Judging from reactions, it’s hard to tell Tony Blair’s administration was vindicated for charges it "sexed up" pre-Iraqi war intelligence. Likewise, it’s hard to tell the BBC had juiced up its war reporting. In less than two weeks, critics have spun the news to suggest the exact opposite had occurred.
Nevertheless, the clear verdict of an independent inquiry into false accusations lodged by the BBC against the British government is thumbs-up for the government, thumbs-down for the BBC.
Blair’s vindication should bode well for the Bush administration, which faces almost identical criticism regarding the veracity of its own pre-war intelligence. But considering the critical fallout after Blair’s exoneration and the reflexive defense of the disgraced BBC, it’s an open question how Bush’s controversy will play out, particularly in an election year.
To recap, in May 2003 BBC correspondent Andrew Gilligan, a reporter noted for his aggressive anti-war slant, accused the Blair administration of "sexing up" intelligence reports with claims the government knew to be false in order to justify attacking Iraq. The government denied the accusations. Then on July 17, 2003, former UN inspector Dr. David Kelly, a microbiologist expert in chemical and biological weapons and advisor to the British Defense Ministry, committed suicide. Kelly had been identified as a Gilligan source, although he denied giving the reporter what proved to be false allegations.
An independent inquiry was launched by retired British supreme court judge Lord Brian Hutton. Its bombshell this month was that Gilligan, not the government, distorted the facts. Moreover, Gilligan improperly passed off his own beliefs as those of an anonymous source. Gilligan ultimately confessed.
Hutton’s report criticized Gilligan for broadcasting "very grave," "unfounded" charges and falsely alleging the government "probably knew" its claim was false that Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) were deployable in 45 minutes.
The Hutton inquiry also found the government hadn’t improperly leaked Kelly’s identity, leading to Kelly’s suicide. The government had no "dishonorable, underhand or duplicitous" plot to identify Kelly, Hutton concluded. The inquiry heard psychiatric testimony that Kelly was "such a private man" he became suicidal with "a profound sense of hopelessness" and "a sense his life’s work … had been totally undermined."
The Hutton findings prompted BBC chairman Gavyn Davies and director general Greg Dyke to resign, followed by Gilligan’s resignation.
The prestigious Economist magazine editorialized that Gilligan’s report was "typical of much of modern British journalism, twisting or falsifying the supposed news to fit a journalist’s opinion...."
Initially, this appeared to be a momentous Blair victory, and a humiliating BBC embarrassment.
But even on his way out, Gilligan protested, "If Lord Hutton had fairly considered the evidence he heard, he would have concluded that most of my story was right."
BBC colleagues also wasted no time casting doubts on the inquiry.
"Did Lord Hutton’s unexpectedly unambiguous and full-hearted endorsement of almost every act by ministers and civil servants in the Kelly affair look like a whitewash?" asked BBC political editor Andrew Marr. Agence France-Presse reported that Hutton, "was accused of a ‘whitewash’ by much of Britain’s daily press."
Leftwing Nation magazine editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel’s reaction was: "…in the history of politics, official commissions are usually set up to whitewash governments … So I think it — you know, the BBC has taken the fall, but the Blair government should have."
Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff suggested it "a little odd" that even though the BBC reporter "got something wrong," neither Blair or President George W. Bush felt a similar duty to resign.
Rather than being appalled at the BBC’s transgression, Time magazine’s Karen Tumulty fretted that: "…a chill to the heart of every journalist on the planet" would result from Hutton’s chastisement of the network. "…if they're going to be intimidated by a government commissioned report, it’s a real problem for journalists everywhere," Tumulty said.
"(T)he general thrust of what (the BBC was) reporting is now looking like it was true," Tumulty judged. Not surprisingly, Time’s February 9 headline asked: "Did Blair Get Off Too Lightly?"
The BBC, tarnished by its own deeds, began to emerge as victim rather than bad guy.
"…in some quarters," Martin Kettle of the UK’s leftist Guardian observed, "it has become almost obligatory to dismiss Hutton out of hand…"
Kettle wrote that, "too many newspapers invested too heavily in a particular preferred outcome on these key points. They wanted the government found guilty … and they wanted Gilligan’s reporting vindicated. When Hutton drew opposite conclusions, they damned his findings as perverse and his report as a whitewash."
