Perils of a Pliant Press: The Chalabi smear continues

Joel Mowbray

6/2/2004 12:00:00 AM - Joel Mowbray

Watching a Pentagon press conference in the run-up to the Iraq war typically felt like a star-studded wrestling tag-team event: in the midst of a sea of cameras, reporters ruthlessly assaulted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers with question after question.

And that was fantastic.  It was more than that, though.  It was necessary for a functioning democracy. 

Citizens?voters?rely on the press to challenge the ?official line? and dig for the truth.  It?s not perfect, but it beats simply taking the government?s word.

But where is that same tenacity in challenging the spin machine of the State Department and its mini-me, the Central Intelligence Agency? 

The State Department?s daily press briefings?and this columnist speaks from experience?are slightly less combative than regular bridge games at the local seniors? center.  The only thing missing are the tiny cups from which to sip tea.

That chummy relationship extends to the mostly fawning coverage State receives from its press corps.  There are several dedicated, hard-nosed journalists on that beat, but sadly, not many.

Witness the treatment given the fiasco surrounding Iraqi Governing Council member and longtime U.S. ally Ahmed Chalabi, whose Baghdad home was recently raided by Iraqi and American forces.  Chalabi?s allies are mostly inside the Pentagon, whereas he has many more enemies inside the government?and they are mostly careerists at State or the CIA.

Falling into the typical trap of conflating charges with actual guilt, Chalabi has been painted by the press as an Iranian spy after anonymous ?intelligence officials? (which can be found in both State and CIA) deemed him such.

Which raises an important question: where?s the beef?

All that?s been reported is that there is ?rock solid? evidence that Chalabi passed on ?highly classified? secrets?all based on anonymous quotes.

Few media outlets have noted the rather noticeable lack of specific accusations against Chalabi.  Why have ?intelligence officials? not released even the basic nature of his alleged wrongdoing? 

And if he did, in fact, pass on top secret information to half of the remaining ?axis of evil,? why has he not been arrested, as were several lower-ranking members of his Iraqi National Congress (INC)?

In the first week since the scandal unfolded, the only swimming against the tide has been done by the venerable editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.  

Instead of simply polemicizing, the Journal editorial staff did something novel: it unearthed new information.

The editorial reported that Gen. Myers, back in March, had requested a review of intelligence provided by five Iraqi political organizations, including the INC.  The answer to the Joint Chiefs Chairman was that intelligence from Chalabi?s group ?proved to be head and shoulders above the information provided by the other four organizations.?

Compare that to the New York Times? editorial from the same day.  In a cloying, hand-wringing mea culpa, the supposed paper of record attempted to wash itself of the sins of misreporting, in what was actually a thinly-veiled Chalabi hit piece.

The Times fingered Chalabi for feeding its reporters incorrect information, writing that the paper ?sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources.?  The piece went on to criticize Chalabi and other Iraqis for supplying the U.S. false intelligence on weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

But why the focus on Chalabi?  It was CIA Director George Tenet who said that the case for Iraq possessing WMD was a ?slam dunk.?  It was the same CIA, in fact, that is now trying to make Chalabi the patsy for lousy intelligence.

The Times is not alone on this count, however.  Throughout the media, the spotlight has been shone almost solely on Chalabi, not on the bureaucrats at State and CIA who have hated him, for various reasons, for years.

Maybe State and CIA are right about Chalabi.  But what if they?re not?  Shouldn?t the media be challenging those departments relentlessly?

Still fresh is news that longtime State and CIA stooge Ayad Allawi will be the head of the new transitional Iraqi government.  Doesn?t that at least call into question the timing of the raid, one week earlier, of a viable alternative to Allawi who just happened to be hated by the very ?intelligence officials? behind the raid?