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Profile: Jonathan Landay
Jonathan Landay 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
Zaab Sethna of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) arranges for Iraqi defector Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri to be interviewed by Judith Miller of the New York Times. Miller, who has known Chalabi for about eight years (see May 1, 2003), immediately flies out to Bangkok for the interview. Her story is published on December 20, just three days after Haideri told his story to a CIA agent who subjected him to a polygraph and determined Haideri’s story was a complete fabrication (see December 17, 2001). Miller’s front-page article, titled “An Iraqi defector tells of work on at least 20 hidden weapons sites,” reports: “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.” If verified, Miller notes, “his allegations would provide ammunition to officials within the Bush administration who have been arguing that Mr. Hussein should be driven from power partly because of his unwillingness to stop making weapons of mass destruction, despite his pledges to do so.” Sethna also contacts freelance journalist Paul Moran. Moran is a former employee of the INC and has been employed for years by the Rendon Group, a firm specializing in “perception management” and which helped develop the INC (see May 1991). Moran’s on-camera interview with Haideri is broadcast worldwide by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. [New York Times, 12/20/2001; SBS Dateline, 7/23/2003; New York Review of Books, 2/26/2004; Rolling Stone, 11/17/2005] Reporter Jonathan Landay will later say that he and others were skeptical from the outset: “There were some red flags that the New York Times story threw out immediately, which caught our eye, immediately. The first was the idea that a Kurd—the enemy of Saddam—had been allowed into his most top secret military facilities. I don’t think so. That was, for me, the biggest red flag. And there were others, like the idea that Saddam Hussein would put a biological weapons facility under his residence. I mean, would you put a biological weapons lab under your living room? I don’t think so.” Landay’s partner Warren Strobel will add, “The first rule of being an intelligence agent, or a journalist, and they’re really not that different, is you’re skeptical of defectors, because they have a reason to exaggerate. They want to increase their value to you. They probably want something from you. Doesn’t mean they’re lying, but you should be—journalists are supposed to be skeptical, right? And I’m afraid the New York Times reporter in that case and a lot of other reporters were just not skeptical of what these defectors were saying. Nor was the administration…” [PBS, 4/25/2007]
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]
In the beginning of October 2002, Knight Ridder reporter Jonathan Landay is intrigued to notice that the newly completed National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq (see October 1, 2002) shows some intelligence experts register disagreement that Iraq is intending to use aluminum tubes to build a nuclear weapon. Landay reaches a veteran of the US uranium enrichment program. Landay will later say, “He’d been given data on the tubes, and he said that this wasn’t conclusive evidence.” On October 4, Knight Ridder publishes a story noting that the NIE has “exposed a sharp dispute among US intelligence experts” over Iraq. One expert says he does not believe the tubes are intended for use in nuclear weapons because “their diameters were too small and the aluminum they were made from was too hard.” [Knight Ridder, 10/4/2002; New York Review of Books, 2/26/2004]
Reporter Jonathan Landay will recall being surprised about the superficial evidence in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq (see October 1, 2002), particularly the evidence regarding the aluminum tubes that were supposedly for nuclear weapons production. Landay says: “I got my copy [of the unclassified version—see October 4, 2002], and I opened it up and I came to the part that talked about the aluminum tubes. Now, it said that the majority of analysts believed that those tubes were for the nuclear weapons program. It turns out, though, that that majority of intelligence analysts had no background in nuclear weapons.… So, here was yet another building block in this chain of building blocks that we had collected over these months about what they were saying to the public, and what the intelligence was actually telling them. And, there were differences. Some of them were nuanced. Some of them were quite large. But, it became quite apparent that they were grabbing just about anything they could to make the case for going to war in Iraq.” [PBS, 4/25/2007]
