Sunday, December 04, 2005

Rendition and Its Discontents

Wrongful Imprisonment: Anatomy of a CIA Mistake
By Dana Priest
The Washington Post

Sunday 04 December 2005

German citizen released after months in 'rendition'.
In May 2004, the White House dispatched the U.S. ambassador in Germany to pay an unusual visit to that country's interior minister. Ambassador Daniel R. Coats carried instructions from the State Department transmitted via the CIA's Berlin station because they were too sensitive and highly classified for regular diplomatic channels, according to several people with knowledge of the conversation.

Coats informed the German minister that the CIA had wrongfully imprisoned one of its citizens, Khaled Masri, for five months, and would soon release him, the sources said. There was also a request: that the German government not disclose what it had been told even if Masri went public. The U.S. officials feared exposure of a covert action program designed to capture terrorism suspects abroad and transfer them among countries, and possible legal challenges to the CIA from Masri and others with similar allegations.

The Masri case, with new details gleaned from interviews with current and former intelligence and diplomatic officials, offers a rare study of how pressure on the CIA to apprehend al Qaeda members after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has led in some instances to detention based on thin or speculative evidence. The case also shows how complicated it can be to correct errors in a system built and operated in secret.

The CIA, working with other intelligence agencies, has captured an estimated 3,000 people, including several key leaders of al Qaeda, in its campaign to dismantle terrorist networks. It is impossible to know, however, how many mistakes the CIA and its foreign partners have made.

Unlike the military's prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - where 180 prisoners have been freed after a review of their cases - there is no tribunal or judge to check the evidence against those picked up by the CIA. The same bureaucracy that decides to capture and transfer a suspect for interrogation- a process called "rendition" - is also responsible for policing itself for errors.

The CIA inspector general is investigating a growing number of what it calls "erroneous renditions," according to several former and current intelligence officials.

One official said about three dozen names fall in that category; others believe it is fewer. The list includes several people whose identities were offered by al Qaeda figures during CIA interrogations, officials said. One turned out to be an innocent college professor who had given the al Qaeda member a bad grade, one official said.

"They picked up the wrong people, who had no information. In many, many cases there was only some vague association" with terrorism, one CIA officer said.

While the CIA admitted to Germany's then-Interior Minister Otto Schily that it had made a mistake, it has labored to keep the specifics of Masri's case from becoming public. As a German prosecutor works to verify or debunk Masri's claims of kidnapping and torture, the part of the German government that was informed of his ordeal has remained publicly silent. Masri's attorneys say they intend to file a lawsuit in U.S. courts this week.

Masri was held for five months largely because the head of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center's al Qaeda unit "believed he was someone else," one former CIA official said. "She didn't really know. She just had a hunch."

The CIA declined to comment for this article, as did Coats and a spokesman at the German Embassy in Washington. Schily did not respond to several requests for comment last week.

CIA officials stress that apprehensions and renditions are among the most sure-fire ways to take potential terrorists out of circulation quickly. In 2000, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet said that "renditions have shattered terrorist cells and networks, thwarted terrorist plans, and in some cases even prevented attacks from occurring."

The Counterterrorist Center

After the September 2001 attacks, pressure to locate and nab potential terrorists, even in the most obscure parts of the world, bore down hard on one CIA office in particular, the Counterterrorist Center, or CTC, located until recently in the basement of one of the older buildings on the agency's sprawling headquarters compound. With operations officers and analysts sitting side by side, the idea was to act on tips and leads with dramatic speed.

The possibility of missing another attack loomed large. "Their logic was: If one of them gets loose and someone dies, we'll be held responsible," said one CIA officer, who, like others interviewed for this article, would speak only anonymously because of the secretive nature of the subject.

To carry out its mission, the CTC relies on its Rendition Group, made up of case officers, paramilitaries, analysts and psychologists. Their job is to figure out how to snatch someone off a city street, or a remote hillside, or a secluded corner of an airport where local authorities wait.

