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News Judgment

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‘Bill never let his ideology interfere with his news judgment,’ Howell Raines says of William Safire, the late New York Times columnist.

Never?

One example of Safire’s news judgment being made misty by party prejudice was the tale of Mohamed Atta’s visit to Prague before 11 September 2001. Atta, according to Safire, met an Iraqi secret agent in the Czech Republic, which proved a connection between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, and this association was therefore a reason to go to war in Iraq.

Safire was certain about the meeting. Along with James Woolsey, the former CIA director who had for years pushed for an invasion of Iraq, Safire was one of the first out of the blocks with that story — in October 2001. (Woolsey first made the connection, amazingly, within days of 11 September, and was apparently packed off to Europe in a freelance capacity by Paul Wolfowitz to ‘persuade’ European allies that Iraq was behind the attacks.) Dick Cheney would carry on talking about the connection for years, even when it was obvious that no meeting between Atta and an Iraqi agent had taken place.

It’s now clearer that the story about the non-existent meeting served another purpose. Safire wrote about the alleged alliance again and again, and when he did so he invariably blamed the CIA for for failing to spot the association. This was at the end of 2001 and the beginning of 2002, when the CIA was being chastised by the White House for failing to come up with ‘proper’ intelligence. It had failed to spot the connection between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, just as it had failed to stop Atta et al. on 11 September. It must do better.

All of which can make you wonder how and why the CIA came round to believing that it should torture the prisoners it held in its secret jails in Thailand and elsewhere. The pressure put on it by the White House and its acolytes in the press, such as Safire, was intense; the Agency, this time, had to come up with the goods. Which hardly exonerates the CIA for torturing prisoners in order to extract ‘proper’ intelligence. But there’s no mystery about who wanted that intelligence, nor the lengths they demanded others go to so as to find it.

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