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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. (Weapons 12/20/2001; Hoskings 7/23/2003; Massing 2/26/2004; Bamford 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…” (Moyers 4/25/2007)
Senior Bush administration officials say President Bush has decided to oust Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein from power. “This is not an argument about whether to get rid of Saddam Hussein,” one official says. “That debate is over. This is… how you do it.”
CIA, Pentagon Making Plans for Regime Change - Bush has ordered the CIA, the Pentagon, and other agencies to come up with a plan combining military, diplomatic, and covert actions to force Hussein from power. A military strike is not yet imminent, but Bush has decided that Hussein and his putative weapons of mass destruction are such a threat to US security that he must be removed from power, even if US allies do not help. The CIA has already presented Bush with a plan to destabilize Hussein’s regime, incorporating covert action campaigns, sabotage, information warfare, and stepped-up bombing runs throughout the northern and southern “no-fly” zones. Bush is reportedly enthusiastic about the plan, and the CIA has begun assigning officers to the task. Reporters Warren P. Strobel and John Walcott write: “The president’s decision has launched the United States on a course that will have major ramifications for the US military, the Middle East’s future political alignment, international oil flows, and Bush’s own war on terrorism.”
Some Allies Dubious - Allies such as Russia have already expressed grave doubts about the wisdom of such a series of actions, and military experts warn that any campaign in Iraq would be long, bloody, and difficult to bring to a satisfactory conclusion. Nevertheless, one foreign leader who recently met with Bush came away “with the feeling that a decision has been made to strike Iraq, and the ‘how’ and ‘when’ are still fluid,” according to a diplomat.
Cheney to Inform Middle Eastern Leaders of US Intentions - Vice President Cheney will soon depart for a visit to 11 Middle East nations; while the public explanation is that he wants to listen to those nations’ views on the US’s Iraq policy, in reality, Cheney will inform them that the US will overthrow the Hussein regime. One senior official says: “He’s not going to beg for support. He’s going to inform them that the president’s decision has been made and will be carried out, and if they want some input into how and when it’s carried out, now’s the time for them to speak up.” At least one Middle Eastern ally, Egypt, has reservations about such a plan. Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Fahmy said last week that Bush should keep the US focus on fighting international terrorism, where he has broad international backing. “If you mix two issues together, you will lose this focus,” he said.
Debate over Role of Chalabi, INC - There is still sharp debate within the administration over the role that Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress will play in the overthrow and subsequent realignment. Many neoconservatives, particularly in the offices of Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, tout Chalabi as the next leader of Iraq, but others are not sanguine about Chalabi and his organization, with CIA officials warning that the INC is riven by internal debate and undoubtedly riddled with spies from Iraq and Iran. (Strobel and Walcott 2/13/2002)
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.’” (Moyers 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. (Massing 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. (Landay 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). (Moyers 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. (Strobel, Landay, and Walcott 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. (Massing 2/26/2004)
Knight Ridder reporter Warren Strobel publishes an analysis of the potential damage the Plame Wilson identity leak (see Fall 1992 - 1996 and July 14, 2003) has caused to the CIA and to US national security. According to current and former CIA officials interviewed by Strobel, revealing Plame Wilson’s identity “may have damaged US national security to a much greater extent than generally realized.” Former CIA and State Department official Larry Johnson says flatly, “At the end of the day, [the harm] will be huge and some people potentially may have lost their lives.” Strobel notes that Plame Wilson’s training cost the US “millions of dollars and requires the time-consuming establishment of elaborate fictions, called ‘legends,’ including in this case the creation of a CIA front company that helped lend plausibility to her trips overseas.” Conservative columnist Robert Novak not only outed Plame Wilson, but her front company, Brewster Jennings (see October 2, 2003), a revelation that former CIA counterterrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro says puts other CIA officers at risk as well (see October 3, 2003). Plame Wilson’s career, as a specialist in Iraqi WMD, is now over, costing the agency her expertise, knowledge, and, perhaps most irreplaceably, the network of operatives and sources she has built up over the years. Former CIA agent Jim Marcinkowski, now a prosecutor in Michigan, says: “This is not just another leak. This is an unprecedented exposing of an agent’s identity.” Johnson calls himself “furious, absolutely furious” at the security breach. (Strobel 10/11/2003) According to anonymous intelligence officials, the CIA performed an “aggressive,” in-house assessment of the damage done by her exposure, and found it to have been “severe” (see Before September 16, 2003). It is unlikely that Strobel is aware of this assessment.
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.” (Moyers 4/25/2007)
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.” (Moyers 6/6/2008)
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