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New York Times Chief Military Correspondent Michael Gordon Defends Pre-War Reporting on WMDs

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Michael Gordon, the chief military correspondent for The New York Times, discusses his reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the run-up to the invasion. [includes rush transcript]

  • Michael Gordon, chief military correspondent for The New York Times. He is co-author of the book “Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq.” Gordon has covered conflicts spanning Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Chechnya and Panama.

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StoryMar 21, 2023War Made Easy: Norman Solomon on How Mainstream Media Helped Pave Way for U.S. Invasion of Iraq
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about some of the mistakes, and I wanted to go now to some of the reporting by the media, which was certainly part and parcel of the whole lead-up to the invasion, and I wanted to go to Michael Gordon and ask you about that September 8 piece that you wrote with Judith Miller, the article that was on the front page of the New York Times, that was cited by Dick Cheney, when he went on “Meet The Press,” where you wrote from the beginning — you said, “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 administrations officials said today. In the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium. American officials said several efforts to arrange the shipment of the aluminum tubes were blocked or intercepted, but declined to say, citing the sensitivity of the intelligence, where they came from or how they were stopped.” Can you talk about this really seminal piece that was cited by the administration, by senators and congress members, deeply concerned about the possibility of, well, as they kept repeating, of a mushroom cloud? Your thoughts on your piece today?

MICHAEL GORDON: Yeah, I’m glad you asked about that, because that’s an important episode, and I’ve obviously thought a lot about it. By the way, that wasn’t the only piece I wrote on the subject. I also wrote two other articles quoting the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, saying that, in fact, there was no evidence, from his point of view, that the tubes were intended for nuclear purposes, and these articles appeared well before the war, as did ElBaradei’s comments, but if you give me a minute or two, I’ll explain the issue, because it’s an important one.

The C.I.A. came to the view, which we now know to be erroneous, that the centrifuges had been intercepted, that they believed they were intended only for nuclear purposes. They had — and remember, this is not a defector; this is not a photograph of something that’s happening on the ground that we don’t quite fully understand. They physically had these centrifuges. They had intercepted them in Jordan, taken them someplace to analyze.

We’re the nation that invented nuclear weapons. So, you know, it’s a fair assumption that you would think that if we physically have the evidence, we have certainly nuclear expertise in this country, you know, they would be able to diagnose what they were intended for. Anyway, the C.I.A. took a very strong view on this, as did some of their allies in the intelligence community, and this was reflected as one of the key judgments in the National Intelligence Estimate that went to congress. So you know, if you took aside the — whatever the New York Times wrote or others wrote, this is the heart of the National Intelligence Estimate that goes to the Congress, goes to the President, and in this, you know, what we now — what I now better understand, is that while this was the kind of dominant view and certainly the institutional view of the C.I.A., there were a few other views within the intelligence community.

The Defense — the Energy Department did not agree that these centrifuges were intended for nuclear purposes. However, they didn’t really take a clear stand on this, because they also agreed, the same Energy Department that said the centrifuges were not for nuclear purposes, took the view that Saddam was trying to revive his nuclear program for other reasons. So the Energy Department sort of had a foot in each camp. The State Department experts in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, they’re the only part of the American government that completely challenged the view that Saddam was trying to revive his nuclear program. The Energy Department didn’t do it.

By the way, here’s an interesting footnote. The British government, in a public report, more or less a few weeks later, challenged the notion that the centrifuges were for nuclear purposes, but then also asserted for other reasons, that Saddam was reviving its nuclear program. So it was a kind of a complicated picture.

