“U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts” blared the lead article of the New York Times on Sunday, September 8, 2002. That fateful article is now a notorious example of the disastrous symbiosis between the White House and corporate media.
Using White House sources, co-authors Judith Miller and Michael Gordon stated as fact that “Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium” for use in making nuclear bombs. The article warned that American officials are “alarmed” by Iraq’s “quest for nuclear weapons”: “The first sign of a `smoking gun,’ they argue, may be a mushroom cloud.”
Here was the perfect gift to President Bush’s quest for war: an article parroting the Administration’s own words on the front page of the liberal New York Times, “the newspaper of record.” Timed for the Sunday talk shows and their White House guests, the article was deployed within hours of its publication by Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, each seizing the opportunity to spread their scary disinformation to TV audiences throughout the country and the world.
On “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert, Cheney cited the article as evidence for the administration’s case: “There’s a story in the New York Times this morning…I want to attribute the Times. I don’t want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources, but it’s now public that, in fact, [Saddam Hussein] has been seeking to acquire…the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge” as a step toward building a nuclear bomb.
General Colin Powell, the media’s image of a moderate (despite such achievements as his cover-up of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, support for the contras in Nicaragua, and oversight of the invasion of Panama), was part of the show. In his interview on “Fox News Sunday” by Tony Snow and Brit Hume, Powell delivered a bellicose argument for quick “regime change” because “time is not on our side.” “As we saw in reporting just this morning,” he gravely warned, Hussein has ordered “the specialized aluminum tubing one needs to develop centrifuges that would give you an enrichment capability” for making nuclear bombs.
Condi Rice, interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s “Late Edition,” stated that the White House knows of “shipments going into Iraq” of aluminum tubes “that are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs.” She failed to mention that her own staff had been informed a year earlier of serious doubts about that claim. Borrowing a key phrase from the Times article, she warned, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
This phrase became a rallying cry used by President Bush on October 7 in Cincinnati in his speech that took the nation to war. “Iraq,” he said, “has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes and other equipment needed for gas centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.” “Facing clear evidence of peril,” he continued, “we cannot wait for the final proof–the smoking gun–that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”
Four days later, a cowering Congress surrendered to Bush the authority to make war.
So the collusion between the Bush Administration and the New York Times contributed to a catastrophic war. Journalists reported what White House sources reported and then the White House reported what the journalists reported. Even though the so-called facts–later revealed as bald concoctions–were already in dispute, White House fiction subtly morphed into truth because it bore the respected imprimatur of the Times.
After the damage had been done, Times editors published on May 26, 2004, a pathetically anemic apology, given the role they had played in facilitating a so-called War on Terror that threatens to be the Forever War. Embarrassed by blatantly false reports, the editors particularly mentioned six articles, including, of course, the September 8, 2002 history-making piece.
Judith Miller was responsible for more of the articles than any other reporter (author or co-author of four out of the six) but there were four other reporters who were authors or co-authors: Chris Hedges, John Tagliabue, Patrick E. Tyler, and Michael Gordon. Those five of course are not the only eager mouthpieces.
Now publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is blaming Times editors as well as Judith Miller for the phony pre-war reports about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He said editors “didn’t own up to it quickly enough.” Where was he? And why did the Times publish those jingoist articles about WMDs in Iraq in the midst of a massive White House campaign aimed at building support for Bush’s plan to take out Hussein and take Iraq? When it comes to foreign policy, the owners of the New York Times are embedded with the White House team that feeds “information” to the eager mouthpieces of corporate media. They share, for examples, the same clear positions on such crucial matters as Israel and Cuba.
Misinformation and disinformation in the New York Times and other corporate media are of course nothing new. Those who want to explore the sordid record, especially of the Times, should start by consulting Lies of Our Times, a monthly magazine published from January 1990 through December 1994; Edward Herman’s forthcoming article, “The New York Times Versus The Civil Society,” in the December, 2005, Z Magazine; and Howard Friel and Richard Falk’s The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy.
Judith Miller was able to use her job at a prestigious newspaper to embed herself with key personalities like Cheney’s favorite, Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi with Iranian ties able to produce lying defectors. At the White House itself Miller embedded herself with various acolytes of Dick Cheney, not just I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby. Her entanglement with John R. Bolton is equally insidious. Just as she collaborated with the White House to stampede us into invading Iraq, she attempted to do the same with Cuba.
