New York Times Should Come Clean with Its Readers

To the Public Editor:

I think the Times owes a response to James Bamford’s reporting (“The Man Who Sold the War”) on Judith Miller in Rolling Stone (17 November 2005). Miller, encouraged by the Rendon PR firm (which had largely created Chalabi‘s Iraqi National Congress) boosted the claims of Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri about Iraq’s WMDs, even though the CIA had determined him to be a liar. The White House cited Miller’s articles in the run-up to war.

Searching on al-Haideri’s name at the NYT website, I see this from
Daniel Okrent (30 May 2004):

If a defector like Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri is hailed by intelligence officials for providing ”some of the most valuable information” about chemical and biological laboratories in Iraq (”Defectors Bolster U.S. Case Against Iraq, Officials Say,’‘ by Judith Miller, Jan. 24, 2003), unfolding events should have compelled the paper to re-examine those assertions, and hold the officials publicly responsible if they did not pan out.

In that same story anonymous officials expressed fears that Haideri’s relatives in Iraq ”were executed as a message to potential defectors.”

Were they? Did anyone go back to ask? Did anything Haideri say have genuine value? Stories, like plants, die if they are not tended. So do the reputations of newspapers. Coddling sources — There is nothing more toxic to responsible journalism than an anonymous source. There is often nothing more necessary, too; crucial stories might never see print if a name had to be attached to every piece of information. But a newspaper has an obligation to convince readers why it believes the sources it does not identify are telling the truth. That automatic editor defense, ”We’re not confirming what he says, we’re just reporting it,” may apply to the statements of people speaking on the record. For anonymous sources, it’s worse than no defense. It’s a license granted to liars.

And this from the Editors (26 May 2004):

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.

The truth, as Bamford reports, is even worse than that, and the Times
should come clean with its readers, most of whom probably don’t pick up Rolling Stone.

Left Business ObserverDoug Henwood is the editor and publisher of the Left Business Observer. He is the author of Wall Street: How It Works and for Whom and After the New Economy: the Binge . . . and the Hangover That Won’t Go Away.