The Case of the Phony General: FRONTLINE Responds

Heroes in ErrorMarch/April 2006 issue, Mother Jones

In "Heroes in Error" reporter Jack Fairweather outlines how both FRONTLINE and the New York Times were duped by the Iraqi National Congress (INC) in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. Specifically, Fairweather says one of two defectors provided by the INC was an imposter. The defector claimed to have witnessed foreign Arab fighters training to hijack airplanes at the Salman Pak military facility south of Baghdad prior to 9/11.

Your readers should know that checking inside Saddam's Iraq at the time of the broadcast on the bona fides of Iraqis who had fled the country was virtually impossible. FRONTLINE did its best to vet the interviews with American officials and hired our own translators. In the broadcast we noted that these two defectors had come to us through the INC, a group whose bias we identified. We quoted an American official who cast doubt on the defectors’ claims: "It is unlikely the training on the 707 is linked to the hijackings of September 11." We also interviewed the Iraqi Ambassador to the U.N., who told us: "I know the area, this Salman Pak. . . . It is not possible to do such a program there, because there's no place for planes, for airplanes there."

Beyond these caveats, the program included such figures as Brent Scowcroft and Michael Sheehan who were cautious about much of the evidence against Saddam, specifically claims of a link between Iraq and the 9/11 hijackers. More importantly—and omitted from Fairweather’s article—is a 2003 FRONTLINE report in which we caught up with the INC leader Ahmed Chalabi and questioned him extensively on the false information that he and his organization had provided to FRONTLINE and others. Chalabi's answer then—"We're in Baghdad now"—was much the same as he gave to Fairweather two years later when he told him that the misinformation didn't matter.

Clearly, what was said in print and over the airwaves before the war does matter. The Salman Pak story is a cautionary tale for all of us who are committed to tough investigative reporting. But, as Fairweather notes, this was “only a small segment” of the FRONTLINE story that aired in November 2001. “Gunning for Saddam” was one of the first broadcast reports to give the American people an early look at the forces pushing for war against Iraq. Airing less than two months after 9/11, while attention was focused on Al Qaeda and Afghanistan, this FRONTLINE correctly anticipated what was coming next. And, for this, perhaps we deserve some credit.

Louis Wiley, Jr.
Executive Editor
FRONTLINE