This unwritten rule of journalism is one back story
of the Iraq War. Given how unsavory Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein was,
American journalists felt no inhibitions about following the White
House’s lead and imputing the worst conceivable behavior to him.
Indeed, doing so, burnished a reporter’s reputation
for toughness and patriotism, a win-win for the journalist.
But the danger to the country was that as
journalism morphed into propaganda, the American people could be more
easily misled into wrongheaded decisions and into violations of
longstanding principles. Without doubt, the U.S. news media’s animosity
toward Hussein gave an emotional boost to George W. Bush’s invasion of
Now, the latest example of the U.S. media’s
anti-Hussein blinders is occurring in plain sight during his trial for
the slaughter of more than 140 men and boys in the Iraqi village of
Dujail after a 1982 ambush that sought to kill him.
While the media coverage has focused on outbursts
by Hussein and his co-defendants, much less attention has been given to
the unorthodox procedure of allowing witnesses to testify without using
their real names and with their faces and voices obscured.
According to Chief Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin, the witness names are
given to defense lawyers but the information can’t be passed to anyone
outside the tribunal to protect the witnesses from possible reprisals.
One woman, who described her alleged torture, was referred to as
“Witness A”; a male witness was known as “W.”
Though understandable for security reasons, these
restrictions would seem to make effective cross-examination of the
witnesses impossible and deny the defendants the traditional right to
confront their accusers.
A secret witness could pretty much say whatever he
or she wished, such as claiming to have seen some event. Defense lawyers
– barred from mentioning the witness’ name outside the tribunal – would
be powerless to investigate whether the witness was really there or not.
Getting What He Deserves
The visceral response from many Americans,
including journalists, is that Hussein so violated due-process rights of
his own citizens, why should anyone care that he might get railroaded to
execution himself? Plus, how can anyone question the emotional testimony
of witnesses who may have suffered grievously at Hussein’s hand?
Instead of a requirement that Hussein’s guilt be
proved beyond a reasonable doubt, there is an assumption of Hussein’s
guilt that pervades the American press corps and the current U.S.-backed
That presumed guilt also has served as a secondary
rationale for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, with the argument that “no one
can say that Iraq isn’t better off without Saddam Hussein.”
So, the more attention devoted to the unsavory
Hussein, the more sympathy there is for President Bush’s decision to
invade Iraq, even if the principal justification for the war – Hussein’s
weapons of mass destruction – turned out to be fictitious.
But the danger of letting blind hatred of Hussein
block out standards of impartial journalism can be found in what was
wrought by the news media’s credulous WMD reporting. By believing the
worst about Hussein and failing to ask Bush the tough WMD questions in
late 2002 and early 2003, the U.S. news media contributed to a war
frenzy that has since led to the deaths of more than 2,100 U.S. soldiers
and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
The Syrian Case
Though chagrined by the WMD fallacy in Iraq, the
U.S. news media may not have learned any lasting lessons.
A similar rush to judgment against a pariah
government occurred in October when leading U.S. news outlets embraced
allegations against Syria for its alleged role in the Feb. 14
assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
A preliminary report by United Nations investigator
Detlev Mehlis cited some circumstantial evidence against the Syrian
government and relied heavily on two witnesses who fingered Syrian
intelligence agents as the assassins. The Bush administration hailed the
findings as justifying its desire for regime change in Damascus.
Despite getting duped on Iraq’s WMD, major U.S.
news outlets immediately fell into line behind the U.N. report – and the
Bush administration’s denunciations of Syria. For instance, the New York
Times warmly praised the U.N. report and jumped to conclusions about
“Some deeply troubling facts about the murder of
Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister, have now been established
by a tough and meticulous United Nations investigation,” the Times wrote
in an Oct. 25 editorial demanding punishment for top Syrian and Lebanese
officials supposedly implicated by the report.
But the Mehlis report was anything but
“meticulous.” After reviewing its preliminary findings, I wrote an
article about the report’s obvious holes, its dubious use of
circumstantial evidence and its reliance on questionable witnesses. [See
Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report.”]
In particular, my article cited the failure to
follow leads about the Mitsubishi Canter Van that apparently carried the
bomb that destroyed Hariri’s motorcade. The van – identified from pieces
found in the rubble – had been stolen in Japan four months earlier, but
little effort was made to investigate how it got from Japan to Lebanon.
My article also noted inconsistencies in the
testimony of two key witnesses, one who was left unidentified and
another, Zuhair Ibn Muhammad Said Saddik, whose background was
apparently not well researched by Mehlis. The German newsmagazine Der
Spiegel soon uncovered Saddik’s record as a swindler who boasted about
becoming “a millionaire” from his testimony.
Revisiting the Hariri case in a Dec. 7 article, the New York
Times took a more skeptical look at the Mehlis investigation. Reporter
Michael Slackman said the case “has begun to sound more and more like a
fictional spy thriller” as “the issue of witness credibility has risen
to the forefront.”
The Times noted Saddik’s credibility problems and
also reported that the previously unidentified source, Hussam Taher
Hussam, had recanted his earlier testimony, saying he lied to the Mehlis
investigation after being kidnapped, tortured and offered $1.3 million
by Lebanese officials.
Mehlis acknowledged that Hussam had been an
important witness and vowed to subject him to follow-up questioning.
Despite Hussam’s recantation and his bizarre claims, Mehlis said he
continued to find Hussam’s original testimony “very credible.”
The Hussein Trial
The significance of the Hariri case to the Hussein
trial is the inherent difficulty of trusting witnesses who have not
undergone adequate vetting. While it is easy to disdain the leaders of
Syria or of Iraq’s old government, that does not eliminate the
responsibility to test out allegations against them.
Concealing the identity of witnesses may reflect a
reasonable concern for their safety, but it also is an invitation for
exaggeration and even fabrication of evidence. A fundamental right under
U.S.-style criminal justice is the right to confront one’s accusers,
especially in cases that carry possible death sentences.
If such basic legal standards can’t be met in
today’s Iraq, Hussein’s trial could be moved to the International
Criminal Court at the Hague. But the Bush administration and the current
Iraqi government have favored trying Hussein and other former government
officials in Iraq where they can then be executed.
On the journalistic front, the U.S. news media has
continued its long collaboration with Bush’s anti-Hussein agenda by
averting its eyes from the irregularity of having secret witnesses
represent the bulk of this capital case.
The apparent reason for tolerating this breached
legal standard is that Saddam Hussein remains a political leader that
American journalists love to hate.