U.S. Newspapers “Cry Wolf”

The Guardian

December 17, 2002

Last week brought yet another terrifying headline from an American newspaper: “US suspects al-Qaida got nerve agent from Iraqis”.

The 1,800-word story in the Washington Post last Thursday got off to a reasonably promising start by saying: “The Bush administration has received a credible report that Islamic extremists affiliated with al-Qaida took possession of a chemical weapon in Iraq last month or late in October, according to two officials with firsthand knowledge of the report and its source.”

Less promisingly, the second paragraph begins: “If the report proves true … ” The remaining 28 paragraphs offer little to suggest that it actually is true, and several reasons for thinking it may not be. Paragraph six tells us: “Like most intelligence, the reported chemical weapon transfer is not backed by definitive evidence.”

Paragraph eight says: “Even authorised spokesmen, with one exception, addressed the report on the condition of anonymity. They said the principal source on the chemical transfer was uncorroborated, and that indications it involved a nerve agent were open to interpretation.”

In paragraph 12, we are told that the report may be connected to a warning message circulated to American forces overseas and an unnamed official is cited as saying that the message resulted only from an analyst’s hypothetical concern.

As one would expect from the Washington Post, the story is carefully written and meticulously researched. But it’s basically worthless.

The reporter had clearly spoken to a lot of different people but he failed – not for want of effort – to substantiate the claim that Iraq provided al-Qaida with nerve gas. Although some officials were happy to describe the claim as “credible”, none appeared willing to stand up and say that they, personally, believed it.

The sensible course of action at that stage would have been to abandon the story, or at least file it away in the hope of more evidence coming to light. That might have happened with any other story, but in the case of Iraq at present the temptation to publish is hard to resist.

This particular story was more tempting than many because it carried, as the American military would say, a multiple warhead. It not only suggested that Iraq – contrary to its recent declaration – does possess chemical weapons but, additionally, that it has close links with al-Qaida.

The effect, if not the intention, of publishing the story was to give currency to both these ideas. Stories in the Washington Post are instantly regurgitated by other news organisations around the world, usually at much shorter length and without all the cautionary nuances of the original.

Iraq itself helped the story along by issuing a denial which – since it could produce no evidence by way of rebuttal – simply sounded unconvincing.

The Post’s story is also discussed on the BBC website. Under the headline “Wanted: an Iraqi link to al-Qaida “, Paul Reynolds, the website’s world affairs correspondent, views it as part of a long and unsuccessful effort to link Iraq with al-Qaida.

“One of the most intriguing questions in the ‘war on terrorism’,” he writes, “is whether there are contacts between Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaida network. Intelligence agencies are constantly looking for the ‘missing link’.”

The quotation marks around “missing link” distance the BBC from the idea that such a link exists, though the definite article preceding it suggests otherwise. Why are intelligence agencies looking for “the” missing link and not “a” missing link?

Journalistically, it’s more interesting to talk about a “missing” link than a “possible” link but even when the tone of discussion is sceptical – as it was in the BBC’s case – there’s still a drip effect. The more we mention missing links, the more people will assume they are out there somewhere, waiting to be found.

The risk of giving currency to false or questionable claims is now a daily problem for those of us who try to write about Iraq without turning into other people’s weapons of mass deception.

Even a simple reference to Iraq’s weaponry can be problematic. Some readers object that “weapons of mass destruction” is a tendentious phrase. “Chemical, biological and nuclear” is accurately descriptive, though it becomes too much of a mouthful when used repeatedly in a story. Reuters news agency and others increasingly – and rather emotively – talk about “doomsday weapons”. In practice, “doomsday” is beginning to mean anything nasty possessed by Iraq, though not by the United States.

Last Wednesday, for example, a Reuters report stated: “The United States threatened possible nuclear retaliation against Iraq if its forces or allies were attacked with doomsday weapons.” Let’s see how that looks the other way round: “The United States threatened retaliation with doomsday weapons against Iraq if its forces or allies were attacked with chemicals.”

In terms of mass death, it takes 28 Halabjas to make one Hiroshima.

Meanwhile, to the delight of pharmaceutical companies, the United States is pressing ahead with its smallpox vaccination programme – though the recent New York Times “scoop” about an Iraqi smallpox threat looks increasingly shaky. On December 3, Judith Miller, the paper’s “bioterrorism expert” reported an unverified claim that a Russian scientist, who once had access to the Soviet Union’s entire collection of 120 strains of smallpox, may have visited Iraq in 1990 and may have provided the Iraqis with a version of the virus that could be resistant to vaccines and could be more easily transmitted as a biological weapon. (See “Poisoning the Air”, World Dispatch, December 9.)

Since the article was published, colleagues of the now-dead scientist, Nelja Maltseva, have said that she last visited Iraq in 1971-72 (as part of a global smallpox eradication effort) and last travelled abroad (to Finland) in 1982.

Another of Ms Miller’s scoops, on November 12, cited “senior Bush administration officials” as saying that Iraq had ordered a million doses of atropine, which is an antidote to nerve gas, but also a routine drug for treating heart patients. This was interpreted as evidence that Iraq not only possesses nerve gas but intends to use it in a conflict with the United States – hence the need to protect its own forces from accidental injury.

The US then threatened to block a continuation of Iraq’s oil-for-food programme unless atropine were included in the list of “suspect” items that Iraq cannot import without permission from the United Nations’ sanctions committee.

As I pointed out in world dispatch last week, the sudden horror over atropine was very strange, given that the US had previously allowed Iraq to buy large quantities on normal medical grounds, and that UN had lifted all restrictions on Iraqi purchases of the drug only six months earlier.

This highly relevant information, which Ms Miller had failed to mention, eventually found its way into the Washington Post and the wires of Associated Press. The response from the New York Times was to run the Associated Press report without reference to Ms Miller’s flawed scoop.

By no means do all the dubious scare stories about Iraq come from shadowy intelligence sources or officials who can’t be named.

Last September, Turkish police announced the arrest of two men in a taxi who were apparently smuggling 35lb of weapons-grade uranium to Iraq from somewhere near the Syrian border. But a few days later it emerged that the material was harmless, containing only zinc, iron, zirconium and manganese. Its actual weight was only 5lb but the police, in their excitement, had weighed the lead container as well.

One day, perhaps, one of these scare stories may turn out to be true – but don’t hold your breath waiting for it. In the meantime, readers are welcome to send more examples by email, to the address below.

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