To mark the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War yesterday, The New York Times published an interactive timeline. Yet even after the paper's mea culpa about its deficient reporting leading up to the invasion, The Times repeats similar journalistic malpractice in this stroll down memory lane.
This is the first in a series of posts exploring the most misleading statements and glaring omissions from its Iraq War history:
Timeline Entry: Hans Blix's Report to Security Council
This entry reads in full: "Jan. 27, 2003, Weapons Inspector Reports: Hans Blix, a chief U.N. weapons inspector, reports that Iraq has not cooperated during two months of inspections."
The corresponding Times report filed back in 2003 (to which there's a link beneath the timeline) is titled "Inspector Says Iraq Falls Short," with the lede, "Hans Blix, one of the chief United Nations weapons inspectors, gave a broadly negative report today on Iraq's cooperation with two months of inspections, providing support to the Bush administration's campaign to disarm Iraq by force if necessary."
FACT: First, the statement in the timeline that Blix "reports that
Iraq has not cooperated during two months of inspections" fails miserably to encompass not only the complexity of what Blix related to the Security
Council but the intended purpose of his report.
Hans Blix saw his presentation before the Security Council as a report card with which to force
Iraq's hand to be more forthcoming with his team of weapons inspectors.
In the end, his dedication to the facts, of painting an exhaustive view of Iraq's cooperation up to that point, over a mere two-month period, left his findings vulnerable to cherry-picking by those, in the Bush administration and the media, who were beating the war drums. Blix related that Iraq had, as of Jan. 27, 2003, not cooperated as fully as
he would have liked, but not that it had refused to cooperate altogether, as the timeline deceptively implies.
In fact, this timeline entry is even more misleading than that Times report filed on Blix's presentation. That report's framing certainly bolstered the Bush administration's argument for invasion, claiming, foremost, that Blix's findings "support the Bush administration's campaign to disarm Iraq by force if necessary" while wholly omitting Blix's points that progress had been made and his weapons inspectors needed more time to do their jobs. As opposed to this timeline entry, however, even the report refrained from implying Iraq had totally failed to cooperate. (Yet the article does give the false impression that Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief inspector for atomic weapons, held an extremely divergent view from Blix: "[ElBaradei] was less critical of Iraq today, reporting that his team had found no evidence so far that Iraq had tried to revive its nuclear arms program and appealing to the Security Council for a 'few months' more to complete his work." ElBaradei - who the Bush administration fought to remove from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), going so far as to tap his phone, and who, along with the IAEA, was later awarded the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize - would soon be roundly criticized by Vice President Dick Cheney, US United Nations ambassador John Bolton and other administration surrogates.)
Contrary to the 2003 administration narrative that is repeated in this 2008 timeline, years after it was first echoed by The Times and the mainstream media at large, Blix also told the Security Council that day:
HANS BLIX: While the inspection is not built on the premise of confidence, but may lead to confidence if it is successful, there must nevertheless be a measure of mutual confidence from the very beginning in running the operation of inspection. Iraq has, on the whole, cooperated rather well so far with UNMOVIC [U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission] in this field.
The most important point to make is that access has been provided to all sites we have wanted to inspect. And with one exception, it has been [without] problems.
What's more, in closing his presentation, Blix painstakingly detailed how the weapons inspectors' capacity to perform their jobs was growing more effective by the day, progress had been made and much work remained:
HANS BLIX: Mr. President, I must not conclude this update without some notes on the growing capability of UNMOVIC. In the past two months, UNMOVIC has built up its capabilities in Iraq from nothing to 260 staff members from 60 countries. This includes approximately 100 UNMOVIC inspectors, 60 air operations staff, as well as security personnel, communication, translation and interpretation staff, medical support and other services at our Baghdad office and also Mosul field office.
All serve the United Nations and report to no one else.
Furthermore, our roster of inspectors will continue to grow as our training program continues. Even at this moment, we have a training course in session in Vienna. At the end of that course, we should have a roster of about 350 qualified experts from which to draw inspectors.
The team supplied by the Swiss government is refurbishing our office in Baghdad which had been empty for four years. The government in New Zealand has contributed both a medical team and a communications team. The German government will contribute unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance and a group of specialists to operate them for us within Iraq. And the government of Cyprus has kindly allowed us to set up a field office in Larnaca.
All of these contributions have an assistance in quickly starting up our inspections and enhancing our capabilities, so has help from the U.N. in New York and from sister organizations in Baghdad.
In the past two months, during which we have built up our presence in Iraq, we have conducted about 300 inspections to more than 230 different sites. Of these, more than 20 were sites that had not been inspected before.
By the end of December, UNMOVIC began using helicopters, both for the transport of inspectors and for actual inspection work. We now have eight helicopters. They have already proved invaluable in helping to freeze large sites by observing the movement of traffic in and around the area.
Setting up the field office in Mosul has facilitated rapid inspections of sites in northern Iraq. We plan to establish soon a second field office in the Basra area where we have already inspected a number of sites.
Mr. President, we now have an inspection apparatus that permits us to send multiple inspections teams every day all over Iraq by road or by air. Let me end by simply noting that that capability, which has been built up in a short time and which is now operating, is at the disposal of the Security Council.
Following Blix's Jan. 27 presentation before the Security Council, Iraq became more compliant to inspections while, simultaneously, the inspectors were expanding the coverage and effectiveness of their searches. But it didn't matter. The Bush administration had already made up its mind and began an effort to discredit Blix.
Blix revealed in an April 2003 interview: "When on January 27, I denounced Iraq in the Security Council of the UN for not cooperating in an immediate, complete and unconditional way to fulfill the terms of resolution 1441, the American Government, including the hawks, applauded me. However, it was a great paradox, because from then on, the Government of Iraq began to cooperate actively. And then the Americans began to criticize me." He also disclosed, "There is evidence that this war was planned well in advance. Sometimes this raises doubts about their attitude to the (weapons) inspections," adding, "I now believe that finding weapons of mass destruction has been relegated, I would say, to fourth place, which is why the United States and Britain are now waging war on Iraq."
And just today in The Guardian, Blix writes:
The elimination of weapons of mass destruction was the declared main aim of the war. It is improbable that the governments of the alliance could have sold the war to their parliaments on any other grounds. That they believed in the weapons' existence in the autumn of 2002 is understandable. Why had the Iraqis stopped UN inspectors during the 90s if they had nothing to hide? Responsibility for the war must rest, though, on what those launching it knew by March 2003.
By then, Unmovic inspectors had carried out some 700 inspections at 500 sites without finding prohibited weapons. The contract that George Bush held up before Congress to show that Iraq was purchasing uranium oxide was proved to be a forgery. The allied powers were on thin ice, but they preferred to replace question marks with exclamation marks.
They could not succeed in eliminating WMDs because they did not exist.
This timeline entry on Blix's Jan. 27 presentation to the Security Council is a sharp reminder of how the media, led by our paper of record, helped to sell the war in Iraq by almost invariably shaping information to fit the Bush administration's narrative.