NBC Picks Up WMD in Iraq Finding, Olbermann Compares Santorum to Joe McCarthy

Of the three broadcast network evening shows Thursday night, only the NBC Nightly News reported the late Wednesday afternoon revelation by Senator Rick Santorum and Congressman Peter Hoekstra, Chair of the House intelligence committee, that an unclassified portion of a National Ground Intelligence Center report had revealed that 500 munition shells of mustard and sarin gas -- weapons of mass destruction -- had been found in Iraq. NBC anchor Brian Williams teased: “One Senator's new claim that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq." Chip Reid relayed Santorum’s disclosure before downplaying the significance: “The claim quickly becomes a hot topic on cable TV and the Internet, but just as quickly Pentagon officials pour cold water on the story, telling reporters the shells are old and inactive, dating from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and that the shells are 'not the weapons of mass destruction we were looking for' when U.S. forces went into Iraq.”

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann ridiculed the finding of “WMD: weapons of minor discomfort," snidely suggesting “you might get a burn if you rub these weapons directly onto your skin.” Olbermann condescendingly marveled: “Independent experts and the level-headed staggering in amazement tonight that deteriorated mustard gas cannisters, at least 15 years old and as much as 18 years old, could be pawned off by desperate politicians as some kind of rationale for the deaths of 2,500 American servicemen and women in Iraq.” Soon enough, Olbermann raised Joe McCarthy, asking Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter: “Have Senator Santorum and Congressman Hoekstra moved directly into the league of Joe McCarthy waving the blank page that's supposed to contain the list of communists in the 50s?" (Transcripts follow)

Though these are not the weapons the Bush administration used to justify going to war, since they date from before the 1991 Gulf War, they do undermine the claims of those on the left -- too often repeated by members of the media -- that "no" WMD existed in Iraq.

Instead of the WMD revelation, ABC’s World News Tonight made room for one of the media’s favorite supposed Bush scandals, deciding the old NSA surveillance topic was more compelling as they ran 90 seconds of Senator Arlen Specter grilling AT&T's chief. Charles Gibson set it up: "The President's controversial domestic surveillance program was back in the spotlight on Capitol Hill today." Bob Schieffer teased the lead CBS Evening News story: "The Earth's temperature is going up. In fact, the last time it was this hot Rome was the world's only super-power and that's not good."

Both shows made time for other Iraq news, with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos providing a summary of the Senate debate on pulling out of Iraq followed by soundbites from NPR of comments about the war from three soldiers in Iraq. CBS aired a piece about evidence Iran is planting bombs inside Iraq.

As Tim Graham noted in an earlier NewsBusters posting, CNN’s American Morning gave the development a few seconds Thursday as John Roberts related: "As the Senate opened debate on U.S. troops in Iraq, two Republican lawmakers claim that weapons of mass destruction still pose a threat. They said troops have found aging stockpiles of chemical shells." After a clip of Santorum ("It is important for the American public to understand that these weapons did in fact exist, were present in the country, and were, in fact, and continue to be, a threat to us."), Roberts cautioned: "That claim is being refuted, by the way, by the man who surveyed Iraq's weapons program for the CIA in 2004. Charles Duelfer says the chemical shells are no longer effective."

(The morning shows Thursday on ABC, CBS and NBC didn't utter a syllable about Santorum's revelation. On NBC's Today, co-host Campbell Brown began a session with Tim Russert by fretting: "So walk us through, Tim, how in two weeks time the Democrats could go from having all the momentum leading into the midterm elections to allowing the, the, the divisions over when to bring the troops home from Iraq, create this disunity within the party. What happened and are they giving Republicans the upper-hand?")

As quoted in the transcript below of the NBC Nightly News story, Don Imus raised the topic with Santorum (and also with NBC News reporter Jim Miklaszewski). On Thursday’s Hardball, fill-in host Norah O’Donnell brought up the matter with Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson and columnist Pat Buchanan, both of whom predicted the story will have no legs.

FNC has given the story more time, with a panel segment on Wednesday’s Special Report with Brit Hume after Hume discussed it with reporter Jim Angle, on Wednesday and Thursday night Hannity & Colmes ran segments (with Santorum as a guest Wednesday night) and the 5pm EDT Big Story brought aboard Congressman Hoekstra on Thursday. The FoxNews.com posting.

