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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.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The NY Times returns to pre-Iraq-war "journalism"

Over the past few weeks, The Los Angeles Times has published several detailed and well-documented articles casting serious doubt on the administration's claims that Iran is fueling the Iraqi insurgency with weapons. A couple of months ago, The Washington Post published a very well-researched article reporting that extensive searches by British military brigades in Southern Iraq -- specifically in the areas where such weapons would almost certainly be transported and maintained -- have turned up nothing. It seemed as though the media was treating the war-inflaming claims of Bush officials against Iran much more skeptically, refusing to simply pass along accusations without first conducting an investigation to determine if those claims were true.

But today, The New York Times does precisely the opposite -- it has published a lengthy, prominent front-page article by Michael Gordon that does nothing, literally, but mindlessly recite administration claims about Iran's weapons-supplying activities without the slightest questioning, investigation, or presentation of ample counter-evidence. The entire article is nothing more than one accusatory claim about Iran after the next, all emanating from the mouths of anonymous military and "intelligence officials" without the slightest verified evidence, and Gordon just mindlessly repeats what he has been told in one provocative paragraph after the next.

Start with the headline: Deadliest Bomb in Iraq is Made by Iran, U.S. Says. That is a proposition that is extremely inflammatory -- it suggests that Iranians bear responsibility for attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, even though that is a claim for which almost no evidence has been presented and which is very much in dispute. Why should that be the basis for a prominent headline when Gordon's sole basis for it are the uncorroborated assertions of the Bush administration? The very first paragraph following that headline is the most inflammatory:

The most lethal weapon directed against American troops in Iraq is an explosive-packed cylinder that United States intelligence asserts is being supplied by Iran.

Is that extremely provocative claim even true? Gordon never says, and he does not really appear to care. He is in Pravda Spokesman mode throughout the entire article -- offering himself up as a megaphone for administration assertions without the slightest amount of scrutiny, investigation or opposing views.

What is the basis for the entire article? Gordon summarizes it this way:

The assertion of an Iranian role in supplying the device to Shiite militias reflects broad agreement among American intelligence agencies, although officials acknowledge that the picture is not entirely complete.

In interviews, civilian and military officials from a broad range of government agencies provided specific details to support what until now has been a more generally worded claim, in a new National Intelligence Estimate, that Iran is providing “lethal support” to Shiite militants in Iraq.

Every one of Gordon's sources are officials in the Bush administration, and all of them are completely anonymous, so one has no way to assess their interest, perspective, bias, or independence. And Gordon himself does not offer the slightest information to enable the reader to make such determinations, and he himself appears blissfully uninterested in any of that.

This is completely irresponsible journalism. The latest indications, including new revelations over the last few days, lend strong support to the suspicion that the Bush administration is intensifying its preparations for a military confrontation with Iran. The emotional and psychological impact of Gordon's story is glaringly obvious -- if Iranians are purposely supplying Shiite militias with the "most lethal weapon directed against American troops," that obviously will have the effect of heightening anger towards Iranians among Americans and leading them to believe that war against Iran is necessary because they are killing our troops.

Gordon recognizes the high stakes of his story, but naively passes this along:

Any assertion of an Iranian contribution to attacks on Americans in Iraq is both politically and diplomatically volatile. The officials said they were willing to discuss the issue to respond to what they described as an increasingly worrisome threat to American forces in Iraq, and were not trying to lay the basis for an American attack on Iran.

No, perish the thought. But why are these sources granted anonymity? All they are doing is passing along the standard, official line of the Bush administration, supposedly revealing the most inflammatory conclusions that the administration will "unveil" in just a few days. What possible purpose is served by shrouding these sources in anonymity in order to enable them to pass along these controversial claims with the appearance that Gordon has scored some sort of "scoop" by provoking candid "officials" to speak off the record? This is just Bush administration propaganda dressed up as a "leak" to induce Gordon and the NYT to excitedly publish this on their front page. Judy Miller anyone?

