Fox News Spins 9/11 Commission Report

June 22, 2004 | Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting

The Bush administration’s long-running attempts to link Iraq and Al Qaeda were dealt a serious blow when the September 11 commission’s June 16 interim report indicated that there did not appear to be a “collaborative relationship” between Iraq and Osama bin Laden, and that there was no evidence that Iraq was involved in the September 11 attacks.

But if you were watching the Fox News Channel, you saw something very different, as the conservative cable network eagerly defended the Bush administration and criticized the rest of the media for mishandling the story.

On Fox’s Special Report newscast (6/16/04), anchor Brit Hume charged that the media were mischaracterizing the report: “The Associated Press leads off its story on a new 9/11 commission report by saying the document bluntly contradicts the Bush administration by claiming to have no credible evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the September 11 terrorist attacks.” Hume maintained that the AP story was inaccurate: “In fact, the Bush administration has never said that such evidence exists.”

In fact, it’s Hume that is misrepresenting the AP story– quoting from the story’s lead, but then changing its meaning through an inaccurate paraphrase. The story actually begins: “Bluntly contradicting the Bush administration, the commission investigating the September 11 attacks reported Wednesday there was ‘no credible evidence’ that Saddam Hussein had ties with Al Qaeda.”

Hume changed the allegation, from Hussein having ties with Al Qaeda to his having ties to the September 11 attacks, in order to knock it down, claiming that the Bush administration never linked Iraq to September 11. But that is not accurate either: Bush’s letter to Congress formally announcing the commencement of hostilities against Iraq (3/18/03) explained that the use of force would be directed against “terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations or persons who planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” In his “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the U.S.S. Lincoln (5/1/03), Bush declared that the invasion of Iraq had “removed an ally of Al Qaeda.”

And during an interview on NBC‘s Meet the Press (9/14/03), when Vice President Dick Cheney was asked if he was “surprised” that so many Americans connected Iraq to the 9/11 attacks, Cheney responded:

“No. I think it’s not surprising that people make that connection…. You and I talked about this two years ago. I can remember you asking me this question just a few days after the original attack. At the time I said no, we didn’t have any evidence of that. We’ve learned a couple of things. We learned more and more that there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the ’90s, that it involved training, for example, on BW and CW [biological weapons and chemical weapons], that Al Qaeda sent personnel to Baghdad to get trained on the systems that are involved. The Iraqis providing bomb-making expertise and advice to the Al Qaeda organization.”

Clearly, Cheney was describing exactly the sort of “collaborative relationship” that the September 11 commission now says that Iraq did not have with Al Qaeda, and stating that this relationship makes it “not surprising” that people would connect Iraq with the September 11 attacks.

But Fox kept advancing the notion that the commission’s report actually backed up what the Bush administration has been saying. Hume explained that Bush has long denied a connection between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks, while maintaining that “There’s no question that Saddam Hussein had Al Qaeda ties.” This is, according to Hume, “an assertion the commission’s report actually supports.”

The report indicates several meetings between Iraqi intelligence and bin Laden, who was attempting to set up training camps in Iraq and procure weapons. The Iraqis apparently “did not respond” to those requests. This is a far cry from what most people would call a “tie” or a “connection.”

And Cheney and Bush have long argued that Iraq/Al Qaeda “connections” included weapons training and other “high-level contacts”; Bush has said directly (11/7/02) that Husssein “is a threat because he’s dealing with Al Qaeda.”

The commission’s report does not support those allegations. The report also indicated that the supposed meeting between 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and Iraqi intelligence officials in Prague probably never happened. That meeting has been cited by Bush officials, most notably Cheney, as evidence connecting Iraq to Al Qaeda and specifically to the 9/11 plot.

Fox reported on the report’s implicit contradictions of administration claims as if they were an invention of the media. On Hume’s Special Report show (6/16/04), the anchor got the ball rolling: “There were a lot of media reports today that said that major, new cold water had been tossed on the administration claims about Iraq and Al Qaeda. What about it?”

Pundit Jeff Birnbaum of the Washington Post answered: “Well, I don’t think that that’s true…. The Bush administration did not claim that there was a connection between 9/11 and Iraq. That was not the claim. That was not the claim. What, in fact, the staff report indicates is that there was considerable interaction between bin Laden and Iraq. It may not have produced all that much, but it was clear that they’re fellow travelers.”

NPR correspondent Mara Liasson continued: “I agree with Jeff. I mean, the fact that the administration’s arguments for going against Iraq was not because it caused 9/11. Now, it’s true that a lot of Americans did conflate the two and did think that Saddam Hussein had something to do with it.” (In fact, a poll found that Fox viewers were the most likely news consumers to believe this unsubstantiated claim–PIPA, 10/2/03.)

On June 17’s Special Report, guest anchor Jim Angle claimed, “The 9/11 commission staff concluded there was no collaboration between the two to attack the U.S. But critics suggested that meant no ties at all.” The commission actually said that there was no “collaborative relationship” at all, not just on the question of attacking the United States.

When the White House struck back at the media over its coverage of the report, some at Fox seemed enthusiastic. “The Bush administration strikes back against the deceptive media,” cheered Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, before playing a clip of Cheney appearing on CNBC (6/17/04) characterizing a New York Times headline as “outrageous.”

O’Reilly did not air another portion of Cheney’s interview in which he lied about a previous statement he had made. When host Gloria Borger mentioned that Cheney had previously described the meeting between 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and Iraqi intelligence as “pretty well confirmed,” Cheney interrupted: “No, I never said that… Absoutely not.” But he had said just that, on NBC‘s Meet the Press (12/9/01): ”That’s been pretty well confirmed that [Atta] did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia last April, several months before the attack.”

But for O’Reilly, it was other media that were deceptive: “Cheney has a right to be angry, and so does every American who wants a truthful media,” he explained. “Anti-Bush zealots are hurting the fight against terror by misleading Americans about what’s actually happening. That puts all of our lives in danger.”

It’s not surprising that the Bush administration would try to parse the meaning of words like “link” or “tie” in order to spin the commission report in its favor. But journalists should challenge official spin, not promote it.

ACTION: Ask the Fox News Channel why it sought to defend the Bush administration, instead of reporting the facts about the interim report of the 9/11 commission.

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