What’s the Standard on Reporting Israeli Airstrikes?

nyt-iran-syria-missilesThe news that Israel carried out two rounds of airstrikes on Syria was delivered mostly via anonymous officials, making it very difficult to assess exactly what was struck. But much of the coverage pretended to know much more than could have really been known.

The first reporting seems to have come from CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr (5/3/13), who told viewers:

Two U.S. officials confirming to me that U.S. and Western intelligence agencies are tonight reviewing classified data showing indications that they believe Israel did conduct an air strike into Syria.

Those kinds of sketchy claims, mostly coming from unnamed U.S. officials, only continued. In the New York Times (5/5/13), readers learned:

The airstrike that Israeli warplanes carried out in Syria overnight on Thursday was directed at a shipment of advanced surface-to-surface missiles from Iran that Israel believed was intended for Hezbollah, American officials said Saturday.

 And officials were saying more:

The missiles that were the target of the Israeli raid had been shipped from Iran and were being stored in a warehouse at Damascus International Airport when they were struck, according to an American official.

And more:

An American official, who asked not to be identified because he was discussing intelligence reports, said the targeted shipment consisted of Iranian-made Fateh-110s–a mobile, accurate, solid-fueled missile that has the range to strike Tel Aviv and much of Israel from southern Lebanon.

 It wasn’t just the Times getting the scoop from unnamed sources. That was true for the Associated Press (5/6/13) as well: 

The Israeli government and military refused to comment.

However, a senior Israeli official said both airstrikes targeted shipments of Fateh-110 missiles bound for Hezbollah. The Iranian-made guided missiles can fly deep into Israel and deliver powerful half-ton bombs with pinpoint accuracy.

The official spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a covert military operation.

And in the Washington Post (5/6/13), anonymity was granted to a somewhat elaborately described  source, who claims greater U.S. involvement is coming:

Now, in part because of growing confidence in the rebel Free Syrian Army, “the national security team and the diplomatic team around the president” favor increased involvement, and their views are gaining momentum despite the caution expressed by Obama’s political advisers, according to a senior Western official whose government has closely coordinated its Syria policy with Washington and who spoke before the reported Israeli strikes. The official discussed sensitive diplomatic assessments on the condition of anonymity.

 One of the problems with allowing sources to define a story in this way is that the caveats and qualifiers can be lost along the way. On ABC‘s This Week (5/5/13), Alex Marquardt reported it this way:

Israel has long warned that they will not allow advanced weaponry, specifically chemical weapons, from ending up in the hands of its enemies, and that’s what appears to be happening here.

These airstrikes bring to mind the previous round of Israeli airstrikes inside Syria in January of this year (FAIR Blog, 2/4/13). Then, like now, the story from anonymous officials was that Israel struck a convoy of weapons heading to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Those sources were telling U.S. reporters what had happened, and some of those reporters were reporting these anonymous claims as “confirmation” of the story.

All of this could be true, of course. Or perhaps none of it is. What is certain is that the assessments of the airstrikes are being shared anonymously by governments involved in carrying them out, a scenario that cries out for more skepticism.


About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.