In the spring of 2002 former President Jimmy Carter was scheduled to visit Havana, becoming the first president in or out of office to visit the island since the revolution of January 1, 1959. Because the visit was contrary to the White House policy of isolating Cuba with sanctions against travel and trade, the White House of course wanted to sabotage Carter’s trip. On May 6, six days before Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter were to fly to Havana, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton delivered a speech to the Heritage Foundation in Washington called “Beyond the Axis of Evil: Additional Threats from Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
He announced, “The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort. Cuba has provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states. We are concerned that such technology could support BW [biological warfare] programs in those states.”
On cue, Judith Miller immediately published in the New York Times an alarming article headlined “Washington Accuses Cuba of Germ-Warfare Research.” Framed in the “he says-she says” format of what passes for “objective” journalism nowadays, Miller adroitly presented the case on behalf of her White House connection. Who is the only person she could find to deny or even question Bolton’s claims? Why, a Cuban official, of course. On the other side, cited in support of Bolton were a Soviet defector, a Cuban defector, and unnamed “administration officials.”
Miller ended her article with a quote from right-wing Cuban-American Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart (Republican of Florida), who has publicly called for the assassination of President Fidel Castro. Diaz-Balart said that Bolton’s remarks “`begin to put into the proper perspective the debate about Cuba, a terrorist state with biological weapons 90 miles from the shores of the United States.'” Thus, the article proceeded from Bolton’s claim of a “research and development effort” to Diaz-Balart’s affirmation of “biological weapons” 90 miles from Florida.
Hurried newspaper readers would probably miss the article’s internal evidence indicating opposition to Bolton’s claim among Washington’s intelligence agencies. Miller reported that Bolton “publicly alluded to conclusions that American intelligence agencies have reached in recent months after protracted internal debate.”
Internal debate? What’s that about? An investigative reporter could have easily found out. Bolton’s unsubstantiated charge was so outrageous that it became one of the main issues in his failure to be confirmed by the Senate last summer as ambassador to the United Nations because he had tried to bully analysts into saying that there was a definite attempt by Cuba to develop biological weapons. Reportedly due to Cheney’s urging, Bush gave him the job anyway with a recess appointment.
The New York Times, which hardly pretends to cover news about Cuba fairly, seemed like a good site for promoting Bolton’s onslaught. Miller’s report aimed to convince Times readers that Cuba’s vaunted health system is actually a cover for terrorist activities. Why would Jimmy Carter want to visit a rogue nation armed with germ weapons? But this time the Administration was going too far. Even much of the rest of the corporate media recognized how perverse it was to portray Cuba’s health system, admired and helpful around the world, as a terrorist threat. There was a virtual chorus of “Where’s the evidence?” The Florida Sun-Sentinel brought up the question of timing, following up with an editorial that asked, “Where’s the beef?” New York’s Newsday called the charge of terrorism a “Preposterous suggestion,” noting that the upshot is that Cuba has “the most sophisticated biomedical resources in Latin America,” and adding, “So what?” Skeptical responses came from all over, including the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and the Guardian of London. (Bolton’s charge was part of a broader campaign alleging WMDs in Cuba, as explored in my article, “Looking for Terrorists in Cuba’s Health System,” Z Magazine, June 2003.)
Jimmy Carter did not call off his trip. Quite to the contrary. As he and Rosalyn took a tour with Fidel Castro of the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, he revealed that during briefings before his visit, he asked the White House, State Department and CIA if there were any “possible terrorist activities that were supported by Cuba,” and the answer from all three was “No.” Why didn’t Judith Miller do that? Why didn’t her editors make sure she did?
It would have been interesting to be the fly on the wall when Bolton visited Judith Miller last summer while she was in jail. Was it friendship or fear that took him there? The New York Times has never apologized for the May 7, 2002, report that promoted Bolton’s false charge about Cuba even though the editors must have heard what Carter had to say just a week later.
In October, as her stories continued to unravel, Miller told Times reporters, “`W.M.D.–I got it totally wrong.'” Blaming her sources, she said, “`The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them–we were all wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are wrong.'” It shouldn’t take much effort to find better sources than Ahmad Chalabi, John Bolton, Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney, and the rest of the Bush mob.