The Bush Administration says it has made no decision yet about possible military action against Iraq. But at the Pentagon, there are already signs of an emerging confrontation over Iraq between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the news media.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is usually adroit in parrying the questions of reporters. But Mr. Rumsfeld grew a little testy this week when asked if the administration was exaggerating or misleading the American public in regard to the potential threat posed by Iraq.
Mr. Rumsfeld said flatly that it was not.
He then went on to suggest the U.S. government was not getting fair treatment from journalists who, in contrast, he said, seemed to be going out of their way to accept as factual, statements made by Baghdad. What troubled him, he said, was that Iraq's leadership routinely lies, yet reporters appear to accept Iraqi assertions at face value.
"It's interesting to me that a government that consistently does not tell the truth seems not to pay a penalty," he said. "Everything they say is accepted. Everything they say is repeated. Everything they say, notwithstanding the fact that they have lied over and over and over again, and yet there it comes: 'They said this. What do you think about this?'
Mr. Rumsfeld went on to complain that reports based on what he considered spurious assertions by Baghdad were often broadcast hour after hour, unchallenged, just, he said, as Taleban and al-Qaida claims often received unchallenged coverage during the early stages of the Afghan conflict.
He went on to suggest that editors, worldwide, ought to reconsider the publicity being given to those, like Iraq, who he characterized as having lost their reputations.
And the Defense Secretary seemed genuinely exasperated that such a re-evaluation of editorial decision-making has not yet happened.
"But by golly, that does not happen. It has not happened. And it ought to happen. And the world needs to know that," he said.
Mr. Rumsfeld acknowledged he was angry, but ended this particular news conference with his customary touch of humor, drawing laughter from reporters. "I'm glad you gave me a hook to hang my anger on," he said.
Still, there were suspicions among reporters, following the Secretary's appearance, that his testiness was linked to a series of questions challenging the administration's case for punitive action against Iraq.
For example, why did the Pentagon keep secret for over a decade video of Iraqi efforts to shoot down U.S. and British planes in the no-fly zones and then suddenly this week release it? Was the decision politically-motivated? And are coalition planes hitting targets in the no-fly zones to pave the way for an invasion?
The question that appeared to trigger Mr. Rumsfeld's strongest reaction was one that challenged the U.S. interpretation of what activities are allowed under United Nations resolutions, including the U.S. led enforcement of the no-fly zones, something never explicitly mandated or sanctioned by the United Nations.
Mr. Rumsfeld evaded the question, deferring to the White House and the State Department. But he interrupted the questioner with an accusation of his own.
The reporter began a question saying, "Iraq has consistently accused the United States of reading more into these U.N. resolutions that you cited than were actually there. And today..."
Mr. Rumsfeld cut the journalist off by saying, "Iraq has repeatedly said they had no weapons of mass destruction."
Afterwards, several reporters suggested privately that the Defense Secretary was "off his game."
But others suggested it was the Pentagon's corps of reporters that was unsettled by Mr. Rumsfeld's effort to portray the world's media as victims of what he described as Iraq's "great cleverness" in manipulating not only the international community but also the press.