Knight Ridder publishes a story written by Warren Strobel, Jonathan Landay, and John Walcott entitled, “Some in Bush Administration Have Misgivings about Iraq Policy.” They are among the very few mainstream journalists willing to report something besides administration talking points on Iraq (see After October 4, 2002 and September 6, 2002). The story states: “While President Bush marshals Congressional and international support for invading Iraq, a growing number of military officers, intelligence professionals, and diplomats in his own government privately have deep misgivings about the administration’s double-time march toward war. These officials charge that administration hawks have exaggerated evidence of the threat that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein poses—including distorting his links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network-have overstated the amount of international support for attacking Iraq, and have downplayed the potential repercussions of a new war in the Middle East. They charge that the administration squelches dissenting views and that intelligence analysts are under intense pressure to produce reports supporting the White House’s argument that Saddam poses such an immediate threat to the United States that pre-emptive military action is necessary.” They also confirm rumors of pressure on CIA analysts from the White House to produce intelligence analyses that conform to their desires, quoting an official as saying, “Analysts at the working level in the intelligence community are feeling very strong pressure from the Pentagon to cook the intelligence books” (see 2002-Early 2003). Strobel and his fellows add: “A dozen other officials echoed his views in interviews with Knight Ridder. No one who was interviewed disagreed.… [Vice President] Cheney, [Defense Secretary] Rumsfeld, and others are ignoring intelligence reports and analysis they don’t like, the officials say. ‘There is group-think among the leadership,’ said one Pentagon official.” But Knight Ridder, a relatively small news corporation with no outlets in either New York City or Washington, has little impact on the national debate. The story is roundly ignored. [Knight Ridder, 10/7/2002; Unger, 2007, pp. 263-264; Roberts, 2008, pp. 151] Within days, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Guardian of London all publish articles raising questions about the Bush administration’s allegations. [New York Review of Books, 2/26/2004]
A CIA report warning of the growing insurgency in Iraq is leaked to the press. After the report, drafted by CIA Baghdad station chief Gerry Meyer, arrives in Washington on November 10 (see November 10, 2003), an article about it by Jonathan Landay of Knight Ridder newspapers appears the following day. Landay, who knows of the report from “two senior administration officials,” comments that the report’s “bleak tone” contrasts “sharply” with accounts recently offered by President Bush and other officials. He also reveals that the report was drafted by the station chief, although Meyer’s identity is not revealed, and that the report is time-sensitive Aardwolf priority. Landay adds, “The speed of the leak suggested that senior policymakers want to make sure the assessment reaches Bush,” because, “Some senior policymakers have complained of being frustrated in their efforts to provide Bush with analyses of the situation in Iraq that are more somber than the optimistic views of Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, and other hardliners.” A senior administration official also tells Landay that L. Paul Bremer, head of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, has essentially endorsed the report. [Knight Ridder, 11/11/2003]
The media learns that Vice President Dick Cheney and staffers from the Office of the Vice President (OVP) regularly interfered with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2004 report on the intelligence community’s failures to accurately assess Iraq’s WMD threat (see July 9, 2004). According to administration and Congressional sources, that interference was facilitated and encouraged by committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS). Cheney and the OVP members regularly intervened in the committee’s deliberations, and drastically limited the scope of the investigation.
Protecting the Bush Administration - Reporter Laura Rozen will later write, “In order to prevent the White House and the Office of the Vice President itself from ever coming under any Congressional oversight scrutiny, Cheney exerted ‘constant’ pressure on [Roberts] to stall an investigation into the Bush administration’s use of flawed intelligence on Iraq.” Cheney and the OVP also withheld key documents from the committee. Some of the withheld materials included portions of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 2003 address to the United Nations (see February 5, 2003) that were written by Cheney’s then-chief of staff, Lewis Libby, and documents that Libby used to make the administration’s case for war with Iraq. The OVP also withheld the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) documents: written intelligence summaries provided to President Bush by the CIA. The decision to withhold the documents was spearheaded by Cheney’s chief legal counsel and chief of staff David Addington. Much of the withheld material, and Cheney-OVP interference, was designed to keep the committee from looking into the Bush administration’s use of intelligence findings to promote the war. According to committee member John D. Rockefeller (D-WV), Cheney attended regular policy meetings in which he gave White House orders to Republican committee staffers. It is “not hearsay,” Rockefeller says, that Cheney pushed Roberts to, in reporter Jonathan Landay’s words, “drag out the probe of the administration’s use of prewar intelligence.” The committee chose to defer the second portion of its report, about the administration’s use of intelligence to propel the nation to war, until after the November 2004 elections. That portion of the report remains uncompleted.
