Back channel to nowhere.

Back channel to nowhere.

Back channel to nowhere.

Media criticism.
Nov. 6 2003 6:49 PM

Back Channel to Nowhere?

Making sense of the alleged Iraqi peace initiative.

The final and most ruthless battle in the Iraq war erupted on Capitol Hill this week, where Republicans and Democrats began to butcher one another with paper cuts from the memos and e-mail they're furiously leaking to press.

Earlier this week, Republicans circulated (fed to the press, that is) the draft of a politically embarrassing memo written for Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va.,—the ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The committee has been assessing the quality of the United States' prewar Iraq intelligence for the past five months, and the draft memo advised committee Democrats to think about steering the investigation in a politically advantageous direction.

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According to Dana Priest's account of the memo in today's Washington Post, one stated option would be to "pull the [Republican] majority along as far as we can on issues that may lead to major new disclosures regarding improper or questionable conduct by administration officials." Other options would be to "castigate the [Republican] majority for seeking to limit the scope of the inquiry" with a Democratic addendum to the interim or final reports or to conduct a Dems-only "independent investigation" to indicate dissatisfaction with the Republican-led review.

Republicans and Democrats took turns snitting about the substance of the memo and the leak of the memo for the TV cameras and any print reporter who would listen, decryingthe politicization of politics! But no sooner had this leak dried that another gushed, with internal Pentagon e-mails substantiating the claim that the Bush Pentagon might have bungled an 11th-hour, back-channel effort by Iraqi officials to forestall the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Short of subpoenaing the notebooks of the reporters who covered this story—or torturing them in a Jordanian interrogation cell—I can't say for sure how they came upon the same scoop at the same time: Handed to them on a platter as a byproduct of the Senate investigation, hidden like a painted egg on Easter, or was the story just in the ether, waiting to be downloaded? Whatever its source, over the course of Wednesday afternoon and evening, four major news organizations— Newsweek, ABC News, the Knight Ridder Washington bureau, and the New York Timescaptured and published to their Web sites separate accounts of the back-channel bungle. (The Times printed the story on Page One, above the fold, of today's—Thursday's—edition.)

Photo of Imad Hage
The wild adventures of Imad Hage

The broad outlines of all four big stories are pretty much the same: Iraqi officials talked to Lebanese American businessman Imad Hage, who talked to Pentagon official Michael Maloof, who set up a meeting between Hage and Defense Policy Board member and leading neocon hawk Richard Perle about negotiating some sort of war-stopping deal. Nothing came of the talks, which isn't much of a surprise. As the stories note to varying degrees, the Iraqis had better channels than a Lebanese American businessman through which they could haggle with the United States. Also, by March, when Hage met with Perle in London, the Bush administration had pretty much cocked and aimed its invasion cannon.

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What makes the comparison reading so rewarding is that it demonstrates how the four news organizations, working against the same deadline and from many of the same sources, can interpret and present the same basic story in different ways. ABC News and Knight Ridder give the essential overview, although the ABC News account is more comprehensive and better-sourced. On any other day, I'd be giving both organizations silver stars for their work, but the Times and Newsweek burrow deeper into the tale and merit the greater scrutiny.

The most immediately striking aspect of the Times piece, by veteran reporter James Risen, is its gentle touch. Compared to Newsweek's account, the Times piece seems billowy and without context, as if Risen thinks he's running with some sort of exclusive and doesn't want to write anything that might pinch the toes of any of his anonymous sources. For instance, you'd never know from reading Risen (or ABC News or Knight Ridder, for that matter) that Republicans and Democrats are currently hammering one another about intelligence failure, and that this story—and its timely appearance—might have something to do with that struggle.

Risen may quote Hage extensively, but he isn't carrying water for the Lebanese American or anybody else. But that's a half-compliment. His story might be more useful if it wasn't so excessively balanced. On one hand, he makes it look like the Iraqis desperately sought a back-channel solution. On another, he makes it appear that the Pentagon neoconservatives led by Richard Perle unduly blew them off. On a third, he shows Perle and company making a good-faith effort to talk. On a fourth, he shows Hage and his Iraqis had no real portfolio to negotiate a settlement. On a fifth, he notes that even if Hage and the Iraqis did have a portfolio, they waited too long to make their pitch. But if you judge the gist of a reporter's story by its last sentence, you'd conclude that Risen believes the neocons botched an opportunity to prevent war. He writes, "Mr. Hage wonders what might have happened if the Americans had pursued the back channel to Baghdad. 'At least they could have talked to them,' he said."

If Risen writes with a balance pole, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball do their business with a tickle-feather, all but shouting that no way in Allah's hell was Imad Hage's extensive networking going to produce peace. (Disclosure: Isikoff is a sometime friend whom I've attacked in print as many times as I've praised.) The Times and ABC News hint at Hage's flakiness, reporting that he tried to smuggle an undeclared gun out of the country on a flight from Dulles. Hey, that could happen to anybody, you say. But only Newsweek reports that in addition to packing semiautomatic .45-caliber heat, Hage's luggage contained four stun guns.He was also carrying a Liberian diplomatic passport, having done business with the government of the now-vanquished Charles Taylor. Blessed are the back-channel peacemakers who tote Liberian diplomatic passports and travel with multiple stun guns? Based on Newsweek's miniprofile, I'd guess that Imad Hage's dossier brims with the fantastic.

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Newsweek outdoes the Times by placing the Hage story in the framework of the congressional probes, writing that some investigators find in his meetings with Pentagon neocons evidence that the administration ducked a chance to find peace. Others view the Hage meetings as evidence of "a renegade operation," to quote one investigator, behind the backs of Congress, the CIA, and the DIA.

The Newsweek version seems to have no friends or allies, approaching the Hage saga with more skepticism than the Times, ABC News, and Knight Ridder put together. That's to commend it, of course, but the piece still relies on too many unnamed sources to give it the sort of transparency that might indicate how and why this information is coming out now. That is ultimately more interesting than the fact that a wing-nut attempted to broker a peace settlement. Did somebody leak the particulars to advance a political or bureaucratic end? Were Hill investigators the leakers? Or did Richard Perle see the story coming and reach out to accelerate the drama so he could testify in the court of public opinion that he left no peace stone unturned as war approached? Or is Josh Marshall right in surmising that the neocons are pushing this story now to rehabilitate their ally Michael Maloof, who worked as the Hage-Perle go-between and no longer has his security clearance?

One option goes unexplored in yesterday's accounts: Is our stun-gunning pal Imad Hage telling the truth? The blizzard of e-mails cited in Newsweek and the Times indicates that Pentagon officials discussed Hage's various peace initiatives with great velocity. But unless I blinked at the wrong time while reading, I see no independent evidence that Hage ever met with Iraqi leaders Tariq Aziz, Amer Saadi, Naji Sabri, or Tahir Jalil Habbash in Baghdad, as he alleges in a Feb. 19 e-mail to Maloof, to discuss a peace plan or even the weather.

Aziz and Saadi surrendered to coalition forces long ago. Is it too much to ask the Times and Newsweek to check Hage's story with them?

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