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, January 23, 2007

Investigating, rather than reciting, Bush claims re: Iran

(updated below)

Something odd occurred this week: Fox News -- spewing filth churned out by the lowest depths of right-wing innuendo swamps -- was "reporting" the two-pronged falsehood that Barak Obama attended a "madrassa" as a child and that it was Hillary Clinton's campaign which maliciously disclosed that story. There is, of course, nothing at all odd about any of that.

But in response, the national media -- rather than merely passing those accusations along -- decided instead to subject them to critical scrutiny, investigate the claimed basis for the accusations, found that there was no basis, and then reported that the story was completely unfounded. Or, to put it another way, they fulfilled their most basic and defining function as "journalists" by investigating, rather than reciting, other people's claims.

Encouragingly, the media is beginning to engage in a similar exercise concerning the President's war-pushing accusations towards Iran. And they are finding that those accusations have about as much basis as Fox's Obama/Hillary story did.

In his "surge" speech two weeks ago, the President claimed that "Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops." As a result, he vowed: "We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq." By all accounts, he intends to repeat that accusation and those threats against Iran in his State of the Union speech.

If this were 2003, every front page headline and lead-in to every television news programs would declare: "Iran responsible for attacks on U.S. troops." The more conscientious ones might add the phrase ", the President reveals." But all of the stories would contain one paragraph after the next asserting the administration's claims about Iran as fact, and would include no investigation of those claims or any real contrary assertions. That was government propaganda masquerading as "independent reporting" -- entire stories, day after day, published as fact based on nothing other than the claims of the government ("Bush officials said"; "senior administration officials today disclosed", etc. etc.).

But, at least in some notable places, the opposite is occurring with Bush's provocative Iran claims. Back in October, The Washington Post published an excellent article by Ellen Knickmeyer -- headlined: British Find No Evidence of Arms Traffic from Iran -- which detailed the fact that the British military in Southern Iraq, where one would expect to find evidence of Iranian arms traffic if it actually existed in any substantial form, has found nothing of the sort:

Since late August, British commandos in the deserts of far southeastern Iraq have been testing one of the most serious charges leveled by the United States against Iran: that Iran is secretly supplying weapons, parts, funding and training for attacks on U.S.-led forces in Iraq. . . . . There's just one thing.

"I suspect there's nothing out there," the commander, Lt. Col. David Labouchere, said last month, speaking at an overnight camp near the border. "And I intend to prove it."

Other senior British military leaders spoke as explicitly in interviews over the previous two months. Britain, whose forces have had responsibility for security in southeastern Iraq since the war began, has found nothing to support the Americans' contention that Iran is providing weapons and training in Iraq, several senior military officials said.

"I have not myself seen any evidence -- and I don't think any evidence exists -- of government-supported or instigated" armed support on Iran's part in Iraq, British Defense Secretary Des Browne said in an interview in Baghdad in late August.

Today, The LA Times published a similar article -- headlined: Scant Evidence Found of Iran-Iraq Arms Link. Detailing the (largely futile) efforts to find evidence of Iranian arms shipments in the Southern border province of Diyala (a highly likely locale for such activity, if it existed), the Times reports that while the U.S. military claims to have found some Iranian mortars and antitank mines in Iraq, "there has been little sign of more advanced weaponry crossing the border, and no Iranian agents have been found." The article added:

For all the aggressive rhetoric, however, the Bush administration has provided scant evidence to support these claims. Nor have reporters traveling with U.S. troops seen extensive signs of Iranian involvement. During a recent sweep through a stronghold of Sunni insurgents here, a single Iranian machine gun turned up among dozens of arms caches U.S. troops uncovered. British officials have similarly accused Iran of meddling in Iraqi affairs, but say they have not found Iranian-made weapons in areas they patrol.

The lack of publicly disclosed evidence has led to questions about whether the administration is overstating its case.

