two out of three inspectors agreed that the trailers were part of Saddam's WMD effort. The Pentagon relied on that majority opinion, as did the administration, and no one can argue that doing so constituted either an intent to deceive or even an unreasonable decision at the time.

No one can argue that, of course, but the Post and the media in general. Instead of simply reporting that the Pentagon didn't have consensus on this issue and that the minority report wound up being the most accurate, Joby Warrick turns the story into a Geraldo Rivera my-life-is-actually-in-danger type of journalism that substitutes cheap sensationalism for accuracy. Prior to informing the readers of the existence of two separate analyses that contradicted the report supplied by the leakers, Warrick enthralls us with a paragraph stating how none of the leakers will identify themselves for fear of retribution and a colorful epithet that the leakers considered the trailers "sand toilet[s]".

I don't know how to break this to Warrick, but all leakers want anonymity to avoid retribution. That's not news, unless you're on your first assignment for a newspaper. And correct me if I'm wrong, but colorful epithets about chemical labs on trailers don't have greater news value than the information that your sources were outnumbered in their analysis (and your big scoop) 2-1.

This is a rather pathetic and transparent example of how the news media stages information so as to be most damaging to an administration they don't like. The downplaying of the full context of this story shows that Warrick and his editors want sensationalism and hyperbole over facts and real reporting. This could have been a story about how even a creative strategy as that used by the Pentagon to review these trailers still wound up producing the wrong analysis. In trying to paint it as an example of administration dishonesty, the Post instead reveals its own.

The Confederate Yankee agrees and has more on this subject.

UPDATE and BUMP: It turns out that Warrick didn't even do much original reporting on this story. The essentials had been reported contemporaneously in the New York Times, as Seixon notes. And guess who reported it on June 7, 2003? Judy Miller -- the same reporter vilified by the left as an administration stooge during the Plame affair -- wrote this:

American and British intelligence analysts with direct access to the evidence are disputing claims that the mysterious trailers found in Iraq were for making deadly germs. In interviews over the last week, they said the mobile units were more likely intended for other purposes and charged that the evaluation process had been damaged by a rush to judgment.

"Everyone has wanted to find the 'smoking gun' so much that they may have wanted to have reached this conclusion," said one intelligence expert who has seen the trailers and, like some others, spoke on condition that he not be identified. He added, "I am very upset with the process."

But what else did she report?

In all, at least three teams of Western experts have now examined the trailers and evidence from them. While the first two groups to see the trailers were largely convinced that the vehicles were intended for the purpose of making germ agents, the third group of more senior analysts divided sharply over the function of the trailers, with several members expressing strong skepticism, some of the dissenters said.

Even at the time, the third group did not unanimously conclude that the trailers could not have served as platforms for biological or chemical weapons. Nor did they think that the trailers were well suited to produce hydrogen, as Warrick claims they concluded. The minority report turned out to be a minority report of a minority report.

How can we conclude this? The DIA published their own report in conjunction with the CIA, as Power Line reported today, which concluded that the trailers were indeed part of the WMD program of Iraq -- on the day before President Bush delivered the same message in his speech:

Examination of the trailers reveals that all of the equipment is permanently installed and interconnected, creating an ingeniously simple, self-contained bioprocessing system. Although the equipment on the trailer found in April 2003 was partially damaged by looters, it includes a fermentor capable of producing biological agents and support equipment such as water supply tanks, an air compressor, a water chiller, and a system for collecting exhaust gases. ...

Analysis of the trailers reveals that they probably are second- or possibly third-generation designs of the plants described by the source. The newer version includes system improvements, such as cooling units, apparently engineered to solve production problems described by the source that were encountered with the older design.

The DIA, the agency Warrick says sent the third group of analysts who unanimously rejected the military's analysis, endorsed that analysis even after getting the report from the third group. The Pentagon stood behind their original analysis, possibly because the third group did not achieve unanimity.

Warrick's reporting falls apart more the further one looks into it. And so much for that "dissent" within the intelligence community; the CIA and DIA published that opinion jointly.

UPDATE II: Warrick responds with another article on the controversy, but still has a problem with accuracy:

The White House sought to further rebut the Post article with a series of "Setting the Record Straight" statements e-mailed to reporters. In the statements, the White House does not deny the existence of the technical team's report but portrays it as a preliminary finding, contrasting that report with a public white paper put out by the CIA on May 28, 2003. The CIA paper described the trailers as the "strongest evidence to date that Iraq was hiding a biological warfare program."

The White House provided a "link" to a CIA Web site where the white paper is still posted, nearly 18 months after its conclusions were refuted by the Iraq Survey Group.

The Post fails to provide the "link", possibly because it was issued not by the CIA alone but jointly with the DIA, the same organization that sent the third team for its review. The DIA had received the third team's report and very apparently did not agree with its split decision, since it issued this report with the CIA the day before Bush spoke. George Tenet still believed the report to be accurate the next year. Warrick doesn't mention any of this in his follow-up, nor does he mention even once that the New York Times had already reported on this same issue in June 2003.

Howard Kurtz notes the controversy but doesn't comment directly on it, and kindly links back to me. He does have a funny take on Boogate, so be sure to read the article.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 12, 2006 7:25 PM

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