Let's be honest: journalists failed as well

There is another group of people, besides ministers and intelligence officers, who have a case to answer
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The Independent Online

When the questions about Iraq's missing weapons of mass destruction are finally asked, there is another group of people, besides government ministers and intelligence officers, who have a case to answer. We journalists failed to ask pertinent questions that could at least have cast doubt on the information the Government supplied. Where we did ask, we often failed to point out the inadequacy or non-existence of the answers. How could so congenitally sceptical a breed allow this to happen?

It is hard now to think back to September 2002 and January 2003 when the Government issued its two dossiers on Iraq's weapons. The first, which contained the so-called 45-minute warning, was presented by the Foreign Office less as an argument for war than an argument for returning to the United Nations and increasing the pressure on Saddam Hussein to allow new inspections. The climate in which both dossiers appeared was one of fear that Iraq possessed WMD and confidence that they could be found (even activated) the very next day. To hazard that these weapons might not exist was to invite ridicule.

For sceptics, there was the additional difficulty of proving a negative twice over. A large part of the belief that Iraq possessed WMD rested on information provided to the UN by the US, Britain and others after the 1991 Gulf War about the quantities of lethal material they had sold to Iraq. This information was matched against Iraq's declarations of what remained and against the stockpiles found by UN inspectors. Iraq was required to account for the rest, and when it could not, it was presumed guilty of concealment. Proving, first, that the principle of calculation was suspect and, second, that Iraq had no weapons was even more difficult for reporters than it was for the UN inspectors.

There was evidence to support the view that Iraq had no lethal weapons. A partial transcript of the UN interrogation of Saddam's brother in law, Lt-Gen Hussein Kamel, who defected in 1995, was leaked to Newsweek magazine early last year. Kamel said that Iraq had destroyed all the chemical and biological weapons material that remained in Iraq after the Gulf War. The attention this revelation received, however, was fleeting. Kamel, killed after he was lured back to Iraq, was not regarded as a credible source and, just a few weeks before the war, the US and British governments had no interest in promoting this version. The story produced scarcely a ripple elsewhere in the media.

The most vocal US sceptic about Iraq's weapons, the former UN weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, was less easy to silence. Instead, his motives and character were systematically discredited to the point where few reporters were prepared to cite him as a credible source. It could be said that something similar happened to the late British weapons expert, Dr David Kelly, when he started to stray outside his area of authorised comments.

Our reliance, as reporters, on such named and unnamed sources as Scott Ritter and David Kelly underlines another reality of the reporting before, during and after the Iraq war. Very few of us have anything like the specialist expertise needed to assess the technical information we were given. At the same time, most of the specialists in this field work for governments. The dearth of experts qualified, authorised and prepared to talk to journalists is illustrated by the fact that almost all the BBC and newspaper reporters who consulted anyone about the scientific aspects of Iraq's weapons capability consulted David Kelly. Until Dr Kelly strayed from his brief, this gave the Government almost complete control of the technical information they released.

We now know there were questions that, even as amateurs, we could and should have asked. First, those weapons that could be deployed "within 45 minutes" - were they the same weapons that could reach Cyprus or Iraq's neighbours? (Answer: no.) How long does the chemical and biological material referred to in the dossiers remain useable? (Most of it was well past its deploy-by date as early as the mid-Nineties.) Third, what does x litres of anthrax or y tonnes of chemical weapons actually look like? As the war approached, we were left with the impression that Iraq was overflowing with the stuff. As hope of finding the banned material faded, however, the Foreign Secretary told us that the anthrax the inspectors were looking for would occupy just one-third of a petrol tanker!

There is one question, however, that we did pose, week in, week out, without receiving any clear or consistent reply. What, exactly, was the technical definition of weapons of mass destruction that the Government was using? In the independent inquiry to which the Government must surely commit itself, this is the first question that must be asked, and "it depends" will not be an acceptable answer.