Jan 1 2011

‘Blindly Accepting What U.S. Officials Were Telling Them’

CounterSpin Transcript: Ali Gharib on Iran & WikiLeaks

A military attack on Iran is under increasing discussion in U.S. corridors of power. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has called for a war to “neuter” the Iranian regime, and former CIA chief Michael Hayden says an attack on Iran “seems inexorable”—and may not be the “worst of all possible outcomes.”

Media are doing their part, too. Washington Post columnist David Broder (10/31/10) suggested that “orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs” might be just what the U.S. economy needs, while other journalists seem to think they have found further justification for such a war in newly released WikiLeaks documents—documents they say corroborate earlier reports that Iran is “meddling” in Iraq (e.g., Newsweek, 10/27/10).

FAIR’s radio show CounterSpin cut through the media hype on November 12 with Ali Gharib, a New York-based reporter on U.S. foreign policy who blogs on U.S.-Iran relations at LobeLog.com.

CS: It’s funny—few mainstream journalists have demonstrated a sustained interest in WikiLeaks revelations, which have mostly reflected badly on the war in Afghanistan and the honesty of U.S. officials in their public assessments of the war. But now some journalists seem to have found something interesting in the documents. Tell us about that.

AG: In the latest WikiLeaks document dump about Iraq, there were a lot of documents about the U.S. military having knowledge about Iraqi army people and Iraqi government officials torturing people in their prisons, but this didn’t seem to be the focus of a lot of the mainstream media attention. Rather, they focused on what the documents supposedly told us about Iran’s involvement in the Iraqi insurgency, particularly the Shia militias.

CS: Tell us a little bit about the specific journalists who have shown this sudden interest in the WikiLeaks revelations.

AG: Probably the most mainstream one was Michael Gordon of the New York Times, who has been beating the heck out of this story for about three years now. He started writing about it in 2007, based on anonymous tip-offs from military officials and others, and has written about it consistently, and sort of expressed the idea in his latest article [10/23/10], which came out last month after the WikiLeaks document dump, that the document dump confirmed what he’d been told anonymously by these officials before.

And in addition to Gordon, there have been other journalists who’ve taken this tack, many of them are on the more hawkish end of the spectrum: People like Eli Lake of the Washington Times, as well as Jamie Kirchick, who used to be with the New Republic and now is with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, as well as Julian Barnes of the Wall Street Journal—though I would argue he’s more in the mainstream category than in the hawkish end of the spectrum.

And these guys have unequivocally stated the WikiLeaks document dump is incontrovertible evidence of Iran’s involvement in nefarious activities in Iraq, and that just—if you read the reports carefully, as well as more skeptical takes—seems to not be the case. From the mainstream guys like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, it’s a little more troubling, because of the lack of caution they applied in the run-up to the Iraq War—in blindly accepting what U.S. officials and others were telling them based on single-source information that turned out to be incorrect, and then was used to press the case for war in public opinion, as well as in the Congress.


CS: And, of course, Michael Gordon was a co-author of several of those reports with Judith Miller that ended up getting Miller dismissed from the New York Times. Journalists like Gordon reported about Iran “meddling” in Iraq, furnishing explosives etc., the first time around three years ago [2/15/07] based on U.S. military sources. Those stories largely washed out. But here come Gordon and colleagues trying to sell the same story again, based on sources from the same crowd—U.S. military sources, this time found in the WikiLeaks documents.

AG: Yeah, it’s highly probable that [these were] the same military sources who were telling Gordon about these “explosively formed penetrators” that they were accusing Iran of building—and, actually, there’s a funny story that was reported by Tina Susman of the L.A. Times [5/8/08], where the U.S. military had scheduled a press conference to show these Iranian-made weapons and then, just ahead of the press conference, the U.S. military actually got there with their Iraqi colleagues and realized that there was no evidence that these weapons were from Iran.

At the time, Michael Gordon was writing stories saying just this, that the EFPs were indeed coming from Iran, and that was based almost exclusively on unnamed U.S. military sources. And it’s incredibly probable that these military sources were getting their information from the same reports which have just been released by the WikiLeaks, meaning that, essentially, Michael Gordon is using his same information, that is sort of shoddily put together and not necessarily completely convincing, to confirm the story that he wrote three years ago. But it’s all based on the same, often single-sourced intelligence reports from the field in Iraq.

CS: Sort of selling an old product in new packaging, really.

AG: Exactly. It’s the same thing. It’s recycling.

CS: Set the context for us here. This kind of reporting is playing into a policy discussion in Washington, D.C., that isn’t exactly neutral.

AG: As you noted, Lindsay Graham has just called for the U.S. to “neuter” Iran’s conventional forces, which is certainly a wider war than even people like Sen. Joe Lieberman, who’s called for so-called surgical strikes against Iran[, have promoted]. Washington Post columnist David Broder, who’s called the “dean of the Washington press corps,” wrote an article last month [10/31/10] where he called for Obama to start a war with Iran as a way to resurrect the economy.

And just by talking about this stuff constantly, it does what political scientist Stephen Walt has called the mainstreaming of war—where if you just put the idea in people’s heads that this is possible and it can work, it becomes a more viable option for them, and it becomes easier to build public opinion to go to war.

CS: Let’s say you were an editor at a major American media operation—what would you have your reporters asking? How would you approach this in order to sort of deflate the arguments for the march to war?


AG: If somebody were making these charges against some other random country—if somebody goes and accuses, let’s say, Belarus of supporting Iraqi insurgents, that’s one thing. But in light of the fact that there is this massive public campaign, that’s really been ramped up since Jeffrey Goldberg’s August article in the Atlantic [8/11/10] about the prospects of an Israeli strike against Iran, that this campaign is really starting to get going, makes it especially troubling. And if I were an editor, I would say that in light of this campaign, reporters should exercise a special caution, and they should seek out and air dissenting views on reporting subjects that could be misconstrued as being a casus belli to go to war with Iran.

CS: Which is what you’ve done in some of your pieces.

AG: Yeah, you know, especially in the era of blogging, these views aren’t hard to find. There’s plenty of experts on military equipment as well as nuclear equipment, and these people all have blogs these days. It’s easy enough to find them and see who’s dissenting, and call them up and see what their evidence is.