(updated below - Update II)
Scott Shane has an article in today's New York Times examining whether the government and media's behavior now with regard to Iran is similar to what happened in 2002 and 2003 concerning Iraq. I'm quoted in the article in several places, including saying that the "similarities are substantial and disturbing." I want to focus on one point raised by this topic.
Although I think there are ample similarities, I don't think the situations are identical. To begin with, I don't believe (though it's obviously just speculation) that Obama's motive -- at least at this point -- is a military attack on Iran, if for no other reason than such an attack would severely complicate everything else he has to do. The similarities which I referenced have far more to do with how the media uncritically digests and disseminates government claims and how unproven assertions magically transform into unchallenged facts.
Consider this front-page New York Times article written the same day Obama, along with the leaders of Britain and France, held their melodramatic press conference. This is when and how conventional wisdom about this episode solidified, and that key NYT article does little more than re-print dubious and uncorroborated claims of anonymous American officials that cast the Iranian conduct in the most threatening possible light. One paragraph after the next is guilty of that, though I want to highlight this one in particular, because it's become such a central assertion for those wanting to incite panic about the Iranian facility:
Mr. Obama said he had withheld making the intelligence public for months because it "is very important in these kind of high-stakes situations to make sure the intelligence is right" -- a clear allusion to former President George W. Bush’s release of intelligence on Iraq seven years ago this month that proved baseless. Mr. Obama’s hand was forced, however, after Iran, apparently learning that the site had been discovered by Western intelligence, delivered a vague, terse letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency on Monday disclosing that it was building a second plant, one that it had never mentioned during years of inspections.
Is there any evidence whatsoever for that claim in bold? Although this assertion is repeated as fact over and over, I've not seen anything to support it other than the claims of anonymous government officials. What evidence is there that the Iranians reported this facility to the IAEA only because they learned that the U.S. had discovered the facility? For that matter, what evidence is there that the Iranians ever realized this at all? Whether Iran reported the facility voluntarily or only because they were forced to do so by virtue of having been "caught" is a self-evidently relevant fact to all of this, and yet the claims of anonymous officials on this question are uncritically assumed to be true without any skepticism, demands for evidence, or consideration of alternative views.
The same dynamic repeats itself on the question of whether this facility could have been designed for civilian uses, whether Iran really had any feasible hope to hide it (given the pervasive use of satellites), whether there were legitimate reasons for Iran to disperse its nuclear facilities, and whether Iran really violated international law by disclosing this facility to the IAEA more than a year (at least) before operability. Far more than any comparison between the Obama administration's current intentions towards Iran and Bush's towards Iraq in 2002, that is what I mean when I say there are substantial similarities between the two time periods.
In fact, that's what I believe is the most significant issue here. It's not surprising that media coverage of this matter is similar (though not identical) to what happened in 2002 with Iraq, given that media organizations and establishment journalists (with some exceptions) never examined what they did wrong in the run-up to the Iraq War and, indeed, don't think they did anything fundamentally wrong. Recall that David Gregory, Charlie Gibson, Brian Williams and numerous other establishment journalists all explicitly said that they reject the view that they failed to do their jobs prior to the attack on Iraq. The NYT itself, one of the very few outlets to examine its pre-war behavior in any way, issued only the narrowest and mildest mea culpas, while one of that paper's prime culprits, Michael Gordon, to this day angrily rejects the notion that he did anything wrong, and thereafter, long continued to report on "the Iranian threat."
Just look at that original NYT article on Iran to see that the principal reporting methods have not changed. The whole article is framed based on claims from the government. The sources are almost all anonymous U.S. government officials. Provocative, unproven claims -- ones that will obviously inflame war passions among a significant segment of the population -- are passed on with no evidence and little questioning. Dissenting voices are excluded (other than a fleeting, token quote from the Iranian President buried in the middle). And overnight, an extremely fear-inciting and sensationalistic case against Iran was cemented as unchallengeable wisdom across the political spectrum. Along with a few other isolated reports, Shane's article today commendably includes some voices raising questions about all of this, but the vast bulk of the coverage from the start has consisted of an unquestioning recitation of the government's case against Iran. The similarities between that behavior and 2002 strike me as both self-evident and, given the lack of institutional remorse in journalism, inevitable.
