newsCO.com.au | The Difference Between Watchers And Doers

February 15, 2018

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2017-07-18 13:56:55

As a Chief Weapons Inspector with the United Nations Special Commission in Iraq, I often found myself in the media limelight, as the work of the inspectors became fodder for the media. One of these media organizations was Al Jazeera based out of Doha, in Qatar. Al Jazeera began its operations in 1996, in the midst of inspection-derived controversy in Iraq that quickly became one of the lead stories covered by that outlet. In 2001, following my resignation from the UN, I produced and directed a documentary film, In Shifting Sands, about the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Al Jazeera was the first outlet for this film, broadcasting it in its entirety to a large Middle Eastern audience; I also did a number of interviews with Al Jazeera from its Baghdad bureau. Later, in 2004, I began writing a regular opinion column for Al Jazeera’s English-language web site. I often appeared on Al Jazeera’s international and American outlets as an expert commentator on issues pertaining to Iraq and the Middle East. It was, in my opinion, a mutually beneficial relationship.

I imagine that one of the reasons I was attractive to Al Jazeera and other media outlets was the fact that I possessed a wealth of first-hand experience in the topics I was asked to comment on.  The Middle East was awash in conflict; as someone who trained for, planned and fought in a Middle Eastern war, my experiences were relevant to the dialogue Al Jazeera wished to pursue.  The same could be said for arms control, weapons of mass destruction, and the complex political relationships that existed among the major players of the region—I had direct personal experience, at the highest levels, in all of these areas. When I wrote or spoke on a topic, it was from the point of view of someone who had spent his adult life doing that which he now commented on. 

In 2004, about the same time I began writing for Al Jazeera’s English language web site, a young man named Muhhammad Idrees Ahmad was finishing up his studies at The American University in Dubai, where among other things he captained the school tennis team and was recognized for his appreciation of jazz music.  After receiving his bachelor’s degree, Idrees Ahmad—a citizen of Pakistan who was born in Chitral and raised in Abbottabad and Peshawar—attended the University of Strathclyde, where he earned his PhD.  While a doctoral candidate, Idrees Ahmad began blogging on global political issues, and several prestigious outlets, including The London Review Blog and Le Monde Diplomatique, picked up his work. He has been a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera International, and currently works as a professor of digital journalism at the University of Stirling (he has also been a contributor to news.)

On July 12, 2017, Dr. Idrees Ahmad published an opinion piece in Al Jazeera.com that took umbrage with the recent reporting by the Pultizer Prize-winning journalist, Seymour Hersh, in the German daily, Die Welt, as well as earlier articles published in The London Review of Books. Idrees Ahmad also maligns the intellect and integrity of a group of experienced intelligence professionals, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).  I am a member of VIPS, whom Idrees Ahmad dismisses as merely a group of “disgruntled former employees of the government.” The professionals who populate VIPS includes Ray McGovern, a retired CIA analyst who used to prepare the Presidential Daily Briefing, considered one of the most sensitive and important pieces of analysis in the US Intelligence Community. Coleen Rowley, a career FBI Special Agent who exposed flaws in the government’s investigation of the 9/11 terror attacks, is also a member. Larry Johnson spent years serving his country honorably in both the CIA and State Department doing things he can never talk about, and which the likes of Idrees Ahmad will never know.  The same can be said for Philip Giraldi, William Binney, Elizabeth Murray and the many other intelligence veterans who are VIPS members. These are accomplished professionals with serious resumes that go far beyond playing college tennis and enjoying jazz music; in short, these are people who have decades of firsthand experience actually doing what Idrees Ahmad has only partially observed from afar.

As I previously mentioned, Dr. Idrees Ahmad also attacks my good friend Sy Hersh, whose journalistic credentials are unimpeachable. I’ve known Sy Hersh since 1998, when he called me up to do an interview for the New Yorker about the CIA’s role in Iraq.  Sy is an experienced hand, fully capable of defending himself and his writing from the likes of Idrees Ahmad and others.  I do, however, feel the need to set the record straight on one issue raised by Idrees Ahmad—my role as a “fact checker” for Hersh’s article on the April 4, 2017 chemical weapons incident at Khan Sheikhun. In a June 29, 2017 article in The American Conservative, I wrote “In the interests of full disclosure, I had assisted Mr. Hersh in fact-checking certain aspects of his article; I was not a source of any information used in his piece.”

Let me be clear—I am not, nor have I ever been, part of the formal fact-checking process used by either The London Review of Books or Die Welt in vetting articles submitted by Mr. Hersh.  I have, over the years, been a sounding board for questions Sy may have had about matters in which my past experience might be able to provide some insight—for instance, technical details about GPS-guided munitions, the accuracy of cruise missiles, or insights into the American Special Operations community.  On several occasions, my observations have led Sy to return to his sources to seek clarity in the interest of accuracy—the hallmark of good reporting.  For Idrees Ahmed to attack the integrity of The London Review of Books and Die Welt, not to mention Sy Hersh, by misconstruing my words is grossly irresponsible, and beneath someone who portends to preach journalistic integrity.  This is yet another reason why people continue to rally around someone whose resume includes a Pulitzer Prize, a handful of George Polk awards, and numerous other high-level acknowledgements of journalistic excellence derived from years of actually doing, as opposed to one who makes his living observing and commenting on the work of others from the luxury of an academic office.

