NYT’s Greatest Terror Threat Since 9-11 Echoes Iraq WMD Reporting

Ten years after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and just one month before the world commemorates the 12th Anniversary of the 2001 September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the State Department issued a new al-Qaeda "Terror Warning," prompting the U.S. to temporarily close nearly two dozen American diplomatic missions in the Middle East and North Africa-including facilities in Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia-and issuing travel alerts to U.S. citizens. The New York Times has produced a series of in-depth reports on these "most serious plots against United States and other Western interests since Sept. 11, 2001." The problem? The paper's reporting depends heavily on anonymous sources similar to its reporting on Iraqi "Weapons of Mass Destruction" (WMD) before and immediately after the U.S. invasion of Iraq ten years ago. 

Howard Friel is author of the forthcoming book (September), Chomsky and Dershowitz: On Endless War and the End of Civil Liberties (Olive Branch Press, 2013). His most recent book is The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight about Global Warming (Yale University Press, 2010). He also is coauthor with Richard Falk of The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy (Verso, 2004) and Israel-Palestine on Record: How The New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East (Verso, 2007). Howard is also an NYTX Advisory Council member. NYTX's Chris Spannos interviewed him. 

Chris Spannos (CS): When I read the Times early reporting on this new terror threat, such as Eric Schmitt's August 2 "Qaeda Messages Prompt U.S. Terror Warning," I was struck by the overwhelming reliance on sources cited as "Intelligence officials said," "Security analysts said," "Pentagon officials said," and so on. What was your reaction when you read the Times' reporting? 

Howard Friel (HF): My reaction was, Why does the Times continue to permit administration sources to make these kinds of serious pronouncements anonymously, in likely violation of the Times' own editorial standards on confidential sources? And, What is the problem, if the information is credible, with senior administration officials going on record by name?  

All you have to do is think about this for two seconds. In March of this year, James Clapper, director of national intelligence, sitting under oath in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, lied to the committee, in violation of federal law, while denying that the NSA collects electronic communication data-emails and phone calls-from millions of Americans not suspected of a crime. And he wasn't fired by President Obama for lying to Congress. 

Now all of that says a lot. For one thing, it says that if high-ranking administration officials are willing to lie in person in public to the Congress, it stands to reason that there is a very high risk that those officials will lie when they are permitted to speak anonymously to the public through the press. Given this obvious risk of lying, apparently with protection from the president, why would the Times' top reporters and editors permit Obama officials to use their newspaper as an instrument of these intense anonymous claims about this major threat of terrorism? Why not get it on record with a name attached to it? Get James Clapper, he's the head of U.S. intelligence, by name saying that this is the biggest terrorist threat since 9/11, which is what the administration has claimed. Or get John Brennan, director of central intelligence, on record to say that.  

But the Times won't do this because they want the story. They want ongoing access to these same officials, which probably would be burned if they held these people to a higher standard of disclosure. And if the Times did burn these bridges, because this administration, and especially this administration, is vindictive and punitive, they wouldn't get the next big story either.  

Do I know what the facts are behind this story? I do not. But these claims are being issued to the public by the highest ranking officials in the United States through the most prestigious news organization in the United States, but I don't think we should trust those claims because the manner in which they are delivered to the public is self-serving on both sides. And if the process is corrupt, there is less reason to view the substance as believable. 

CS: Say more on this point please. Eric Schmitt in the above article begins by reporting that the U.S. intercepted electronic communications from "senior operatives of Al Qaeda" that discussed attacks against American interests in the Middle East and North Africa. Can you elaborate on what you think about the evidence that the Times provides and how does their use of sources reflect on the credibility of their reporting? 

HF: There is no way for any of us to assess the substantive aspects of these reports, including the one by Eric Schmitt. But the process, the circumstances, and the track record are all a cause for skepticism. Let's look quickly at the circumstances of the report by Schmitt.   

That report, which I believe was the first of the reports that we're talking about, was published by the Times on August 2. On July 31 a congressional hearing, sponsored by Congressmen Justin Amash and Alan Grayson, was scheduled to take place on the NSA surveillance, with NSA critic Glenn Greenwald, former NSA official Kirk Wiebe, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Cato Institute scheduled to testify. That would have been the first public hearing featuring very prominent and knowledgeable critics of the NSA surveillance.  

