The premature criticism of the military campaign by retired military officers on television was an annoyance. As Vice President Cheney cracked, they were “embedded” in television studios. But at least it could be said that they were on the U.S. side and wanted to win. The same couldn’t be said about Peter Arnett, who reported for NBC News, MSNBC, and National Geographic Explorer.
The withdrawal of Fox News journalist Geraldo Rivera from the war zone, after he identified military movements to a television audience, seemed to be a case of his own reckless stupidity. The real problem came from those, such as Arnett, who seemed to delight in undermining the American war effort.
MSNBC’s use of Arnett, known as “Baghdad Pete” for his slanted coverage of the first Gulf War, was a strange decision that we criticized before the Iraq war started. His pro-Iraqi statements on Iraqi television on March 30 were so offensive that former CBS Evening News anchorman Walter Cronkite wrote an op-ed for the New York Times calling them “grossly irresponsible.” But Senator Jim Bunning, in a speech on the Senate floor, went further, saying that Arnett was a traitor to the United States of America. He was not alone. New York Post columnist John Podhoretz said that, “Arnett used his time on Iraqi television to praise the Iraqi government and people in a way that might stiffen their resolve and lead them to hunker down against allied forces.” Jay Ambrose of Scripps Howard news service said Arnett’s interview was “simultaneously stupid and traitorously, hatefully anti-American.”
Arnett himself explained how his own “reporting” was helping Saddam’s cause. “It is clear that within the United States there is a growing challenge to President Bush about the conduct of the war and also opposition to the war,” he said to Iraqi TV. “So our reports about civilian casualties here, about the resistance of the Iraqi forces, are going back to the United States. It helps those who oppose the war, when you challenge the policy, to develop their arguments.” Arnett had also falsely claimed the U.S. war plan had failed.
An expert, Professor David Lowenthal of Boston College, told us that, “Peter Arnett was certainly furnishing the Iraqis with assistance by bolstering their courage, by bolstering their resistance, by saying that it was the case of the allies faltering. It was a clear case. He was doing it in the Iraq television studio.” Senator Jim Bunning’s statement on the Senate floor included support for the first amendment. “However,” he said, “no U.S. citizen should be allowed to provide aid, and comfort, through false information, to the enemy during wartime. Of course the media doesn’t mention the word ‘treason” like many of us have over Mr. Arnett’s comments. That would be an indictment of one of their own and a pox on their profession.”
Bunning’s speech was ignored by the New York Times and Washington Post and the three evening news programs. But Arnett’s former employer, CNN, did report it, as did Fox News. The rest may be up to Attorney General Ashcroft.