Saddam Hussein verdict postponed until two days before U.S. election: Will the media turn a skeptical eye?

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

While it cannot definitively be said that the reason the senior Iraqi court in charge of Saddam Hussein's trial postponed its verdict in the case until two days before the November elections so that it would influence the midterms, the postponement suggests several obvious questions, including, most importantly: Given the Bush administration's history of timing national security-related actions to the political calendar, has the date for the verdict's release been set to provide maximum political benefit for the administration and congressional Republicans?

On October 3, the Associated Press reported that the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal (SICT), the judicial body carrying out the trial of Saddam Hussein, had "postponed the verdict in the former leader's first trial" beyond October 16 -- the date it was originally expected. At that time, according to the AP, the verdict was postponed because judges were "considering the possibility of recalling some witnesses," and a court spokesman "said he could not say when the verdict would be issued."

On October 16, the AP reported: "A verdict against Saddam Hussein and seven co-defendants charged with crimes against humanity in connection with an anti-Shiite crackdown in the 1980s will be announced Nov. 5, a senior court official said Monday. Sentences for those found guilty will be issued the same day," he said. An October 16 New York Times article noted: "Other court officials have said in recent days that a major reason for the delay is that after nine months of hearings, the five judges in the case have failed to reach agreement on a sentence for Mr. Hussein and appeared to be undecided between a death sentence for him or a penalty of life imprisonment."

In an October 17 entry on The Nation's weblog, The Notion, Nation Institute fellow Tom Engelhardt noted that the media, in reporting on the postponement, failed to mention that it had been postponed until two days before the midterm elections, writing, "It's the sort of thing that -- you would think -- that any reporter with knowledge of the US election cycle (no less of how [White House senior adviser] Karl Rove has worked these last years) would at least note in an article." While it cannot definitively be said that the verdict was, in fact, postponed so that it would influence the November elections, the postponement suggests several obvious questions, which the media have yet to raise: Are there still witnesses that the judges need to recall? If so, and if there is no verdict yet, how can there be a date certain for the verdict? How did the Iraqi court arrive at the November 5 date? Did Iraqi officials consult with U.S. officials in arriving at that date? More importantly, given the heavy influence of the United States on the court and given the administration's history -- evidenced below -- of timing national security-related actions to the political calendar, was the verdict's date set to provide maximum political benefit for the Bush administration and congressional Republicans?

American officials have heavy influence on the court

According to the Library of Congress, the SICT was established on October 9, 2005, by the Iraqi interim government for the sole purpose of trying Saddam and members of his regime for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The SICT was preceded by the Iraqi Special Tribunal, which was established in December 2003 by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Though the SICT is a creation of the Iraqi government, it is heavily influenced -- legally and financially -- by the U.S. government. An October 16, 2005, Human Rights Watch report found that the U.S. Embassy's Regime Crimes Liaison Office "played the lead role in many aspects of the operations of the SICT, including: the building of the courtroom, the conduct of exhumations, interviews with 'High Value Detainees', review of seized documents and preparation of an evidence database, and training of SICT staff."

The Washington Post reported on January 25:

The United States has made the prosecution of Hussein -- accused of presiding over the killings of hundreds of thousands of Shiites and Kurds -- one of its priorities since U.S. troops invaded Iraq in 2003. The Bush administration spent hundreds of millions of dollars of a $18.4 billion reconstruction package for Iraq to exhume mass graves and gather forensic evidence. It refurbished courthouses, trained Iraqi judges and provided most of the security for the courts. Americans drafted many of the statutes under which Hussein and his associates are being tried.

Though the United States is a strong opponent of the International Criminal Court, the administration's critics say it should have ensured adequate credibility and help for the Iraqi tribunal by making it international or, at a minimum, moving the trial out of Baghdad.

International qualms about the legality of the proceeding, and about the death sentence that Hussein could face if convicted, have left the United States virtually alone in shepherding his prosecution by the Iraqi government. A U.S. official in Baghdad confirmed last weekend that only the United States and Britain had contributed experts to advise the court on how to prosecute governments for war crimes and other such matters.

The official did not say how many British advisers were taking part; Britain, like other countries, has expressed reluctance to help in the case because it is a capital one.

The U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Regime Crimes Liaison Office run much of the day-to-day arrangements for the trial. Plainclothes security workers, many of them Americans, and Iraqi soldiers guard the turreted, fortress-like former Baath Party headquarters in the American-held Green Zone where the trial is playing out.

The New York Times reported on May 21 that "American influence" on the SICT "has been undeniably pervasive, with about 90 percent of the $145 million in annual costs for the court and associated investigations paid for by the United States Justice Department, and lawyers sent by Washington acting as advisers."

The Bush administration has a history of manipulating the timing of Iraq/terrorism announcements for political reasons

There have been several documented and reported instances of the Bush administration manipulating the timing of announcements or actions in the Iraq war and the fight against terrorism for their own political benefit.

