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Saddam & Secret Witnesses

By Robert Parry
December 8, 2005

Some of the worst journalistic abuses come when news organizations deal with accusations against a pariah. Normal standards of skepticism are set aside because the subject lacks influential defenders or is despised by those in power, so pretty much anything goes.

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 Iraq.

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 Iraqi government.

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 Syria’s guilt.

“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 Consortiumnews.com’s “The 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.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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