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Engineering consent: The New York Times' role in promoting war on Iraq

By Antony Loewenstein

March 23, 2004 "Sydney Morning Herald"

This is the first 'Engineering consent' column by Antony Loewenstein, to focus on the inside workings of big media.

“One of the most entrenched and disturbing features of American journalism [is] its pack mentality. Editors and journalists don’t like to diverge too sharply from what everyone else is writing.” Michael Massing, The New York Review of Books, February 26, 2004

“In April 2003, CNN aired footage of a marine in Baghdad who is confronted with a crowd of angry Iraqis. He shouts back in frustration, “We’re here for your fucking freedom!” George Packer, The New Yorker, November 24, 2003

The one-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion is upon us and Iraq is teetering on the brink of civil war. The main rationale of the war, as frequently stated by George W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard, was Saddam’s supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their threat to the Middle East region and the world. No weapons have ever been found.

When Howard addressed the Australian people on March 20, 2003 to announce Australia’s commitment to the invasion, he frequently mentioned Iraq’s links to terrorism and possession of WMD. Not once did he mention the human rights of the Iraqi people. This war wasn’t about liberation or freedom or democracy. Not in 2003 anyway. It was about unilateral US power and a country not wanting to be left behind in the new world order of might is right politics fashioned by the Bush administration's Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz.

One year on, Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk said of the 2003 invasion:

“The impact of the cruise missiles can still be seen in the telecommunications tower across the Tigris. The Ministry of Defence still lies in ruins. Half the government ministries in Baghdad are still fire-stained, a necessary reminder of the cancer of arson that took hold of the people of this city in the first hours and days of their "liberation".

"But the symbols of the war are not the scars of last year's invasion. The real folly of our invasion can be seen in the fortresses that the occupiers are building, the ramparts of steel and concrete and armour with which the Americans have now surrounded themselves. Like Crusaders, they are building castles amid the people they came to "save", to protect themselves from those who were supposed to have greeted them with flowers.”

So how much more do we know now than one year ago? An incalculable amount. We know that Iraq had (probably) no WMD; it posed no military threat to its neighbours, and much less to America, Britain or Australia. Al-Qaeda had no relationship with Saddam’s regime, but now has an unidentifiable presence in Iraq. Jihadists and Islamic fundamentalists couldn’t have been given a more beautiful gift in their war against the West. We must question those who claim Bin Laden and his ideologues are illogical or even insane. His numerous statements before and after September 11 suggest a philosophy based on short term and long term tactical goals. He has arguably achieved many of the former. Saudi Arabia will soon no longer house American troops, as they will move to Iraq and Qatar. A clash of civilizations is occurring between those fearful of US hegemony and those keen to embrace the ethics and morality of US unilateralism. The Islamic world is torn between condemning the brutality of al-Qaeda style terrorism and embracing the sheer audacity of taking on US world spectral dominance. The Madrid bombings, and the subsequent dumping of a pro-Bush leader (and the al-Qaeda statement saying its martyrdom operations would cease until Spain’s new leader outlined his new policy towards Iraq) prove that Bin Laden has definite (achievable) aims in his war against Western “decadence” and “imperialism”.

With Iraq in the headlines daily, it is tempting to claim we are receiving the full picture of Iraq’s political and social situation. Much of the Western media, including in Australia, have started questioning the pre-war claims of Bush, Blair and Howard in relation to WMDs and the West’s increased risk of terrorism after our involvement in the invasion.

But where were these inquisitive journalists before the war? How many questions were they asking to the skeptical intelligence officers before March 2003? Were they listening to Scott Ritter, former UN weapon inspector, who’d been claiming Iraq had been “fundamentally disarmed” years before the invasion?

Richard Overy, professor of modern history at King's College, London helps clarify the real struggle against fundamentalism:

"Terrorism is the chief threat we face, and the war against terror must unite us all. This has little to do with Iraq. Attacks against the occupiers were provoked by war. Attacks in Israel are part of a different struggle for Palestinian liberation. The assault in Madrid is part of a longer confrontation between militant Islam and western cultural and economic imperialism. Lumping them all together as evidence that a war against terror is the primary object of our foreign policy is nonsense.”

