The book cover for George Tenet's "At the Center of the Storm," co-written with former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow
Ten years ago, as President George W. Bush and his administration were putting the finishing touches on their unprovoked invasion of Iraq, the mainstream U.S. news media had long since capitulated, accepting the conventional wisdom that nothing could -- or should -- stop the march to war.
The neocon conquest of the major U.S. news outlets -- the likes of the New York Times, the Washington Post and the national TV news -- was so total that the Bush administration could reliably count on them as eager co-conspirators in the Iraq adventure rather than diligent watchdogs for the American people.
Despite massive worldwide protests against the impending invasion, the U.S. news media only grudgingly covered the spectacle of millions of people in the streets in dozens of cities. The coverage mostly had a tone of bemusement about how deluded such uninformed folks could be.
The U.S. news media's consensus was so overwhelming that it may have freed up a few lesser outlets to publish some undeniable facts, which then could be safely dismissed and ignored.
Such was the case when Newsweek correspondent John Barry was allowed to publish the leaked contents of an interrogation of a senior Iraqi official who inconveniently disclosed that Iraq had destroyed its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons years earlier.
Barry, usually a reliable voice for Washington's conventional wisdom, may have struggled over what to do with the leaked document, but he ultimately wrote this truthful lede:
"Hussein Kamel, the highest-ranking Iraqi official ever to defect from Saddam Hussein's inner circle, told CIA and British intelligence officers and U.N. inspectors in the summer of 1995 that after the gulf war, Iraq destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons stocks and the missiles to deliver them. Kamel ... had direct knowledge of what he claimed: for 10 years he had run Iraq's nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programs."
In a classic understatement about his own report -- as the White House was on the verge of unleashing the dogs of war in pursuit of Iraq's alleged WMD -- Barry commented, "The defector's tale raises questions about whether the WMD stockpiles attributed to Iraq still exist."
Barry explained that Kamel had been interrogated in separate sessions by the CIA, British intelligence, and a trio from the U.N. inspection team; that Newsweek had been able to verify the authenticity of the U.N. document containing the text of Kamel's debriefing; and that Kamel had "told the same story to the CIA and the British." Barry added that "The CIA did not respond to a request for comment."
Barry's story was, of course, completely accurate. According to page 13 of the transcript of the debriefing by U.S. and U.N. officials, Hussein Kamel, one of Saddam Hussein's sons-in-law, said bluntly: "All weapons -- biological, chemical, missile, nuclear, were destroyed."
The story of Kamel's admission was published in the March 3, 2003, issue of Newsweek after appearing on the magazine's Website on Feb. 24.
No WMD in Iraq?
By then, of course, the Newsweek story really didn't matter. The media "hot shots" had already shifted from covering the excuses for war to preparing for the exciting duty as embedded "war correspondents."
No one wanted to risk being left out of those career-building moments of racing across the Iraqi desert in a Humvee, with your cameraman filming you in green-tinted night-vision video, your body bulked up by body armor, your camouflage outfit matching what the real troops were wearing, and perhaps your hair blowing in the wind.
Back at corporate headquarters, CNN's Wolf Blitzer and other cable-news anchors couldn't wait for the start of "shock and awe." The pyrotechnics would surely mean a big bump in ratings. Over at Fox News and MSNBC, which was then trying to out-Fox Fox from the Right, producers were planning for video montages honoring "the Troops" as super-hero liberators of Iraq.
So there was not much buzz about the Newsweek scoop. The rest of the mainstream media only went through the motions of checking out this strange information about Iraq having no WMD. Reporters called the CIA for clarification.