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The Associated Press Hits Back At The Military

Yesterday, we detailed criticism by a number of right-wing bloggers of the Associated Press's reporting from Iraq. The criticism focused on a story about Shiites burning six Sunni worshippers alive in Baghdad. CENTCOM issued a press release disputing the legitimacy of the source of the story, police Capt. Jamil Hussein, and asking for a retraction or correction if the organization did not have "a credible source" behind it's reporting.

Now the AP is hitting back. As we noted in an update yesterday, AP International Editor John Daniszewski released a statement arguing that the "attempt to question the existence of the known police officer who spoke to the AP is frankly ludicrous and hints at a certain level of desperation to dispute or suppress the facts of the incident in question." He also promised a "more detailed report about the entire incident soon, with greater detail provided by multiple eye witnesses."

That report came last night. Here's a portion:

Seeking further information about Friday's attack, an AP reporter contacted Hussein for a third time about the incident to confirm there was no error. The captain has been a regular source of police information for two years and had been visited by the AP reporter in his office at the police station on several occasions. The captain, who gave his full name as Jamil Gholaiem Hussein, said six people were indeed set on fire.

On Tuesday, two AP reporters also went back to the Hurriyah neighborhood around the Mustafa mosque and found three witnesses who independently gave accounts of the attack. Others in the neighborhood said they were afraid to talk about what happened.

Those who would talk said the assault began about 2:15 p.m., and they believed the attackers were from the Mahdi Army militia loyal to radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He and the Shiite militia are deeply rooted in and control the Sadr City enclave in northeastern Baghdad where suspected Sunni insurgents attacked with a series of car bombs and mortar shells, killing at least 215 people a day before.

The witnesses refused to allow the use of their names because they feared retribution either from the original attackers or the police, whose ranks are infiltrated by Mahdi Army members or its associated death squads.

Two of the witnesses — a 45-year-old bookshop owner and a 48-year-old neighborhood grocery owner — gave nearly identical accounts of what happened. A third, a physician, said he saw the attack on the mosque from his home, saw it burning and heard people in the streets screaming that people had been set on fire. All three men are Sunni Muslims.

It will be interesting to see if CENTCOM responds to the AP's pushback. In light of the AP's claims, I can think of only two possibilities that might explain the story being inaccurate: One, the AP's (anonymous) sources, who were spoken to separately, concocted a story with Hussein and sold it to the AP reporter, or two, the AP simply made up the entire story, as well as the witnesses. Both possibilities strike me as extremely unlikely, though it is not impossible to imagine that the story was orchestrated in an effort to influence the media. (It's also worth noting that a Sunni elder called Imad al-Hashimi told Al-Arabiya television he saw people soaked in kerosene and set on fire, though he "recanted his account of the attack after being visited by a representative of the defense minister," according to the AP.)

The AP, in the piece, suggests that the "dispute comes at a time when the military is taking a more active role in dealing with the media," and notes that the Lincoln Group recently won a contract to monitor reporting out of Iraq. "That contract succeeded one held by another Washington firm, The Rendon Group," the story continues. "Controversy had arisen around the Lincoln Group in 2005 when it was disclosed that it was part of a U.S. military operation to pay Iraqi newspapers to run positive stories about U.S. military activities." We talked to CBS News Pentagon correspondent David Martin about the Pentagon's new press strategy a few weeks ago – see here for background, and here for Martin's thoughts.

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The message between the lines in all this is that the AP believes the government is going to be more aggressive in challenging the press – even when they don't have the goods to back it up, as the AP believes is the case here. "I have infinitely more faith in the U.S. military than in the Associated Press, but that doesn't mean the military is always right or the AP always wrong," writes Powerline. "It seems that the AP believes it is in a strong position. I'm tempted to say that one institution or the other must emerge from this affair with its credibility damaged." This could be one fight that's just beginning.

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