William Safire, New York Times columnist, doesn’t know what he’s talking (or writing) about. Who says? The New York Times.
Underneath the headline, “Found: A Smoking Gun,” Safire on February 11 wrote a column that maintained a “clear link” existed between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. A from-the-start supporter of the war in Iraq, Safire was declaring that one of Bush’s main rationales for the invasion–a supposed operational relationship between Al Qaeda and Hussein’s regime–was solid. In doing so, he was taking on all those who have challenged or questioned this Bush claim–a long list that even includes the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House intelligence committee who last September concluded that the prewar intelligence did not contain information to support the charge that Hussein had been in league with bin Laden.
What did Safire base his case-closed pronouncement upon? A New York Times story that had appeared a day earlier. Written by reporter Dexter Filkins (in Baghdad) and also based on reporting done by Douglas Jehl (in Washington), the front-pager revealed that the Kurds had intercepted a courier for Ansar al-Islam, a fundamentalist terrorist group that had been based in northern Iraq. The messenger, Hassan Ghul, had on him a CD-ROM that contained a seventeen-page document that appeared to be a letter from the head of Ansar al-Islam, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to Al Qaeda requesting assistance. Ansar al-Islam wanted to start an Iraqi civil war by attacking Shi’ite Muslims, and Zarqawi was hoping Al Qaeda would help him.
A-ha, exclaimed Safire, here was the proof that Safire himself was correct when he wrote on September 24, 2001–“not two weeks after 9/11”–that Hussein was linked to Al Qaeda through Ansar al-Islam. And he praised the work of the reporters involved. But Safire was molding facts more than he was marshaling them.
The actual New York Times story Safire relied upon said that the letter was not evidence of a link between al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam. Filkins’ dispatch noted that if the document was authentic, it would “constitute the strongest evidence to date of contacts between extremists in Iraq and Al Qaeda. But it does not speak to the debate about whether there was a Qaeda presence in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein era, nor is there any mention [in the request for help] of a collaboration with Hussein loyalists.”
Safire ignored this important qualifier. In his column, he referred to Ansar al-Islam as an “Qaeda affiliate” and approvingly quoted George W. Bush describing Zarqawi before the war as an “Al Qaeda leader.” But Safire did not mention that when CIA chief George Tenet testified before the Senate intelligence committee in February 2003, Tenet said that while the CIA believed Ansar al-Islam had received funding from Al Qaeda, Zarqawi considered himself and his network “quite independent” of Al Qaeda. Receiving money from Al Qaeda might qualify Ansar al-Islam as an “affiliate,” but according to Tenet’s testimony Zarqawi was no “Al Qaeda leader.”
In his column, Safire was making a triple-play argument–from bin Laden to Zarqawi to Hussein–to claim that there had been an Al Qaeda-Iraq partnership. And he pointed to a remark that Secretary of State Colin Powell made during his February 5, 2003, presentation to the U.N. Security Council: “Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden.” But Powell and the Bush administration has not been able to show that Hussein was firmly linked to Ansar al-Islam. After all, the group operated in the northern territory, where Baghdad had limited control. Moreover, in January, when Powell was asked whether there was evidence linking Hussein and Al Qaeda, he replied, “There is not–you know, I have not seen smoking-gun concrete evidence about the connection, but I think the possibility of such connections did exist and it was prudent to consider them at the time that we did.” In other words, the administration had nothing to prove there was an Al Qaeda-Iraq alliance (with or without Ansar al-Islam in between). For some reason, Safire did not share this information with his readers.
So Safire ignored what his paper’s own reporters reported, and he juggled a highly selective set of factoids to make a rather serious charge: Ansar al-Islam equals Al Qaeda. He also ridiculed as “simply silly” the notion that strong evidence was necessary to make this case, deriding those skeptics who would demand that “the Ansar boss in Iraq must be found carrying an official Qaeda membership card signed by bin Laden.”
But the last laugh (of derision) was on Safire. According to whom? The New York Times. Ten days after Safire’s “smoking-gun” column, a page-one story by Douglas Jehl (the same Jehl whom Safire had hailed), reported that Ansar al-Islam “appears to be operating mostly apart from Al Qaeda, senior American officials say.” Whoops.
Jehl’s report continued: “Most significantly, the officials said, American intelligence had picked up signs that Qaeda members outside Iraq had refused a request from the group, Ansar al-Islam, for help in attacking Shi’ite Muslims in Iraq.” Double whoops.
