The U.S. Press and the ‘Heroes in Error’

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By: William E. Jackson Jr.

Despite recent articles in several newspapers about the role of defectors and exile groups in misleading U.S. and British intelligence agencies over the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, not a single national paper saw fit to follow up on a damning admission by Ahmad Chalabi in The Daily Telegraph of London on Feb. 19.

Was it to avoid giving another news outlet credit for a scoop; or is it simply too embarrassing to go there? That is, to investigate the role of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) leader in pre-war propaganda might involve the retracing of the steps by which one’s own paper was tricked into reporting bogus intelligence in the buildup to war.

With hundreds of Americans already dead and thousands wounded — on the overriding premise that Saddam Hussein possessed illicit WMD that threatened the United States — Chalabi, in an interview from Baghdad, brazenly argued in the Daily Telegraph that the ends justified the means. Disinformation about the weapons, even though later discredited, achieved the aim of persuading the Americans to overthrow Saddam and occupy Iraq. Shrugging off charges that he had deliberately misled, Chalabi was quoted as boasting: “We are heroes in error … Our objective has been achieved … What was said before is not important.”

It is now well established that some newspapers, including The New York Times, depended on the INC and defectors for exclusives on the alleged presence of WMD in Iraq. But only one major news outlet, Knight Ridder, has incorporated the Daily Telegraph interview with Chalabi into its recent WMD reporting.

On Feb. 22, in a special report titled “U.S. Still Paying Millions to Group That Provided False Iraqi Intelligence,” Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel and John Walcott revealed that the Pentagon is continuing to pay millions of dollars for information from the same organization that produced exaggerated and fabricated intelligence useful to the Bush administration in making the case for war. The INC, they wrote, also supplied information to news organizations in the United States and Europe. Another quote from Chalabi was cited: “As far as we’re concerned we’ve been entirely successful.”

A week earlier, on Feb. 14, Strobel and Landay had reported that “U.S. intelligence officials now believe that almost all the Iraqi defectors whose information helped make the Bush administration’s case against Saddam exaggerated what they knew, fabricated tales or were ‘coached’ by others on what to say.”

In a Feb. 28 story — “Iraqi National Congress Faces Growing Number of Investigations” — Strobel and Landay reported the political fallout from the charges that the INC had provided bogus intelligence. Senior officials told them that the White House mood toward the INC had changed markedly after the British newspaper report of the interview; and that President George W. Bush himself was angered by Chalabi’s comments.

To be sure, both The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others, have been reporting on the actions of exile groups and defectors in steering U.S. intelligence agencies off course on WMD. In the Post on March 5, for example, Walter Pincus revealed: “The Bush administration’s prewar assertion that Saddam Hussein had a fleet of mobile labs that could produce bioweapons rested largely on information from an Iraqi defector working with another government” who was never interviewed by U.S. intelligence officers. However, the major newspapers have not faced the issue of the press’ own culpability in reporting disinformation as fact.

In a detailed report in The New York Times on March 6, Douglas Jehl wrote: “In the two years before the war in Iraq, American intelligence agencies reviewed but ultimately dismissed reports from Iraqi scientists, defectors and other informants who said Saddam Hussein’s government did not possess illicit weapons.” Did not some key Times reporters do much the same thing?

Moreover, Jehl wrote, the reports “which ran contrary to the conclusions of the intelligence agencies and the Bush administration, were not acknowledged by top government officials before the invasion of last March. … The agencies and the administration cited only reports from informants who supported the view that Iraq possessed so-called weapons of mass destruction.” In essence, was this not a frequent practice at the Times? A national news organization is not an intelligence agency, but it needs many of the same skills and an instinctive attitude of skepticism if it is to perform a check-and-balance function.

Jehl continued: Government officials knew of several occasions “from 2001 to 2003 when Iraqi scientists, defectors … had told American intelligence officers [and] their foreign partners … that Iraq did not possess illicit weapons.” Were these sources not known to Times reporters and editors?

The government officials said they believed that intelligence agencies had dismissed the contradictory reports “because they did not conform to a view, held widely within the administration and among intelligence analysts, that Iraq was hiding an illicit arsenal.” The “view that Iraq possessed illicit weapons had been ‘treated like a religion’ within administration intelligence agencies, with alternative views never given serious attention.” Does this not seem similar to the attitude of the Times’ star reporter Judith Miller? But, in fact, dissenting views within the intelligence community, and among defectors, were common knowledge around Washington, and cited by reporters from several national newspapers and the wire services.

Why didn’t the Times, and other news outlets, try more aggressively to determine the truth about Iraq’s WMDs in the buildup to war? This may become clearer when a list soon surfaces of INC intelligence “drops” of disinformation to news organizations. By comparing when certain news stories appeared with the dates certain defectors met with specific newspapers and reporters, we will have a pretty good idea of culpability.

The reporters and editors of major news outlets did their own “cherry picking” in deciding which claims from which sources received the most attention. On March 5, Sen. Edward Kennedy asked in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations: “Why wasn’t CIA director Tenet correcting the president and the vice president … a year ago, when it could have made a difference, when it could have prevented a needless war?” Well, the fourth estate could have made a difference, too, if it had behaved less as the fourth branch of government.

In the week of a hubbub over the publication of disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair’s “Burning Down My Masters’ House,” a cloud continues to hover over the palpably bad reporting by several newspapers, including the venerable Times, on WMDs in pre-war Iraq — and the absence of notable outrage over the role of these papers in spreading bogus information that fanned the winds of war.

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