Shifting the Blame to the White House - Reporter Murray Waas writes, “Had the withheld information been turned over, according to administration and Congressional sources, it likely would have shifted a portion of the blame away from the intelligence agencies to the Bush administration as to who was responsible for the erroneous information being presented to the American public, Congress, and the international community.” He continues: “When the [report] was made public, Bush, Cheney, and other administration officials cited it as proof that the administration acted in good faith on Iraq and relied on intelligence from the CIA and others that it did not know was flawed. But some Congressional sources say that had the committee received all the documents it requested from the White House the spotlight could have shifted to the heavy advocacy by Cheney’s office to go to war. Cheney had been the foremost administration advocate for war with Iraq, and Libby played a central staff role in coordinating the sale of the war to both the public and Congress.” [National Journal, 10/27/2005; Wilson, 2007, pp. 381]
Entity Tags: Office of the Vice President, John D. Rockefeller, George W. Bush, David S. Addington, Colin Powell, Bush administration (43), Jonathan Landay, Murray Waas, Laura Rozen, Senate Intelligence Committee, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Pat Roberts
Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion
Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel. [Source: PBS]John Walcott, the bureau chief of Knight Ridder Newspapers (now McClatchy), recalls that he and his colleagues did not believe the Bush administration’s assertions of the connections between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks. “It was not clear to us why anyone was asking questions about Iraq in the wake of an attack that had al-Qaeda written all over it,” he recalls. He assigned his two top foreign affairs and national security reporters, Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, veterans with more than 40 years’ experience between them, to investigate the claims. Strobel recalls, “We were basically, I think, hearing two different messages from—there’s a message, the public message the administration was giving out about Iraq—it’s WMD, the fact there was an immediate threat, grave threat, gathering threat—but that was so different from what we were hearing from people on the inside, people we had known in many cases for years and trusted.” Strobel and Landay learned from reliable sources inside the US intelligence community that few outside the White House believed the assertions of an Iraq-9/11 connection. “When you’re talking to the working grunts, you know, uniform military officers, intelligence professionals, professional diplomats, those people are more likely than not—not always, of course, but more likely than not—to tell you some version of the truth, and to be knowledgeable about what they’re talking about when it comes to terrorism or the Middle East, things like that,” says Strobel. He and Landay wrote numerous articles detailing the skepticism about the administration’s claims, but, in many cases, editors chose not to use their work. “There was a lot of skepticism among our editors because what we were writing was so at odds with what most of the rest of the Washington press corps was reporting and some of our papers frankly, just didn’t run the stories,” Strobel says. “They had access to the New York Times wire and the Washington Post wire and they chose those stories instead.” Walcott explains his own rationale: “A decision to go to war, even against an eighth-rate power such as Iraq, is the most serious decision that a government can ever make. And it deserves the most serious kind of scrutiny that we in the media can give it. Is this really necessary? Is it necessary to send our young men and women to go kill somebody else’s young men and women?”
Outside the Beltway - Knight Ridder did not have newspapers in either Washington or New York City, and therefore was viewed by many insiders as “out of the loop.” Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus says: “The administration can withstand the Knight Ridder critique because it wasn’t reverberating inside Washington. And therefore people weren’t picking it up.” Walcott describes Knight Ridder as “under the radar most of the time.… We were not a company that, I think, Karl Rove and others cared deeply about, even though in terms of readers, we’re much bigger than the New York Times and the Washington Post. We’re less influential. There’s no way around that.” Strobel half-humorously asks: “How many times did I get invited on the talk show? How many times did you [Landay] get invited on a talk show?” Landay replies: “You know what? I’ll tell you who invited me on a talk show. C-SPAN.”
Self-Doubts - Strobel says of that time period: “But there was a period when we were sittin’ out there and I had a lot of late night gut checks where I was just like, ‘Are we totally off on some loop here?‘… ‘Are we wrong? Are we gonna be embarrassed?’” Landay adds, “Everyday we would look at each other and say—literally one of us would find something out—and I’d look at him and say, ‘What’s going on here?’” Media analyst Eric Boehlert says: “But I think it’s telling that they didn’t really operate by that beltway game the way the networks, the cable channels, Newsweek, Time, New York Times, Washington Post. They seem to sort of operate outside that bubble. And look at what the benefits were when they operated outside that bubble. They actually got the story right. What’s important is it’s proof positive that that story was there. And it could have been gotten. And some people did get it. But the vast majority chose to ignore or not even try.” Former CNN news chief Walter Isaacson confirms the solid reporting of Strobel and Landay: “The people at Knight Ridder were calling the colonels and the lieutenants and the people in the CIA and finding out, ya know, that intelligence is not very good. We should’ve all been doing that.” [PBS, 4/25/2007]
