Press Box

How Far Can You Trust Anonymice?

Reading the week’s leakiest stories.

I trust all leakers and anonymous sources—I trust them to give a selective account that will benefit them, one that pleases their patrons and screws their enemies. Telling the truth, I guarantee you, ranks very low on most leakers’ list of motives.

Leakers and anonymice thrive everywhere in modern journalism, even the sports pages, but where they really thrive is in the “A” section, especially in times of national security crises like these, as the U.S. wages its never-ending war against Osama Bin Laden, the Baathists, Iran, and North Korea. Cloaked in the invisibility of background, the various spooks, foreign diplomats, Saudi flacks, politicians, administration officials, Hill, State, and Pentagon staffers, and others with a saw to grind have been stepping up to assess blame, take credit, and settle old scores.

Not every anonymously sourced article is suspect, but every anonymously sourced article invites the reader to ask why the reporter agreed to camouflage his source and what hidden agenda might be operating.

For instance, yesterday’s New York Times extended the protective coloration of anonymity in a very dubious fashion to a Saudi official in David Johnston’s “Official Says Qaeda Recruited Saudi Hijackers To Strain Ties.” The Saudi official alleges that Osama Bin Laden told Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of 9/11’s architects, to recruit Saudis for the attacks because their presence would injure U.S.-Saudi relations—”they wanted to strike Saudi Arabia as much as they wanted to hit the United States.” The Saudi claims American officials told him this after the capture and interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but he doesn’t name the American officials.

Why, exactly, should the New York Times allow a Saudi official to advance such a hearsay story, one without a shred of confirmation from any corner, without requiring him to put his name to it? (Prince Bandar, is that you?) Like all anonymously sourced articles, this piece should be met with a barrage of doubting questions. Who benefits from this story? How good is the information? What motive might the leaking source have for giving the story? Obviously, the Saudis benefit from the story because it makes them “victims.” Reporter Johnston benefits, too. His Saudi source owes him a future draft pick or something for getting the self-serving story into print.

How good is the information? Not very. Halfway through the piece, Johnston cites American sources—unnamed!—who state a much more plausible theory: Most of the 9/11 attackers were Saudis because of the ease with which they could get U.S. visas.

Spy Agencies Warned of Iraq Resistance,” by Walter Pincus, which ran on Page One of yesterday’s Washington Post,serves such a mulligan stew of anonymous sources that the health inspector should be summoned to sort them out. According to Pincus, the intelligence establishment (the CIA, the DIA, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research) produced reports warning of the dangers of occupying Iraq and upgrading it to a democracy that were ignored by the administration. Pincus’ anonymous sources: congressional and administration leakers.

The intelligence establishment would appear to benefit the most from the leak of the reports because it covers their collective behind. But because Pincus doesn’t name intelligence as a source, we can assume that the congressional and administration sources he attributes the leaks to did it to damage the Bush loyalists—Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Wolfowitz, et al. This poses a question about the leakers’ motives. Why didn’t they leak the reports before the war when it might have done some good, rather than now, when its value is mostly “nyah-nyah nyah nyah-nyah”?

How good is the information? Who knows? Pincus gives himself wiggle room on how strongly worded the intelligence reports were, writing that there is “not universal agreement about the clarity” of the reports and that the “administration officials said the intelligence was murkier than others now depict it.” The most solid point in Pincus’ piece is one of inference: Unnamed forces inside the administration and the Hill dumped intel documents to undermine the prez.

But don’t send a card of condolence to the White House right away. The Bush administration is better at selective leaking than anybody. In building its case for the war on Iraq, the Bush administration influenced the debate by feeding the press a special diet of predigested information from anonymous entities. Why? Because the same set of facts laundered through a reporter and expressed “independently” in a news account gets double the bounce the same revelation would in a press conference.

The Bushies got their best double bounce last year when they leaked their intelligence finding about Iraqi attempts to purchase aluminum tubes for processing uranium into weapons-grade material to the New York Times, where Judith Miller and Michael R. Gordon wrote a Page One story in the Sept. 8, 2002, Sunday paper. “U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts” cites various anonymous government sources who describe the Iraqis’ quest for a nuclear bomb. That morning, Vice President Richard Cheney went on NBC’s Meet the Pressto endorse the Miller and Gordon article, as if the paper independently discovered the aluminum story and didn’t just run with a deliberate leak from the administration!

Not by accident, I’m sure, all of the administration’s top talkers appeared on the other Sunday shows to talk about the Iraqi bomb. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice worried aloud about the aluminum connection on CNN’s Late Edition; Gen. Richard Myers fielded the question on ABC’s This Week; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talked up the new Iraqi nuke peril on CBS’s Face the Nation; and Secretary of State Colin Powell stumped like a champ for the New York Times story on Fox News Sunday. “As we saw in reporting just this morning, [Saddam] is still trying to acquire, for example, some of the specialized aluminum tubing one needs to develop centrifuges that would give you an enrichment capability,” he said.