There was no agency in the American government that said Saddam was not involved in W.M.D. You know, the State Department, although it’s turned out to be correct, certainly on the nuclear issue, did not turn out to be —- you know, didn’t challenge the biological case, the chemical case, and I’m going to offer you this last thought, and I’m happy to respond to any questions you have, but you know, there are a number of complicated W.M.D. issues -—

AMY GOODMAN: Let me just ask something on that. Are you sorry you did the piece? Are you sorry that this piece —

MICHAEL GORDON: No, I’m not. I mean, what — I don’t know if you understand how journalism works, but the way journalism works is you write what you know, and what you know at the time you try to convey as best you can, but then you don’t stop reporting.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me, let me —

MICHAEL GORDON: Can I answer your question, since you asked me a question?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, no, I wanted to get —

MICHAEL GORDON: No, wait a second, if you ask me a question — I’m happy to answer all your questions, but what I’m trying to explain to you is one thing. That was what I knew at the time. It’s true that it was the key judgment. It’s the same information they presented to Colin Powell, by the way, and it’s what persuaded him to go to the United Nations and make the case on the nuclear tubes. I wrote the contrary case, giving the IAEA equal time. They disputed it. I don’t have a dog in this fight. I didn’t know what was the ultimate truth. When the IAEA came out in January and disputed it, I reported it.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Gordon, let me just respond. We don’t —- we have limited time in the program, but I just -—

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, then you should let me answer your questions.


MICHAEL GORDON: No, you haven’t let me answer your question.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you sorry then, that the New York Times was sorry that this piece appeared as it did on the front page of the New York Times.

MICHAEL GORDON: I don’t think “sorry” is the word the New York Times used.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me quote the Times. In their piece that they wrote to the readers, that said, “From the Editors, the Times in Iraq,” that many referred to as the mea culpa of the Times, they said, “On September 8, 2002, the lead article of the paper was headlined, 'U.S. Says Hussein Intensified Quest for A-Bomb Parts.' That report concerned the aluminum tubes that the administration advertised insistently as components for the manufacture of nuclear weapons fuel. The claim came not from defectors but from the best intelligence sources available at the time. Still, it should have been presented more cautiously. There were hints that the usefulness of the tubes in making nuclear fuel was not a sure thing, but the hints were buried deep, 1,700 words into a 3,600-word article, administration officials were allowed to hold forth at length on why this evidence of Iraq’s nuclear intentions demanded that Saddam Hussein be dislodged from power. 'The first signs of a smoking gun,' they argue, 'may be a mushroom cloud.' Five days later, the Times reporters learned the tubes were in fact a subject of debate among intelligence agencies, the misgivings appeared deep in an article on page A-13, under a headline that gave no inkling that we were revising our earlier view. The headline was, 'White House Lists Iraq's Steps to Build Banned Weapons.’ The Times gave voice to skeptics of the tubes on January 9, when the key piece of evidence was challenged by the International Atomic Energy Agency. That challenge was reported on page A-10. It might well have belonged on A-1.”

MICHAEL GORDON: Can I answer your question?


MICHAEL GORDON: Okay. I’m the person that wrote the IAEA story when they challenged it. I’m the person that suggested the New York Times cover it. I wrote it twice. The second time I wrote it with a reporter named Jim Risen, who you may have heard of. So I’ve worked with a lot of different people. This issue, this debate as to whether these tubes were intended for nuclear purposes, was presented in a public forum in the United Nations well before the invasion, so everybody knew, the Congress, the American public, anyone who paid any attention to this, knew there was a debate.

In fact, Colin Powell, in his presentation, acknowledged there was a debate within — among experts about the utility of the tube. The uranium is a very different issue. That’s something that emerged after the war. Anybody who didn’t know that there was a debate about the utility of the tubes, whether they were for nuclear purposes or for merely rockets, simply wasn’t paying attention to the debate. This was all ventilated before the war.

Had I had perfect information, and had I had — many of these experts who have now, after the war, like Joe Wilson, decided to share their reservations with us. Had they shared all of this with us at the time, I would have happily put in more caveats and dissenting views, but the dissenters were not dissenting to the New York Times at the time. But as soon as the IAEA went public with its assessment, I covered it, and by the way, if you know how newspapers work, I actually don’t decide what goes on the front page of the New York Times, and I think the New York Times did its best, you know, and had no agenda certainly in this issue, in trying to cover this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: The dissenters themselves disagree, and they say they did contact the New York Times. For example —

MICHAEL GORDON: No, I’m sorry, that’s not true.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me make my point, and then you can answer it.