Up to that point, congressional hearings featured high-ranking Obama administration officials who issued very tightly circumscribed or misleading testimony, as in the case at least of Clapper. But Obama personally intervened with the Congress at the last minute to have the Amash-Grayson hearing cancelled. Two days later, on August 2, the Schmitt report was published, using high-ranking anonymous sources from the Obama administration, which said that U.S. electronic surveillance of some Al Qaeda operatives had uncovered a major terrorist plot. 

What should we conclude about this chain of events? An imminent high-profile congressional hearing featuring expert NSA critics, which promised days of critical news coverage of the surveillance programs, and possibly new revelations, suddenly vanishes after pressure from Obama. That sudden turn of events is followed almost immediately by anonymous reports on the front page of the New York Times that the government had intercepted electronic communications that portend a terrorist plot on the scale of 9/11.Obama, at a minimum, knowing that the Times was about to publish a major story on the electronic interception of a terrorist plot using his people as the source, appears to have personally intervened with the Congress to clear the road for that story to run unsullied through the news media. If the president behaves this way, again in public, like Clapper, what might we reasonably expect his people to do and say behind the mask of anonymity to the press?  

I'm not saying that the Times should not have reported what the administration said about this alleged terrorist threat. Who knows what's going on? I have no idea whether there is a terrorist threat or not. But what I am saying is that the Times should have rejected the administration's apparent intention to transmit these claims to the public on an individually anonymous basis. There is no reason for anonymity here. There are no sources and methods at risk for a Clapper or a Brennan to tie their names, their judgment, and their credibility to these charges. That should be part of their job description, which might introduce some accountability, which in turn might make such pronouncements in the future more credible. And that's where I think the Times standards are terribly lacking, by not holding out against government assertions about the need for official anonymity, not just in this instance, but for a long time now.  

Which brings us to the track record on Iraq and WMD. Note the table at the bottom of this interview with examples from The Record of the Paper of the Times'

use of anonymous sources during the run-up and immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Iraq and WMD is by no means the only example, but it is easily among the most catastrophic examples I can think of when it comes to the Times' publication of repeated anonymous official claims. It's simply incredible, given the record at the Times of printing anonymous administration claims about an Iraqi WMD threat to push the country to war, that the Times would so easily resort once again to publishing anonymous administration claims about a terrorist threat comparable to 9/11. 

CS: The Times does not rely only on anonymous or government sources. For example, in their August 5 co-authored piece, "Qaeda Leader's Edict to Yemen Affiliate Is Said to Prompt Alert," Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti also quote-among "Counterterrorism analysts, as well as former intelligence official"-"a Yemen scholar at Princeton," whom they cite by name. How do you make sense of these exceptions? 

HF: These terrorism experts don't know anything more about the facts pertaining to this current terrorism threat than you or I do. They're just as much in the dark as we are. Yet they often comment, including in this case, as if they know somehow what the facts are. Or they simply assume that the anonymous claims by administration officials are true, and comment accordingly. In my view, in the context of the anonymous administration claims, the use by the Times of these experts compounds the insult to the readers of the Times, because they more often than not are consulted and quoted to provide a veneer of authoritative authentication to the anonymous claims, and, in a sense, to the Times use of anonymous government sources. 

CS: In your book with Richard Falk, The Record of the Paper, you discuss at length how Judith Miller, then reporting for the Times, relied on mostly anonymous sources while reporting on Iraqi "WMD" during the run-up and immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 (chapter 3, pg. 104-114). The table below provides samples. In what way is the Times' reporting on this latest terror threat similar or different from their past reporting on Iraq? 

HF: Judith Miller was a serial offender both before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq with respect to using anonymous government sources. But there were others. Michael Gordon comes to mind. He's still there, while Miller is not. The table below should reveal the extent to which Miller used anonymous Bush administration sources. 

CS: It's common for Times journalists to rely on anonymous sources when reporting on national security or criminal justice stories. However, even the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage gives instructions for their journalists to not rely on rote phrases such as "insisted on anonymity" or "demanded anonymity" because these methods of citing sources "offer the reader no help." It seems that from the days of its reporting on Iraqi "WMD"-even if it has apologized-the Times has not adequately learned from its mistakes. In all the pieces I read on this latest terror threat, I found only one justification for a source's anonymity. In their piece published online August 7, "Yemen, on Alert for Terrorism, Says It Foiled a Qaeda Plot," Nasser Arrabyee and Alan Cowell quote "American government officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters." (Italics added.) What do you think of the ethical standards of this kind of reporting which seem to mostly not care about its own journalistic standards or providing justification for readers about important matters that affect us all? 

