The Star Tribune purports to cover the political blogosphere in a weekly column buried on Saturday’s editorial page. The column is by Tim O’Brien, the editor of the Star Tribune’s letters to the editors. O’Brien is the otherwise faceless drone who assures that the Star Tribune’s letters section tilts reliably left in the spirit of every other section of the paper. In yesterday’s column O’Brien takes a shot at us:
It’s been a bad couple of weeks for right-wing investigative bloggers. Several conservative bloggers — most notably Power Line (5), Michelle Malkin (6) and Flopping Aces (7) — accused the Associated Press of fabricating a report that six Iraqis had been dragged out of a mosque and set on fire. The source of the stories was an Iraqi police officer named Jamil Hussein.
The bloggers were skeptical — I mean, violence in Baghdad, c’mon! There is no Jamil Hussein!
A very persuasive argument, once you get past the fact that there is a Jamil Hussein. The Iraqi Interior Ministry confirmed that a Jamil Hussein is a member of the multinational force and a police captain. Hussein denies that he was the source for the story, but, considering he now faces prosecution for talking to a reporter, one might expect him to say that.
Curt at Flopping Aces remains unconvinced. “His phone was turned off? Interesting. … [W]hy would his phone be turned off all of a sudden? Would this mean he will once again NOT be produced for questioning?”
By the way, I’m not sure how many boots on the ground those blogs have in Iraq, but the Associated Press has — or had — at least four. A fourth AP employee was murdered earlier this month.
It’s been a bad year for the Star Tribune. You’d never know how bad a year it’s been for the Star Tribune from reading O’Brien’s column, but you’d get some idea from his column that part of the Star Tribune’s problem is staring it in the mirror. We have never — need I emphasize it? never — accused the Associated Press of fabricating its story reporting the burning and shooting of six people during an attack on a Sunni mosque. We have raised questions regarding the accuracy of the story. We have also raised questions concerning the reliability of the 61 stories deriving from incidents all over Baghdad with respect to which Jamil Hussein has been cited as an AP source. In his last follow-up on Jamil Hussein last week, John wrote:
We have followed the story of Police Captain Jamil Hussein, the frequently-cited Associated Press source who became controversial when he was the principal source for the sensational claim that six Sunnis were burned alive in Baghdad, while government troops stood by and did nothing. That story, along with the since-withdrawn AP claim that four mosques were burned down the same day, has been widely called into question.
We commented on Jamil Hussein here, here, here, and here. The Iraqi government intitially reported that to the best of their knowledge, there was no “Police Captain Jamil Hussein” working for the Baghdad police department. That sparked widespread speculation about the existence, let alone the reliability, of this important AP source. Most recently, the Iraqi government has said that there is such a person after all, a “Jamil Gholaiem Hussein” who is assigned to the Khadra police station. He reportedly goes by “Jamil Gholaiem,” which perhaps accounts for the fact that he was not immediately identified.
We haven’t yet commented on this latest twist in the story, mostly because we’ve been waiting for another shoe to drop. Many questions remain unanswered. As I wrote on December 20:
There are at least two questions here. The first is whether there is such a person as “Police Captain Jamil Hussein.” The second is whether the person who has often been quoted under that name by the Associated Press is a reliable source. He has ostensibly given information on violent events over pretty much all of Baghdad, in a geographic pattern that bears no apparent relationship to the precincts where he allegedly has worked.
I assume that Associated Press reporters don’t just make stuff up, and, when in doubt, attribute it to a fictitious character named Jamil Hussein. But there are a number of other possibilities. “Jamil Hussein” could be an alias; or it could be a composite character; or there could really be a “Jamil Hussein,” but he isn’t a policeman. Each of these alternatives presents serious issues of journalistic ethics, as well as obvious questions about the reliability of the peripatetic Mr. Hussein as a witness.
Or it may be that there really is a police captain of that name, who actually has witnessed and reported on dozens of violent episodes in all corners of Baghdad, but whom, for some reason, the AP has been unable to produce.
