Media's Failures During Iraq War Cast Shadow Over Syria Coverage

In this citizen journalism image provided by the United media office of Arbeen which has been authenticated based on its cont
In this citizen journalism image provided by the United media office of Arbeen which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, members of UN investigation team speak in Damascus countryside of Zamalka, Syria, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013. U.N. chemical weapons experts headed to a Damascus suburb on Wednesday for a new tour of areas struck by a purported poison gas attack, activists said, as Western powers laid the groundwork for a possible punitive strike and the U.N. chief pleaded for more time for diplomacy. (AP Photo/United media office of Arbeen)

NEW YORK -- On Monday morning, Associated Press investigative editor Ted Bridis stressed to colleagues the need for a “dive deep into questions about quantifying and understanding the U.S. government’s justification for military intervention in Syria, which increasingly seems inevitable.”

"If sources are telling us, as a senior administration official did during the weekend, that the U.S. has ‘very little doubt’ that chemical weapons were used, we should press sources to explain with specificity how or why an intelligence assessment leads them to believe this,” Bridis wrote in a staff memo obtained by The Huffington Post. “When they don’t or can’t (eg, “sources and methods”) AP should note this.”

Bridis laid out numerous questions to ask officials. He made specific mention of the coverage surrounding Iraq, a media debacle that should force journalists to be especially skeptical when confronted by government claims of certainty regarding the use of chemical weapons.

“What information does the U.S. or others already have in hand?” he asked. “How reliable? How much of [this] information is inferential, and how much of it is a ‘slam dunk?’ What steps are being taken to avoid the experiences of ‘Curveball,’ the disgraced Iraqi informant whose false information about chemical weapons helped the Bush administration justify the Iraq invasion?”

Two AP reporters answered some of those questions in an article Thursday morning:

The intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack is no 'slam dunk,' with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria's chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike, U.S. intelligence officials say.

The “slam dunk” reference brings to mind former CIA director George Tenet’s famous assurance to President George W. Bush that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

In recent days, the Obama administration has made similar public and private assurances about being certain that Assad’s government is responsible for an alleged chemical attack last week, an especially grisly moment in a two-and-a-half year civil war that’s claimed over 100,000 lives.

The administration's claims have dominated the media and, as during the run-up to the Iraq War, prompted pundits and publications to choose sides.

Some media figures who strongly backed invading Iraq, like Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, have urged for strikes in Syria. And The Economist, which supported war a decade ago, unveiled its latest cover Thursday, which featured a photo of Assad and three words of advice: “Hit him hard.”

But support for attacking Syria hasn't been clear-cut across ideological lines. Conservative National Review writer Ramesh Ponnuru dissented as his magazine endorsed a strike. “This is a war with no clear objective, thus no strategy to attain it, no legal basis, and no public support,” he wrote. Meanwhile, Washington Post liberal columnist Eugene Robinson argued that “the U.S. must act against Assad.”

The war drums have started beating even louder in recent days, as unnamed government officials have made the administration’s case for intervention through the media, a strategy that also evokes the run-up to war a decade ago.

Before the Iraq War, national security reporters promoted the U.S. government’s case for military invention by amplifying pieces of intelligence selectively passed along by anonymous officials. The reports of supposed evidence linking Saddam Hussein to WMDs bolstered the Bush administration’s case and provided fodder for columnists and commentators who seized on such material to argue for war.

On the 10-year anniversary of the invasion in March, some journalists suggested to The Huffington Post that despite all the mea culpas and navel-gazing in the decade since, the media could fail in the same way again.

Indeed, some recent Syria coverage has resembled pre-Iraq reports, with anonymous officials offering what they claim to be conclusive proof that Assad’s government used chemical weapons against its own people, a move that would serve as a pretext for U.S. military action even without a U.N. mandate or allowing for weapons inspections to finish. Privately, officials told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that new intelligence had “erased last administration doubts that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against its own people.”

Anonymous officials have also suggested to reporters this week that military intervention was a foregone conclusion and would be relatively quick and easy. Both claims should receive added scrutiny in light of the Iraq War, which included an administration dismissing weapons inspections and unrealistic expectations of how it would play out.

“The lessons of Iraq is that there were many more unintended consequences than we anticipated," said James Asher, Washington bureau chief of McClatchy, a news organization recognized as getting the story right a decade ago.

“And that lesson, as it was described in the UK debate, should cast a shadow over this entire enterprise and people should be a lot more cautious about the steps they take, and the deliberate nature of it, than to just go willy nilly off to war again,” Asher said.

The New York Times, which infamously published the notorious “aluminum tubes” story on its front page during the lead-up to the Iraq War, offered a more critical look at the government's intelligence claims Thursday.

Officials told the Times that there is no “smoking gun” right now tying Assad, or his inner circle, to the attack, a far cry from the Bush administration's ominous claims that the smoking gun in Iraq could be a mushroom cloud.

Asher said there are unresolved questions about the type of chemical substance allegedly used, and called the issue of whether there is direct evidence tying Assad to the attack “extraordinarily important." He also said the Obama administration should be more transparent in making its case.

“The world would be better off ... if instead of having secret briefings with the Congress, instead of giving partial explanations and not disclosing as much as they could, if the Obama administration were more open," Asher said. "We would know where we stand. And I don’t quite understand why they’re not. So we’re skeptical on many fronts with this approach that the administration has taken and we’ll continue to be until we see certifiable proof.”