AMY GOODMAN: For example, David Albright, who is the U.N. weapons inspector, and I am quoting from Michael Massing’s letter to the editor, responding to your objection to his piece in the New York Review of Books. Albright writing that the _Times_’ September 13 story, which you also co-authored with Judith Miller, was heavily slanted to the C.I.A.'s position, and the views of the other side were trivialized. Albright says — and this is the man who contacted the Times. Let me just quote for our audience, this is Albright saying, “An administration official was quoted as saying that the best technical experts and nuclear scientists at laboratories like Oak Ridge supported the C.I.A. assessment. These inaccuracies made their way into the story, despite several discussions that I had with Miller on the day before the story appeared, some well into the night. In the end, nobody was quoted questioning the C.I.A.'s position, as I would have expected. He says.

MICHAEL GORDON: Are you going to let me talk now?

AMY GOODMAN: If you could respond to that, please.

MICHAEL GORDON: Yeah. You’re not well-informed on this issue, because — I don’t have any, you know, criticism of you as an individual, but you’re not very well informed on this, because if you were well-informed on this — I’m friends with David Albright. I think David Albright’s an upstanding person who is doing very good work. I’m actually not Judy Miller, so I’m not the person he had the conversation with, but David certainly took the view early on, and he deserves a lot of credit for this, that the aluminum tubes were not intended for nuclear purposes. That’s absolutely true, and as a person outside government, he did that analysis.

However, and this is a very important point for you and your viewers to keep in mind, David Albright, at the very same time he made this analysis, believed Iraq was probably pursuing nuclear weapons, and at the very same time that David Albright challenged the tubes, he published a paper on his website, saying there was a suspect site at Al-Khaim in western Iraq, that could possibly be involved in the processing of uranium for nuclear weapons purposes. And I’ve talked to David about this.

David’s view is an interesting view, and it was a technical view. David believes Saddam was interested in nuclear weapons, and he might very well be pursuing them. However, David did not believe that the aluminum tubes were for that purpose. That’s David Albright’s view, and what people like Michael Massing and, unfortunately, you have done now is you’ve cherry-picked David Albright’s view to make it look like it was clear to him that Saddam was not involved in nuclear purposes. David’s view is very much like the British government. The British government believes the tubes were not for nuclear purposes. But they took the position that Saddam was reviving his nuclear weapons program. So it was a complicated series of events to be sure, and — but it’s important to — a lot of people in hindsight reflect on — see their position as different than it was at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: But the tubes were key, and what was so important too was the timing. Vice President Cheney, of course, having The New York Times in front of him, saying: “If you don’t believe what I say, refer to The New York Timestoday.” But going on with Massing’s piece, referring to Albright, who did not believe that the tubes were being used for this, though the Times did assert this, Albright goes on to note that he wrote a series of reports criticizing the administration’s claims about the tubes and its misuse of information to build a case for war and that these became the basis for an article in The Washington Post on September 19th, 2002, that disclosed the —

MICHAEL GORDON: Inside the paper.

AMY GOODMAN: — doubts some experts had about the tubes’ suitability for use in centrifuges. As Albright goes on to note, the _Times_’s September 13th article, by carrying the categorical dismissal by senior officials of the dissenters’ views, made these dissenters nervous about discussing the issue further. By contrast, reporters at Knight Ridder newspapers, after writing about the dissent in the intelligence community, began receiving calls from sources eager to talk. Thus the Times heavy reliance on official sources and its dismissal of other sources may have discouraged potential dissenters from discussing their views with its reporters.

MICHAEL GORDON: Do you want me to say something?

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, please.

MICHAEL GORDON: Yeah, I don’t agree with that. And I actually — in the months of, you know, November, December, I actually wasn’t in the United States, I was out in — spent most of time actually in the, you know, Arabian Peninsula area covering military developments, so I wasn’t always present when all these things were unfolding. I don’t agree that this discouraged them. I think these people never came forward. They came forward after — you know, at both after the war, the Washington Post did an excellent job and so did The New York Timesof unraveling the tubes issue in great detail, talking to people who weren’t making themselves available at the time.

