Monday, June 06, 2005

When Newsweek Relied on Flawed Intelligence, Conservatives Screamed. But When The U.S. Military Does the Same? Silence.

Last month, Newsweek did a very bad thing.

It relied on a single anonymous government source, and ran a flawed story, saying the U.S. Southern Command had confirmed that an American interrogator at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet. The source later backtracked, forcing Newsweek to retract the story.

Conservatives called the Newsweek's writers traitors and America-haters, and followed White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan in bashing this latest example of "liberal media bias." What's worse, the conservative spin machine was able to convince the mainstream media that the Newsweek article led to violence in Afghanistan, even after Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that wasn't true.

A bunch of hyprocrites, those conservatives are.

***

The following should seem eerily similar to the Newsweek fiasco. But unlike with Newsweek, there has been no public response from conservatives.

As reported by Knight-Ridder Newspapers on June 3, U.S. military officials have admitted that previously reported intelligence that terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi visited Syria in recent months to plan bombings in Iraq was false.

The original story, broken by the Associated Press May 19, was used by the Bush Administration to publicly rebuke Syria. As recently as June 1, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: "Any country that decides it wants to provide ... haven to a leading terrorist, Al Qaeda terrorist, is obviously associating themselves with Al Qaeda and contributing to a great many Iraqis being killed, as well as coalition forces in Iraq. And that is something that people would want to take note of."

Three government officials who said that the reports of Zarqawi's travels were bogus spoke on condition of anonymity to Knight-Ridder, in part, they said, because discussing the mistaken report could embarrass the White House and trigger retaliation against them. One of the U.S. officials said the initial report was based on a single source, who has since changed his story significantly.

***

To me, this is the Newsweek fiasco all over again, except this time, the conservatives have remained silent. No lengthy discussions from Rush, Sean or Joe. No lectures on journalism from Scott McClellan.

Like Newsweek, the AP's original story was based on a single anonymous military source, who subsequently backtracked.

The only difference is that -- at least in the eyes of the Bush administration and the conservative noise machine -- this bogus story helps our foreign policy. The Newsweek story was an embarrassment.

"The allegation by the U.S. military official in Baghdad that Zarqawi and his lieutenants met in Syria suggests that, despite the controversy over the Bush administration's use of flimsy and bogus intelligence to make its case for war in Iraq, some officials are still quick to embrace dubious intelligence when it supports the administration's case -- this time against Damascus," wrote Knight-Ridder's Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay.

***

I'll draw another comparison -- the series of front-page stories prior to the Iraq War by the New York Times that were based in large part on anonymous government sources. Those sources, we learned much later, were basing their dubious informaiton on the source later dubbed "Curveball," who then-Secretary of State Colin Powell admitted, after the fact, had deliberately misled the CIA.

The Times never looked for alternative sources, though, as it ran story after story detailing all the evidence of weapons of mass destruction the United States had against Saddam Hussein -- evidence that we later learned was false. The Times was so embarrassed it ultimately ran a half-page apology to its readers.

But reporters continue to make the mistake of trusting single anonymous government sources. When those sources are correct, readers are served well. But when those sources are wrong, you get Newsweek's flawed story about a Koran being flushed down a toilet, or the AP's flawed story about Zarqawi meeting in Syria.

My response as a journalist is the same, no matter the political consquences. Each reporter trusted a single source, and each got burned for that decision. The conservative response, however, is apparently tied to whether it benefits or embarrasses the U.S. military.

***

According to one of the anonymous officials who spoke to Knight-Ridder, the Zarqawi report was quickly dismissed as unreliable by intelligence officials. The officials said the CIA and other intelligence agencies "were mystified by the reports of Zarqawi's visit because they had no such information."

Yet, the dubious report was given to the media, and touted by the Bush Administration. Why?

That's a question that Scott McClellan and the conservative noise machine don't want to answer.