Entity Tags: Walter Pincus, Washington Post, Walter Isaacson, Warren Strobel, Newsweek, Eric Boehlert, John Walcott, C-SPAN, Al-Qaeda, Bush administration (43), Jonathan Landay, Karl C. Rove, New York Times, Time magazine, Knight Ridder Newspapers
Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda
While the Bush administration claims that Iran is risking “World War III” by continuing to pursue nuclear weapons (see October 20, 2007), an array of experts inside and outside the government quoted in a McClatchy News article say that there is no conclusive evidence that Iran is actively pursuing such weapons. The story, and the alleged facts, change depending on which administration official is doing the speaking. President Bush and Vice President Cheney use harsh, bellicose rhetoric reminiscent of the rhetoric used in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, but others, such as Bush’s “point man” on Iran, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, is attempting to tone down the rhetoric. Burns recently told reporters, “Iran is seeking a nuclear capability… that some people fear might lead to a nuclear-weapons capability.” Another US official says more directly, “I don’t think that anyone right today thinks [Iran is] working on a bomb.” Iran has the capability to continue working on producing a nuclear weapon, experts note, and could transform its current uranium-enrichment program into a weapons program if it so desired. But as of now, US experts have an amalgamation of circumstantial evidence and supposition, and no real proof; reporter Jonathan Landay observes, “Bush’s rhetoric seems hyperbolic compared with the measured statements by his senior aides and outside experts.” The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency agrees. With four years of inspections of Iran’s nuclear energy program behind it, the IAEA says it has no information that would show Iran has an active nuclear weapons program. The circumstantial evidence that leads some to assert the reality of Iran’s active nuclear weapons program is extensive, but not always solid. In 2006, the CIA gave the IAEA thousands of pages of computer simulations and documents that it claimed it took from a defector’s laptop; those documents showed that Iranian experts were working on mounting a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile, and working on developing nuclear “triggers,” or detonators. The CIA calls all of this Project 111. The Iranians denounced the materials as “politically motivated and baseless,” and have promised to cooperate with an IAEA investigation into the matter. Many Western intelligence officials and outside experts believe the materials are genuine—“I wouldn’t go to war over this, but it’s reason for suspicion,” says one—but Dr. Muhammad Sahimi, an Iranian defector who has closely monitored Iran’s nuclear program for decades, dismisses the materials as “totally not believable,” observing, “If the laptop did exist, I find it hard to believe that its absence wasn’t noticed for so long that somebody could take it out of Iran.” The IAEA has other questions as well, including a document from the nuclear black-market program of Dr. A. Q. Khan that shows how to form uranium into explosive cores, Iran’s experiments with radioactive materials used primarily in nuclear warheads, Iranian involvement with a uranium mine, and Iran’s claim that it needs large amounts of nuclear energy to feed its energy needs when it sits on such large reserves of oil and gas. Sahimi answers this last point by noting Iran would, in his opinion, do better to sell its petroleum on the global market and rely on nuclear energy for its own needs. [McClatchy News, 11/4/2007] A month after this article is published, the administration will release an intelligence report that concludes Iran stopped work on nuclear weapons in 2003 (see December 3, 2007).
Bill Moyers, John Walcott, Jonathan Landay, and Greg Mitchell on PBS’s ‘Journal.’ [Source: PBS]In his regular “Journal” broadcast, PBS political commentator Bill Moyers focuses on the role of the media in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. “America was deceived, with the media’s help,” Moyers declares, and interviews three media figures to help explain how: John Walcott, Washington bureau chief of McClatchy News; Jonathan Landay, one of Walcott’s “ace reporters;” and Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher, “known to many of us as the watchdog’s watchdog.” Part of the discussion focuses on the failure of most media reporters and broadcasters to question the Bush administration’s assertions about the Iraq war. Landay says, “I was just I was left breathless by some of the things that I heard where you heard correspondents say, ‘Well, we did ask the tough questions. We asked them to the White House spokesmen,’ Scott McClellan and others. And you say to yourself, ‘And you expected to get real answers? You expected them to say from the White House podium—“Yeah, well, there were disagreements over the intelligence, but we ignored them”’ when the President made his speeches and the Vice President made his speeches. No, I don’t think so.” Mitchell agrees, noting that ABC reporter Charles Gibson said that we “wouldn’t ask any different questions.” Mitchell says he found Gibson’s remarks “shocking.” Mitchell continues: “[T]hat someone would say we would even with the chance to relive this experience and so much we got wrong—going to war is—which is still going on over five years later, all the lost lives, all the financial costs of that. And then to look back at this, you know, this terrible episode in history of American journalism and say that if I could do it all over again, I’m not sure we would ask any different questions.” Walcott takes a different tack, saying that reporters “may have asked all the right questions. The trouble is they asked all the wrong people.” Landay notes that “you have to take the time to find those people,” and Mitchell adds that when you do find real information, “[y]ou can’t bury it.” Landay adds that some powerful, public admission of error and self-examination might go far to counter the perception that the media is just as untrustworthy as the government.
