Early efforts to examine the Bush stance toward Hussein produced unexciting results. In a nearly 9,000-word takeout in March 1991, the Washington Post found that the Bush people had neglected to pay “much attention to the problems posed by this troublesome country.” The story noted that in the roughly 10 months prior to the Kuwait invasion, “not one meeting of the National Security Council was convened to discuss Iraq.”
Waas evaluated much of the same data as the Post but reached a different conclusion: This was a scandal.
Equipped with documents and story drafts, Waas sold the package to the Los Angeles Times. The paper assigned veteran reporter Douglas Frantz to double-team the story with “special correspondent” Waas, and the two cranked out a three-part series in February 1992 that debuted under the headline “Bush Secret Effort Helped Iraq Build Its War Machine.”
The way Waas and Frantz told it, an export promotion program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture was at the root of the Bush plot to support Hussein. A billion dollars in such Agriculture Department aid, says the series, handed a windfall of sorts to the dictator, enabling him “to spend his scarce reserves of hard currency on the massive arms buildup that brought war to the Persian Gulf.”
In addition, according to the series, the Commerce Department licensed $1.5 billion in sales of American technology to Baghdad from 1985 until the 1990 invasion of Kuwait—technology that “found its way into Hussein’s program to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.”
The series features a cloak-and-dagger element that runs through a great deal of Waas’ journalism. From the headline down to its smallest details, everything seems to be “secret,” “top-secret,” or “long-secret” or have some other shady provenance. The resulting impression casts the Bush administration as serial obstructionists and the journalists as heroic investigators.
The Los Angeles Times stories helped to prompt an authentic mainstream media pile-on. The TV news establishment—CNN and ABC’s Nightline—and various print outlets put their stamps on the scandal. US News & World Report ran a large piece that awarded it the predictable moniker of “Iraqgate.” New York Times columnist William Safire jumped on the affair as well.
Their Iraq coverage earned Waas and Frantz the distinction of “nominated finalist” in the 1993 Pulitzer Prize’s national reporting category. Also, they won the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Iraqgate got some well-timed traction in a presidential election year, too, as vice-presidential hopeful Al Gore used a Washington campaign appearance to hammer away at the issue. “George Bush sent loan guarantees to an oil-rich dictator. George Bush sold dangerous technology to a criminal who was intent on developing and using lethal weapons,” said Gore.
Those reactions weren’t enough for the Los Angeles Times’ David Shaw. In an October 1992 piece of more than 5,600 words, he lamented that the story hadn’t lit a fire under the average voter. “Iraqgate has had negligible impact on the national political scene,” wrote Shaw, attributing the dynamic to its complicated nature and scandal fatigue.
Here’s an alternative explanation: The story was hooey.
In 1994, articles in Foreign Policy and American Lawyer magazines attacked the entire Iraqgate oeuvre and took particular aim at the Waas-Frantz series in the Los Angeles Times. Each of the series’ premises sustained a thorough beating:
• Secrecy: Waas and Frantz correctly stated that the Bush administration’s Iraq policy was first articulated in a top-secret October 1989 directive. But every key aspect of that policy had lost any covert trappings long before the Los Angeles Times series hit the presses. “The heart of the Bush policy—the decision to continue agricultural credit guarantees and dual-use exports—was public all along, contrary to the implication of The Los Angeles Times,” wrote Stuart Taylor Jr. in his American Lawyer piece.
• Agricultural aid: In the Foreign Policy story, Kenneth I. Juster argued that the Bush administration hadn’t, in fact, extended $1 billion in aid or loan guarantees to Hussein’s Iraq, as the Los Angeles Times pieces contended. Instead, wrote Juster, this program merely consisted of agricultural credits that assured U.S. exporters of payment for their shipments to Iraq. No U.S. cash—either in loans or outright aid—had gone to Hussein. Juster, a former Bush administration official, pointed out that by fiscal year 1990, Iraq’s “repayment obligations were higher than the level of new credits it was receiving.” Thus, Juster argued, the credit program had the effect of freezing up—not freeing up—Iraq’s war-waging resources.
• Sales of U.S. technology: By citing the $1.5 billion in technology export approvals to Iraq, the Los Angeles Times depicted Washington as hell-bent on arming Hussein. The series, however, never mentioned a key point: More than $1 billion of that amount was for cargo trucks that were never exported to Iraq. As Taylor pointed out, a mere $75 million in high-tech U.S. exports actually reached Iraq under the Bush administration.
Editor’s Note: Months ago, when this article was still a draft, it got Washington City Paper and its staff nominated as finalists for “Worst People of 2006” by Daily Kos. Our subject, Murray Waas, has complained publicly and privately that the authors are prejudiced against him, are incapable of writing fairly and accurately about him, and have acted unprofessionally and unethically in gathering their material. He has also disputed many of the facts presented in the article.