The Blog

Choosing Ignorance

The New York Times finally acknowledges the Saddam documents--if only to dismiss them.

1:30 PM, Mar 28, 2006 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE NEW YORK TIMES today joined the debate about Iraqi documents with a front-page news article and an op-ed by Peter Bergen. It's been nearly two weeks since the first documents were released, but a belated acknowledgement of the news is better than nothing. One might have expected such a longtime champion of open government as the Times to have aggressively led the effort to have these once-secret documents released. Not this time.

The front-page story seeks to dismiss the importance of the documents while the op-ed by Bergen seems to find them only significant enough to warrant an attempted deconstruction. Both of these efforts fail badly. Reading the two pieces together, one gets the unmistakable impression that the Times doesn't want to know more about the documents, their contents and what they tell us about prewar Iraq. The Times, it seems, has chosen ignorance.

The news piece deserves little in the way of a response. Reporter Scott Shane casts the story as a battle between diehard supporters of the Bush administration and the truth, noting most helpfully that in other Internet projects "volunteers have tested software, scanned chemical compounds for useful drugs and even searched radiotelescope data for signals from extraterrestrial life."

Shane ignores the mostly-thoughtful commentary and analysis of the documents and chooses to quote an exuberant conservative blogger proclaiming that one document shows that Iraq had WMD and connections to terrorism, only to knock that claim down later. "The anthrax document . . . does not seem to prove much," Shane writes. And he liberally sprinkles his piece with quotes from anonymous intelligence officials who downplay the significance of the document release. (In one case, Shane names the intelligence official, Michael Scheuer, but neglects to include any mention of Scheuer's self-contradictory analysis of Iraq and terrorism or any reminder that Scheuer might not be a disinterested party.)

Lost on Shane, it seems, is that these documents were released in large part so that we would no longer have to rely on the opinions of anonymous intelligence officials who, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee's bipartisan report, knew very little about Iraq before the war. It should hardly be surprising that the U.S. intelligence community would seek to downplay the significance of these documents after paying them little attention for three years. In any case, the release of the documents allows the debate to move from speculation to fact. It is a development one would expect the Times to welcome.

MORE BIZARRE than the Times's news piece is Bergen's op-ed on Iraq and terrorism. Bergen has long argued that religious and ideological differences between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein would preclude their cooperation. Despite new evidence that renders this view, at best, anachronistic, Bergen is not persuaded. The pull-quote accompanying his op-ed asks this quaint question: "Why would Saddam help al Qaeda?"

An internal Iraqi Intelligence memo that Bergen describes as "one of the most credible documents," and was first reported by the Times in 2004, suggests that a better question is: "Why did Saddam help al Qaeda?" According to the document, Saddam Hussein personally approved bin Laden's request--made in a face-to-face meeting with Iraqi intelligence--to rebroadcast al Qaeda's anti-Saudi propaganda on Iraqi airwaves. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether this is significant cooperation. What is indisputable from this document, though, is that bin Laden sought cooperation from the Iraqis and the Iraqis, at least in a limited way, agreed to provide it.

The Iraqis left open their response to bin Laden's second request, to carry out "joint operations against foreign forces" in Saudi Arabia. According to a U.S. government translation, the Iraqi memo said: "We were left to develop the relationship and the cooperation between the two sides to see what other doors of cooperation and agreement open up."

DID OTHER DOORS of cooperation open up? Bergen thinks he knows. "The results of this meeting were . . . nothing." Really? Even if one accepts Bergen's claim that Iraq had nothing to do with two subsequent attacks on U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, does that show that nothing came of the meeting? Hardly.

Bergen tells us that the second of those attacks, the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, was carried out "by the Saudi branch of Hezbollah, a Shiite group aided by Iranian government officials." Once again, the implication is that ideological and religious differences make cooperation unthinkable.