Is a New York Times columnist–or any columnist–free to make a false assertion and not have to correct it? According to the newly installed public editor of the Times, Daniel Okrent, the answer is yes.
Since the subject at hand is William Safire, a Times columnist who writes on language as well as politics, foreign affairs, and national security, let’s start with a definition.
Smoking gun n. Something that serves as indisputable evidence or proof, especially of a crime. So says The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Not much ambiguity there. Sticklers for precise language, keep that in mind.
On February 11, Safire published a column under the headline “Found: A Smoking Gun.” It stated that the Kurdish militia in Iraq had “captured a courier carrying a message that demolishes the repeated claim of Bush critics that there was never a ‘clear link’ between Saddam and Osama bin Laden.” This letter appeared to have been written by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a terrorist connected to Ansar al-Islam, an Islamic extremist group that had been based in northern Iraq, and it was a request to al Qaeda for assistance in sparking a civil war in Iraq. Though the February 9 New York Times front-page article that first revealed the existence of this letter noted that the message “does not speak to the debate about whether there was a Qaeda presence in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein era,” Safire pointed to this communication as indisputable evidence there had been an operational relationship between al Qaeda and Hussein. He wrote that this letter “is the smoking gun proving” that “a clear link existed” between the Iraqi dictator and al Qaeda.
But Safire was wrong. This postwar request for assistance from Zarqawi and Ansar al-Islam was not slam-dunk evidence of a prewar connection, even if it could have been read to suggest there might have been a preexisting relationship between al Qaeda and Hussein. And since Ansar al-Islam was operating in northern Iraq, in territory not controlled by Hussein’s regime, the act of linking al Qaeda through Ansar al-Islam to Hussein was an iffy, if not disingenuous, exercise. But, more importantly, The New York Times reported on February 20 that, according to “senior American officials,” US intelligence “had picked up signs that Qaeda members outside Iraq had refused a request from the group, Ansar al-Islam, for help in attacking Shiite Muslims in Iraq.” Al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam appeared to be operating separately.