On April 25, 2003, this newspaper ran a story about documents obtained in Iraq that alleged Saddam Hussein's regime had paid a British member of Parliament, George Galloway, $10 million over 11 years to promote its interests in the West.
An extensive Monitor investigation has subsequently determined that the six papers detailed in the April 25 piece are, in fact, almost certainly forgeries.
The Arabic text of the papers is inconsistent with known examples of Baghdad bureaucratic writing, and is replete with problematic language, says a leading US-based expert on Iraqi government documents. Signature lines and other format elements differ from genuine procedure.
The two "oldest" documents - dated 1992 and 1993 - were actually written within the past few months, according to a chemical analysis of their ink. The newest document - dated 2003 - appears to have been written at approximately the same time.
"At the time we published these documents, we felt they were newsworthy and appeared credible, although we did explicitly state in our article that we could not guarantee their authenticity," says Monitor editor Paul Van Slambrouck. "It is important to set the record straight: We are convinced the documents are bogus. We apologize to Mr. Galloway and to our readers."
After the fall of Hussein's Baghdad government, stories based on internal Iraqi documents appeared in many news outlets. They detailed everything from mundane aspects of control used by local Baath Party cells to the high living of Saddam Hussein and his sons.
The name "George Galloway" figured prominently in one of the most explosive of these stories. On April 22, London's Daily Telegraph reported that papers retrieved by their correspondent David Blair from the ruins of Iraq's Foreign Ministry described alleged government payoffs to Mr. Galloway, a Labour Party MP and longtime critic of the West's hardline toward Mr. Hussein. The Daily Telegraph report received widespread attention in the European press and throughout the world.
On April 25, the Monitor ran its own piece about papers detailing Galloway's alleged ties to Baghdad. The documents were purported to have originated in the Special Security Section, run by Saddam's second son, Qusay.
However, the Monitor's documents were different in many details from those of the Daily Telegraph, and came from a different source. Monitor contract reporter Philip Smucker obtained them from an Iraqi general, who in turn said he had captured them after his men shot their way into a home once used by Qusay Hussein.
Galloway has emphatically denied that he was ever the recipient of Iraqi largess, a denial the Monitor reported in its original story. He has denounced all stories to that effect, and threatened to sue both the Daily Telegraph and the Monitor for libel.
On May 11, a report in the British paper The Mail on Sunday disputed the authenticity of documents obtained from the same source as the Monitor's documents. The Mail's article said its writer had purchased other documents from the general alleging payoffs to Galloway. Those documents, unlike the Monitor's, included purported Galloway signatures.
"Extensive examination of the documents by experts has proved they are fakes, bearing crude attempts to forge the MP's signature," said the Mail on Sunday's May 11 story.
The Monitor did not identify the general in its April 25 story because he said he feared retribution from Qusay Hussein loyalists. The Mail on Sunday published his name: Gen. Salah Abdel Rasool.
In light of this new information bearing on the credibility of the source of the Monitor's alleged Galloway papers, editors decided to consult document experts in the United States to see if the papers could be proved either false or genuine.
The Monitor first consulted a Harvard graduate student in Arabic studies, Bruce Fudge, who had spent six months working on a Washington-based archive of captured Iraqi intelligence documents. Along with another graduate student, Omar Dewachi, an Iraqi who was a physician in Iraq until the late 1990s, Mr. Fudge could find no apparent problems with the documents. The offset-printed stationery of the oldest documents correctly reflected the pre-1993 Iraqi flag while the newer ones carried an emblem of the new flag. The rank of the signatories and the path of the documents through the bureaucracy seemed appropriate. The dates on two of the documents matched up to known visits of Galloway to Iraq. But these observations were not conclusive.
The second to examine the papers was Gerald Richards, a forensics document examiner. A former chief of the document operations and research unit at the FBI, Mr. Richards is now an independent consultant based in Laurel, Md.
Mr. Richards scanned the Galloway papers under ultraviolet and infrared light for obvious physical signs of forgery.
In his tests, Richards found nothing untoward. Pen usage in the papers was consistent with standard bureaucratic procedure, he noted. For example, the pen used to sign the documents was different from the one that was used to write the date. That might indicate that an official signed the document, while an aide dated them.
"There is nothing that would indicate to me they are forgeries," says Richards. "If they are, it's somebody who knows what he's doing."
Richards cautioned that his type of examination is just one aspect of document forensics. Another, of equal or greater importance, is textual analysis.
For that, Bruce Fudge directed the Monitor to Hassan Mneimneh. As head of the Iraq Research and Documentation Project in Washington, Mr. Mneimneh has custody of some 3.2 million Iraqi government documents captured by the US or its allies in the 1991 Gulf War. He and his analysts have been poring over this trove for years in an effort to learn more about Iraq's intelligence services, military, and bureaucratic operations.
Mneimneh's first instinct was that something was not quite right about the Monitor's documents.
"I have literally reviewed hundreds of thousands of documents, and these [are] by far the neatest, tidiest I have ever seen," he says.
