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DON’T LOOK BACK (PART 2)! When Hamza did Hardball, the public got hoaxed. Why won’t the press corps discuss it?


MORE ON MR. BLUSTER: No, that meaningless glitch on Meet the Press wasn’t ever worth discussing (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/18/04). But a report in yesterday’s New York Daily News seemed to provide a little more info. Lloyd Grove described the way “multimillionaire TV newsman” Tim Russert “worked himself into a lather” about the event, then lowered the boom on Emily Miller, an aide to Colin Powell. According to Grove, Russert went five minutes over his ten-minute allotment with Powell, and just kept going even after Miller phoned NBC to get him to stop. Result? “[A] very unhappy Lebanese television correspondent, Rania Tadieddine, who had flown all the way from Paris for her 10 minutes with Powell, had to make do with five minutes.” But don’t worry. When Russert calms down from his silly rants about “attempted news management gone berserk,” he’ll tell you a string of hackneyed tales about the way his Buffalo childhood taught him to just be himself.

Our current series: Don’t look back!

OVERVIEW: All right–all right! We changed the title of this series! But readers, when it comes to the way they covered the run-up to Iraq, many members of the press seem to say this: Don’t look back!

DON’T LOOK BACK (PART 2): It’s easy to see why the nation’s broadcasters didn’t warn us about occupation of Iraq. It “didn’t occur to” them, Jim Lehrer said; they “weren’t smart enough” to anticipate the potential problems–although the issue was being discussed on page one of the Post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/17/04). Besides that, it’s “difficult” to raise an issue like that when the president takes a different line. And Lehrer, of course, had his novels to write; he works on them every morning. If he’d arisen each morning and studied the news, might he have been a bit more aware? Answering that would involve speculation. But you can now buy his new novel, Crows Flying. Lehrer’s next novel is already done, he told Don Imus last week.

At any rate, that is why you didn’t hear talk about the dangers of occupying Iraq. But how about the talk you did hear? In particular, how about the memorable times when “Saddam’s bomb-maker,” Khidir Hamza, did Hardball?

Let’s be sure we know who Hamza is. On March 15, Chris Matthews hosted former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, who was promoting his own (non- fiction) book about the run-up to war in Iraq. At one point, the conversation mturned to those Iraqi defectors who had driven much of the pre-war debate. Matthews noted a recent statement:

MATTHEWS: Well, here’s a statement in the London Daily Telegraph by Ahmed Chalabi, one of–the key defector, who says, “We are heroes in error.” He admits that he gave bad information to the Americans to justify the war so he could get his country back. And he said, “As far as we’re concerned, we’ve been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before it is not important.”
Blix said Chalabi had been cynical and dishonest. “But I think what’s even worse is that the U.S. accepted it,” he said. Then he fingered Dr. Hamza, once a prime Hardball guest:
BLIX: But I think what’s even worse is that the U.S. accepted it, that they believed these things. We knew, for instance, that Khidhir Hamza, who published a book here in the U.S. about being “Saddam’s bombmaker,” and–there are enormous errors in it. And I’m sure that CIA knew that as well. But why didn’t they pay more attention to what the inspectors had to say?
Say what? According to Blix, Hamza had been faking his facts—and the CIA knew it! Matthews’ next guest was David Kay, former Bush Admin weapons inspector. Chris asked Kay about Hamza too. Their mordant exchange is worth quoting:
MATTHEWS: What happened to this fellow that used to be on this show and sit in that seat all the time, months and months before we went to war, Khidhir Hamza, the bombmaker? What ever–somebody told me he was back living in one of the palaces! What is this guy? Who was he?

KAY: He is actually working in the Ministry of Science and Technology.


KAY: In Iraq, responsible for what used to be their nuclear program.

MATTHEWS: Well, he used to tell us all about the nuclear program. It was hot and heavy! We’d better stop it!

KAY: Yes. Well, he is there now.

MATTHEWS: But there wasn’t one.

KAY: There was not one.

MATTHEWS: So what was he talking about when he came on the show saying you’ve got to beware because the weapons are going to have a mushroom cloud coming at us?

KAY: Well, I think he is another one of those “heroes in error” that you referred to, like Chalabi

Kay chuckled knowingly as he told his host that he had been played by the bombmaker. When Hamza did Hardball, he’d been talking smack! He’d yakked about Iraq’s nuclear program. “There was not one,” Kay now said.

So readers, what happened when Hamza did Hardball? We fired up the trusty old Dell and let Nexis take it from there. We read the tracsripts from the day when he “used to be on this show and sit in that seat all the time.” In the process, we saw part of the way the public was conned in the run-up to war in Iraq.

Hamza became a Hardball guest on February 5, 2002. We offer the end of that evening’s exchange to give you a taste of the discourse:

MATTHEWS: Does the average man or women drinking a coffee on the way–I love this sort of bourgeois image of a regular, a regular Iraqi going to work in the morning like we do–is that kind of person aware that your president over there, Saddam Hussein, is building weapons of mass destruction?

HAMZA: Oh, they know it quite well.

MATTHEWS: They all know it?

HAMZA: Yeah.

MATTHEWS: And what do they think is the purpose of all this intrigue in building of weapons?

HAMZA: Well, they know it is to empower Saddam. They have nothing to do with it, and it’s imposed on them. It’s used against them.

MATTHEWS: Why do they think he wants a big stick?

HAMZA: To gain power in the region, dominate the region.

MATTHEWS: Do they believe he will use the stuff, the weaponry, that he’s developing against Israel, for example, or against anyone else?

HAMZA: If cornered, yes.

MATTHEWS: If cornered.


MATTHEWS: I think you’ve said this before.


MATTHEWS: This is basically his, his ace in the hole.

HAMZA: Yeah.

