Mar 1 1999

Don’t Believe Everything You Read:

New York Times Editorialists Doubt the Times

The same day the Washington Post was hyperventilating about the U.N. being excessively candid with its own reporter (1/7/99), the New York Times advanced the UNSCOM-spying story with a front-page article by Tim Weiner. Weiner’s piece went further than the previous day’s story in the Post, reporting that “American spies had worked undercover on teams of United Nations arms inspectors…using diplomatic cover or other professional identities.”

The Times ran an editorial that day, too. Called “A Spy Enigma in Iraq,” the editorial bent over backwards to cast the allegations–which were made by the Times‘ own intelligence reporter in that day’s edition–in an uncertain light. According to the editorial, “divisions within the United Nations over Iraq have created a poisonous atmosphere in which it can be difficult to determine fact from fiction. That makes caution essential in assessing accusations of misconduct”–despite the fact that Weiner’s article was sourced almost entirely to U.S. officials.

It seems unlikely that the editorialists didn’t know about Weiner’s article as they were preparing the next day’s editorial page–newspapers usually circulate a “budget” each afternoon to all reporters and editors, touting each news desk’s top stories and showing which stories have been chosen to run on page one.

But they were presumably aware of the previous day’s article in the Boston Globe (a paper owned by the New York Times Company). The Globe‘s article had reported many of the same allegations the Times was now trying to chalk up to U.N. skullduggery–but had sourced them to U.S. officials. Despite all this, the editorial judged, “it is not yet clear that such a violation of U.N. independence occurred.”

And what would constitute such a violation, in the Times‘ opinion? The editorialists are ridiculously specific on this point: “Washington did cross a line it should not have if it placed American agents on the U.N. team with the intention of gathering information that could be used for military strikes against targets in Baghdad.” If the U.S. government placed undercover agents on UNSCOM who just happened to find information that could be useful for planning military strikes, that would presumably be OK.

As it happened, the next day (1/8/99) Weiner reported that during Operation Desert Fox, U.S. and U.K. “cruise missiles hit some targets and selected from data gleaned by the American-led [UNSCOM] espionage.”

In short, the U.S. had placed spies in UNSCOM that gathered military data; unfortunately, Weiner was unable to determine exactly what was going on in the heads of U.S. officials when they did so. So two days later (1/10/99), the Times could run another editorial claiming that “from the information so far disclosed about American intelligence activities in Iraq it does not appear that Washington acted improperly or misused the United Nations.”

The attitude of the Times editorialists was epitomized by their recommendation that the matter be forwarded to the Congressional intelligence committees “to determine whether Washington abused its relationship with the U.N.” As the Times editorial writers well know, the congressional intelligence committees are run by Republicans who complain regularly that the U.N. abuses its relationship with Washington.

Such a proposal would be similar to suggesting that Iraq’s compliance with Unscom be evaluated by the Ba’ath Party congress. The Timeseditorial did not mention what the abused party–the United Nations–ought to do about the affair.