Drowned Out - Walcott notes that even when reporters found informed sources willing to talk about the realities behind the push for war, they were drowned out by “Donald Rumsfeld at the podium or Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice saying, ‘We can’t allow the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud’” (see September 4, 2002 and September 8, 2002). “Over and over again,” Moyers notes. “Over and over again on camera,” Walcott continues. “[T]hat trumps the kind of reporting that John and [Landay’s partner] Warren Strobel did from these mid-level guys who actually know that there’s no prospect of any smoking gun let alone a mushroom cloud. And so when it gets to packaging television news, it’s picture driven, it’s celebrity driven, and that doesn’t allow much room for this kind of hard-nosed reporting under the radar.” Mitchell says, “There’s been at least six opportunities in the last two months for the media to do this long delayed and much needed self-assessment, self-criticism to the American public and it hasn’t happened.”
Liberal vs. Conservative Media - Moyers notes that many conservative media outlets “do not believe they got it wrong. I mean, Fox News was reinforcing the administration’s messages back then and still does today.” Walcott notes, “You know, if Fox News’s mission is to defend Republican administrations then they’re right, they didn’t fail.” He notes that in his book, McClellan draws a distinction between the conservative and the “liberal” media (presumably the New York Times, Washington Post, etc). “I don’t understand what liberal versus conservative has to do with this,” Walcott says. “I would have thought that conservatives would be the ones to ask questions about a march to war. How much is this gonna cost us? What’s the effect of this gonna be on our military, on our country’s strength overseas? I don’t think it’s a liberal conservative question at all. I think that’s, frankly, a canard by Scott.”
Celebrity 'Experts' - Moyers asks about the “experts” who predicted that the war would be quick, bloodless, and successful. Even though they were “terribly wrong,” Moyers notes that most of them are “still on the air today pontificating. I mean, there seems to be no price to be paid for having been wrong about so serious an issue of life and death, war and peace.” Walcott says they are not news analysts so much as they are celebrities. Big name actors can make bad movies and still draw million-dollar salaries for their next film: “It’s the same phenomenon. A name is what matters. And it’s about celebrity. It’s about conflict. It’s about—” Landay completes Walcott’s sentence: “Ratings.”
'Skunks at the Garden Party' - Perhaps the most disturbing portion of the discussion is when Walcott notes that the kind of old-fashioned investigative reporting exemplified by Landay and Strobel is “by definition… unpopular.… Because the public doesn’t wanna hear it.… Doesn’t wanna hear the President lied to them. Doesn’t wanna hear that the local police chief is on the take. You know, people don’t like necessarily to hear all that kind of stuff. And when you’re worried about, above all, your advertising revenue, you become more vulnerable to those kinds of pressures.… Well, the skunks don’t get invited to the garden party. And part of our job is to be the skunks at the garden party.” [PBS, 6/6/2008]
Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Charles Gibson, Bush administration (43), Bill Moyers, ABC News, Fox News, Washington Post, Public Broadcasting System, Editor & Publisher, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, McClatchy News, Warren Strobel, Jonathan Landay, Greg Mitchell, Scott McClellan, John Walcott, New York Times
Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda
PBS political commentator Bill Moyers hosts a wide-ranging discussion of the media’s role in legitimizing the Bush administration’s military interventionism in the Middle East (see June 6, 2008). Joining Moyers are John Walcott, the Washington bureau chief of McClatchy News; McClatchy reporter Jonathan Landay; and Greg Mitchell, the purveyor of the media watchdog site Editor & Publisher. The four spend a good part of their time discussing the US’s attempt to “sell” a war with Iran. Moyers says the administration is having trouble pushing such a war because the American public is leery of more dire administration warnings, “given how we were misled about Iraq.” Walcott points out that Iran is a more imminent threat than Iraq, “a much tougher problem than Iraq ever was,” and notes that while Iraq never supported terrorists or had WMD, Iran supports terrorist groups “with a fair amount of enthusiasm” and has a nuclear energy program with the potential to cause grave harm. Landay notes that one big difference in the way the administration is handling Iran as opposed to how it handled Iraq is the fact that the administration is now working with the UN Security Council and even the International Atomic Energy Agency, whereas with Iraq the administration displayed a belligerent, “go it alone” attitude.
