Profile: John Walcott
John Walcott was a participant or observer in the following events:
Abu Zeinab al-Qurairy, posing as Jamal al-Ghurairy for Frontline. [Source: PBS]An Iraqi defector identifying himself as Jamal al-Ghurairy, a former lieutenant general in Saddam Hussein’s intelligence corps, the Mukhabarat, tells two US reporters that he has witnessed foreign Islamic militants training to hijack airplanes at an alleged Iraqi terrorist training camp at Salman Pak, near Baghdad. Al-Ghurairy also claims to know of a secret compound at Salman Pak where Iraqi scientists, led by a German, are producing biological weapons. Al-Ghurairy is lying both about his experiences and even his identity, though the reporters, New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges and PBS’s Christopher Buchanan, do not know this. The meeting between al-Ghurairy and the reporters, which takes place on November 6, 2001, in a luxury suite in a Beirut hotel, was arranged by Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC). Buchanan later recalls knowing little about al-Ghurairy, except that “[h]is life might be in danger. I didn’t know much else.” Hedges recalls the former general’s “fierce” appearance and “military bearing.… He looked the part.” Al-Ghurairy is accompanied by several other people, including the INC’s political liaison, Nabeel Musawi. “They were slick and well organized,” Buchanan recalls. Hedges confirms al-Ghurairy’s credibility with the US embassy in Turkey, where he is told that CIA and FBI agents had recently debriefed him. The interview is excerpted for an upcoming PBS Frontline episode, along with another interview with an INC-provided defector, former Iraqi sergeant Sabah Khodada, who echoes al-Ghurairy’s tale. While the excerpt of al-Ghurairy’s interview is relatively short, the interview itself takes over an hour. Al-Ghurairy does not allow his face to be shown on camera.
Times Reports Defectors' Tale - Two days later, on November 8, Hedges publishes a story about al-Ghurairy in the New York Times Times. The Frontline episode airs that same evening. [New York Times, 11/8/2001; Mother Jones, 4/2006] Hedges does not identify al-Ghurairy by name, but reports that he, Khodada, and a third unnamed Iraqi sergeant claim to have “worked for several years at a secret Iraqi government camp that had trained Islamic terrorists in rotations of five or six months since 1995. They said the training at the camp, south of Baghdad, was aimed at carrying out attacks against neighboring countries and possibly Europe and the United States.” Whether the militants being trained are linked to al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden, the defectors cannot be sure, nor do they know of any specific attacks carried out by the militants. Hedges writes that the interviews were “set up by an Iraqi group that seeks the overthrow of… Hussein.” He quotes al-Ghurairy as saying, “There is a lot we do not know. We were forbidden to speak about our activities among each other, even off duty. But over the years, you see and hear things. These Islamic radicals were a scruffy lot. They needed a lot of training, especially physical training. But from speaking with them, it was clear they came from a variety of countries, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco. We were training these people to attack installations important to the United States. The Gulf War never ended for Saddam Hussein. He is at war with the United States. We were repeatedly told this.” He uses Khodada’s statements as support for al-Ghurairy’s, identifies Khodada by name, and says that Khodada “immigrated to Texas” in May 2001 “after working as an instructor for eight years at Salman Pak…” He quotes the sergeant as saying, “We could see them train around the fuselage. We could see them practice taking over the plane.” Al-Ghurairy adds that the militants were trained to take over a plane without using weapons. Hedges reports that Richard Sperzel, the former chief of the UN biological weapons inspection teams in Iraq, says that the Iraqis always claimed Salman Pak was an anti-terror training camp for Iraqi special forces. However, Sperzel says, “[M]any of us had our own private suspicions. We had nothing specific as evidence.” The US officials who debriefed al-Ghurairy, Hedges reports, do not believe that the Salman Pak training has any links to the 9/11 hijackings. Hedges asks about one of the militants, a clean-shaven Egyptian. “No, he was not Mohamed Atta.” Atta led the 9/11 hijackers. Hedges notes that stories such as this one will likely prompt “an intense debate in Washington over whether to extend the war against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban government of Afghanistan to include Iraq.” [New York Times, 11/8/2001; Columbia Journalism Review, 7/1/2004]
Heavy Press Coverage - The US media immediately reacts, with op-eds running in major newspapers throughout the country and cable-news pundits bringing the story to their audiences. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice says of the story, “I think it surprises no one that Saddam Hussein is engaged in all kinds of activities that are destabilizing.” The White House will use al-Ghurairy’s claims in its background paper, “Decade of Deception and Defiance,” prepared for President’s Bush September 12, 2002 speech to the UN General Assembly (see September 12, 2002). Though the tale lacks specifics, it helps bolster the White House’s attempts to link Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 hijackers, and helps promote Iraq as a legitimate target in the administration’s war on terror. (Five years later, the reporters involved in the story admit they were duped—see April 2006.)
