To a number of civilian employees at the Pentagon, a New York Times story on June 3 came as quite a jolt: Some of them apparently already had been polygraphed as part of an investigation into Iraqi Governing Council member Ahmed Chalabi.
But it never happened. Nearly three weeks later, it appears that the implicated civilian employees at the Pentagon have not been polygraphed.
And the Times is unapologetic in the face of substantial evidence that it got the story wrong.
As you may surely remember, Iraqi Governing Council member and longtime U.S. ally Ahmed Chalabi was all over the news late last month and early this month for allegedly passing classified information to Iran. According to various news accounts, an Iranian intelligence agent in Baghdad supposedly cabled Tehran to inform officials that Mr. Chalabi had tipped them off that the United States had cracked their code — a message sent using the same cracked code.
The Times scored a significant scoop, running the details of the code scandal on page one on June 2. The following day, the paper of record had the scoop of the follow-up, reporting that the FBI had started polygraph examinations on a “small number” of civilian employees at the Pentagon.
Common knowledge inside the Beltway is that the Times’ story identification of the “small number” of “civilian employees” was a thinly veiled reference to people working for Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz or in the policy shop, headed by Undersecretary Douglas Feith. (Most in that group are political appointees and were hawks on Iraq.)
The practical result was a smear of State’s and CIA’s political enemies — Mr. Chalabi and the Pentagon’s hawks. That’s undoubtedly the exact outcome for which the Times’ sources hoped.
In fairness to the Times, it appears that the FBI has initiated some sort of investigation, including limited use of polygraph testing — but on people who were based in Baghdad.
The June 3 article, however, makes no such allowance and, in fact, is quite clear in identifying polygraphed employees as being “at the Pentagon.” The lead sentence is unambiguous in announcing, “Federal investigators have begun administering polygraph examinations to civilian employees at the Pentagon.”
Further down in the article, readers are informed that “officials familiar with the investigation say that they are … likely to interview senior Pentagon officials.” Three weeks later, it appears that has yet to happen — but the taint from the smear lingers.
The Times didn’t simply get the story wrong, though. It breached basic codes of journalism ethics.
Reading the June 3 article leaves one with the conclusion that the Pentagon did not dispute the polygraph story. Nowhere in the piece is there even a reference to the Pentagon’s side of the story.
That doesn’t mean that Pentagon officials agreed with the Times’ reporting, however. They did not, and quite strenuously at that.
Mr. Johnston made one call to the Pentagon at 8:30 p.m. the night before the story ran, and it wasn’t even to someone in the Office of Public Affairs. According to the person with whom he spoke, it was only intended as a “head’s up,” not as a call seeking comment.
The Pentagon official, though, informed Mr. Johnston that no one in his shop had been polygraphed and that he had been asking all day and found no indication that a civilian employee in another shop had been, either. Mr. Johnston’s response was telling: “That’s notgoodenough.” (Reached for comment, Mr. Johnston did not deny saying this.)
With even a minimal amount of digging, either Mr. Johnston or Mr. Risen could have unearthed a denial of the polygraphing story.
Since the rumors of an investigation had been circulating for days at that point, and buzz about polygraphing had grown quite noticeable by early June 2, senior Defense Department officials and press officers sought in earnest to determine if anyone in Washington had, in fact, been polygraphed.
Following that effort, the results were circulated as talking points, which were available to reporters. The most relevant excerpt: “No senior Department of Defense official is the target of any investigation with respect to Ahmed Chalabi. To the best of our knowledge, no official at the Pentagon has been polygraphed or told to expect to be polygraphed in the Chalabi investigation.”
While Mr. Johnston may not have been satisfied that the answer he received constituted a denial, The Washington Post was comfortable printing a very similar statement. Immediately after citing the polygraphing allegation — on June 3, the same day as the Times story — The Post article continued, “But senior officials at the Pentagon said they knew of no one there who had been interviewed by the FBI or who had been requested to submit to an interview.”
With nearly three weeks of hindsight, it appears the Times unfairly tarnished the good names of a relatively small number of public servants. Granted, the paper didn’t claim guilt, but charges of polygraphing have an undeniable impact on public perception.
Even if a correction runs eventually, it will probably be too little. It will certainly be too late. But that’s if it ever runs at all. Knowing the Times, there’s little cause for optimism.
Joel Mowbray occasionally writes for The Washington Times.