They're a Bunch of Crazy Shi'ites - Walcott notes that he finds one argument about Iran particularly disturbing: “[T]hat’s the one that says the Iranians would use nuclear weapons against us or against Israel. Well, both Israel and the United States have the capability to turn Iran into a skating rink. When you explode a nuclear weapon over sand, it turns into glass. And the counter to that from some quarters has been as crazy as anything I’ve heard, which is, well, that we can’t deter the Iranians because they’re Shi’ites and they’re all eager to commit suicide to hasten the arrival of the 12th Imam. So deterrents won’t work against Iran because they’re a bunch of crazy Shi’ites. That to me is as crazy as anything we heard about Saddam [Hussein] and his ties to al-Qaeda. That one, the fact that that one’s out there concerns me.”
Military Strike against Iran? - Walcott says he knows for a fact that there is a large and influential faction within the Bush administration that is determined to force a military strike against Iraq before Bush’s term of office ends. This faction has the support of influential Israeli government officials, even hints of support from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “[T]hat issue’s gonna be on the table until January 20th [2009, when the next US president is inaugurated] because one of the things we’ve learned is these people don’t go away,” Walcott says. “They’re still out there. They’re still advocating.” Landay notes that many of the same people who advocated for the invasion of Iraq are the ones pushing for a strike against Iran, “[a]nd yet they keep being brought on television and quoted in newspaper stories, when their, you know, now, after this horrendous track record they had in Iraq. So you wonder how it is that there are people who have been fanning the flames for going after Iran. Some of them the very same people.” Mitchell notes that the questions that should have been asked and re-asked by the media before the Iraq invasion—will military force neutralize the threats, what will be the aftereffects and ramifications of military strikes, how many will die—are not yet being asked about Iran. Walcott notes how easily Iran could retaliate for US strikes: “sink one oil tanker in the Persian Gulf or the Strait of Hormuz, just one, and the insurance rates will take care of the rest. And you’ll have $200, $250 a barrel oil. So that’s one thing to think about.”
Iran and the NIE - Moyers asks why it was so easy for President Bush to simply disavow the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear weapons (see December 3, 2007) just by saying that, in essence, “the NIE’s conclusions don’t reflect his own views, that there is an ongoing threat.” Moyers says that Bush does not care “what the facts are, this is [his] reality.” Mitchell notes that NBC anchor emeritus Tom Brokaw called it more of a matter of “theology” (see May 29, 2008). But Landay says that just as interesting is the fact that, if Iran indeed is building nuclear weapons, which it well may be, “the administration’s having a really hard time getting traction for its case. Why? Because it’s lost its credibility on Iraq.” Mitchell adds, “And the media has lost credibility.” [PBS, 6/6/2008]
In a panel discussion hosted by PBS’s Bill Moyers, journalist Jonathan Landay, discussing the US war in Afghanistan, notes that the vast majority of media coverage has been granted to the Iraq occupation. The war in Afghanistan is largely forgotten by the media, or merely rolled into Iraq coverage. Landay notes that Afghanistan is “a far more serious threat for US national security than Iraq is.” Similarly, the media rarely reports on the dire terrorist threats centered in the tribal areas of Pakistan. “[T]his is a black hole virtually which the United States is deeply involved in that we don’t see a lot of meaningful, I mean, in-depth coverage of,” he says. [PBS, 6/6/2008]
During a PBS broadcast of a panel discussion about US interventions in the Middle East, host Bill Moyers observes that the hidden costs of the Iraq war are staggering. He notes that the huge number of suicides among US soldiers in Iraq as well as those who have come home is “the dirty little secret of this war.” The broken Veterans Administration, and its inability to provide decent medical care for the troops, is another, he says. Not only are these underreported in the US media, he says, even the economic costs get relatively little play, despite the fact that “The war’s costing us $5,000 a second, $12 1/2 billion to $13 billion a month,” with the costs ultimately soaring into the trillions of dollars. “[T]hat would seem to hit people in the viscera,” he says. Guest Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher says that the economic issues of the war are one of the biggest reasons why President Bush’s approval ratings stay below 30 percent, even as the media touts the “surge” (see January 2007 and January 10, 2007) as such a success. “[T]he reason is the people figured out long ago, long ago that the war was a mistake and that it’s incredibly costly in the human and financial and even moral terms.” [PBS, 6/6/2008]
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