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Why Doesn't the Post Love Walter Pincus?


From the September 2003 issue of Washingtonian

If President Bush suffers because it turns out he took the country to war on false pretenses, he might look back on stories by Walter Pincus for drawing first blood.

On March 16, the eve of war, Pincus wrote in the Post that �U.S. intelligence agencies have been unable to give Congress or the Pentagon specific information� about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

At the time, the Bush White House was telling the world that America had to invade Iraq to root out weapons of mass destruction. Pincus quoted sources saying that there was �a lack of hard evidence.� And they also said the White House had �exaggerated intelligence� to back up its drive toward war.

Pincus was uniquely positioned to delve into the intricacies of the weapons question. At 70, he had been reporting on national security for 25 years at the Post. Along the way he had cultivated sources in Congress, the CIA, the Pentagon, and the scientific community. For decades, he has been close to chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix.
Yet the Post buried Pincus�s March 16 story on page A17. It took help from Bob Woodward to get the story published at all.

�His support gave the editors the guts to run it,� says Pincus. �They think I am a crusader and get on kicks.�

Woodward, working the same sources for his forthcoming book on the war, put his name at the bottom of the March 16 story.

Pincus had been writing about the buildup to theinvasion for months, along with Post writers Dana Priest, Karen DeYoung, Barton Gellman, and others who gathered at �war meetings� every day. But according to reporters, editors continually underplayed Pincus�s scoops and discounted their stories that ran counter to Bush�s call to arms. None of which deterred him, especially after he dissected Secretary of State Colin Powell�s February 5 speech to the United Nations.

�I suddenly realized everything he said was inferential,� says Pincus. As he did with stories about the neutron bomb in the 1970s and the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s, Pincus burrowed deep and wrote often.
�When I get hold of one of these things, I stay on it,� he says. �The American public doesn�t pay attention to one or two stories.�

Pincus�s byline has appeared on nearly 100 stories since the invasion on March 19. He never stopped writing about the missing weapons of mass destruction.

�He�s like a 28-year-old dogging the story,� says Woodward. �At the same time, he�s not overreaching.�

In June Pincus sunk his teeth deeper into the emerging story of the nuclear material that Iraq was supposed to have sought from Niger to make nuclear bombs. US officials repeated the claim as fact and talked ominously of mushroom clouds. President Bush mentioned �significant quantities of uranium� in his State of the Union speech.

Other reporters questioned the nuclear transfer, including Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker, David Sanger in the New York Times, and Joby Warrick, Priest, and DeYoung with Pincus at the Post. Pincus pursued it day after day. He says he had to fight to get it on the front page.
�The best way to get a memo to the President is the front page of the Post,� he says.

Finally, at the end of May, Pincus broke onto the front page with a story about the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. He stayed there as his stories�some with other reporters�put pressure on the White House to admit that the President�s 16-word sentence about uranium going to Iraq was not credible.

Pincus eventually prevailed within his own newspaper, but why did a veteran reporter have to bow and scrape to get his stories noticed and then printed?

�It was ridiculous. Many of the stories were buried,� says Priest, also a star on the national-security beat. �Editors continually undervalued what he does.�

What Pincus did was help put the Post in front of the biggest story of the day. Managing editor Steve Coll says of Pincus: �We were proud of his coverage before the war, and we�re proud of it now, and we�ve tried to give it prominent display throughout.�

Says Woodward: �Editors would be kidding themselves if they discounted him.�

�HARRY JAFFE
hjaffe@washingtonian.com

LINK TO WASHINGTONIAN

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