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A U.S. 'Propaganda' Program, al-Zarqawi, and 'The New York Times'
Published: April 10, 2006 3:00 PM ET
NEW YORK Midway through Thomas Ricks’ Washington Post scoop on Monday detailing a U.S. military “propaganda program” aimed at convincing Iraqis that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has a very prominent role in directing violence in that country, there is one specific tip on how the plan may have also targeted American reporters and audiences.
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Ricks found that one “selective leak”--about a recently discovered letter written by Zarqawi--was handed by the military to Dexter Filkins, the longtime New York Times reporter in Baghdad. Filkins's resulting article, about the Zarqawi letter boasting of foreigners' role in suicide attacks in Iraq, ran on the front page of the Times on Feb. 9, 2004.
“Leaks to reporters from U.S. officials in Iraq are common, but official evidence of a propaganda operation using an American reporter is rare,” Ricks observed. He quoted Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the U.S. military's chief spokesman when the propaganda campaign began in 2004: "We trusted Dexter to write an accurate story, and we gave him a good scoop."
Filkins, in an e-mail to Ricks, said he assumed the military was releasing the Zarqawi letter "because it had decided it was in its best interest to have it publicized." He told Ricks he was skeptical about the document's authenticity then, and remains so now.
But Ricks' article, if anything, underplays the impact of the letter in February 2004--and if Filkins had qualms about its authenticity, it hardly deterred him and his paper from giving it serious, and largely uncritical, attention.
In his February 9, 2004 front-pager, Filkins detailed the contents of the letter, and its significance, matter-of-factly for eight paragraphs. Only then did he introduce any doubt, suggesting that possibly it could have been “written by some other insurgent…who exaggerated his involvement.”
After that one-sentence brief mention, Filkins went directly to: “Still, a senior United States intelligence official in Washington said, 'I know of no reason to believe the letter is bogus in any way.''’ The story continued for another 1000 words without expressing any other doubts about the letter—which was found on a CD and was unsigned.
In his Post story today, Ricks also does not mention what happened next.
William Safire, in his Feb. 11, 2004, column for the Times titled “Found: A Smoking Gun,” declared that the letter “demolishes the repeated claim of Bush critics that there was never a '’clear link’ between Saddam and Osama bin Laden.” Safire mocked the Washington Post for burying the story on page 17, while hailing a Reuters account quoting an “amazed” U.S. officials saying, “We couldn’t make this up if we tried.”
Three days later, another Times columnist, David Brooks, covered the letter as fact under the heading “The Zarqawi Rules.” The letter was covered in this manner by other media for weeks. So clearly, the leak to Filkins worked.
A Web search of New York Times articles in the two months after the scoop failed to turn up any articles casting serious doubts on the letter. Two leading writers for Newsweek on its Web site quickly had a different view, however.
Christopher Dickey, the Middle East regional editor, on February 13, 2004, asked: “Given the Bush administration’s record peddling bad intelligence and worse innuendo, you’ve got to wonder if this letter is a total fake. How do we know the text is genuine? How was it obtained? By whom? And when? And how do we know it’s from Zarqawi? We don’t. We’re expected to take the administration’s word for it.”
Rod Nordland, the magazine’s Baghdad bureau chief, on March 6 wrote: “The letter so neatly and comprehensively lays out a blueprint for fomenting strife with the Shia, and later the Kurds, that it's a little hard to believe in it unreservedly. It came originally from Kurdish sources who have a long history of disinformation and dissimulation. It was an electronic document on a CD-ROM, so there's no way to authenticate signature or handwriting, aside from the testimony of those captured with it, about which the authorities have not released much information.”
Ricks, in any case, observed today that the overall propaganda campaign may have "overemphasized" Zarqawi’s and al-Qaeda’s role in Iraq, according to senior intelligence experts. One of them said that Zarqawi and other foreign militants were "a very small part of the actual numbers" of troublemakers.
He also quoted one internal briefing, produced by the U.S. military headquarters in Iraq, which revealed that Kimmitt had concluded that, "The Zarqawi PSYOP program is the most successful information campaign to date."
is editor of E&P.
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