The CIA, Iraq's WMD and the New York Times

A new book by Times reporter James Risen says the CIA disregarded contrary reports about Saddam Hussein's weapons program.

Published January 3, 2006 2:03PM (EST)

In 2002 -- which is to say, before the war in Iraq began -- the CIA asked an Iraqi-American anesthesiologist named Sawsan Alhaddad to travel to Iraq to obtain information about Saddam Hussein's WMD from her brother, who once played a role in Iraq's nuclear program.

Alhaddad made the trip, and she reported back to the CIA in September 2002 that her brother seemed stunned by her inquiries because, he said, Saddam's nuclear program had been dead for a decade. The information from Alhaddad and her brother wasn't unusual. In the months before the war, 30 relatives of Iraqi weapons workers went home to collect information on Saddam's WMD programs for the CIA, and each of them returned with the same report: Iraq's weapons programs had been discontinued.

The CIA, it seems, simply chose not to believe them.

The story raises yet another concern about the way the Bush administration made its case for war in Iraq. But it may also raise more questions about the New York Times as well. The revelation about Sawsan Alhaddad and other Iraqi-Americans comes in James Risen's new book, "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration." Risen, you'll recall, is the New York Times reporter who, alongside Eric Lichtblau, broke the story of the Bush administration's program of warrantless spying on American citizens.

The day that story appeared, we asked Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis about its timing, and in particular whether the Times knew about the warrantless spying program before the 2004 presidential election. She said she'd do some checking and get back to us. That was Dec. 16, and we're still waiting.

We're not alone. While sources have told the Los Angeles Times that the Times had the story before the election but chose to hold it, Times editor Bill Keller and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. have refused to answer questions about the story's timing from the Times' own public editor, Byron Calame. In a stinging column over the weekend, Calame said the Times' silence on the question of what it knew when leaves a "most obvious" question and some "uncomfortable doubts": "If no one at the Times was aware of the eavesdropping prior to the election, why wouldn't the paper have been eager to make that clear to readers in the original explanation and avoid that politically charged issue?"

Is it fair to raise similar questions about Risen's report on the way in which the CIA disregarded evidence about Saddam's WMD or the lack thereof? We don't know yet. Risen pushed editors at the Times to publish the domestic spying story long before they did; he lost. So what about the story of the CIA's decision to disregard the reports of Iraqi-Americans it sent to investigate Saddam's WMD? When we get our hands on a copy of Risen's book -- it's out today, its publication date having been moved up after the Times published its story on the spying program -- we'll be interested in learning, once again, what the Times knew and when the Times knew it.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Iraq Iraq War Middle East The New York Times War Room