There has been an explosion of mainstream media more than happy to lampoon Bush, Blair and Howard on their pre-war claims on WMD. Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, is a perfect example as he wrote in August 2003 that “Iraq may well prove to be the biggest scandal in American politics in the last hundred years”. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Sydney Morning Herald and a host of other worldwide media titles have been equally critical of the glaring absence of WMD. But there has been little examination of pre-war reporting and supporting of government claims on WMD. The media has a short-term memory problem. Self-examination is not something to be considered.

The media was the filter through which skeptical publics were slowly convinced of the need to invade Iraq. And it was the channel through which intelligence reports on Iraq’s chemical, biological and nuclear programs were amplified and exaggerated. Too many journalists in the world’s most respected publications became unquestioning messengers of their government's desired message. And Australia was far from immune.

***

The New York Times is arguably the most respected newspaper in the world. Its articles are reprinted in publications in numerous countries, including Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Judith Miller is one of the NYT's most senior journalists. A Pulitzer Prize winning writer and regarded expert on Middle East issues and WMD, Miller has written extensively on Osama Bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, Miller became a key reporter on that country’s supposedly documented WMDs. She wrote many articles relayed around the globe on the Bush administration’s doomsday reading of Saddam’s regime. She painted a terrifying picture of his arsenal with apparently sound intelligence sources to back her claims.

However, it emerged that the vast majority of her WMD claims came through Ahmed Chalabi, an indicted fraudster and one of the leading figures in the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the group keen to militarily overthrow Saddam. Miller relied on untested defectors’ testimonies (usually provided by Chalabi) to write several front-page stories on this information. Michael Massing from Columbia Journalism Review suggests her stories were “far too reliant on sources sympathetic to the (Bush) administration".

"Those with dissenting views – and there were more than a few – were shut out.”

For example, the NYT reported in 2003 on Iraq’s supposed mobile weapons labs, after an announcement by Secretary of State Colin Powell on February 5, 2003 to the UN Security Council. Sourced by Chalabi, this information was given by a defector. It soon emerged that US investigators had not interrogated this person, yet it published in TNY as fact. (Some months later, experts agreed the labs were for civilian use). It is therefore unsurprising that an increasing number of American citizens came to see the war on Iraq as a necessary step on the US’s so-called “War on Terror”.

The Washington Post confirmed on March 5, 2004 that:

“U.S. officials are trying to get access to the Iraqi engineer to verify his story ... particularly because intelligence officials have discovered that he is related to a senior official in Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, a group of Iraqi exiles who actively encouraged the United States to invade Iraq.”

And in an interview with London’s Telegraph in early February 2004, Chalabi claimed his pre-war intelligence’s accuracy was no longer relevant:

“We are heroes in error ... As far as we're concerned we've been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important. The Bush administration is looking for a scapegoat. We're ready to fall on our swords if he wants."

How much of this explosive information was plastered across the front pages of the Australian media? The major source of American intelligence on Iraq’s supposed threat claims to be “heroes in error” and our media ignores the revelation.

When Bush, Blair or Howard released dossiers of supposed proof in 2002 and 2003 of Iraq’s WMD, the newspapers dutifully reported its contents and generally accepted its findings. As with so much propaganda, when information is spoken or channeled by establishment figures, our media takes it at face value. Dissenters or questioners of government power are never given the same treatment. This is because Western media generally likes to propagate the myth that Western governments are generally benign and out to do positive in the world, with any “mistakes” being rare aberrations. Our elected officials would never commit war crimes in our name, surely? (The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh reported the battles between the Bush administration and intelligence officials in October 2003.)

An unnamed US State Department Official said in early February 2003, in relation to Chalabi’s claims in the run up to the Iraq War, that:

“What Chalabi told us we accepted in good faith. Now there is going to be a lot of question marks over his motives.”

Accepted in good faith. Trawling through the archives, I cannot find one journalist claiming that any of his or her intelligence sources were based on “good faith”. When writing about Iraq’s WMD arsenal, reporters from the major newspapers wrote with certainty and clarity. No equivocation. No hesitation.

Judith Miller, “embedded” during the war with the US Army's 75th Mobile Exploitation Team searching for Iraq’s elusive WMD, reported in The Age on April 22, 2003 that "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.”

This “scientist” source was never mentioned again, and The Age has never printed a correction to this misinformation. Indeed, the NYT has never apologised for any of Miller’s stories.

Is there not a responsibility to acknowledge that one of your senior reporters got so many of her Iraq stories wrong? Apparently newspapers hope their readers have very short memories.