22 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rather than making this some kind of liberal/conservative issue, how about simply pointing out that the media should not be using single source anonymous reporting? I think both sides can agree on that. However, comparing the story about the bogus flushing of the Koran and whether or not some terrorist visited Syria seems to be a bit of a stretch. The outcome is not the only determining factor in how to view these things, but you cannot ignore the outcome either.

7:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think above post misses the entire point.
Retracted stories are only given attention in the media if they are in the best interests of the Bush Administration, i.e. Newsweek.
Meanwhile, a story later to be found false and retracted is ignored if that retraction makes the Bush Administration look bad, i.e. intelligence about Syria.
This is not a stretch at all. The two issues are equally important regarding the U.S. involvement in the Middle East, but receive unequal treatment in the media. Is this how we would prefer our news coverage?
Journalists should never be stopped from utilizing unamed anonomous sources. All they can do is be more careful with their sourcing.
It is only conservatives/Bushies who would favor inhibiting journalists as much as possible, so they can continue to surreptitiously ramrod their foreign and domestic agenda down the throat of America. The attitude is: who gives a damn if we tell the truth or not as long as we achieve our desired end.

9:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, so are oh so right. BushCo Chimpy McHitler wants to inhibit journalists' ability to do their jobs. Give me a break.

How about this. Both stories were retracted, meaning that neither journalist did sufficient research and sourcing prior to it running. However, one of the stories, prior to the retraction, became a worldwide story, used as how an example of how America is trampling on the rights of terrorists, and was used as a PR ploy by radical Muslims. It is only natural that the story that got the most attention pre-retraction would receive more attention post-retraction.

11:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may be joking, but a lot of people think that, yes, the Bush administration has tried to "inhibit journalists' ability to do their jobs."

How else do you explain the lengths to which the Bushies try to go around the mainstream media? VNRs. Endorsing the use of propaganda. Paid conservative hucksters. Jeff Gannon.

That isn't a pro-jouranlist track record.

11:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you ever considered, if even for a brief moment, that their "going around" the mainstream media might be do, in part, to the perception that they do not get a fair shake from the mainstream media ?

12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That would suggest the Bush administration once gave the mainstream media a fair shake.

And, of course, the prior Bush administration didn't resort to propaganda, VNRs, paid journalists, GOP plants, etc. The Reagan administration, according to the GAO, did produce a couple of poorly identified VNRs, but otherwise didn't resort to the rest.

Isn't it possible the Bush administration is just more anti-media than most?

12:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone who doesn't believe the Bush Administration through lies and propaganda (paying off columnists and setting up spokespeople etc.) is not attempting to control the media, and has, in many instances been successful (i.e. Newsweek, Rathergate, lies about WMD, Iraq, prison abuses, social security etc. etc.) has been sleeping under a rock over the last several months and better WAKE UP!

2:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

there is no question this administration does not trust the media; nor the media it. It has made mistakes and tried to go around the media which is plain wrong. and it is a serious issue. but once again, every far lefttist worth his/her salt will try to take it to an illogical extreme, i assume to extent of suggesting we now live in a dictatorship state sponsored media environment. If anyone believes that is the nightmare they woke up to, i would suggest pinching yourself to re-awake in reality.

The reality: The Koran story was a bigger story because of the media when it came out and therefore was a huge story when a retraction was needed. The syria issue deserves coverage but to expect it to the degree of the newsweek story is plain ridiculous. Yes, they both have to do with the US policy in the middle east but so what? One was a bigger story.

And, how do people here still try to weirdly and strangely defend "rathergate" as you call it. you have much better arguments leaving out the story about how an incorrect national newstory, immediately prior to a closely contested presidential election, got out into the public and where a an expected retraction seemed like a tooth extraction for rather and CBS.

3:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The uneducated masses apparently do not share your disdain of this administration. Woe be us unenlightened simple folk, living under rocks.

What exactly qualifies as a "pro-journalist" track record ?

