Not long after New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt scolded his own paper for not confronting President Bush on the issue, Times reporters Michael R. Gordon and Jim Rutenberg wrote in a front-page story that Bush's assertions "have greatly oversimplified the nature of the insurgency in Iraq and its relationship with the Qaeda leadership."
And the coverage of Tuesday's intelligence report (see yesterday's column) was full of skepticism over the White House's attempted conflation.
So what a stroke of luck it was for the White House when, just a day later, the chief military spokesman in Iraq revealed a dramatic story that would appear to support the president's new favorite talking point: Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner chose yesterday to announce the arrest -- two weeks ago -- of a man he called a leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, who he said had told interrogators about a close operational relationship between his group and Osama bin Laden's inner circle.
Was the timing coincidental? And is Bergner credible? Until recently he was a member of the White House's national security staff, holding the title of senior director for Iraq. Since taking up his new post in May, Bergner has made a series of politically charged allegations against both al-Qaida and Iran, many of which have been basically unverifiable.
A senior operative for al Qaeda in Iraq who was caught this month has told his U.S. military interrogators a prominent al Qaeda-led group is just a front and its leader fictitious, a military spokesman said on Wednesday.
Brigadier-General Kevin Bergner told a news conference that Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, leader of the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq, which was purportedly set up last year, did not exist.
The Islamic State of Iraq was established to try to put an Iraqi face on what is a foreign-driven network, Bergner said. The name Baghdadi means the person hails from the Iraqi capital.
Bergner said the information came from an operative called Khalid al-Mashadani who was caught on July 4 and who he said was an intermediary to Osama bin Laden.
He said Mashadani was believed to be the most senior Iraqi in the Sunni Islamist al Qaeda in Iraq network.
"In his words, the Islamic State of Iraq is a front organization that masks the foreign influence and leadership within al Qaeda in Iraq in an attempt to put an Iraqi face on the leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq," Bergner said.
Froomkin points out that Bergner has a very lively imagination:
As Mike Nizza pointed out on the New York Times Web site, Bergner showed at least some willingness to make insinuations based not on intelligence, but on his imagination. Consider the following exchange:
Bergner: "Our intelligence reveals that senior leadership in Iran is aware of this activity ..."
Question: "Can you define senior leadership?"
Bergner: "I think I'll leave it at that."
Question: "Would you exclude the supreme leader?"
Bergner: "I'll leave it at 'senior leadership in Iran'"
Question: "Put it this way: Do you think it's possible that he doesn't know?"
Bergner: "That would be hard to imagine."
Not really. But hey, the whole occupation seems to be cycling between horrible tragedy and absurdist farce these days. It's only natural that the Bush administration would send over a true-believing, one-star kook with an oak leaf cluster. What has it got to lose?