I'm glad that the press is finally making an issue of President Bush's knowing use of a faked intelligence report on Iraq's supposed nuclear weapons program. But most of the press keeps missing the larger story. Deception has become the hallmark of this president.
Whether the issue is leaving no child behind or who actually benefits from the tax cuts or what kind of drug coverage the administration's Medicare amendments will really provide or how the Bush Clear Skies Act actually degrades clean-air standards, the press has given the administration an astonishingly free ride.
The back story of the politicization of intelligence has been hidden in plain view for months. Last fall, investigative reporter Robert Dreyfuss, writing in the Prospect, exposed the efforts by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to take control of intelligence summaries from the CIA. In March, The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh exposed the forgery of the report, now belatedly in the headlines, that Saddam was trying to buy uranium from Niger.
John Judis, in The New Republic, a magazine that supported the war, pieced together other efforts to politicize intelligence to justify the Iraq war. The New Yorker has also exposed how George Tenet, a Clinton appointee, has compromised his mission in his fawning efforts to ingratiate himself with Bush and the Pentagon.
So last week when Tenet agreed to take the fall for Bush's use of a long-discredited intelligence report, the maneuver stank to high heaven. But the press initially played the story with a straight face. On Friday, Bush declared that his speech ''was cleared by the intelligence services.'' Tenet, in a minuet that was obviously rehearsed and orchestrated, then issued a statement taking responsibility and expressing regret. Then, on Saturday, the president magnanimously expressed his full confidence in Tenet.
An innocent reader might have been forgiven for concluding that this ''error'' was the CIA's lapse. In fact, the CIA was well aware that the Niger uranium story had been fabricated. The reference to the report in the Bush speech was the work of the war hawks at the Pentagon and the White House, not the CIA. Indeed, intelligence experts were so upset about this reference that the text was the subject of word by word negotiation. In the end, Bush's actual text, disingenuously, attributed the report to British intelligence.
The New York Times, recently buffeted by a news fabrication scandal and a management shake-up, has been particularly cautious about reporting the larger story of the politicization of intelligence and the roles of Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. That task has fallen mainly to Times columnists.
Columnist Nicholas Kristof has advanced the story more than the Times news staff. The inimitable Maureen Dowd declared, "The president and Condi Rice can shuffle the shells and blame George Tenet, but it smells of mendacity." Mendacity is a polite synonym for lying. Even Bush's toughest critics find it hard to print the words, "Bush lies." But that's the larger story.
The op-ed pages are intended for the expression of opinion. But in the Bush era, much of the reporting and analysis that should be Page 1 news are treated as if they were mere opinion.
Normally the press is not reluctant to challenge the lies of a president. The press hardly shrank from this challenge in the Vietnam and Watergate eras. And much of the press, overzealously, made a crusade of the Whitewater real estate affair, virtually all of which turned out to be phony. Poor Al Gore got toasted for minor exaggerations.
But Bush gets a free pass time after time. The press holds back partly because of America's vulnerability to terrorism, which Bush's handlers exploit shamelessly. The administration is also very effective at pressuring and isolating reporters who criticize Bush, so working reporters bend over backwards to play fair. And the administration benefits from a stage-managed right-wing media machine that has no counterpart on the liberal left.
The press has even stopped making a fuss over the fact that this president has all but stopped holding press conferences. In his Africa trip, Bush intervened to limit questions, even as his African presidential hosts were indicating that press questions were welcome.
Investigations of administration deceptions about how many jobs the tax cuts will create or the actual effects on children of high-stakes testing combined with funding cuts or the saga of how the Pentagon tried to take over the CIA -- these are not opinions. They are what journalism is all about.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of the Prospect.
This column originally appeared in yesterday's Boston Globe.