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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Is Iran "the most active state sponsor of international terrorism"?

The White House today unveiled its new National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. It is largely composed of empty rhetorical platitudes which are by now depressingly familiar. Its fundamental premise is that "The War on Terror will be a long war," but no need to worry, because we have a very specific and coherent strategy for winning:

There will continue to be challenges ahead, but along with our partners, we will attack terrorism and its ideology, and bring hope and freedom to the people of the world. This is how we will win the War on Terror.

So that's "how we will win the War on Terror" -- we're going to "bring hope and freedom to the people of the world."

The most significant item in this new Strategy is the emphasis on Iran and Syria as "state sponsors of terrorism." The report repeatedly makes the claim that those two countries are supporting terrorists:

Some states, such as Syria and Iran, continue to harbor terrorists at home and sponsor terrorist activity abroad.

The Strategy report notes that "The United States currently designates five state sponsors of terrorism: Iran, Syria, Sudan, North Korea, and Cuba," but claims that "Iran remains the most active state sponsor of international terrorism." This is the same claim the President made in his speech the other day ("We know the death and suffering that Iran's sponsorship of terrorists has brought"), after which he ominously warned: "if you harbor terrorists, you are just as guilty as the terrorists; you're an enemy of the United States, and you will be held to account."

Most of the new Strategy report focuses on Al-Qaeda and the type of terrorist attacks that have been directed at Americans or Westerners generally -- in London, Madrid, Bali, the first World Trade Center attack and the 9/11 attacks. But Iran had nothing to do with any of those. They don't "sponsor" Al Qaeda or any groups affiliated with Al Qaeda, nor do they "sponsor" any groups devoted to staging terrorist attacks on the United States.

So what is this report talking about when it claims that "Iran remains the most active state sponsor of international terrorism"? This:

Through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the regime in Tehran plans terrorist operations and supports groups such as Lebanese Hizballah, Hamas, and Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ).

But those groups which are named are all groups whose terrorist attacks are directed at Israel, not the United States. Here is what Robert Novak said about Hezbollah in his December 26, 2002 column entitled "Sharon's War" (h/t David Frum, who called Novak "unpatriotic" for this column):

In private conversation, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has insisted that Hezbollah -- not al Qaeda -- is the world's most dangerous terrorist organization. How could that be, considering al Qaeda's global record of mass carnage?

In truth, Hezbollah is the world's most dangerous terrorist organization from Israel's standpoint. While viciously anti-American in rhetoric, the Lebanon-based Hezbollah is focused on the destruction of Israel. "Outside this fight (against Israel), we have done nothing," Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the organization's secretary general, said in a recent New York Times interview.

Thus, Rice's comments suggest that the U.S. war against terrorism, accused of being Iraq-centric, actually is Israel-centric.

Yes, it's true that Hezbollah was responsible for the attack on U.S. troops 23 years ago when they were inside Lebanon (the attack which caused Ronald Reagan to withdraw those troops), as well as other attacks inside their country. And Hezbollah was almost certainly responsible for the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires 14 years ago and the bombing of a Jewish community center 12 years ago. Their target is plainly Israel, not the United States. It is not Hezbollah -- and it is certainly not Hamas or the Palestine Islamic Jihad -- which is engaging in terrorist attacks against the U.S.

There may (or may not) be an argument to make that we should view terrorist attacks on Israel as attacks on the U.S. There may (or may not) be an argument to make that because Israel is an ally of ours, we should be willing to wage war against countries which sponsor terrorist attacks on them, or that our commitment to "spreading democracy" requires us to come to their defense. Maybe there is an argument to make that our interests are so inextricably linked that we cannot distinguish between terrorist groups directed at Israel and those directed at the U.S. But if those are valid arguments, they should be made explicitly and clearly, without the type of misleading obfuscation which this Strategy report, along with administration statements on this subject, clearly intend to create.

By sloppily grouping in Hezbollah, Hamas and other Palestinian groups with Al Qaeda, there is clearly an attempt to conflate all of these groups together even though they have completely different aims. It may be true that Iran (and, as the report states, Syria) is involved in the "state sponsorship of international terrorism" -- but, for Iran and Syria, that terrorism is directed against Israel, not against the U.S. That may or may not be a distinction that matters to some people, but the factual lines should be not be allowed to be blurred this way, because that is exactly what allows war advocates to mislead people.

It was exactly this type of misleading rhetorical tactic that led us into Iraq. Although the administration never unambiguously accused Iraq of sponsoring the 9/11 attacks, they deliberately conflated their rhetoric so as to lead the vast majority of Americans to believe that it did (for instance, by accusing Iraq of having given "support to terrorism"and emphasizing our "urgent concern about Saddam Hussein's links to international terrorist groups," when they meant (but never said) Iraqi support for Palestinian attacks on Israel, not Al Qaeda attacks on the U.S.).

This is exactly the same misleading tactic that is being used now. The Strategy report continuously highlights the dangers of Al Qaeda and groups devoted to attacking the U.S., and then shifts without warning or any indication at all to accusing Iran of being "the most active state sponsor of international terrorism" -- as though the terrorism Iran is "sponsoring" is the terrorism directed at the U.S.

It is widely accepted, even by journalists, that the media failed to subject government pre-war claims about Iraq to sufficient scrutiny. The fact that even six months after the American invasion of Iraq, 70% of Americans were allowed to believe that Saddam personally planned the 9/11 attacks is, by itself, a rather conclusive testament to the profound failure of the media to inform citizens of the facts behind the government's claims.

That must not be allowed to happen again. If Americans want to initiate a military attack against Iran due in part or in full to Iran's support of Hezbollah's attacks against Israel, that is something they can decide. Plenty of other countries have gone to war before in defense of their allies. But the debate has to be honest and clear. Americans should not decide to attack Iran because the Bush administration is allowed to mislead them -- as they are clearly trying to do -- into believing that Iran (or Syria) is behind the terrorist threats against the United States. Iran has as much involvement in terrorist threats against the U.S. as Iraq had -- which is to say none at all -- and the administration cannot be allowed to get away with implying otherwise.

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