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Rick MacArthur and Scott Ritter On The Lies of Our Times

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While The New York Times published a long overdue apology about its Iraq war coverage, many observers say the confession was too little, too late. We speak with Harper’ s publisher Rick MacArthur and former UN weapons inspector about the Times coverage. [includes rush transcript]

Call it a kinda’ culpa. Last week, the New York Times published a long overdue apology about its Iraq war coverage. In an Editors Note buried on page A10, the paper declared, “We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been.” It continued, “Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged-or failed to emerge.”

But to close observers of the paper of record’s coverage, the confession was too little, too late. This issue is one which is covered extensively in our new book “The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers and the Media That Love Them,” which I co-wrote with my brother journalist David Goodman.

During the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, the Times served as a conveyor belt for the propaganda of the administration, cranking out stories rife with unsubstantiated claims and outright lies. Thousands of Iraqi and American lives have been lost in a war that owes much to a media that uncritically acted as a megaphone for those in power. The sensational stories the editors refer to were often given top billing on the front-page of the paper of record, while the brief apologia was buried on page A10.

Compare the contrition of Times editors on this issue with the 7,000-word, five-page exposé the Times ran last year about Jayson Blair, a young reporter who had lied and falsified stories and was ultimately fired.

The Times said the Jayson Blair affair was a low point in its 152-year history. But they got it wrong: It was the Times coverage of the Bush-Blair affair that marked a new journalistic low.

When George W. Bush and Tony Blair made their fraudulent case to attack Iraq, the Times, along with most corporate media outlets in the United States, became cheerleaders for the war. And while Jayson Blair was being crucified for his journalistic sins, veteran Times national security correspondents Judith Miller and Michael Gordon were filling the Times’ front pages with unchallenged government propaganda. Unlike Blair’s deceptions, Miller and Gordon’s lies provided the pretext for war. Their lies took lives.

The White House war propaganda blitz was launched on September 7, 2002, at a Camp David press conference. British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood side by side with his co-conspirator, President George W. Bush. Together, they declared that evidence from a report published by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) showed that Iraq was “six months away” from building nuclear weapons.

But there was no such IAEA report. But the following day, “evidence” popped up in the Sunday New York Times under the twin byline of Gordon and Miller. Their article began “More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today.”

The Bush administration knew just what to do with the story it had fed to the Newspaper of Record. The day the Times story ran, Vice President Dick Cheney made the rounds on the Sunday talk shows to advance the administration’s bogus claims. On NBC’s Meet the Press, Cheney declared that Iraq had purchased aluminum tubes to make enriched uranium. It didn’t matter that the IAEA refuted the charge both before and after it was made. But Cheney didn’t want viewers just to take his word for it. “There’s a story in The New York Times this morning,” he said. “And I want to attribute the Times.”

This was the classic disinformation two-step: the White House leaks a lie to the Times, the newspaper publishes it as a startling exposé, and then the White House conveniently masquerades behind the credibility of the Times.

Much of The Times coverage of Iraq in the build-up to the invasion relied on Iraqi dissidents, most prominently Ahmed Chalabi-head of the Iraqi National Conference. This week’s New Yorker has a piece on Chalabi called “The Manipulator,” which looks at Chalabi’s role. The piece quotes a key Chalabi aide Francis Brooke as saying “This war would not have been fought had it not been for Ahmed Chalabi.”

Brooke told The New Yorker that Chalabi’s sophisticated marketing operation at the I.N.C. was “an amazing success.” Brooke met Chalabi when they both worked at the Rendon Group’s Iraq project, a London-based C.I.A.-funded program to influence global opinion on Saddam Hussein. According to Brooke, the Rendon Group signed a secret contract with the C.I.A. that guaranteed the company a ten-per-cent management fee on top of whatever money it spent on the campaign.

The New Yorker also revealed that Ahmad Chalabi’s niece, Sarah Khalil, was hired last year by Patrick E. Tyler, the chief correspondent for The New York Times, to be the paper’s office manager in Kuwait. The magazine cites Chalabi’s daughter Tamara as saying that Khalil actively supported her uncle’s efforts while she was working for the Times. In April, 2003, after Chalabi was stranded in the desert shortly after U.S. forces airlifted him into the country, he used a satellite phone to call his niece for help. According to the magazine, Khalil commandeered money from I.N.C. funds and rounded up a convoy of S.U.V.s which she herself led across the border into Iraq, while she was working for the Times. Khalil was dismissed when word of her employment reached editors in New York.

