BROOKE GLADSTONE: For much of the summer the Bush administration has been on the defensive about its sales techniques for the invasion of Iraq --specifically whether it exaggerated or invented evidence of weapons of mass destruction. A month ago, the notorious 16 incorrect words in the president's state of the union speech were headlines around the world. But then, after the administration issued a series of denials, conflicting explanations and semi-apologies, the issue largely evaporated -- except in the Washington Post.
BOB GARFIELD:The paper that expressed editorial sympathy for the war has nonetheless relentlessly pursued government misrepresentations of the Iraqi threat. This week on the op-ed page was a broadside from former Clinton administration arms control expert Peter Zimmerman all but calling the president a liar. Earlier this month the Post ran a 6,000 word deconstruction by Barton Gellman and Walter Pincus of the administration's case, documenting how intelligence on Saddam's nuclear ambitions was repeatedly over-stated and taken out of context in the buildup to Operation Enduring Freedom. Joining me now is Leonard Downie, executive editor of the Washington Post. Len, welcome to On the Media!
LEONARD DOWNIE: Thank you very much!
BOB GARFIELD: I, I have to call your attention to a sentence in a, in a piece in the New York Observer by Sridhar Pappu -- he said "Since the end of the war, the Washington Post has launched a full scale attack against the Bush administration and the evidence supporting the war in Iraq." Is this an attack? Is it a crusade?
LEONARD DOWNIE: No, it's not. It's what we always do. It's what we've done with previous administrations. If you recall the attack on the chemical plant in Sudan by the Clinton Administration when questions were raised about the reasons for doing that, we examined that just as closely. That was a different administration in a different place.
BOB GARFIELD:All right. Let's just say then that the pressure on the administration grows from the Washington Post and elsewhere; that there were more revelations; that -- let's even just imagine that there's evidence that at very high levels there has been collusion to fabricate or at least delicately assemble the, the facts that led to the Bush administration's march to war. Let's just imagine that. There will be I think inevitably comparisons to Watergate and, and the Washington Post will get a lot of credit for that, should it come to pass. You haven't had "your Watergate" yet in your watch at the Washington Post. Do you think this has the potential to be your Watergate?
LEONARD DOWNIE: Well first of all I'm afraid I have to reject the supposition that I'm seeking a Watergate. That's not what we're doing here. We're not seeking any particular outcomes, and I don't necessarily expect any cataclysmic outcomes from this reporting. We're existing at a very complicated time right now. The threat of terrorism is ongoing. The occupation of Iraq is going to last a long time and be very difficult. You know, the state of the domestic economy's in question. I think we're in very uncertain waters politically here, and so the, the fate of this administration in the next election and thereafter will depend on lots of factors, and this may or may not turn out to be one of them. But it's not our intention in publishing it. That's not what we're seeking here.
BOB GARFIELD:I, I understand, and I'm not suggesting in any way that you are either cooking it up or hyping it or trying to put your imprimatur on the Washington Post or find your place in history or any of the above. However, every journalist has a sense of whether a story is going to be a big one or a little one; whether it's going to be transitory or ongoing. We, you know, there's some, some sort of internal barometer. And I'm just wondering if your personal Len Downie barometric pressure is going up or down on this story.
LEONARD DOWNIE: Right. That's a question I can understand and, and respond to, and the answer I'm afraid however is that I don't know at this stage, because I don't know how much the American public is engaged in these questions of the rationale for the war. If you looked at the polling, the American public as always is I think more sophisticated than we in the media give it credit for, and you know they never put too much stock in a lot of the rationale for going to war in the first place except for the fact that they didn't like Saddam Hussein and they're glad that he's been defeated, and they're glad that it's happened at a relative low cost of American lives, and they seem to be watching the occupation in the same way by judging how long is this going to take, how much is it going to cost, how dangerous is it going to be for the troops that we have there and how long are their fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and husbands and wives going to have to stay over there? My gut feeling -- since that's what you asked about -- is that those factors will matter more in how the public judges the administration's conduct of this war than the technicalities of how well the administration made its case.
BOB GARFIELD:Many reporters, including your White House correspondent Dana Milbank - have complained almost since day one about access to the Bush administration. A White House that has been almost in the lock-down mode from day one. I'm just curious -- has the tenacity of your reporting on this issue caused you any problems in the ordinary course of covering the White House on other matters, routine and otherwise?
LEONARD DOWNIE: Not that I'm aware of. I mean I am aware that some of the officials-- whose utterances were closely examined in that article aren't happy about the way in which the article characterized, and they've made that clear to us. But you know in the larger scheme of things I think the pattern that we're seeing with this administration's relationship with the media is that they came here a close-knit group, almost entirely intact from Texas, and added on people like, say, Donald Rumsfeld as the Secretary of Defense who also believes with them in the discipline of message, and they had unusual success for a long time in enforcing that. I think as time goes by, under the strains of both domestic and foreign challenges and as the administration itself begins to change internally -- the departure of Karen Hughes to Texas, for example. There are feuds going on within the administration. There are differences of views. We're beginning to see the kind of seams, if you will, in their protective armor and that opens it up to more fact-finding by the media.
BOB GARFIELD: Not chaos yet in the White House.
LEONARD DOWNIE:Oh, no. I think that the disintegration of the Clinton Administration in its final years gave the media unusual opportunities within an administration that we had not seen for some time before then and probably won't see for some time in the future.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well Len Downie, thank you so much.
LEONARD DOWNIE: You're welcome. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD:Len Downie is executive editor of the Washington Post which ran a 6,000 word piece poking holes in the administration's explanation of Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons capabilities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, a "fair and balanced" look at the Al Franken-Fox News dispute, and what's up with CNN?