Complete Fiction - The story, as it turns out, is, in the later words of Mother Jones reporter Jack Fairweather, “an elaborate scam.” Not only did US agents in Turkey dismiss the purported lieutenant general’s claims out of hand—a fact they did not pass on to Hedges—but the man who speaks with Hedges and Buchanan is not even Jamal al-Ghurairy. The man they interviewed is actually a former Iraqi sergeant living in Turkey under the pseudonym Abu Zainab. (His real name is later ascertained to be Abu Zeinab al-Qurairy, and is a former Iraqi general and senior officer in the Mukhabarat.) The real al-Ghurairy has never left Iraq. In 2006, he will be interviewed by Fairweather, and will confirm that he was not the man interviewed in 2001 (see October 2005). [Columbia Journalism Review, 7/1/2004; Mother Jones, 4/2006] Hedges and Buchanan were not the first reporters to be approached for the story. The INC’s Francis Brooke tried to interest Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff in interviewing Khodada to discuss Salman Pak. Isikoff will recall in 2004 that “he didn’t know what to make of the whole thing or have any way to evaluate the story so I didn’t write about it.” [Columbia Journalism Review, 7/1/2004]
"The Perfect Hoax" - The interview was set up by Chalabi, the leader of the INC, and former CBS producer Lowell Bergman. Bergman had interviewed Khodada previously, but was unable to journey to Beirut, so he and Chalabi briefed Hedges in London before sending him to meet with the defector. Chalabi and Bergman have a long relationship; Chalabi has been a source for Bergman since 1991. The CIA withdrew funding from the group in 1996 (see January 1996) due to its poor intelligence and attempts at deception. For years, the INC combed the large Iraqi exile communities in Damascus and Amman for those who would trade information—real or fabricated—in return for the INC’s assistance in obtaining asylum to the West. Helping run that network was Mohammed al-Zubaidi, who after 9/11 began actively coaching defectors, according to an ex-INC official involved in the INC’s media operations (see December 17, 2001 and July 9, 2004). The ex-INC official, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, did everything from help defectors brush up and polish their stories, to concocting scripts that defectors with little or no knowledge could recite: “They learned the words, and then we handed them over to the American agencies and journalists.” After 9/11, the INC wanted to come up with a big story that would fix the public perception of Saddam Hussein’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks. Al-Zubaidi was given the task. He came up with al-Ghurairy. He chose Zainab for his knowledge of the Iraqi military, brought him to Beirut, paid him, and began prepping him. In the process, al-Zainab made himself known to American and Turkish intelligence officials as al-Ghurairy. “It was the perfect hoax,” al-Haideri will recall in 2006. “The man was a born liar and knew enough about the military to get by, whilst Saddam’s regime could hardly produce the real Ghurairy without revealing at least some of the truth of the story.” Al-Haideri will say that the reality of the Salman Pak story was much as the Iraqis claimed—Iraqi special forces were trained in hostage and hijack scenarios. Al-Zubaidi, who in 2004 will admit to his propaganda activities, calls Al-Zainab “an opportunist, cheap and manipulative. He has poetic interests and has a vivid imagination in making up stories.” [Mother Jones, 4/2006]
Stories Strain Credulity - Knight Ridder reporter Jonathan Landay later says of al-Qurairy, “As you track their stories, they become ever more fantastic, and they’re the same people who are telling these stories, until you get to the most fantastic tales of all, which appeared in Vanity Fair magazine.” Perhaps al-Qurairy’s most fabulous story is that of a training exercise to blow up a full-size mockup of a US destroyer in a lake in central Iraq. Landay adds, “Or, jumping into pits of fouled water and having to kill a dog with your bare teeth. I mean, and this was coming from people, who are appearing in all of these stories, and sometimes their rank would change.… And, you’re saying, ‘Wait a minute. There’s something wrong here, because in this story he was a major, but in this story the guy’s a colonel. And, in this story this was his function, but now he says in this story he was doing something else.’” Landay’s bureau chief, John Walcott, says of al-Qurairy, “What he did was reasonably clever but fairly obvious, which is he gave the same stuff to some reporters that, for one reason or another, he felt would simply report it. And then he gave the same stuff to people in the Vice President’s office [Dick Cheney] and in the Secretary of Defense’s office [Donald Rumsfeld]. And so, if the reporter called the Department of Defense or the Vice President’s office to check, they would’ve said, ‘Oh, I think that’s… you can go with that. We have that, too.’ So, you create the appearance, or Chalabi created the appearance, that there were two sources, and that the information had been independently confirmed, when, in fact, there was only one source. And it hadn’t been confirmed by anybody.” Landay adds, “[L]et’s not forget how close these people were to this administration, which raises the question, was there coordination? I can’t tell you that there was, but it sure looked like it.” [PBS, 4/25/2007]
