Once again, CNN ignores questions about timing of terror-arrest announcement

››› ››› SIMON MALOY & JULIE MILLICAN

During the July 18 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer did not question Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, chief spokesman of the Multi-National Forces in Iraq, about the timing of the military's announcement regarding the arrest of Khalid Abdul Fatah Daoud Mahmud al-Mashadani, which came two weeks after the arrest occurred. Al-Mashadani was allegedly the "highest-ranking Iraqi in Al Qaeda in Iraq," according to Blitzer, and allegedly the conduit between Al Qaeda in Iraq and Osama bin Laden's group, Al Qaeda. Nor did Blitzer note that the announcement of the two-week-old arrest followed by one day the release of a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that concludes that Al Qaeda "will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI)" and that Al Qaeda "has protected or regenerated key elements of its [U.S.] Homeland attack capability," judgments that the Bush administration is touting as evidence of the need for U.S. forces to remain in Iraq.

Indeed, a Media Matters for America review of July 18 reporting on CNN found that none of the network's anchors or reporters questioned the timing of the announcement, and no one other than CNN Your World Today anchor Jim Clancy even noted that the Bush administration has an interest in hyping a link between Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda or reported that such claims are being challenged.

CNN's failure to highlight questions about why the Bush administration waited two weeks to announce the arrest and why the administration chose that specific time for the announcement recalls CNN's coverage of an event during the 2004 Democratic National Convention (DNC). As Media Matters documented, three weeks before the DNC, CNN reported on a July 8, 2004, New Republic article that 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 DNC. Then on July 29, 2004 -- the final day of the Democratic convention -- Pakistan announced that four days earlier, it had arrested Ahmed Khalfan Ghailini, an Al Qaeda suspect in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. However, CNN reported the story without mentioning the New Republic article predicting this exact occurrence, even though the network had reported on it just weeks earlier.

According to the military, al-Mashadani was captured July 4, 2007, though the official announcement of the arrest was made two weeks later, and one day after the July 17 release of the new NIE titled "The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland." A CNN.com article noted that the announcement came "amid controversy over President Bush's contention that al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq are one and the same," and it cited an anonymous "U.S. counterterrorism official" in reporting that "the announcement of his arrest was delayed because officials wanted to 'maximize their ability to get information' from him before others he was associated with knew about his detention." The announcement also came during an overnight Senate debate on Sens. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Carl Levin's (D-MI) amendment to the 2008 defense appropriations bill that would begin troop withdrawals from Iraq within the next 120 days. Forty-six Republicans and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-CT) subsequently voted to filibuster the amendment. Additionally, the announcement came less than one week after the release of the administration's Initial Benchmark Assessment Report, which found that the Iraqi government had not made satisfactory progress on 10 of the 18 benchmarks laid out for it. Despite this, Blitzer did not question Bergner about the timing of the military's announcement of al-Mashadani's arrest.

In his interview with Bergner, Blitzer focused mainly on questioning the extent to which al-Mashadani was affiliated with bin Laden. While Blitzer noted that the arrest had occurred "two weeks ago," he did not ask Bergner about the military's decision to announce the arrest at a time in which there has been increasing "controversy over President Bush's contention that Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in Iraq are one and the same," as CNN.com reported.

From the 5 p.m. ET hour of the July 18 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: The U.S. military has captured a top leader of the group that claims responsibility for attacks like this one on the Iraqi parliament building back in April. Khalid al-Mashadani is thought to have been the highest ranking Iraqi in Al Qaeda in Iraq.

The U.S. military says he was seized two weeks ago and has been providing what they describe as valuable information about the group's inner workings. Among his other duties, he claims to have relayed messages between Al Qaeda in Iraq and its leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

And joining us now in Baghdad, Brigadier General Kevin Bergner, chief spokesman, Multi-National Forces in Iraq. General Bergner, you suggested earlier that Khalid al-Mashadani, the man you captured, was a major conduit between Al Qaeda in Iraq and Osama bin Laden.

How do you know that?

BERGNER: Well, Wolf in his own words, Khalid al-Mashadani has -- explained the role that he had, which included being the media emir for Al Qaeda in Iraq, the senior Iraqi in the leadership circle surrounding --

BLITZER: What kind of contacts did he have with Osama bin Laden? Did he have specific contacts with the Al Qaeda leader? How did that work?

BERGNER: Well, Wolf, he says that he was the conduit for information coming from the senior leadership, including [bin Laden lieutenant Ayman al-]Zawahiri and, obviously, Osama bin Laden to the Al Qaeda in Iraq network.

We're still developing the intelligence that will come from that, as well.

And so what we can share with you this evening is the acknowledgement that that was a role that he had and that it was an important channel that was used for Al Qaeda in Iraq.

