Dealing with defective defectors.

Dealing with defective defectors.

Dealing with defective defectors.

Media criticism.
April 13 2004 8:27 PM

Dealing With Defective Defectors

60 Minutes shows Vanity Fair and the New York Times how it's done.

How do you know when he's exaggerating?
How do you know when he's exaggerating?

Most media operations will run corrections for misspellings and other trivial miscues. But the blanket self-repudiation of "We were wrong" comes hard—if at all—to journalists when a big chunk of their story collapses.

CBS's 60 Minutes proved the exception last month when it disowned part of a two-year-old story. On March 3, 2002, the newsmagazine profiled Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress. In the broadcast, correspondent Lesley Stahl meets an unnamed defector billed by the INC as a former major in the Iraq military. He tells Stahl about how Saddam Hussein evaded weapons inspectors by placing mobile biological-weapons laboratories in seven trucks that he, the defector, personally purchased from Renault.

Now that many of the defectors from the Chalabi stable have been exposed as exaggerators or fabricators, Stahl revisited her defector story last month (March 7, 2004) to eat a little crow. Stahl reports with some chagrin that at the time of her first broadcast, the U.S. government "had already concluded that Chalabi's defector was unreliable, and the CIA now admits it made a mistake in allowing his information to be included in [Secretary of State Colin] Powell's U.N. speech."

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Stahl re-interviews Chalabi and asks if he and his defector, whom she now calls "Major Hareeth," had "spun" 60 Minutes in the previous broadcast. No, he says, weakly, and peddles a limp filibuster.

Two cheers, then, for 60 Minutes, for being journalistic mensches and correcting the record. But a dozen rotten eggs for Vanity Fair, which allowed a similar defector to dump disinformation into its May 2002 feature "Iraq's Arsenal of Terror," by David Rose, and has yet to adequately correct the record.

I write "similar defector," but it's clear that 60 Minutes'defector is the same guy as Vanity Fair's. The INC introduced both 60 Minutes' Stahland Vanity Fair's Roseto an anonymous Iraqi major, and both news organizations interviewed him in early 2002; in both stories, the defector boasts of configuring newly purchased Renault trucks into mobile biological-weapons laboratories to escape inspector detection. (In the 60 Minutes version, the defector purchases seven Renault trucks; in Vanity Fair, eight.) An INC official tells 60 Minutes the defector "worked in a number of jobs, which we deem to be very important within the intelligence service." The Vanity Fair piece describes the defector procuring military goods for Iraqi intelligence. If the defector isn't one guy, he should be on the lookout for his clone.

Beyond his Renault caper, the defector doesn't say much else of substance on 60 Minutes. But Vanity Fair's Rose lets the defector essay at length about the prohibited weapons schemes under way when he defected in 2000: a long-range missile program, close to completion; plans to build chemical and biological warheads; seven specific locations where chemical and biological weapons are manufactured, designed, and tested; the existence of a nuclear weapons development site; and details about a "dirty bomb" project. The story even includes a map to the WMD sites. In the postwar cleanup, of course, none of these allegations seems to have checked out.

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In Rose's defense, his piece offers this disclaimer, "Although Vanity Fair cannot independently verify all the defector's claims, experts on Iraq say they are consistent with other established information and appear to be credible." Upon revisiting the subject for Vanity Fair in a glowing profile of Chalabi ("An Inconvenient Iraqi," January 2003), he qualifies the defector's bona fides: Rose acknowledges CIA thinking that the defector was untrustworthy and had "embroidered" his story to win sanctuary in the United States, but he still reiterates his faith in the defector.

If you still want to stone Rose for circulating INC hogwash, make sure to buy your rocks by the bushel—he wasn't the only journalist taken in by the INC. The group ran an info-buffet for journalists, feeding the data to reporters for 108 stories between October 2001 and May 2002, as the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau reported last month. The sensational details in many of those stories have never been confirmed.

Vanity Fair returns to the newsstands with an encyclopedic Iraq war tick-tock in the May 2004 issue, "The Path to War." It would seem the perfect venue for the magazine to concede its errors in advancing INC blarney. Instead, the article, by Bryan Burrough, Evgenia Peretz *, David Rose (yes, that David Rose), and David Wise, writes Vanity Fair out of the story, pointing the finger at the government and "the media." From the piece:

The I.N.C., an exile group based in London, had been supplying U.S. intelligence with Iraqi defectors whose information had often proved suspect or fabricated. …

[M]uch of the supposedly new intelligence which crossed the desks of Rumsfeld and Cheney originated with the I.N.C., a group the C.I.A. had long distrusted. In the fall of 2001, and for much of the next year, Chalabi's people produced a series of men and women termed "defectors" from Iraq, and they were accorded disproportionate influence. …

Beginning that winter [2001-2002], however, [the defectors'] stories achieved wide currency in the media. …

Unfortunately the Defense Intelligence Agency has concluded that most of the information from Chalabi's defectors "was of little or no value. … Several Iraqi defectors introduced to American intelligence" by the I.N.C. "invented or exaggerated their credentials as people with direct knowledge of the Iraqi government and its suspected unconventional weapons program."

