Dealing with defective defectors.

Media criticism.
April 13 2004 8:27 PM

Dealing With Defective Defectors

60 Minutes shows Vanity Fair and the New York Times how it's done.

How do you know when he's exaggerating?
How do you know when he's exaggerating?

Most media operations will run corrections for misspellings and other trivial miscues. But the blanket self-repudiation of "We were wrong" comes hard—if at all—to journalists when a big chunk of their story collapses.

CBS's 60 Minutes proved the exception last month when it disowned part of a two-year-old story. On March 3, 2002, the newsmagazine profiled Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress. In the broadcast, correspondent Lesley Stahl meets an unnamed defector billed by the INC as a former major in the Iraq military. He tells Stahl about how Saddam Hussein evaded weapons inspectors by placing mobile biological-weapons laboratories in seven trucks that he, the defector, personally purchased from Renault.

Now that many of the defectors from the Chalabi stable have been exposed as exaggerators or fabricators, Stahl revisited her defector story last month (March 7, 2004) to eat a little crow. Stahl reports with some chagrin that at the time of her first broadcast, the U.S. government "had already concluded that Chalabi's defector was unreliable, and the CIA now admits it made a mistake in allowing his information to be included in [Secretary of State Colin] Powell's U.N. speech."

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Stahl re-interviews Chalabi and asks if he and his defector, whom she now calls "Major Hareeth," had "spun" 60 Minutes in the previous broadcast. No, he says, weakly, and peddles a limp filibuster.

Two cheers, then, for 60 Minutes, for being journalistic mensches and correcting the record. But a dozen rotten eggs for Vanity Fair, which allowed a similar defector to dump disinformation into its May 2002 feature "Iraq's Arsenal of Terror," by David Rose, and has yet to adequately correct the record.

I write "similar defector," but it's clear that 60 Minutes'defector is the same guy as Vanity Fair's. The INC introduced both 60 Minutes' Stahland Vanity Fair's Roseto an anonymous Iraqi major, and both news organizations interviewed him in early 2002; in both stories, the defector boasts of configuring newly purchased Renault trucks into mobile biological-weapons laboratories to escape inspector detection. (In the 60 Minutes version, the defector purchases seven Renault trucks; in Vanity Fair, eight.) An INC official tells 60 Minutes the defector "worked in a number of jobs, which we deem to be very important within the intelligence service." The Vanity Fair piece describes the defector procuring military goods for Iraqi intelligence. If the defector isn't one guy, he should be on the lookout for his clone.

Beyond his Renault caper, the defector doesn't say much else of substance on 60 Minutes. But Vanity Fair's Rose lets the defector essay at length about the prohibited weapons schemes under way when he defected in 2000: a long-range missile program, close to completion; plans to build chemical and biological warheads; seven specific locations where chemical and biological weapons are manufactured, designed, and tested; the existence of a nuclear weapons development site; and details about a "dirty bomb" project. The story even includes a map to the WMD sites. In the postwar cleanup, of course, none of these allegations seems to have checked out.

In Rose's defense, his piece offers this disclaimer, "Although Vanity Fair cannot independently verify all the defector's claims, experts on Iraq say they are consistent with other established information and appear to be credible." Upon revisiting the subject for Vanity Fair in a glowing profile of Chalabi ("An Inconvenient Iraqi," January 2003), he qualifies the defector's bona fides: Rose acknowledges CIA thinking that the defector was untrustworthy and had "embroidered" his story to win sanctuary in the United States, but he still reiterates his faith in the defector.

If you still want to stone Rose for circulating INC hogwash, make sure to buy your rocks by the bushel—he wasn't the only journalist taken in by the INC. The group ran an info-buffet for journalists, feeding the data to reporters for 108 stories between October 2001 and May 2002, as the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau reported last month. The sensational details in many of those stories have never been confirmed.

Vanity Fair returns to the newsstands with an encyclopedic Iraq war tick-tock in the May 2004 issue, "The Path to War." It would seem the perfect venue for the magazine to concede its errors in advancing INC blarney. Instead, the article, by Bryan Burrough, Evgenia Peretz *, David Rose (yes, that David Rose), and David Wise, writes Vanity Fair out of the story, pointing the finger at the government and "the media." From the piece: