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Wednesday, March 17, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Iraqi exiles fed media false information
By Jonathan S. Landay and Tish Wells
A June 26, 2002, letter from the Iraqi National Congress to the Senate Appropriations Committee listed 108 articles based on information provided by the INC's Information Collection Program, a U.S.-financed effort to collect intelligence in Iraq.
The assertions in the articles reinforced President Bush's claims that Saddam Hussein should be ousted because he was in league with Osama bin Laden, was developing nuclear weapons and was hiding biological and chemical weapons.
Feeding the information to the news media, as well as to selected administration officials and members of Congress, helped to foster an impression that there were multiple sources of intelligence on Iraq's illicit weapons programs and links to bin Laden.
Nevertheless, U.S. officials and others who supported a pre-emptive invasion quoted the allegations in statements and interviews without running afoul of restrictions on classified information or doubts about the defectors' reliability.
Other Iraqi groups made similar allegations about Iraq's links to terrorism and hidden weapons that also found their way into official administration statements and into news reports, including several by Knight Ridder.
Long list of news outlets
Knight Ridder, which obtained a copy of the INC letter, reviewed all of the articles in what the document called a "summary of ICP product cited in major English language news outlets worldwide (October 2001-May 2002)."
According to the letter, publications in which the articles appeared included The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic Monthly, The Times of London, The Sunday Times of London, The Sunday Age of Melbourne, Australia, and two Knight Ridder newspapers, The Kansas City Star and The Philadelphia Daily News. The Associated Press and others also wrote stories based on INC-provided materials.
Other U.S. and international news media picked up some of the articles.
Many of the stories noted that the information they contained couldn't be independently verified.
In at least one case, the INC made a defector available to a journalist before his information had been fully reviewed by U.S. intelligence officials.
The defector, an engineer, Adnan Ihsan al Haideri, claimed in a Dec. 20, 2001, New York Times article by Judith Miller that there were biological, nuclear and chemical warfare facilities under private villas, the Saddam Hussein Hospital and fake water wells around Baghdad.
Secret locations unproven
Senior U.S. officials said U.S. arms inspectors have found no fake wells or a laboratory under the hospital. Some secret rooms have been located under villas, mosques and palaces, but the officials, who asked not to be identified, said they weren't among locations that al Haideri claimed to know about.
Several requests to speak to Miller were not answered.
INC leader Ahmad Chalabi and other officials have insisted that the group screened all defectors as thoroughly as it could.
U.S. intelligence officials have determined that virtually all of the defectors' information was marginal or useless, and that some of the defectors were fabricators or embellished the threat from Saddam.
The Information Collection Program (ICP) was financed out of the more than $18 million that Congress approved for the INC led by Chalabi, now a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, between 1999 and 2003. The group remains on the Pentagon's payroll.
The INC letter said that it fed ICP information to Arab and Western news media and to two officials in the offices of Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the leading invasion advocates.
The information bypassed U.S. intelligence channels and reached the recipients even after CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and FBI officers questioned the accuracy of the materials or the motives of those who supplied them.
Some of the information, such as the charge that Iraq ran a terrorist training camp in Salman Pak, found its way into administration statements, including a Sept. 12, 2002, White House paper.
The CIA and the State Department had long viewed the INC as unreliable.
Some articles cited in the INC letter were based on transcripts the INC provided. An article in The Kansas City Star, for example, quoted an unidentified INC member as saying he had information that Speicher was seen alive in Baghdad in 1998.
A March 17, 2002, Sunday Times of London article on Saddam's alleged illicit weapons was based on a 3,000-page transcript of the preliminary INC debriefing of al Haideri. The article also reported claims in a videotaped interview made by unnamed Iraqi opposition officials with a second defector that Saddam had mobile biological warfare laboratories disguised as milk and yogurt trucks. Such vehicles have yet to be found.
Marie Colvin, a co-author of the article, said the INC insisted to her that all defectors were scrutinized as fully as possible, and that it was up to reporters to decide how to use their information.
"I believe they acted in good faith," she said. "Over seven years, I would not say there was a story I was fooled on."
A list of the 108 articles that the Iraqi National Congress says were based on information it supplied to news media is available on the Web at www.krwashington.com.
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