The Washington Post recently printed an interesting article (“Military Plays Up Role of Zarqawi”, 4/10/06) that has gone substantially unnoticed by the remainder of the American corporate media. The first sentence gives the gist of the story: “The U.S. military is conducting a propaganda campaign to magnify the role of the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to internal military documents and officers familiar with the program.”
You may recall that a little over two years ago (February 9, 2004), a story appeared on the front page of the New York Times about a letter supposedly from Abu Musab al Zarqawi to al-Qaeda leaders lamenting the slow progress of the insurgency in Iraq, and announcing plans to foment civil war between Iraq’s Shia and Sunni. The story was the result of an exclusive to Times reporter Dexter Filkins by unnamed senior American officials.
At that time, I wrote a short essay that appeared on the CounterPunch website questioning the veracity of the story. It didn’t pass the smell test for a number of reasons. One was that it was just too pat a reflection of the administration’s line on the insurgency. The Bushies were burning up the airways insisting that the insurgents were terrorist infiltrators from other lands, not democracy loving Iraqis. Zarqawi’s supposed letter sounded more like the script of a play written by Karl Rove.
A second cause for skepticism was the letter’s contention that the insurgency was being smothered by the American occupation – “By God, this is suffocation!” Zarqawi was supposed to have opined. We needn’t belabor the absurdity of that one.
Finally, and most tellingly, the whole thing reeked of the Judy Miller model of journalism. The letter was provided directly to the Times by government officials. There was no attempt to verify its authenticity or provide any context by consulting other sources. And none of the bevy of senior government officials cited by the Times was willing to vouch for the authenticity of the letter by actually providing his or her name. In exactly the same way did Miller’s infamous (and bogus) story about the aluminum tubes that were going to be used by the Iraqis to enrich uranium appear on the Times front page. There was too much of the Judy Miller technique in the publishing of this story to take it seriously.
So it was with great interest that I read these lines in the Washington Post piece: “One slide in the same briefing . . . noted that a ‘selective leak’ about Zarqawi was made to Dexter Filkins, a New York Times reporter based in Baghdad.
Filkins’s resulting article, about a letter supposedly written by Zarqawi . . . ran on the Times front page on Feb. 9, 2004.”
Reached by e-mail by the author of the Post story, Filkins “said that he was not told at the time that there was a psychological operations campaign aimed at Zarqawi.” He went on to say that “he was skeptical about the document’s authenticity then, and remains so now, and so at the time tried to confirm its authenticity with officials outside the U.S. military.” It is hard to regard this comment as anything other than a blatant lie.
To make an elementary initial point, let me ask the obvious question. If he was skeptical of the authenticity of the letter, why did he go with the story? Why did his editors go with the story?
Nothing of this skepticism appears in the story itself. There are no references to any sources other than U.S. government officials, even though there is no shortage of experts familiar with Zarqawi’s career. At no point does Filkins say that he is skeptical about the authenticity of the letter.
I quote from my CounterPunch article of February 26:
“Note the lack of any confirmation of the authenticity of this letter/CD from experts or authorities aside from ‘U.S. officials.’ Note the failure to consult third-party intelligence experts, authorities on Al Qaeda, authorities on wars of national liberation. Note the failure to provide any background on the validity of claims that Zarkawi actually could have written such a letter, is still in Iraq, or collaborated with Saddam Hussein. There is one disclaimer, two lines in a three-page piece: ‘Yet other interpretations may be possible, including that it was written by some other insurgent, but one who exaggerated his involvement.’ . . . In a follow-up story (‘Al Qaeda rebuffs Iraqi Terror Group,’ 02/21/04) the administration’s version of the facts is entirely unquestioned.”
There is nothing surprising about finding out that, once more, the Bush administration played fast and loose with the truth as it pertains to matters Iraqi. After all, as the Zarqawi gambit is being exposed, we are also finding out that Bush prattled on about mobile weapons labs for more than a year after a secret CIA report dismissed the vehicles in question as the biggest sand toilets in the world.
It is just as important to note, however, that these feats of mendacity could not have been achieved without the willing, if not eager, complicity of the American establishment media. Eventually, the Times was criticized pretty severely in the pages of Editor and Publisher, and The Columbia Journalism Review for its slipshod journalistic practices. In his mea sorta culpa in May, 2004, the Times public editor, Daniel Okrent, put his finger on the essence of the problem:
“There is nothing more toxic to responsible journalism than an anonymous source . . . a newspaper has an obligation to convince readers why it believes the sources it does not identify are telling the truth. That automatic editor defense, ‘We’re not confirming what he says, we’re just reporting it,’ may apply to the statements of people speaking on the record. For anonymous sources, it’s worse than no defense. It’s a license granted to liars.”
In this context, it is relevant to note that the Times has yet to own up to its role in helping the liars in the Bush Administration to pull off the Zarqawi gambit.
GREG WEIHER is a political scientist and freelance writer living in Houston, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.