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DON’T LOOK BACK (PART 3)! Why is Zarqawi still walking around? The press corp has said, Don't look back:

SATURDAY, MAY 22, 2004

KERRY'S CHOICE: It’s almost always a waste of time when journalists guess about VP selections. But this year’s efforts have been especially silly. In yesterday’s Washington Post, for example, David Ignatius became roughly the three millionth scribe to push the Kerry-McCain connection. Last Saturday, the New York Times devoted a lengthy, page-one report to this favorite topic.

Journalists almost never know what they’re talking about when they kill time with VP ruminations. But we were especially struck by the oddness of last week’s report in the Times. Three days before the piece appeared, McCain appeared on Hannity & Colmes–and he said, for the three millionth time, that he wouldn’t be Kerry’s running-mate. But the Arizonan also said this: “I’m supporting President Bush, and I am–I am proud of President Bush’s record on defense.” As even the Times can probably see, that would be a very odd view coming from a Kerry VP. An earlier exchange had gone like this:

HANNITY: On defense issues, the most important issue of our time, your guy is George W. Bush, right?

MCCAIN: He is my guy. I’m campaigning for him. I’m supporting his re-election. I want him to be re-elected. I believe he has led this nation with moral clarity.

How strange would it be–for Kerry to pick a running-mate who believes that George W. Bush, Kerry’s opponent, “has led the nation with moral clarity?” Who is “proud of President Bush’s record on defense?” Whatever one thinks of John McCain–and many millions of people admire him–that would be a very strange choice. But nothing will stop the nation’s press when they want to kill time with this topic. They never know who the pick will be; they’re always wrong in their VP predictions; but they love to waste time with their pointless recitations. If they didn’t talk about this, after all, they might have to talk about something that mattered! This year, though, can we set one rule? The next time they waste your time with this story, can we ask them to explain how Kerry could possibly seek the White House with a running-mate who is “proud of Bush’s record on defense” and who thinks that Bush, Kerry’s opponent, “has led this nation with moral clarity?” Can we require them to explain this point when they kill time with this topic?

Our current series–Don’t look back!

READ EACH EXCITING INSTALLMENT: The press corps snored on the road to Iraq. We look at a few favorite stories:

PART 1: Pundits snoozed on the road to Iraq. Jim Lehrer has a strange explanation. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/17/04.

PART 2: When Hamza did Hardball, the public got hoaxed. Why won’t the press corps discuss it? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/19/04.

Now, for today’s exciting installment:

DON’T LOOK BACK (PART 3): It would have been “difficult,” Jim Lehrer said, for news orgs to “go against the grain” in the months before the war in Iraq. But then, sometimes such conduct still seems difficult. Consider Jim Miklaszewski’s striking report on the March 2 NBC Nightly News–a report which has been almost wholly ignored in the three months since it was made.

Miklaszewski’s report concerned Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, “a Jordanian militant with ties to al Qaeda.” Zarqawi was being linked that day to a series of suicide attacks in Iraq–attacks which killed more than 140 people–and Tom Brokaw made a surprising claim when he introduced Miklaszewski’s report. “The Bush administration apparently passed up several opportunities to take [Zarqawi] out well before the Iraq war began,” Brokaw said. This claim was striking back on March 2, and would seem to be only more newsworthy now. After all, Zarqawi achieved his greatest fame in this country just two weeks ago, when it was widely asserted that he had beheaded American businessman Nicholas Berg.

But why was Zarqawi still walking around at the time of Berg’s murder? According to Miklaszewski, the Bush Admin had Zarqawi in its sights before the war, but kept deciding not to attack. The story began in June 2002. “Intelligence revealed that Zarqawi and members of al Qaeda had set up a weapons lab at Kirma in northern Iraq, producing deadly ricin and cyanide,” Miklaszewski reported. “The Pentagon quickly drafted plans to attack the camp and sent them to the White House, where, say government sources, the plans were debated to death.” Four months later, it happened again. “The Pentagon drew up a second strike plan,” Miklaszewski said, “and the White House again killed it.” And then, shortly before the war began, it happened for the third time:

MIKLASZEWSKI: January 2003, the threat turned real. Police in London arrested six terror suspects and discovered a ricin lab connected to the camp in Iraq. The Pentagon drew up still another attack plan and, for the third time, the National Security Council killed it.
Why had the Bush Admin failed to attack? This was the most striking part of the story. According to Miklaszewski, “the administration feared that destroying the terrorist camp inside Iraq could undercut its case for going to war against Saddam.” In a May 14 Slate report, Fred Kaplan fleshed out Miklaszewski’s statement:
KAPLAN: [T]he problem, from Bush’s perspective, was that this was the only tangible evidence of terrorists in Iraq...The camp was in an area of Iraq that Saddam didn’t control. But never mind, it was something. To wipe it out ahead of time might lead some people—in Congress, the United Nations, and the American public—to conclude that Saddam’s links to terrorists were finished, that maybe the war wasn’t necessary. So Bush let it be.
According to this surprising notion, Zarqawi gave the Admin its only way to claim a link between Saddam and al Qaeda. So the plans to attack were deep-sixed.

For the record, this striking notion was hardly new to Miklaszewski and Kaplan. In his presentation to the UN on February 5, 2003, Colin Powell cited Zarqawi’s camp as evidence of Saddam’s ties to al Qaeda. The next day, Powell appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Joseph Biden asked him why Zarqawi’s camp hadn’t already been attacked. Greg Miller covered the session in the Los Angeles Times–and he reported the same striking claim which Miklsaszewski presented one year later:

MILLER (2/7/03): “Why have we not taken it out?” Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) asked Powell during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday. “Why have we let it sit there if it’s such a dangerous plant producing these toxins?” Powell declined to answer, saying he could not discuss the matter in open session... Absent an explanation from the White House, some officials suggested that the administration has refrained from striking the compound in part to preserve a key piece of its case against Iraq. “This is it, this is their compelling evidence for use of force,” said one intelligence official, who asked not to be identified. “If you take it out, you can’t use it as justification for war.”
As Miklaszewski would do a year later, Miller quoted an intelligence official saying the Bush Admin failed to attack Zarqawi’s camp to leave the justification for war in place. And he quoted a second major Dem who said she was puzzled by the policy:
MILLER (continuing directly): Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the intelligence committee, said she and other members have been frustrated in their attempts to get an explanation from administration officials in closed-door briefings. “We’ve been asking this question and have not been given an answer,” Feinstein said. Officials have replied that “they'll have to get back to us.”
This story has been almost wholly ignored since Miklaszewski’s March 2 report. But then, it was also ignored back in 2003. In particular, Lehrer’s NewsHour never examined the question raised by Biden and Feinstein. Why hadn’t the camp in Iraq been attacked? In fairness, Lehrer had his novels to write, so maybe he wasn’t aware of the question. And then again, there’s always this–maybe it simply seemed less “difficult” to stay away from so naughty a topic.

VISIT HIS INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: On May 14, Fred Kaplan discussed this topic in Slate. But was Kaplan correct in his judgment? Did the Bush Admin let Zarqawi go because zapping him might have made war seem unnecessary? Here at THE HOWLER, we simply can’t say. The corps has always avoided this story. They still seem to say: Don’t look back.

MONDAY: Woodward described Powell’s UN speech. But the press corps knew not to look back.