In a further indication of the corruption of the reporting on Iraq’s WMD, US based news service Knight Ridder reported in March 2004:

“The former Iraqi exile group that gave the Bush administration exaggerated and fabricated intelligence on Iraq also fed much of the same information to newspapers, news agencies and magazines in the United States, Britain and Australia ... A June 26, 2002 letter from the Iraqi National Congress to the (US) Senate Appropriations Committee listed 108 articles based on information provided by the Iraqi National Congress’s information Collection Program, a US funded effort to collect intelligence in Iraq.”

How many of those 108 stories were republished in Australian newspapers, and how many of them contained misleading or outright untrue information? How many were corrected when the truthful information finally became available? And how did these false news stories contribute to the general public’s feelings about our involvement in the invasion?

***

Who is Judith Miller? According to a report in Editor and Publisher by William E. Jackson Jr., she is “not a neutral, nor an objective journalist”:

“This can be acceptable, if you're a great reporter, ‘but she ain't, and that's why she's a propagandist,’ stated one old New York Times hand...”

Regarded as a neo-conservative with a deep sympathy for the Bush administration’s agenda and a vocal supporter of Saddam’s overthrow, Miller has close links with the pro-Israeli camp, some of whom have channelled Israeli intelligence through her work. (Many groups and individuals sharing the Sharon perspective have long championed taking out Saddam and fed US intelligence and journalists information leading to the conclusion that Saddam was a grave threat to the world and the Jewish state.)

Miller’s reporting on Iraq’s WMD was constantly flawed and yet her senior editors gave her carte blanche to continue being the main conduit through these serious issues were covered in the NYTimes. Indeed, her transgressions make the Jayson Blair fiasco seem relatively minor. (Blair was a young, black Times journalist exposed as a serial liar and plagiarist. He recently wrote a book of his experiences titled 'Burning Down My Master’s House'.)

Senior editors at the NYT still claim that Miller delivered many world exclusives on Iraq’s WMD. The problem was most of them were incorrect, frequently sourced to unchecked defectors or suspect intelligence. William Jackson gives an example:

“The “Madam Smallpox” article of last Dec. 3 [2002], for example, turned out to be one of the worst cases. As Dafna Linzer of the Associated Press has written, the alleged 1990 transfer of the virus to Iraq never took place. The idea of an especially virulent strain of smallpox, to which Miller gave so much credibility, has been generally discounted in the scientific community. Talk to scientists in the field, as I have done recently, and they will tell you that Miller is inaccurate and that she doesn't really understand the processes.“embedded” during the war with the US Army's 75th Mobile Exploitation Team, searching for Iraq’s elusive WMD.

"Her smallpox article was a piece of structured propaganda from start to finish, based on a single source making allegations to the CIA. As one Times source told me: 'There were more red flags on this story than in Moscow on May Day.' In fact, the Times over time have ignored multiple warnings from senior staff (and colleagues such as Baghdad based John Burns) about Miller's reporting.”

Then in May 2003, The Washington Post discovered an internal email between Burns and Miller (The Sydney Morning Herald ran this story in brief in May). Burns was incensed that Miller was writing a piece on Chalabi and hadn’t run the information past him. Miller acknowledged that the vast majority of her sources came from Chalabi:

“I've been covering Chalabi for about 10 years, and have done most of the stories about him for our paper, including the long takeout we recently did on him. He has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper.”

While Miller was “embedded” with the US army searching for Iraq’s WMD, Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post reported on May 26, 2003:

“In an April 21 [2003] front-page story, she [Miller] reported that a leading Iraqi scientist claimed Iraq had destroyed chemical and biological weapons days before the war began, according to the Alpha team. She said the scientist had ‘pointed to several spots in the sand where he said chemical precursors and other weapons material were buried'.

“Behind that story was an interesting arrangement. Under the terms of her accreditation, Miller wrote, ‘this reporter was not permitted to interview the scientist or visit his home. Nor was she permitted to write about the discovery of the scientist for three days, and the copy was then submitted for a check by military officials. Those officials asked that details of what chemicals were uncovered be deleted.’

“Since then, no evidence has surfaced to support these claims and the Alpha team is preparing to leave Iraq without having found weapons of mass destruction.”

Again, the Times have never printed an apology or correction of this story. How many newspapers around the world republished Miller’s articles as gospel? Andrew Rosenthal, assistant managing editor for foreign news at the Times, was quoted last May as “completely comfortable” with Miller’s reporting, because “all the information was attributed to MET Alpha [Miller’s “embedded” unit], not 'senior U.S. officials' or some other vague formulation.”

