William Safire, New York Times columnist, doesn't know what he's talking (or
writing) about. Who says? The New York Times.
Underneath the headline, "Found: A Smoking Gun," Safire on February 11 wrote
a column that maintained a "clear link" existed between Saddam Hussein and
Osama bin Laden. A from-the-start supporter of the war in Iraq, Safire was
declaring that one of Bush's main rationales for the invasion--a supposed
operational relationship between al Qaeda and Hussein's regime--was solid. In doing so,
he was taking on all those who have challenged or questioned this Bush
claim--a long list that even includes the Republican and Democratic leaders of the
House intelligence committee who last September concluded that the prewar
intelligence did not contain information to support the charge that Hussein had been
in league with bin Laden.
What did Safire base his case-closed pronouncement upon? A New York Times
story that had appeared a day earlier. Written by reporter Dexter Filkins (in
Baghdad) and also based on reporting done by Douglas Jehl (in Washington), the
front-pager revealed that the Kurds had intercepted a courier for Ansar
al-Islam, a fundamentalist terrorist group that had been based in northern Iraq. The
messenger, Hassan Ghul, had on him a CD-ROM that contained a 17-page document
that appeared to be a letter from the head of Ansar al-Islam, Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi, to al Qaeda requesting assistance. Ansar al-Islam wanted to start an
Iraqi civil war by attacking Shi'ite Muslims, and Zarqawi was hoping al Qaeda
would help him.
A-ha, exclaimed Safire, here was the proof that Safire himself was correct
when he wrote on September 24, 2001--"not two weeks after 9/11"-- that Hussein
was linked to al Qaeda through Ansar al-Islam. And he praised the work of the
reporters involved. But Safire was molding facts more than he was marshaling
The actual New York Times story Safire relied upon said that the letter was
not evidence of a link between al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam. Filkins' dispatch
noted that if the document was authentic, it would "constitute the strongest
evidence to date of contacts between extremists in Iraq and al Qaeda. But it
does not speak to the debate about whether there was a Qaeda presence in Iraq
during the Saddam Hussein era, nor is there any mention [in the request for help]
of a collaboration with Hussein loyalists."
Safire ignored this important qualifier. In his column, he referred to Ansar
al-Islam as an "Qaeda affiliate" and approvingly quoted George W. Bush
describing Zarqawi before the war as an "al Qaeda leader." But Safire did not mention
that when CIA chief George Tenet testified before the Senate intelligence
committee in February 2003, Tenet said that while the CIA believed Ansar al-Islam
had received funding from al Qaeda, Zarqawi considered himself and his
network "quite independent" of al Qaeda. Receiving money from al Qaeda might qualify
Ansar al-Islam as an "affiliate," but according to Tenet's testimony Zarqawi
was no "al Qaeda leader."
In his column, Safire was making a triple-play argument--from bin Laden to
Zarqawi to Hussein--to claim that there had been an al Qaeda-Iraq partnership.
And he pointed to a remark that Secretary of State Colin Powell made during his
February 5, 2003, presentation to the U.N. Security Council: "Iraq today
harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate
and collaborator of Osama bin Laden." But Powell and the Bush administration has
not been able to show that Hussein was firmly linked to Ansar al-Islam. After
all, the group operated in the northern territory, where Baghdad had limited
control. Moreover, in January, when Powell was asked whether there was
evidence linking Hussein and al Qaeda, he replied, "There is not--you know, I have
not seen smoking-gun concrete evidence about the connection, but I t we did." In
other words, the administration had nothing to prove there was an al
Qaeda-Iraq alliance (with or without Ansar al-Islam in between). For some reason,
Safire did not share this information with his readers.
So Safire ignored what his paper's own reporters reported, and he juggled a
highly selective set of factoids to make a rather serious charge: Ansar
al-Islam equals al Qaeda. He also ridiculed as "simply silly" the notion that strong
evidence was necessary to make this case, deriding those skeptics who would
demand that "the Ansar boss in Iraq must be found carrying an official Qaeda
membership card signed by bin Laden."
But the last laugh (of derision) was on Safire. According to whom? The New
York Times. Ten days after Safire's "smoking-gun" column, a page-one story by
Douglas Jehl (the same Jehl whom Safire had hailed), reported that Ansar
al-Islam "appears to be operating mostly apart from Al Qaeda, senior American
officials say." Whoops.
Jehl's report continued: "Most significantly, the officials said, American
intelligence had picked up signs that Qaeda members outside Iraq had refused a
request from the group, Ansar al-Islam, for help in attacking Shi'ite Muslims
in Iraq." Double whoops.
