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"Maybe We Did Screw Up…a Little"

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN

On May 26 the New York Times finally hitched up its pants, took a deep breath and issued an editorial declaration of moderate regret for its role in boosting the case for war on Iraq. There was a bit of dutiful trumpet-tootling at the start (“we found an enormous amount of journalism that we are proud of._ accurate reflection of the state of our knowledge at the time_.), and then a manly confession that perhaps, maybe, conceivably, the Times’s reporting was a shade less than perfect.

“We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged.” Given that the paper printed tens of thousands of words of willful balderdash from 2001 to early 2003, the admission leaves something to be desired, but that’s scarcely surprising.

Remember this one? “Passages of some articles also posed a problem of tone. In place of a tone of journalistic detachment from our sources, we occasionally used language that adopted the sense of alarm that was contained in official reports.” That was the Times issuing an exceptionally graceless admission in 2000 that it might have done better in the Wen Ho Lee affair. The collapse of the government’s case against the Los Alamos scientist was one of the greatest humiliations of a national newspaper in the history of journalism. One had to go back to the publication by the London Times of the 1887 Pigott forgery libeling Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish nationalist hero, to find an equivalent debacle.

The New York Times played a decisive role in sparking the persecution of Wen Ho Lee, his solitary confinement under threat of execution, his denial of bail, the loss of his job, the anguish endured by the scientist and his family. Yet the most the Times could manage then were a few strangled croaks, wishing it had portrayed his character in greater depth. It never had words of specific admonition for the instigators of Lee’s persecution, reporters Jeff Gerth and James Risen and the columnist William Safire.

It’s the same now. Nowhere in the editorial note of May 26 does the difficult name Judith Miller crop up. The editors cite, as examples of inadequate reporting, five stories from 2001 to 2003, without naming authors. Miller wrote or co-wrote three of them, including a grotesque piece on December 20, 2001, in which she rolled out a liar called Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, who had poured into her delighted ear an account of how he’d worked on nuclear, biological and chemical war facilities “in underground wells, private villas and under the Saddam Hussein Hospital.”

“If verified,” Miller wrote, al-Haideri’s “allegations would provide ammunition to officials within the Bush administration who have been arguing that Mr. Hussein should be driven from power.” Note the sedate phrase “if verified.” It never was verified. Miller still had al-Haideri in play at the start of 2003, a fact tastefully passed over in the May 26 note. She used him to launch an onslaught on Hans Blix and the UN inspectors. “Intelligence officials,” she wrote, “said that some of the most valuable information has come from al-Haideri.”

The modified climb-down is 1,100 words long. Here is no methodical review, such as the 7,200-word, unsparing scrutiny of Jayson Blair’s insignificant fabrications. Given the fact that the Times helped launch a war, now shaping up to be a world-historical disaster, proportionality surely demands something the length of the Times’s stories on the selling of another war, the Pentagon Papers.

The editors find no room to examine a story Miller wrote with Michael Gordon, another seasoned fabricator. Their September 8, 2002, article, “U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts,” was mostly nonsense about those notorious aluminum tubes, though there was a cameo role for another defector, a rogue offered to readers under the pseudonym Ahmed al-Shemri, who is quoted saying Iraq was “developing, producing and storing chemical agents. ‘All of Iraq is one large storage facility,’ said Shemri. Asked about his allegations, US officials said they believed these reports were accurate.”

Then Miller and Gordon wrote some of the most brazenly misleading lines in the history of war propaganda: “After insisting that it had never weaponized bacteria or filled warheads, [Iraq] again belatedly acknowledged having done so after Hussein Kamel, Hussein’s brother-in-law [sic], defected to Jordan with evidence about the scale of the germ warfare program.” What’s missing from this brisk evocation of Hussein Kamel’s debriefings by the UNSCOM inspectors, the CIA and MI6 in the summer of 1995? Kamel told them all, with corroboration from aides who had also defected, that on Saddam Hussein’s orders his son-in-law had destroyed all of Iraq’s WMDs years earlier, right after the Gulf War. If Miller and Gordon cite some of the debrief, why not all?

This brings us to the now popular scapegoat for the fictions about WMDs, touted by Times editors, by other reporters and by US intelligence agencies. It was all the fault of the smooth-tongued Ahmed Chalabi, now fallen from grace and stigmatized as a cat’s-paw of Iranian intelligence. But was there ever a moment when Chalabi’s motives and the defectors he efficiently mass-produced should not have been questioned by experienced reporters, editors and intelligence analysts? Furthermore, it wasn’t all Chalabi’s doing. We have yet to see an apology from The New Yorker for publishing Jeffrey Goldberg’s carefully wrought fantasies about the supposed links between Saddam and Al Qaeda. These were among the most effective pieces of propaganda, widely flourished by the Bush Administration. Chalabi had nothing to do with that, nor with most of the “slam dunk” case on WMDs invoked by CIA Director Tenet and dutifully parroted in the press.

Oh, there’s plenty more apologizing for the Times to do I’m still waiting for NY Attorney General Elliott Spitz to charge the NYT with self-dealing, in Germs, coauthored by Miller and two other Times reporters, while simultaneously hyping in the paper germ stories written by Miller, including the mysterious envelope of white powder that put her in the headlines, then the book at number one in the bestseller list.

The larger record is awful too, but if the Times ever gets into retrospective contrition, it should not forget its part in trying to destroy Gary Webb for his 1996 series in the San Jose Mercury News on the CIA, the contras and cocaine smuggling, a saga in which his reporting was ultimately vindicated. The Times never returned to the scene of that crime to pin a regrets note on the corpse. It even refused to print Webb’s letter correcting shameful distortions of his career by Iver Peterson. You can find a detailed account of this appalling saga in our book Whiteout, The CIA, Drugs and the Press, written by Jeffrey St Clair and myself, available through this website.

You can also get a detailed account of the selling of the war on Iraq, the Judy Miller saga and the role of the intelligence agencies in our latest book Imperial Crusades, Iraq, Afghanistan Yugoslavia. It’s a detailed chronicle of these imperial wars and how the press lied. Order these thrilling, deeply researched books now!

 

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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