Print media fail to note that Saddam verdict released two days before U.S. elections despite unfinished judgment

In their coverage of Saddam Hussein's November 5 guilty verdict, several print news outlets reported U.S. officials' assertions that the announcement had not been timed to coincide with the midterm elections but ignored reporting that conflicts with these denials -- in particular, the fact that the full verdict in Saddam's trial is not set to be released until November 9.

In their coverage of the guilty verdict in the trial of Saddam Hussein, several print news outlets -- including the Associated Press, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal -- reported U.S. officials' assertions that the November 5 announcement had not been timed to coincide with the November 7 midterm elections but ignored reporting that conflicts with these denials. In particular, print outlets did not note that, while the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal (SICT) declared Saddam guilty of “crimes against humanity” and sentenced him to death, the judges did not release the full verdict, which, as NBC News Middle East correspondent Richard Engel reported on November 5, presumably “explain[s] how and why” the judgment was reached. U.S. officials have said that the full ruling will be released on November 9, leading Engel to ask on NBC News' Blogging Baghdad weblog, “So why issue the verdict today?”

Further, most of the print media reporting U.S. officials' denials that the verdict in Saddam's trial was politically timed did not report that the verdict was rescheduled for two days before the U.S. congressional elections -- the verdict had originally been set for mid-October. These outlets also failed to note earlier reporting from The Washington Post and The New York Times that the United States ran “much of the day-to-day arrangements for the trial” and had an “undeniably pervasive” influence on the proceedings.

On November 5, the SICT found Saddam guilty of “crimes against humanity” for ordering the execution of nearly 150 Shiite civilians in the 1980s. The tribunal sentenced him to death by hanging. While this news immediately traveled the globe, few print news outlets noted that the verdict had not been accompanied by a written judgment explaining the rationale for the ruling. As blogger Joshua Micah Marshall noted on November 6, in a November 5 post on Blogging Baghdad, Engel highlighted the absence of a full verdict and wrote that it would be released the following Thursday:

In less than 10 minutes, Saddam Hussein was told he was guilty of crimes against humanity, but never exactly how or why.

Was it the witness testimony that proved Saddam's guilt?

Was it Saddam's own acceptance in court of overall responsibility for the draconian punishment his regime carried out of the villagers of Dujail after a 1982 assassination attempt in the town? Was it documents the prosecution said Saddam signed ordering the deaths of Dujail residents that ultimately swayed the judges? We still do not know.

The full verdict, a document of several hundred pages, explaining how and why today's judgment was reached was not released. U.S. officials said it should be ready by Thursday. So why issue the verdict today? U.S. court advisors told reporters today it was delayed mainly for technical reasons. All insist the verdict was not politically timed and that it was an Iraqi decision; there is no reason to doubt their word.

The furthest the chief judge went today to explain why Saddam was sentenced to death was to say Saddam was found guilty of Article 12 A, through Article 15 B, of the Iraqi High Criminal Court Law (the tribunal trying Saddam's constitution). All that means, examining at the law, is that Saddam was guilty of “willful murder” because he had “ordered, solicited or induced the commission of such a crime, which in fact occurs or is attempted.” Saddam Hussein was found guilty of ordering murders. Who he murdered, how, when and what proved his guilt, we are told, will be explained on Thursday.

Despite asking the obvious question -- “So why issue the verdict today?” -- Engel went on to note U.S. officials' denials of political timing, later writing, "[T]here is no reason to doubt their word." But to the contrary, the decision to announce the verdict days before finalizing the full judgment is not the first development in Saddam's trial to raise questions about political timing. In early October, the SICT announced that it intended to delay the verdict beyond October 16 -- the date on which it was originally expected to be announced. On October 16, the AP reported that the verdict and sentences for those found guilty would “be announced Nov. 5.”

The Bush administration has since repeatedly claimed that the U.S. government does not have the power to set the date of the verdict. But as Media Matters for America has noted, some of the media outlets reporting this assertion have left out facts that undermine this claim. For instance, a January 25 Washington Post article reported that the “U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Regime Crimes Liaison Office run much of the day-to-day arrangements for the trial.” And a May 21 New York Times article described the “American influence” on the SICT as “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.”

Nonetheless, in the wake of the November 5 verdict, several print outlets reported the White House's denials of any involvement in the trial, while failing to inform readers of the U.S. government's “pervasive” role in conducting the trial, the recent rescheduling of the verdict to two days before the election, and the SICT's decision to announce the ruling and sentence without having completed the full verdict.

  • AP: In a November 5 article on the verdict, staff writer Jennifer Loven uncritically quoted White House press secretary Tony Snow calling allegations of the verdict's political timing “absolutely crazy,” as did staff writer Deb Riechmann in a separate article on the domestic response. Moreover, Loven reported that U.S. officials have “always denied direct involvement in the trial” -- a claim directly contradicted by the reporting from the Post and Times noted above. In an article published the same day, staff writers Steven R. Hurst and Hamza Hendawi similarly reported that the White House “denied the U.S. had been 'scheming' to have the historic verdict announced two days before American midterm elections” and further noted that the “United States has denied direct involvement in the trial.”

    On November 5 and 6, the AP published five other articles on the Saddam verdict (here, here, here, here, and here), none of which mentioned that the full judgment has not yet been released.

  • Los Angeles Times: A November 6 article by Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and Tom Hamburger reported that Snow called suggestions of political timing “preposterous” and quoted a U.S. adviser to the trial saying, “I know everyone wants to read into this some sinister plot. ... But it's just not there.”
  • The Wall Street Journal: In a November 6 article (subscription required), Journal staff writer Philip Shishkin reported that “many Iraqis suspect the Bush administration somehow influenced the timing of the sentence to benefit the Republican party” and went on to note that Snow “dismissed the idea as 'preposterous.' ”
  • The Washington Post: In contrast to the above examples, a November 6 article by Post staff writer Peter Baker noted that the verdict had earlier been delayed. He reported that the SICT “originally planned to render a verdict in October but delayed it until two days before the election, prompting a defense lawyer for Hussein to write a letter accusing Bush of manipulating the proceedings for campaign purposes.” Nonetheless, Baker went on to quote Snow as saying in response to that allegation, “Are you smoking rope? ... Are you telling me that ... the Iraqi judicial system is coming up with an October surprise? ... Man, that's -- wow.” But Baker made no mention of his own paper's previous reporting on the extent of U.S. control over the trial's “day-to-day arrangements.” Nor did he note that the verdict had been announced days ahead of the full judgment.

New York Times reporter Julia Preston, meanwhile, reported in a November 6 article that “many trial observers were withholding final opinions yesterday because the Iraqi judges had not issued their written judgment, a voluminous document expected to come out this week.” Preston went on to note that lawyers had dismissed “suspicions that the verdict had been delayed” for political purposes:

[M]any trial observers were withholding final opinions yesterday because the Iraqi judges had not issued their written judgment, a voluminous document expected to come out this week.

American lawyers in Iraq dismissed suspicions that the verdict had been delayed to give the Bush administration a political victory in Iraq close to Tuesday's elections.

Accusations by Mr. Hussein's supporters that the trial was manipulated by United States officials were not borne out, American lawyers who followed the case said.

But while Preston reported that the written judgment remained incomplete, she gave no indication that she had questioned these “American lawyers” about whether the verdict had been rushed, rather than delayed. Further, she failed to address a separate question: whether the 30-day appeal period starts immediately or only once the full judgment has been released.