NEW YORK — An extraordinary public mea culpa in the news pages of The New York Times prompted debate yesterday over the role the media played in helping the Bush administration make its case for war in Iraq.
The Times said it had failed to sufficiently scrutinize the administration’s assertions that Saddam Hussein controlled weapons of mass destruction and that Islamic terrorists were training in Iraq.
The articles were written in the months immediately before and after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The Seattle Times publishes some New York Times stories in Sunday editions.
To this day, no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, nor has evidence been uncovered establishing that Saddam sought to harbor al-Qaida operatives.
The New York Times’ aggressive coverage was significant because of its influence on journalism and in political circles, said former White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart, who served under President Clinton. “When a member of Congress sits down and reads something in The New York Times, they believe it’s true, and even if they think it’s not true, they realize it’s on the agenda and has to be dealt with,” he said.
He singled out Iraqi dissidents — including Ahmad Chalabi, recently accused of sharing U.S. secrets with Iran — as having brokered information for The New York Times. Those same dissidents were supplying information to U.S. intelligence agencies and Bush administration officials, who then corroborated them to the Times and other news media.
Critics say the dissidents, out to topple Saddam, molded public opinion to back the administration’s intention to go to war.
“There’s an echo chamber or circular feel to all of this — which really should worry everybody,” Lockhart said.
Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former regional commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and one of the few prominent military men to publicly criticize the war plans beforehand, also criticized the pattern of leaks that the administration would confirm later to reporters. Zinni said yesterday the interplay of the Pentagon and Iraqi dissidents amounted to “a neat con man’s game. It comes full circle and validates the (inaccurate) information.”
In an editorial, The Times admitted yesterday to having relied too heavily on a few sources.
Although many critics have singled out articles by Times reporter Judith Miller, editors said the problem “was more complicated.” They said that “editors at several levels” may have been “too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.”
Nonetheless, Miller’s most prominent source, widely believed to have been Chalabi, was all but officially discredited last week.
“(The coverage) blunted a lot of criticism and cowed a lot of critics,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who voted against a resolution authorizing war. “I know it. It was too much for some of my colleagues in Congress. The safe vote was the vote for the war.”