Since That Famous Editors’ Note, ‘NY Times’ WMD Coverage Turns Tougher

By: William E. Jackson Jr.

In his now-famous editors’ note of May 26, Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, dodged many of the central questions about the paper’s highly misleading and highly influential coverage of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but promised to get to the bottom of the WMD controversy in the months ahead.

“We consider the story of Iraq’s weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business,” he wrote. “And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight.”

It is not clear which “record” he was referring to, the Times’ or the Bush administration’s. Putting that aside, what has the Times done since the editors’ note to make good on Keller’s pledge? And is it out of tandem with the executive branch’s propaganda on the WMD saga?

Michael Massing recently argued in the New York Review of Books (“Unfit to Print,” June 24) that, aside from the Abu Ghraib scandal, “the paper has seemed intent on keeping bad news off the front page, especially when it reflects poorly on the Bush administration.” But that charge is now dated, and too harsh, when examining coverage in recent weeks by Douglas Jehl, James Risen, David Johnston, Dexter Filkins, and David Sanger, among others.

Albeit on a delayed basis at CIA request, the Ahmed Chalabi-Iran spy connection story was broken by the investigative reporting team of Risen and Johnston in the Times on June 2. It appears likely, in fact, that Keller knew that such a story was about to break when the editors went public with their apologia on May 26.

It is patently evident that a resilient and emboldened Washington bureau of the Times is on the case. The news reporters may yet save the Times from long-term ignominy in its reporting on WMD and other aspects of its Iraq coverage.

On May 29, Elizabeth Bumiller (“Conservative Allies Take Chalabi Case to the White House”) reported that several neo-conservatives, Richard Perle and James Woolsey among them, were using their influence to try to stop a “smear campaign” against Chalabi.

With new rigor, the intelligence sources for Thomas Shanker’s June 25 front-page story (“Iraqis, Seeking Foes of Saudis, Contacted bin Laden, File Says”) were carefully cross-interviewed to determine that the government actually considered the file authentic, despite coming from INC-captured documents. (I am reliably informed that the story was not touched by reporter Judith Miller, who in the past might have tried to force her name onto the byline.)

The week before, the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks had concluded that the contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda had not demonstrated “a collaborative relationship.” The Times played this story big, got hit hard by Vice President Dick Cheney, and stood its ground.

On July 2, David Sanger, technically complying with a White House request for an off-the-record press conference, “near the White House,” contrasted the on-the-record remarks of administration officials and Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority for the past year, with the more skeptical off-the-record comments of a man described only as “a former senior official of the just-dissolved American-led occupation authority” who had “access to the highest-level intelligence” (i.e. Bremer himself).

On July 6, in a scoop that got wide play, James Risen reported that the Central Intelligence Agency was told by relatives of Iraqi scientists before the war that Baghdad’s programs to develop unconventional weapons had been abandoned, but the C.I.A. had failed to give that information to President Bush — even as he was publicly warning of the threat posed by Saddam’s unconventional weapons.

But, alas, the Times editors are still suffering from institutional amnesia on the paper’s role in spreading bum information on WMD. Far down in Risen’s story, this passage appeared: “There were problems with the handling of the defectors used to buttress the biological weapons case. Information from one was used even though the D.I.A. had warned in the spring of 2002 that he had fabricated information. The C.I.A. took statements that another defector had given to German intelligence without knowing his identity or learning that he had ties to the INC,” the exile group led by Chalabi. “Until recently,” he was “a close ally of the Pentagon [but] fell into disfavor with the Bush administration after it became clear that his organization had provided disinformation to the United States and had exaggerated the threat posed” by Saddam Hussein.

There was no mention of Judith Miller’s front-page “discoveries” of unconventional bio-weapons, using INC-provided sources.

On the handling of intelligence about the attempted shipment of aluminum tubes to Iraq, which CIA analysts regarded as strong evidence that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, “other government experts, particularly at the national laboratories and in the State Department, were skeptical. … The C.I.A.’s views on the tubes ultimately prevailed inside the Bush administration.”

There was not a word in Risen’s account about Miller and Michael Gordon’s “mushroom cloud” front-page spectacular of Sept. 8, 2002.

The Times simply does not report on itself, even when it is part of the story. As media critic Jay Rosen, chair of the journalism department at New York University, once phrased it: “Driving the agenda in official Washington (or creating a climate of such urgency that people in government feel compelled to act) is not something the Times imagines itself involved in. … Therefore, it accepts for itself no responsibility when things are driven by what the Times does, or when cases explode and soil everyone. … It’s hard to apologize, officially, for something that you do not officially do.” When the editors decide they must compose a note on a great controversy, they must find a way to express regret for driving a case, “without admitting that their hands ever touched a steering wheel.”

It is almost as if Keller and others in the Times leadership are saying: after all, we are only a newspaper, so what do you expect?

In effect, however, The New York Times acted as an accomplice of a government that led the U.S. into a costly pre-emptive war on Iraq. The Times became a “player” in this drama. Acts on such a grand stage have far-reaching consequences. “War requires an extra standard of care,” the paper’s public editor, Daniel Okrent, profoundly observed on May 30, “not a lesser one.”

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