Members of the Rendition Group follow a simple but standard procedure: Dressed head to toe in black, including masks, they blindfold and cut the clothes off their new captives, then administer an enema and sleeping drugs. They outfit detainees in a diaper and jumpsuit for what can be a day-long trip. Their destinations: either a detention facility operated by cooperative countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, including Afghanistan, or one of the CIA's own covert prisons - referred to in classified documents as "black sites," which at various times have been operated in eight countries, including several in Eastern Europe.

In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the CTC was the place to be for CIA officers wanting in on the fight. The staff ballooned from 300 to 1,200 nearly overnight.

"It was the Camelot of counterterrorism," a former counterterrorism official said. "We didn't have to mess with others - and it was fun."

Thousands of tips and allegations about potential threats poured in after the attacks. Stung by the failure to detect the plot, CIA officers passed along every tidbit. The process of vetting and evaluating information suffered greatly, former and current intelligence officials said. "Whatever quality control mechanisms were in play on September 10th were eliminated on September 11th," a former senior intelligence official said.

J. Cofer Black, a professorial former spy who spent years chasing Osama bin Laden, was the CTC's director. With a flair for melodrama, Black had earned special access to the White House after he briefed President Bush on the CIA's war plan for Afghanistan.

Colleagues recall that he would return from the White House inspired and talking in missionary terms. Black, now in the private security business, declined to comment.

Some colleagues said his fervor was in line with the responsibility Bush bestowed on the CIA when he signed a top secret presidential finding six days after the 9/11 attacks. It authorized an unprecedented range of covert action, including lethal measures and renditions, disinformation campaigns and cyber attacks against the al Qaeda enemy, according to current and former intelligence officials. Black's attitude was exactly what some CIA officers believed was needed to get the job done.

Others criticized Black's CTC for embracing a "Hollywood model" of operations, as one former longtime CIA veteran called it, eschewing the hard work of recruiting agents and penetrating terrorist networks. Instead, the new approach was similar to the flashier paramilitary operations that had worked so well in Afghanistan, and played well at the White House, where the president was keeping a scorecard of captured or killed terrorists.

The person most often in the middle of arguments over whether to dispatch a rendition team was a former Soviet analyst with spiked hair that matched her in-your-face personality who heads the CTC's al Qaeda unit, according to a half-dozen CIA veterans who know her. Her name is being withheld because she is under cover.

She earned a reputation for being aggressive and confident, just the right quality, some colleagues thought, for a commander in the CIA's global war on terrorism. Others criticized her for being overzealous and too quick to order paramilitary action.

The CIA and Guantanamo Bay

One way the CIA has dealt with detainees it no longer wants to hold is to transfer them to the custody of the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay, where defense authorities decide whether to keep or release them after a review.

About a dozen men have been transferred by the CIA to Guantanamo Bay, according to a Washington Post review of military tribunal testimony and other records. Some CIA officials have argued that the facility has become, as one former senior official put it, "a dumping ground" for CIA mistakes.

But several former intelligence officials dispute that and defend the transfer of CIA detainees to military custody. They acknowledged that some of those sent to Guantanamo Bay are prisoners who, after interrogation and review, turned out to have less valuable information than originally suspected. Still, they said, such prisoners are dangerous and would attack if given the chance.

Among those released from Guantanamo is Mamdouh Habib, an Egyptian-born Australian citizen, apprehended by a CIA team in Pakistan in October 2001, then sent to Egypt for interrogation, according to court papers. He has alleged that he was burned by cigarettes, given electric shocks and beaten by Egyptian captors. After six months, he was flown to Guantanamo Bay and let go earlier this year without being charged.

Another CIA former captive, according to declassified testimony from military tribunals and other records, is Mohamedou Oulad Slahi, a Mauritanian and former Canada resident, who says he turned himself in to the Mauritanian police 18 days after the 9/11 attacks because he heard the Americans were looking for him. The CIA took him to Jordan, where he spent eight months undergoing interrogation, according to his testimony, before being taken to Guantanamo Bay.

Another is Muhammad Saad Iqbal Madni, an Egyptian imprisoned by Indonesia authorities in January 2002 after he was heard talking - he says jokingly - about a new shoe bomb technology. He was flown to Egypt for interrogation and returned to CIA hands four months later, according to one former intelligence official. After being held for 13 months in Afghanistan, he was taken to Guantanamo Bay, according to his testimony.