It seems that Zarqawi had asked for help, and bin Laden had said no. Is this how inseparable comrades-in-terrorism operate? Jehl’s sources noted that Al Qaeda’s rebuff was “an indication of a significant divide between the groups.” Now, as Jehl’s sources said, it would be a mistake to consider Al Qaeda’s refusal to provide assistance as definitive evidence that the two outfits were at odds and unable to hook up in the future. “But, officials said, there are growing indications,” Jehl wrote, “that the two groups are distinct and independent, and are embracing different tactics and agendas.”
Now what had Safire said about that smoking gun request for help? Safire–perhaps following the lead of his commander-in-chief–had too eagerly overstated evidence. He had cited a postwar request for aid as a no-doubt-about-it evidence of a prewar alliance. That was a clumsy sleight-of-hand. And then it turned out that this request was not even proof of a current relationship between these two bands of terrorists.
This was not a first for Safire. He has often hyperbolically exclaimed, “case closed,” in discussing the supposed Al Qaeda-Iraq connection, frequently pointing to the so-called Prague connection. In a November 25 column, he again noted that after the 9/11 attacks Czech intelligence had reported that 9/11 mastermind Mohamed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague several months before the assault. But the CIA and the FBI had long ago concluded this Czech report was probably untrue–a development reported more than once in the pages of–you’ve guessed it–the New York Times. Still, Safire insisted the Atta-in-Prague story was worthy of further investigation.
Two weeks later, though, a major newspaper–yes, it was the New York Times–reported that Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, the Iraqi intelligence officer alleged to have met with Atta, told American interrogators (after he had been nabbed by US forces in July) that the meeting with Atta never happened. The newspaper also disclosed that captured senior operatives of Al Qaeda had denied any alliance between Al Qaeda and Hussein. Quoting a classified intelligence report, the Times said that Abu Zubaydah, one of the most senior Al Qaeda leaders held by the United States, told the CIA that several Al Qaeda operatives had considered exploiting Hussein’s antipathy toward the United States to obtain military equipment from Iraq. But, Zubaydah added, bin Laden vetoed the idea of working with the corrupt and irreligious Hussein. Safire did not praise this particular Times piece.
As the Atta-in-Prague story currently stands, it sure looks like Safire was wrong. That is, if you believe the New York Times. And in a recent piece in Salon, Barry Lando, a former producer for 60 Minutes, demolished a series of columns in which Safire accused several French companies of helping Iraq obtain rocket fuel components.
Safire ended his February 11, 2004, piece with a most disingenuous assertion. He noted that there were three reasons for the Iraq war: stopping mass murder; Hussein’s ties to terrorism; and the “reasoned judgment that Saddam had a bioweapon that could wipe out a city.” As for the first, there was no mass murder occurring at the time of the invasion. In a January 2004 report, Human Rights Watch noted that Hussein’s mass killings had mainly occurred in 1988, during an anti-Kurd genocide, and in 1991, when Hussein suppressed the post-Gulf War uprisings that President George H.W. Bush had encouraged but not supported. “Brutal as Saddam Hussein’s reign had been,” the report noted, “the scope of the Iraqi governments killing in March 2003 was not of the exceptional and dire magnitude that would justify humanitarian intervention…. [B]y the time of the March 2003 invasion, Saddam Hussein’s killing had ebbed.” So Bush’s invasion had not stopped any genocidal massacres.
As for Hussein’s bioweapons, Safire wrote, “in time we are likely to find a buried suitcase containing that, too.” (Too? What else has been found? No weapons of mass destruction so far.) Yet in a February 5 speech, Tenet said that while the CIA had concluded before the war that Iraq had a bioweapons development program, “we said we had no specific information on the types or quantities of weapons, agent, or stockpiles at Baghdad’s disposal.” Does Safire know something that Tenet doesn’t?
If a newspaper columnist writes articles that defy the reality reported by the paper’s own correspondents, how should the paper’s editors and publisher respond? Should they question the columnist’s judgment and powers of evaluation? Should they print corrections? Columnists are certainly entitled to their views. They are free to speculate and suppose. They can draw–or suggest–connections that go beyond just-the-facts reporting. But Safire’s recent work–unburdened by factchecking, unchallenged by editors–shows he is more intent on manipulating than interpreting the available information. His February 11 masterpiece is evidence his commitment to scoring political points exceeds his commitment to the truth. Under the cover of opinion journalism, he is dishing out disinformation. How is that of service to the readers of the New York Times?
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