Questions We Wish They’d Asked Five Years Ago

[Excerpt from the new book by Greg Mitchell, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits – and the President – Failed on Iraq (Union Square Press).]

On March 6, 2003, less than two weeks before he ordered the country to war, President Bush conducted a televised press conference, stating in his intro, “We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with weapons of mass destruction.”

Some of the questions from the press were sharp, many others weak, but one asking about his religious strength gave him an opportunity to say, “My faith sustains me because I pray daily. I pray for guidance and wisdom and strength. But it’s a humbling experience to think that people I will never have met have lifted me and my family up in prayer. And for that I’m grateful.”

It was the mood of the affair that was most noteworthy. Bush smiled and made his usual quips, and many of the reporters played the game and did not press him hard. This was how these press gatherings had gone throughout the run-up to war. But this meeting was heavily scripted, with Bush looking at a slip of paper and calling on reporters in a prearranged order. No one challenged him on this.

When it was over, I asked Ari Berman, then an intern with Editor & Publisher and now a talented veteran at The Nation, to come up with a few questions we wished reporters had asked that night. I added a few myself, and published them, under the heading, “Questions We Wish They’d Asked.”

Some of reporters at the press conference appeared to have some second thoughts themselves. ABC’s Terry Moran said the president was not “sufficiently challenged” and that reporters ended up “looking like zombies.”

Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times explained, “We were very deferential” because “it’s very intense, it’s frightening to stand up there … on primetime live television asking the president of the United States a question when the country’s about to go to war.” She admitted that “no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time.”

Here are most of the unasked questions that Berman and I put together then:

  • Why is the U.S. threatening an optional war if 59 percent of Americans do not support a U.S. invasion without the approval of the UN Security Council, according to a Feb. 24-26 USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll?
  • If our allies have the same information on WMD – and the Iraqi threat is so real – why do some of our friends refuse to take part in your coalition?
  • You praise the Iraqi people, say we have no quarrel with them, pledge to save them from the dictator and give them democracy. Would you tell us how many of them are likely to die in this war?
  • You say one major reason for taking this action is to protect Americans from terrorism. How do you respond to the warnings of CIA Director George Tenet and others that invading Iraq would in fact likely increase terrorism?
  • Rather than make us wait for a supplemental budget request – after the war has been launched – to tell us what it (and its aftermath) will cost, don’t you think the American people, who will pay the bill, deserve to know the latest long-term estimates before the fact?
  • You say Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and is evil enough to use them. If not during an American invasion of his country, then when? How many deaths on our side do you expect?
  • Why, if North Korea has the capability to produce six nuclear warheads by mid-summer, are you letting their very reluctant neighbors take the lead in deterring them while demanding that the U.S. take charge in confronting Saddam?
  • With the economy shaken and deficits climbing, how do you respond to critics who say you’re ignoring domestic issues and the long-term economic security of this country by focusing so much of your time and resources on Iraq?
  • Why did the U.S. edit the 12,000-page Iraqi weapons report (as recently revealed) to the UN Security Council, removing all names of U.S. companies that sold weapons materials to the Iraqis in the past?
  • You claimed tonight that Iraq has started producing new missiles – but are these nothing more than less capable versions (fully permitted by the UN) of the missiles being destroyed now?
  • How do you respond to radio commentator Daniel Schorr’s statement that the “coalition of the willing” is actually a “coalition of the billing”?