York Times and Cheney Once Were Sweethearts
By Dennis Hans
of romance are disheartened to see Vice President Dick Cheney
lash out at his long-time sweetie pie, the New York Times,
for allegedly distorting the findings of the 9-11 Commission
to make it appear that it had contradicted statements by Cheney
and his boss about the relationship between Saddam's Iraq
and al Qaeda.
It seemed like only yesterday that Cheney and the Times
strolled hand in hand.
Harken back to the summer of 2002. In August, Cheney delivered
a scary speech about Saddam's programs for nuclear, chemical
and biological weapons. A couple weeks later, on Sept. 8,
New York Times reporters Judith Miller and Michael
Gordon wrote a lurid
(and now discredited) tale about aluminum tubes and other
things that gave credence to Cheney's warning. That very morning,
Cheney popped up on Meet the Press and cited the Times story
as further evidence of Saddam's nuclear obsession!
"There's a story in the New York Times this morning - this
is - I don't - and I want to attribute the Times," said Cheney.
"I don't want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence
sources, but it's now public that, in fact, he has been seeking
to acquire, and we have been able to intercept and prevent
him from acquiring through this particular channel, the kinds
of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge." [transcript]
Yes, in 2002 Cheney and the Times were quite the
But if you had been paying close attention, you already
knew that. Cheney and the Times first got together
in 2001 - on the very story that's at the heart of the current
spat: the Iraq-al Qaeda connection, and in particular, Iraq's
connection to 9-11.
In the past few days Cheney has been trashed in the media
- particularly what passes for the "liberal" media - over
an exchange in a June 17, 2004 interview
with CNBC's Gloria Borger (). Have a listen:
Borger: Well, let's get to Mohamed Atta for a minute
because you mentioned him as well. You have said in the
past that it was, quote, "pretty well confirmed."
Cheney: No, I never said that.
Cheney: I never said that.
Borger: I think that is...
Cheney: Absolutely not. What I said was the Czech
intelligence service reported after 9/11 that Atta had been
in Prague on April 9 of 2001, where he allegedly met with
an Iraqi intelligence official. We have never been able
to confirm that nor have we been able to knock it down,
we just don't know.
Alas, as many have now pointed out, Cheney did say what
Borger said he had said. Here's
his reply to Tim Russert on the Dec. 9, 2001 Meet the
Press: "it's been pretty well confirmed that he [Atta] did
go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the
Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia last April, several
months before the attack."
If only Cheney had added, "I know the meeting has been confirmed
because the New York Times said so." Why didn't he? This is
pure speculation, but my guess is that back in 2001 Cheney
simply wasn't ready to announce to the world that he and the
Times were sweethearts.
Six weeks before Cheney's interview with Russert, in the
Oct. 27, 2001 New York Times, the headline declared:
"Czechs Confirm Iraqi Agent Met With Terror Ringleader."
Alas, there was one slight problem with the headline and
the story, which escaped the editors and the learning-disabled
reporters, Patrick Tyler and John Tagliabue: the Czechs didn't
"confirm" squat. Rather, they said they had confirmed
the meeting. That's a huge difference, one that would be obvious
to a competent cub reporter - but not to reporters and editors
cut from the same gullible and/or servile cloth as Judith
Miller and Michael Gordon.
Littered throughout the article are variations on the word
"confirmed," but with nary a hint to the reader that nothing
resembling confirmation had been presented by the Czechs -
no audio or video recordings; no eyewitnesses, credible or
otherwise; no visa or airline records indicating Atta was
in Prague when the purported meeting took place. U.S. and
other investigators had already turned up solid, tangible
evidence of Atta's travels within the U.S. and around the
globe, but neither they nor the Czechs had yet to produce
(and still haven't) a paper trail for Atta entering or exiting
Prague in April 2001.
Nevertheless, the Times reporters referred to the
"official confirmation" and "today's confirmation." They also
wrote, "The Czech authorities confirmed the meeting at a time
of spirited debate in the Bush administration over whether
to extend the antiterrorism military campaign now under way
in Afghanistan to Iraq at some point in the future."
So why did the Czechs "confirm" on Oct. 26 what they had
previously denied? Tyler and Tagliabue took off their "reporter"
hats and put on their "analyst" hats: "It was unclear what
prompted them to revise their conclusions, although it seemed
possible that American officials, concerned about the political
implications of Iraqi involvement in terror attacks, had put
pressure on the Czechs to keep quiet."