Rosenthal’s reasoning makes no sense. MET Alpha Unit was searching for Iraq’s WMD on information supplied by Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. MET Alpha and the US Government are hardly separate entities, but were guided by similarly misleading information. Heroes in error, indeed. (Slate has more on the motivations of Chalabi.)

In the March 8, 2004 edition of Newsweek, reporter Christopher Dickey explained the power of Chalabi in Iraq:

(He) is now head of the Governing Council's economic and finance committee. As such he has overseen the appointment of the minister of oil, the minister of finance, the central bank governor, the trade minister, the head of the trade bank and the designated managing director of the largest commercial bank in the country.”

If Miller and the NYT were used by Chalabi to push his “certainties” on Iraq’s WMD, he has ended up a winner while the Times’ reputation has taken a battering.

Jim Lobe of the Inter Press Service offers an explanation for Miller's and the Times’ behaviour in February this year. And Derek Seidman wrote in Counterpunch in February this year that he'd seen Miller speak at a public forum in the US where she was quizzed over her reporting on WMD, reliance on Chalabi and ideological beliefs.

“Yes, she at last admitted, the US has supported repressive regimes, 'and we did so in the context of a Cold War we had to win'. Foreign policy is not fun, she angrily informed us, and sometimes one needs to choose between two evils. If we didn't do what we had done in the Middle East, it could now be "a whole region of Irans", and how would we like that?"

Jack Shafer wrote in Slate last July that a thorough examination of Miller is required:

“The most important question to unravel about Judith Miller's reporting is this: Has she grown too close to her sources to be trusted to get it right or to recant her findings when it's proved that she got it wrong? Because the Times sets the news agenda for the press and the nation, Miller's reporting had a great impact on the national debate over the wisdom of the Iraq invasion. If she was reliably wrong about Iraq's WMD, she might have played a major role in encouraging the United States to attack a nation that posed it little threat.” (And see Shafer’s follow-up article.)

***

Small changes may be afoot. In late 2003, the NYT and The Washington Post outlined more stringent guidelines for anonymous sourcing (The Sydney Morning Herald is finalising similar guidelines.) But little appears to have changed in practice.

So what has Miller learnt from this episode, if anything? The Columbia Journalism Review reported:

“On May 20 [2003], Miller gave the commencement speech at Barnard College, her alma mater. She urged the graduates to be skeptical about the given reasons for the war on Iraq, and particularly of government claims about WMD. About embedding, she said that journalists ‘need to draw conclusions about whether journalistic objectivity was compromised . . . whether the country's interests were best served by this arrangement.’”

Coming from the woman (and the newspaper) that did more than most to bolster the Bush administration’s case against Saddam on the basis of his WMD, she seems oblivious to the ongoing problems. A mea culpa would be a wonderful start.

With journalists increasingly desperate for a scoop and the page one lead, government officials offering “exclusive” material would often be too hard to resist. Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years, working under seven US Presidents. In an interview on June 26, 2003 McGovern revealed the way in which the Bush administration used the major media outlets to push their case for war:

. "They [the Bush administration] looked around after Labor Day [2002] and said, 'OK, if we’re going to have this war, we really need to persuade Congress to vote for it. How are we going to do that? Well, let’s do the al Qaeda-Iraq connection. That’s the traumatic one. 9/11 is still a traumatic thing for most Americans. Let’s do that.'

"But then they said, 'Oh damn, those folks at CIA don’t buy that, they say there’s no evidence, and we can’t bring them around. We’ve tried every which way and they won’t relent. That won’t work, because if we try that, Congress is going to have these CIA wimps come down, and the next day they’ll undercut us. How about these chemical and biological weapons? We know they don’t have any nuclear weapons, so how about the chemical and biological stuff? Well, damn. We have these other wimps at the Defense Intelligence Agency, and dammit, they won’t come around either. They say there’s no reliable evidence of that, so if we go up to Congress with that, the next day they’ll call the DIA folks in, and the DIA folks will undercut us.'

So they said, 'What have we got? We’ve got those aluminum tubes!' The aluminum tubes, you will remember, were something that came out in late September, the 24th of September. The British and we front-paged it [ed: Judith Miller wrote the Times story]. These were aluminum tubes that were said by Condoleeza Rice as soon as the report came out to be only suitable for use in a nuclear application. This is hardware that they had the dimensions of. So they got that report, and the British played it up, and we played it up. It was front page in the New York Times. Condoleeza Rice said, 'Ah ha! These aluminum tubes are suitable only for uranium-enrichment centrifuges.'

