Wednesday, May 26, 2004

An Intelligence Failure

The New York Times has published a retrospective on its errors in covering stories related to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, many of which it now deems are suspect.

Over the last year this newspaper has shone the bright light of hindsight on decisions that led the United States into Iraq. We have examined the failings of American and allied intelligence, especially on the issue of Iraq's weapons and possible Iraqi connections to international terrorists. We have studied the allegations of official gullibility and hype. It is past time we turned the same light on ourselves.

In doing so — reviewing hundreds of articles written during the prelude to war and into the early stages of the occupation — we found an enormous amount of journalism that we are proud of. In most cases, what we reported was an accurate reflection of the state of our knowledge at the time, much of it painstakingly extracted from intelligence agencies that were themselves dependent on sketchy information. And where those articles included incomplete information or pointed in a wrong direction, they were later overtaken by more and stronger information. That is how news coverage normally unfolds.

But we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.

The New York Times attributes these errors to reliance on a poisoned source, Ahmed Chalabi, whose it now suspects had an agenda of "regime change" in Iraq. The Times goes on to say that these false accounts, if they were such, were also lapped up by an Administration who shared his goals and were eager to believe them.

The problematic articles varied in authorship and subject matter, but many shared a common feature. They depended at least in part on information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on "regime change" in Iraq, people whose credibility has come under increasing public debate in recent weeks. (The most prominent of the anti-Saddam campaigners, Ahmad Chalabi, has been named as an occasional source in Times articles since at least 1991, and has introduced reporters to other exiles. He became a favorite of hard-liners within the Bush administration and a paid broker of information from Iraqi exiles, until his payments were cut off last week.) Complicating matters for journalists, the accounts of these exiles were often eagerly confirmed by U.S. officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq. Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources. So did many news organizations -- in particular, this one.

Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated. Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper. Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted. Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.

The problem with this post-mortem is obvious. It ignores the well-documented Clinton Administration belief that Saddam Hussein may had been seeking WMDs too, a fact backhandedly conceded in the fine print: "Ahmad Chalabi, has been named as an occasional source in Times articles since at least 1991" -- and which itself threatens its own conclusions of the provenance of its error by counterexample. Nor could the Times have been unaware of Chalabi's desire to topple Saddam. Chalabi virtually trumpeted it. It misdiagnoses the root cause of news inaccuracy as a reliance on sources with an agenda. If the Times or any other news, police or intelligence organization limited its sources to informants with no 'agenda' whatever, there would be no sources at all.

The real source of error was more basic: sloppy fact checking, the lack of collateral confirmation for important stories and the absence of an internal mechanism to detect mounting inconsistencies within the developing story. The Times feebly fumbles at this, but fails to understand its significance. It admits it ran stories based on material provided to it, but "the Times never followed up on the veracity of this source or the attempts to verify his claims". The paper found that its own follow up articles on the same story contradicted the own original accounts, but failed to see the significance of it. "Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all." The media inability to make sense of its own story and update the basic account based on new information has been highlighted in Belmont Club's The Wedding Party series. As a consequence, the Times was not even aware that it was refuting itself.

The problem with the media is it cannot accurately keep track of the facts. It is not institutionally equipped to grade the reliability of information brought to its front pages. It has no organized method of collaterally confirming stories based on sources that are unlikely to collude. It has no analysis cells to follow a story and continuously reevaluate the reliability of initial information based on subsequent developments.

Jason Van Steenwyk  convincingly shows, by laying out the verbatim transcript of US Marine General James Mattis and coverage by the Globe and Mail, the Guardian, the New York Times, Reuters, Agence Presse France and the Independent how the basic fact of what Mattis said slipped through the toils of these famous newspapers. Mattis was being asked to comment on an attack on alleged wedding party on the Syrian border. His verbatim response was:

I can't...I've seen the pictures, but I can't...bad things happened. Fallujah, I never saw a Marine hide behind a woman or a child or hold them in their house and fire out of the building. I don't have to apologize for the conduct of my Marines.

This sentence, first a refusal to comment, then  a basic reaffirmation of faith in his men based on their conduct in Fallujah, was twisted into a cavalier dismissal of civilian casualties. The New York Times rendered Mattis as:

At a news conference in Falluja, west of Baghdad, he said that two dozen men of military age were among those killed. "Let's not be naive," he said. "Bad things happen in wars." "I don't have to apologize for the conduct of my men," he added.

The Independent has the least accurate rendition of all:

"These were more than two dozen military-age males. Let's not be naive," Major General James Mattis, commander of the US 1st Marine Division, said. But he had no explanation of where the dead women and children in the video came from. "I have not seen the pictures but bad things happen in wars," he said cryptically. "I don't have to apologize for the conduct of my men." 

In the Independent's version, Mattis is quoted as saying he had not seen the pictures, but in the transcript he clearly says he has. The question clearly refers to the alleged attack on the supposed wedding party, but the words "I can't ... I've seen the pictures, but I can't" which clearly indicates a refusal to comment are omitted altogether.

This error did not creep into the accounts of the Times or the Independent or the other newspapers due to a reliance on some 'poisoned source' or a source 'with an agenda' which the Times regards as the fount of mischief. It came from a failure to consult the tape of the interview and a verbatim transcript available. As Jason Van Steenwyk puts it:

Essentially, it looks like they're quoting each other, or some apocryphal Q source material. They're not quoting General Mattis. They didn't even show up at the press conference, and they didn't bother to get a transcript or listen to the tape. But all these reporters are passing their crap off as if they were right from the source material.

The error in this specific case doesn't necessarily have to do with the "liberal bias" that is attributed to these news outlets. It stems directly and plainly from a very poor management of the factual source material. The incident Van Steenwyk describes illustrates the palimpsest-like phenomenon described in Belmont Club's The Wedding Party series, where facts of uncertain provenance all pile on top of one another in a developing story, very often of different dates, with discredited facts receiving equal billing with more reliable information. It is only fair to say that these defects can be found in conservative news outlets as well because the media in general is not organizationally structured to verify and preserve the integrity of information nor to apply rigorous analysis to it.

The incidents of Jason Blair, Andrew Gilligan, Daily Mirror 'fake' atrocity pictures and the Boston Globe 'porno' atrocity pictures should indicate that the basic cause of media error is not the existence sources with 'agendas' but a certain primitiveness in the newsroom. It is inherent in the journalistic process itself as presently practiced. The problem can be fixed when it is recognized. Until then, the public must make do with apocryphal Q.