That may be the silliest sentence the Times has ever
published. The reporters were suggesting that the Czechs had
succumbed to U.S. pressure in the weeks they were denying
a meeting had occurred, but then mustered the courage to resist
the pressure and go public on Oct. 26 with their (empty) proclamation
To fully appreciate the daftness of Tyler and Tagliabue's
reasoning, bear in mind that back on Oct. 20 Tagliabue had
at length on the Czechs' inability to confirm the swirling
allegations of the meeting - and the advice they had received
"Czech officials," wrote Tagliabue, "say they do not believe
that Mohamed Atta, suspected of having led the attack on the
World Trade Center, met with any Iraqi officials during a
brief stop he made in Prague last year. The officials said
they had been asked by Washington to comb their records to
determine whether Mr. Atta met with an Iraqi diplomat or agent
here. They said they had told the United States they found
no evidence of any such meeting."
Given the sequence - the Czechs at first deny, then confirm
- and given the absence of tangible evidence when they did
"confirm," one might wonder if the Czechs' "confirmation,"
rather than the earlier denials, was the product of pressure
(or bribes, cajoling or begging) from U.S. officials or Prague-based
CIA personnel. Not Tyler and Tagliabue.
In any event, the Oct. 27, 2001 story - and the failure
of Tyler and Tagliabue to express skepticism or require the
Czechs to put up or shut up - played a key role in creating
the myth of the "Prague Connection." It allowed proponents
of the Connection to either pretend or genuinely believe that
the meeting definitely took place, which provided them the
basis to speculate that Atta may have discussed the planned
attacks with an Iraqi agent, and if Atta did, then there was
a good chance that Saddam was aware of - and maybe in on -
the 9-11 attacks.
Thus, the Times enabled Cheney, Richard Perle, James
Woolsey, Frank Gaffney, its own William Safire and other pundits
and talking heads to spread this myth, which partly explains
why as late as August 2003, 69 percent of the American people
thought that Saddam was "somewhat likely" or "very likely"
to have been "personally involved" in the 9-11 terrorist attacks
(according to a Washington
The Times was not the only enabler. Consider the
case of the bird-brained Buffalo blowhard, Tim Russert.
Back on Dec. 9, 2001, Cheney didn't offer his "pretty well
confirmed" comment out of the blue. He was responding to a
question that Russert prefaced with quotes. First, Russert
reminded Cheney that on Sept. 16, "five days after the attack
on our country, I asked you whether there was any evidence
that Iraq was involved in the attack and you said no. Since
that time, a couple articles have appeared which I want to
get you to react to." Next, Russert read from two articles,
the first of which was the Times Oct. 27 story. (According
to the transcript, Russert didn't mention the Times.
A tape of the show would reveal if the quote and the source
was displayed on the screen as Russert read it.) Russert's
standards are revealed by the fact that he thought it important
to share with viewers the second quote, from a warmonger with
little credibility on Iraq (James Woolsey) presented in a
place with even less credibility (the Fox
News Channel). As for the Times article, Russert
read the lead
"The Czech interior minister said today that an Iraqi intelligence
officer met with Mohammed Atta, one of the ringleaders of
the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, just
five months before the synchronized hijackings and mass killings
were carried out."
Next, Russert recited Woolsey's reckless ramblings about
what Iraqi defectors and other sources had to say about an
alleged Baghdad training camp for terrorist hijackers. Russert
then asked Cheney, "Do you still believe there's no evidence
that Iraq was involved in September 11?"
Why do I call Russert "the bird-brained Buffalo blowhard"?
He interviewed Cheney on December 9. The Times story
appeared October 27. The Czechs didn't produce any evidence
in October. Nor in November. Nor in the first nine days of
December. A person billing himself as a "journalist" might
have begun to get curious. Not Li'l Russ. Not the chip off
of Big Russ's block.
Perhaps Cheney was thinking of Russert when, on June 17,
he told Borger that "The press is, with all due respect, and
there are exceptions, oftentimes lazy, oftentimes simply reports
what somebody else in the press said without doing their homework"
here and scroll down for transcript).
Or consider Borger of CNBC and U.S. News and World Report.
She had Cheney's 2001 quote, having spoken to him his exact
words, yet when he denied that he had said what Borger knew
he said, she let it slide. Granted, her spinelessness in 2004
played no role in spreading the Prague Connection fable in
2001-03, but it is indicative of her, well, spinelessness.
In my view, people like Borger, Russert, Tyler and Tagliabue
have important media jobs not in spite of their incompetence
and servility but because of those qualities, which
never go out of style. There's always a place in the corporate
media for "journalists" who know how to stay on the good side
of powerful people who have the blessing of the permanent
But what of our love birds - Cheney and the Times
- and their fractured nest? I do hope they stop this awful
sniping. They've been good for each other for far too long
to simply walk away. It's not too late to rekindle the relationship
that has served them (though maybe not the country) so very