- John "Rick" MacArthur
publisher of Harper’s magazine and author of the book Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda In the Gulf War.
- Craig Unger
journalist and author. His latest article appears in Vanity Fair. It’s called "From the Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Iraq." He is the author of House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties.
The new accusations of Iranian-supplied bombs in Iraq first appeared in Saturday’s New York Times. The article was titled "Deadliest Bomb in Iraq Is Made by Iran, U.S. Says." Some media critics immediately compared the New York Times piece to its articles on Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons program that were used by the Bush administration to make the case for invading Iraq. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: The new accusations of Iranian-supplied bombs in Iraq first appeared in Saturday’s New York Times. The article was headlined "Deadliest Bomb in Iraq Is Made by Iran, U.S. Says." Some media critics immediately compared the New York Times piece to its articles on Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons program that were used by the Bush administration to make the case for invading Iraq.
These critics have pointed out two similar features between Saturday’s article and those before the war: near complete reliance on unnamed government sources and the byline of New York Times reporter Michael R. Gordon.
Gordon and former New York Times reporter Judith Miller co-authored the infamous September 8, 2002, piece alleging Iraq attempted to purchase aluminum tubes towards developing nuclear weapons. The New York Times later singled out the article as part of its editor’s note apologizing for its inaccurate coverage of Iraq and WMDs.
Well, Michael Gordon appeared on Democracy Now! last March. During our interview, I asked him about his reporting in the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
MICHAEL GORDON: There was no agency in the American government that said Saddam was not involved in WMD. 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 WMD 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.
AMY GOODMAN: I did.
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: That was The New York Times reporter Michael Gordon speaking on Democracy Now! last March. I’m joined in studio now by Rick MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s magazine, author of the book, Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War, as well as by Craig Unger, who has this new piece in Vanity Fair called "From the Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Iraq."
Rick MacArthur, your response to the New York Times piece and then pieces, the news conference in Baghdad that people couldn’t bring in their cameras, name names?
RICK MACARTHUR: I always read The New York Times the way Sovietologists used to read Izvestia, the government newspaper, and I half-kiddingly always ask the question: Is The New York Times playing the role of Izvestia or the role of Pravda, which was the party newspaper? The New York Times owes its success, its long-term success, economic and otherwise, to being close to the government, to being sort of the semi-official government newspaper and giving the administration line to the public fairly unfiltered. And Michael Gordon is just a tool. He’s just a conduit for this policy that the paper has been pursuing for decades.
So, what’s interesting about Michael Gordon is that when he did the reporting on the phony aluminum tube story with Judith Miller four years ago, he somehow escaped unharmed and is now thriving. He has a book out, as you saw, and he’s doing very well, and he’s going around acting like he’s an expert on Iraq, when, in fact, he’s still playing the role of conduit for the official line, the Army line or the government line, depending on who he’s talking to on what day.
Now, what’s interesting is the play that they gave his story on Saturday, the Michael Gordon story about the exploding canisters, or whatever they’re calling them. The canisters are called EFPs. They put it on the top of the front page, and it was the lead story, actually, in the Saturday paper. And not far down in the story, you find a paragraph — actually, this was in the Monday story — you find a paragraph where they say — and this is very interesting — that they don’t have any real evidence, any direct evidence, that any of this is true. All they have is the say-so of the military, of briefers, or the national security briefers. There’s one who is unnamed, who’s clearly been brought in from the civil side of the government to help buttress the case. Well, if they don’t have direct evidence, why is it on the front page? Why is it the lead story?
Just to give you a comparison, Newsday, a perfectly respectable newspaper, puts "U.S.: Iran Is Arming Shia" on page 22 on Monday. That is, yesterday. They do a story. They report what the military officials are claiming, but in the second paragraph, they say the military command in Baghdad denied, however, that any newly smuggled Iranian weapons were behind the five crashes of U.S. military helicopters since January 20th, four confirmed as having been shot down by insurgent gunfire. So that is what journalism is, contrary to what Michael Gordon says. It’s putting the story in perspective, pointing out that the guerrilla movement, whatever you want to call it, in Iraq is broad-based, it’s dominated by Sunni, not by Shia.