HF: In my view, when we talk about the journalistic standards at the New York Times, and in the mainstream news media in general, we shouldn't focus solely on largely technical issues, such as the Times' use of anonymous sources, because these kinds of quasi-technical questions reflect a broader problem in my view regarding editorial policy. For one thing, although I spent a lot of time at one point trying to trace the editorial policy of the Times in an effort to figure out what the Times' editorial policy is, I couldn't find any written standards or editorial policy as applied to U.S. foreign policy, U.S. military policy, covert action policy, intelligence policy, human rights, international law, civil liberties, and so on. The Times has had standards editors; Allan Siegal and Craig Whitney come to mind. And there have been a series of public editors as one of the supposed remedies to the fiasco of the Iraq war coverage. But no one to my knowledge has articulated an editorial policy that would address what I think is a dire situation with respect to the Times coverage of U.S. foreign policy.  

So what has happened is that the top editors and reporters at the Times fall back on the default editorial policy of years ago, which I have found to be a mishmash of what the founders so to speak at the Times have said somewhat casually in the past. Probably the most famous articulated editorial policy was given by Adolph Ochs, who bought the Times in the late nineteenth century, and who proclaimed that the editorial mission of the Times was to report the news impartially without fear or favor regardless of any political party affiliation or other interests. As I noted in The Record of the Paper, this is potentially a worthwhile editorial policy since, for example, a courtroom is officially impartial, but eventually it must take sides, guilty or innocent, and proceed accordingly.  

But I don't think that one news organization should bear the burden by itself of being the paradigm of impartiality about all things. There is nothing wrong with a news organization having an editorial agenda, such as upholding the Bill of Rights or holding the foreign policy of a presidential administration to the standards of law, constitutional and international. What would be wrong with that? Nothing would be wrong with that, and a lot would be right about it. If some other news organization wants to stand for the destruction of the Bill of Rights or a lawless foreign and military policy, then, overall, we would all get the balanced news media that everyone seems to want. But no credible news organization by itself should strive to be impartial about the Bill of Rights or human rights or the illegality of the threat and use force under the cardinal rule of the United Nations Charter. These should be peremptory norms of editorial policy in every credible news organization in the United States, especially at the New York Times, which overall in many respects is a decent newspaper with some good reporters and editorial page writers.  

Finally, there seems to be some confusion today about the role of U.S. news organizations when it comes to publishing government secrets of the kind that Edward Snowden recently released, and that Glenn Greenwald and a few others at the Guardian have reported. I think it's noteworthy, first of all, that someone with the obvious talent and guts of Greenwald was hired by a newspaper outside the United States, and that the Snowden revelations are being reported primarily by foreign news organizations. The Times is not centrally involved, and that is a reflection in my view of this confusion about editorial policy.  

While researching and writing The Record of the Paper, I was very moved by what I read about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black's ordeal while writing his very distinguished opinion in the Pentagon Papers case in 1971, which obviously intimately involved the New York Times. In his book, The Day The Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case, David Rudenstein wrote that Black, in poor health, had "worked intensely, even feverishly, on his opinion over the four days between the oral argument and the announcement of the court's judgment," while Black "may have sensed that this might be his last opinion." "The night before the decisions by the justices were due," Rudenstein wrote, "Black wrote till 4 a.m., in part to overcome a criticism of an earlier draft from his wife." Three months later, "Black suffered a stroke, and six days after that, on September 25, he died."  

In his opinion in the Pentagon Papers case, Black wrote:

In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.

That sounds like a pretty good editorial policy for the New York Times to me, with a constitutional mandate from the Supreme Court to boot. But I don't think the

Times, institutionally speaking, has lived up to this critically important and marvelous Supreme Court opinion. To take just one aspect, given the Obama administration's relentless intimidation and prosecution of government whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, the Times should be doing a lot more in the way of baring the secrets of government, and a lot less in the way of facilitating the government's agenda by allowing the administration to make major pronouncements anonymously on its news pages.  

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