Who benefited from the leak? The administration, obviously. What were the motives? To shape the war debate toward intervention. How good was the aluminum information? Not very, according to today’s consensus. (For more on the aluminum/uranium story, see the chronology and this May/June 2003 CJR piece by John R. MacArthur.)

Not all leaky, anonymous stories are born sinister. Peter Finn and Susan Schmidt’s informative piece, “Al Qaeda Plans a Front in Iraq,” which appeared in the Sunday Washington Post,seems trustworthy because it doesn’t excessively polish any of its sources’ apples. And what a load of sources! You could fill FedEx Field twice over with them. There are “European, American and Arab intelligence sources,” “Arab intelligence sources,” “one Arab official,” “Arab officials,” “One European source,” “U.S. and Arab officials,” “A U.S. military official,” “American and Arab officials,” “an Arab official from a country that borders Iraq,” “European officials,” “a spokesman for the State Department,” “a senior U.S. official in Baghdad,” “a European intelligence official,” “Arab officials,” “one Saudi source,” “a U.S. official,” “a Saudi source,” “a senior counterterrorism official,” and “Western and Arab officials.” (Did I miss anyone?)

The gist of the story is that al-Qaida is calling the team home to Iraq for the final showdown under coach Abu Musab Zarqawi and that this strategy may indicate al-Qaida’s “weakness.” How good is the information? I have no idea. But what’s new, worthwhile, and ultimately verifiable about the story is the idea that al-Qaida has enjoyed immense Iranian patronage, seems prepared to work with the Baathists (something that Middle East observers said couldn’t happen), and that al-Qaida may have been working with the Baathists before 9/11 (another previously heretical notion). We’ll see how it pans out. In the meantime, could the Post get some of this story’s important sources on the record?

The most suspicious—and incendiary—leak of the war on terror era appears in the last chapter of Gerald Posner’s new book, Why America Slept. Posner’s unnamed source puts Saudi Arabia at the center of the 9/11 plot. (Perhaps this explains why that Saudi official leaked to the New York Times about Saudi Arabia-U.S. relations having been a 9/11 target.) According to Posner, captured al-Qaida leader Abu Zubaydah gave away the mother lode while being tortured. He told authorities that the Saudis financed Osama Bin Laden through Saudi princes, that a high-ranking Pakistani officer secured arms for al-Qaida, and that the Saudis knew about the 9/11 attacks beforehand, though they didn’t know where or how al-Qaida would strike. Three Saudi princes named by Zubaydah died within days of one another after the United States told the Saudis about Zubaydah’s testimony.

The leak, whether true or not, benefits Saudi enemies. But what motive informed Posner’s source? It doesn’t look like an “ego leak,” designed to make the leaker feel good about himself, or a “goodwill leak,” intended to bind the appreciative reporter to the source. It’s not an obvious “trial balloon” or “animus leak” or any of the other usual types. Last week, Posner described his source to Time magazineas a “very senior Executive Branch level” person whose name you probably would recognize. * Posner cites a second unnamed source in the CIA, who provided what he interprets as general confirmation of the Zubaydah account.

How good is the information? A newspaper wouldn’t run such a narrowly sourced story (they don’t mind anonymous sources, but they like to have plenty of them), but for some unfathomable reason the evidentiary standards for books, which are written on long deadlines, are much lower than newspaper stories, which are often written on the fly. The Associated Pressnoted Posner’s story last week but got no response from the Saudi Embassy or the White House about its claims. Given the story’s audaciousness, you’d think the New York Times and Washington Post—no strangers to anonymous sourcing—would have followed, knocked down, or recognized it. Except for a short review in the Post, both have ignored it, as have the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal.

As revelatory as Posner’s book might be, the identity of his source is as important as the story he tells. What lone ranger would give up this information? Surely the facts of the Zubaydah interrogation are so closely held that Posner’s source identified himself to those in a position to know when he placed himself in the “Executive Branch level.” And given the lead time of books, Posner’s source must have spilled months ago, so the leak can’t be a skirmish in this week’s internecine fighting.

I haven’t been this perplexed about an anonymous source since Deep Throat gave it up to Bob Woodward. But ransacking another journalist’s story in an attempt to unmask his unnamed sources isn’t just a parlor game, especially when there’s a war going on. The pertinent question here—and with most anonymously sourced articles—isn’t just the source’s identity, but rather, what is he trying to pull? And why am I the only one asking this question?


Who leaked to Posner? Send your speculations to (On the record, only!)

Correction, Sept. 11, 2003: Gerald Posner’s description of his anonymous source was originally misstated above. Pressbox stated that Posner told Time magazine the source was a name “you probably wouldn’t recognize” when Posner said the opposite: Posner told Time the name was one “we would probably know if he told it to us.” The error was compounded by stating that Posner’s source wouldn’t be one of the “usual suspects.” ( Return to the corrected sentence.)