NPR allows dubious, sensational claims to stand

To: National Public Radio

Dear NPR News,

Yesterday, Morning Edition opened with sensational claims from Washington Post journalist Barton Gellman that Al-Qaida-linked Lebanon-based Palestinian extremists had obtained deadly VX from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, smuggled via Turkey.

This nonsense was treated by Morning Edition Host Bob Edwards as all but established fact when he interviewed the enthusiastic Gellman. (Read earlier letter to NPR).

The highly tendentious basis of Gellman’s article, not to mention the total lack of evidence and the anonymous sourcing was severely downplayed.

Pentagon officials have now cast doubt on this fantastic and all too convenient tale according to published reports. MSNBC reported “Senior Pentagon officials told NBC News they have not seen intelligence reports that any terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaida obtained VX or any other nerve agent from Iraq. The officials, both at the most senior level, described the Washington Post report as “highly speculative.” (U.S. officials downplay VX report,” MSNBC, 12 December 2002)

True, the “senior officials” cited by MSNBC are also anonymous, but no more or less anonymous than those Gellman relied on. Given the seriousness and suspicious timing of the original claim, the burden ought to be on Gellman to provide something stronger than he did. And when reporting on such claims, NPR must provide strong health warnings and be skeptical.

It should be noted that Gellman apparently has a history of blurring the line between journalism and activism on behalf of the state. The media watch group FAIR criticized Gellman in 1999 for withholding for months information that UNSCOM weapons inspections had been used by the United States to spy on Iraq.

According to FAIR, “at the behest of a senior U.S. government official, he [Gellman] and the Washington Post’s top management chose not to reveal the extent of U.S. intelligence’s links to (and possible abuse of) UNSCOM, for reasons of “national security.” The links finally came to light in January only because of aggressive leaking from [UN Secretary-General Kofi] Annan’s staff—leaks which Gellman knew were being pursued by a competing reporter at the Boston Globe.”

“In an interview with Extra!,FAIR’s bi-monthly, “Gellman said his decision was based on a longstanding Post policy not to spoil ongoing U.S. intelligence operations by exposing them. Although Gellman and his editors were “well aware of the news value” of the story, he said, they believed that the potential drawbacks of publishing it—as explained to them by the official—outweighed the advantages.” (“Withholding the News,” Extra!, March/April 1999)

Should I be surprised that Morning Edition today did not open with a follow-up casting the appropriate doubt on yesterday’s ‘revelations’? Perhaps NPR is embarassed by its lack of skepticism about Gellman’s report. Blushing would be to your credit, but not to do a follow-up that puts these anonymous and sensational claims in perspective is a disservice to listeners.


Ali Abunimah