Post's Knickmeyer ignored inconsistency in U.S. officials' denial of having "power to set date[]" of Saddam verdict

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Contradicting her earlier reporting, The Washington Post's Ellen Knickmeyer reported that "U.S. officials close to the trial deny" that they have the "power to set [the] date[]" for the announcement of Saddam Hussein's verdict. Knickmeyer had previously reported that the U.S. government "run[s] much of the day-to-day arrangements for the trial."

In a November 4 article on the "serious shortcomings" in the trial of Saddam Hussein, Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Ellen Knickmeyer reported that "U.S. officials close to the trial deny that the announcement of the verdict, set for two days before U.S. congressional elections, was timed to give a boost to the Republican Party." She quoted one of the officials -- "who all spoke on condition they not be identified further" -- saying, "If we had that kind of power to set dates like that, the trial would have been concluded in about five months." U.S. officials' denials apparently conflict with the fact, noted by Knickmeyer later in the article, that the United States has played a large part in "conducting ... the proceedings." Moreover, Knickmeyer herself reported in January that the "U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Regime Crimes Liaison Office run much of the day-to-day arrangements for the trial." But while this reporting appears to undermine the U.S. officials' denials of having the "power to set dates," Knickmeyer made no mention of the inconsistency in her November article.

In early October, the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal (SICT), the judicial body carrying out Saddam's trial, announced that it intended to delay the verdict beyond October 16 -- the date on which the verdict was originally expected to be announced. On October 16, the Associated Press reported that the verdict and sentences for those found guilty "will be announced Nov. 5." As Media Matters for America noted, the decision to postpone the verdict until two days before the midterm elections raised an important question: Given the heavy influence of the United States on the court and given the administration's history of timing national security-related actions to the political calendar, was the verdict's date set to provide maximum political benefit for the Bush administration and congressional Republicans? This question has grown more pressing in recent days, as the White House has begun touting the upcoming verdict as "a benchmark episode, where the Iraqi people are taking control of their own destiny."

In her January 25 Post article, Knickmeyer described in detail the extent of U.S. control over the trial:

The United States has made the prosecution of Hussein -- accused of presiding over the killings of hundreds of thousands of Shiites and Kurds -- one of its priorities since U.S. troops invaded Iraq in 2003. The Bush administration spent hundreds of millions of dollars of a $18.4 billion reconstruction package for Iraq to exhume mass graves and gather forensic evidence. It refurbished courthouses, trained Iraqi judges and provided most of the security for the courts. Americans drafted many of the statutes under which Hussein and his associates are being tried.

Though the United States is a strong opponent of the International Criminal Court, the administration's critics say it should have ensured adequate credibility and help for the Iraqi tribunal by making it international or, at a minimum, moving the trial out of Baghdad.

International qualms about the legality of the proceeding, and about the death sentence that Hussein could face if convicted, have left the United States virtually alone in shepherding his prosecution by the Iraqi government. A U.S. official in Baghdad confirmed last weekend that only the United States and Britain had contributed experts to advise the court on how to prosecute governments for war crimes and other such matters.

The official did not say how many British advisers were taking part; Britain, like other countries, has expressed reluctance to help in the case because it is a capital one.

The U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Regime Crimes Liaison Office run much of the day-to-day arrangements for the trial. Plainclothes security workers, many of them Americans, and Iraqi soldiers guard the turreted, fortress-like former Baath Party headquarters in the American-held Green Zone where the trial is playing out.

A May 21 New York Times article echoed Knickmeyer's account, reporting that the "American influence" on the SICT "has been undeniably pervasive, with about 90 percent of the $145 million in annual costs for the court and associated investigations paid for by the United States Justice Department, and lawyers sent by Washington acting as advisers."

In her November 4 article -- a retrospective look at the challenges and shortcomings that marked the proceedings -- Knickmeyer broached the subject of possible political motivations for the postponement of the verdict, simply reporting U.S. officials' denial that they possessed "that kind of power":

In Baghdad, U.S. officials close to the trial deny that the announcement of the verdict, set for two days before U.S. congressional elections, was timed to give a boost to the Republican Party.

"If we had that kind of power to set dates like that, the trial would have been concluded in about five months," said one of the officials, who all spoke on condition they not be identified further. "The fact of the matter is: No way."

While she reported the U.S. officials' claim that they do not possess the power necessary to set a date for the verdict, Knickmeyer failed to note that it appears to be inconsistent with her earlier reporting that the U.S. controls "much of the day-to-day arrangements for the trial." Later in the article, Knickmeyer noted that the United States "poured millions ... into renovating the courthouse in Baghdad's Green Zone, training Iraqi court officials and conducting and guarding the proceedings." But again, she made no mention of the apparent contradiction.

Posted In
Elections, National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
Network/Outlet
The Washington Post
Stories/Interests
2006 Elections
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