It seems that Zarqawi had asked for help, and bin Laden had said no. Is this
how inseparable comrades-in-terrorism operate? Jehl's sources noted that al
Qaeda's rebuff was "an indication of a significant divide between the groups."
Now, as Jehl's sources said, it would be a mistake to consider al Qaeda's
refusal to provide assistance as definitive evidence that the two outfits were at
odds and unable to hook up in the future. "But, officials said, there are
growing indications," Jehl wrote, "that the two groups are distinct and
independent, and are embracing different tactics and agendas."
Now what had Safire said about that smoking gun request for help?
Safire--perhaps following the lead of his commander-in-chief--had too eagerly overstated
evidence. He had cited a postwar request for aid as a no-doubt-about-it
evidence of a prewar alliance. That was a clumsy sleight-of-hand. And then it turned
out that this request was not even proof of a current relationship between
these two bands of terrorists.
This was not a first for Safire. He has often hyperbolically exclaimed, "case
closed," in discussing the supposed al Qaeda-Iraq connection, frequently
pointing to the so-called Prague connection. In a November 25 column, he again
noted that after the 9/11 attacks Czech intelligence had reported that 9/11
mastermind Mohamed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague
several months before the assault. But the CIA and the FBI had long ago concluded
this Czech report was probably untrue--a development reported more than once in
the pages of--you've guessed it-- The New York Times. Still, Safire insisted
the Atta-in-Prague story was worthy of further investigation.
Two weeks later, though, a major newspaper--yes, it was The New York Times --reported that Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, the Iraqi intelligence officer
alleged to have met with Atta, told American interrogators (after he had been
nabbed by U.S. forces in July) that the meeting with Atta never happened. The
newspaper also disclosed that captured senior operatives of al Qaeda had
denied any alliance between al Qaeda and Hussein. Quoting a classified
intelligence report, the Times said that Abu Zubaydah, one of the most senior al Qaeda
leaders held by the United States, told the CIA that several al Qaeda operatives
had considered exploiting Hussein's antipathy toward the United States to
obtain military equipment from Iraq. But, Zubaydah added, bin Laden vetoed the
idea of working with the corrupt and irreligious Hussein. Safire did not praise
this particular Times piece.
As the Atta-in-Prague story currently stands, it sure looks like Safire was
wrong. That is, if you believe The New York Times. And in a recent piece in
Salon, Barry Lando, a former producer for "60 Minutes," demolished a series of
columns in which Safire accused several French companies of helping Iraq obtain
rocket fuel components.
Safire ended his February 11, 2004, piece with a most disingenuous assertion.
He noted that there were three reasons for the Iraq war: stopping mass
murder; Hussein's ties to terrorism; and the "reasoned judgment that Saddam had a
bioweapon that could wipe out a city." As for the first, there was no mass
murder occurring at the time of the invasion. In a January 2004 report, Human
Rights Watch noted that Hussein's mass killings had mainly occurred in 1988, during
an anti-Kurd genocide, and in 1991, when Hussein suppressed the post-Gulf War
uprisings that President George H.W. Bush had encouraged but not supported.
"Brutal as Saddam Hussein's reign had been," the report noted, "the scope of
the Iraqi governments killing in March 2003 was not of the exceptional and dire
magnitude that would justify humanitarian intervention..[B]y the time of the
March 2003 invasion, Saddam Hussein's killing had ebbed." So Bush's invasion
had not stopped any genocidal massacres.
As for Hussein's bioweapons, Safire wrote, "in time we are likely to find a
buried suitcase containing that, too." (Too? What else has been found? No
weapons of mass destruction so far.) Yet in a February 5 speech, Tenet said that
while the CIA had concluded before the war that Iraq had a bioweapons
development program, "we said we had no specific information on the types or quantities
of weapons, agent, or stockpiles at Baghdad's disposal." Does Safire know
something that Tenet doesn't?
If a newspaper columnist writes articles that defy the reality reported by
the paper's own correspondents, how should the paper's editors and publisher
respond? Should they question the columnist's judgment and powers of evaluation?
Should they print corrections? Columnists are certainly entitled to their
views. They are free to speculate and suppose. They can draw--or
suggest--connections that go beyond just-the-facts reporting. But Safire's recent
work--unburdened by factchecking, unchallenged by editors--shows he is more intent on
manipulating than interpreting the available information. His February 11
masterpiece is evidence his commitment to scoring political points exceeds his
commitment to the truth. Under the cover of opinion journalism, he is dishing out
disinformation. How is that of service to the readers of The New York Times?
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