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At 12:00 noon EST today, I'll be on Laura Flanders' GRITtv -- along with the superb Jeremy Scahill -- discussing the roles of establishment and independent journalism. Among other places, it can be viewed live on the front page of FDL.
UPDATE: One rather odd aspect of Shane's article is this sentence: "Antiwar activists, with a fool-me-once skepticism, watch the dispute over the Qum plant with an alarmed sense of déjà vu." Of course, it wasn't "antiwar activists" who were fooled the first time around; to the contrary, they were insisting that there was no evidence to prove the Bush administration's accusations. The list of people who were actually "fooled" the first time around -- and/or who helped perpetuate the fooling -- begins with Shane's newspaper. And that doesn't seem to have changed much.
Look at this passage from yesterday's NYT article by William Broad, Mark Mazzetti, and David Sanger touting the scary prospect of Iran's missile capabilities:
German intelligence officials take an even harder line against Iran. They say the [nuclear] weapons work never stopped, a judgment made public last year in a German court case involving shipments of banned technology to Tehran.
But as Gregg Calstrom amply documents here, that claim is highly dubious. As Calstrom wrote to me via email: "Sanger is referencing a German intelligence report on Iran, which was cited in a court case last year (the Vanaki case). But the report was never made public; Sanger obviously hasn't seen it. The trial judge refused to consider it because it was 'too vague.' And the appellate court admitted it wasn't conclusive on the question of whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons. So it only raised the possibility that Iran is still developing weapons."
Identically, Oliver Meier -- the international representative and correspondent of the Arms Control Association and a researcher with the Hamburg Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy -- recently rebutted at length a Wall St. Journal Op-Ed claiming -- based on the same German court documents cited by the NYT -- that German intelligence "has amassed evidence of a sophisticated Iranian nuclear weapons program that continued beyond 2003" and therefore disproved the 2007 NIE from the U.S. Meier detailed at length why "the information publicly available about the Court’s ruling does not support such a broad claim."
Indeed, Germany's foreign intelligence agency (BDN) just recently had to deny claims about its supposedly alarmist views of Iran's nuclear program, insisting:
But a BND spokesman said the article did not reflect the view of the agency, which is that Iran would not be able to produce an atomic bomb for years.
"We are talking about several years not several months," the spokesman said.
So what we have -- yet again -- is The New York Times passing on fear-inciting, war-fueling claims that are at best highly disputed, yet doing so without any nuance, context, investigation or dissent. Unchecked claims from anonymous "officials" shape virtually every story. And, of course, all of this occurs in the rationality-destroying context in which Saddam's "mushroom cloud" has been replaced by Ahmadinejad's alleged threats to "wipe Israel off the map."
Contrary to what Shane wrote today, "antiwar activists" aren't operating with "a fool-me-once skepticism" because they weren't fooled the first time. That sentiment ought to be driving The New York Times' reporting of this matter, but it plainly isn't.
UPDATE II: Speaking of lessons not learned, here is the pro-Iraq-War Chris Dodd delivering a chest-beating, threatening, belligerent, falsehood-filled rant against Iran on the Senate floor yesterday, in which he praises war-lovers Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh for their leadership. It really sounds like he's auditioning for a new position as columnist for The Weekly Standard (or The Washington Post: virtually the same thing). Dodd faces a difficult re-election fight in 2010 and apparently believes such behavior will help in that regard.
Related to all of this: CBS News blogger Charles Cooper examines the emergence of a "rift" between "liberal hawks" and the rest of the "left" concerning Iran which, he says, is redolent of what happened regarding Iraq in 2002.