All of this might be dismissed as childish petulance but for the media’s power to shape public perception – and create trends.
By every measure, the independent Hutton inquiry entirely cleared the Blair administration and seriously indicted its media critics for knowingly making false allegations and for "defective" editorial standards. Yet enduring denials create a different impression.
Indeed, Time magazine's J.F.O. McAllister noted how Blair "may yet have to contemplate (the) example" set by resigned BBC executives, an incredible suggestion considering Blair was cleared and the BBC found culpable and careless.
Almost identical allegations against the Bush Administration by the U.S. press and domestic critics regarding pre-war intelligence will be probed by another independent investigative commission, much like the Hutton inquiry. Even before this investigation begins, it is known that one of the most frequently leveled charges is patently false.
Though describing the Iraqi situation as "grave" and "gathering," President Bush never claimed the threat was "imminent." He distinctly said otherwise in the 2003 State of the Union address: "Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike?"
That hasn’t stopped the oppositional mantra of the left-leaning press and critics.
The Los Angeles Times proclaimed Bush had promised "new evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime poses an imminent danger to the world," and "Bush argued that use of force is not only justified but necessary, and that the threat is not only real but imminent." Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean and others continue to beat the "imminent" drum, despite evidence otherwise.
Similarly, congressional and CIA investigations already have found no evidence that analysts were pressured to color prewar intelligence reports. Analysts "didn’t change their views," said Richard J. Kerr, former CIA director leading the review.
Nevertheless, even before the bi-partisan inquiry begins, press and political critics, such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-MA, at a Senate Arms Services Committee hearing, have taken a cue from the BBC’s case.
"You’ve twice or thrice mentioned manipulation," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld responded sharply. "I haven't heard of it. I haven't seen any of it, except in the comments you’ve made."
The parallels between the British and U.S. situations are striking, and ominous, as truth takes a backseat to spin. Most foreboding is that even before Bush is cleared, critics’ counterattacks have begun. That’s even more aggressive than the post-probe flak Blair is catching. It is almost as if critics need to announce their verdicts before the probe comes up with a clean bill of health, ala the Hutton inquiry.
Democrats’ earlier had charged that inaccurate intelligence estimates resulted from political manipulation by the White House, essentially the identical "sexed up" accusation Gilligan made against Blair — and with the same amount of evidence: none.
Weapons inspector David Kay testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that, "I had innumerable [intelligence] analysts who came to me in apology that the world that we were finding was not the world that they had thought existed and that they had estimated…And never -- not in a single case -- was the explanation, ‘I was pressured to do this.’"
To the unbiased eye, it should be clear Kay’s most recent report that no WMDs will be found in Iraq, while highly critical of the intelligence community, vindicates Bush, rather than indicts him.
CIA Director George Tenet also entirely discounted suggestions Bush had pressured the intelligence community to justify war. "No one," said an emphatic Tenet, "told us what to say or how to say it."
"The president of the United States sees me six days a week, every day," Tenet said. "I can tell you with certainty that the president of the United States get his intelligence from one person and one community: me."
Despite allegations Blair and Bush purposely over-stated the Iraqi threat, the French, Germans, United Nations and even Democrats (former President Bill Clinton and presidential hopeful Senator John Kerry) made identical claims about Iraq’s WMD. Clearly, not everyone was "sexing up" the case for war.
Moreover, it’s difficult to image how a threat can be overstated regarding a regime with a well-documented record of seeking nuclear weapons, using chemical weapons and torturing its own people by the thousands with industrial shredders, rape rooms and other inventive horrors.
Lost in the flurry of manufactured doubt and premature accusation is Kay’s astonishing conclusion that Saddam Hussein, who duped UN weapons inspectors on the eve of war, was even more dangerous than believed as a potential broker to terrorist interests in unstable Iraq.
"I, too, want the American people to know the facts," Bush said when establishing the commission of Republicans and Democrats to probe intelligence failures. "I want to be able to compare what the Iraq Survey Group has found with what we thought prior to going into Iraq."
Meanwhile, the exonerated Blair reflected that, "The allegation that I or anyone else lied to this House or deliberately misled the country by falsifying evidence on WMD is itself a lie. And I simply ask that those who made it and those who have repeated it over all these months, now withdraw it, openly and fully."
Yet the lie persists. Therein lies a lesson for Bush.