advisor to the defense team for former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein,
Ramsey Clark (R), listens on headphones to a distorted and translated
version of testimony being given from a sealed witness box (L) in
Baghdad, December 6, 2005. (David Furst/Pool/Reuters)
December 8, 2005
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
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
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
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
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.'