(For more on the Bush administration’s appropriation of the media pre March 2003, see Maureen Farrell’s analysis.) Columbia Journalism Review’s Michael Massing asked Judith Miller why so much of her reports on WMD were incorrect and distorted:

“My job isn't to assess the government's information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers what the government thought of Iraq's arsenal.”

Massing responded that “many journalists would disagree with this; instead they would consider offering an independent evaluation of official claims [as] one of their chief responsibilities”.

Massing noted that a number of smaller American news organizations such as Knight Ridder did investigate rumblings inside the intelligence communities of the Bush administration’s bellicose pronouncements on Saddam’s arsenal, but because these services didn’t have major outlets in Washington or New York, these stories were frequently ignored by the NYT and the Post.)

***

Russ Baker wrote in The Nation in June 2003 that Miller’s skills as a journalist are impressive:

“Each time Miller produces an article that could induce panic, she almost always mentions, some paragraphs down, that Al Qaeda's capability to deploy or develop these types of weapons has been judged by the Bush Administration to be crude at best. But the effect remains the same. Miller gets a story with a whopper of a headline, the story gets picked up and it connects with the American zeitgeist in support of extreme measures by the Administration domestically (Patriot Act) and internationally (invade Iraq), with few reading down to where Miller deflates the balloon and thereby preserves her credibility, in the same way that politicians leak and spin while preserving their deniability.”

Baker argues that the American media star system allowed somebody like Miller to get away with wild accusations because she has become a source people trusted due to her high-level governmental connections and high profile:

“A Miller appearance with CNBC's Brian Williams during the pre-invasion propaganda campaign shows how the game is played. Here's the intro:

‘Page one in this morning's New York Times, a report by Judith Miller that Iraq has ordered a million doses of an anti-germ warfare antidote. The assumption here is that Iraq is preparing to use such weapons....

Williams: Iraq's attempt to buy large quantities of the antidote in question was first reported by veteran New York Times correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner Judith Miller in this morning's edition of the newspaper. She is also, by the way, author of the recent book on terrorism called Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War. And she is with us from the Times newsroom in New York tonight.”

***

A handful of Australian journalists questioned the rush to war pushed by Blair, Bush and Howard, including Richard Glover, Alan Ramsey, Brian Toohey and Marion Wilkinson. Far too many, however, accepted and pushed government propaganda on Saddam’s supposed arsenal of WMD. As Massing says, it takes a brave person to argue against the status quo and give prominence to dissenting voices.

Courageous reporters need to be supported by media organisations. Editors need to listen more intently to dissenting voices. Government sources need to be more thoroughly scrutinised.

Following the example set by UK based media watchdog medialens, I encourage readers to write to the NYT asking why Judith Miller’s stories have received little or no scrutiny. Ask why her long-held connections to Chalabi haven’t been acknowledged. Ask why the paper hasn’t examined their pre-war reporting on WMD and printed corrections for the litany of mistakes. Ask why unnamed government sources are continually allowed to plant unsubstantiated information in leading articles.

FURTHER READING:

* Former CIA agent, Ray McGovern, set up a group before the Iraq war called the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity aimed at debunking the Bush administration’s spin on WMD. It received little media coverage.

* The Guardian features a number of key players in the Iraq debate before and after the Iraq war, including Hans von Sponeck, ex-UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Noam Chomsky and Iraqi doctors, journalists and citizens.

* Many Iraqi bloggers have sprung up since the fall of Saddam, including afamilyin baghdad and riverbendblog

* Christopher Allbritton, a former AP and New York Daily News reporter, decided to visit Iraq to report on the run-up to the war. He started his own blog and became “the world’s first fully reader funded journalist blogger”.

MEDIA BRIEFS

* Moveon.org is a US based grassroots organisations dedicated to democracy, human rights and the anti-war movement. It is now partly funded by George Soros. It's current tV advertisement about Donald Rumsfeld is at censure.

* Rupert Murdoch held a major conference for his staff in Cancun, Mexico last weekend. Invited guests and speakers included the British Tory leader, Michael Howard and Condoleeza Rice. See The Guardian

aloewenstein@f2network.com.au

Copyright: Sydney Morning Herald

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