Thursday’s Washington Post carried a five paragraph article, “Lawmakers Cite Weapons Found in Iraq,” on page A10. The New York Times carried nothing in print or online Thursday, Clay Waters of the MRC’s TimesWatch site reported.

CNSNews.com's Thursday story, "Document Details WMD Recovered In Iraq, Santorum Says," with links to earlier CNSNews.com articles about evidence of WMD in Iraq.

Thursday morning on National Review Online’s The Corner blog, James S. Robbins, Senior Fellow in national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, posted a very interesting item in which he reminded readers about how Hans Blix’s UN report noted that a lot of chemical weapons in Iraq were never accounted for, suggested why the newly revealed information would therefore be newsworthy and wondered why the administration is so reluctant to release this kind of information:
Sen. Santorum's points are well made but much too late to make a difference. Surely this is not entirely new information. The Blix Report noted regarding Iraqi chemical weapons, "The [Iraqi weapons report] document indicates that 13,000 chemical bombs were dropped by the Iraqi air force between 1983 and 1998, while Iraq has declared that 19,500 bombs were consumed during this period. Thus, there is a discrepancy of 6,500 bombs. The amount of chemical agent in these bombs would be in the order of about 1,000 tons. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we must assume that these quantities are now unaccounted for." Perhaps this stockpile of 500 munitions was part of that group. If so it is surely worthy of note. But if Sen. Santorum is using an unclassified study, which appears to be the case, one might ask why wasn't this released by the White House in the first place at a time when it could have made a difference? This is another example of the failure to publish the discoveries we have made since the fall of Saddam's regime in a systematic fashion and originating at high levels. We know a lot more now about the WMDs that existed, and about the definite links to terrorists, not to mention all the human rights offenses committed by Saddam's regime. Yet, the administration has never put together a comprehensive account of all this. That document is something that should have been written two years ago. It is mind boggling that this has not been done. This failure to communicate is one of the major reasons why public support for the war effort has been sagging.

June 22 transcripts from NBC, MSNBC and ABC (NBC and MSNBC provided by the MRC’s Brad Wilmouth, who corrected the closed-captioning against the video):

NBC Nightly News
. Brian Williams teased:
“America at War: The Political war over bringing the troops home from Iraq. And one Senator’s new claim that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq.”

After a look at he Senate debate, Williams turned to Chip Reid on Capitol Hill "And Chip, there was another story on Capitol Hill there today that was bubbling up all day long. It started almost exactly 24 hours ago."

Chip Reid: "That's right, Brian. While this big debate was going on on the Senate floor, there's a side battle brewing over weapons of mass destruction. And at the center of it all, Republican Senator Rick Santorum. The story begins Wednesday afternoon with the release of a one-page summary of a Pentagon report stating that 'approximately 500 weapons munitions which contain degraded mustard or sarin nerve agent' have been found in Iraq since 2003. Republican Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum rushes out a press release and heads for the Senate floor-"

Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), on Senate floor: "This is an incredibly significant document."

Reid: "-where he declares that the illusive weapons of mass destruction have been found."

Santorum: "We now have found stockpiles."

Reid: "The claim quickly becomes a hot topic on cable TV and the Internet, but just as quickly Pentagon officials pour cold water on the story, telling reporters the shells are old and inactive, dating from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and that the shells are 'not the weapons of mass destruction we were looking for' when U.S. forces went into Iraq. Today, on MSNBC's Imus in the Morning, Santorum sticks to his guns."

Santorum, via phone, on Imus in the Morning: "It certainly, this was some of the weapons that I thought we were looking for."

Reid: "But a leading Democrat on intelligence issues today says the shells pose no danger and accuses Santorum of political hype."

Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA): "I think it is a bit suspicious that this information is being rolled out the night before the Iraq debate in the Senate by a Senator who is extremely endangered in a close political race."

Reid: "In fact, a new poll shows Santorum trailing his Democratic challenger by 18 points, but late today Santorum tells NBC News politics has nothing to do with it."

Santorum: "I think the American public has a right to know whether we have found weapons of mass destruction and what the character of those weapons are."

Reid concluded: "And late today, the Secretary of Defense weighed in. He said that those 500 shells are, quote, 'weapons of mass destruction.' But he was not asked and he did not comment on whether that they are the kinds of weapons of mass destruction that justified invading Iraq."


MSNBC’s Countdown. Keith Olbermann, in opening teaser:
"Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? 'Wrong as to the facts' and 'exaggerated beyond all reason as to the interpretation of the facts.' The President's former weapons inspector in Iraq [David Kay] blasts the claim that WMD have been found there. What is Senator Rick Santorum trying to shovel past the American people? And why is the Secretary of Defense agreeing with him?"

