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[casi] FAIR on U.S. Media: A Failure of Skepticism in Powell Coverage

                    Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting
               Media analysis, critiques and activism

A Failure of Skepticism in Powell Coverage
Disproof of previous claims underlines need for scrutiny

February 10, 2003

In reporting on Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 5
presentation to the United Nations Security Council, many journalists
treated allegations made by Powell as though they were facts.  Reporters
at several major outlets neglected to observe the journalistic rule of
prefacing unverified assertions with words like "claimed" or "alleged."

This is of particular concern given that over the last several months,
many Bush administration claims about alleged Iraqi weapons facilities
have failed to hold up to inspection.  In many cases, the failed
claims-- like Powell's claims at the U.N.-- have cited U.S. and British
intelligence sources and have included satellite photos as evidence.


In its report on Powell's presentation, the New York Daily News (2/6/03)
accepted his evidence at face value: "To buttress his arguments, Powell
showed satellite photos of Iraqi weapons sites and played several
audiotapes intercepted by U.S. electronic eavesdroppers.  The most
dramatic featured an Iraqi Army colonel in the 2nd Republican Guards
Corps ordering a captain to sanitize communications."  The Daily News
gave no indication that it had independent confirmation that the photos
were indeed of weapons sites, or that individuals on the tapes were in
fact who Powell said they were.

In Andrea Mitchell's report on NBC Nightly News (2/5/03), Powell's
allegations became actual capabilities of the Iraqi military: "Powell
played a tape of a Mirage jet retrofitted to spray simulated anthrax,
and a model of Iraq's unmanned drones, capable of spraying chemical or
germ weapons within a radius of at least 550 miles."

Dan Rather, introducing an interview with Powell (60 Minutes II,
2/5/03), shifted from reporting allegations to describing allegations as
facts: "Holding a vial of anthrax-like powder, Powell said Saddam might
have tens of thousands of liters of anthrax.  He showed how Iraqi jets
could spray that anthrax and how mobile laboratories are being used to
concoct new weapons."  The anthrax supply is appropriately attributed as
a claim by Powell, but the mobile laboratories were something that
Powell "showed" to be actually operating.

Commentator William Schneider on CNN Live Today (2/6/03) dismissed the
possibility that Powell could be doubted: "No one disputes the findings
Powell presented at the U.N. that Iraq is essentially guilty of failing
to disarm."  When CNN's Paula Zahn (2/5/03) interviewed Jamie Rubin,
former State Department spokesperson, she prefaced a discussion of
Iraq's response to Powell's speech thusly: "You've got to understand
that most Americans watching this were either probably laughing out loud
or got sick to their stomach. Which was it for you?"


Journalists should always be wary of implying unquestioning faith in
official assertions; recent history is full of official claims based on
satellite and other intelligence data that later turned out to be false
or dubious.  After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the first Bush
administration rallied support for sending troops to Saudi Arabia by
asserting that classified satellite photos showed the Iraqi army
mobilizing on the Saudi border.  This claim was later discredited when
the St. Petersburg Times obtained commercial satellite photos showing no
such build-up (Second Front, John R. MacArthur).  The Clinton
administration justified a cruise missile attack on the Sudan by saying
that intelligence showed that the target was a chemical weapons factory;
later investigation showed it to be a pharmaceutical factory (London
Independent, 5/4/99).

In the present instance, journalists have a responsibility to put U.S.
intelligence claims in context by pointing out that a number of
allegations recently made by the current administration have already
been debunked.  Among them:

* Following a CIA warning in October that commercial satellite photos
showed Iraq was "reconstituting" its clandestine nuclear weapons program
at Al Tuwaitha, a former nuclear weapons complex, George W. Bush told a
Cincinnati audience on October 7 (New York Times, 10/8/02): "Satellite
photographs reveal that Iraq is rebuilding facilities at sites that have
been part of his nuclear program in the past."

When inspectors returned to Iraq, however, they visited the Al Tuwaitha
site and found no evidence to support Bush's claim.  "Since December 4
inspectors from [Mohamed] ElBaradei's International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) have scrutinized that vast complex almost a dozen times, and
reported no violations," according to an Associated Press report

* In September and October U.S. officials charged that conclusive
evidence existed that Iraq was preparing to resume manufacturing banned
ballistic missiles at several sites.  In one such report the CIA said
"the only plausible explanation" for a new structure at the Al Rafah
missile test site was that Iraqis were developing banned long-range
missiles (Associated Press, 1/18/03).  But CIA suggestions that
facilities at Al Rafah, in addition to sites at Al Mutasim and Al
Mamoun, were being used to build prohibited missile systems were found
to be baseless when U.N. inspectors repeatedly visited each site (Los
Angeles Times, 1/26/03).

* British and U.S. intelligence officials said new building at Al-Qaim,
a former uranium refinery in Iraq's western desert, suggested renewed
Iraqi development of nuclear weapons.  But an extensive survey by U.N.
inspectors in December reported no violations (Associated Press,

* Last fall the CIA warned that "key aspects of Iraq's offensive
[biological weapons] program are active and most elements are more
advanced and larger" than they were pre-1990, citing as evidence renewed
building at several facilities such as the Al Dawrah Vaccine Facility,
the Amiriyah Serum and Vaccine Institute, and the Fallujah III Castor
Oil Production Plant.  By mid-January, inspectors had visited all the
sites many times over. No evidence was found that the facilities were
being used to manufacture banned weapons (Los Angeles Times, 1/26/03).

The Associated Press concluded in its January 18 analysis: "In almost
two months of surprise visits across Iraq, U.N. arms monitors have
inspected 13 sites identified by U.S. and British intelligence agencies
as major 'facilities of concern,' and reported no signs of revived
weapons building."

Regarding the number of allegations made by the Bush and Blair
governments that have washed out on inspection, former U.N. weapons
inspector Hans von Sponeck told the British newspaper The Mirror
(2/6/03) following Powell’s U.N. presentation:

"The inspectors have found nothing which was in the Bush and Blair
dossiers of last September.  What happened to them?  They are totally
embarrassed by them.  I have seen facilities in pieces in Iraq which
U.S. intelligence reports say are dangerous.

"The Institute of Strategic Studies referred to the Al Fallujah Three
castor oil production unit and the Al Dora foot and mouth center as
'facilities of concern.'  In 2002 I saw them and they were destroyed,
there was nothing.  All that was left were shells of buildings.  This is
a classic example of manipulating allegations, allegations being
converted into facts."

Responsible journalists should avoid playing a part in such a conversion
by making a clear distinction between what has been alleged by the U.S.
government and what has been independently verified.

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