The Masri Case

Khaled Masri came to the attention of Macedonian authorities on New Year's Eve 2003. Masri, an unemployed father of five living in Ulm, Germany, said he had gone by bus to Macedonia to blow off steam after a spat with his wife. He was taken off a bus at the Tabanovce border crossing by police because his name was similar to that of an associate of a 9/11 hijacker. The police drove him to Skopje, the capital, and put him in a motel room with darkened windows, he said in a recent telephone interview from Germany.

The police treated Masri firmly but cordially, asking about his passport, which they insisted was forged, about al Qaeda and about his hometown mosque, he said. When he pressed them to let him go, they displayed their pistols.

Unbeknown to Masri, the Macedonians had contacted the CIA station in Skopje. The station chief was on holiday. But the deputy chief, a junior officer, was excited about the catch and about being able to contribute to the counterterrorism fight, current and former intelligence officials familiar with the case said.

"The Skopje station really wanted a scalp because everyone wanted a part of the game," a CIA officer said. Because the European Division chief at headquarters was also on vacation, the deputy dealt directly with the CTC and the head of its al Qaeda unit.

In the first weeks of 2004, an argument arose over whether the CIA should take Masri from local authorities and remove him from the country for interrogation, a classic rendition operation.

The director of the al Qaeda unit supported that approach. She insisted he was probably a terrorist, and should be imprisoned and interrogated immediately.

Others were doubtful. They wanted to wait to see whether the passport was proved fraudulent. Beyond that, there was no evidence Masri was not who he claimed to be - a German citizen of Arab descent traveling after a disagreement with his wife.

The unit's director won the argument. She ordered Masri captured and flown to a CIA prison in Afghanistan.

On the 23rd day of his motel captivity, the police videotaped Masri, then bundled him, handcuffed and blindfolded, into a van and drove to a closed-off building at the airport, Masri said. There, in silence, someone cut off his clothes. As they changed his blindfold, "I saw seven or eight men with black clothing and wearing masks," he later said in an interview. He said he was drugged to sleep for a long plane ride.


Masri said his cell in Afghanistan was cold, dirty and in a cellar, with no light and one dirty cover for warmth. The first night he said he was kicked and beaten and warned by an interrogator: "You are here in a country where no one knows about you, in a country where there is no law. If you die, we will bury you, and no one will know."

Masri was guarded during the day by Afghans, he said. At night, men who sounded as if they spoke American-accented English showed up for the interrogation. Sometimes a man he believed was a doctor in a mask came to take photos, draw blood and collect a urine sample.

Back at the CTC, Masri's passport was given to the Office of Technical Services to analyze. By March, OTS had concluded the passport was genuine. The CIA had imprisoned the wrong man.

At the CIA, the question was: Now what? Some officials wanted to go directly to the German government; others did not. Someone suggested a reverse rendition: Return Masri to Macedonia and release him. "There wouldn't be a trace. No airplane tickets. Nothing. No one would believe him," one former official said. "There would be a bump in the press, but then it would be over."

Once the mistake reached Tenet, he laid out the options to his counterparts, including the idea of not telling the Germans. Condoleezza Rice, then Bush's national security adviser, and Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage argued they had to be told, a position Tenet took, according to one former intelligence official.

"You couldn't have the president lying to the German chancellor" should the issue come up, a government official involved in the matter said.

Senior State Department officials decided to approach Interior Minister Schily, who had been a steadfast Bush supporter even when differences over the Iraq war strained ties between the two countries. Ambassador Coats had excellent rapport with Schily.

The CIA argued for minimal disclosure of information. The State Department insisted on a truthful, complete statement. The two agencies quibbled over whether it should include an apology, according to officials.

Meanwhile, Masri was growing desperate. There were rumors that a prisoner had died under torture. Masri could not answer most questions put to him. He said he steadied himself by talking with other prisoners and reading the Koran.

A week before his release in late May 2004, Masri said he was visited in prison by a German man with a goatee who called himself Sam. Masri said he asked him if he were from the German government and whether the government knew he was there. Sam said he could not answer either question.

