It was all-too-familiar for those who recall the run-up to the Iraq war when scary front-page New York Times stories would be cited by Dick Cheney as proof that we needed to oust Saddam Hussein ASAP. The reminder: A May 21 piece by Elisabeth Bumiller revealing that a not-yet-released Pentagon report declared that 1 in 7 prisoners released from Gitmo had returned to waging "jihad." Today, the Times, finally issued a weighty Editors' Note correcting some of the article's key assertions, long after bloggers and others (myself included) had attacked it.
No, it's not as terrible as missing the WMD story, but serious in any case.
UPDATE: The paper's public editor, Clark Hoyt, hits the handling of the story on Sunday, here.
First, the Times correction:
A front-page article and headline on May 21 reported findings from an unreleased Pentagon report about prisoners who have been transferred abroad from the American detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The article said that the Pentagon had found about one in seven of former Guantánamo prisoners had "returned to terrorism or other militant activity," or as the headline put it, had "rejoined jihad."
Those phrases accepted a premise of the report that all the former prisoners had been engaged in terrorism before their detention. Because that premise remains unproved, the day the article appeared in the newspaper, editors changed the headline and the first paragraph on the Times Web site to refer to prisoners the report said had engaged in terrorism or militant activity since their release.
The article and headline also conflated two categories of former prisoners. In the Pentagon report, 27 former Guantánamo prisoners were described as having been confirmed as engaging in terrorism, with another 47 suspected of doing so without substantiation. The article should have distinguished between the two categories, to say that about one in 20 of former Guantánamo prisoners described in the Pentagon report were now said to be engaging in terrorism. (The larger share -- about one in seven --applies to the total number described in the report as confirmed or suspected of engaging in terrorism.)
Now here's what Cheney said the day after the story was published at the American Enterprise Institute. As with the Iraq run-up stories, he took the Times' questionable facts and exaggerated them:
Keep in mind that these are hardened terrorists picked up overseas since 9/11. The ones that were considered low-risk were released a long time ago. And among these, we learned yesterday, many were treated too leniently, because 1 in 7 cut a straight path back to their prior line of work and have conducted murderous attacks in the Middle East. I think the President will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come...
As often the case, it was McClatchy's Washington bureau, which four days later (after bloggers and others on the Web spoke) started to lead the mainstream truth-squading. Even the correction today does not fess up to other weaknesses in the story. But again, the original article, as the Times admitted today, was botched from the start -- with its original headline.
And it was no small matter. Right in its second paragraph it had declared: "The conclusion could strengthen the arguments of critics who have warned against the transfer or release of any more detainees as part of President Obama's plan to shut down the prison by January."
Greg Mitchell is editor of Editor & Publsiher. His latest book is "Why Obama Won."