Real ‘NY Times’ Scandal: Hyping WMDs in Iraq

By: William E. Jackson Jr.

Opinion

In a May 20 speech to graduates of Barnard College, New York Times correspondent Judith Miller called upon the media and military to examine the program of embedding journalists with U.S. troops during the Iraq war. “Journalists need to draw conclusions about whether journalistic objectivity was compromised during the war; the military needs to consider whether the strain of taking care of us, and protecting us, and giving us dangerous information was an undue burden on the military. We all need to debate whether the country’s interests were best served by this arrangement.”

Miller, a booster of the invasion who had hyped the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), added: “Were those who wanted to go to war deceiving themselves about Saddam’s capabilities?”

It was a remarkably candid — and ironic — question.

Even more serious for “the newspaper of record” than plagiarism and falsification of facts by a junior reporter (Jayson Blair) is a star reporter embedded with the Central Command filing very shaky stories that get by editors in New York and wind up on the front page of the Times, purporting to provide evidence to back up the primary reasons given by the Bush Administration for the necessity of invading Iraq. Talk about “news” without a compass!

In a May 26 editorial — “Reviewing the Intelligence on Iraq” — the Times welcomed a CIA post-war review of intelligence assessments of WMDs in Iraq. The failure to find such weapons so far raised “even dark hints that the data may have been manipulated to support a pre-emptive war.”

Was this editorial — and another on June 1 (“The Bioweapons Enigma”) — meant to head off a barrage of criticism aimed at the newspaper’s reports from the field in April and May? For the same specific concerns directed at the government must be raised in any honest review of the reporting of the search for WMDs in Iraq by the Times‘ Judith Miller.

In recent weeks, compelling accounts contrasting Miller’s highly influential Times stories with far more sober (and credible) accounts by Barton Gellman in The Washington Post have appeared. Unlike Miller’s sources, Gellman’s usually spoke for attribution.

To explore just one of several examples: On May 11, a Miller piece strongly promoted the view of members of the Chemical Biological Intelligence Support Team-Charlie, searching for evidence of WMDs, who believed that a trailer found in northern Iraq was a “mobile biological weapons laboratory.”

True to form, Miller’s military sources — all of whom belonged to the same team — were not named. The team leader said that this could be construed as the kind of “smoking gun” that they were charged with finding, “to substantiate the Bush administration’s allegations that Iraq was making biological and chemical weapons.”

On the same day, May 11, The Washington Post published a Page One story by Gellman, reviewing the work of the very same units that Miller had been following: “The group directing all known U.S. search efforts for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is winding down operations without finding proof that President Saddam Hussein kept clandestine stocks of outlawed arms, according to participants.”

Wrote Gellman, “Task Force 75’s experience and its impending dissolution … square poorly with assertions in Washington that the search has barely begun.” The officer leading the task force’s Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, Army Chief Warrant Officer Richard L. Gonzales, said in disgust: “Why are we doing any planned targets? Answer me that. We know they’re empty.”

Gellman added that the expression “smoking gun” was “now a term of dark irony here.”

With the CIA and Congress re-examining whether intelligence data may have been “manipulated” or doctored to support the war, The New York Times — while investigating the Blair scandal, and looking for a new executive editor — should conduct a critical review of its WMD reporting from the field. Will the Times investigate itself on this much bigger scandal? The issue goes to the heart of the Gray Lady’s credibility.

E&P welcomes letters to the editor: [email protected].

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