One year after the Iraq war began, Knight Ridder last week exposed a three-sided echo chamber -- including the press -- that magnified the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threat for public consumption from 2001 forward. It may not be possible for news outlets to ignore the implications of the investigative report by Jonathan Landay and Tish Wells on March 16.
When The San Jose Mercury News ran the story (under the headline "Global Misinformation Campaign was Used to Build Case for War"), the paper admitted that it had "published three stories written by the New York Times based on Iraqi National Congress-provided materials." The Miami Herald and The Charlotte Observer did similar internal reviews. Some other papers are still examining their archives.
The expose has had the effect of setting off a paroxysm of re-examination within many newspapers across the country as they filter through hundreds of news stories, based in part or in whole on defector/exile tales, to try to winnow out bogus information on the alleged threat from Saddam's illicit weapons and ties to terrorist organizations. (How they go about sorting out the Administration's own embroidered exaggerations and deceptions is another matter.) Partly for that reason, some newspapers delayed running the March 16 story.
John Walcott, chief of Knight Ridder's Washington bureau, explained to E&P: "We felt that it was important to give our own institution the same kind of scrutiny we've tried to give the Bush Administration and its handling of intelligence about Iraq. We always owe that to our readers and to the people we write about but, in this case, when the media played such an important role in making the case for a pre-emptive war, we thought it was especially important."
Drawing on a June 2002 letter from the INC to the Senate Appropriations Committee, the KR investigation revealed that over 100 articles appeared in leading newspapers, news agencies and magazines based upon exaggerated or fabricated information provided by the INC. KR reviewed an INC summary of stories found in major English-language news outlets worldwide for the period, October 2001-May 2002. (The crucial gap from the summer of 2002 to today is not filled in.)
Editor & Publisher asked for reactions from editors and reporters at many of the cited major American and British news outlets. Those who responded, for the most part, asked not to be quoted.
The dean of national security correspondents in Washington, Walter Pincus of The Washington Post, described the KR piece as "essentially a press story." He had been given the INC list of public relations claims, but it was billed as showing the type of false intelligence the Chalabi group was passing to the Pentagon and the Vice President's office. Since the INC press contact list was represented to him as showing something different than what it was, he chose not to write about it.
Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times had also been given a copy. The New York Times had a copy of the relevant INC document, reported on parts of it, but failed to do a story with the focus of Knight-Ridder's.
A consensus view among reporters from several major news outlets is that the main story was the INC was using U.S. tax dollars to, at the minimum, "spin" the press. KR's revelations do not prove that the INC succeeded in planting fabricated information in the press -- even if there is reason to suspect this is what happened. What they document is that the INC claims credit for a bunch of stories.
Nevertheless, a lot of confusion in the "fog of war" could have been avoided if Ben Bradlee's exhortation of March 17 had been taken to heart by all editors and reporters long ago: "The best journalists are the best lie detectors: The reporters who instinctively are alert to the possibility that their sources don't know what they are talking about [or] are leaving out vital details that would tend to discredit their stories, or they are deliberately lying."
The INC, in the letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee from which KR drew its news outlet revelations, identified two officials, one then in the office of Vice President Cheney (John Hannah) and one in the office of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld (William Luti) to which it had fed information directly. (The names of others who served as liaisons to Chalabi and the INC will come out.) The information had bypassed established U.S. intelligence channels and reached the recipients even after the CIA and the DIA had questioned the accuracy and motives of the suppliers. Some key allegations found their way into major documents the Administration used to make the case for war.
This is where the trail becomes really interesting. If more comprehensive records can be produced to document a list of individual appointments, with meeting agendas, that Chalabi and members of his organization had with the Vice President and his staff from 2001-2003, it will become even clearer how out-of-channel intelligence made its way to the war cabinet chaired by Dick Cheney. It can be presumed that they were not discussing the search for missing Iraqi antiquities.
Another question suggests itself: Was the NSC staff, namely Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, in fact out of the loop and unaware of the raw, unvetted intelligence from defectors that was flowing to Cheney's office? Rice continues to point the finger of blame at George Tenet and the CIA as the main source for "the facts as we understood them" from intelligence analysis at the time. What a devastating revelation it would be if Rice was forced to admit that she was in on the stovepipe intelligence conduit. Then the rogue elephant in the West Wing -- the INC -- would be outed.
Independent of the CIA, it seems that President Bush, like the press, received a lot of poor intelligence that went into his head and his speeches. In essence, an exile intelligence unit penetrated the White House, spreading disinformation as an alien agent.
William E. Jackson Jr. was executive director of President Jimmy Carter's General Advisory Committee on Arms Control, 1978-80. After affiliations with the Brookings Institution and the Fulbright Institute of International Relations, he writes on national security issues from Davidson, N.C.
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