Memo To: Bill Keller, executive editor, New York Times From: Jude Wanniski Re: How About a Fair Trial?
It will be a few months at least before the trial of Saddam Hussein begins in Baghdad, but it is already becoming apparent that the Times has concluded with the rest of the news media that Saddam is guilty as charged and all that remains to be determined is whether he gets life in Abu Ghraib or is executed. It may not seem that way to you, Bill, but you do know I have been defending Saddam Hussein in my small way at this website for the last several years and am sensitive to the demonization process that has led the American people to believe Saddam is Evil Incarnate, as the New York tabloids put it on their front pages this week after his arraignment. If the Times had been more serious over the years in hearing those like me who actually looked into the charges against him, President Bush would have been better informed and the war with all its terrible costs would have been avoided. I'm serious. Once the Times went along with the fictions about Saddam's evil regime generated by Iraqi expatriates like Ahmed Chalabi and his friends in high places in Washington, there really was no way The Powers That Be could be stopped from going to war.
Two years ago, for example, the reporting on Iraq was so uniformly dreadful that I practically begged your predecessor, Howell Raines, to send John F. Burns, your best foreign correspondent, to Baghdad. When he did I rejoiced, expecting John to dig incessantly until he unraveled the story in ways that would encourage a diplomatic solution. Alas, it turned out John was already conditioned to think Saddam evil before he arrived, and his dispatches in the several months leading up to the war helped persuade the politicians in Washington that our troops would be greeted with flowers and embraces from a grateful, liberated Iraq. I e-mailed him several times, chiding him as gently as I could, but he no longer responded. In his Times column today, Nicholas Kristof argues that our politicians did not want he hear about how Iraqis would fight our troops u201Cwith guns, grenades and suicide bombs… But the neocons refused to hear it. From their Washington and New York cocoons, they insisted that ordinary Iraqis welcomed them. Ahmed Chalabi had told them so. And they read it in The Weekly Standard.u201D
They could also read it in the Times. And they can still read almost daily confirmation of the charges against Saddam in the news columns of the Times. As an example, one of the war crimes in the arraignment was, according to the Times, that: u201CMr. Hussein is accused of using chemical weapons in attacks on Kurds, particularly in Halabja, a Kurdish city where as many as 2,000 people were killed.u201D In the adjoining photograph, showing the dead bodies of a woman and her infant child, is the caption: “1988: In Halabja, as many as 2,000 Kurds were gassed when the Iraqi government used chemical weapons on its own citizens.”
Is this part of a fair trial by press? In this caption your editors have convicted Saddam, even though the best evidence available to the Times, which you find if you looked for it, is that the u201Chundredsu201D of citizens of Halabja who died in March 1988 were caught in a crossfire in a running battle for control of the town between the Iraqi and Iranian armies. In the Thursday Times John F. Burns co-authored a news analysis front-pager that included this summary graph: u201CThe charges against Mr. Hussein are likely to include a range of crimes against humanity, including genocide, in connection with a dozen specific incidents, from the quelling of the 1991 Shiite uprising to the 1988 poison gas attacks that killed 5,000 people in the Kurdish village of Halabja.u201D From one day to the next, the number of dead dropped to 2000 from 5000. My source for “hundreds” is the CIA.
Now if I knew Saddam had committed genocide, I could not possibly say a word in his defense, but I went to the trouble of asking questions about Halabja — and the other u201Cincidentsu201D cited by Burns — and found the weight of evidence against the charge. In early 2003, hoping to head off the war, I spend considerable time persuading your op-ed editor, David Shipley, to ask those questions himself of sources I considered reliable. The net result was the op-ed that appeared in the Times on Jan. 31, 2003, for which I thank Shipley for making happen. I don't know if you read it or not, as you were not yet executive editor, but I assure you the facts were then available to your reporters and still are, if there was the slightest interest in developing them. Please also be assured that I will continue commenting on the coverage of the trials in the months, perhaps years ahead. My focus will be on the Times coverage because the rest of the news media follows your lead.
My best suggestion is that you think through your coverage in advance, which might help persuade you that John Burns has too much of an investment in Saddam's guilt and may not be able to handle the assignment. One idea you might consider is appointing a u201Cdevil's advocateu201D for Saddam. When I was on The Wall Street Journal editorial page in 1973, there was a meeting of the editorial board called by Bob Bartley in regard to the charges against President Nixon that were developed at The Washington Post and were developing at the House Judiciary Committee in the beginnings of the impeachment process. At one point, Bartley asked u201CIs there anyone here who doesn't believe Nixon is guilty as charged?u201D I was the only member of the board who so indicated, by raising my hand. I said: u201CI don't know if he is guilty or innocent, because I don't know all that I would need to know to make that judgement.u201D When the meeting broke, Bartley called me into his office and asked if I would be willing to play the role on the editorial page as Nixon's advocate. And of course I said I would, and did, which is the primary reason the Journal was almost the last newspaper to call for his resignation.
There is just as much at stake here, Bill. You may make lots of your readers mad by presenting information that cuts against the beliefs they have, but I don't think you have any other choice if the American people have any chance of understanding what this war is all about and how it came about.
A War Crime or an Act of War?