BLITZER: Is he cooperating in these interrogations? Is he telling you what you want to know?

BERGNER: Wolf, we're learning a great deal about the nature and the circumstance of Al Qaeda in Iraq from Mashadani. One of the things that he has specifically shared with us was how he and al-Masri created this pseudonym called Islamic State of Iraq in order to cloak Al Qaeda in Iraq as more of an Iraqi-led entity and to cloak the foreign nature of the leadership of AQI.

The other thing that he shared with us is this -- is the idea that this Omar al-Baghdadi, the political leader, so to speak, of the Islamic State of Iraq, is really something else that they created to give someone an Iraqi name. And, actually, this person is a -- is just a pseudonym for al-Masri. He has someone speak in a different voice, but it -- all of the messaging and all of the information that you hear from this Omar al-Baghdadi is actually -- according to Mashadani, it's coming from al-Masri.

BLITZER: Is it fair to say, General, that when you capture or kill one of these guys, somebody else springs up almost immediately thereafter?

In other words, you can whack one guy right now, but there's another one waiting in the wings, or maybe two or three?

BERGNER: Well, their ability to regenerate is -- it is a fact. They do find somebody else to step up periodically.

But what you have seen in this case -- and what you've seen him talk to us about is the effect that this is having on the network. The increasing pressure that our coalition forces are putting on in our focused operations against Al Qaeda are creating disunity. They're creating disagreements. They're creating distrust between the leaders.

In fact, Mashadani told us that he left Baghdad and went to Mosul because of the pressure being put on the network there. And, as you know, only to be captured by the coalition forces in Mosul.

BLITZER: General Bergner, thanks very much for joining us.

According to a review of CNN's July 18 programming, in most cases, CNN's anchors and reporters noted the date on which al-Mashadani was captured, but none raised questions about the timing of the announcement.

On the July 18 edition of CNN Newsroom, Baghdad correspondent Frederik Pleitgen reported that al-Mashadani "was captured on July 4th in the town of Mosul," but the remainder of his report was devoted largely to airing or reporting statements from military spokesmen.

From the 9 a.m. ET hour of the July 18 edition of CNN Newsroom:

HEIDI COLLINS (anchor): A senior Al Qaeda in Iraq leader in custody. That announcement from the U.S. military this morning. The suspect described as a link between the top leaders of Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in Iraq.

CNN's Frederik Pleitgen is joining us live from Baghdad. Frederik, what else do we know about this individual?

PLEITGEN: You're absolutely right, Heidi, Khalid al-Mashadani is supposed to be, U.S. forces say, the most senior Iraqi inside Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Now, apparently this man was captured on July 4th in the town of Mosul, which is north of Iraq [sic]. And the U.S. forces say he is talking to them, and apparently he's saying some very interesting things, saying that there are very strong ties between Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda outside of Iraq. That's, of course, bin Laden's organization. They're saying that Al Qaeda outside of Iraq is providing strategic leadership, is providing message control, and is also controlling the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.

Now, here's what the U.S. forces had to say about that.

BERGNER [audio clip]: He served as the Al Qaeda media emir for Baghdad and then was appointed the media emir for all of Iraq. And served as an intermediary between AQI leader al-Masri, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

PLEITGEN: Now, another very interesting thing that he is supposed to have said is that Al Qaeda in Iraq is very much an organization that is led almost completely by foreign fighters, by Egyptians and also by Saudis. And one of the things, apparently, that Al Qaeda in Iraq is doing to sort of cover it up, to sort of make it seem more like it is an Iraqi organization, is it created a fictitious figure, a man by the name of Omar al-Baghdadi. And this person simply doesn't exist. They apparently even hired an actor to make it look like this organization is more Iraqi than it actually is, Heidi.

COLLINS: Frederik, any idea -- are the commanders saying anything about how this will change the structure, by getting someone so high up the chain as this man?

PLEITGEN: Well, certainly it does disrupt Al Qaeda leadership here in Iraq. Apparently, this man was very, very close to the senior Al Qaeda leaders, to leaders like Abu al-Masri, who is, of course, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. So this is a very heavy blow to them.

Now, in the past, we have seen that Al Qaeda, when some of their leaders have been killed or captured, have been able to fill those gaps fairly quickly. But right now -- and this is also something that U.S. forces to have to say -- apparently the increased troop presence of U.S. troops in Baghdad and their increased operations has Al Qaeda somewhat on the run, has them somewhat off balance. And apparently this man who is detained now said that he had to flee Baghdad because U.S. troops are conducting those operations, had to flee to Mosul, where then he was captured.

So it does appear that U.S. forces are disrupting Al Qaeda leadership in this country, at least somewhat, Heidi.

COLLINS: All right.

