It is a bright winter morning and I am sipping my first coffee of the day in Los Angeles. My eye moves like a radar beam over the front page of the Los Angeles Times for the word that dominates the minds of all Middle East correspondents: Iraq. In post-invasion, post-Judith Miller mode, the U.S. press is supposed to be challenging the lies of this war. So the story beneath the headline “In a Battle of Wits, Iraq’s Insurgency Mastermind Stays a Step Ahead of U.S.” deserves to be read. Or does it?
Datelined Washington — an odd city in which to learn about Iraq — its opening paragraph reads: “Despite the recent arrest of one of his would-be suicide bombers in Jordan and some top aides in Iraq, insurgency mastermind Abu Musab Zarqawi has eluded capture, U.S. authorities say, because his network has a much better intelligence-gathering operation than they do.”
Now quite apart from the fact that many Iraqis — along with myself — have grave doubts about whether Zarqawi exists, and that al-Qaida’s Zarqawi, if he does exist, does not merit the title of “insurgency mastermind,” the words that caught my eye were “U.S. authorities say.” And as I read through the report, I note how the Times sources this extraordinary tale. I thought U.S. reporters no longer trusted the U.S. administration, not after the mythical WMD and the equally mythical connections between Saddam and the international crimes against humanity of 9/11. Of course, I was wrong.
Here are the sources — on pages 1 and 10 for the yarn spun by reporters Josh Meyer and Mark Mazzetti: “U.S. officials said,” “said one U.S. Justice Department counter-terrorism official,” “Officials … said,” “those officials said,” “the officials confirmed,” “American officials complained,” “the U.S. officials stressed,” “U.S. authorities believe,” “said one senior U.S. intelligence official,” “U.S. officials said,” “Jordanian officials … said” — here, at least is some light relief — “several U.S. officials said,” “the U.S. officials said,” “American officials said,” “officials say,” “say U.S. officials,” “U.S. officials said,” “one U.S. counter-terrorism official said.”
I do truly treasure this story. It proves my point that the Los Angeles Times — along with the big East Coast dailies — should all be called U.S. OFFICIALS SAY. But it’s not just this fawning on political power that makes me despair. Let’s move to a more recent example of what I can only call institutionalized racism in U.S. reporting of Iraq. I have to thank reader Andrew Gorman for this gem, a January Associated Press report about the killing of an Iraqi prisoner under interrogation by U.S. Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer Jr.
Welshofer, it was reported in court, had stuffed Iraqi Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush headfirst into a sleeping bag and sat on his chest, an action that — not surprising — caused the general to expire. The military jury ordered a reprimand for Welshofer, a forfeiture of $6,000 of his salary and confinement to barracks for 60 days. But what caught my eye was the sympathetic detail.
Welshofer’s wife’s Barbara, the AP told us, “testified that she was worried about providing for their three children if her husband was sentenced to prison. ” ‘I love him more for fighting this,’ she said, tears welling up in her eyes. ‘He’s always said that you need to do the right thing, and sometimes the right thing is the hardest thing to do.’ ”
But the real scandal about these reports is we’re not told anything about the general’s family. Didn’t he have a wife? I imagine the tears were “welling up in her eyes” when she was told her husband had been done to death. Didn’t the general have children? Or parents? Or any loved ones who “fought back tears” when told of this vile deed? Not in the AP report he didn’t. Mowhoush comes across as an object, a dehumanized creature that wouldn’t let the Americans “break the back” of the insurgency after being stuffed headfirst into a sleeping bag.
Now let’s praise the AP. On an equally bright summer’s morning in Australia a few days ago, I open the Sydney Morning Herald. It tells me, on page 6, that the news agency, using the Freedom of Information Act, has forced U.S. authorities to turn over 5,000 pages of transcripts of hearings at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. One of them records the trial of since-released British prisoner Feroz Abbasi, in which Abbasi vainly pleads with his judge, a U.S. air force colonel, to reveal the evidence against him, something he says he has a right to hear under international law.
And here is what the U.S. colonel replied: “Mr. Abbasi, your conduct is unacceptable and this is your absolute final warning. I do not care about international law. I do not want to hear the words international law. We are not concerned about international law.”
Alas, those words — which symbolize the very end of the American dream — are buried in the story.
I am now in Wellington, New Zealand, watching on CNN Saddam Hussein’s attack on the Baghdad court trying him. And suddenly, the ghastly Saddam disappears from my screen. The hearing will now proceed in secret, turning this drumhead court into even more of a farce. It is a disgrace. And what does CNN respectfully tell us? That the judge has “suspended media coverage.” If only, I say to myself, CNN — along with the U.S. press — would do the same.
ROBERT FISK is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s collection, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. Fisk’s new book is The Conquest of the Middle East.