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NYT on Iraq and Russia: Newspaper of Record or Journalistic Home to Intelligence Sources and Warmakers

Howard Friel

On May 17 of this year, PBS Frontline broadcast a program titled, “The Secret History of Isis,” which it described as “the inside story of the radicals who became the leaders of ISIS.” 

As a companion piece, Frontline also posted an interview with former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell about his speech on February 5, 2003, to the United Nations, where he presented the Bush administration’s most authoritative case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.  

Frontline titled the interview, “Colin Powell: U.N. Speech ‘Was a Great Intelligence Failure,’” and introduced the Q&A as follows:

Colin Powell has called his 2003 speech to the United Nations, laying out the Bush administration’s rationale for war in Iraq, a “blot” on his record. The speech set out to detail Iraq’s weapons program, but as the intelligence would later confirm, that program was nonexistent.

More than 13 years later, the speech continues to haunt the administration — not just for what it got wrong, but for the unintended consequences it may have set in motion.

In one section, for example, Powell mentioned the name Abu Musab al-Zarqawi 21 times. The aim was to establish Zarqawi as the link between Al Qaeda and Iraq. The problem, according to former members of the intelligence community, is that although Zarqawi once travelled to Afghanistan hoping to meet Osama bin Laden, he was considered a poor recruit for Al Qaeda.

Powell’s U.N. speech helped elevate Zarqawi’s status, and within months, he was rapidly gaining followers in Iraq, fomenting sectarian warfare and laying the groundwork for the organization that would become ISIS.

On February 6, 2003, the day after Powell’s speech, the lead editorial of the New York Times, titled “The Case against Iraq,” promoted Powell’s claims about Iraqi WMD as definitive, as follows:

Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the United Nations and a global television audience yesterday with the most powerful case to date that Saddam Hussein stands in defiance of Security Council resolutions and has no intention of revealing or surrendering whatever unconventional weapons he may have. In doing so, with the help of spy satellite photos and communications intercepts, Mr. Powell placed squarely before the Security Council the fateful question of how it should respond.

About the “evidence” presented by Powell, the editorial also stated: 

Mr. Powell's most convincing evidence was of efforts by Iraq to shield chemical or biological weapons programs from United Nations inspectors. The intercepted conversations of Republican Guard officers that he played, in which they urgently seek to hide equipment or to destroy communications in advance of inspections, offered stark evidence that Mr. Hussein has not only failed to cooperate with the inspectors, as Resolution 1441 requires him to, but has actively sought to thwart them.

The Times editorial page had no facts in its possession to support Powell’s claims, and apparently made no attempt to substantiate those claims. At the same time, given the front-to-back factual unverifiability of Powell’s speech, the only options were to accept Powell’s intelligence-sourced factual assertions at face value or to withhold support of his essentially unconfirmable brief to the UN. 

The Times editorial team chose not only to accept Powell’s assertions, but it trumpeted them with dramatic flair, with disastrous consequences, featuring the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the formation of ISIS. 

Nearly fourteen years later, as if no calamitous partnership between opaque intelligence reports and journalistic subservience had ever occurred, the ritual was repeated yesterday. This time, by the Obama administration, with its publicly issued report on Russian hacking titled, “Grizzly Steppe – Russian Malicious Cyber Activity,” and by the New York Times, which accepted the unconfirmable claims from the report at face value.

Thus, on December 29, under the headlines “Obama Punishes Russia for Hacking” and “Obama Strikes Back at Russia for Election Hacking,” the Times’ David Sanger, a lead reporter at the Times on Iraqi WMD and the lead writer today on Russian hacking, wrote: “President Obama struck back at Russia on Thursday for its efforts to influence the 2016 election, ejecting 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives from the United States and imposing sanctions on Russia’s two leading intelligence services.”

Like the Bush administration’s claims of Iraqi WMD, the charges that Russia “hacked” the presidential election in November have not been established beyond secret intelligence sources, which have been treated and printed by the New York Times as impeccable.     

Although the “Grizzly Steppe” document is as impervious to public scrutiny as Powell’s UN speech, today’s response from the Times editorial page, titled “President Obama Punishes Russia, at Last,” likewise supports the unconfirmed charges of Russian hacking: 

While it is definitely too late, and may also be too little, there should be no doubt about the correctness of President Obama’s decision to retaliate against Russia for hacking American computers and trying to influence the 2016 presidential election. It would have been irresponsible for him to leave office next month and allow President Vladimir Putin to think that he could with impunity try to undermine American democracy.

Just as the Times editorial page in February 2003 had no basis for concluding that Colin Powell’s presentation at the UN was “the most powerful case to date” that Iraq possessed WMD, the Timestoday has no confirmable basis for concluding that “there should be no doubt” that Russia hacked the presidential election last month or that President Obama has any basis for “punishing Russia,” which in any event is unprofessional and jingoistic journalistic usage from the leading newspaper in the United States. 

Yet, it reflects the warlike tone and tenor of the liberal political and journalistic establishments, led by the New York Times, which seems determined to drive us over the cliff once again toward war. 

The Times’s coverage of Iraq, which agitated for an invasion, contributed to the creation of ISIS. It’s atrocious coverage today of Russia could, quite possibly, lead to nuclear war without cooler heads prevailing.  

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