And the most damning omission in the story, if you want to talk about overall perspective, is complete lack of perspective on who’s fighting whom, who’s shooting at whom in Iraq. Does the Iranian government really have an interest in destabilizing what’s now a Shiite-dominated government? Doesn’t make any sense. If it does make sense to the administration that the Iranians want to destabilize a Shiite-dominated government, when they’re a Shiite-ruled nation, then they should explain it. But there’s no logic to it, and there’s just this massive omission.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting. When The New York Times did that piece September 8, 2002, talking about, well, allegations of weapons of mass destruction, Judith Miller and as well as Michael Gordon, the day that that piece appeared, Vice President Cheney was on the Sunday morning talk shows. He was holding The New York Times, saying, "You don’t have to believe me. It’s here in The New York Times."
RICK MACARTHUR: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: So one confirms the other, and, of course, their article is based on unnamed sources, of course, in the Bush administration. You have this press conference on Sunday in Baghdad. Saturday is the opening salvo with The New York Times, once again, front-page piece with Michael Gordon. But it’s not just Michael Gordon who writes the piece and he tapes it to the front page of the Times. It’s the entire institution, because the editors decide to put it on the front page. Now, they’ve already done their, what some call their mea culpa, what I call their "kinda culpa," on their Iraq coverage, so what do you think is going on here?
RICK MACARTHUR: Well, today, they ran a story on the front page, at the bottom of the front page, quoting critics, quoting skeptics saying that maybe there isn’t much to this story. And, of course, you ran the clip of the general saying that —
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Pace.
RICK MACARTHUR: Peter Pace, or the chief of staff, saying we don’t have any direct evidence that the Iranian government is behind this. It might be Iranians, but we don’t know that the Iranian government is behind it.
So what’s going on is The New York Times, again, the publisher of New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., trying to keep his newspaper where it’s been historically, which is close to the government as a spokesman or a semi-official spokesman for the government. I always call it the "Government Gazette." And the journalism that Mr. Gordon talks about is left to other lesser mortals like you and me and my colleague here, Mr. Unger, because that requires actually thinking before you just repeat the stuff that’s given to you by the high official sources.
Now, I’m sure they’re also very nervous right now that they’re going to get it wrong, which is why they ran the story on the front page today trying to cover themselves. But their record is so bad now on getting the story straight that I don’t know why anybody would read The New York Times anymore for straight news.
What people are doing now is they’re reading Paul Krugman’s column. Krugman had a very good column yesterday, sort of picking apart the case that the institutional paper is making for Iranian meddling in Iraq and asking all the questions that Gordon should have asked or that James Glanz, the other reporter, should have asked in his story yesterday, but including the pertinent fact that there were no cellphones or cameras or anything allowed at this big security briefing in Baghdad.
AMY GOODMAN: And the rationale for that?
RICK MACARTHUR: The rationale for that is that the Times is covering itself more broadly now. My question to Paul Krugman would be, are we at the point now where a columnist for The New York Times, and not even a journalist, is going to blow the whistle on the newspaper, on the institution that he works for? Because at this point it’s such a blatant violation of what’s correct in journalism, that a columnist needs to comment on it, that Krugman or Bob Herbert or somebody has to take his own newspaper to task on this. I don’t know if they’ve got the wherewithal or the guts to do it, but somebody has got to do it.
AMY GOODMAN: Craig Unger, you have been working on this piece that you did in Vanity Fair for many months, "From the Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Iraq," looking at the same neocon ideologues behind the Iraq War, who have been using the same tactics, alliances with shady exiles, dubious intelligence on WMD, to push for the bombing of Iran, as President Bush ups the pressure on Tehran. Is he planning to double his Middle East bet? And then, this all explodes this weekend, as your piece comes out. Did this surprise you?
CRAIG UNGER: No. In fact, it was very much in line with the narrative that I’d started. And I would just add to all this, if this really was about who is killing Americans there, the vast, vast majority of American deaths in Iraq have been in the Sunni-dominated areas. So the real question should be, where are they getting their weapons from? But what you see has happened is that our policy has had extraordinary unintended consequences. We have inadvertently tilted towards the Shiites and empowered Iran. Now, we seem to be tilting back towards the Sunnis, and you see this Sunni-Shiite civil war within Iraq potentially spreading throughout the entire region. So we don’t want to alienate our Sunni allies, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, who may be helping the Sunni insurgency.
