White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater criticized Cable News Network yesterday for reporting that U.S. planes had bombed a baby-formula factory in Baghdad, saying the network was being used as a conduit for Iraqi "disinformation."
Fitzwater was responding to a report by CNN correspondent Peter Arnett, the only Western journalist known to be in Baghdad, who said officials from the Iraqi Information Ministry had taken him to a heavily damaged building that they described as a factory producing infant formula. Arnett's reports are censored by Iraqi officials, as CNN noted.
"That factory is, in fact, a production facility for biological weapons," Fitzwater said at a briefing. "The Iraqis have hidden this facility behind a facade of baby-milk production as a form of disinformation. We must point out once again that any reports coming out of Baghdad are, in effect, coming from the Iraqi government."
Asked if the administration was calling on CNN to halt its broadcasts from Iraq, Fitzwater said: "I'm simply saying that any broadcasts out of Baghdad are coming out of there totally controlled by the Iraqi government."
CNN officials did not return phone calls yesterday but released a statement by Ed Turner, executive vice president for news.
Turner said that, on Tuesday, Arnett "was taken to the site of what the Iraqi government said was a bomb-damaged milk factory. Arnett reported what the Iraqi claim was and his own observations on site. He neither confirmed or denied the Iraqi government's statement except to say the bombed-out building was innocent enough from what we can see.
"CNN believes it is in the interest of our viewers to maintain the only western journalist to watch and report from Baghdad," the statement said.
In his report, Arnett, a former Associated Press reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for coverage of the Vietnam War, said that "the steel girders that had been holding up the building were twisted and blackened and the machinery inside was a molten pile. The intact signboard at the entrance of the factory read 'Baby Milk Plant' in English and Arabic."
Arnett said CNN had visited the factory in August for a report about how Iraq was trying to withstand the international economic embargo by producing more essential food at home.