  • John R. (Rick) MacArthur, publisher of Harpers Magazine and author of the book “Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda In the Gulf War.”
  • Scott Ritter, former U.N. weapons inspector.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Rick MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, author of the Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. You were raising concerns about the frontpage drumbeat stories of The New York Times, not a year later, but each day they came out. Can you talk about what the Times has said in the last week? >

RICK MACARTHUR: Well, it’s interesting, if you are a criminologist to watch the Times make its baby steps towards apologizing because what you have here is an institution that was so corrupted in the six weeks — five weeks before the Senate — before the Congress voted on the so-called war authorization, that it’s very hard to understand now what happened. It’s hard for people to go back. They’re seeing these stories admitting they made mistakes, that maybe they exaggerated and so on, even though they’re buried on page 10. It’s big news in the media world. But people don’t remember the extent to which the Times made itself useful as a propaganda tool for the administration. They don’t realize the extent to which Judith Miller and Michael Gordon volunteered to hype the atomic bomb weapons stories. We know that Scott Ritter and one of his fellow former UNSCOM inspectors, David Albright, were available for interviews to contradict the aluminum tube canard, the story of Saddam trying to acquire aluminum tubes or that the Iraqis going to acquire aluminum tubes was a prima face evidence of anatomic bomb project. People don’t realize that Judith Miller was busy busy busy all day, all night long trying to get Saddam Hussein overthrown and that the United States government was using her, through the front page of the New York Times, to promote this end. Now, until you get to the bottom of Judith Miller’s ill-starred career, and you understand the extent to which she’s a propagandist and not a journalist, and the extent to which the Times, through its institutional weight behind a propaganda campaign, you just cannot possibly get to the bottom of their malfeasance… Now if the Times had run a story, one of those old man in the news stories, about Scott Ritter, except we would call it man out of the news, a profile of a man who got it right, then you’d see a newspaper that was really apologizing for what it did. Because it was absolutely critical to the campaign to drive us into war. What they would do is leak the story — and you don’t need Chalabi for this, Chalabi was just there as a secondary confirmation for Judith Miller. They get the feed directly from Cheney’s office, or from Rumsfeld’s office, on aluminum tubes or whatever, and then the next day the story appears on the front page of the Times. And the then Cheney and Rumsfeld hit the airwaves citing the Times story as confirmation of Saddam’s atomic bomb threat. This is systematic cooperation or collaboration with the government. It’s not just, oh, we got it wrong or were misled. You have to read the tone. You have to read into the tone of the editor’s note in the Times. You have to understand that the Times doesn’t see itself really as a newspaper. They see themselves as a kind of adjunct to the government. A normal newspaper would say, yeah, we got it wrong. We apologize to our readers. You wouldn’t get this tortured language, which in effect says, “We were misled along with the government.” We were misled. Our official sources misled us. It’s not our fault, really. Because after all, we listened to official sources, and could say, we’re not journalists. We’re not a newspaper.

AMY GOODMAN: Pinch Sultzberger had a remarkable quote, an editor and publisher, the trade publication, saying they can’t be blamed, it’s the government that got it wrong.

RICK MACARTHUR: Right. If you’re not really a newspaper you just take the feed from the government as though you were the government’s press agency. Now, one thing too, if you are interested in this subject, you can read Hal Raims’ letter on the Pointer Institute website responding to the editor’s note pointing out that he was not consulted on the editor’s note before it ran.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, How Raines being —

RICK MACARTHUR: Was the editor of the paper when all of this disinformation and propaganda was being published on the front page.

AMY GOODMAN: He was forced to leave over the Jason Blair affair.

RICK MACARTHUR: Was forced to leave over the Jason Blair scandal. I have always said he should have been forced to leave over the Judith Miller scandal. That’s really his greater sin. What’s interesting-and this is in the category of the thieves falling out among themselves —- Raines makes sure everybody who reads the letter on the Pointer website knows—-and he’s getting even here— the names of the editors responsible for Judith Miller’s reporting, Jill Abrams, now the managing editor of the paper. And he points out that Bill Keller and Steven Engleberg previously had been responsible for a lot of her reporting and editing. This is Raines just trying to cover himself and saying I’m not the only one who participated in this debacle. Two of them are at the paper, and in fact, they’re running the paper. Where is Judith Miller? Why haven’t we heard from her? Why hasn’t she been fired or resigned? It’s because the Times as an institution supported the propaganda campaign that drove us to war. For there to be justice in this, you’d have to have resignations from the top down; you’d to have to have the publisher, Sultzberger, resign. To some extent, they’re right for not blaming it all on Judith Miller. In a little way, they’re showing some integrity by not blaming it on her and cutting her adrift. It’s institutional culpability. It’s not just one reporter. They encouraged her. They let her run wild. They fomented the whole business through her.

