The most important lesson about the Iraq War for reporters was perhaps the simplest one: Don't assume the White House is telling the truth. It's a lesson that many reporters seem to be forgetting now that U.S. officials are escalating their claims about Iran's role in Iraq.
On January 29, CBS Evening News aired a report about Iran's alleged support for Shiite militias in Iraq. Anchor Katie Couric introduced the segment by saying "the U.S. military says it has proof positive" to that effect, and Pentagon correspondent David Martin did little to undercut the official line by saying the U.S. is "already fighting a proxy war inside Iraq" with Iran. Martin went on to list the evidence: serial numbers on explosive devices that could be "traced directly back to Iran," along with rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons that "bear Iranian factory markings." The only guest on the segment was Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, who essentially backed the official story.
Martin closed his report by commenting, "American failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the U.S., but American success would be a disaster for Iran. So something's got to give." When Couric asked Martin, "Is this intelligence really reliable?," Martin's response was that while U.S. officials "wince" at the question, "this time, some of the evidence, like those serial numbers, is smoking-gun quality." In other words, exactly what U.S. officials said about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
The following night (1/30/07), ABC World News With Charles Gibson correspondent Jonathan Karl warned that "U.S. officials say the mounting evidence against Iran includes photographs of Iranian training camps on Iraqi soil." Karl bolstered this claim by citing a "slickly produced video released by a Sunni terrorist group" that alleged Iranians were supplying weapons to Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. It is unclear why Karl would cite a rival insurgent group's videotape as credible evidence; for that matter, any claims of "training camps" in Iraq deserve special scrutiny, as exactly the same claims were made regarding Al Qaeda training camps in the country, which turned out to be false (Mother Jones, 3-4/06).
Karl continued by listing evidence allegedly gathered by U.S. officials, including Iranian-made weapons and documents purporting to show Iranian control of militias. Karl oddly noted: "U.S. officials had planned to publicly present the evidence against Iran as early as tomorrow. Those plans were abruptly scrapped today, raising questions about just how convincing the evidence is. Officials say they want to continue to pursue leads before declassifying the information. The information, officials say, won't be made public for a while."
Of course, such information was being made public—on every network newscast.
NBC Nightly News (1/30/07) pursued alleged Iranian involvement in the ambush of U.S. soldiers in Karbala, which killed five American soldiers. Pentagon reporter Jim Miklasziewski stated that "secret U.S. military reports have concluded now that the attack against the American soldiers in Karbala was definitely an inside job and that it may have involved Iranian agents." This main evidence for this theory is "because it was so well laid out and meticulously executed." Apparently Iraqi insurgents are unqualified to mount such sophisticated attacks. Miklasziewski went on to make the familiar charges against Iran—"providing the most sophisticated and powerful roadside bombs and a growing arsenal of other weapons inside Iraq," for example, along with assorted weaponry and the seizure of computer files that "listed vast inventories of weapons shipped from Iran to Iraqi extremists and militias." He added: "U.S. officials now claim Iran is providing shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles to Shiite militias."
Miklasziewski did note that "all of this is being viewed and greeted with a great deal of skepticism, especially on Capitol Hill." It would be nice to see such skepticism from reporters, instead of them merely repeating the laundry list of charges from unnamed U.S. officials.
The next day, the New York Times ran a remarkably similar story (1/31/07), again relying exclusively on anonymous government officials (U.S and Iraqi). While the Times did note that "Officials cautioned that no firm conclusions had been drawn and did not reveal any direct evidence of a connection," the paper nonetheless went on at some length describing the theory that an off-shoot of the Mahdi Army connected to the Iranian government was behind the attack. The Times report relied exclusively on unnamed officials. The article's entire sourcing:
"Investigators say...according to American and Iraqi officials knowledgeable...The officials said...Officials cautioned... A senior Iraqi official said... An Iraqi knowledgeable about the investigation said... the Iraqi said... the senior Iraqi official said, citing information directly from the prime minister's office... Another senior Iraqi official said... the official said ...the American military has said... the military said... An American military official said... the military official said... officials say... Two American officials in Washington confirmed... One of those officials said... The second official said...."
While some of this reporting could be accurate, it just as easily could be part of a Bush administration campaign to drum up talk of Iranian involvement in the Iraq War. Since many reporters seem conscious of that very real possibility, journalists should treat such anonymous chatter very skeptically. They should also, at a bare minimum, consult experts who could shed light on whether the claims from administration officials make any sense in the context of what is known about Iran's influence in Iraq.
For example, the Congressional Research Service reported (9/29/06) that Iran was encouraging Shiite participation in electoral politics ("To that extent, Iran's goal in Iraq differs little from the main emphasis of U.S. policy in Iraq"), and that Iran's closest links in Iraq are to two large Shiite factions firmly connected to the U.S.-backed government: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Da'wa Party, of which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is part. And the Iranian government has engaged in wide-ranging negotiations with the Maliki government regarding trade, diplomacy and military training. This information is important to consider alongside U.S. allegations that Iran is engaged in fomenting violence in Iraq.
And University of Michigan professor Juan Cole wrote recently in Salon.com (1/30/07) that there many reasons to be skeptical of U.S. claims:
"Meanwhile, the most virulent terror network in Iraq, which styles itself 'Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia,' has openly announced that its policy is to kill as many Shiites as possible. That the ayatollahs of Shiite Iran are passing sophisticated weapons to these, their sworn enemies, is not plausible.
"If Iran is providing materiel to anyone, it is to U.S. allies. Tehran may be helping the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its Badr Corps paramilitary, but the U.S. is not fighting that group. By sale or barter, some weaponry originally given to the Badr Corps might be finding its way to other groups, such as the Mahdi Army of nationalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, that do sometimes come into conflict with the U.S. That problem, however, must be a relatively small one, and cannot explain Bush's hyperbolic rhetoric about Iran."
Not all mainstream outlets are so reticent to challenge the official storyline. On January 23, the Los Angeles Times took a hard look at the U.S. charges of Iranian meddling in Iraq ("Scant Evidence Found of Iran-Iraq Arms Link"). The paper found little to support the array of accusations from U.S. officials, noting that reporters in Iraq with U.S. troops have not seen "extensive signs of Iranian involvement." The Times also noted that military officers from the U.S. and Britain have not seen evidence at the Iraq-Iran border to support allegations of arms smuggling, and that "U.S. officials have declined to provide documentation of seized Iranian ordnance despite repeated requests. The U.S. military often releases photographs of other weapons finds." Further, the Times reported that military analysts question whether Iran would even need to provide some of the weapons, since the "technology used to make them is simple and widely known in the Middle East." The Times also pointed out that "the groups in Iraq that have received the most Iranian support are not those that have led attacks against U.S. forces. Instead, they are nominal U.S. allies."
Interestingly, a day after airing a report that passed along U.S. accusations with little comment, NBC Nightly News presented a critical take (1/31/07), with reporter Andrea Mitchell quoting a former CIA official challenging the notion that a sophisticated attack couldn't be carried out without Iranian support, another official noting that weapons allegedly "made in Iran" don't necessarily mean they come from the Iranian government, and Mitchell pointing out that "90 percent of the attack on U.S. forces are from Sunni insurgents or Al-Qaeda," groups unlikely to be affiliated with Iran.
It is perhaps reassuring that NBC, a day after passing along official claims mostly free of skepticism, would take a more sound journalistic approach. The same cannot yet be said for the New York Times, CBS Evening News and ABC World News.