Vivek — NYT admits bad journalism

Topic(s): Internal Affairs | Comments Off on Vivek — NYT admits bad journalism

compliments of Shobak
May 26, 2004
The Times and Iraq
Over the last year this newspaper has shone the bright light of
hindsight on decisions that led the United States into Iraq. We have
examined the failings of American and allied intelligence, especially on
the issue of Iraq’s weapons and possible Iraqi connections to
international terrorists. We have studied the allegations of official
gullibility and hype. It is past time we turned the same light on ourselves.
In doing so — reviewing hundreds of articles written during the prelude
to war and into the early stages of the occupation — we found an
enormous amount of journalism that we are proud of. In most cases, what
we reported was an accurate reflection of the state of our knowledge at
the time, much of it painstakingly extracted from intelligence agencies
that were themselves dependent on sketchy information. And where those
articles included incomplete information or pointed in a wrong
direction, they were later overtaken by more and stronger information.
That is how news coverage normally unfolds.
But we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as
rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was
controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently
qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had
been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged
— or failed to emerge.
The problematic articles varied in authorship and subject matter, but
many shared a common feature. They depended at least in part on
information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent
on “regime change” in Iraq, people whose credibility has come under
increasing public debate in recent weeks. (The most prominent of the
anti-Saddam campaigners, Ahmad Chalabi, has been named as an occasional
source in Times articles since at least 1991, and has introduced
reporters to other exiles. He became a favorite of hard-liners within
the Bush administration and a paid broker of information from Iraqi
exiles, until his payments were cut off last week.) Complicating matters
for journalists, the accounts of these exiles were often eagerly
confirmed by United States officials convinced of the need to intervene
in Iraq. Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes
fell for misinformation from these exile sources. So did many news
organizations — in particular, this one.
Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on
individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the
problem was more complicated. Editors at several levels who should have
been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps
too intent on rushing scoops into the paper. Accounts of Iraqi defectors
were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam
Hussein ousted. Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get
prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original
ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no
follow-up at all.
On Oct. 26 and Nov. 8, 2001, for example, Page 1 articles cited Iraqi
defectors who described a secret Iraqi camp where Islamic terrorists
were trained and biological weapons produced. These accounts have never
been independently verified.
On Dec. 20, 2001, another front-page article began, “An Iraqi defector
who described himself as a civil engineer said he personally worked on
renovations of secret facilities for biological, chemical and nuclear
weapons in underground wells, private villas and under the Saddam
Hussein Hospital in Baghdad as recently as a year ago.” Knight Ridder
Newspapers reported last week that American officials took that defector
— his name is Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri — to Iraq earlier this year
to point out the sites where he claimed to have worked, and that the
officials failed to find evidence of their use for weapons programs. It
is still possible that chemical or biological weapons will be unearthed
in Iraq, but in this case it looks as if we, along with the
administration, were taken in. And until now we have not reported that
to our readers.
On Sept. 8, 2002, the lead article of the paper was headlined “U.S. Says
Hussein Intensified Quest for A-Bomb Parts.” That report concerned the
aluminum tubes that the administration advertised insistently as
components for the manufacture of nuclear weapons fuel. The claim came
not from defectors but from the best American intelligence sources
available at the time. Still, it should have been presented more
cautiously. There were hints that the usefulness of the tubes in making
nuclear fuel was not a sure thing, but the hints were buried deep, 1,700
words into a 3,600-word article. Administration officials were allowed
to hold forth at length on why this evidence of Iraq’s nuclear
intentions demanded that Saddam Hussein be dislodged from power: “The
first sign of a `smoking gun,’ they argue, may be a mushroom cloud.”
Five days later, The Times reporters learned that the tubes were in fact
a subject of debate among intelligence agencies. The misgivings appeared
deep in an article on Page A13, under a headline that gave no inkling
that we were revising our earlier view (“White House Lists Iraq Steps to
Build Banned Weapons”). The Times gave voice to skeptics of the tubes on
Jan. 9, when the key piece of evidence was challenged by the
International Atomic Energy Agency. That challenge was reported on Page
A10; it might well have belonged on Page A1.
On April 21, 2003, as American weapons-hunters followed American troops
into Iraq, another front-page article declared, “Illicit Arms Kept Till
Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert.” It began this way: “A
scientist who claims to have worked in Iraq’s chemical weapons program
for more than a decade has told an American military team that Iraq
destroyed chemical weapons and biological warfare equipment only days
before the war began, members of the team said.”
The informant also claimed that Iraq had sent unconventional weapons to
Syria and had been cooperating with Al Qaeda — two claims that were
then, and remain, highly controversial. But the tone of the article
suggested that this Iraqi “scientist” — who in a later article
described himself as an official of military intelligence — had
provided the justification the Americans had been seeking for the invasion.
The Times never followed up on the veracity of this source or the
attempts to verify his claims.
A sample of the coverage, including the articles mentioned here, is
online at nytimes.com/critique .
Readers will also find there a detailed discussion written for The New
York Review of Books last month by Michael Gordon, military affairs
correspondent of The Times, about the aluminum tubes report. Responding
to the review’s critique of Iraq coverage, his statement could serve as
a primer on the complexities of such intelligence reporting.
We consider the story of Iraq’s weapons, and of the pattern of
misinformation, to be unfinished business. And we fully intend to
continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight.