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New York Times: we were wrong on Iraq

[ From the piece:

One of the New York Times‘ star reporters, Judith Miller, is known to have relied heavily on Mr Chalabi for stories about Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction, although she was not named in today’s piece.

–BL ]

May 26, 2004 | The Guardian

by Claire Cozens

The New York Times today issued an extraordinary mea culpa over its coverage of Iraq, admitting it had been misled about the presence of weapons of mass destruction by sources including the controversial Iraqi leader Ahmad Chalabi.

In a note to readers published today under the headline ‘The Times and Iraq’, the editors of the newspaper said they had 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,” they continued.

The paper said it was encouraged to report the claims by “United States officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq.”

But today for the first time it admitted that accounts of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in Iraq were never independently verified.

“It is still possible that chemical or biological weapons will be unearthed in Iraq, but in this case it looks as if we, along with the administration, were taken in. And until now we have not reported that to our readers,” the paper said.

The Baghdad offices of Mr Chalabi, the one-time favourite of the Bush administration as a future leader of Iraq, were raided last week by Iraqi police over alleged links with the Iranian intelligence forces.

The New York Times today admitted he had introduced reporters to exiles bent on “regime change” in Iraq.

And it said that when other journalists wrote stories that appeared to contradict claims of a WMD programme in Iraq, their reports were buried.

The paper said editors should have challenged reporters on their information but 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,” the Times added.

“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.”

The paper said it considered “the story of Iraq’s weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business”, adding, “we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight”.

One of the New York Times‘ star reporters, Judith Miller, is known to have relied heavily on Mr Chalabi for stories about Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction, although she was not named in today’s piece.

The note to readers cited a front-page article published on December 20 2001, which quoted an Iraqi defector who said he had 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”.

But it added that when the defector had recently been asked to identify to US officials the sites where he claimed to have worked, he had failed to do so. The officials, the paper said, had also found no evidence of such weapons programmes.

The New York Times‘ admission that it was misled by sources follows the revelation a year ago that another of its reporters, Jayson Blair, had fabricated and plagiarised large sections of stories carried by the paper.

That scandal led to the departure of the then editor, Howell Raines, and is widely regarded as having seriously dented the image of the country’s national press.

Recent research showed more than half of all national news journalists and 46% of local news reporters in the US “believe that journalism is going in the wrong direction.”


Snipped from the New York Times (5/26/04):

On Oct. 26 and Nov. 8, 2001, for example, Page 1 articles cited Iraqi defectors who described a secret Iraqi camp where Islamic terrorists were trained and biological weapons produced. These accounts have never been independently verified.

On Dec. 20, 2001, another front-page article began, “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.” Knight Ridder Newspapers reported last week that American officials took that defector — his name is Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri — to Iraq earlier this year to point out the sites where he claimed to have worked, and that the officials failed to find evidence of their use for weapons programs. It is still possible that chemical or biological weapons will be unearthed in Iraq, but in this case it looks as if we, along with the administration, were taken in. And until now we have not reported that to our readers.”

On Sept. 8, 2002, the lead article of the paper was headlined “U.S. Says Hussein Intensified Quest for A-Bomb Parts.” That report concerned the aluminum tubes that the administration advertised insistently as components for the manufacture of nuclear weapons fuel. The claim came not from defectors but from the best American intelligence sources available at the time. Still, it should have been presented more cautiously. There were hints that the usefulness of the tubes in making nuclear fuel was not a sure thing, but the hints were buried deep, 1,700 words into a 3,600-word article. Administration officials were allowed to hold forth at length on why this evidence of Iraq’s nuclear intentions demanded that Saddam Hussein be dislodged from power: “The first sign of a `smoking gun,’ they argue, may be a mushroom cloud.”

Five days later, The Times reporters learned that the tubes were in fact a subject of debate among intelligence agencies. The misgivings appeared deep in an article on Page A13, under a headline that gave no inkling that we were revising our earlier view (“White House Lists Iraq Steps to Build Banned Weapons”). The Times gave voice to skeptics of the tubes on Jan. 9, when the key piece of evidence was challenged by the International Atomic Energy Agency. That challenge was reported on Page A10; it might well have belonged on Page A1.

On April 21, 2003, as American weapons-hunters followed American troops into Iraq, another front-page article declared, “Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, an Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert.” It began this way: “A scientist who claims to have worked in Iraq’s chemical weapons program for more than a decade has told an American military team that Iraq destroyed chemical weapons and biological warfare equipment only days before the war began, members of the team said.”

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