In all the reflections this week on the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, journalists have a lot to say about the catastrophic failures of politicians and spies. We’ve had less to say about the third part of the unholy trinity that created the disaster: bad journalism.
In August 2002, the Sunday Independent columnist Eoghan Harris announced to his readers that “This weekend, at a secure location in London, I will be polishing the accomplished television technique of Dr Ahmad Chalabi. He’s the charismatic leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), and the politician most determined to lead a democratic government in Baghdad as soon as the US unseats Saddam Hussein.”
According to his column, Harris had first met Chalabi two years previously, and become a devotee. He was, he wrote, looking forward to seeing him again “the way a football fan might look forward to meeting Roy Keane”. Fandom and journalism make bad bedfellows.
Chalabi, for all his duly polished TV technique, did not become prime minister of post-Saddam Iraq. In the parliamentary elections of December 2005, the first under the country’s new constitution, his INC got 30,000 votes out of 12 million cast. He spoke for almost nobody.
Chalabi was a dodgy character who fled Jordan in the 1970s when the government accused him of embezzling millions of dollars after the collapse of a bank he had established there. The CIA never trusted him or the intelligence he provided from Iraqi defectors.
The invasion of Iraq is one of the founding disasters of 21st century politics
Yet he had a big hand in the invasion of Iraq. In the run-up to the war, Chalabi produced for US and British intelligence services a steady stream of “sources” who “testified” to their first-hand knowledge of how Saddam trained the terrorists who attacked America on 9/11 and how he was building a massive arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
All of this was bogus. A 2006 report by the US Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that “false information” from Chalabi’s group “was used to support key intelligence community assessments on Iraq and was widely distributed in intelligence products prior to the war”. It found that Chalabi “attempted to influence United States policy on Iraq by providing false information through defectors directed at convincing the United States that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and had links to terrorists”.
This is one of history’s great con jobs. But it was allowed to succeed because far too many journalists abandoned their professional duty of scepticism.
The invasion of Iraq is one of the founding disasters of 21st century politics. Based as it was on flagrant falsehood, it destroyed public faith in politics. It inaugurated the era of “alternative facts”.
It convinced many voters in the Anglophone world that democracy is a sham and that there is no distinction between truth and lies. We are still living with the consequences.
As journalists, we bemoan those consequences. But our own profession helped to create them.
[ Fintan O’Toole: For Putin to pay for war crimes, West has to uphold same standards ]
It’s important to recognise that Chalabi’s spoof intelligence did not cause the invasion. It is now completely clear that the neo-conservatives who came to power in the US in 2001 were hell bent on invading Iraq long before 9/11.
But they did need a justification – and the fables of Saddam’s (actually non-existent) links to 9/11 and development of WMD provided it. The dissemination of these claims relied on respected media giving them credibility.
In fairness to Eoghan Harris and the Sunday Independent, they were minor players in this game. The most important forces were those bastions of independent liberal journalism, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Chalabi had been working his magic on the New York Times since 1991, when he was first used as a source for its stories on Iraq. In the long run-up to the invasion, the paper repeatedly reported his fictions as fact.
[ Fintan O’Toole: The deepest wounds of 9/11 are those the US inflicted on itself ]
On October 26th and November 8th, 2001, for example, front-page articles cited Iraqi defectors (supplied by Chalabi) who described a secret Iraqi camp where Islamist terrorists were trained and biological weapons produced. On December 20th, 2001, another front-page story began, “An Iraqi defector who described himself as a civil engineer 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.”
This was all rubbish. In 2004, the New York Times formally acknowledged that “we, along with the administration, were taken in” by Chalabi’s fabrications.
Too many journalists, fixated as they are on today’s events, have a weak sense of history
At about the same time, the Washington Post, in a front-page apology, acknowledged that it “did not pay enough attention to voices raising questions about the war”. Its editorial line in the build-up to the invasion had been that “It is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.”
In Britain, the Observer published similar reports, also based on Chalabi’s fictions, linking Iraq to anthrax attacks on the US and to the 9/11 hijackers, and claiming that “Iraq is developing a long-range ballistic missile system that could carry weapons of mass destruction up to 700 miles”.
[ Washington’s victory in Iraq did not liberate but imprisoned the country in warfare ]
Good journalists on these papers wrote stories that questioned this false reporting. But almost invariably, these counter-reports were given far less prominence than the alarmist nonsense.
The Murdoch press, in the US, Britain and Ireland, was of course much worse. But that is hardly a great comfort – being less jingoistic than the Sun is nothing to write home about.
Why were so many journalists and editors taken in by Chalabi’s giant scam? One reason is that fraudulent sensationalism is much sexier than professional scepticism. There is a bias towards hysteria.
Another factor is the circularity of media coverage. Other editors are hugely influenced by what the leaders of the pack such as the New York Times and the Washington Post are doing. As Jonathan Landay, one of the US reporters who consistently got things right about all the bogus intelligence, later explained, “Even some of our own newspapers wouldn’t print our own stories. Why? Because they say ‘it wasn’t in the Washington Post’.”
[ ‘Now there is less fear.’ Baghdad’s youth reclaim their city, 20 years after US-led invasion ]
The deepest reason, though, is that too many journalists, fixated as they are on today’s events, have a weak sense of history. Anyone who knew how wars are routinely marinated in lies before they are placed in the oven could sense that the WMD stuff was a script we’d read many times before.
The Iraq debacle is now itself part of the history that must be learned from. It should stand as a constant reminder of the duty of journalists not to become fans and cheerleaders, not to succumb to the allure of dramatic propaganda, and never to turn off the force field of scepticism that wards off credulity.