Donald Rumsfeld: "They are weapons of mass destruction. They're harmful to human beings."

Olbermann: "Correct. You might get a burn if you rub these weapons directly onto your skin. They are WMD: weapons of minor discomfort."
Olbermann soon opened his rant-fest:
"Good evening from New York. We have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, 15-year-old weapons of mass destruction that could give you the equivalent of a serious rug burn. Our fifth story on the Countdown, independent experts and the level-headed staggering in amazement tonight that deteriorated mustard gas cannisters, at least 15 years old and as much as 18 years old, could be pawned off by desperate politicians as some kind of rationale for the deaths of 2500 American Servicemen and women in Iraq. Republican Senator Rick Santorum, down 18 percent in the polls in his own reelection bid in Pennsylvania, joined by the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, in pimping part of a two-month-old military intelligence report describing the existence of old munitions shells with chemical weapons that are degraded, unusable, and nonthreatening. 'We have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, chemical weapons,' Santorum told a news conference. Gullible news organizations treated the story with slightly less fervor than they might the Second Coming."
Olbermann ran through soundbites or quotes on screen from Santorum, Hoekstra and Rumsfeld before reading from a statement from David Kay, who ridiculed Santorum’s claims:
"And the former chief UN weapons inspector and President Bush's former Iraq Survey Group chief, Dr. David Kay, telling Countdown that Senator Santorum's comments are, quote, 'wrong as to the facts and exaggerated beyond all reason as to the interpretation of the facts.' He continued, 'There is no surprise that very small numbers of chemical cannisters from the Iran-Iraq War have been found. The ISG found them, and in my testimony in 2004 I said that I expected that we would continue to find them for a very long time. These are in very small numbers and are scattered. The nerve agents have long since degraded to the point that they no longer pose any substantial threat. In most cases the mustard agent has substantially degraded, but will burn you if skin comes in contact with it.'"
Following a session with Joseph Cirincone of the liberal Center for National Progress, Olbermann turned to Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, but went too far even for Alter:
"We've all see political three-card monte tricks before by politicians at all levels, all parties, but is this mere spinning or have Senator Santorum and Congressman Hoekstra moved directly into the league of Joe McCarthy waving the blank page [Olbermann held up a blank white sheet of paper] that's supposed to contain the list of communists in the 50s?"

Jonathan Alter, Newsweek: "Well, I don't know if I'd go that far, but it's, to use a happy football metaphor, it's a sort of a pathetic Hail Mary pass...."


ABC’s World News Tonight gave time to a favorite media topic as they made room for a silly back-and-forth at a hearing as Senator Arlen Specter browbeat a witness:
Charles Gibson: “The President's controversial domestic surveillance program was back in the spotlight on Capitol Hill today. You'll recall the stories, a few weeks ago, that giant phone companies like AT&T were supplying information on their customers' calls to the government. The CEO of AT&T appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee today. Committee Chairman, Arlen Specter, tried to find out if those stories are true. It was a confrontation that became rather tense.”
Specter, at the hearing: “Does AT&T provide customer information to any law enforcement agency?”

Edward Whitacre, Chairman and CEO of AT&T: “We follow the law Senator.”

Specter: “That is not an answer, Mr. Whitacre. You know that.”

Whitacre: “That’s all I’m going to say is we follow the law. It is a an answer.”

Specter: “Does your company provide information to the federal government or any law enforcement information about customers?”

Whitacre: “If it's legal and we're requested to do so, of course we do.”

Specter: “Have you?”

Whitacre: “Senator, all I'm going to say is we follow the law.”

Specter: “That's not on answer. It's not an answer. It's an evasion.”

Whitacre: “It's an answer.”

Specter: “If you're under instructions from the federal government-”

Whitacre: “We follow the law, Senator.”

Specter: “You said that. I don't care to hear it again.”

Whitacre: “I don't care to repeat it again either.”

Specter: “Then don't. If you're under instructions by the federal government, as a matter of state secrecy not to talk, say so.”

Whitacre: “Senator, we follow the law.”

Specter: “Well, I think that answer is contemptuous of this committee.”
Gibson: “The AT&T Chairman did eventually say he couldn't answer because it's classified information to which Senator Specter said, they'd discuss that privately.”
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center