Accuracy in Media

In early February, coalition officials in Baghdad released the contents of a letter they said was written by terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The letter lays out a blueprint for a terror campaign to thwart the establishment of democracy in Iraq, but its author also seems to recognize that time is running out. While the letter disparages the U.S. military and particularly U.S. intelligence efforts, its tone is decidedly pessimistic about the overall prospects for such a plan; indeed, al-Zarqawi writes, “the future has become frightening.” His is a plea for outside help and is thought to have been on its way to Osama bin Laden when it was intercepted sometime in January.

Al-Zarqawi is a Jordanian, who trained in al-Qaeda terrorist camps and fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. His biography includes a long association with Bin Laden and expertise on chemical and biological weapons. In May 2002, he set up shop in Baghdad after al-Qaeda lost its base in Afghanistan. From there, he reportedly directs a terrorist network that extends through the Middle East into Africa, Europe, and Asia. General Mark Kimmett, the coalition’s Deputy Director for Operations, told reporters that Al-Zarqawi and his organization, Ansar al-Islam, “are closely linked to the al-Qaeda terror network.”

Coalition authorities credit him with planning the 2002 murder of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan and high-profile suicide attacks on U.N. Headquarters in Baghdad and the Ali Mosque in Najaf. Shia leader Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim was killed in that attack. In his letter, Al-Zarqawi takes credit for 25 suicide operations and promises more to come, particularly against Shia targets in hopes of fomenting sectarian war in Iraq. Coalition officials have placed a $10 million bounty on his head.

By any measure, the capture and publication of the letter should be big news. Its contents suggest strongly that the coalition’s strategy in Iraq is working. Writing in mid-February, however, Washington Times columnist Diana West lamented the media’s preferences for stories about the President’s National Guard record. Her review of the transcripts of White House press briefings revealed only one question about the letter in marked contrast to dozens about the President’s service records.

We decided to take a look at transcripts of press briefings at the Pentagon and Coalition Headquarters in Baghdad after the letter’s release. Coalition spokesmen unveiled the letter with considerable fanfare on February 10 and repeatedly returned to its themes and key passages in press briefings in the following days. Unlike their White House brethren, reporters on these beats did have questions about the letter. But many focused solely on the letter’s authenticity and challenged the coalition to “prove” that Al-Zarqawi was its author. Others disputed the Coalition’s assertion that the letter confirmed suspicions that foreign fighters, and particularly al-Qaeda, were behind the more dramatic suicide terrorist attacks. And that is pretty much what showed up in the media’s coverage of the letter.

Some, like the AP’s Jim Krane, wrote that the letter proved that the White House’s pre-war claims about links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were exaggerated. He depicted the Coalition’s willingness to publish the letter as proof that the Bush administration is having trouble justifying the invasion itself. Christine Spolar, a Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent, raised similar questions and charged that rather than combating global terrorism, the war had opened Iraq to it.

Coalition officials gave the New York Times first crack at the Al-Zarqawi letter. In a February 9 article describing its contents, Dexter Filkins wrote that he was allowed to see the letter both in Arabic and English and was given a military translation. The letter was released to the public a few days later. Its contents may be found on numerous Internet websites, although curiously major news outlets, like CNN or the Times, have not posted the text of the letter.

If Coalition officials thought that giving the Times a scoop would buy them favorable publicity, they were wrong. To date, the Times’ editorial page has ignored the letter altogether; it has left any commentary to its “conservative” columnists, William Safire and David Brooks. There were three brief mentions of the Al-Zarqawi letter in Times’ articles before February 20, when Douglas Jehl wrote the first Times follow-up article. Ironically, Jehl’s article was devoted to debunking the Coalition’s interpretation of the significance of the letter. Jehl wrote that “senior American officials” had told him that al-Qaeda had turned down Al-Zarqawi’s request for assistance. “Some American intelligence analysts” interpreted that, according to Jehl, as “indication of a significant divide” between Al-Zarqawi’s group and al-Qaeda.

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