Gone in 60 Stories
On December 5 of last year, I wrote a blog post entitled 60 Billion Minutes, where I wrote:
We also know that Jamil Hussein has consistently been a source for at least 60 news stories over two years, and that Jamil Hussein is just one of many apparently fake sources that has driven Associated Press reporting in Iraq.
This presents us with the unsettling possibility that the Associated Press has no idea how much of the news it has reported out of Iraq since the 2003 invasion is in fact real, and how much they reported was propaganda. The failure of accountability here is potentially of epic proportions.
In the weeks since that date, the Associated Press has maintained that the stories they originally reported on November 24-25 of burning mosques and burning men is true, even though almost every single factual claim made in the account has been disputed. The AP maintains this position today, even after the Iraqi Interior Ministry Officially stated that the AP's source, Captain Jamil Hussein, simply didn't exist, and that no one by that name ever worked at the two police stations where AP said he did.
To all of this, Associated Press Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll stated:
Some of AP's critics question the existence of police Capt. Jamil Hussein, who was one (but not the only) source to tell us about the burning.
These critics cite a U.S. military officer and an Iraqi official who first said Hussein is not an authorized spokesman and later said he is not on their list of Interior Ministry employees. It's worth noting that such lists are relatively recent creations of the fledgling Iraqi government.
By contrast, Hussein is well known to AP. We first met him, in uniform, in a police station, some two years ago. We have talked with him a number of times since then and he has been a reliable source of accurate information on a variety of events in Baghdad.
No one - not a single person - raised questions about Hussein's accuracy or his very existence in all that time. Those questions were raised only after he was quoted by name describing a terrible attack in a neighborhood that U.S. and Iraqi forces have struggled to make safe.
That last paragraph printed above has bothered me since I first read it. Executive Editor Carroll, you see, is absolutely correct.
No one raised questions about Hussein's accuracy or his very existence for a span of run of stories starting on April 24 until his late November unmasking as a probable specter; a remarkable run that Curt at Flopping Aces pegged at 61 stories. This run as a named source doesn't begin to account for any stories he may have contributed anonymously as "an Iraqi Police Captain" or "according to Iraqi Police" over his two-year relationship with AP.
And so it was more than a month after Hussein was compromised that I did what the Associated Press editorial process should have been doing the entire time: I began attempting to fact-check the claims made by Jamil Hussein. I took the list of 61 AP stories citing Hussein, opened my web browser to Google.com, and went to work.
In eight hours over three days last week, I tracked down online examples of the first 40 of 61 Associated Press stories citing Jamil Hussein, as replicated in news outlets and even official government press offices around the world. I then took keywords, dates, and phrases from the paragraphs citing Hussein, and attempted to find corroborating accounts from other news organizations.
I am by no means perfectly suited to do the work here that needs to be done. I lack access to LexisNexis, a powerful popular subscription-based searchable archive of periodicals such as newspapers, and I'm not about to pay for their AlaCarte service, where reading this single blog post would cost you $3. Nor do I speak any of the languages of the Middle East in which one might encounter variations of these stories, meaning I am limited to searching English-only content. That said, I did the very best I could with a limited set of skills and tools. The detailed results of my search are here. Knowing what I now know, I don't think that the editorial processes of the Associated Press even put forth that paltry effort.
Put bluntly, a search for other news agency accounts of the events described by Jamil Hussein seems to indicate that most of these events simply do not exist anywhere else except in AP reporting. I was completely unable to find a definitive corroborating account of any of Jamil Hussein's accounts, anywhere.
That I was unable to find corroborating accounts for some stories is quite understandable; even in non-war-torn countries some news organizations have access to some stories denied others, as reporting assets and sources are not evenly distributed. Most of the AP dispatches using Jamil Hussein as a source were simply not that big in the wider and often larger chaos of the bloody sectarian conflict whirling through Baghdad; a gunbattle killing two suicide bombers, or even a non-fatal car-bombing is something that has sadly become far too common in many parts of Iraq, and Baghdad in particular. That other news agencies don't account for every single attack of this kind is not surprising-though it should be somewhat suspect when in 40 straight stories, not a single one of your competitors captured the same event. Not one. At that point, some sort of editorial oversight should have kicked in, should it not?
And yet, in 40 AP stories checked, only in two instances covering a total of four stories did I run into anything approaching possible corroboration.
On May 10, AP reporter Thomas Wagner included in a dispatch the assassination of an Iraqi Defense Ministry Press Office employee:
In Baghdad, suspected insurgents riding in two BMWs assassinated a Defense Ministry press office employee as he drove to work at about 8:15 a.m., police said.
One of the BMWs stopped to block the car of Mohammed Musab Talal al-Amari, a Shiite, said police Capt. Jamil Hussein. Three men got out of the other BMW and opened fire in the residential neighborhood of Bayaa, killing al-Amari and wounding an Iraqi pedestrian, Hussein said.
The Defense Ministry controls Iraq's military.
A truism about people: they become involved in things that they can relate to. Journalists in a combat zone are acutely aware that becoming a casualty is a significant possibility, and so when someone in the business gets injured, people take notice. For example, Nabil al-Dulaimi is hardly a household name in the United States, but when this radio news editor was killed in an ambush near his home by gunmen on December 5, more than a dozen English language news accounts mentioned his death.
While Mohammed Musab Talal al-Amari was a Defense Ministry Press Office employee and as such perhaps not a recognized journalist, wouldn't you think that someone other than Jamil Hussein would mention his passing?
To date, we simply don't know if this account was correct. While AP mentioned al-Amari's assassination three times, no other news agency has covered his murder to the best I have been able to determine. The only thing close to corroboration that I have been able to determine so far is the recollection of a CPATT source that a Ministry of Defense Press Office official did die in May. I will have to probably wait several more weeks to get further information.
Likewise, AP had an apparent exclusive on the murder of Iraqi Police Captain Amir Kamil on Tuesday, June 10.
Elsewhere in the capital, police Captain Amir Kamil, who provided security for the Yarmouk hospital, was shot to death on Tuesday at a bus station, Captain Jamil Hussein said.
According to AP source Jamil Hussein, Kamil provided security for Yarmouk Hospital. Even in bloody Baghdad, the deaths of rank-and-file officers warrants notice by the various news services, so why isn't there any corresponding coverage from other news organizations of the assassination of a police captain? Once again, no other news agency reports this death, and I may have to wait for weeks to get word from Iraqi officials.
Over the course of the first 40 stories in which he provided apparently uncorroborated information, it seems that the Associated Press could have easily questioned how reliable of a source Iraqi Police Captain Jamil Hussein might be before they were backed into the corner of having to defend the apparently fictional captain, the apparently fictional five dozen news accounts he fed them, and the eventual and righteous questioning of their basic journalistic methodologies that allowed something so wrong to run for so long.
And so, as Associated Press Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll noted previously:
No one - not a single person - raised questions about Hussein's accuracy or his very existence in all that time.
This includes the reporters, editors, and officers of an apparently unreliable and unrepentant Associated Press.
Update: We also learned last night from former CNN head honcho Eason Jordan of IraqSlogger that:
In statements, the AP insists Captain Hussein is real, insists he has been known to the AP and others for years, and insists the immolation episode occurred based on multiple eyewitnesses.
But efforts by two governments, several news organizations, and bloggers have failed to produce such evidence or proof that there is a Captain Jamil Hussein. The AP cannot or will not produce him or convincing evidence of his existence.
It is striking that no one has been able to find a family member, friend, or colleague of Captain Hussein. Nor has the AP told us who in the AP's ranks has actually spoken with Captain Hussein. Nor has the AP quoted Captain Hussein once since the story of the disputed episode.
Therefore, in the absence of clear and compelling evidence to corroborate the AP's exclusive story and Captain Hussein's existence, we must conclude for now that the AP's reporting in this case was flawed.
To make matters worse, Captain Jamil Hussein was a key named source in more than 60 AP stories on at least 25 supposed violent incidents over eight months.
Until this controversy is resolved, every one of those AP reports is tainted.
Update: Over at Pajamas Media, Richard Miniter brings some mostly constructive criticism of the assumptions I've made in writing this post. I'm not sure I agree with his conclusions completely, but he is certainly dead-on when it comes to why this matters.
Cross-posted at Confederate Yankee.