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Spying in Iraq: From Fact to Allegation

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Posted 10 March 2003 - 04:59 AM

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting
Media analysis, critiques and activism

Spying in Iraq: From Fact to Allegation

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.

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