Avoiding the Weekly Standard's intelligence scoop.

Media criticism.
Nov. 18 2003 7:00 PM

Case Open

Why is the press avoiding the Weekly Standard's intelligence scoop?

Who's afraid of the Weekly Standard?
Who's afraid of the Weekly Standard?

Everybody knows how the press loves to herd itself into a snarling pack to chase the story of the day. But less noticed is the press's propensity to half-close its lids, lick its paws, and contemplate its hairballs when confronted with events or revelations that contradict its prejudices.

The press experienced such a tabby moment this week following the publication of Stephen F. Hayes' cover story in the most recent Weekly Standard about alleged links between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. The Hayes piece, which went up on the Web Friday, quotes extensively from a classified Oct. 27, 2003, 16-page memo written by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith at the request of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The committee, which is investigating the administration's prewar intelligence claims, asked Feith to annotate his July 10 testimony, and his now-leaked memo indexes in 50 numbered points what the various alphabet intelligence agencies (CIA, FBI, DIA, NSA) had collected about a Saddam-Osama connection.

A classified memo by a top Pentagon official written at Senate committee request and containing information about scores of intelligence reports might spell news to you or me—whether you believe Saddam and Osama were collaborating or not. But except for exposure at other Murdoch media outlets (Fox News Channel, the Australian, the New York Post) and the conservative Washington Times, the story got no positive bounce. Time and Newsweek could have easily commented on some aspect of the story, which the Drudge Report promoted with a link on Saturday. But except for a dismissive one-paragraph mention in the SundayWashington Post by Walter Pincus and a dismissive follow-up by Pincus in today's (Tuesday's) Post pegged to the news that the Justice Department will investigate the leak, the mainstream press has largely ignored Hayes' piece.

What's keeping the pack from tearing Hayes' story to shreds, from building on it or at least exploiting the secret document from which Hayes quotes? One possible explanation is that the mainstream press is too invested in its consensus finding that Saddam and Osama never teamed up and its almost theological view that Saddam and Osama couldn't possibly have ever hooked up because of secular/sacred differences. Holders of such rigid views tend to reject any new information that may disturb their cognitive equilibrium. Another explanation is that the national security press corps gave it a bye because they found nothing sufficiently new in the memo—and nothing that hadn't been trotted out previously in other guises by the Bush administration. In other words, old news ain't today's news. Another possible explanation is that the press has come to discount any information from the administration camp as "rumint," a rumor-intelligence cocktail that should be avoided. (One willing victim of prewar rumint, the New York Times' Judith Miller, piped the allegations of Iraqi defectors into her paper for months and months before the war and suffered a nasty blow to her reputation as a conscientious reporter when her defectors turned out to be spewing crap.)

The Department of Defense evinced more critical interest in the leaked memo than most of the press with a Saturday, Nov. 15, press release, confirming the memo's authenticity but claiming—without naming Hayes or the Weekly Standard—that it had been misinterpreted: "The classified annex was not an analysis of the substantive issue of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaida, and it drew no conclusions."

The DoD objection is a bit of a red herring. Except for the Weekly Standard's grandiose title "Case Closed" (it should have been titled "Case Open"), the Hayes piece works assiduously (until its final paragraph, at least) not to oversell the memo. Hayes' ample quotations from the memo preserve much of the qualifying language that fudges any absolute case for the Saddam-Osama connection.

This doesn't prevent Pincus from letting his sources rip the memo. One anonymous "former senior intelligence officer" quoted by Pincus sniffs that the memo is not an intelligence product but "data points ... among the millions of holdings of the intelligence agencies, many of which are simply not thought likely to be true."

Help me! Many a reporter has hitched a ride onto Page One with the leak of intelligence much rawer than the stuff in Feith's memo. You can bet the farm that if a mainstream publication had gotten the Feith memo first, it would have used it immediately—perhaps as a hook to re-examine the ongoing war between the Pentagon and CIA about how to interpret intelligence. Likewise, you'd be wise to bet your wife's farm that had a similar memo arguing no Saddam-Osamaconnection been leaked to the press, it would have generated 100 times the news interest as the Hayes story.

I write this not as a believer in the Saddam-Osama love child or as a non-believer. My mind remains open to argument and to data both raw and refined. Hayes' piece piques my curiosity, and it should pique yours. If it's true that Saddam and Osama's people danced together—if just for an evening or two—that undermines the liberal critique that Bush rashly folded Iraq into his "war on terror." And if it's true, isn't that a story? Or, conversely, if Feith's shards of information direct us to the conclusion that his people stacked the intel to justify a bogus war, isn't that a story, too? Where is the snooping, prying, nosy press that I've heard so much about?

Finally, the memo isn't Feith's best sales pitch for the Saddam-Osama connection, nor does Hayes present it as such. As the DoD press release explains, the memo is Feith's response to the Senate Intelligence Committee's request for a catalog of intelligence reports that supports his July 10 testimony, a catalog that will help the committee locate the original reports from the various intelligence agencies. Given the leaky nature of the intelligence committee—with the Democrats and Republicans aggressively venting sensitive information to the press for political advantage—I'd be disappointed if we don't see some of the meaty original reports in the coming months. For open minds, the case does remain open.

Addendum, Nov. 19:That matching pair of calico cats over at Newsweek, Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, take the wrecking ball  to Hayes' story.

Addendum, Nov. 20:The Weekly Standard's Stephen F. Hayes returns fire on the Pentagon for calling his story "innaccurate." The New York Times reviews the Hayes story, and Walter Pincus of the Washington Post looks at it again, hooking his story to the Pentagon/CIA war.

Addendum: Nov. 24: Stephen F. Hayes counterattacks. Advantage: Hayes.

******

Is your case open or closed? Send e-mail to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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