NPR confuses irresponsible speculation for hard news

To National Public Radio:

Dear NPR News,

The Washington Post has a report today saying that unnamed US officials have received a report that a group of Al-Qaida-linked extremists in southern Lebanon received a deadly nerve agent called VX from Iraq. All very alarming.

Bob Edwards interviewed the reporter, Barton Gellman on Morning Edition today. What was shocking about this interview was the near total lack of skepticism about this all too convenient report, which offers something for everyone.

For the war hawks it neatly ties together Al-Qaida and Iraq, a connection for which there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever and which they have desperately been trying to make. By involving a deadly nerve agent, it purports to undermine the Iraqi weapons declaration, and thus show that Saddam is lying and provide a quick pretext for war. For those who want to expand America’s “war on terrorism,” it helpfully implicates Lebanon, and by extension Syria, and for the Israelis, and, according to what Gellman said in the interview, connects Palestinians to global terror. It also comes just a day after the United States once again threatened the world with nuclear war. How neat, how perfect. Everyone can go home now.

One problem. Gellman’s article is based on reports from anonymous American officials who give absolutely no evidence to support their contention. Everything that Gellman writes is prefaced with the statement “If the report proves true…” (U.S. Suspects Al Qaeda Got Nerve Agent From Iraqis,” Washington Post, 12 December 2002)

Gellman writes: “On the central question whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein knew about or authorized such a transaction, U.S. analysts are said to have no evidence.”

And further, “Even authorized spokesmen, with one exception, addressed the report on the condition of anonymity. They said the principal source on the chemical transfer was uncorroborated, and that indications it involved a nerve agent were open to interpretation.”

Gordon Johndroe, the only government official that Gellman cites on record, says “Have they obtained chemical weapons?…I do not have any hard, concrete evidence that they have.”

Gellman also writes: “A Defense Department official, who said he had seen only the one-line summary version of the chemical weapon report, speculated that it might be connected to a message distributed last week to U.S. armed forces overseas. An official elsewhere said the message resulted only from an analyst’s hypothetical concern.”

What is also very disturbing is that in response to a question from Edwards, Gellman asserted that the group that supposedly has this weapon is based among Palestinians in the Ain al Hilweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon. But Gellman’s article says absolutely nothing about this.

In other words, what we have adds up to a whole lot of nothing, leaked by unknown people with unknown motives in an administration that is bent on war and which has previously declared that it will lie whenever it thinks lying will help it.

This report should have been treated by NPR at least with severe skepticism given the complete absence of evidence and the suspicious timing, if not outright contempt for what appears to be nothing but misinformation.

Ever since Iraq delivered its weapons declaration to the UN, US officials have been protesting like second graders that Saddam is lying, but have been unable to produce a shred of evidence to prove it. Last week British officials admitted in the Guardian that if the US and UK had any evidence, they would have given it to the UN inspectors who would have then been to any weapons sites “like a shot.”

A person listening to Edwards’ interview would not have gotten a sense of the weakness of Gellman’s report, but would have been left with the impression that Palestinians now have a nasty VX bomb which they got from Saddam Hussein and plan to use on behalf of Usama Bin Laden.

Here’s news for you: Israel has nuclear, chemical and biological weapons enough to kill everyone in the Middle East several times over. There’s lots of evidence for that. Go ask your anonymous sources about it and let’s not have this kind of harmful and prejudicial speculation in place of reporting.

I refer you to an article from the 9 December Buffalo News, entitled “Anonymous sources fueling push for war.” You should read it.


Ali Abunimah

Follow up: NPR allows dubious, sensational claims to stand