Among the journalistic practices now under increased scrutiny in the wake of the New York Times’ scandal is the use of anonymous sources in news stories. Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler has devoted two recent columns to such concerns. He seems worried that Post reporters are flouting long-standing guidelines governing the use of anonymous sources. He warns that “these rules have largely fallen by the wayside” because the practice has become so routine.
No current news story is more susceptible to the abuse of anonymous sources than the growing controversy over the accuracy of U.S. intelligence before the war in Iraq. Journalists, especially in the liberal media, are hyperventilating about the failure of the coalition thus far to unearth Saddam Hussein’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. Many are pointing to this failure as evidence that the Bush administration “cooked” intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs to justify attacking Iraq. In the U.K., Prime Minister Tony Blair is facing a similar controversy. The media there are even floating rumors that he may be forced to resign.
As seemed so clear from Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation before the United Nations Security Council, there was little dispute within the Bush administration or the U.S. Intelligence Community about Iraq’s possession of these weapons. But now current and former intelligence officials claim they were pressured to produce assessments that support the administration’s objectives. Not for the record, of course. These officials have insisted on anonymity.
On June 5, for example, Post reporters pointed to Vice President Dick Cheney and his staff as the primary culprits in the administration’s campaign to politicize Iraqi WMD intelligence. The Post’s reporters attribute this very serious allegation to “some analysts,” “one senior agency official,” “a former defense intelligence official,” and “former intelligence officials.” One “former official” told the Post that high-level defense officials browbeat the intelligence community. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was said to “have treated the analysts’ work with contempt.”
These are very serious allegations, but also very difficult to evaluate. It is well-known that there have been elements inside the intelligence community skeptical about the magnitude of Iraq’s WMD programs or purported Iraqi ties to al Qaeda. And the Post and the New York Times have repeatedly afforded these nay-sayers a forum to air their criticisms.
The problem with the sourcing practiced by both papers is that neither gives the reader any basis by which to judge the credentials or credibility of those making the charges. Have these officials been intimately involved in the collection, processing, or analysis of Iraqi data? Or are they “strap hangers,” simply repeating hallway gossip to their friends in the media? Pentagon officials are now trying to dispel such rumors. Predictably, the Post and Times cited anonymous sources harshly critical of those efforts.