AMY GOODMAN: Rick MacArthur, you mentioned Scott Ritter, we have him on the line, the former U.N. weapons inspector. This issue of the Times icing out dissent of having information from weapons inspectors that at least while — if not proving that there weren’t weapons of mass destruction, raising questions about these front-page drumbeat pieces for war, were you called, Scott Ritter?

SCOTT RITTER: I was called on occasion by people at The New York Times, but not during the critical buildup to the war. There was a period of time, I would say from the summer of 2002, through the invasion in the spring of 2003, where I was pretty much persona non grata with The New York Times and the Washington Post. When I did talk to reporters, they let it be known that my name was not even supposed to be published in The New York Times. The one time that the New York Times did make an effort to publish my name was when they hired Barry Barrak, to write a profile of me in the New York Times magazine, which I think will go down as quite an embarrassment for Mr. Barrak, not for me. I don’t have anything to do with that story; it’s his own fiction. They weren’t seeking the truth. I know Judith Miller. Prior to this time, we would talk often. I would do my best to set her straight on her stories. She would listen, take notes. Nothing I would say would appear in her pieces. Then during the time of my blackout, there were no phone calls. She contacted me after the war. Again, she was trying to prove her point that there were weapons of mass destruction. I would set her straight on the mobile biological labs and other points that she was raising. Nothing I said would appear in the paper. Judith Miller, I agree with Mr. MacArthur, has an agenda. It’s not one centered on the truth. It’s centered on promoting Judy Miller and her biases. Unfortunately for her and The New York Times and the American people, truth has caught up.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean the reporters said you were not — your name was not to be mentioned?

SCOTT RITTER: I wasn’t allowed to be used as a source for The New York Times?


SCOTT RITTER: That’s a question you must ask The New York Times.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the message that you were putting out, the few times that you were called, if not quoted?

SCOTT RITTER: Everything they were writing was a lie, not just a nuanced misrepresentation of fact. Judy Miller was running stories from the engineer, Hydari, who was provided by Chalabi, and I was able to provide five or six points where I directly contradicted him and said, if I can contradict him just on the surface of what he is saying, you cannot run with the substance of the rest of that material. This is a man who is not believable. His data doesn’t stack up technically. His data doesn’t stack up logically. His data doesn’t stack up on any of the tests that one would use. There’s no independent confirmation of anything this man is saying, why are you running with it on the front page of your newspaper.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahmed Chalabi, is it true that he tried to hire you, Scott Ritter?

SCOTT RITTER: No, he didn’t try to hire me. I met Chalabi in the summer of 1998. He was working with certain elements in the Senate, particularly Danielle Pletka, who at the time was a lead counseling for the Republicans on the U.S. Senate. Her husband, Steven Ratmaker was a legal counsel for the Republicans, and the House of Representatives. They were working on the Iraq liberation act at that time. They let it be known that there would be a position for me, that would be put together by the United States congress, on a committee that would be overseeing Ahmed Chalabi’s group. I would be working with Chalabi, paid for by the U.S. government. What Chalabi did I when I balked at this, he thought I was balking at it from a monetary stand point, meaning that they were not going to pay me enough. I was balking at it from an integrity standpoint, meaning I wasn’t going to play this game. He let me know that once he was president of Iraq, he will have control of the Iraq’s resources and that he has oil concessions that he would be able to dole out and that I would quote, unquote, be well taken care of. That, I also rejected.

AMY GOODMAN: Rick McArthur, we only have — well, less than a minute, but on the issue of The New York Times, we don’t see the Right making a tremendous amount of it, though they attack the New York Times a lot, but not on this issue, perhaps because the whole premise, weapons of mass destruction was put forward by the government. And the rest of the media, very uncomfortable. They’re not the own ones.

RICK MACARTHUR: I am hoping this is going to start a flood of apologies, that the New Yorker, which you cited earlier, will apologize for their atrocious reporting by Jeffrey Goldberg on the phony Saddam-al Qaeda link. Maybe David Remnick will take the fall for it. The Washington Post has a lot to apologize for, although a couple of reporters at the Washington Post tried to fight within the paper to do the right thing, and were not successful.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you like to name names?

RICK MACARTHUR: Well, I think Walter Pinkus is the most important reporter there. But the whole culture of — and Barton Gellman tried to do the right thing, I think, or — actually, Scott would know better about what Gellman did. I shouldn’t jump too quickly, but I’d like to see a really good, thorough examination by all of the big media. I’d like for people like me and Scott Ritter to be able to participate in the questioning of these people because unless you have people who know what went down in the first instance, you cannot really get straight answers.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s it. Thank you very much. That does it for the show. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us. This is Democracy Now!.

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