"Does my wife at least know I'm here?" Masri asked.

"No, she does not," Sam replied, according to Masri.

Sam told Masri he was going to be released soon but that he would not receive any documents or papers confirming his ordeal. The Americans would never admit they had taken him prisoner, Sam added, according to Masri.

On the day of his release, the prison's director, who Masri believed was an American, told Masri that he had been held because he "had a suspicious name," Masri said in an interview.

Several intelligence and diplomatic officials said Macedonia did not want the CIA to bring Masri back inside the country, so the agency arranged for him to be flown to Albania. Masri said he was taken to a narrow country road at dusk. When they let him off, "They asked me not to look back when I started walking," Masri said. "I was afraid they would shoot me in the back."

He said he was quickly met by three armed men. They drove all night, arriving in the morning at Mother Teresa Airport in Tirana. Masri said he was escorted onto the plane, past all the security checkpoints, by an Albanian.

Masri has been reunited with his children and wife, who had moved the family to Lebanon because she did not know where her husband was. Unemployed and lonely, Masri says neither his German nor Arab friends dare associate with him because of the publicity.

Meanwhile, a German prosecutor continues to work Masri's case. A Macedonia bus driver has confirmed that Masri was taken away by border guards on the date he gave investigators. A forensic analysis of Masri's hair showed he was malnourished during the period he says he was in the prison. Flight logs show a plane registered to a CIA front company flew out of Macedonia on the day Masri says he went to Afghanistan.

Masri can find few words to explain his ordeal. "I have very bad feelings" about the United States, he said. "I think it's just like in the Arab countries: arresting people, treating them inhumanly and less than that, and with no rights and no laws."


Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this article.


global warming and the bobbsey twins blair and bush

What Planet Are You On, Mr Bush? (And Do You Care, Mr Blair?)
The Independent
By Geoffrey Lean and David Randall

Sunday 04 December 2005

Tens of thousands of people marched in 33 countries yesterday to express concern for the environment. But will their leaders respond?
More than 100,000 people took to the streets in more than 30 countries yesterday, in the first world-wide demonstration to press for action to combat global warming.

The marches - timed to put pressure on the most important international climate-change negotiations since the agreement of the Kyoto Protocol eight years ago - took place against a background of a blizzard of new research showing that the heating of the planet is seriously affecting the world sooner than the scientists predicted (see panel below).

The protests were directed primarily at President George Bush, who has been assiduously trying to sabotage the protocol and has ruled out even talking about setting targets for reducing the pollution that causes global warming, once the current targetsexpire.

Harlan Watson - the head of the US delegation to the negotiations, being held in Montreal - announced at the opening of the meeting: "The United States is opposed to any such discussions."

Yesterday's march in London was also directed at Tony Blair. Ten thousand demonstrators - who created a party atmosphere while carrying banners linking the President and the Prime Minister as "climate criminals" - took a special detour to hand in a letter at No 10 Downing Street.

They are concerned that Mr Blair - who put climate change at the head of the international agenda by making it one of his priorities for this summer's Gleneagles Summit - may have recently trimmed his position to please Mr Bush. The letter demanded that he reaffirm the Government's commitment to a new international treaty with legally binding targets on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that cause the climate change.

The Prime Minister has caused widespread confusion by appearing to back such a treaty, then to cast doubt on it.

The protesters also demanded that Britain should do much more to cut its own pollution; emissions of carbon dioxide have actually risen since Labour took power in 1997, despite repeated election pledges to cut them by 20 per cent by 2010.

Nick Rau, Friends of the Earth's energy campaigner, said: "If the UK is serious about leadership on climate change then our Government needs to take action at home. It is not too late."

The first demonstration of the day took place in Australia when thousands of protesters marched in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Australia is, with the US, the only Western industrialised nation not to have ratified Kyoto.

The Australian government reacted by reaffirming its refusal to join the protocol, insisting, according to its Environment minister, Ian Campbell: "We need to do something that suits the developed world, something that suits the rapidly developing world - partnerships, technologies, economic mechanisms that drive us towards that."