Where does trying to promote policy issues, political agendas, and defending oneself against fraudulent documents become "attempting to control the media"? Is that not what all politicians do? What was the purpose of Clinton's bimbo patrol? What was Carville's function in the Clinton War Room? Politicians, from now until the end of time, will try to shape the way their message is portrayed. Why does this shock people?

1:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As one example, at no time in history has a president ever gone to such extremes to deceive the country into supporting the Iraq War under B.S. pretenses (i.e. The Downing Street Memo, the Project For New American Century among other overwhelming evidences). It has gotten to the twisted contorted point where the ones seeking to air the evidences and tell the truth or who have attempted to tell the truth are the conspiracy theorists. BuzzFlash made a compelling case for this argument yesterday: see www.buzzflash.com "The War To Deceive America Into War -- And the War To Cover Up the Deception."

7:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well since the Pentagon released on Friday (after 7 PM when network news coverage had ended as the Bush Admin always does with embarrasing info) that they had 5 known instances of Getmo mistreatment of the Koran, it doesn't sound like Newsweek was that wrong. One of the instances was Urine splashing on a Koran through a guard peeing around it. So if Newsweek had said they used the prisoner's room as a toilet and got urine on a Koran, would people of Islamic faith be less offended than it being flushed down a toilet????

The truth is Bush used the media, and the media and american peoples post 9/11 trust in the administation, to mislead the nation into war based on their single, wrong, anonymous source (i.e Curveball) who told them their were WMDs and Saddam was involved with Bin Ladin (all proven wrong). The Downing Street memo, along with reports by Richard Clarke, Paul O'Neill, and other previous administration officials confirm that Bush was determined to attack Iraq as of early 2002, and we now know he did everything possible to convice Americans it was justified.

The radical right's propaganda arm (Fox News, Limbaugh, Hannity, and Christian radio) is quite effective and polling of consumers of those propoganda outlets show that those consumers are clueless to the facts and believe Iraq was involved in 9/11, and WMDs have be found in Iraq(really, where????).

9:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where's the press attention now that Newsweek has been proven at least partially right? Silence. The same silence ofthe Bush Administration's response to the demands for an investigation after the Downing Street revealation, which magifies earlier evidences.
The Senate Committee earlier said they indefinitely tabled the planned Part II of the Iraq intelligence investigation that would examine for the first time whether the Bush Administration "misused" (a polite way of saying lied about) intelligence info as an excuse to go to War with Iraq.
With the new disclosures, there is no longer an excuse to postpone this investigation.
Please go to Congressmen John Conyers' website http://www.johnconyers.com/ and sign the petition demanding for an investigation and response from the White House. Conyers now has 133,000 signatures and is shooting for 250,000 before officially approaching the President.
Numbers may be able to break the silence.

11:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, apparently you missed the whole point on the urinating on the Koran story. But, that does not surprise me. The guard was urinating outside, and the wind happened to splash some on the book. Hardly qualifies as some trampling of the prisoner's rights. Would you have the same moral outrage if the prisoner was desecrating a bible?

12:54 PM  
Blogger Maezeppa said...

Playing devil's advocate, I'd say that a Republican counter-argument would be that it's easier for a journalist to double check a Pentagon source and a journalist has more latitude in discarding questionable information than an intelligence-gathering operation does, which has to rely on single sources and sometimes it is too dangerous to ignore intelligence even when it may be flawed.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Maezeppa said...

Another point I'd like to make is that I dislike the entire premise that Newsweek was castigated for relying on flawed information.

Better: "Newsweek is falsely accused of using flawed information while the real flawed information users get a free pass."

After looking at the facts, I honestly don't see what Newsweek could have done any better or more carefully and it galls me that they collapsed and retracted the story "because of the furor" it caused and because the source could not "now" confirm if the data was in Report A or REport B. That's a garbage retraction and I hate to see the DOD get away with the kind of pressure tactic I assume had been brought to bear to effect the retraction.

2:41 PM  
Anonymous alias: "cutiepie" johnson said...

I couldn't agree with you more.