  • As Media Matters for America noted, on the October 24 broadcast of the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, CBS News White House correspondent Jim Axelrod reported that a White House official told him, "[D]o not expect to see anything significant prior to Election Day" "as far as a significant change" in the Bush administration's Iraq policy and then quoted the official as saying: "You're not going to see anything before November 8th. It would be political suicide, and Karl Rove would never allow it."
  • On September 6, Bush announced that 14 terror detainees had been transferred from secret CIA-run prisons to the Pentagon's detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. As Media Matters noted, in an article for the September 18 edition of Newsweek, investigative correspondents Mark Hosenball and Michael Isikoff quoted an anonymous senior Bush aide acknowledging that Bush's announcement was timed in such a way that the administration might frame the debate over the fight against terrorism in the days before the September 11, 2001, anniversary:

The timing of last week's announcement, just before the fifth anniversary of 9/11, was no accident. It allowed the White House to showcase its successes in capturing terrorists, and to put pressure on Congress to quickly approve the tribunals. "There were obviously messaging opportunities," says a senior Bush aide. "We could sit back and let the war be defined by the media and our critics, or we can define it ourselves."

Also, in his article for the September 10 edition of Time, White House correspondent Mike Allen reported that after Bush's announcement, the White House and Republican Party leaders almost immediately contacted conservatives in the media, urging them to promote Bush's speech "in the context of the election."

  • As Media Matters noted, the media were almost totally silent regarding an October 11, 2004, Los Angeles Times report that the Bush administration planned to delay major assaults on insurgent strongholds in Iraq until after the 2004 U.S. presidential election, fearing large numbers of U.S. military casualties. At the time, TV news broadcasts did not mention the Times article prior to the election; however, on November 8, 2004, the top story on each of the major TV networks' morning shows was the U.S.-led forces' assault on Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah.
  • In 2005, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said that there were times during his tenure when the administration pressured the Department of Homeland Security into raising the terror threat level, even though there was little evidence warranting such a move, as Media Matters has noted. A May 10, 2005, USA Today article quoted Ridge from a forum he participated in that day in Washington, D.C.:

The Bush administration periodically put the USA on high alert for terrorist attacks even though then-Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge argued there was only flimsy evidence to justify raising the threat level, Ridge now says.

Ridge, who resigned Feb. 1, said Tuesday that he often disagreed with administration officials who wanted to elevate the threat level to orange, or "high" risk of terrorist attack, but was overruled.

[...]

Ridge said he wanted to "debunk the myth" that his agency was responsible for repeatedly raising the alert under a color-coded system he unveiled in 2002.

"More often than not we were the least inclined to raise it," Ridge told reporters. "Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment. Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on (alert). ... There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, 'For that?' "

According to a May 12, 2005, article in the Chicago Tribune, the White House immediately "dismissed" Ridge's allegations:

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Wednesday that threat-level decisions are based on recommendations from a high-level council that gathers information about potential terrorism. When Ridge was in office, he was on the council with other key administration officials.

McClellan dismissed the notion that the White House pressured the council into higher levels of security.

"No one suggested that," he said.

However, others raised the issue. On the October 12, 2005, edition of MSNBC's Countdown, host Keith Olbermann documented 13 "coincidences" -- instances characterized by "a political downturn for the administration, followed by a 'terror event' -- a change in alert status, an arrest, a warning." One such "coincidence" occurred on August 1, 2004, shortly after the Democratic National Convention had concluded. That day, the DHS raised the alert level for financial institutions in New York and Washington, citing "unusually specific" intelligence. But less than a week later, it came to light that the information that led to the warning was actually "three or four years old," according to an August 3, 2004, New York Times article.

  • An article in the July 19, 2004, issue of The New Republic -- posted July 8 on the magazine's website -- quoted two sources from Pakistan's intelligence service and another from its Interior Ministry saying that the Bush administration was pressuring Pakistani officials to make arrests of so-called "high-value targets" during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. On July 29, 2004, mere hours before Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) accepted the Democratic presidential nomination, Pakistani officials announced that they had captured Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, an Al Qaeda suspect in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Soon after, it came to light that the Pakistani government had actually arrested Ghailani four days earlier -- before the convention began -- but had delayed announcing the news until July 29.
  • The Bush administration acknowledged that it timed the launch of its campaign to build public support for invading Iraq to coincide with the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks and the 2002 midterm elections. The New York Times reported (subscription required) on September 7, 2002:

White House officials said today that the administration was following a meticulously planned strategy to persuade the public, the Congress and the allies of the need to confront the threat from Saddam Hussein.

The rollout of the strategy this week, they said, was planned long before President Bush's vacation in Texas last month. It was not hastily concocted, they insisted, after some prominent Republicans began to raise doubts about moving against Mr. Hussein and administration officials made contradictory statements about the need for weapons inspectors in Iraq.

The White House decided, they said, that even with the appearance of disarray it was still more advantageous to wait until after Labor Day to kick off their plan.

"From a marketing point of view," said Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff who is coordinating the effort, "you don't introduce new products in August."

Posted In
Elections, National Security & Foreign Policy
Stories/Interests
2006 Elections
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