One of the biggest demonstrations took place in Montreal where Inuit from the Arctic were keen to draw attention to the melting of ice in their territory, which is threatening their fishing and livelihoods. They were among a crowd of some 7,000 people, around half the number organisers had anticipated.

Five environmental groups, including Greenpeace and the Climate Crisis Coalition, delivered a petition signed by 600,000 Americans to the US Consulate in Montreal urging the Bush administration to help slow global warming.

In Washington, drivers of hybrid cars - which emit far less carbon dioxide - planned to drive around the White House. And in New Orleans - devastated by Hurricane Katrina - residents intended to hold a "Save New Orleans, Stop Global Warming" party in the French Quarter. Events were held in 40 other US cities. Protests were also held in Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, and Turkey.

The US protests symbolised a major change in opinion in the United States since Hurricane Katrina, which doubled the number of people telling opinion polls that they believed global warming was an immediate threat. Another poll, carried out by the conservative Fox News, shows that more than three-quarters of Americans believe that global warming is happening and is at least partially caused by human activity, and that 60 per cent see it as a "crisis" or a "major problem".

But this has yet to make an impact on the Bush administration. Camilla Toulmin, the director of the authoritative International Institute of Environment and Development, said: "In the case of the current US administration we may have to give up ever hoping for a flicker of intelligence on climate change. The pattern of interests based on oil and gas seems too closely knit into an armour-plated defence of US plc."

The Montreal conference, the first meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol since it came into force in February, has achieved one minor success. Delegates adopted most of the "rule book" needed to make the treaty operational, though tactics by Saudi Arabia have held up agreement on how countries that break the rules will be punished.

The UK Government - which is playing a key role in the talks as head of the EU delegation - was quick to hail this agreement, far from a foregone conclusion, as a triumph. But environmentalists pointed out that the situation is dire indeed if there could be doubt over whether even previously agreed rules would be formally adopted.

The conference will also address bureaucratic UN procedures which have held up schemes to provide funds to developing countries to adopt cleaner technologies and development policies.

But the real sticking point is what happens in the future. Scientists are broadly agreed that rich countries have to reduce their emissions by a massive 80 per cent by 2050 if there is to be any hope of stopping climate change escalating out of control.

The Kyoto protocol targets, even if they are met, will reduce them by only 5.2 per cent, and everyone agrees that it barely makes a dent on the problem. Stavros Dimas, the European environment commissioner, briefly cheered the conference by predicting that the EU would meet its targets two years before the deadline. But even he admitted that little was likely to be achieved in Montreal. "Our objective is to get an agreement to start negotiations," he said.

And Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, said that anyone who believed that the meeting was going to agree to new pollution reduction targets was "living in cloud-cuckoo land". She added: "Let's see how we can move forward instead of setting some arbitrary goal that cannot possibly be achieved."

Britain says that moving forward depends on getting the US and leading developing countries such as China, India and Brazil to agree to join the battle against the climate change.

Both camps have said that they will not join any new treaty unless the other does.

But the developing countries have already taken far-reaching domestic action to cut pollution and develop renewable energy and were expressing their willingness in Montreal's corridors last week to "play their part". The big obstacle - as yesterday's demonstrators pointed out - is the White House.

Global Meltdown

The catalogue of disasters that are happening right now

Across the planet, rising temperatures are taking their toll

Carbon Dioxide

New research has found that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - the main cause of global warming - are higher than at any time in the past 625,000 years. HOTTEST EVER

This year is expected to be the warmest ever recorded; 1998 was the hottest so far, but the past three years currently occupy the next three places.


The giant Kalahari desert, already four times the size of Britain, threatens to become larger still, covering farmland in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.

Expanding Oceans

The level of the world's seas and oceans is rising twice as fast as in the past, as their waters expand in rising temperatures and glaciers melt.

Ocean Exiles

The people of the Carteret Islands, a scattering of atolls off Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific, have started to leave as their homes succumb to rising seas.


Hurricane Epsilon - the 14th of the year - is forming in the Atlantic, even though the worst recorded hurricane season by far formally ended on Wednesday.

Glacier Melt

Greenland glaciers have suddenly started racing towards the sea and melting. Much the same is beginning to happen to glaciers in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Water Shortage

Areas such as the western USA, which depend on mountain snows for their water supplies, are running short as less snow falls - and what does fall melts earlier.

