I have long viewed the Washington Post as a much better newspaper than the New York Times–a Democratic paper, to be sure, but one that still respected some traditional norms of journalism. The Barton Gellman fiasco puts this assumption in doubt.
This news is a day old and has aleady been noted on InstaPundit, but it’s worth repeating if you haven’t seen it. On October 26, Barton Gellman wrote a long, front-page article in the Post on the allegedly-fruitless search for evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq. The article, titled “Search in Iraq Fails to Find Nuclear Threat,” contributed to the “Bush lied!” school of analysis by arguing that American post-war investigators have ignored as “innocuous” the very aluminum tubes whose presence in Iraq was a centerpiece of pre-war concern. Gellman’s principal source–indeed, almost the only source quoted by name–was an Australian General named Stephen Meekin, whom Gellman described as commander of “the Joint Captured Enemy Materiel Exploitation Center, the largest of a half-dozen units that report to Kay.”
Before yesterday, Gellman’s article had already been corrected twice (one correction suggests that the Post’s reporters can’t do arithmetic much better than the Times’: “Of those hunting forbidden weapons in Iraq, 1 percent, not one-tenth of 1 percent, are devoted to the search for nuclear arms.”)
But yesterday, the Post was forced to print two letters that devastated Gellman’s thesis and showed up the shockingly bad quality of his work. One was from General Meekin, who made it clear that not only was he misquoted by Gellman, he has nothing to do with the search for nuclear weapons: “When Barton Gellman interviewed me last month I stressed on a number of occasions that my remarks related to Iraqi’s conventional weapons program. I am responsible for aspects of that program as the commander of the coalition Joint Captured Materiel Exploitation Center. I did not provide assessments or views on Iraq’s nuclear program or the status of investigations being conducted by the Iraq Survey Group.”
The second letter was from David Kay himself, who pointed out many vital errors and misrepresentations in Gellman’s article, including:
1) Far from commanding his largest division, Meekin had never reported to Kay at all. The mission of Meekin’s unit “has never involved weapons of mass destruction, nor does it have any WMD expertise.”
2) “One would believe from what Gellman writes that I have sent home the two leaders of my nuclear team, William Domke and Jeffrey Bedell, and abandoned all attempts to determine the state of Iraq’s nuclear activities. Wrong again. Domke’s assignment had been twice extended well beyond what the Department of Energy had agreed to. He and Bedell were replaced with a much larger contingent of experts from DOE’s National Labs.”
3) As to the issue of the aluminum tubes, and their possible use as centrifuges, which was the main point of Gellman’s hit-piece: “[T]he tubes were certainly being imported and were being used for rockets. The question that continues to occupy us is whether similar tubes, with higher specifications, had other uses, specifically in nuclear centrifuges. Why anyone would think that we should want to confiscate the thousands of aluminum tubes of the lower specification is unclear.” Among the issues being investigated is “the reason for the constant raising of the specifications of the tubes the Iraqis were importing clandestinely.”
Kay concludes: “We have much work left to do before any conclusions can be reached on the state of possible Iraqi nuclear weapons program efforts. Your story gives the false impression that conclusions can already be drawn.”
It is impossible to read the letters by Kay and Meekin without concluding that Gellman’s article was a deliberate fabrication, intended to mislead the Post’s readers in order to advance the interests of the Democratic Party. This puts the Post, I think, at a crossroads. The Post must now decide whether it wants to be a real newspaper or, like the Times, a mere propaganda organ. One test will be whether Gellman continues as an employee. We will watch to see what further corrections to his article are posted.
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