There is, for instance, the matter of the papers' handwritten dates. Purportedly, the documents as a whole cover a period starting in 1992 and ending in 2003. Yet the dates are written in nearly identical fashion - as if the same person were dashing them off all at once.
According to their dates, each individual document moved remarkably quickly through the Iraqi bureaucracy. From initiation at the lowest level to approval at the top allegedly took two or three days. Also, there are no reference numbers next to the signatures of officials who allegedly reviewed them and passed them on to other departments, for example. The Iraqi bureaucracy typically included such numbers for filing purposes, this expert says.
In addition, Mneimneh observes that signatures are followed by the official's name, written out, and then that person's rank, such as colonel, rather than the customary signature followed only by a title.
Finally, this expert found the language in the Monitor's six documents to be suspiciously blunt. The papers describe specific amounts of money requested and paid out, and to whom.
The Iraq Research and Documentation Project has many papers detailing payments to informers and government agents, and typically the language used in them is indirect. Invariably they do not name the person who is actually getting the money.
"They usually use a euphemism.... Then there is a file somewhere else where they correlate the euphemisms to actual names," Mneimneh says.
After examining copies of two pages of the Daily Telegraph's documents linking Galloway with the Hussein regime, Mneimneh pronounces them consistent, unlike their Monitor counterparts, with authentic Iraqi documents he has seen.
Moreover, a direct comparison of the language in the Monitor and Daily Telegraph document sets shows that they are somewhat contradictory.
The papers in the Monitor's possession alleged that Galloway began receiving funds from Iraq in the early 1990s. One of the Daily Telegraph's, dated January 2000, alleges that Iraqi officials were just beginning their consideration of a financial relationship with Galloway.
Of the Monitor's papers, he says, "My gut reaction to [these documents] is that they are extremely suspicious."
With growing doubts about the authenticity of the Galloway documents, Monitor editors decided to have the age of the ink analyzed, as well as to revisit the source of the documents in Baghdad.
Determining the age of a document by dating its ink is far from an exact science. Only a handful of US private labs do such work. Ink analysis generally isn't admissible in court.
On the recommendation of several forensic experts the Monitor turned to Valery Aginsky, an ink chemist with Riley & Welch Associates, Forensic Document Examinations, Inc., in East Lansing, Mich.
Dr. Aginsky first tested ink from the two alleged Galloway documents with the oldest dates - 1992 and 1993. He found that the ink components had not yet finished aging, a process that typically takes no more than two years.
The documents tested simply could not have been prepared when their dates said they were, according to Aginsky.
Aginsky then compared the ink from these older-dated documents with that from a document dated 2003. He determined that they were aging at the same rate - meaning that these papers had most likely been written at approximately the same time and not over a period of a decade, as their written dates claimed.
"It is 90 percent probable that these documents have been prepared recently," he says.
In Baghdad, Monitor reporter Ilene Prusher met with General Rasool, the source of the Monitor's documents. Rasool repeated most of the account he had earlier given Smucker.
In April, the general had told Smucker that his whole family had been killed by the Hussein regime, and that he himself had served time in prison. When the Americans neared Baghdad, and the Baath Party melted away, Rasool said, he and some associates had stormed into a house used by Qusay Hussein.
Rasool said that they were in pursuit of deeds to property stolen from him by Hussein's henchmen. While in the house, they carted off numerous sacks of official-looking paper, according to the general.
As the discussion with Ms. Prusher progressed from there, a number of things became apparent:
• The general was offering other documents alleging malfeasance on the part of a wide array of foreign public figures noted for their support of the Hussein regime. (When Smucker met the general earlier, Rasool denied having documents dealing with any foreign politicians other than Galloway.)
• The papers from Qusay's house also "proved" that six of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers learned to fly in Iraq, according to the general.
• Rasool did not directly ask for money, but he described current negotiations to sell documents to other parties.
After the Mail on Sunday published its May story questioning the veracity of documents from Rasool, and acknowledged paying for its own alleged Galloway papers, the Monitor published a short piece summarizing the Mail story and adding that "the Monitor did not pay for any of the Iraqi documents in its possession, nor was any payment ever discussed."
In fact, it's now clear that statement was technically accurate but incomplete. There was no direct payment to the general. But he let Smucker carry off three boxes of files, including the Galloway papers, only after Smucker paid the general's neighbor $800 to translate the documents during the next two days.
Smucker recalls that it was the general who brought up George Galloway's name first at their initial meeting. After the reporter indicated an interest, the general said he knew where those documents were, and that he could have them for Smucker in 24 hours. Smucker says Rasool told him that one of his neighbors, who left Baghdad to attend a Shiite pilgrimage in Karbala, held the documents.
Upon Smucker's return the next day, the general showed him the Galloway documents as well as the boxes of others on various subjects. After hiring the neighbor, Smucker left with the boxes.
"I had no knowledge that the general received any of the $800, though now that I know the documents are forgeries, I have my suspicions," says Smucker. "At the time I was operating on the premise that these were entirely authentic."
• Staff writers Faye Bowers in Washington and Ilene R. Prusher in Baghdad contributed to this report.