Politics & Policy

An Unapologetic Apology

The Times is only sorry it wasn't more antiwar.

Last week, the New York Times issued an unusual mea culpa about the history of its Iraq coverage. This strange self-flagellation was published in multiple newspapers around the United States, and gained wide coverage in the blogosphere. Unfortunately, America’s “paper of record,” in the wake of a steady accumulation of evidence of Iraqi WMD stocks and programs, and ties to al Qaeda, was not apologizing for the near-uniform negativity of its assessments of the Bush administration’s pre-war intelligence. The Times is sorry it wasn’t negative enough.

The “Correction” article, published on May 26, started out with a healthy dose of self-hugging. “We found an enormous amount of journalism that we are proud of,” it read. “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…”

KICK THE ANTI-CHALABI COVERAGE UP A NOTCH

But “looking back,” the correction stated, “we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged–or failed to emerge.” The Times believes that its “problematic articles” shared a common feature: They relied on those Iraqi “anti-Saddam campaigners” hanging around Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress. The Times regrets that it and certain U.S. officials “fell for misinformation” from these “exile sources.” The only exile named is Chalabi.

The logical extension of this surmise, then, is that the Times should have run even more anti-Chalabi hit pieces than it has already. But how could it? Almost every anti-Chalabi claim ever spun by the unnamed desk-bound solons in the CIA and State Department, no matter how ill-founded, found an instant national audience in the Times’s pages. For example, the headline of Douglas Jehl’s article on September 29, 2003, screamed that our spy “Agency Belittles Information Given by Iraq Exiles,” especially Ahmad Chalabi. Other Douglas Jehl stories, all pre-dating Chalabi’s “fall” in May 2004, read, “Pentagon Pays Iraq Group, Supplier of Incorrect Spy Data,” and, “Stung by Exiles’ Role, C.I.A. Orders a Shift in Procedures.” The Times, on the other hand, had no comment about General Richard Meyers’s recent testimony before Congress, in which he baldly stated that Chalabi’s INC had “saved American lives” time and again by its accurate intelligence about anti-coalition forces.

SALMAN PAK

The correction article enumerated a few examples of not being liberal enough: In the autumn of 2001, “page 1 articles cited Iraqi defectors who described a secret Iraqi camp where Islamic terrorists were trained and biological weapons produced.” But alas! “These accounts have never independently been verified,” and thus presumably should never have even been reported. Implication? The “defectors” were probably lying. The weekend correction piece tried to make the “secret Iraqi camp” even more willowy and insubstantial by not giving it a name–which, of course, was Salman Pak.

I don’t accept the Times’s premise here. Indeed, as a trial attorney, “verifying” the existence and true purpose of Salman Pak in, say, a court of law would be one of the easier things I could manage. The fact that the Salman Pak terrorist-training school, 25 kilometers south of Baghdad, was first brought to the attention of the world through the INC ought to boost Chalabi’s credibility before any reasonable jury. How? Let’s look at the evidence.

Interviewed about Salman Pak by the Times and PBS’s Frontline in October of 2001, Iraqi defector and army Captain Sabah Khodada had this to say about the purpose:

Training is majorly on terrorism. They would be trained on assassinations, kidnapping, hijacking of airplanes, hijacking of buses, public buses, hijacking of trains and all other kinds of operations related to terrorism.

Khodada pointed out that there was even a camp-within-the-camp devoted entirely to the training of foreign jihadists. Who were these people? His answer: “They look like they’re mostly from the Gulf, sometimes from areas close to Yemen, from their dark skin…”

The airplane-hijacking courses were especially intensive, Khodada recalled. The foreign terrorists would later break into small groups and study the local language of the target nation, such as Hebrew or English. Asked about the 9/11 attacks of the previous month, Khodada was adamant:

I assure you, this operation was conducted by people who were trained by Saddam. And I’m going to keep assuring the world this is what happened. Osama bin Laden has no such capabilities. Why? Because these kind of attacks must be, and have to be, organized by a capable state, such as Iraq; a state where they can provide high level of training, and they can provide high level of intelligence to do such training.

The camp has a “real whole 707 plane, a whole real plane, standing in the middle of the training area in this camp,” Captain Khodada related. This 707 was used to teach terrorists how to take over commercial airliners and subdue and terrorize the pilots and crew with materials already available on the aircraft, such as plastic knives, pencils, and the like.

Saddam’s government, of course, denied even that an airplane existed 25 kilometers southeast of Baghdad. Iraq’s U.N. ambassador, Mohammed Aldouri, smiled genially and told Frontline in the fall of 2001: “I am lucky that I know the area, this Salman Pak. This is a very beautiful area with gardens, with trees,” Aldouri said. “It is not possible to do such a program there, because there’s no place for planes.” Who ultimately turned out to be more credible–Captain Khodada, or Ambassador Aldouri?

The New York Times apparently believes that Saddam’s man at the U.N., Ambassador Aldouri, must have been telling the truth all along. Khodada and the other defector, although no evidence ever surfaced to discredit them, must have lied–apparently because the prince of darkness, Ahmad Chalabi, brought them out to talk to the press. But if the Times was remiss in its coverage, it was not for reporting on Khodada’s story. The bias was for not reporting the corroboration of Khodada’s story.

If the CIA had photos of Salman Pak at that time, it chose not to release them to the public in the wake of the Times/Frontline story, perhaps for fear of validating Ahmad Chalabi. A private U.S. satellite-photo company, Space Imaging, then searched its archives and duly found a photo showing the Boeing 707 parked in the Salman Pak compound. There was no airstrip in sight. The private Space Imaging photo, amazingly, exactly matched the personal drawing Captain Khodada had made for the 2001 Times/Frontline story–before the photo was retrieved. Evidently Captain Khodada must have had extraordinary telepathic drawing capabilities.

In reading the “Correction” lamenting the supposedly nonexistent “verification” of Salman Pak, it’s obvious that the Times forgot what the UNSCOM inspectors discovered about Salman Pak during the mid-’90s. Then-deputy UNSCOM chief Charles Duelfer, who now heads the Iraq Survey Group searching the country for WMDs, personally visited the terrorism camp around 1995 and saw the Boeing. “He saw the 707, in exactly the place described by the defectors,” the liberal-leaning London Observer reported. “The Iraqis, he said, told UNSCOM it was used by ‘police’ for counter-terrorist training.” “Of course we automatically took out the word ‘counter’,” Duelfer explained. “I’m surprised that people seem to be shocked that there should be terror camps in Iraq. Like, derrrrrr! I mean, what, actually, do you expect?”

Even before Duelfer visited Salman Pak, UNSCOM had a file on it. A U.N. team that toured one of the “campus” buildings in 1994 found a decontamination shower and airlock doors, which were obvious hallmarks of a high-risk environment. Sensing something big was being concealed, the inspectors attempted to excavate a recently dug and refilled trench there, looking for something that had been quickly buried in anticipation of their arrival. The digging met with what inspectors called a “nearly hysterical” Iraqi reaction. Saddam called in compliant Sunni mullahs to declare the barren stretch of sand “sacred” and off limits. UNSCOM backed down. Salman Pak kept its secrets.

If Ahmad Chalabi, Captain Khodada, Space Imaging, Inc., and UNSCOM Deputy Chief Charles Duelfer were presumably all lying or misled about Salman Pak, the Iraq war itself would have exposed this unlikely conspiracy. For example, at the location of the mystery camp, the Marines who conquered this area during the three-week war would find no 707 jetliner parked in the sand. Unfortunately for the Times, they did.

In April 2003, advance elements of the 3rd Marine Battalion shelled the camp, and then overran it. They corroborated the defectors’ reports in striking detail. “The rusted shell of an old passenger jet sat out in a field, its tail broken off,” the Associated Press embed reported. “The passenger plane’s sun-bleached fuselage lay alone in a large, barren field. A fire engine sat at one intersection. Elsewhere, the twisted metal wreck of a double-decker bus stood near three decrepit green and red train cars.”

There was a lot of chatter among the captured foreign jihadists in Iraq about Salman Pak. As U.S. Army spokesman Brigadier General Vincent Brooks told reporters that week at his regular press briefing, “The nature of the work being done by some of those people that we captured, their inferences to the type of training that they received, all of these things give us the impression that there was terrorist training that was conducted at Salman Pak.”

To believe that Salman Pak was not a terrorism graduate school for al Qaeda members and affiliates like Abu Musab Zarqawi, you have to imagine that the Boeing 707, the double-decker bus, and the train cars found by the Marines must really have been put there for a bizarre Iraqi remake of the American movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

URANIUM AND ROCKETS SURE LOOK LIKE WMD…

The Times next “criticize[d]” itself not for reporting on a claim about Iraq’s large-scale efforts at procuring high-strength aluminum tubes, but for reporting on the challenges to this claim half-way through its lengthy article. Apparently, the Times believes it was supposed to criticize the uranium-enrichment claim at the beginning of the article–before it described the basic claim itself. The key dispute was not the purchasing of the tubes; everyone acknowledged that. The dispute was that the United States asserted that these tubes were for a uranium-enrichment program, and Iraq maintained that these tubes were simply for firing conventional rockets.

Once again, the Times forgets about the U.N. resolutions prohibiting Iraq from ordering or having high-strength tubes at all. Iraq was thumbing its nose at the U.N., and enduring billions of dollars of lost oil revenue per year as a result, so it could buy tubes for small conventional rockets, as now claimed by IAEA head Mohammed al-Baradei? The New York Times apparently now believes this claim, in retrospect, to have been so self-evidently true that the Times should not even have given the Bush administration’s conclusions about uranium enrichment the dignity of a discussion.

UNSCOM and the IAEA historically had a more nuanced picture of Iraq’s nuclear capabilities, to say the least. When Saddam booted the U.N. inspectors in 1998, the IAEA was able to confidently conclude that although there were as yet

“no indications to suggest that Iraq was successful in its attempt to produce nuclear weapons,” it was the case that “Iraq was at, or close to, the threshold of success in such areas as the production of highly enriched uranium through the EMIS process, the production and pilot cascading of single-cylinder sub-critical gas centrifuge machines, and the fabrication of the explosive package for a nuclear weapon (emphasis added).

In other words, it’s not as if the idea hadn’t occurred to Saddam. But when it became clear that America was using Saddam’s tube-procurement as an argument for going to war, the current IAEA head Mohammed al-Baradei definitively switched course and told the world that he believed the tubes were for little rockets.

Finally the Times feels bad that it “never followed up on the veracity” of a certain Iraqi chemical-weapons scientist, who told the U.S. troops in the wake of the invasion last year that Saddam had “destroyed chemical weapons and biological warfare equipment” only days before the invasion, that Saddam had transported WMDs to Syria, its fellow Baathist terror regime, and that Saddam had cooperated with al Qaeda.

For once in its mea culpa, the Times got it right, though not for the reason it thinks. The paper surely should have investigated these claims. If it had done so, it might have learned that the chief of Israeli military intelligence, in addition to David Kay of the Iraq Survey Group, CentCom itself, and at least two former Iraqi intelligence officials have now reported evidence of Saddam’s late pass-off of the WMDs to Syria. These recent lines of evidence include specific locations of WMD stockpiles within Syria, and, most recently, in the Bekka Valley in Syrian-occupied Lebanon as well.

If Times editors were really interested in unbiased reporting from Iraq, it might have “followed up on the veracity” of dozens of former regime officials who have made startlingly consistent and intransigent claims about the depth of the threat from Iraq, especially concerning Iraq’s operational links in logistics, training, finance, and manpower support for Osama bin Laden and his murderers. A few more trips outside of the Green Zone and into Salman Pak for Times reporters would have made a world of difference in the Gray Lady’s Iraq coverage.

Christopher S. Carson is a Milwaukee attorney in private practice.

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