The sad news about the death of award-winning CBS news correspondent Bob Simon on Wednesday had our team reflecting on an interview he did with Bill for the program Buying the War, investigating big media’s role in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In this clip from the show, which first aired in 2007, Simon, a correspondent for 60 Minutes who was based in the Middle East ahead of the war, questioned the Washington press corps reporting that linked Saddam Hussein with Al Qaeda. Watch:
Simon talks to Bill about his 2002 60 Minutes report investigating the Bush administration’s claims that the lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer had a meeting in Prague, proving collusion between the terrorists and the Iraqi government. He also offers “a thousand mea culpas” for not digging deeper into the administration’s justifications for taking America to war.
See the full program: Buying the War.
Charles Krauthammer: (FOX NEWS 9/22/01) If you go after Iraq you’re gonna lose a lot of allies, but who cares…
Bill Moyers: Charles Krauthammer and other top columnists at The Washington Post also saw the hand of Saddam Hussein in the terrorist attacks…
Jim Hoagland implicated Hussein within hours after the suicide bombers struck on 9/11….
…And the Post’s George Will fired away on the talk shows.
George Will: (ABC 10/28/01) The administration knows he’s vowed, Hussein has vowed revenge, he has anthrax, he loves biological weapons, he has terrorist training camps, including 747’s to practice on…
Bill Moyers: It was proving difficult to distinguish the opinion of the pundits from the policies of the administration…but as the hullabaloo over Saddam grew in Washington, Bob Simon of CBS News “60 Minutes” was dumbfounded. He is based in the Middle East.
Bob Simon: From overseas we had a clearer view. I mean we knew things or suspected things that perhaps the Washington press corps could not suspect. For example, the absurdity of putting up a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.
Bill Moyers: Absurdity. The Washington press corps cannot question an absurdity?
Bob Simon: Well maybe the Washington press corps based inside the belt wasn’t as aware as those of us who are based in the Middle East and who spend a lot of time in Iraq. I mean when the Washington press corps travels, it travels with the president or with the Secretary of State.
Bill Moyers: In a bubble.
Bob Simon: Yeah in a bubble. Where as we who’ve spent weeks just walking the streets of Baghdad and in other situations in Baghdad just were scratching our heads. In ways that perhaps that the Washington press corps could not.
Bill Moyers: Simon was under no illusions about Saddam Hussein. During the first gulf war he and his camera crew were arrested by Iraqi forces, and brutalized for 40 days before being released.
Bob Simon: (3/3/1991) We’re going home, which is the, the place you go to after a war, if you’ve been as lucky as we’ve been.
Bill Moyers: It didn’t make sense to simon that the dictator would trust islamic terrorists.
Bob Simon: Saddam as most tyrants, was a total control freak. He wanted total control of his regime. Total control of the country. And to introduce a wild card like Al Qaeda in any sense was just something he would not do. So I just didn’t believe it for an instant.
Bill Moyers: The administration was now stepping up efforts to nail down a tangible link between Saddam and 9/11. Journalists were tipped to a meeting that supposedly took place in Prague between Iraqi agents and the 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta. Pundits had a field day.
George Will: (THIS WEEK, ABC 10/28/01) He has contacts outside in Sudan and Afghanistan with terrorists. He met… They did indeed have a contact between Atta and an Iraqi diplomat.
Bill Moyers: In The New York Times William Safire called the Prague meeting an “undisputed fact.” He would write about the Atta connection 10 times in his op-ed column.
Just weeks after 9/11, Safire had predicted a “quick war” …”with Iraqis cheering their liberators and leading ‘the Arab world toward democracy.”
Between March 2002 and the invasion a year later Safire would write a total of 27 opinion pieces fanning the sparks of war.
And on Tim Russert’s “Meet the Press” Safire kept it up.
Tim Russert: (MEET THE PRESS, NBC7/28/02): Bill Safire, the difference between sufficient provocation and a preemptive strike?
William Safire: I don’t think we need any more provocation then we’ve had by 10 years of breaking his agreement at the cease fire. He has been building weapons of mass destruction.
Bill Moyers: In October his own paper ran a front page story by James Risen questioning the evidence. Then came this report from Bob Simon.
Bob Simon (60 MINUTES 12/8/02): The administration has been trying to make the link to implicate Saddam Hussein in the attacks of September 11th and they’ve been pointing to an alleged meeting between Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker, and an Iraqi intelligence officer in the Czech capital of Prague.
Bob Simon: If we had combed Prague and found out that there was absolutely no evidence for a meeting between Mohammad Atta and the Iraqi intelligence figure. If we knew that, you had to figure that the administration knew it. And yet they were selling the connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam.
Bob Simon (60 MINUTES): Bob Baer spent 16 years as an undercover agent for the CIA in the Middle East.
Bill Moyers: How did you get to Bob Baer, the former CIA official who was such an important source for you?
Bob Simon: We. (laughter) We called him.
Bill Moyers: How did you find him? Did you know him?
Bob Simon: I knew some friends of his. It wasn’t a problem getting his phone number. I mean any reporter could get his phone number.
Bill Moyers: Who was he? And why was he important?
Bob Simon: He was one of the guys who was sent to Prague to find that link. He was sent to find the link between Al Qaeda and Saddam.
Bill Moyers: He would have been a hero if he’d found the link.
Bob Simon: Oh my heavens yes. I mean this was what everyone was looking for.
Bill Moyers: but there was little appetite inside the networks for taking on a popular, war-time president. So Simon decided to wrap his story inside a more benign account of how the White House was marketing the war.
Bob Simon (60 MINUTES 12/8/02): It’s not the first time a president has mounted a sales campaign to sell a war.
Bob Simon: And, I think we all felt from the beginning that to deal with a subject as explosive as this, we should keep it in a way almost light. If that doesn’t seem ridiculous.
Bill Moyers: Going to war, almost light.
Bob Simon: Not to present it as a frontal attack on the Administration’s claims. Which would have been not only premature, but we didn’t have the ammunition to do it at the time. We did not know then that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
We only knew that the connection the administration was making between Saddam and Al Qaeda was very tenuous at best and that the argument it was making over the aluminum tubes seemed highly dubious. We knew these things. And therefore we could present the Madison Avenue campaign on these things, which was a sort of softer, less confrontational way of doing it.
Bill Moyers: Did you go to any of the brass at CBS, even at “60 Minutes,” and say, “Look, we gotta dig deeper. We gotta connect the dots. This isn’t right.”
Bob Simon: No in all honesty, with a thousand mea culpas, I’ve done a few stories in Iraq. But, nope I don’t think we followed up on this.