Iran and Iraq, anonymously

Will the U.S. press remember the lessons of Iraq on the path to Iran?

By Tim Grieve
Published February 12, 2007 4:08PM (EST)

In an August 2004 retrospective on journalism in the run-up to the Iraq war, Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. was asked to explain how two stories that called into question the case for war wound up buried deep inside his newspaper. His answer, at least in part: The stories relied on anonymous sources.

So what's on the front page of the Washington Post today? A 2,600-word story linking Iran to weapons that are killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq -- a 2,600-word story that is based almost entirely on unnamed sources. We say "almost entirely" because the Post's Joshua Partlow does quote one official by name: Labeed M. Abbawi, an Iraqi deputy foreign minister, who says that it is "difficult" to "accept whatever the American forces say is evidence" because the Americans won't speak openly.

The rest of the story? The part that makes an Iran-Iraq link? Every bit of it comes from unnamed sources, some of whose identities the Post itself doesn't even know. The story starts with the words "senior U.S. officials" and descends deeper into anonymity from there. The Post says that reporters were briefed in Baghdad on the alleged Iran link by "a senior defense official, who was joined by a defense analyst and an explosives expert, both also from the military." The officials spoke "on the condition of anonymity," the Post says, and the analyst's "exact title and full name were not revealed to reporters."

And while Partlow cautions that the unnamed military officials weren't joined by U.S. diplomats or intelligence officials and offered "no evidence" that the "highest levels" of the Iranian government had sanctioned attacks on U.S. troops, the Post's editors still saw fit to put the piece at the top of A1 under the headline, "Military Ties Iran to Arms in Iraq: Explosives Supplied to Shiite Militias, U.S. Officials Say."

The New York Times also put its version of the story on the front page. The headline: "U.S. Says Arms Link Iranians to Iraqi Shiites: Using Serial Numbers as Proof of Origin."

Like the Post's Partlow, the Times' James Glanz dumps some cold water on the military's anonymous presentation. He says that an evidence-free "inference" of involvement by high-level Iranian leaders "and the anonymity of the officials" who made it "seemed likely to generate skepticism among those suspicious that the Bush administration is trying to find a scapegoat for its problems in Iraq, and perhaps even trying to lay the groundwork for war with Iran."

We'd add, as further cause for skepticism, the fact that the Bush administration was forced to postpone any evidentiary presentation to support the president's State of the Union claims about Iranian involvement in Iraq because, as Stephen Hadley acknowledged, an initial briefing planned by the military "overstated" the case that could be made. Glanz mentions the delay, but then says -- without any attribution whatsoever -- that it stemmed, in part, from "a view among officials in Washington that the original presentation was insufficiently strong."

Glanz also says that "whatever doubts were created about the timing and circumstances of the weapons disclosures, the direct physical evidence presented" by the anonymous military officials Sunday was "extraordinary."

Looking back in 2004 at their own prewar coverage, the Times' editors said that they wished they had been "more aggressive in re-examining the claims" about Iraq's WMD and ties to al-Qaida "as new evidence emerged -- or failed to emerge." With Glanz's having acknowledged room for "skepticism" over the Iran claims, can we expect to see that sort of "aggressive re-examining" before the shooting starts this time around?

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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