Dec 1 2007

Coverage of Syria Airstrike Strikingly Familiar

When an apparent airstrike by Israel against Syria on September 6 was eventually linked to accusations of a secret Syrian nuclear program, the striking thing about the often muddled reporting was how much the credulous reaction to unsubstantiated claims resembled the similarly uncritical reporting about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

When the airstrike was first disclosed, the New York Times (9/12/07) quoted an unnamed U.S. military official saying “it was still unclear exactly what the jets hit.” The best guess from other unnamed officials was that the building housed “weapons caches” of arms from Iran, ultimately destined for Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon. Yet another U.S. official–who, like others, “spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a military action by another government”–drew North Korea into the plot, suggesting it “might be unloading some of its nuclear material on Syria.”

The following day’s Washington Post (9/13/07) had a piece that further attempted to connect the alleged Syrian nuclear program to North Korea. Details on the air raid were still hard to come by; the Post could only point to one source who had heard the site was “capable of making unconventional weapons.”

On September 15, the Post reported that “a prominent U.S. expert on the Middle East” had heard from Israeli officials “that the attack appears to have been linked to the arrival three days earlier of a ship carrying material from North Korea labeled as cement.” The Post noted that the “emerging consensus in Israel was that it delivered nuclear equipment”–which was the emerging consensus in the media as well.

Soon these sketchy accounts began to take on a more definitive tone. The Post‘s editorial page noted (9/20/07) that “it’s not clear whether U.S. intelligence agencies concur with Israel’s conclusion, and independent experts have said that Syria lacks the resources for a credible nuclear weapons program.” But the paper went on to conclude, “It nevertheless is beginning to look as if Israel may have carried out the boldest act of nuclear preemption since its own 1981 raid against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear complex.”

The next day the Post (9/21/07) was still more confident, leading a news piece with the declaration that Israel had attacked “a suspected nuclear site set up in apparent collaboration with North Korea.” The main basis for the paper’s increasing certainty seemed to be the growing assurance being expressed by anonymous U.S. officials.

An October 14 New York Times account that led with the conclusions of “American and foreign officials with access to the intelligence reports” gave readers a vital cue much further down: Dick Cheney’s office, we were told, was lobbying to use the Israeli strike as a pretext to abandon negotiating with North Korea. Indeed, many reports noted the push from hardliners inside and outside the Bush administration, but failed to connect the dots between their anonymous leaks and their pre-Iraq War strategy of hyping intelligence to bolster their political goals.

The New York Times (9/21/07) quoted an (of course) anonymous U.S. official saying that “the enormous secrecy around the findings, both here and in Israel, suggests that the activity that prompted the Israeli attack involved ‘more than a run-of-the-mill missile transaction'”–as if not providing a rationale for your actions was somehow itself a rationale. NBC correspondent Martin Fletcher seemed to agree (9/21/07), saying that “Israel’s keeping completely mum on the subject. Another example showing that it actually must be a much more serious issue this time than in the past.”

Then came dramatic new visual evidence. On the October 19 broadcast of ABC World News, anchor Charles Gibson dubbed it “a story that could come right out of a Tom Clancy novel,” with correspondent Martha Raddatz relying on an unnamed “senior U.S. official” who said that “based on the photographs and additional intelligence…the facility was a North Korean design because of its construction and the technology used.” Raddatz relayed her source’s supreme confidence: “The official I spoke to said, quote, ‘It was unmistakable what it was going to be. There is no doubt in my mind.'” Seconds later, however, when Gibson asked why the administration has been so reluctant to speak on the record “if the intelligence was so clear,” Raddatz responded: “Well, I think some in the administration felt it wasn’t absolutely clear.” The same could be said for such reporting.

More evidence came on October 24, when the Washington Post reported on satellite photos of the Syrian site analyzed by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). The Post declared that “satellite imagery of the area shows buildings under construction roughly similar in design to a North Korean reactor capable of producing nuclear material for one bomb a year,” and quoted ISIS analyst David Albright as saying he was “pretty convinced that Syria was trying to build a nuclear reactor.”

The Post article did include some skeptics, but the situation was reminiscent of a similar attempt to prove via satellite photos that Iraq had an unconventional weapons program. Most media outlets took Colin Powell’s February 2003 case against Iraq at face value; indeed, the very same David Albright declared on CNN (2/9/03) that Powell’s presentation of satellite photos and the like was “compelling…. Based on looking at other things Iraq has done, you get the sense that Iraq never intended to comply.” The fact that Albright had been so wrong about Iraq’s weapons programs hardly seemed to factor into whether reporters should trust his analysis of Syria. (Albright would later say of the White House’s chemical and biological weapons claims, “I just figured they were telling the truth”– L.A. Times, 4/20/03)

Other parallels to the run-up to the Iraq War were still to come. On October 26, the New York Times noted that Syria had suspiciously cleaned up after the airstrike: “New commercial satellite photos show that a Syrian site that Israel bombed last month no longer bears any obvious traces of what analysts said appeared to have been a partly built nuclear reactor.” While it’s not hard to imagine various reasons why a country would clear away the debris left by a humiliating foreign airstrike, the clean-up was taken by some (including Albright) as an attempt by Syria to cover its tracks. The same reasoning was used by Powell to argue that any discernible activity near suspect buildings was evidence that Iraq was concealing its weapons programs.

The consensus was then more or less well-established: Syria was up to something suspicious, and thus Israel was wise to act. The legality of attacking another country on the basis of a hunch without even offering an explanation hardly factored into any of the media discussion of the attack.

But the next day’s New York Times (10/27/07) would raise some doubts: Other satellite images showed the Syrian facility in question had been clearly visible as of September 2003, seemingly undercutting the notion that this was a new project of any sort. At this point, the story seemed to curiously fall off the media radar. A more aggressive and skeptical press–one that would want to show it had learned lessons from being burned by faulty intelligence before the Iraq invasion–would take this new evidence and run with it. Instead, they ran from it.