We assume, but don’t know for sure, that the “Jamil Gholaiem Hussein” who has now been identified is the AP’s source, even though he appears to be the same person who previously denied providing information to the AP. But that is only the first step in answering the questions that have emerged about the AP’s reliance on him as a source. Why has Hussein been a source for events not just in his precinct, but all over Baghdad? Has he really been an eyewitness to 61 or more news stories, or has he based his reports on hearsay? Or is he a front for other sources who don’t want to be identified by name? If AP still believes that Hussein is a reliable source after the “burning Sunni” story, why has it apparently not cited him as a source for any story since then? What happened with the burned-down mosques and the immolated Sunnis? The AP originally said that four mosques burned, then changed its reporting to a single mosque (apparently without issuing a correction). Was Hussein the source for the four-mosque claim? What does Hussein’s account of these events tell us about his credibility on other stories?
These are only some of the still-unanswered questions. Some answers may never be known, but with Eason Jordan, Michelle Malkin and others digging into the story, there most likely will be further revelations before long. In any event, as I noted on December 20, the question whether Jamil Hussein exists is quite separate from the question whether he is a reliable source.
Michelle Malkin has a roundup with more commentary here.
O’Brien doesn’t bother to link to any of our posts on the issue, or Michelle’s or Curt’s. O’Brien’s footnoted references to our sites do not link to individual posts. O’Brien seems not to know that Michelle is over in Baghdad and was there with one of her colleagues at the same time his column implying the contrary was published. Readers who confine themselves to O’Brien’s coverage of the issue can have no idea how inaccurate it is.
Moreover, as I understand it, the last word on the subject, courtesy of Curt here, indicates, to say the least, that the name and status of the individual in issue is not quite as clear as O’Brien makes it out. Dafydd ab Hugh considers the possibilities here with somewhat more humor, subtlety and attention to detail than O’Brien can muster on his best day.
We’ll be asking the Star Tribune for a correction and report how the paper responds. In the meantime, if you’ve been following this story more closely than I have, let me know if I have made any mistakes in this post and feel free to take up O’Brien’s invitation to let him know how you compare his coverage of the case of the AP and Jamil Hussein to ours, Michelle’s and Curt’s ([email protected]). Send us a copy of your message and I’ll post the best of them in a follow-up.
JOHN adds: Greetings from South Florida, where I’ve been on vacation, from the news as well as from work, for the last few days.
I don’t know anything about this guy O’Brien, but he appears to be a dope. His claim that we accused the AP of “fabricating” the burning Sunni story is explicitly contradicted by my statement, “I assume that Associated Press reporters don’t just make stuff up, and, when in doubt, attribute it to a fictitious character named Jamil Hussein.”
Beyond that, one gets the impression that O’Brien thinks the burning Sunni story is true, but he offers no evidence in its favor and never mentions any of the facts that have caused most observers to conclude that it is probably false. Nor does he mention the AP’s four-burned-mosque error, or address its relevance to the reliability of the AP’s star source, “Jamil Hussein.”
I think the state of the evidence at this moment is: 1) In all likelihood, the burning Sunni story was wrong. 2) We’re still not sure whether there is a Baghdad policeman who a) has a name remotely resembling “Jamil Hussein,” and b) is an AP source. 3) The AP has made no attempt to explain how Mr. Hussein (or whatever his name is) can be such a wide-ranging and prolific source, why he apparently blew the four-mosque story and (most likely) the burning Sunni story, or why the AP suddenly dropped him as a source following the burning Sunni controversy. This last fact is highly suggestive; one could infer, at a minimum, that the lesson the AP took away from that incident was that “Jamil Hussein,” whoever he is, is unreliable. Which leaves us wondering about the other 61 stories for which he has been a source.
These are all significant questions of which Mr. O’Brien appears to be entirely ignorant. One wonders: does the company that Mr. O’Brien works for consider ignorance and inaccuracy to be drawbacks, or virtues?