To the Editor:
The Observer has written several articles that refer to events in The New York Times’ Baghdad bureau in late 2003, when I was the bureau chief. Each time you retell the story in your pages, it drifts further from the truth.
Last week, when Michael Calderone wrote about the latest changing of the guard in the Baghdad bureau, he inaccurately portrayed what happened there during my tenure.
He wrote that in late 2003, “Bill Keller sent then-foreign editor Roger Cohen to Baghdad to intervene in disputes between bureau chief Susan Sachs and reporters [Dexter] Filkins and [John] Burns.”
In fact, I had no “disputes” with Burns because I barely knew him and had almost no contact with him while I was bureau chief. Burns was in Iraq in November 2003, and only for two weeks, on a specific feature assignment (or so I was told). It was his first visit to Iraq in six months and we spoke perhaps twice.
As for Cohen, he came to Baghdad in December with the mission of telling me the surprise news that Burns had decided he would move to Baghdad. (A few months earlier, Burns had refused the paper’s offer to run the bureau. The Times then offered the job to me, a veteran Middle East correspondent, and I took up the posting in September.)
Although Cohen stayed four days in Iraq, he waited until the night before he left to tell me the news that Burns had changed his mind and, from then on, would be the senior correspondent in Iraq.
Perhaps Cohen’s clumsy handling of this matter contributed to his abrupt dismissal as foreign editor just two days after he returned from Iraq to New York, something your paper never mentions.
As for me, once I learned of Burns’ decision to base himself in Baghdad, I went to New York to talk to Keller and managing editor Jill Abramson. When they asked me if I wanted to stay in the bureau, I said that I did—so long as Burns treated me with respect and did not undermine me in my work. Keller responded that he could not assure me that Burns would do so.
Given that response, it wasn’t hard to decide what to do. However, with the full support of Keller and Abramson, I did go back to Iraq once again, in early 2004, to report on corruption in the oil-for-food program (see The Times’ issue for Feb. 29, 2004). In March, I was named The Times’ Istanbul correspondent.
Thank you for taking note of these facts.