Murdoch misinformation meets the press

On May 23, Tim Russert hosted right-wing pundit and New York Times columnist William Safire on NBC's Meet the Press roundtable, during which Safire misrepresented Senator John Kerry's poll ratings. One week later, Russert hosted Stephen F. Hayes -- staff writer at the Rupert Murdoch-owned conservative magazine The Weekly Standard -- on the May 30 edition of Meet the Press to promote his new book, The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America (released on June 1 by Murdoch's publishing house HarperCollins). Hayes's book was reviewed in The Washington Post on June 2 by professor and former FBI counterterrorism analyst Matthew A. Levitt: “A constellation of suggestions, however, still is not a convincing argument. 'The Connection' raises several important questions, but it left me unconvinced.”

Hayes's book promises to uncover new information about the relationship between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein -- a relationship that Hayes claims stretches back more than a decade. Hayes first promoted this theory in a November 24, 2003, Weekly Standard article titled “Case Closed”:

Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003 that involved training in explosives and weapons of mass destruction, logistical support for terrorist attacks, al Qaeda training camps and safe haven in Iraq, and Iraqi financial support for al Qaeda -- perhaps even for Mohamed Atta -- according to a top secret U.S. government memorandum obtained by THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

The memo, dated October 27, 2003, was sent from Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith to Senators Pat Roberts and Jay Rockefeller, the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Newsweek investigative correspondents Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball -- in their November 19 article titled “Case Decidedly Not Closed: The Defense Dept. memo allegedly proving a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam does nothing of the sort” -- discredited the memorandum upon which Hayes based his argument:

A leaked Defense Department memo claiming new evidence of an “operational relationship” between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein's former regime is mostly based on unverified claims that were first advanced by some top Bush administration officials more than a year ago -- and were largely discounted at the time by the U.S. intelligence community, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials. ... In fact, the tangled tale of the memo suggests that the case of whether there has been Iraqi-Al Qaeda complicity is far from closed.

Similarly, the Defense Department refuted the notion that there is an “operational relationship” between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. In a November 15, 2003, news release, the Defense Department noted that the memo “was not an analysis of the substantive issue of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, and it drew no conclusions”; and that “news reports that the Defense Department recently confirmed new information with respect to contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq ... are inaccurate.”

Hayes's journalistic credibility has been questioned previously. Bill Moyers, host of the PBS program NOW, wrote a letter to the editor of The Weekly Standard in 2002 in response to a Hayes article:

Stephen Hayes opens his attack on me ("PBS's Televangelist," Feb. 25) by claiming that in the PBS specials following September 11 I interviewed, among others, “Cornel West, O.J. attorney Alan Dershowitz, and 'Vagina Monologues' playwright Eve Ensler.” He gets it right only once. I have never met or interviewed Alan Dershowitz or Eve Ensler."

Moyers concluded that Hayes's article was “replete with willful misrepresentation, deceitful juxtaposition, and outright error, with a little hypocrisy thrown in for flavor.”

On Meet the Press, Russert held up a copy of Hayes's book, which had been plugged on May 28 by The Drudge Report via a link titled "BOOK TAKES ON CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: 'CONNECTION' ARGUES VAST TIES BETWEEN OSAMA AND SADDAM..." that directed readers to an excerpt of Hayes's book in the June 7 issue of The Weekly Standard.

On May 27, The Wall Street Journal cited Hayes in an editorial page article titled “Saddam's Files: New evidence of a link between Iraq and al Qaeda” on May 27:

In his new book, “The Connection,” Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard puts together all of the many strands of intriguing evidence that the two did do business together. There's no single “smoking gun,” but there sure is a lot of smoke.

When confronted by Russert about President George W. Bush's statement that there is no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hayes agreed with Bush; yet Hayes still asserted “that one has to consider the fact that he [Saddam Hussein] may have had something to do with it on even a marginal scale.”

From the May 30 edition of MSNBC's Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: You have written a book called “The Connection: How al-Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America.” The president has gone out of his way to say there's no evidence of Saddam Hussein linked to September 11. What's your thesis?

HAYES: I agree. I don't think -- I think it's too strong to say there's no evidence, but at the same time I think that one has to consider the fact that he may have had something to do with it on even a marginal scale.