Mar
01
1999

Withholding the News

The Washington Post and the UNSCOM Spying Scandal

On January 6, the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman revealed in a front-page article, sourced to "advisors" and "confidants" of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, that Annan had "obtained what he regards as convincing evidence that United Nations arms inspectors helped collect eavesdropping intelligence used in American efforts to undermine the Iraqi regime." A similar story appeared in the same day’s Boston Globe.

Gellman’s article, along with the Globe story, was widely credited with "breaking" the UNSCOM-spying story--a story that touched on a highly contentious issue at the U.N.

Iraq had frequently accused UNSCOM arms inspectors of being conduits for American spying, and was often joined in its criticism of the disarmament agency by U.N. Security Council members like France and Russia.

Coming after December’s bombing campaign against Iraq, the revelations in Gellman’s article--along with corroborating information that came to light in the U.S. and British media over the next few days--gave further ammunition to UNSCOM’s critics at the U.N., and were considered to be a final nail in UNSCOM’s coffin.

But Gellman, who had produced some of the best and most enterprising coverage of UNSCOM during the past year, had known about the UNSCOM-spying story for months--all the way down to its "operational details," such as the brand names of surveillance equipment used in eavesdropping operations--and was in a position to publish what he knew by early October 1998. But at the behest of a senior U.S. government official, he and the Washington Post’s top management chose not to reveal the extent of U.S. intelligence’s links to (and possible abuse of) UNSCOM, for reasons of "national security."

The links finally came to light in January only because of aggressive leaking from Annan’s staff--leaks which Gellman knew were being pursued by a competing reporter at the Boston Globe. Gellman’s January 6 story included a paragraph disclosing that information had been withheld from readers:

The Post reported on October 12 that an UNSCOM operation code-named Shake the Tree involved synchronizing arms inspections with a new synthesis of intelligence techniques allowing Washington to look and listen as Iraq moved contraband. At the request of the U.S. government, the Post agreed to withhold from that report operational details on national security grounds.

In an interview with Extra!, Gellman said his decision was based on a longstanding Post policy not to spoil ongoing U.S. intelligence operations by exposing them. Although Gellman and his editors were "well aware of the news value" of the story, he said, they believed that the potential drawbacks of publishing it--as explained to them by the official--outweighed the advantages.

The U.S. official had insisted that the nature of this particular operation in Iraq was such that any reference to the eavesdropping would have given the mission away, Gellman said. The official also told Gellman that the Iraqis might use evidence of U.S. spying to justify arresting and executing UNSCOM inspectors, who were expected to return to Iraq soon.

But Gellman reported in a January 8 article that "the Iraqis may have suspected that their communications were being monitored, and used Arabic code words to describe individuals and equipment." Moreover, Gellman had already referred obliquely to the operation in earlier reporting. Thus, it is unlikely that revealing "eavesdropping" would have given anything away.

As for the UNSCOM inspectors whose lives would supposedly be endangered by the story, they did not ultimately return to Iraq until November 17--and could have chosen not to return at all if they believed that their lives were at risk.

Moreover, the story was far more newsworthy in October, when Gellman and his editors decided to hold it, than in January when it finally ran. In January, few people believed the inspectors would ever return to Iraq. By contrast, in October, the U.N. was embroiled in a prolonged stand off between Iraq and the weapons inspectors in which Iraq’s accusation of spying by UNSCOM was one of several issues being discussed.

In fact, during that standoff, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz sent a letter to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, demanding an investigation specifically into whether UNSCOM was being used by U.S. and other intelligence agencies "to carry out exposed espionage on Iraq." Had the Post run its story in October, it would have been a timely--and potentially explosive--contribution to the debate.

So it appears that the serious concern here was that the Washington Post’s journalism might affect the real world--that the revelation of a questionable U.S. espionage operation would upset people, including some U.S. allies, and embarrass U.S. policymakers, thus exposing U.S. policy in Iraq to harsh questioning. Faced with this possibility, the newspaper chose to protect the operation from public scrutiny--until it mattered much less.

Even so, some at the Post were obviously displeased that the story came to light at all. In an outraged editorial the day after Gellman broke the story ("Back-Stabbing at the U.N.," 1/7/99), the paper berated Annan’s advisors for giving its own reporter the information, calling the act a "gutless ploy" whose "principal beneficiary" would be Saddam Hussein. If Annan "had reason to suspect the cooperation [between UNSCOM and the U.S.] had crossed some line of propriety," the editorial said, "they could have raised their concerns in private."

"We live in a dirty and dangerous world," the Post’s then-publisher Katharine Graham said in 1988, addressing a group of CIA officials at the Agency’s Langley headquarters (Regardie’s, 1/90). "There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows." That spirit seems to be alive and well at Graham’s paper.