And, to the extent there is any evidence of Iranian involvement in Iraq, it is to aid Shiite factions (such as The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution) which "are not those that have led attacks against U.S. forces. Instead, they are nominal U.S. allies."

The gradual revelation of the total lack of any credible evidence to support the Bush administration's claim that Iran is all but fueling a war on the U.S. inside Iraq coincides with increasingly absolutist claims by Bush officials that Iran is guilty of such acts. Here is what CIA Director Michael Hayden said at a recent Congressional hearing:

I've come to a much darker interpretation of Iranian actions in the past 12 to 18 months . . . There is a clear line of evidence that points out the Iranians want to punish the United States, hurt the United States in Iraq, tie down the United States in Iraq.

But when Bush officials claim they have "evidence" of Iran's violent behavior towards the U.S. in Iraq, what they mean by "evidence" is the same kind of "evidence" on which the pre-war Iraq claims of WMDs and Iraq-Al Qaeda alliances were based: namely, wild, unverified claims from Chalabi-like, AEI-touted, pro-Iran-war "sources" -- the kind who rant recklessly to Michael Ledeen and other warmonger pundits.

As Justin Raimondo pointed out, there is a critical difference between "intelligence" and "evidence." In the Bush world, "intelligence" includes "anything said by 'sources' no matter their credibility or agenda," and they then characterize those unverified claims as "evidence" (as in: "There is a clear line of evidence that points out the Iranians want to punish the United States, hurt the United States in Iraq").

But as was true for the administration's pre-war Iraq claims, they have "intelligence" but no "evidence" (despite extensive searching) to support what they hope are their pre-war accusations against Iran. And no rational person -- and, apparently, even fewer journalists this time around -- are going to accept Bush accusations towards Iran without "evidence."

While it is certainly encouraging to see national media outlets subjecting Bush claims to genuine scrutiny, that alone is not going to defuse the grave threat posed by the President's clear intent to confront Iran one way or the other. It is highly doubtful that the administration believes it can roll out some grand marketing campaign for a new war against Iran similar to the one it unleashed for Iraq. That is not what it is attempting here.

Instead, the administration wants to take a more circuitous route to creating a conflict with Iran -- by provoking the Iranians, contriving a pretext for an attack, fostering war-generating miscalculation, etc. These increasingly bellicose accusations against Iran are designed to create and fuel that climate. Exposing the utter falsity of the President's statements regarding Iran is an important and valuable exercise, but it is not sufficient to impede an American attack of some sort on Iran.

The President's desire for war with Iran doesn't depend upon convincing Americans and the Congress as part of some grand debate of the need for a new war. They know they can't achieve that. The plan depends upon the hope (and belief) that nobody and nothing can stop the administration as it finds a way to escalate what we are doing in Iraq until it gradually includes Iran.

The administration and its allies have already begun aggressively asserting that the President does not need Congressional authorization or anything else in order an outright attack on Iran. When it comes to their war plans, they don't care about public opinion anymore. For that reason -- as was amply demonstrated by the President's now already underway "surge" plan -- merely winning the public debate over Iran will not be anywhere near sufficient to impede the President's plans regarding Iran.

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I will be on Air America with Sam Seder this morning at 9:20 a.m. EST to discuss the testimony of Alberto Gonzales last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Local listings are here and you can listen by audio feed here.

UPDATE: Via Steve Clemons, this is a somewhat disturbing (though not at all surprising) account from The Financial Times' Gideon Rachman of an event (attended by Rachman) held in Herzliyah, Israel in which Iran War fervor was everywhere (h/t Freedom). The participants included John McCain and Rudy Guiliani (by satellite) and, in person: Newt Gingrich, Ehud Olmert, Benjamin Netanyahu, Richard Perle, James Woosley, the State Department's Nicholas Burns, and the Defense Department's Gordon England. John Edwards will appear by satellite, too. Anyone who doubts that an Iran-U.S. military confrontation is possible should read Rachman's account.

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