The New York Times offered a sharp editorial Tuesday critiquing the indisputable role of the White House in distorting the intelligence on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, and in stampeding Congressional and public opinion by spinning worst-case scenarios -- "inflating them drastically" -- to justify an immediate invasion last March to repel an alleged imminent threat to the United States. Indeed, the logical implication of the editorial might well have been to charge senior officials -- in particular the vice president -- with an impeachable offense.
However, strangely missing from the paper of record was any indictment of the national press, starting with the Times, for its obvious role in gravely misleading the institutions of government and the public when hyping the WMD threat.
Times reporters and editors bear a heavy responsibility, as far back as September 2002, for having raised the nuclear specter that could materialize in the form of a "mushroom cloud." National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney took some of their talk-show lines on the nuclear danger from the Times article of Sept. 8, 2002 by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon, "US Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts."
Moreover, over the years, the Times had frequently reported that the threat from Iraq's biological and chemical weapons programs was real and ominous. Defectors and exile groups, such as the Iraqi National Congress led by Ahmad Chalabi, were prime sources for the Times.
Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler recently reminded us that the press is about the only way to find out more than what the government chooses to tell us ("Not Everyone Was Wrong," Feb. 14). Therefore, it is disingenuous of the Times to now place the burden of blame for bad intelligence at the feet of the intelligence community, as the Bush administration is doing, or even to hold solely responsible the senior policymakers for misuse of same. It seems fair to ask: who hoodwinked whom in the process of what Sen. Bob Graham has called "incestuous amplification?"
Alas, columnists of the Times have adopted the practice of looking the other way, when it comes to the paper's own culpability. In Maureen Dowd's "The Thief of Baghdad" (Feb. 15), she of the rapier pen put forward the proposition that the government-financed Iraqi National Congress (INC), with access to the vice president's office, had duped the administration neo-cons and that bogus stories by exiles and defectors "ricocheted through an echo chamber of government and media."
But just who used whom, and how? It is closer to the truth to point out that, together, the neo-cons in the Pentagon and the vice president's office, and the INC, suckered parts of the government and pliable major news outlets--including the Times. The "political set" at the top knew what they were doing and, aided and abetted by the INC, they manipulated "the intelligence and journalistic sets" -- to use Dowd's terms.
As for the new ombudsman at the Times, the beleaguered Daniel Okrent: Why is he not addressing complaints about the Times' reporting last year on Iraqi WMD? In his most recent column on Sunday, Okrent announced what he had frankly told me at the beginning of his tenure: "I determined early on that looking into articles published before I started in the job on Dec. 1 would make me disappear into an endless tunnel."
Or take recent Times news articles, by two very able reporters, on the role of defectors and exile groups in fooling U.S. intelligence agencies about the alleged presence of WMD in Iraq (James Risen, "Data From Iraqi Exiles Under Scrutiny," Feb. 12; Douglas Jehl, "Stung by Exiles' Role, C.I.A. Orders a Shift in Procedures," Feb. 13).
Risen: "Since occupation of Iraq, many officials in the American intelligence community have said that much of the information provided to Washington by the INC before the war was suspect, and some have questioned whether the group provided disinformation to the United States." Quoting a State Department official, Risen reported that the exile group seemed more interested in providing information to the press than to the department: "Generally, they were going right to the media with their stuff."
Jehl: "American intelligence officials who before the war were sifting through claims that Iraq had illicit weapons were generally not told that much of the information came from defectors linked to exile organizations that were promoting an American invasion." Note: "The defectors' claims were included in both the National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002" and the February 2003 presentation to the UN Security Council by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Missing from these stories was any specific acknowledgment of the Times' extraordinary reliance upon the very same sources! Like the White House, their reporting would seem to place the blame solely on the intelligence community. But surely, Judith Miller and other Times reporters knew, even if CIA analysts did not know the origin of suspect information, that it was provided by exile organizations promoting an American invasion of Iraq.
Incredibly, nevertheless, Miller places the onus on U.S. intelligence for the gross discrepancies between what she reported on Iraqi WMD before the war, and the largely blank sheet of the Iraqi Survey Group submitted by David Kay: "The fact that the United States so far hasn't found WMD in Iraq is deeply disturbing," she told Michael Massing in his article "Now They Tell Us," in the New York Review of Books (Feb. 26). "It raises real questions about how good our intelligence was. To beat up on the messenger is to miss the point." This from a messenger who, in 2002-2003, persisted in publishing shaky and deceptive information that abetted the designs of her high-level administration and INC sources.
But 11 months after the war began, there have been no editors' notes or corrections that single out the "bum-steer" reports on weapons of mass destruction written mostly by star WMD correspondent Miller, say, between September 2002 and September 2003. Frequently, front-page exclusives were based on INC source information proffered by U.S. government "officials," or funneled by defectors and the exile group to the Times directly.
No wonder that it was often impossible to know where the Times left off and the government began, or vice versa, in one "news" report after another on WMD in Iraq. Miller recently said on a radio program: "My job was to tell readers of the NYT ... what people inside the government who had very high security clearances, who were not supposed to talk to me, were saying to one another about what they thought Iraq had and did not have" in WMD.
Miller argued on the same show, in effect, that she bears no responsibility for having fed faulty information to the public because other Times reporters cleaned up after her, presumably creating some sort of peculiar balance between a truth and an untruth in the paper's pages. In the same interview she referred to "a constant, collective effort, and to just look at my work, and say, well, she wrote this and then she didn't get back to it, that doesn't mean the paper didn't."
By reporting as news the views of defectors, wherever they came from, the Times as the "paper of record" gave them a certain legitimacy in the march to war and the immediate aftermath of the invasion. It remains incumbent upon the Times as an institution to explicitly acknowledge the factual undermining of their claims made in its pages concerning momentous events. The failure to follow up strongly suggests a lack of interest in correcting reports that were later contradicted by the evidence.
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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