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

even if everything said above is taken as truth (although much is opinion couched in fact), it seems to me that considering the number of prisoners, and the length of time this "war" has gone on, there dont seem to be all that many abuses. 5 from the investigation? i expected 50 or even 500. 5 is a blip and some are accidents.

i am not defending Bush or the administration on its policy.

unfortunately, this blog has so few centrist positions (there are some far right people who pop up but serve no purpose) that it saddens me to say that there is little intellectual debate. not questioning the intelligence of the people on here but it is basically a bunch of smart people with the same views patting each other on the back. i realize that is probably what the purpose of the blog really is but it would be a far more effetual tool if true debate took place.

by the way, my understanding is the downing street memo was a topic on brit humes report this weekend. as would be typical, it was downplayed as the smoking gun indicated here. Also as usual, the truth likely lies somewhere in between.

4:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish some more moderates, or fiscal conservatives, would join the debate. It seems you have a bunch of liberals, and the occasional loony-right conservative -- which, as you said, is not great debate.

You seem reasonable (LOL) -- go invite some of your centrist or slightly left or right of center friends to join the debate!!!

4:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the above response of the individual wanting to play "the devil's advocate" and excuse the Republicans who purportedly do not have the same latitude as journalists to check facts on intelligence.
Pshaw!
If only it were true.
The senate committee report on pre-Iraq intelligence clearly indicated that the Bush Administration failed to seek out widely available dissenting opinions within the global security community, instead relying on "Curveball" whom it had been repeatedly warned by those same intelligence pros was an unreliable source.
If I am understanding you correctly, it is inaccurate to assume journalists have more latitude when reporting on security matters. No one has more latitude than the Executive branch which I understand was availed of much more info on Iraq intelligence than even congress. That is why many of us laugh and scoff at Bush when he lies he acted on the same intelligence known to everyone.
All the available evidence shows Bush either manufactured the intelligence to fit his previously documented desire to invade Iraq, or he was very close-minded to widely available dissenting opinions and thus very stupid.

8:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Well, apparently you missed the whole point on the urinating on the Koran story. But, that does not surprise me. The guard was urinating outside, and the wind happened to splash some on the book. Hardly qualifies as some trampling of the prisoner's rights. Would you have the same moral outrage if the prisoner was desecrating a bible?"

Yes I did understand the point and do you realize how stupid that story sounds? The guard pissed outside and it splashed in! Pentagon never covers anything up (Pat Tillman). Do the guards not get restrooms at Getmo and have to use the sides of Prison cells?

Apparently you missed my point. Truth is Newsweek was not far off and the government basically admitted it, even though they trashed them for the story.

I am not outraged by the Koran being pissed on, and I would not be outraged if the Bible were pissed on either. I think they are both good books of moral stories that are instruments used by evil people to control the weak. I am outraged by the fact that this administration went after the press for one incident of using a single source that is now being shown as somewhat correct, when the administration used a single source (Curveball) to send over 1600 US troops to there death.

Now who has done more damage with single sources, Newsweek, or Bush? I am sure your right wing Koolaid will tell you Newsweek... Right?

9:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

why is it a debate over who is more wrong. how old are we? lets say for arguments sake that newsweek made mistakes, which it did, that the white house overstepped by telling newsweek what to do in the aftermath (note that other news agencies agreed newsweek erred and came to their defense only when mclellan went to town on newsweek--basically defeinding their own which is fine), that bush made mistakes about iraq (as did congress and much of the world no matter how evreyone here wants to spin it)......all of these things have been called out repeatedly in the media as potential mistakes or at the very least, discussion points. I just dont understand what in the world you are saying.

Newsweek will survive; Bush survived (at least he won another election) somehow. Not every single action is a comparable to another action in order to justify or crucify it. If that were the case, soldiers could piss down the eye sockets of prisoners to equal out the actions taken by our enemies. that is just not how it works and is irrelevant.

are you really outraged over the newsweek situation in and of itself. Or is it you are perpetually outraged with Bush and his pals and what they do or what you perceive they get away with.

10:46 AM  

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