RICK MACARTHUR: Well, they most definitely are help being the Sunni insurgency. I mean, I can’t give you a document that shows that Saudi money is going directly to the Sunni insurgents, but it’s a very, very good bet, just as it was a very good bet before 9/11 that the Saudis were funding the Islamic fundamentalist charitable organizations that helped cover for the 9/11 hijackers. But they get special treatment, because the Bush family is friends with the Saudi oligarchy and with the Gulf oil Arabs and the Persian Gulf oil oligarchies. And so, The New York Times follows their lead. You don’t see stories in The New York Times speculating about Saudi grants of money going, or through the back door going to fund the Sunni insurgency. At least, I haven’t seen any. Maybe you’ve seen some.
CRAIG UNGER: No.
RICK MACARTHUR: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: You begin your book, Second Front, talking about Saudi Arabia being the ones to decide what press gets to cover — that was the Gulf War.
RICK MACARTHUR: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: But maybe you could repeat that, because here we are many years later, more than a decade later, and that part of the story, the key role of the media in the telling of all of this.
RICK MACARTHUR: Right. Well, this is, of course, part of what my book is about, what is what Mr. Unger’s book is about, almost entirely, is that the Bush family, when they decided it was time to move against Saddam Hussein, their former ally, for getting too greedy, for taking too much oil from Kuwait or trying to take the whole thing over, as April Glaspie — remember April Glaspie said, "We didn’t think he was going to take the whole thing."
AMY GOODMAN: The former U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
RICK MACARTHUR: The former U.S. ambassador to Iraq. So, when the Bushes make policy, they talked to — at that point it was King Fahd, and now it’s King — sorry.
CRAIG UNGER: Abdullah.
RICK MACARTHUR: Abdullah. And they say, "Well, we want to put — we would like to have a presence in the Middle East. We would like to have troops in Saudi Arabia, but we need permission from our loyal allies." And so, they come up with a case for a threatened invasion, an imminent invasion from Kuwait by Saddam into Saudi Arabia, which was a pretext completely unsupported by documentary evidence. But they make the case, and they send the troops to Saudi Arabia. And then — it’s a wonderful irony about freedom of the press in this country — they assign to Prince Bandar, a member of the royal family and then the very influential Saudi ambassador to Washington, the role of deciding who gets credentials in the U.S. press to go to Saudi Arabia to cover the build-up.
And I have this scene at the beginning of the book, where the Washington bureau chiefs of the major networks — ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN —- go to Bandar’s house on Chain Bridge Road in McLean, Virginia -—
AMY GOODMAN: Nicknamed "Bandar Bush."
RICK MACARTHUR: — and they basically kiss his pinky ring and beg him for credentials. So it’s a Saudi monarch or aristocrat deciding what the American press gets to cover, and that sort of sets the tone for the rest of the Gulf War coverage, and it brings us to this very — it’s not funny. It brings us to this absolutely nearly disastrous end.
AMY GOODMAN: By the way, AP reported in December, private Saudis supplying money for arms to Sunnis, including anti-aircraft arms.
RICK MACARTHUR: Again, I urge people to read other newspapers and to read the Associated Press. The Associated Press, which I used to make fun of, I’ll admit, as a former UPI man, has become the alternative source of information in the United States, along with the BBC and a couple of British papers. The AP has gotten very good. And if you just read a straight Associated Press story on any of these stories — Iraq, Iranian meddling, alleged Iranian meddling in Iraq, and so on and so forth — you would get a straighter story, a better understanding of what’s going on than you would get from The New York Times.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Craig Unger, I’ll give you the last word, since your book was called House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties.
CRAIG UNGER: Well, I mean, I think the scary thing is, will this happen again? Will we repeat history? I mean, it’s hard to forget events that just happened three years ago. If it happens again with Iran — it’s been a catastrophe in Iraq. If it happens again with Iran, I think the consequences are much, much greater, potentially. That is, you can see Iran easily blockading the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, which would cut off about 40 percent of the oil in the world, and oil prices would go up to at least $125 a barrel. That could precipitate sort of a meltdown of the whole Western economy and almost a global oil war. Iran is very close to China, in terms of China is the biggest customer there. You effectively would have a war going on in three of the world’s biggest oil-producing countries — Iran, Iraq and potentially Saudi Arabia.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Craig Unger, his piece is in Vanity Fair, "From the Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Iraq"; and Rick MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s magazine, author of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War, thank you both.