Thursday, May 27, 2004

The Gray Lady Regrets…

Yesterday the editors of The New York Times published a rather stunning admission: We Goofed.

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.

While the editors are not willing to name which reporters were responsible for the flawed reporting, Salon.com is not so hesitant.

The reporter on many of the flawed stories at issue was Judith Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and authority on the Middle East. The Times, insisting that the problem did not lie with any individual journalist, did not mention her name. The paper was presumably trying to take the high road by defending its reporter, but the omission seems peculiar. While her editors must share a large portion of the blame, the pieces ran under Miller’s byline. It was Miller who clearly placed far too much credence in unreliable sources, and then credulously used dubious administration officials to confirm what she was told.

And of all Miller’s unreliable sources, the most unreliable was Ahmed Chalabi — whose little neocon-funded kingdom came crashing down last week when Iraqi forces smashed down his door after U.S. officials feared he was sending secrets to Iran.

Check out the rest of the story on Miller in Salon.com (subscription/Day Pass required).

It’s hard to know whether or not Miller and other reporters at such venerable papers such as The Washington Post were gullible or whether Chalabi is just that slick to pull off the con. Certainly Miller’s creds are impressive, but it seems that she and others fell for parts of the story of Saddam Hussein’s massive WMD program based not on an overall picture of the whole thing – which would have led them nowhere – but on bits and pieces that seemed credible at the time, i.e. the aluminum tubes that were supposed to be part of the centrifuge that would extract fissionable material for atomic weapons. It turns out that the tubes, which became part of the propaganda for the war (remember Dr. Rice’s fear of a mushroom cloud?), were actually for the “Medusa 81,” a missile program from Italy that pre-dated Gulf War I. But Miller bought the centrifuge theory and ran it as a part of her story in September 2002 that detailed the parts and pieces of Saddam’s phantom nuclear weapons program.

The Times has vowed to be vigilant in their future vetting and research: “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.” That’s great – but you’d think that after the hue and cry that has been raised over Ms. Miller’s reporting since the beginning of the run-up to the war and the well-known shadiness of Mr. Chalabi, they’d have been far more careful about printing whatever she turned up.