Who’s Afraid of Unnamed Sources? ‘NYT’ Uses Them in Major War Story

By: Greg Mitchell

A front-page story in The New York Times on Thursday was striking in several regards. It reported a “sobering new assessment” of the U.S. war effort in Iraq. It thus contradicted the tone of much of the same paper?s coverage from Iraq this year (until recently). And, in a week when the use of anonymous sources is drawing unprecedented scrutiny and criticism, it was based mainly on just those kinds of sources.

The Times described these sources as “five high-ranking officers, speaking separately at the Pentagon and in Baghdad, and through an e-mail exchange from Baghdad with a reporter in Washington.”

The article, written by John F. Burns in Baghdad and Eric Schmitt in Washington, could set off a new round of attacks on the Bush war effort, though many who support the war will probably reject it out of hand, considering their view of the Times, not to mention the reliance (post-Newsweek uproar) on unnamed sources.

At least, in this case, there’s more than one of those sources.

The Thursday front-pager described a “mood of anxiety” in Baghdad. It quoted one (unnamed) officer suggesting that U.S. would not be able to withdraw forces any time soon and in fact our involvement could last “many years.” It also revealed a shocking statistic that somehow had gone unreported until now: There have been 21 car bombings in Baghdad so far this month — and 126 in the past 80 days — compared with 25 in all of last year.

Speaking on the record in Washington, Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top American officer in the Middle East, said one explanation for the setbacks was the lack of progress in developing Iraqi police units that would prove effective and enable American forces to take a smaller role.

The same (unnamed) officer in Baghdad quoted above also said: “I think that this could still fail,” referring to the American effort in Iraq. “It’s much more likely to succeed, but it could still fail.” He pointed to recent polls conducted by Baghdad University that showed confidence in the new government plunging from 85% after the Iraqi elections to 45% now.

While the article at some points referred to the sources as “officers” (apparently three of them in Baghdad) it also called them “generals.”

Significantly, it suggested that they were taking on a kind of “whistleblower” role, as in this sentence: “The generals’ remarks, emphasizing the insurgency’s resilience but also American and Iraqi successes in disrupting them, suggested that American commanders may have seen an opportunity … to inject their own note of realism into public debate.

“The generals said the buildup of Iraqi forces has been more disappointing than previously acknowledged, contributing to the absence of any Iraqi forces when a 1,000-member Marine battle group mounted an offensive last week against insurgent strongholds in the northwestern desert, along the border with Syria.”

The Times report came a day after a Knight Ridder dispatch from Baghdad opened this way: “Three weeks of relentless attacks in Iraq have given ample evidence that Iraq’s nascent democratic process hasn’t yet undermined the insurgency. The attacks also show that the insurgents can adjust their tactics in response to the changing political environment, Iraqi, U.S. and independent authorities said.

“The insurgents are increasingly coordinating attacks, employing more remote-control devices to detonate explosives and shifting their focus from U.S. troops to the local security forces that have begun to take a more active role defending the nation, U.S. officials said.”

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