By: Joe Strupp
When doubts arose about a Christian Science Monitor story indicating that Saddam Hussein’s government had paid off a British Parliament official to promote Iraq’s interests, the Boston-based newspaper didn’t just double-check the facts and plan a small correction. It conducted a lengthy, costly investigation into the Iraqi government records that had formed the basis for the earlier report. The analysis included hiring four document experts and an ink chemist to scrutinize the papers, which eventually led to the conclusion that they were fabricated.
“We felt it was necessary in order to find out whether the documents were authentic,” Jay Jostyn, a Monitor spokesman, said about the paper’s review, which included paying the experts nearly $9,000 to examine the paperwork. Valery Aginsky, an ink chemist, found that the ink on the documents purported to be from 1992 and 1993 had not aged enough to have been written that long ago.
The daily paper detailed the checking process in a lengthy story on June 20. Along with that story, a note from Editor Paul Van Slambrouck also appeared. “Journalism always involves a potential tension between speed and accuracy, and the decision on when to publish a story rests with the editors here in Boston,” the statement read, in part. “We view this episode as instructive on that point, and hindsight tells us we did not strike the perfect balance.”
Since the fall of Hussein’s regime, numerous news outlets have referred to documents found in the country in reporting on possible weapons of mass destruction and many aspects of life under Hussein, with questionable proof of their validity.
The original Monitor story, by reporter Philip Smucker, ran on April 25 and indicated that George Galloway, a member of Britain’s Parliament, had received $10 million over 11 years in exchange for his efforts to promote Iraq and oppose the U.S. invasion. Galloway has been an outspoken critic of the war and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, according to the report. It followed a story in the Daily Telegraph of London that accused Galloway of having dealings with Iraq, but which relied upon different documents found in the Iraq Foreign Ministry. Smucker, a freelance writer who is contracted by the Monitor, received his documents from an Iraqi general who said he found them in a home once used by Qusay Hussein, according to the paper.
Questions about the documents’ validity first appeared in a May 11 story in the Mail on Sunday, another British newspaper, which reported that other documents obtained from the same source had been proven false. That report led the Monitor to begin its own review of Smucker’s documents. Three experts retained by the paper found no major problems, but a fourth, Hassan Mneimneh, co-director of the Iraq Research and Documentation Project at Harvard University, said the language used in the documents was unusually blunt and the dates spanning 11 years were written in strangely identical fashion. That’s when the paper hired Aginksy, the chemist.
Van Slambrouck declined to comment further on the situation, and Smucker could not be reached. Jostyn said the paper was reluctant to comment further due to potential litigation. Galloway has said he is contemplating legal action against the paper.