Did you ever talk to Bergman about it later?
No. I didn't have an option to say no.
You're part of an army.
But you had a history of questioning authority at the Times. Why not on this occasion? Did you get infected a bit by the post 9/11 madness?
I covered Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war. I reported on the destruction and dismantling by the U.N. inspection teams of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons stockpiles. I knew Iraq's nuclear weapons facilities had been destroyed by U.S. air strikes in the 1991 war. I knew that the Iraqi military machine, starved of funds and spare parts, was falling apart. But I also knew that Saddam Hussein had harbored various terrorists over the years including Abu Nidal. He had ties with Hamas. And he had held a series of meetings with Al Qaeda after his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War.
In 1992, when I was covering the Middle East, the Sudanese leader Hasan al-Turabi set up a meeting between the Iraqi intelligence and Osama bin Laden, who was living in Khartoum. Bin Laden requested the Iraqis provide weapons and training camps in Iraq. Ayman al- Zawahiri, at the time the ideological leader of Al Qaeda, traveled to Iraq that same year for a meeting with Saddam Hussein. He was there again in 1999 to attend the Ninth Islamic People's Congress. He may have made other trips to Iraq. Iraqi intelligence, it appears from documents found after the 2003 invasion of Iraq in the archives of the Iraqi secret service, worked with Zawahiri and Al Qaeda to create the Kurdish Islamic militant group Ansar al-Islam, which was modeled on Hezbollah. Zawahiri, the current head of Al Qaeda, led the Al Qaeda insurgency against American forces inside Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
I did not see the invasion as justified. I believed the Bush administration was lying about weapons of mass destruction. But it was not beyond belief that Saddam was attempting to stoke terrorism against pro-western regimes in the Middle East and the United States by training and funding Islamic radicals, including Al Qaeda.
The two stories I published out of Beirut about Iraq's supposed training of Islamic terrorists at an Iraqi military training center called Salman Pak, along with the alleged continued imprisonment in Iraq of about 80 Kuwaitis taken hostage during the first Gulf war, were, however, untrue. I went to Beirut with a healthy distrust of Saddam Hussein and, in retrospect, too much trust in the abilities of Lowell Bergman. I had asked U.S. Embassy officials in Ankara if the self-described defector was legitimate and was assured he was. But I should have done a more thorough vetting before I agreed to publish. I did not. This was my failure.
Of course when Bush finally invades Iraq in April 2003, you are a vocal critic of the war. When do you deliver the infamous speech about the Iraq War at the college commencement ceremony?
Spring of 2003.
And you're still on staff at the Times, based in New York?
And you're invited by this liberal arts college in Illinois, Rockford College, to deliver the graduation speech. Did you have any connection to the school?
No. I knew that [social reformer] Jane Addams had graduated from there. The new president -- who had written his doctoral dissertation on Addams -- wanted to get somebody in the activist spirit of Jane Addams. I had breakfast with him at the college and said, "I'm going to be pretty harsh on the war" and he said, "Oh, not a problem."
This was at a time when people like the Dixie Chicks were being banned from radio and Bill Maher was being fired from ABC for their critical comments about Bush and the war. And you step right into this fire and give a very powerful anti-war speech. And what was the reaction from the crowd that day?
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