Nothing makes a newspaper prouder than a juicy foreign-policy scoop. Except, it seems, when the scoop ends up raising awkward questions about a U.S. administration’s drive for war.
Back in 1999, major papers ran front-page investigative stories revealing that the CIA had covertly used U.N. weapons inspectors to spy on Iraq for the U.S.’s own intelligence purposes. “United States officials said today that American spies had worked undercover on teams of United Nations arms inspectors,” the New York Times reported (1/7/99). According to the Washington Post (3/2/99), the U.S. “infiltrated agents and espionage equipment for three years into United Nations arms control teams in Iraq to eavesdrop on the Iraqi military without the knowledge of the U.N. agency.” Undercover U.S. agents “carried out an ambitious spying operation designed to penetrate Iraq’s intelligence apparatus and track the movement of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, according to U.S. and U.N. sources,” wrote the Boston Globe (1/6/99).
Each of the three news stories ran on the papers’ front pages. At first, U.S. officials tried to deny them, but as more details emerged, “spokesmen for the CIA, Pentagon, White House and State Department declined to repeat any categorical denials” (Washington Post, 3/2/99). By the spring of 1999, the UNSCOM spying reported by the papers was accepted as fact by other outlets, and even defended; “Experts say it is naive to believe that the United States and other governments would not have used the opportunity presented by the U.N. commission to spy on a country that provoked the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and that has continued to tangle with U.S. and British forces,” USA Today reported (3/3/99).
But now that the Bush administration has placed the inspectors at the center of its rationale for going to war, these same papers have become noticeably queasy about recalling UNSCOM’s past spying. The spy scandal badly damaged the credibility of the inspections process, especially after reports that data collected through UNSCOM were later used to pick targets in the December 1998 bombing of Iraq: “National security insiders, blessed with their unprecedented intelligence bonanza from UNSCOM, convinced themselves that bombing Saddam Hussein’s internal apparatus would drive the Iraqi leader around the bend,” wrote Washington Post analyst William Arkin (1/17/99).
Suddenly, facts that their own correspondents confirmed three years ago in interviews with top U.S. officials are being recycled as mere allegations coming from Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The UNSCOM team, explained the New York Times‘ Barbara Crossette in an August 3 story, was replaced “after Mr. Hussein accused the old commission of being an American spy operation and refused to deal with it.” She gave no hint that Saddam’s “accusation” was reported as fact by her Times colleague, Tim Weiner, in a front-page story three years earlier.
“As recently as Sunday, Iraqi officials called the inspectors spies and accused them of deliberately prolonging their work,” the Washington Post‘s Baghdad correspondent wrote recently in a story casting doubt on the Iraqi regime’s intentions of cooperating (9/8/02). Readers would have no way of knowing that the Post‘s Barton Gellman exhaustively detailed the facts of the spying in a series of 1999 articles.
“Iraq accused some of the inspectors of being spies, because they remained on their host countries’ payrolls while reviewing Iraq’s weapons,” the Boston Globe‘s Elizabeth Neuffer wrote recently, in an oddly garbled rendition of the charges (9/14/02). She could have boasted that her paper’s own Colum Lynch (now with the Washington Post) was widely credited with first breaking the story of UNSCOM’s spying in a January 6, 1999 front-page expose. But she chose not to.
It’s hard to avoid the impression that certain media outlets would rather that UNSCOM’s covert espionage had never been exposed in the first place. The day after Barton Gellman of the Washington Post first reported the spying charges, in a story sourced to Kofi Annan’s office, his own paper ran a thundering editorial denouncing Annan’s “gutless ploy” (“Back-Stabbing at the U.N.,” 1/7/99) and instructing the U.N. leader that instead of providing the information to a Washington Post reporter, he and his aides should have “raised their concerns in private.”
ACTION: Please remind these leading newspapers that espionage by U.N. weapons inspectors, now being treated as an allegation made by Saddam Hussein, was previously reported by these papers as a fact.
New York Times
Howell Raines, Executive Editor
Helen Donovan, Executive Editor
Phil Bennett, Assistant managing editor, foreign news