BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. A year ago this week, bombs began falling over Baghdad. A year ago, we were told repeatedly that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, that Saddam Hussein had ties to Al Qaeda and that there was definitive proof to back those charges up. But as Saddam's regime vaporized, so did much of the so-called evidence that propelled us to war. We've known for a while that much of the faulty intelligence came from defectors who were members of the Iraqi National Congress. What we haven't known until this week was how few in number those defectors were -- only six -- and how widely they spread that bad information. We know now, because the Knight Ridder newspapers have obtained a letter that was sent in June of 2002 to the Senate Appropriations Committee. It came from the Iraqi National Congress's information collection program funded by the United States. That letter provided a list of a hundred and eight news reports that cited the defectors' information. Jonathan Landay is a national correspondent for Knight Ridder. As he describes it, it's a pretty impressive list.
JONATHAN LANDAY: According to the letter, they included the New York Times, the Washington Post, Vanity Fair, the Atlantic Monthly, the Times of London, the Sunday Times of London, several newspapers in Australia and several Knight Ridder papers. These stories were either originally reported or picked up and circulated by the Associated Press and other news organizations including Agence France Presse, so that there was sort of this multiplying effect going on. These stories involved to a large extent interviews with the same defectors from Iraq, produced by the INC, for journalists, and when you read what these defectors said, a number of themes jump out at you, the first being that Saddam had been collaborating for years with Osama bin Laden and was complicit in the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks; that Iraq had mobile warfare facilities disguised as yogurt and milk trucks and had biological or illicit weapons production and storage facilities underneath Baghdad's largest hospital, in fake water wells and under several of Saddam's palaces. They go on. Several of these defectors had been interviewed by CIA and FBI officers and discarded as being unreliable or exaggerators or having been coached.
BOB GARFIELD:Okay. So after the first Gulf War and the revelations after it that the Kingdom of Kuwait had actually hired a public relations firm to present false testimony in Congress to generate anger at the Iraqis, after the press learned its lesson from that, how could a reflexively skeptical institution like the American media so get suckered by such a small number of defectors who so clearly had an axe to grind in this?
JONATHAN LANDAY: I can speculate on several reasons. One, that everybody -- the government, outside experts, Congress, the general public, other governments -- believed sincerely that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. And so these guys seemed to be confirming what most people already took to be gospel. Now let's also remember that this began taking place in the immediate weeks after the September 11th attacks, and there may have been journalists who were leaning so far forward on this terrorism issue that these things seemed to be a natural mesh. You know, just to be absolutely truthful, until my colleagues and I started reporting, I also believed that Saddam Hussein had illicit weapons. The, the other thing I have to say is that many of these stories do note that the information they contain could not be independently verified.
BOB GARFIELD: What can we learn from this smoking gun letter, and do you think the press will be chastened from this point forward?
JONATHAN LANDAY:One of the things that I think is apparent is that as each journalist was introduced to these defectors, what I don't know that they did was simply get on the internet and go to Google and plug in the names and the information they were being given. As these defectors were sort of passed down this journalistic conveyor belt, if you will, their stories started taking on differences and, in some cases, became quite fantastic and sensational, and that really raised some red flags with me. It raises the whole question of sourcing and the propensity, perhaps, of some journalists to go with sources without collaborating the information they're being told from independent sources.
BOB GARFIELD:Now there's an interesting footnote to all of this, and that is that the same group of people who were doing such a lousy job furnishing accurate information in the buildup to the war have been quite useful to the Pentagon and to intelligence services since the U.S. occupied Baghdad.
JONATHAN LANDAY: According to senior officials that I've spoken to, the information collection program being run by the Iraqi National Congress may have in fact saved American lives since the fall of Baghdad in that the INC has produced very valuable information identifying members of the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq and allowing their arrests by the military.
BOB GARFIELD: Thanks very much.
JONATHAN LANDAY: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Jonathan Landay is a national correspondent for the Knight Ridder newspapers. He spoke to us from Washington, D.C.