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On Page 290 of the magazine, the authors refer to an Iraqi major "known to be a liar" who gave the United States information about Saddam's mobile biological-weapons labs. This couldn't be the same major David Rose puffed in the May 2002 Vanity Fair, could it? You'd never know from reading this piece. (See this Newsweekpiece for more about the CIA investigation of the defectors' credibility.)

After you finish hurling rocks at Vanity Fair, please rub your arm with some liniment and open fire on the New York Times and its reporter Judith Miller. Miller was one of the more eager consumers of defector baloney, as I cataloged here, but the newspaper of record has yet to untangle the lies from Iraqi defectors and exiles that Miller dutifully published.

Many Times readers have asked Public Editor Daniel Okrent to examine Miller's defective reporting, but he's declined, explaining in his blog that "I have decided as a matter of policy not to address issues that arose before my tenure began, except insofar as they relate to the paper's actions from December 1, 2003, forward. Were I to do this any other fashion, I would disappear into an endless tunnel."

Okrent did, however, ask Executive Editor Bill Keller for his response to the readers' Miller queries. Keller re-read the Miller coverage, but he also declined the request for an audit, writing:

I did not see a prima facie case for recanting or repudiating the stories. The brief against the coverage was that it was insufficiently skeptical, but that is an easier claim to make in hindsight than in context. (By context I mean such things as, what others were writing at the time, what role editors played in handling and presenting the stories, how credible the sources were, etc.)

Second, lacking prima facie evidence, opening a docket and litigating the claims against the coverage was likely to consume more of my attention than I was willing to invest. I decided that, in the absence of more persuasive complaints than I have seen so far, I would base my assessment of Judy's work on what she did on my watch.

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Okrent's "sorry, didn't happen on my watch" excuse and Keller's cost-benefit analysis shrug don't cut it. The INC ran a slick disinformation campaign during the runup to the war, placing its lies in scores of newspapers, magazines, and TV broadcasts. Most of the published fictions spewed by defectors and exiles have never been retracted or sorted out. If that isn't news, what is?

Instead, the Times leaves readers dangling. Did its reporters—primarily Miller—get hoodwinked by defectors? Could it have been prevented? What will the Times do to prevent it from happening again? Nobody is asking Keller for a 14,000-word Jayson Blair-style internal investigation of Times coverage, or for him to open a docket, or for him to preside over the public execution of Miller. An e-mail from Keller to an editor instructing him to assign a substantial, reported article about how a group of defectors exploited the Times month after month and helped sow the seeds for war would suffice. As 60 Minutes proved last month, there's little shame in saying "We were wrong," and much glory.

Addendum, April 13:Vanity Fair's mea culpa, if you want to call it that, appears not in its 22,000-word feature, where it belongs, but in Graydon Carter "Editor's Letter" on Page 58. As mea culpas go, it's paper-thin. Carter writes:

...Chalabi, it turns out, had basically duped the White House, the Pentagon, the New York Times and Vanity Fair with his Scheherazade-like tales of Baghdad's nuclear program and biological-weapons factories. It should be pointed out, however, that unlike the White House and the Pentagon, the Times and Vanity Fair did not use Chalabi's information to take the American people into an unwanted and unneccesary invasion of Iraq, a decision that has cost more than 550 U.S. lives and $100 billion as of early 2004, not to mention our country's good reputation with the rest of the world.

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As Elizabeth Spiers points out in her New York magazine blog, this sort of writing gives sophistry a bad name. Carter's editorial machine was no better at ferreting out INC fabrications and exaggerations than the White House and the Pentagon. Instead of acknowledging this and explaining why he gave the INC such a platform for its disinformation, he flippantly states that at least Vanity Fair didn't use the information to take America to war. (Say, how many divisions does Si Newhouse have?) For an editor so eager to hold the administration accountable, Carter sure gives himself and his magazine a wide berth.

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A jinx afflicts every writer who declaims the errors of others. Please e-mail mine to me pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Correction April 12, 2004: In the original version of this piece, the first name of writer Evgenia Peretz was misspelled. (Return to corrected paragraph.)