Mar 1 2007

Here We Go Again

NYT's Gordon still peddling dubious claims by unnamed sources

In the wake of its disastrous pre-war reporting on Iraq, the New York Times announced new rules governing its use of unnamed sources. Its lead story on February 10, promoting Bush administration charges against Iran, violated those rules.

In the report, “Deadliest Bomb in Iraq Is Made by Iran, U.S. Says,” Times reporter Michael R. Gordon cited a one-sided array of anonymous sources charging the Iranian government with providing a particularly deadly variety of roadside bomb to Shia militias in Iraq: “The most lethal weapon directed against American troops in Iraq is an explosive-packed cylinder that United States intelligence asserts is being supplied by Iran.” According to Gordon:

In interviews, civilian and military officials from a broad range of government agencies provided specific details to support what until now has been a more generally worded claim, in a new National Intelligence Estimate, that Iran is providing “lethal support” to Shiite militants in Iraq.

Repeatedly citing the likes of “administration officials,” “American intelligence” and “Western officials,” the article used unnamed sources four times as often as named ones. Only one source in Gordon’s report challenged the official claims: Iranian United Nations Ambassador Javad Zarif, who was allowed a one-sentence denial of Iranian government involvement.

On the central charge of the article—that the Iranian government is providing the weapons to Shia militias in Iraq—not a single source was named. Instead, Gordon offered a peculiar, seemingly secondhand citation of an intelligence document:

An American intelligence assessment described to the New York Times said that “as part of its strategy in Iraq, Iran is implementing a deliberate, calibrated policy—approved by Supreme Leader Khamenei and carried out by the Quds Force—to provide explosives support and training to select Iraqi Shia militant groups to conduct attacks against coalition targets.” The reference was to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian leader, and to an elite branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Command that is assigned the task of carrying out paramilitary operations abroad.

Who exactly is doing this “describing” is not made clear. This would seem to violate the Times’ rules on quoting unnamed sources (New York Times Company, “Confidential News Sources,” 2/25/04): “We have long observed the principle of identifying our sources by name and title or, when that is not possible, explaining why we consider them authoritative, why they are speaking to us and why they have demanded confidentiality.”

The paper’s rules also state:

The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy. When we use such sources, we accept an obligation not only to convince a reader of their reliability but also to convey what we can learn of their motivation—as much as we can supply to let a reader know whether the sources have a clear point of view on the issue under discussion.

The rules go on to advise:

In any situation when we cite anonymous sources, at least some readers may suspect that the newspaper is being used to convey tainted information or special pleading. If the impetus for anonymity has originated with the source, further reporting is essential to satisfy the reporter and the reader that the paper has sought the whole story.

Besides the sheer over-reliance on unnamed officials, Gordon never explained why these officials demanded confidentiality; nor did he attempt to convince the reader of the sources’ reliability—a daunting job, considering how unreliable the current administration’s intelligence claims have proven in the past.

It’s this poor record that makes it even more incumbent on Gordon to avoid unnamed sources when he can, and to forcefully challenge claims emanating from previously unreliable quarters. Instead, Gordon merely informed readers that the anonymous assertions in the article were “both politically and diplomatically volatile,” which would hardly explain the necessity for obscuring their source.

Gordon’s article was followed by the formal U.S. unveiling of the alleged evidence against Iran, a bizarre press event in which reporters were asked to shield the identities of the Pentagon briefers. These charges appeared in the Times on February 12, under the headline “U.S. Says Arms Link Iranians to Iraqi Shiites.” The report, while presenting much of the U.S. case fairly uncritically, did note that charges of official Iranian government complicity were “asserted, without providing direct evidence,” and that “such an assertion was an inference based on general intelligence assessments.”

Nonetheless, the Times agreed to the ground rules for the military briefing, explaining to readers only that officials said “that without anonymity, a senior Defense Department analyst who participated in the briefing could not have contributed.” In other words, the sources have to be anonymous because they have to be anonymous.

This account was still far less conclusive than Gordon’s sneak preview on February 10, which asserted a much stronger link between these explosives and the Iranian government. And following the official briefing, some U.S. officials—including Gen. Peter Pace, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—were clear that they did not have strong evidence linking Iran’s government to the explosives (L.A. Times, 2/15/07).

The similarity between the current New York Times reporting hyping an Iran threat and the paper’s credulous pre-war Iraq reporting is not coincidental. Gordon was co-author, along with disgraced reporter Judith Miller, of two of six stories singled out in the paper’s May 26, 2004 apology for faulty Iraq reporting, including the Times story that falsely touted the now-famous “aluminum tubes” as components of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program.

The paper’s mea culpa, in the form of an editors’ note, explained some of the editorial shortcomings that resulted in publishing misleading and embarrassing reports:

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. . . . 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.

Where are the editors who should be “pressing for more skepticism” this time around?

Five days after his original report, Gordon published another story (“Why Accuse Iran of Meddling Now? U.S. Officials Explain,” 2/15/07) that defended the Bush administration against critics’ charges that they were publicizing two-year-old allegations in order to establish pretexts for attacking Iran, or to blame Iran for coalition failures in Iraq. Once again, Gordon’s follow-up piece was almost totally dependent on unnamed sources. As Editor & Publisher put it (2/15/07), Gordon, “aim[ing] to quiet the skeptics, cit[ed] only the following sources: ‘American officials’ . . . ‘one military official’ . . . ‘military officials’ . . . ‘American officials’ . . . ‘American military officials.’”

When Michael Gordon was asked about his February 10 piece on NPR’s On the Media (2/18/07), he avoided answering host Brooke Gladstone’s question about whether he had violated the paper’s policy on unnamed sources. He also stated flatly that his report had not charged involvement on the part of Iranian leadership. “What I did not assert is that it was being done at the highest levels of the Iranian government. That was asserted by military briefers who conducted a session in Baghdad subsequent to my article.”

But Gordon’s article repeatedly charged that “Iran” was supplying deadly weapons to Shia militias. It’s hard to imagine how a reader would interpret that except as “the Iranian government,” especially in a report that made no attempt to distinguish between various groups of anonymous “officials.”

In his original February 10 report, Gordon wrote, “Administration officials said they recognized that intelligence failures related to pre-war American claims about Iraq’s weapons arsenal could make critics skeptical about the American claims.” While “critics” are surely skeptical, shouldn’t reporters for the New York Times, given their recent record on similar matters, be even more so?