What a Document Looks like
Jonathan Schanzer, writing in the Weekly Standard, notes that I had asked Bill Safire for even a single “document” that shows that Saddam Hussein’s government cooperated with al-Qaeda before September 11. He suggests that we might substitute for such a document his interview with Abdul Rahman al-Shamari, who he says served in Saddam’s secret police, the Mukhabarat, from 1997 to 2002, and who is now “in a Kurdish jail.”
No, Jonathan. That isn’t a document. That is a single-sourced account from a prisoner (assuming he exists and assuming he actually was mukhabarat) who wants to get out of jail and has every reason to tell people what they want to hear. Or for all I know the Kurds have paid or coerced him to say these things, since they want US help against their Islamists.
A document has the following characteristics. It originates close to the time of the event it describes. Typically it is written on paper with ink. It has all the hallmarks of authenticity. So, for instance, a memo from an Iraqi intelligence officer dated January 5, 2000, discussing cooperation with al-Qaeda, written down in black ink and by an officer we actually know was really serving at that time, on paper of the sort used by the Baath government, with all the bureaucratic form of a Baath document–that would be a document. Since the US now has thousands of documents from the Iraqi secret police, if such a document existed we would not be speculating about it–it would have been splashed on the front pages of all the newspapers of the world. It likely does not exist.
Single-source allegations by shadowy Iraqi ex-officers were among the fallacies that pulled us into the war to begin with. And, no, the way to confirm al-Shamari’s story is not to find yet another stooge who has been coerced or paid to say the same things. It is to provide the sort of evidence that would stand up in court. I’m a historian. I go by evidence. If I’m wrong, and the evidence surfaces to prove it, I will gladly change my views. Al-Shamari, about whom we know nothing, is useless for that purpose.
In good journalism, by the way, you don’t go to print with a single uncorroborated source.
Mr. Schanzer does himself no favors with regard to credibility by associating himself with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which was a major source of disinformation about Iraq before the war, and which should by all rights have lost all credibility by now.