Similarly, Pleitgen reported during the July 18 edition of CNN's American Morning that a "very interesting arrest ... took place on July 4th. This man was arrested in Mosul, and apparently he's a direct go-between Al Qaeda in Iraq and senior Al Qaeda leadership outside of Iraq." Pleitgen reported on al-Mashadani's alleged "contacts to Osama bin Laden" and stated that "one of the really interesting points" of al-Mashadani's arrest is that "he appears to be saying is that Al Qaeda in Iraq is an organization that is ... guided and headed almost completely by people who are from outside of Iraq, who are foreigners." Pleitgen also reported that "al-Mashadani seems to be saying that one of the reasons he was captured in Mosul is that a lot of the senior Al Qaeda in Iraq leadership appears to be fleeing from Baghdad, moving out of Baghdad, because of the increased operations by American forces in that area, due to the troop increase that's been taking place the past couple of months." Later on American Morning, presidential homeland-security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend cited al-Mashadani's arrest as "confirm[ing] the direct links between" Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in Iraq.

On CNN's Your World Today, anchor Jim Clancy did not note the administration's delay in announcing the capture of al-Mashadani, but he did report that "fewer than 1 percent of all fighters captured or out there in the field are actually foreign in Iraq" and that "in recent weeks, U.S. officials have been pressed to explain the link between Al Qaeda in Iraq and the global network that was led -- is led by Osama bin Laden."

From the July 18 edition of CNN's Your World Today:

CLANCY: A potentially important announcement coming out of Iraq. The U.S. military is saying an Al Qaeda in Iraq leader now in its custody is revealing some interesting information about that group.

The military says Khalid al-Mashadani says -- tells them that his group was little more than a front for foreign insurgents intent on putting an Iraqi face on the fight against the United States.

BERGNER [audio/video clips]: Mashadani was a leader in the Ansar al-Sunna terrorist group before joining Al Qaeda in Iraq two and a half years ago. He served as the Al Qaeda media emir for Baghdad and then was appointed the media emir for all of Iraq and served as an intermediary between AQI leader al-Masri, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri. In fact, communication between senior Al Qaeda leadership and al-Masri frequently went through Mashadani.

CLANCY: All right. Now, it's important to realize that fewer than 1 percent of all the fighters captured or out there in the field are actually foreign in Iraq. Most of the opposition to the U.S. there coming from Iraqis themselves. But in recent weeks, U.S. officials have been pressed to explain the link between Al Qaeda in Iraq and the global network that was led -- is led by Osama bin Laden.

Several other CNN reports throughout the day also focused heavily on the military's claims that al-Mashadani served as a liaison between Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in Iraq. For instance:

  • Anchor Rob Marciano also highlighted the military's claims that al-Mashadani was "allegedly an ambassador to the world's top terrorists" during CNN Newsroom, and he noted that the "U.S. military says al-Mashadani acted as a link between Iraq and the main Al Qaeda network, going all the way to the top ranks."
  • During Lou Dobbs Tonight, host Lou Dobbs stated that the "U.S. military tonight is claiming a significant victory in the battle against Al Qaeda in Iraq," and CNN correspondent Michael Ware reported that "Mashadani, according to the U.S. military, was a former media chief for the Al Qaeda organization and later became a key conduit between the old-school Al Qaeda of Osama bin Laden, hiding out in Waziristan on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and its fighters here in Iraq." Ware also reported that while "this was a spectacular catch," "in the broader course of the war," the arrest will have "very little" "impact." Ware added that "in the two weeks since Mashadani's arrest, Al Qaeda attacks have continued unabated."
  • On Anderson Cooper 360, CNN Headline News anchor Erica Hill twice reported on the "big bust in Mosul," in which "[t]he U.S. military ... arrested a senior leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq." Hill reported that the military claimed al-Mashadani "served as a point person between its leadership and Osama bin Laden's top leaders" and that he is now "dishing out information on the workings of both group." But Hill did not report that the arrest had taken place two weeks earlier.

From the July 18 edition of CNN's American Morning:

KIRAN CHETRY (co-host): I'm Kiran Chetry. Great to see you this morning.

New today, U.S. forces announcing a major arrest. They say they've arrested the most senior Iraqi member of Al Qaeda in Iraq. CNN's Frederik Pleitgen is in Baghdad for us this morning.

This was an arrest took place, I guess, a week or so ago, and they just announced it today. What do we know about the suspect, Khalid al-Mashadani?

PLEITGEN: You're absolutely right, Kiran. A very interesting arrest that took place on July 4th. This man was arrested in Mosul, and apparently he's a direct go-between Al Qaeda in Iraq and senior Al Qaeda leadership outside of Iraq. And the American spokesperson for multinational forces here in Iraq specifically mentioned contacts to Osama bin Laden. Here's what he had to say.

