Over the weekend, hip-hot artist Jasiri X posted this image on his twitter feed. It’s taken from the front page of the New York Daily News’ website. Note the screaming headline and the sympathetic caption: “Accused killer Dylann Roof had one chance at a stable family life — and his abusive dad ruined it for…
The story is so old the original now exists in digital form only behind Rolling Stone’s paywall, but I remember it well enough to recite the essential details by heart. Fortunately, I don’t have to do that, because Common Dreams reproduced the story for us.
In any event, it involves a public relations firm known as the Rendon Group, which was hired by the Clinton Administration to create the fiction of an organized expatriate Iraqi resistance known as the Iraqi National Congress (“INC”). Whatever Clinton’s reasons were to create this fiction, history shows that he did not use it as a pretext to invade Iraq; in fact, Clinton resisted calls to do just that from the Project for a New American Century, which counted among its illustrious members … Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. But in the hands of a political neophyte like George W. Bush, who was easily controlled by guys like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz, the fictitious Iraqi resistance provided the cover needed to sell a willing America on the idea of invading the wrong country.
And so the Rolling Stone story begins on December 17, 2001, with a CIA operative in Pattaya, Thailand, interviewing a Kurdish Iraqi expat named Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, who’s strapped to a polygraph machine telling “an explosive tale” of hidden chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, “just the kind of evidence the Bush administration was looking for.” But the polygraph results proved the story to be a lie, and so the CIA operative returned home, disappointed.
But lo and behold, just three days later, on December 20, 2001, the New York Times ran al-Haideri’s now-debunked story, in an article penned, of course, by Judith Miller:
AN IRAQI DEFECTOR TELLS OF WORK ON AT LEAST 20 HIDDEN WEAPONS SITES, declared the headline. “An Iraqi defector who described himself as a civil engineer,” Miller wrote, “said he personally worked on renovations of secret facilities for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in underground wells, private villas and under the Saddam Hussein Hospital in Baghdad as recently as a year ago.” If verified, she noted, “his allegations would provide ammunition to officials within the Bush administration who have been arguing that Mr. Hussein should be driven from power partly because of his unwillingness to stop making weapons of mass destruction, despite his pledges to do so.”
How did the Times and Miller get this story just three days after a CIA operative determined it wasn’t true? Well, it appears that Miller got it from Ahmad Chalabi, the titular leader of the INC, who helped arrange for al-Haideri to tell his story to the CIA and who might have (ahem) “coached” him and other defectors the CIA was talking to.
So Miller and the New York Times were essentially acting as stenographers for the INC, a fake group used to sell lies about Iraq’s WMD programs, led by one of the great charlatans of the 21st century (as Leslie Gelb explained in this April 2008 piece in the New York Times).
For months, hawks inside and outside the administration had been pressing for a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. Now, thanks to Miller’s story, they could point to “proof” of Saddam’s “nuclear threat.” The story, reinforced by [Paul] Moran’s on-camera interview with al-Haideri on the giant Australian Broadcasting Corp., was soon being trumpeted by the White House and repeated by newspapers and television networks around the world. It was the first in a long line of hyped and fraudulent stories that would eventually propel the U.S. into a war with Iraq – the first war based almost entirely on a covert propaganda campaign targeting the media.
Fast-forward to today. The Iraq war is over. Nearly 5,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines died there, along with hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians. Tens of thousands of the men and women who were fortunate enough to return home from Iraq carry with them physical, mental and emotional scars that may take years to heal. If at all. And after all that, Iraq remains one of the most violent places on earth.
There’s no alchemy that can transform Miller’s and the Times’ misrepresentations into the truth. Knowingly or not, they peddled lies, and as a direct and proximate result, untold thousands of people suffered and died.
But now the New York Times wants us to be outraged over Pres. Obama’s actions in relation to the press. “With the decision to label a Fox News television reporter a possible ‘co-conspirator’ in a criminal investigation of a news leak,” says the Times, “the Obama administration has moved beyond protecting government secrets to threatening fundamental freedoms of the press to gather news.” Pres. Obama, according to Times guest columnist Glenn Greenwald, “has waged a sustained and unprecedented war on whistleblowers, press freedoms and the basic mechanisms of the newsgathering process.” Sounds pretty serious, no?
We liberals eat this stuff up. We rally to defend the Times and other media outlets because there are broader issues at stake, important constitutional principles to be vindicated, despite the fact that the Times and the rest of the media repeatedly abuse the rights they have, sometimes with horrifyingly deadly results. It’s almost as if we somehow believe that if we keep defending the media, eventually – maybe, hopefully, someday – they’ll do their damn job.
I get it. What choice do we have? But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that my enthusiasm for protecting the press dies a little more with every lie, every trumped up phony scandal, every “both sides do it” bit of drivel that trickles out of the lowly fourth estate. So, please, New York Times, spare me the spittle-flecked exercise in First Amendment outrage. I’ll defend you, but that doesn’t mean I have to like you.