The mainstream media is playing another misbegotten round of “gotcha” with President Bush on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. This week, the CIA issued a follow-up to its October 2004 Iraqi Survey Group report, saying its investigations into possible WMD transfers from Iraq to Syria before the war were inconclusive and warranted further investigation. Predictably, the media did not convey that message. Instead, it cherry-picked the findings.
“Report Finds No Evidence Syria Hid Arms,” The Washington Post’s headline blared. Actually, the report, by the CIA’s chief weapons inspector, Charles A. Duelfer, made no such claim. Here’s what the CIA said: It is “unable to rule out the possibility that WMD was evacuated to Syria before the war”; it was “unlikely that an official transfer of WMD material from Iraq to Syria took place”; and it found “no senior policy, program, or intelligence officials who admitted any direct knowledge of such movement of WMD.”
But it said nothing about what Syria did or did not do, as The Post claimed. Instead, the report held out the possibility that an “unofficial” transfer — that is, a secret one that the Iraqi officials the CIA interviewed didn’t know about — may have taken place.
In fact, the report says, “there was evidence of a discussion of possible WMD collaboration initiated by a Syrian security officer,” and the CIA “received information about movement of material out of Iraq, including the possibility that WMD was involved.” These reports “were sufficiently credible to merit further investigation” — especially “given the insular and compartmented nature of the [Saddam Hussein] regime.” But in the end, since the CIA was unable to complete its investigation owing to the situation in Iraq, it is unable to say whether illicit weapons were moved to Syria. It held out the possibility of reopening the investigation once security in Iraq improves. It declines to rule out the possibility that WMD were shipped across the border.
Clearly, the media needs an object lesson in an old truth: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. That was true back in October, and it is true now. Back then, The Post was so eager to declare the Bush administration wrong that it shoved someone else’s words into the chief weapons inspector’s mouth. The Post was forced to issue a correction when the headline of its above-the-fold story on the initial report erroneously claimed that Mr. Duelfer said the United States was “almost all wrong.” Mr. Duelfer said no such thing; his predecessor, David Kay, did.
The fact is this: We still don’t know whether illicit weapons were secreted out of Iraq in the months before the war. That doesn’t make for catchy anti-Bush headlines. But then, the truth is sometimes like that.