Idrees Ahmad also singled out several articles I have written that were critical of a Syrian non-governmental organization, Syria Civil Defense, better known as the White Helmets. My problems with the White Helmets are many, including questions of how a supposedly “neutral” organization can sustain that reputation while being funded by the United States and the United Kingdom, the hand-in-glove relationship it enjoys with Al Qaeda affiliates such as Al Nusra, and more. I also have looked askance on the technical aspects of their “urban search and rescue” and “chemical sampling” efforts, drawing upon my own experience as a Hazardous Materials Specialist of a USAR team (New York Task Force 2) in pointing out the fatal fallacies in their operations (i.e., using power tools in a building collapse in a manner that would put any trapped survivors at risk, and haphazardly taking Sarin samples using little or no personal protective equipment.)  My analysis of the White Helmet phenomenon is not borrowed from others, as alleged by Dr. Idrees Ahmad, but rather my own research and analysis derived from, in large part, having actual hands on experience in the very work the White Helmets are portrayed as doing (i.e., technical urban search and rescue, chemical sampling in a hazardous environment.)

This does not mean that my assessments and opinions on the White Helmets—or any other topic—are beyond reproach. One of the “hazards” of living in a free society is that the processes associated with critical debate, discussion and dialogue can be applied to anything and anyone. To be taken seriously, however, such criticism must be responsible in terms of fact and tone. Dr. Idrees Ahmad’s dismissal of my writings on the White Helmets as simply the regurgitation of alt-right conspiracies and Russian claims is not only demonstrably wrong, but representative of the very deficit in intellectual curiosity and editorial integrity he decries in his opinion piece.

I conclude on a personal note. Dr. Idrees Ahmad has chosen the path often taken by those whose arguments rest on ill-informed emotion vice fact derived from first-hand experience—the ad hominem attack. He seeks to offset the content of my recent published work (which has appeared in an ideologically diverse range of mainstream outlets such as The London Review of BooksHarper’s MagazineThe Washington SpectatorThe American Conservative, news, TruthDig, and others) with offhand comments over my alleged “recent loss of reputation” over “personal indiscretions,” even going so far as to allude to my “release from prison.”  It seems curious that an erstwhile professor of journalism would resort to such blatant attacks on me, the person, as a means of attempting to discredit the factual basis for what I have published. This represents the kind of logical fallacy one would hope a lecturer at the University of Stirling would condemn, rather than embrace.

Even in his ad hominem attack, however, Idrees Ahmad fails. Dr. Idrees Ahmed, like many others, is free to hold and express opinions about me; he is not, however, free to invent facts. I have no “loss of reputation” I need to “deal with” by “building an audience on the conspiracist fringe” (noting that, if this were the case, the readership of news would be lumped into that category.)  I do, however, have a unique set of experiences drawn from a miscarriage of justice born of prosecutorial misconduct that has provided me with insight into the inequities of the American judicial system. This, of course, is a topic for another time and place. If Dr. Idrees Ahmad ever wanted to engage in this subject, however, he would find himself at the same disadvantage he has when delving into his critique of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity and Seymour Hersh on the issue of Syria, advancing a position born of casual observation vice first hand knowledge, and lacking even a modicum of the integrity and intellectual curiosity to reach out directly prior to characterizing his beliefs about me—again, the fundamental flaw on the part of one who only watches what others have actually done.

Which brings me back to where this essay began—Al Jazeera.  Like most other outlets that publish opinion pieces, Al Jazeera.com contains a disclaimer, “The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.”  Such disclaimers are, however, pure pretense.  The decision to publish is, in and of itself, a reflection of editorial policy; I have received numerous rejection notices from publishers I have a strong relationship with who decline a particular pitch by noting that the proposed article was not reflective of the direction their editors were moving in regarding the subject at hand.  Likewise, I have published dozens of other op-ed articles, in newspapers such as The New York Times, theWashington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and others.  While the words and the thoughts that underpinned these articles were my own, let there be no doubt that the decision to publish them was a direct reflection of the editorial policy of the outlet in question, either to endorse a particular point of view, or to encourage debate by publishing a view in opposition. 

The decision by Al Jazeera.com to publish Dr. Idrees Ahmad’s opinion piece attacking Seymour Hersh, VIPS and myself was, in fact, a direct reflection of its editorial policy. Al Jazeera is currently in a fight for its very survival, having been singled out, rightly or wrongly, by its Arab neighbors as being little more than a propaganda outlet for Islamist extremist organizations and activities, including support for Al Qaeda-affiliated groups operating inside Syria and elsewhere; the closure of Al Jazeera is one of the stated preconditions for ending the ongoing diplomatic crisis. The veracity of the charges underpinning the Arab coalitions grievances against Al Jazeera and Qatar is beside the point; what is certain is that at a time when Al Jazeera is in the midst of a life or death struggle, every article it published becomes a political statement, a direct reflection of its editorial policy. Dr. Idrees Ahmad could very easily have made his arguments without resorting to smear, innuendo and ad hominem attack. That he chose to do speaks volumes about him personally and professionally; that Al Jazeera chose to publish it is likewise a direct reflection on it as an organization (this article was initially offered to Al Jazeera in an effort to demonstrate its editorial neutrality by publishing a response to Idrees Ahmad’s opinion piece; Al Jazeera declined to publish it.)

Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer with experience implementing arms control treaties in the former Soviet Union, as a member of General Norman Schwartzkopf’s staff during Operation Desert Storm, and as a Chief Weapons Inspector with the United Nations Special Commission in Iraq.  He is the author of Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West’s Road to War (Clarity Press: 2017).

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