Glenn Greenwald has set the blogosphere aflame by pointing out that ABC News reported – incorrectly – that samples taken from the anthrax attacks contained bentonite, a substance that Saddam Hussein’s regime reportedly used in preparing its own anthrax.

The supposed Iraq-anthrax connection was never a big part of the public case made for going to war. But it was out there. As John Judis notes with a disquieting anecdote, rumors were circulating in CIA circles linking Iraq and the anthrax attacks, indicating some kind of sub-rosa effort to push the connection as the war machinery geared up.

Greenwald’s key point, though, is that this may be another incident in which the media were used by government officials to disseminate false information: perhaps by shadowy networks of pro-war political operatives, perhaps by the anthrax perpetrator (the suspect was a government employee) – perhaps both! – and all part of the media’s massive failure to exercise skepticism leading up to the war:

Source confidentiality is premised on a model of journalism where the media is adversarial to the Government, and safeguarding the anonymity of sources is the only way to find out what the Government is doing. But these days, so frequently, the media serves as an arm of the Government — the Government uses the establishment media to disseminate propaganda and outright lies to the public (Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman, Saddam’s aluminum tubes) or even uses leaks to the media to commit crimes (as it did in the Plame case). When the journalists who are used to spread these lies or commit these crimes then conceal who it is who has done such things, they are complicit in the Government wrongdoing, key enablers of it.

ABC News needs to clarify this ASAP. Big media and the government are already in a kind credibility death spiral. This doesn’t help.

The answer may be innocent. In the frenzied post-9/11 atmosphere, there was a lot of specious information floating around. How many times did “white powder” appear somewhere, and “initial tests” indicate it contained anthrax? There are also lots of non-political agendas operating in the network news scoop marketplace – investigators pushing pet theories, sources trying to endear themselves to ABC reporters, etc.

But: there were probably also some government types talking to ABC who really, really wanted Iraq tied to the anthrax attacks. One of ABC’s unnamed sources came right out and said the bentonite info was based on an “opinionated analysis.” WTF is that? That’s why it’s imperative for ABC to tell us what happened here.

Update: I agree with Dan Kennedy that ABC should not reveal its sources lightly, if at all: “…there’s a possibility that ABC can give a reasonably full accounting without naming its confidential sources. Despite the evidence Greenwald has amassed, there’s a chance that ABC’s sources were acting in good faith. If that’s the case, then they shouldn’t be outed.”

But nor should the network use confidentiality as an excuse for saying nothing at all.

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