Michael Gordon trains his stenographer weapons on Iran

The New York Times this morning uncritically passes on the Bush administration's most inflammatory and war-seeking accusations yet against Iran.

By Glenn Greenwald
July 2, 2007 3:30PM (UTC)
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(Updated below - Update II - Update III)

The Bush administration's most reliable pro-surge "reporter," Michael Gordon of The New York Times, this morning filed an article -- headlined: "U.S. Ties Iranians to Iraq Attack That Killed G.I.'s" -- that might be the most war-fueling article yet with regard to Iran. Gordon's article is 23 paragraphs long, and makes some of the most inflammatory accusations against Iran imaginable (see Update II below). This is the first paragraph:

Iranian operatives helped plan a January raid in Karbala in which five American soldiers were killed, an American military spokesman in Iraq said today.

This is how the article ends:

But military officials say that there is such a long and systematic pattern of Quds Force activity in Iraq, as well as a 2005 confidential American protest to Iranian leaders regarding Iran's alleged supply of road-side bombs, that senior Iranian leaders must be aware of the Quds Force role in Iraq.

"Our intelligence reveals that the senior leadership in Iran is aware of this activity," he said. When he was asked if Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could be unaware of the activity, General Bergner said "that would be hard to imagine."

In between those two passages, one "learns" that Iran is also arming Shiite militias in Iraq though its proxy, Hezbollah, and that "Iranian officials have helped plan operations against American troops in Iraq and have had advance knowledge of specific attacks that have led to the death of American soldiers."

These are quite extraordinary claims the NYT is publishing, as they amount to an accusation that the Iranian Government, at its highest levels, is directing fatal attacks on American troops in Iraq, which constitutes, of course, an act of war. As Gordon himself points out: "In effect, American officials are charging that Iran has been engaged in a proxy war against American forces for years."


What is the basis for Gordon's story? What sources does he use to convey these incomparably serious charges? One source and one source only, the only one he seems to know -- military spokespeople, in this case Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner.

Every paragraph in this article -- literally -- does one of two things: (1) uncritically recites the U.S. military's accusations against the Iranian government, and/or (2) offers assertions from Gordon himself designed to bolster those accusations (e.g., "There is also extensive intelligence that Iran has supplied Shiite militants with the most lethal type of roadside bomb in Iraq" and "In Washington, Bush Administration officials have generally held open the possibility that the Quds Force activities might have been carried out without the knowledge of Iran's senior leaders").

I defy anyone to scour Gordon's article and point to a single difference, large or small, between its content and what a Camp Victory Press Release on this topic would say. Such a comparison requires little imagination, since it has become a clear rhetorical objective of the U.S. military to begin pinning the blame for violent attacks in Iraq not just on Iran, but on the Iranian government. Here, for instance, is one "news item"/Press Release posted yesterday by the U.S. military's Public Affairs Office:

BAGHDAD -- Coalition forces captured 27 suspected terrorists, including an alleged terrorist with ties to Iranian elements, during missions conducted across Iraq Friday as Operation Phantom Thunder continues, U.S. military officials reported.

Coalition forces detained a suspected secret cell terrorist Friday in Baghdad's Sadr City section. It is believed the suspected terrorist has close ties to Iranian terror networks and is responsible for numerous attacks on Iraqi civilians as well as on Iraqi and Coalition forces in Baghdad.

The detainee is also suspected of recruiting Iraqis to fill the ranks of Iranian terror groups operating in Iraq, officials said.

"Terrorist with ties to Iranian elements" -- "close ties to Iranian terror networks" -- "fill the rank of Iranian terror groups operating in Iraq" -- "responsible for numerous attacks on . . . Coalition forces in Baghdad." That's all in the first three paragraphs. Michael Gordon couldn't have said it better himself. Whatever else is true, and for whatever reasons, it is transparently clear that the U.S. military has made it a top priority to link the Iranian Government to attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.

It is certainly news that the U.S. military is making such accusations. But the crux of Gordon's article is not to report that -- i.e., that the U.S. military has escalated its rhetoric. The purpose of the article is to pass on the substance of those accusations uncritically, as though they are facts.


Gordon, as is his wont, does not question a single statement that he conveys, does not include a single dissenting view, does not provide a single reason to hold such assertions in doubt, does not obtain or include any responses to the accusations, does not identify any evidentiary gaps in the accusations. Instead, the article does nothing but magically transform the highly provocative yet unverified statements of military leaders into "news" on the pages of The New York Times. Again, read the article carefully -- is there even a single sentence that advances beyond the role of loyal court stenographer to Gen. Bergner?