BERGNER [audio/video clip]: He served as the Al Qaeda media emir for Baghdad, and then was appointed the media emir for all of Iraq. And served as an intermediary between AQI leader al-Masri, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri. In fact, communication between senior Al Qaeda leadership and al-Masri frequently went through Mashadani.

PLEITGEN: Now, here's one of the really interesting points, Kiran. Apparently, al-Mashadani is cooperating with multinational forces, and one of the things he appears to be saying is that Al Qaeda in Iraq is an organization that is -- that has guided and headed almost completely by people who are from outside of Iraq, who are foreigners.

He says that one of the people who was propped up to be the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, an Iraqi called Omar al-Baghdadi, was, in fact, an actor, was a fictitious figure to mask the fact that Al Qaeda in Iraq is, in fact, being led by people from outside Iraq by Egypt, by Saudi Arabians, but certainly not by Iraqis.

Now, one of the other very interesting points that was made in that press conference is that al-Mashadani seems to be saying that one of the reasons he was captured in Mosul is that a lot of the senior Al Qaeda in Iraq leadership appears to be fleeing from Baghdad, moving out of Baghdad, because of the increased operations by American forces in that area, due to the troop increase that's been taking place the past couple of months, Kiran.

CHETRY: Right. So, the question remains, if they're driving them out of that area, are they able to catch up with them in some of the other places that they're hiding? In this case, it seems that it did work.

Fred Pleitgen, thanks so much for joining us from Baghdad with an update.

[...]

CHETRY: So has the war in Iraq diverted resources, like the American troops needed, to be able to contain and fight Al Qaeda in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan?

TOWNSEND: Well, there's no question. Iraq's not a diversion. Bin Laden himself has said it's a central front in the war on terror.

And the capture that you're reporting this morning of the senior Al Qaeda -- Iraq Al Qaeda official itself confirms the direct links between them. We know -- the president gave a speech in May and talked about -- we declassified intelligence. He talked about the connections between Al Qaeda's core, those in the tribal areas, and Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Bin Laden had tasked them to plan for external attacks, including the homeland. Bin Laden tried to send Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, who's now in custody in Guantánamo, to Iraq to help them. We know that Al Qaeda in Iraq has had external operations.

From the 1 p.m. ET hour of the July 18 edition of CNN Newsroom:

MARCIANO: Well, he was allegedly an ambassador to the world's top terrorists, but Khalid al-Mashadani's credentials have now been revoked. He's described as a senior leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and today we learned he was captured on 4th of July.

The U.S. military says al-Mashadani acted as a link between Iraq and the main Al Qaeda network, going all the way to the top ranks.

BERGNER [audio/video clip]: He served as the Al Qaeda media emir for Baghdad, and then was appointed the media emir for all of Iraq. And served as an intermediary between AQI leader al-Masri, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri. In fact, communication between senior Al Qaeda leadership and al-Masri frequently went through Mashadani.

MARCIANO: Al-Mashadani was nabbed in the northern Iraq city of Mosul. The U.S. military says he's been giving up information on Al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgents.

From the July 18 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight:

DOBBS: The U.S. military tonight is claiming a significant victory in the battle against Al Qaeda in Iraq. Military commanders say troops captured the most senior Iraqi in Al Qaeda. He is the latest in a series of top Al Qaeda operatives to be captured or killed. But successes so far have done little to end the violence.

Michael Ware has our report from Baghdad -- Michael.

[begin video clip]

WARE: Lou, the U.S. military in Baghdad today just revealed that two weeks ago, on July 4, while most Americans were enjoying Independence Day, the military had a rare success here in Iraq against Al Qaeda.

The military has announced that it captured the second most senior member of that organization. His name is given as Khalid al-Mashadani, and he is said to be the most senior Iraqi in what is a foreign-led organization here fighting U.S. troops and Iraqi government forces.

Mashadani, according to the U.S. military, was a former media chief for the Al Qaeda organization and later became a key conduit between the old-school Al Qaeda of Osama bin Laden, hiding out in Waziristan on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and its fighters here in Iraq.

However, while the military claim that this was a spectacular catch -- and it certainly is significant -- in the broader course of the war, the question is just what impact this arrest will make. The simple answer is that very little.

Numerous numbers two, threes, fours and fives of the Al Qaeda organization have been killed or captured. And in the two weeks since Mashadani's arrest, Al Qaeda's attacks have continued unabated -- Lou.

From the July 18 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360:

HILL: Anderson, a big bust in Mosul, Iraq. The U.S. military saying it has arrested a senior leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. They say he served as a point person between its leadership and Osama bin Laden's top leaders. And during interrogations, they say he is dishing out information on the workings of both groups.

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