Disappearing Species

Sealife and birdlife have declined catastrophically this year along America's north-west Pacific coast, after a similar meltdown in the North Sea.

Coral Reefs

Corals on the Great Barrier Reef are bleaching out and dying as sea temperatures rise and scientists fear that the whole reef may perish by 2050.


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Frank Rich....All The President's Flacks!

All the President's Flacks
By Frank Rich
The New York Times

Sunday 04 December 2005

When "all of the facts come out in this case," Bob Woodward told Terry Gross on NPR in July, "it's going to be laughable because the consequences are not that great."

Who's laughing now?

Why Mr. Woodward took more than two years to tell his editor that he had his own personal Deep Throat in the Wilson affair is a mystery best tackled by combatants in the Washington Post newsroom. (Been there, done that here at The Times.) Mr. Woodward says he wanted to avoid a subpoena, but he first learned that Joseph Wilson's wife was in the C.I.A. in mid-June 2003, more than six months before Patrick Fitzgerald or subpoenas entered the picture. Never mind. Far more disturbing is Mr. Woodward's utter failure to recognize the import of the story that fell into his lap so long ago.

The reporter who with Carl Bernstein turned a "third-rate burglary" into a key for unlocking the true character of the Nixon White House still can't quite believe that a Washington leak story unworthy of his attention has somehow become the drip-drip-drip exposing the debacle of Iraq. "I don't know how this is about the buildup to the war, the Valerie Plame Wilson issue," he said on "Larry King Live" on the eve of the Scooter Libby indictment. Everyone else does. Largely because of the revelations prompted by the marathon Fitzgerald investigation, a majority of Americans now believe that the Bush administration deliberately misled the country into war. The case's consequences for journalism have been nearly as traumatic, and not just because of the subpoenas. The Wilson story has ruthlessly exposed the credulousness with which most (though not all) of the press bought and disseminated the White House line that any delay in invading Iraq would bring nuclear Armageddon.

"W.M.D. - I got it totally wrong," Judy Miller said, with no exaggeration, before leaving The Times. The Woodward affair, for all its superficial similarities to the Miller drama, offers an even wider window onto the White House flimflams and the press's role in enabling them. Mr. Woodward knows more about the internal workings of this presidency than any other reporter. He has been granted access to all its top officials, including lengthy interviews with the president himself, to produce two Bush best sellers since 9/11. But he was gamed anyway by the White House, which exploited his special stature to the fullest for its own propagandistic ends.

Mr. Woodward, to his credit, is not guilty of hyping Saddam's W.M.D.'s. And his books did contain valuable news: of the Wolfowitz axis' early push to take on Iraq, of the president's messianic view of himself as God's chosen warrior, of the Powell-Rumsfeld conflicts that led to the war's catastrophic execution. Yet to reread these Woodward books today, especially the second, the 2004 "Plan of Attack," is to understand just how slickly his lofty sources deflected him from the big picture, of which the Wilson case is just one small, if illuminating, piece.

In her famous takedown of Mr. Woodward for The New York Review of Books in 1996, Joan Didion wrote that what he "chooses to leave unrecorded, or what he apparently does not think to elicit, is in many ways more instructive than what he commits to paper." She was referring to his account of Hillary Clinton's health care fiasco in his book "The Agenda," but her words also fit his account of the path to war in Iraq. This time, however, there is much more at stake than there was in Hillarycare.

What remains unrecorded in "Plan of Attack" is any inkling of the disinformation campaign built to gin up this war. While Mr. Woodward tells us about the controversial posturing of Douglas Feith, the former under secretary of defense for policy, there's only an incidental, even dismissive allusion to Mr. Feith's Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group. That was the secret intelligence unit established at the Pentagon to "prove" Iraq-Qaeda connections, which Vice President Dick Cheney then would trumpet in arenas like "Meet the Press." Mr. Woodward mentions in passing the White House Iraq Group, convened to market the war, but ignores the direct correlation between WHIG's inception and the accelerating hysteria in the Bush-Cheney-Rice warnings about Saddam's impending mushroom clouds in the late summer and fall of 2002. This story was broken by Barton Gellman and Walter Pincus in Mr. Woodward's own paper eight months before "Plan of Attack" was published.

