[lit-ideas] Oops. We did it again. The NYT apologizes.

  • From: "Andreas Ramos" <andreas@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Lit-Ideas" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Wed, 26 May 2004 14:04:07 -0700

The New York Times issued an apology for their failure in covering the WMD
issue and the war in Iraq. They admit they were misled. They did not publish
information that contradicted their claims. And they also failed to verify



The Times and Iraq

May 26, 2004

Over the last year this newspaper has shone the bright
light of hindsight on decisions that led the United States
into Iraq. We have examined the failings of American and
allied intelligence, especially on the issue of Iraq's
weapons and possible Iraqi connections to international
terrorists. We have studied the allegations of official
gullibility and hype. It is past time we turned the same
light on ourselves.

In doing so - reviewing hundreds of articles written during
the prelude to war and into the early stages of the
occupation - we found an enormous amount of journalism that
we are proud of. In most cases, what we reported was an
accurate reflection of the state of our knowledge at the
time, much of it painstakingly extracted from intelligence
agencies that were themselves dependent on sketchy
information. And where those articles included incomplete
information or pointed in a wrong direction, they were
later overtaken by more and stronger information. That is
how news coverage normally unfolds.

But we have found a number of instances of coverage that
was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases,
information that was controversial then, and seems
questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed
to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been
more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence
emerged - or failed to emerge.

The problematic articles varied in authorship and subject
matter, but many shared a common feature. They depended at
least in part on information from a circle of Iraqi
informants, defectors and exiles bent on "regime change" in
Iraq, people whose credibility has come under increasing
public debate in recent weeks. (The most prominent of the
anti-Saddam campaigners, Ahmad Chalabi, has been named as
an occasional source in Times articles since at least 1991,
and has introduced reporters to other exiles. He became a
favorite of hard-liners within the Bush administration and
a paid broker of information from Iraqi exiles, until his
payments were cut off last week.) Complicating matters for
journalists, the accounts of these exiles were often
eagerly confirmed by United States officials convinced of
the need to intervene in Iraq. Administration officials now
acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation
from these exile sources. So did many news organizations -
in particular, this one.

Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused
blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however,
indicates that the problem was more complicated. Editors at
several levels who should have been challenging reporters
and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on
rushing scoops into the paper. Accounts of Iraqi defectors
were not always weighed against their strong desire to have
Saddam Hussein ousted. Articles based on dire claims about
Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up
articles that called the original ones into question were
sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at

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."

The informant also claimed that Iraq had sent
unconventional weapons to Syria and had been cooperating
with Al Qaeda - two claims that were then, and remain,
highly controversial. But the tone of the article suggested
that this Iraqi "scientist" - who in a later article
described himself as an official of military intelligence -
had provided the justification the Americans had been
seeking for the invasion.

The Times never followed up on the veracity of this source
or the attempts to verify his claims.

A sample of the coverage, including the articles mentioned
here, is online at nytimes.com/critique. Readers will also
find there a detailed discussion written for The New York
Review of Books last month by Michael Gordon, military
affairs correspondent of The Times, about the aluminum
tubes report. Responding to the review's critique of Iraq
coverage, his statement could serve as a primer on the
complexities of such intelligence reporting.

We consider the story of Iraq's weapons, and of the pattern
of misinformation, to be unfinished business. And we fully
intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting
the record straight.


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