Speaking of Judy Miller, the NYT today gives us one paragraph after the next like this one:

The link that American intelligence has drawn to Iran is based on a number of factors, including an analysis of captured devices, examination of debris after attacks, and intelligence on training of Shiite militants in Iran and in Iraq by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and by Hezbollah militants believed to be working at the behest of Tehran. . . .

The information includes interrogation reports from the raids indicating that money and weapons components are being brought into Iraq from across the Iranian border in vehicles that travel at night. One of the detainees has identified an Iranian operative as having supplied two of the bombs. The border crossing at Mehran is identified as a major crossing point for the smuggling of money and weapons for Shiite militants, according to the intelligence.

Has Gordon reviewed any of those devices, seen any of the debris or the reports describing them, spoken to independent experts about the accuracy of the administration's claims, or evaluated the credibility of the original sources for all of this alleged "intelligence"? If he has done any of that, he does not share any of those assessments in his article. He is simply echoing what he has been told, without regard to its persuasive qualities.

In fact, with the exception of one cursory note buried in the middle that the Iranian Government denies supplying Shiite militias with weapons, every paragraph in the article -- every one -- simply echoes accusations by military and other Bush officials that Iran is behind the attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. If the White House were to prepare one of its famous Position Papers setting forth its case against Iran, it would look exactly like the article Gordon and the NYT just published on behalf of the administration. What is the point of this sort of article? Why would the New York Times just offer itself up again as a mindless vessel for what are clearly war-seeking accusations by the administration? Have they learned nothing?

And all of this is particularly inexcusable in light of the ample analysis and evidence -- already published by the LA Times and Washington Post, among others -- which raise serious questions about the reliability of the administration's accusations against Iran. There is no excuse whatsoever for writing a long, prominent article summarizing the administration's claims without even alluding to that evidence, let alone failing to conduct any investigation to determine the accuracy of the government's statements.

UPDATE: As I noted the other day, The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin published a list of basic journalistic rules for avoiding the media's government-enabling mistakes in Vietnam and Iraq. If the NYT set out to create a textbook article which violates as many of these principles as possible, it would not have been able to surpass the article published today by Gordon. Here are just a few of Froomkin's rules:

You Can’t Be Too Skeptical of Authority

  • Don’t assume anything administration officials tell you is true. In fact, you are probably better off assuming anything they tell you is a lie.


  • Demand proof for their every assertion. Assume the proof is a lie. Demand that they prove that their proof is accurate.


  • Just because they say it, doesn’t mean it should be make the headlines. The absence of supporting evidence for their assertion -- or a preponderance of evidence that contradicts the assertion -- may be more newsworthy than the assertion itself.


  • Don’t print anonymous assertions. Demand that sources make themselves accountable for what they insist is true.


Provocation Alone Does Not Justify War


  • War is so serious that even proving the existence of a casus belli isn’t enough. Make officials prove to the public that going to war will make things better.


Be Particularly Skeptical of Secrecy

  • Don’t assume that these officials, with their access to secret intelligence, know more than you do.


  • Alternately, assume that they do indeed know more than you do – and are trying to keep intelligence that would undermine their arguments secret.


Don’t Just Give Voice to the Administration Officials

  • Give voice to the skeptics; don’t marginalize and mock them.


  • Listen to and quote the people who got it right last time: The intelligence officials, state department officials, war-college instructors and many others who predicted the problem we are now facing, but who were largely ignored.

Is there a single journalistic principle which this article did not violate?

UPDATE II: As Greg Mitchell recalls in an article in Editor & Publisher, it was Michael Gordon "who, on his own, or with Judith Miller, wrote some of the key, and badly misleading or downright inaccurate, articles about Iraqi WMDs in the run-up to the 2003 invasion," and Gordon himself "wrote with Miller the paper's most widely criticized -- even by the Times itself -- WMD story of all, the Sept. 8, 2002, 'aluminum tubes' story that proved so influential, especially since the administration trumpeted it on TV talk shows" (h/t Zack).

The fundamental flaws in this article are as glaring as they are grotesque. Given the very ignominious history of Gordon and the NYT concerning the administration's war-seeking claims, how can this article possibly have been published?

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