By Stephen C. Pelletiere The New York Times Jan. 31, 2003
MECHANICSBURG, Pa. It was no surprise that President Bush, lacking smoking-gun evidence of Iraq’s weapons programs, used his State of the Union address to re-emphasize the moral case for an invasion: “The dictator who is assembling the world’s most dangerous weapons has already used them on whole villages, leaving thousands of his own citizens dead, blind or disfigured.”
The accusation that Iraq has used chemical weapons against its citizens is a familiar part of the debate. The piece of hard evidence most frequently brought up concerns the gassing of Iraqi Kurds at the town of Halabja in March 1988, near the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. President Bush himself has cited Iraq’s “gassing its own people,” specifically at Halabja, as a reason to topple Saddam Hussein.
But the truth is, all we know for certain is that Kurds were bombarded with poison gas that day at Halabja. We cannot say with any certainty that Iraqi chemical weapons killed the Kurds. This is not the only distortion in the Halabja story.
I am in a position to know because, as the Central Intelligence Agency’s senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and as a professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000, I was privy to much of the classified material that flowed through Washington having to do with the Persian Gulf. In addition, I headed a 1991 Army investigation into how the Iraqis would fight a war against the United States; the classified version of the report went into great detail on the Halabja affair.
This much about the gassing at Halabja we undoubtedly know: it came about in the course of a battle between Iraqis and Iranians. Iraq used chemical weapons to try to kill Iranians who had seized the town, which is in northern Iraq not far from the Iranian border. The Kurdish civilians who died had the misfortune to be caught up in that exchange. But they were not Iraq’s main target.
And the story gets murkier: immediately after the battle the United States Defense Intelligence Agency investigated and produced a classified report, which it circulated within the intelligence community on a need-to-know basis. That study asserted that it was Iranian gas that killed the Kurds, not Iraqi gas.
The agency did find that each side used gas against the other in the battle around Halabja. The condition of the dead Kurds’ bodies, however, indicated they had been killed with a blood agent that is, a cyanide-based gas which Iran was known to use. The Iraqis, who are thought to have used mustard gas in the battle, are not known to have possessed blood agents at the time.
These facts have long been in the public domain but, extraordinarily, as often as the Halabja affair is cited, they are rarely mentioned. A much-discussed article in The New Yorker last March did not make reference to the Defense Intelligence Agency report or consider that Iranian gas might have killed the Kurds. On the rare occasions the report is brought up, there is usually speculation, with no proof, that it was skewed out of American political favoritism toward Iraq in its war against Iran.
I am not trying to rehabilitate the character of Saddam Hussein. He has much to answer for in the area of human rights abuses. But accusing him of gassing his own people at Halabja as an act of genocide is not correct, because as far as the information we have goes, all of the cases where gas was used involved battles. These were tragedies of war. There may be justifications for invading Iraq, but Halabja is not one of them.
In fact, those who really feel that the disaster at Halabja has bearing on today might want to consider a different question: Why was Iran so keen on taking the town? A closer look may shed light on America’s impetus to invade Iraq.
We are constantly reminded that Iraq has perhaps the world’s largest reserves of oil. But in a regional and perhaps even geopolitical sense, it may be more important that Iraq has the most extensive river system in the Middle East. In addition to the Tigris and Euphrates, there are the Greater Zab and Lesser Zab rivers in the north of the country. Iraq was covered with irrigation works by the sixth century A.D., and was a granary for the region.
Before the Persian Gulf war, Iraq had built an impressive system of dams and river control projects, the largest being the Darbandikhan dam in the Kurdish area. And it was this dam the Iranians were aiming to take control of when they seized Halabja. In the 1990’s there was much discussion over the construction of a so-called Peace Pipeline that would bring the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates south to the parched Gulf states and, by extension, Israel. No progress has been made on this, largely because of Iraqi intransigence. With Iraq in American hands, of course, all that could change.
Thus America could alter the destiny of the Middle East in a way that probably could not be challenged for decades not solely by controlling Iraq’s oil, but by controlling its water. Even if America didn’t occupy the country, once Mr. Hussein’s Baath Party is driven from power, many lucrative opportunities would open up for American companies.
All that is needed to get us into war is one clear reason for acting, one that would be generally persuasive. But efforts to link the Iraqis directly to Osama bin Laden have proved inconclusive. Assertions that Iraq threatens its neighbors have also failed to create much resolve; in its present debilitated condition thanks to United Nations sanctions Iraq’s conventional forces threaten no one.
Perhaps the strongest argument left for taking us to war quickly is that Saddam Hussein has committed human rights atrocities against his people. And the most dramatic case are the accusations about Halabja.
Before we go to war over Halabja, the administration owes the American people the full facts. And if it has other examples of Saddam Hussein gassing Kurds, it must show that they were not pro-Iranian Kurdish guerrillas who died fighting alongside Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Until Washington gives us proof of Saddam Hussein’s supposed atrocities, why are we picking on Iraq on human rights grounds, particularly when there are so many other repressive regimes Washington supports?
Stephen C. Pelletiere is author of Iraq and the International Oil System: Why America Went to War in the Persian Gulf.
July 5, 2004