But I’m going to make just one — and I think you can beat this dead horse forever, but I think I’m going to make one point. I, the same guy that wrote that story, wrote an article — two articles in early 2003, that said Mohamed ElBaradei, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence, the British Government, and the Energy Department, all disagreed with the dominant view of the C.I.A. that the tubes were for that purpose. And I wrote that on one occasion, under my own name, and another occasion, in a co-authored piece with Jim Risen. And these articles, if memory serves, appeared in the January-February timeframe. So, I mean, you can go check it on the public record, and it’s all there.

AMY GOODMAN: The public record often shows this, but what isn’t emphasized is where it appears in the paper. That was on page A9, page 10 — much shorter article. And in fact, let me make a point, on that weekend that your first piece appeared on September 8th, that was the weekend that British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush were at Camp David, and they talked about an IAEA report that showed new information about the concern of Saddam Hussein getting weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons. In fact, President Bush said, “I don’t know what more evidence we need.” Well, actually, any evidence would have helped. There was no such IAEA report, but few mainstream American journalists, including the Times at the time, questioned the leaders’ outright lies.

MICHAEL GORDON: Can I — I never wrote the IAEA —- I wrote the exact opposite. I wrote that the IAEA challenged it, I didn’t say the IAEA supported it. But I wanted -—

AMY GOODMAN: Many months later. That’s January, I’m talking September at the time of your piece coming out.

MICHAEL GORDON: Excuse me, I let you talk, you should let me talk. I wrote the IAEA assessment when — as soon as the IAEA made its public assessment. You know, I couldn’t write what the IAEA’s assessment was before they made it.

AMY GOODMAN: But you could have challenged President Bush at the White House —

MICHAEL GORDON: I wasn’t at the White House, I’m sorry, I wasn’t at the —- can I -—

AMY GOODMAN: The article, the Times could have challenged President Bush and Tony Blair, saying that a new IAEA report had showed that Iraq was six months away from building nuclear weapons, when in fact it didn’t come out with such a report. And instead, the Times came out with a front-page piece that very weekend, which was yours, talking about Saddam Hussein getting nuclear weapons, the aluminum tubes.

MICHAEL GORDON: I have an interesting thought for you to ponder, along with the information I’ve introduced to you to on David Albright. Larry Wilkerson, who I think — you probably have interviewed him. He’s a quite well-known figure. He was Colin Powell’s chief of staff, right? You may have encountered him. Anyway, he’s a very vocal person, and he’s highly critical of the neo-cons and of the Cheney staff, and I’ve interviewed him anyway for my book, if you haven’t. And he’s also spoken publicly in press conferences. He’s no friend of the administration, to be sure.

Well, Larry Wilkerson went with Colin Powell to the C.I.A. when they got briefed before Secretary Powell went to the United Nations to make his presentation. And Larry Wilkerson has publicly talked about this in press conferences, before liberal groups in Washington and also to myself. Larry Wilkerson believed that the tube evidence was persuasive after he got briefed by John McLaughlin and other people at the C.I.A., and Colin Powell — right? — who did have reservations about going to war, also believed the information was persuasive after he was briefed at the C.I.A., even though his own experts in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research were challenging it.

So, all I can tell you is that there was a very strong view in the American government, in the C.I.A., that persuaded Colin Powell and Colin Powell’s chief of staff, the man who said a “cabal” was running our government, if you remember that comment he made some months ago. That same individual believed Iraq had W.M.D. based on the briefings he got at the C.I.A. Now, I didn’t create these briefings, I’ve never — they don’t call me to the C.I.A. to give them to me; I haven’t, you know, participated in any of that. But, you know, all I can tell you is that there was a, you know, a lot of confusion within the American intelligence community about what was happening in Iraq, but that the principal policy makers, including the man most skeptical about the reason to go to war, was ultimately persuaded about this and argued with ElBaradei and the Security Council about it.