Near the book's end, Mr. Woodward writes of some "troubling" tips from three sources "that the intelligence on W.M.D. was not as conclusive as the C.I.A. and the administration had suggested" and of how he helped push a Pincus story saying much the same into print just before the invasion. (It appeared on Page 17.) But Mr. Woodward never seriously investigates others' suspicions that the White House might have deliberately suppressed or ignored evidence that would contradict George Tenet's "slam-dunk" case for Saddam's W.M.D.'s. "Plan of Attack" gives greatest weight instead to the White House spin that any hyped intelligence was an innocent error or solely the result of the ineptitude of Mr. Tenet and the C.I.A.

Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby are omnipresent in the narrative, and Mr. Woodward says now that his notes show he had questions for them back then about "yellowcake" uranium and "Joe Wilson's wife." But the leak case - indeed Valerie Wilson herself - is never mentioned in the 400-plus pages, even though it had exploded more than six months before he completed the book. That's the most damning omission of all and suggests the real motive for his failure to share what he did know about this case with either his editor or his readers. If you assume, as Mr. Woodward apparently did against mounting evidence to the contrary, that the White House acted in good faith when purveying its claims of imminent doomsday and pre-9/11 Qaeda-Saddam collaborations, then there's no White House wrongdoing that needs to be covered up. So why would anyone in the administration try to do something nasty to silence a whistle-blower like Joseph Wilson? The West Wing was merely gossiping idly about the guy, Mr. Woodward now says, in perhaps an unconscious echo of the Karl Rove defense strategy.

Joan Didion was among the first to point out that Mr. Woodward's passive notion of journalistic neutrality is easily manipulated by his sources. He flatters those who give him the most access by upholding their version of events. Hence Mary Matalin, the former Cheney flack who helped shape WHIG's war propaganda, rushed to defend Mr. Woodward last week. Asked by Howard Kurtz of The Post why "an administration not known for being fond of the press put so much effort into cooperating with Woodward," Ms. Matalin responded that he does "an extraordinary job" and that "it's in the White House's interest to have a neutral source writing the history of the way Bush makes decisions." You bet it is. Sounds as if she's read Didion as well as Machiavelli.

In an analysis of Mr. Woodward written for The Huffington Post, Nora Ephron likens him to Theodore H. White, who invented the modern "inside" Washington book with "The Making of the President 1960." White eventually became such an insider himself that in "The Making of the President 1972," he missed Watergate, the story broken under his (and much of the press's) nose by Woodward and Bernstein. "They were outsiders," Ms. Ephron writes of those then-lowly beat reporters, "and their lack of top-level access was probably their greatest asset."

INDEED it's reporters who didn't have top-level access to the likes of Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney who have gotten the Iraq story right. In the new book "Feet to the Fire: The Media After 9/11," Kristina Borjesson interviews some of them, including Jonathan Landay of Knight Ridder, who heard early on from a low-level source that "the vice president is lying" and produced a story headlined "Lack of Hard Evidence of Iraqi Weapons Worries Top U.S. Officials" on Sept. 6, 2002. That was two days before administration officials fanned out on the Sunday-morning talk shows to point ominously at the now-discredited front-page Times story about Saddam's aluminum tubes. Warren Strobel, a frequent reportorial collaborator with Mr. Landay at Knight Ridder, tells Ms. Borjesson, "The most surprising thing to us was we had the field to ourselves for so long in terms of writing stuff that was critical or questioning the administration's case for war."

Such critical stories - including those at The Post and The Times that were too often relegated to Page 17 - did not get traction until the failure to find W.M.D.'s and the Wilson affair made America take a second look. Now that the country has awakened to that history, it will take more to shock it than the latest revelation that the Defense Department has been paying Iraqi newspapers to print its propaganda. Thanks in large part to the case Mr. Woodward found so inconsequential, everyone knows that much of the American press did just the same before the war - and, unlike those Iraqi newspapers or, say, Armstrong Williams, did so gratis.