What, No Smoking Gun?

The Media and the Specter of WMD

Extra, extra: Evidence is emerging that the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq may never provide a compelling justification for the war. You remember: Saddam Hussein was supposed to have a huge cache of chemical and biological weapons which he was hiding from UN inspectors and would happily share with terrorists so they could attack the U.S. The threat was so dire it called for a preemptive strike, and as for evidence—well, U.S. troops would team up with hand-picked media to find and publicize stockpiles of WMD. That way, the war would be justified . . . retroactively.

But since the war began, the military and its media have trumpeted one WMD discovery after another that turned out to be a dud. Searches of "sensitive sites" have turned up gas masks, protective suits, antidotes, manuals, white powder, barrels of chemicals, and a cache of mystery shells—but no smoking gun. The military types who could not wait another week for UN inspectors to do their job are now saying their own WMD search will take weeks, maybe months.

This is all so peculiar it calls for a heightened level of skepticism. But after weeks of false alarms, some major media outlets have fallen into the habit of unironically reporting the absence of news. Last week, CNN began a WMD report with the words "No smoking gun yet," and the headline on a recent New York Times story read, "U.S. Inspectors Find No Forbidden Weapons at Iraqi Arms Plant." On Monday, the Times reported that an unnamed scientist who claims to have worked for Iraq now says WMD evidence was destroyed just days before the war began.

Sure, unambiguous proof of the hidden stockpiles may turn up any day now. But the threat of Iraq's WMD may also turn out to be the biggest media hoax since Y2K.

Remember Y2K? The phrase alarmed business people everywhere. Playing on apocalyptic fears, its theory was that computers not programmed to recognize the date 2000 would shut down, causing systematic chaos. Along with media scare stories came the companies that fed on Y2K, remora-like, selling consulting services at a premium. In the end, Americans paid big time for protection from a threat that never panned out.

If no significant WMD turn up, U.S. taxpayers footing the bill for rebuilding Iraq might begin to suspect Bush's motives. But the real victims of WMD may turn out to be the journalists who were issued gas masks and fed a constant diet of hype. By reporting over and over on a hunch that did not come to pass, they risk the fate of the boy who cried wolf—when they discover an authentic threat in the future, no one will believe them.

There's no hard proof that the Bush administration overhyped Iraq's hidden WMD as an excuse to introduce its own inspection teams. But the evidence is suspicious, indeed. The lead WMD team in Iraq is the Chemical Biological Intelligence Support Team, a/k/a/ the 75th Exploitation Task Force, or 75th XTF. The head of the task force, army colonel Richard McPhee, was identified last month by The New York Times and The Washington Post, but McPhee would not give details on the XTF's members, numbers, or operations to the Post, and asked a reporter not to reveal his home base.

The XTF tests WMD "samples" first in the field, then in its mobile labs. After that, according to an article in the April 17 Baltimore Sun, the samples are flown to a top-secret lab in Maryland, which is surrounded by concertina wire and M16-toting soldiers. The lab at the Aberdeen Proving Ground usually produces tests within 72 hours—but officials say these are not "usual" times. No results have been announced.

WMD hype surged on April 7 and 8, when the media reported the discoveries of suspicious-looking warheads and barrels. Introducing a barrel story on April 7, Wolf Blitzer announced, "We begin with what may turn out to be the smoking gun" in the hunt for WMD. After telling viewers that preliminary tests on the barrels indicated nerve or blister agents, Blitzer added, "Officials caution they also simply could be pesticides." As CNN's Ryan Chilcote concluded, the evidence was inconclusive.

On April 8, the Times ran a photo on B1 in which the suspicious barrels appeared under a yellow sign that said, "Gas." The Times' Bernard Weinraub wrote that "according to preliminary tests, [the drums] may contain deadly nerve agents and mustard gas," but could also be "false alarms." Also on April 8, the New York Post hyped the barrels in a story headlined "Seized Chem Stashes May Be Smoking Gun," along with a sidebar offering facts about sarin, tabun, lewisite, and mustard gas. The next day, the Post noted that "more testing is needed."

Then there was the discovery of "chemical warheads," which were believed to contain nerve and mustard gas. On April 7, NPR's John Burnett reported that a U.S. officer called the warheads a "potential smoking gun," and the story was heard around the world. A few days later, the story died.

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