MATTHEWS: So the weapons of mass destruction are to prevent him from being destroyed?

HAMZA: Yes, it is deterrence.

MATTHEWS: Deterrence.

HAMZA: Mainly deterrence. But then, in small amounts, and biological weapons, especially, could be used in other ways too.

MATTHEWS: To kill Kurds.

HAMZA: Yeah.

MATTHEWS: Or Iranians.

HAMZA: Yeah.

MATTHEWS: Or, or Jews.

HAMZA: Deterrence. Deterrence.

MATTHEWS: Anyway. Thank you very much, Dr. Hamza.

HAMZA: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: Great to have you! Iraqi defector, he’s the author of the book, Saddam’s Bombmaker, which he was.

Eight days later, Hamza played some Hardball again, and was praised by Matthews as “a great guest.” Of course, our favorite Hamza does Hardball sign-off occurred on 5/6/02:
MATTHEWS: OK. Let me ask you this. Can the United States go in and destroy his nuclear capability quickly? Or would we have to overthrow the whole government to stop him?

HAMZA: I think the only way to guarantee it is to overthrow the whole government because the program is fragmented now and hidden within the government.

MATTHEWS: OK. You’re a scientist, sir. And you’ve only got a minute now. Take your time. What is the prediction? How much do you think this is likely to happen in the next couple of years?

HAMZA: Next to–

MATTHEWS: For him to have a weapon he, he has and uses or threatens to use?

HAMZA: In the next couple of years, highly likely, something like 70 percent. Within three years, probably closer to 90, 95 percent.

MATTHEWS: And you think his first step would be a demonstration explosion to show he’s got it.

HAMZA: The only way he can prove convincingly that he has it–


HAMZA: –is to test it.

MATTHEWS: Yeah, that’s what we did with the Japanese. We dropped it–

HAMZA: Yeah.

MATTHEWS: –on Hiroshima so we could–and we didn’t have a test either. We just threw it.

HAMZA: Yeah.

MATTHEWS: Anyway, we dropped it. Anyway, thank you very much, Dr. Hamza. You know what you’re talking about!

“You know what you’re talking about,” Matthews said. But alas! According to Blix and the mordant Kay, Hardball’s host had just been conned.

Should Matthews have seen through Hamza’s ruse? We don’t know how to judge that. According to Blix, the CIA knew Hamza was hoaxing. Should Matthews have known it too? We can’t say. For the record, Matthews later became a sceptic on pre-Iraq matters. Most of the press corps didn’t.

But Americans need to understand the way they were hoaxed by these “heroes in error.”Sadly, you’ve seen little reporting about this hoax since its scope has become better known. In March, the Los Angeles Times did a mammoth report on “Curveball,” the colorful Chalabi hoaxer who, we’re now told, convinced the Admin about those alleged mobile labs. But the rest of the press corps ignored the report, and it produced very little discussion. Also in March, Leslie Stahl used a segment of 60 Minutes to disown a two-year-old story in which she got hoaxed on this same subject. But this too led to little discussion. Scribes seem to be saying, Don’t look back–perhaps because a backward glance shows them and their news orgs getting conned too, just as we’re told the Bush Admin did. Lehrer, of course, was writing his novels while all this excitement went on.

If we can believe what we’re now told, the Bush Admin got itself hoaxed by these hustling “heroes in error.” But why has this story received little play? Perhaps because journalists also got hoaxed, and don’t like discussing their own gullibility. Back in March, David Kay chuckled at Matthews. From that day to this, not a word has been said about what happened when Hamza did Hardball.

VISIT HIS INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: For an overview report on this general topic, see Jack Shafer’s April 9 Slate report. Shafer is one of very few scribes who have looked at this major topic.

TOMORROW: Why is Zarqawi still walking around? Scribes seem to say: Don’t look back!

CONGENITAL DEAD-ENDER: Readers, what’s up with that roadside bomb–the one that had a hint of sarin? Here at THE HOWLER, we simply don’t know. But we detected a whiff of congenital spin when William Safire went there this morning. The media blew off the story, Bill said. Here was part of his spin-rich rumination:

SAFIRE: You never saw such a rush to dismiss this as not news. U.N. weapons inspectors whose reputations rest on denial of Saddam’s W.M.D. pooh-poohed the report. “It doesn’t strike me as a big deal,” said David Kay. “Sarin Bomb Is Likely a Leftover From the 80's” was USA Today’s Page 10 brushoff; maybe the terrorists didn’t know their shell was loaded with sarin...
Hmm. Kay was once a UN inspector, but more recently served as Bush’s main man. And who said the terrorists might not have known their shell was loaded? “U.S. military and other government officials,” according to the story Safire cited. Yesterday’s report in the Washington Times provided the same information.

CONASON GETS IT RIGHT: We advise you to read Joe Conason’s report on the Sunday Times profile of Ed Gillespie. The profile came straight from the Bumiller school; everyone seemed to have told Rick Lyman what a sweet guy the GOP chairman is. Meanwhile, on that same day’s front page, we were reading Todd Purdum’s profile of Kerry–the one that started with poor little “Johnny” boo-hooing because nobody liked him (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/18/04). As we’ve told you, such profiles are invitations to spin. The next time you hear some pseudo-con talker complaining about the liberal Times, remember the day they shined up Ed and made a cry-baby fool out of “Johnny.” Increasingly, this seems to be the way the Times now covers our White House elections.

By the way, the Times now loves to tell its readers how ecumenical those Republicans are. The sub-headline on Gillespie: “A GOP chairman with friends on both sides of the aisle.” Last Thursday, Bumiller wrote her latest sunny profile of Secretary Rumsfeld. Don “moves easily in Democratic and Republican circles,” the cheerful hagiographer said.