No Evidence Found - On April 6, 2003, US forces will overrun the Salman Pak facility. They will find nothing to indicate that the base was ever used to train terrorists (see April 6, 2003).
Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Richard Sperzel, Newsweek, Saddam Hussein, Taliban, New York Times, Sabah Khodada, Washington Post, United Nations, Vanity Fair, Nabeel Musawi, Public Broadcasting System, Mother Jones, Ahmed Chalabi, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, Abu Zeinab al-Qurairy, Chris Hedges, Al-Qaeda, CBS News, Bush administration (43), Central Intelligence Agency, Mukhabarat, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Francis Brooke, Lowell Bergman, Michael Isikoff, Mohammed al-Zubaidi, Jonathan Landay, John Walcott, Jamal al-Ghurairy, Jack Fairweather, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Christopher Buchanan, Iraqi National Congress
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda
Jonathan Landay, a reporter for Knight Ridder Newspapers, watches Vice President Cheney’s speech on August 26, 2002, in which Cheney argues that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and must be confronted soon (see August 26, 2002). Landay is particularly interested in Cheney’s comment, “Many of us are convinced that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.” Landay will later recall, “I looked at that and I said, ‘What is he talking about?’ Because, to develop a nuclear weapon you need specific infrastructure and in particular the way the Iraqi’s were trying to produce a nuclear weapon was through enrichment of uranium. Now, you need tens of thousands of machines called centrifuges to produce highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. You’ve gotta house those in a fairly big place, and you’ve gotta provide a huge amount of power to this facility. Could [Saddam Hussein] really have done it with all of these eyes on his country?… So, when Cheney said that, I got on the phone to people, and one person said to me - somebody who watched proliferation as their job - said, ‘The Vice President is lying.’” [PBS, 4/25/2007] Around the same time, John Walcott, chief of Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, begins hearing from other sources in the military, intelligence community, and foreign service who question the Bush administration’s claims. Most of them are career officials, not political appointees. Walcott will later comment, “These people were better informed about the details of the intelligence than the people higher up in the food chain, and they were deeply troubled by what they regarded as the administration’s deliberate misrepresentation of intelligence, ranging from overstating the case to outright fabrication.” Walcott assigns Landay and Landay’s frequent reporting partner Warren Strobel to talk with these sources. [New York Review of Books, 2/26/2004] On September 6, a story by Landay is published, entitled, “Lack of Hard Evidence of Iraqi Weapons Worries Top US Officials.” It quotes anonymous senior US officials who say that “they have detected no alarming increase in the threat that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein poses to American security and Middle East stability.” While it is well known that Iraq is “aggressively trying to rebuild” its weapons programs, “there is no new intelligence that indicates the Iraqis have made significant advances” in doing so. [Knight Ridder, 9/6/2002] But while Knight Ridder publishes 32 newspapers in the US, it has no outlets in New York or Washington, and so it has little impact on the power elite. Additionally, its story is drowned out by a false claim in the New York Times two days later that Iraq is trying to use aluminum tubes to build a nuclear weapon (see September 8, 2002). [PBS, 4/25/2007]