The context here matters a great deal. We're in an extremely tense and dangerous predicament with regard to Iran. Influential political factions in the U.S. -- including high officials in the White House -- have begun expressly calling for a bombing campaign against Iran. Accusations of the type Gordon passed on this morning have the potential, for painfully obvious reasons, to be highly inflammatory in shaping public opinion and enabling the warmongering elements of the administration and its base to "justify" such an attack. Indeed, if the Supreme Leader of Iran is planning and directing fatal attacks on U.S. troops --as Gordon's article alleges -- how many people would object to a military attack against Iran?

Under those circumstances, how can the NYT possibly justify an article of this magnitude, published without an iota of skepticism, doubt, or qualification? This behavior is particularly mystifying in light of the NYT's prior concession of journalistic wrongdoing, in which it castigated itself for uncritically turning over its front page to dubious pro-war claims prior to the invasion of Iraq, including in several articles by Gordon:

But we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged -- or failed to emerge.

Claiming that the highest levels of the Iranian Government are planning fatal attacks on U.S. troops is the equivalent of pre-war claims that Saddam was developing nuclear weapons and actively working with Al Qaeda. What credibility could the NYT possibly have in claiming to regret so mindlessly passing on the latter when, now, they allow and encourage Gordon to pass along the former with equally slavish mindlessness? "Journalism" of this sort is a true menace, and though it probably shouldn't be, it is still just staggering to watch it spew forth day after day.

UPDATE: It is worth noting here -- though Gordon, of course, does not -- that the now-departed Joint Chiefs Chairman, Gen. Peter Pace, created a revealing controversy several months ago when he "said [] there was no evidence the Iranian government was supplying Iraqi insurgents with highly lethal roadside bombs, apparently contradicting claims by other U.S. military and administration officials." At the time, AP noted that Pace's "remarks might raise questions on the credibility of the claims of high-level Iranian involvement, especially following the faulty U.S. intelligence that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003."

It's a good thing that Pete Pace -- like the now-replaced anti-surge Generals -- has been removed from his position and is thus no longer available to call these accusations into question. And as the not-exactly-left-wing Council of Foreign Relations pointed out back in February regarding American claims of Iranian involvement in attacks on U.S. troops, in which it quoted several experts disputing these claims and several reasons to view them with skepticism:

Enormous controversy swirls around this issue, and much of the evidence the United States cites as proof of Iranian involvement remains secret and in some cases is disputed by the Iraqi government, too. This has created an uncomfortable analogy to the period before the Iraq invasion, when secret intelligence ultimately discredited pushed the United States toward war.

The "analogy to the period before the Iraq invasion" certainly does not appear to be creating much "discomfort" for Michael Gordon and the NYT, as it is precisely any reference to the "enormous controversy" over these claims that is so conspicuously missing, as usual, from their recitation of military statements.

UPDATE II: Gordon's article has now been edited substantially, most notably to include several sentences near the beginning of the article that cast at least some doubt on the military's claims. None of these facts were included in the original version:

Previously, Iranian officials have said that the United States is fabricating evidence to back up its accusation that Iran is sending bombs and weapons into Iraq. Some critics have cast doubt on the American military statements about the penetrator bombs, saying the evidence linking them to Iran was circumstantial and inferential.

In remarks that were reported over the weekend, Iran's defense minister, Mohammad Najar, denied American claims of Iran's "military interference" in Iraq. "We have many times announced that we are ready to cooperate with the Iraqi government so to restore security and stability to that country," Mr. Najar was quoted as saying in a July 1 report by the Iranian student news agency, ISNA. It did not make clear which remarks he was responding to.

The article also now refers to the accusations from the U.S. military as "assertions by the American military spokesman." Though there are far more facts that ought to be reported here -- including the fact that such accusations have been denied not only by the Iranians, but also by the Iraqi government, various U.S. military officials and multiple foreign policy experts -- the editorial changes to Gordon's article are clearly improvements.

On a separate note, Bernhard of Moon of Alabama astutely notes that in light of Gen. Bergner's background, it is highly likely that any attempts by him to ratchet up the accusatory rhetoric toward Iran is the by-product of White House decision-making at the highest levels.

UPDATE III: There are several excerpts from A Tragic Legacy published today by various sites which relate to the "threat" posed by Iran:

* This excerpt at TPM Book Club, to be discussed all week by an excellent (and still-developing) panel, documenting the fabricated and pretextual nature of the "Iranian threat";

* This excerpt at AMERICABlog relating to the Bush administration's reflexive and deceitful exploitation of terrorist plots, as illustrated by its conduct (and those of its followers) this week in the wake of the news from England and Scotland); and,


* This excerpt at C&L relating to the manipulation of the president by neoconservatives to extract support for their agenda of Middle East militarism, now centrally featuring Iran.

Glenn Greenwald

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