BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
When dealing with contentious arguments surrounding the Iraq war, politicians love to refer us to reports, which ostensibly transcend political rhetoric to give an undistorted view of reality on the ground. Next week, the Government Accountability Office is to release a report assessing the Iraq government's progress in reaching 18 benchmarks put forth by Congress. And, of course, there's the much-anticipated September 15th report by General David Petraeus on which President Bush says our strategy in Iraq should be based.
These reports are supposed to give lawmakers, the public and the press insight into war policy options, but they also give us insight into the war over public opinion.
This week, an early draft of the report by the Government Accountability Office was leaked for a telling reason. It was feared that the final version would be watered down. Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post was the recipient of the leaked draft, and she joins us now. Karen, welcome to On the Media. KAREN DeYOUNG: Thank you. Thanks for having me. BOB GARFIELD: You explained in your piece in Thursday's Post that the draft concluded that the Iraqi government had failed on all but 3 of the 18 benchmarks that the Congress had set up but that the report was leaked by someone who was afraid that, you know, it would somehow be diminished in its final form. Why would that party have that fear? KAREN DeYOUNG: Everything about Iraq is contentious at the moment. The fear was, from this person, the concern was - more concern than fear - that once the military in particular got a look at this, they would want to temporize. They would want to qualify some of the conclusions and they would want to even try to persuade the GAO to change some of its conclusions. BOB GARFIELD: Now, the GAO is supposed to be a non-partisan investigative arm of the Congress, and it's a Democratic Congress. By what mechanism could a report by its auditors be watered down by the Pentagon or someone else in the administration? KAREN DeYOUNG: It's standard procedure for the GAO, when they write a report, to distribute their conclusions before publication, and that's what they did in this case. They gave a copy to the State Department and to the Defense Department.
The idea is that maybe they'll want to bring up some points that the GAO had overlooked. Maybe they'll want to disagree with some of the conclusions. And they give them the opportunity to make that case. Usually those statements by the other agencies are published along with the GAO reports when they're finally published.
The State Department more or less said, yeah, we got a few quibbles, but basically, yeah, it's fine. The Pentagon said, well, we don't think that this reflects the most up-to-date information, particularly about the levels of violence and the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, and we'd like to tell you some more about that.
One of the problems is that a lot of what they want to tell them is classified, and so the Pentagon has said now, in the wake of this story, that they expect to see changes in some of the assessments. But we won't see the reasons why they were changed. We won't see the information that was the basis for those changes. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you have a story in Tuesday's Washington Post about the National Intelligence Estimate that was recently released. And, you know, in the process that you've just described, General Petraeus reviewed it, and, according to your story, was able to soften the conclusions.
Now, this is the guy who is about to produce the September 15th be-all/end-all report on Iraq war progress. What are we to make of that situation? KAREN DeYOUNG: Well, I think it's not totally surprising that the National Intelligence Council, which wrote the NIE, asked the military for comment before it was published. I think it is surprising that there were changes made. There were definitely changes made that included some of the statistics that the military has been very interesting in publicizing lately about a fall in the overall level of violence over a relatively recent period, a matter of weeks.
I think one could argue that what has happened over a period of weeks does not constitute particularly relevant information or a trend within the period that the NIE covers, which is from the beginning of the year through July.
The intelligence community has argued that all they did was insert some more updated information that came from the Pentagon, but they certainly did change the report, if not the overall conclusions, that there are not a whole lot of reasons for optimism. BOB GARFIELD: In the battle for how the American public should parse the good news, the bad news and the even worse news, the September 15th report by General Petraeus has been positioned as kind of the be-all/end-all. The L.A. Times reported that, in fact, the report isn't going to be written by General Petraeus but by the White House [LAUGHS] itself, with consultations with him and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
When you look at it, will you therefore, you know, sort of evaluate the conclusions differently than you would had it come directly from the military? KAREN DeYOUNG: President Bush, in talking about this and trying to build support and kind of fend off critics, has repeatedly referred to this as "the Petraeus Report, not surprisingly, because Petraeus, at least if one looks at the polls, has somewhat more credibility than the White House does at the moment.
Well, this confuses what the legislation that calls for this report actually says. The legislation calls on the president to deliver a written report to the Congress assessing progress in Iraq. It says that prior to the delivery of that report, General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker from Baghdad must testify before the relevant committees in Congress.
And I think what you'll see - what you haven't seen in the past vis a vis General Petraeus - I think you'll see them kind of taking off the kid gloves with him because the bloom is a bit off the rose in terms of his popularity in Congress, and I think they're going to treat him a little more harshly than they have in the past. BOB GARFIELD: Karen, thank you very much. KAREN DeYOUNG: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Karen DeYoung is an associate editor and senior diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post and author of Soldier, a biography of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]