Mark Garlasco. [Source: Canal+]The Defense Intelligence Agency [DIA] concludes early in 2003 that the intelligence being provided by dissidents supplied by Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC) is of little value. The New York Times reports that an internal DIA study has found that “dissidents invented or exaggerated their credentials as people with direct knowledge of the Iraqi government and its suspected unconventional weapons program.” [New York Times, 9/29/2003; Independent, 9/30/2003] The study also reveals that more than $1 million was paid to Chalabi’s group for information about Saddam Hussein’s alleged banned weapons programs. [New York Times, 9/29/2003; Independent, 9/30/2003] Unnamed officials interviewed by the Times say the defectors were considered by the Defense Intelligence Agency to be dubious sources from the start. It is believed that the dissidents’ motivation for talking has been money and their opposition to Saddam Hussein. But the Times’ sources “would not speculate on whether the defectors had knowingly provided false information and, if so, what their motivation might have been.” [New York Times, 9/29/2003; Independent, 9/30/2003] Similarly, Mark Garlasco of the DIA will tell PBS Frontline in 2006, that the “INC was constantly shoving crap at us. They were providing information that they thought we wanted to hear. They were feeding the beast [referring to the Office of Special Plans and those within the administration who wanted to go to war with Iraq].” [PBS Frontline, 6/20/2006] The bureau chief of Knight Ridder Newspapers, John Walcott, will later say of Chalabi, “Chalabi’s motives were always perfectly clear in this and understandable. He was an Iraqi. He didn’t want his country run by a thug and a murderer, a mass murderer, and a crook. And everything he said had to be looked at in that light, and scrutinized in that light. And why anyone would give him a free pass, or anyone else a free pass for that matter, on a matter as important as going to war, is beyond me.” [PBS, 4/25/2007]
In the hours following the New York Times’s article about the Pentagon’s propaganda operation using retired military officers to promote the Iraq war and the Bush administration’s policies (see April 20, 2008 and Early 2002 and Beyond), a number of press officials express their concerns over the operation and the media’s role in it. The report “raises a red flag,” says Cox Newspapers bureau chief Andy Alexander. The editorial page editors at the Times and the Washington Post, both of which have published op-eds by some of the same retired officers cited in the Times story, say the report raises concerns about such access. The Times’s editorial page editor, Andrew Rosenthal, says, “It makes you suspicious, absolutely.” Rosenthal’s bureau printed at least nine op-eds by some of the generals cited in the report. “When generals write for you now, you have to look at that. But you have to do that anyway. Anybody who participated in that program has to be scrutinized more closely.” Rosenthal’s counterpart at the Post, Fred Hiatt, whose pages have run at least one such op-ed, says, “Retired generals are entitled to speak out like anyone else, but I would have the same expectation of them to disclose anything that might be relevant.” He goes on to defend the Post op-ed, written by retired general Barry McCaffrey, saying that McCaffrey’s words demonstrate his independence from the propaganda operation. Rosenthal also defends his paper’s publication of the nine op-eds and also states that the writers clearly demonstrate their independence. Rosenthal refuses to divulge the names of eight of the nine op-ed authors. Neither the Times nor the Post ever disclosed the close ties their writers maintained with the Pentagon, nor did they disclose their ties to an array of military contractors. Rosenthal says that such connections are irrelevant because their op-eds were not necessarily about Iraq: “There is no instance in which a general who attended a briefing at the Pentagon repeated it on our Op-Ed pages.” He also says that none of the authors have any conflicts in their business relationships. The Times will probably continue to use retired officers for commentary, Rosenthal says. McClatchy News bureau chief John Walcott says that as long as the public knows who is writing a particular op-ed and what their connections are, publishing material from retired military officers is acceptable: “The reader is entitled to know where this or that commentator is coming from on an issue. It doesn’t necessarily disqualify them from commentating, it must be transparent.” [Editor & Publisher, 4/21/2008]
Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, Andy Alexander, Andrew Rosenthal, Barry McCaffrey, Bush administration (43), Cox Communications, Fred Hiatt, Washington Post, McClatchy News, New York Times, John Walcott
Timeline Tags: US Military, Iraq under US Occupation, Domestic Propaganda
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