NEW YORK - January 23 - Vice President Dick Cheney rarely submits to one-on-one interviews, so the chance to question him directly presents a valuable opportunity for journalists. Unfortunately, National Public Radio's Juan Williams failed to challenge Cheney's questionable claims about Iraq on the January 22 broadcast of NPR's Morning Edition.
In response to a question about the administration possibly backing away from its pre-war claims about Iraq's weapons, for example, Cheney reiterated the long-discredited claim that military trailers found in Iraq were Saddam Hussein's so-called mobile bio-weapons labs: "We know, for example, that prior to our going in that he had spent time and effort acquiring mobile biological weapons labs, and we're quite confident he did, in fact, have such a program. We've found a couple of semi trailers at this point which we believe were, in fact, part of that program. Now it's not clear at this stage whether or not he used any of that to produce or whether he was simply getting ready for the next war. That, in my mind, is a serious danger in the hands of a man like Saddam Hussein, and I would deem that conclusive evidence, if you will, that he did, in fact, have programs for weapons of mass destruction."
In fact, the trailers are anything but "conclusive evidence" of an active unconventional weapons program. The London Observer newspaper (6/15/03) reported that "an official British investigation into two trailers found in northern Iraq has concluded they are not mobile germ warfare labs, as was claimed by Tony Blair and President George Bush, but were for the production of hydrogen to fill artillery balloons, as the Iraqis have continued to insist." A British biological weapons expert who examined the trailers told the Observer, "They are not mobile germ warfare laboratories. You could not use them for making biological weapons. They do not even look like them. They are exactly what the Iraqis said they were-- facilities for the production of hydrogen gas to fill balloons."
The hydrogen-producing system, intended to fill balloons that help correct for the effects of wind on artillery, was originally sold to Iraq by the British firm Marconi Command & Control, the paper reported.
The New York Times, in an article headlined "Agency Disputes CIA View on Trailers as Weapons Labs" (6/26/03), reported that a U.S. State Department memo also cast doubt on the CIA's initial conclusion that the trailers were intended for manufacturing biological weapons.
Even the head of the U.S.'s post-war search for banned weapons, David Kay, has backed away from his initial endorsement of the mobile bio-lab claims. In comments to reporters on October 2, 2003, Kay said: "The mobile lab program, as you'll see when you look at the unclassified summary of the statement, is still something that's very much being examined.... We simply are continuing our investigation. We're not yet at a point where we can say what they were for." Given that Kay works for the CIA, his statement that "we" are continuing to investigate suggests that the CIA's earlier assessment cannot be taken as definitive.
The evaporating claims about the trailers have been a prominent part of the controversy over the Bush administration's failure to produce the banned weapons that it insisted were in Iraq. Yet Juan Williams was not prepared to question Cheney when he cited the trailers as "conclusive evidence" of an Iraqi biological weapons program.
Following up on Cheney's NPR appearance, the Washington Post (1/23/04) and Los Angeles Times (1/23/04) both raised questions about the accuracy of his comments. It's unfortunate that Williams was unable to present similar information, failing to give listeners a chance to assess Cheney's responses. (Later on January 22, NPR's Talk of the Nation-- a show with far fewer listeners than Morning Edition-- did allow a producer for PBS's Frontline to question Cheney's trailer claims.)
By failing to challenge Cheney's dubious claims, Williams may have been practicing the kind of journalism that he thought NPR expected. After NPR host Terry Gross interviewed Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly on the Fresh Air program (10/9/03), she was reprimanded in NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin's online column (10/15/03): "I agree with the listeners who complained about the tone of the interview: Her questions were pointed from the beginning." Perhaps Williams took from that the lesson that asking "pointed" questions is something NPR's journalists should avoid.
ACTION: Please contact NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin and ask him if he thinks NPR should have challenged Cheney's dubious claims about Iraq. You might also encourage Morning Edition to evaluate the accuracy of Cheney's statements in an upcoming broadcast.
National Public Radio
-Jeffrey Dvorkin, Ombudsman