MICHAEL GORDON: But I believe it’s now — but I agree with you to the extent that I now believe, whether the C.I.A. has retracted this or not, I think over time, based on what we now know, because we’re in Iraq, we’ve debriefed the scientists, you know, we’ve — we actually know a lot more than we knew before the war. We now — I believe that the C.I.A. analysis is wrong.

And I’m going to throw out one last fact for you to ponder. Saddam Hussein wanted the world to think he had W.M.D. We also know that. Saddam’s concern was Iran. Saddam — he had fought a bloody war with Iran for eight years. Both sides used chemical weapons. Saddam wanted to comply with the letter of the U.N. inspections but he had a policy called “deterrence by doubt.” He didn’t want the Iranians to know his cupboard was bare, because he was concerned that would make him vulnerable to some sort of Iranian action. So he was walking a very fine line, and I understand what his political strategy was from Iran’s point of view, but it certainly was misinterpreted back here in Washington.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Michael Gordon, to change the topic off of the aluminum tubes, in your book you talk about how General Franks and his preparations, his yearlong preparation for the war, talked about — discussed a lot the need to go after command and communications facilities, and that he actually referred to them as “media targets.”


JUAN GONZALEZ: There was, of course, the bombing of Iraqi television that occurred in the early days of the war. And you were actually on CNN where you were quoted as saying, “Personally, I think that the television, based on what I’ve seen of Iraqi television, with Saddam Hussein presenting propaganda, that I think it was an appropriate target.” And your, in retrospect, on that, that was condemned by many journalism organizations around the world, the attacking of Iraqi television. Your thoughts on it?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, I think when — you know, I don’t know what was in General Franks’ mind when he meant “media targets.” I think General Franks has an odd way of talking, if you’re familiar, if you’ve listened to him a lot or are familiar with him, and he’s not always — I don’t want to cast any aspersions on him, but he’s not always precise in his language. I think by “media targets” in that context, really what he meant was command-control communications.

But here was the issue: in the first war, they knocked Iraqi TV off the air. I’m not calling, and I shouldn’t be interpreted as calling on the United States to bomb, you know, TV technicians — some of my best friends are TV technicians; I don’t care if they’re American or Iraqi. I don’t want people to bomb TV stations per se, but I think that one of the problems they were had was keeping Iraqi television off the air, either through electronic jamming or by, you know, if you could hit an antenna, or, you know, hit a some sort of, you know, cable, or, you know, if there was some way of doing it.

And the reason this became a big problem was because the Americans were invading Iraq, they were hoping that the Shia would help them and support them. And yet, Saddam was on the TV all the time, telling his public that, in fact, the Americans were losing and he was winning, and so when the American intelligence experts were trying to say “well how come in the cities they’re not rising up?” well, they weren’t rising up for two reasons. One, he had the Fedayeen in these cities to kill anybody who rose up. That was a very — you know, that discouraged a lot of people from rebelling. And two, Saddam was on the air all the time. So, what I believe is it would have been better if we had some way of knocking out that broadcasting capability, not through killing people in a television studio, but through electronic jamming or if you could hit an antenna somewhere, you know, the kind of stuff they managed to do in the first Gulf War.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, General Trainor, finally, I’d like to ask you one quick question. In terms of the resistance, your understanding how the resistance now in Iraq, is it largely a resistance of foreign fighters, or is it a domestic resistance to the occupation?

AMY GOODMAN: And we have ten seconds.

GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: No, I think the foreign fighters have always been there, but I think they have been a small percentage. It’s people that are probably mostly Sunni, who want to — it’s a power struggle as to who’s going to rule Iraq at the end of the day, and in a certain sense, the United States forces at this point are incidental to that power struggle.

AMY GOODMAN: And we have to leave it there. But Michael Gordon, quick question, and that is, do you think with the Times was wrong to have printed their mea culpa and single out your piece as one that was less than rigorous and they were sorry about?

MICHAEL GORDON: You have a one-track mind. I thought we were going to talk about the Iraq war. But, no, I think the Times was right to go back and look at the issue, and I think that, you know, with the advantages of hindsight —

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll have to leave it there. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan Gonzalez, we want to thank you both for being with us.

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