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A Shaky Briefing on Iran?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, February 12, 2007; 11:56 AM

For a long time now, Bush administration officials have been promising reporters proof that the Iranian government is supplying deadly weaponry to Iraqi militants.

The administration finally unveiled its case this weekend, first in coordinated and anonymous leaks to a trusting New York Times reporter, then in an extraordinarily secretive military briefing at which no one would speak on the record, journalists weren't allowed to photograph the so-called evidence, and nothing even remotely like proof of direct Iranian government involvement was presented.

The result: The White House got the headlines it wanted.

But there is plenty of reason for reporters to be suspicious of the administration's claims.

And looking at the big picture, one can't help but wonder: Is this deja vu all over again? Is the Bush admininistration once again building a faulty case for war, this time against Iran? And is the press going along for the ride?

The Gordon Piece

Michael R. Gordon started the ball rolling in the Saturday New York Times: "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."

This is about as close as Gordon gets to skepticism: "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."

Gordon acknowledges the obvious context -- "Any assertion of an Iranian contribution to attacks on Americans in Iraq is both politically and diplomatically volatile," he writes -- but then gives his sources a pass: "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."

It was up to Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher and blogger Glenn Greenwald to put Gordon's own report in context.

"What is the source of this volatile information?" Mitchell asked. "Nothing less than 'civilian and military officials from a broad range of government agencies.'

"Sound pretty convincing? It may be worth noting that the author is Michael R. Gordon, the same Times reporter 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."

Writes Greenwald: "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. . . .

"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."

And as Greenwald notes, Gordon's story appears to violate quite a few of the basic journalistic rules for avoiding the media's government-enabling mistakes in Vietnam and Iraq that I tried to sketch out for NiemanWatchdog.org last week.

The Briefing

"Military Ties Iran To Arms In Iraq," blares the headline over Joshua Partlow's story in today's Washington Post: "Senior U.S. military officials in Iraq sought Sunday to link Iran to deadly armor-piercing explosives and other weapons that they said are being used to kill U.S. and Iraqi troops with increasing regularity.

"During a long-awaited presentation, held in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, the officials displayed mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenades and a powerful cylindrical bomb, capable of blasting through an armored Humvee, that they said were manufactured in Iran and supplied to Shiite militias in Iraq for attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops."

Partlow does gives readers some indication of how unusual the briefing was. He writes that the senior defense official who was joined by a defense analyst and an explosives expert, "said they would speak only on the condition of anonymity, so the explosives expert and the analyst, who would normally not speak to the news media, could provide information directly. The analyst's exact title and full name were not revealed to reporters. The officials released a PowerPoint presentation including photographs of the weaponry, but did not allow media representatives to record, photograph or videotape the briefing or the materials on display. . . .

"With so much official U.S. buildup about the purported evidence of Iranian influence in Iraq, the briefing was also notable for what was not said or shown. The officials offered no evidence to substantiate allegations that the 'highest levels' of the Iranian government had sanctioned support for attacks against U.S. troops. Also, the military briefers were not joined by U.S. diplomats or representatives of the CIA or the office of the Director of National Intelligence."

And Partlow offers this useful perspective: "Iraq's deputy foreign minister, Labeed M. Abbawi, said in an interview Sunday that the Iraqi government remains in the dark about the full U.S. investigation into Iranian activities in Iraq. 'It is difficult for us here in the diplomatic circles just to accept whatever the American forces say is evidence,' he said.

"'If they have anything really conclusive, then they should come out and say it openly, then we will pick it up from there and use diplomatic channels' to discuss it with Iran, he said. 'The method or the way it's being done should be changed, to have more cooperation with us.'"

"U.S. Says Arms Link Iranians to Iraqi Shiites" is the headline over James Glanz's story in today's New York Times. A couple paragraphs down, Glanz acknowledges some problems with the presentation: "The officials also asserted, without providing direct evidence, that Iranian leaders had authorized smuggling those weapons into Iraq for use against the Americans. The officials said such an assertion was an inference based on general intelligence assessments.

"That inference, and the anonymity of the officials who made it, seemed likely to generate skepticism among those suspicious that the Bush administration is trying to find a scapegoat for its problems in Iraq, and perhaps even trying to lay the groundwork for war with Iran. . . .

"The officials also were defensive about the timing of disclosing such incriminating evidence, since they had known about it as early as 2004."

"U.S. makes case that Iran arms flow into Iraq" is the headline for Tina Susman and Borzou Daragahi's story in the Los Angeles Times, although the subhead -- "A limited number of munitions are displayed at a secretive briefing" --reflects some of their skepticism.

Susman and Daragahi write: "With two U.S. warship groups in the Persian Gulf, the allegations raised suspicion that the Bush administration was trying to build a case for war, much as it had used intelligence reports to win support for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"'That's how we got into the mess in Iraq,' Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) said on CBS television. 'That's why some of us supported those resolutions, because of doctored information. So I'm very skeptical based on recent past history about this administration.'"

The hook-line-and-sinker award (print edition) goes to Jim Michaels, who writes in USA Today: "The U.S. military said Sunday that armor-piercing roadside bombs sent by Iran to Shiite extremists have killed 170 American and coalition troops in Iraq.

"U.S. military officials, who declined requests to be identified, said shipments of weapons and ammunition to Iraq's Shiite militias were being directed at the highest levels of the Iranian government.

"In a briefing, U.S. officials showed reporters part of a device they described as a sophisticated roadside bomb, along with mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades they said were made in Iran. Later, one of the officials, an intelligence analyst, said it would be impossible to find a 'smoking gun' conclusively proving Iranian government involvement."

On the other hand, Babak Dehghanpisheh writes for Newsweek: "The long-awaited Baghdad briefing had plenty of props. . . .

"But if their job was to provide proof of Tehran's involvement in Iraq's bloodshed, they're unlikely to convince the doubters with what was shown Sunday."

AFP reports: "Iran has angrily dismissed as 'baseless' propaganda US charges that its agents had smuggled armour-piercing bombs to Shiite militias in Iraq, amid mounting tensions with its arch-enemy. . . .

"'The manner of presenting this claim, in a session with reporters, without filming and recording equipment, and with unnamed officials, is a trick unacceptable to other countries,' [foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said] according to the Mehr agency."

On the Road to War?

Karen DeYoung writes in Sunday's Washington Post: "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates insisted again Friday that, despite persistent reports to the contrary circulating in Washington and around the world, the United States is not planning military action against Iran.

"'I don't know how many times the president, Secretary Rice and I have had to repeat that we have no intention of attacking Iran,' an exasperated Gates told reporters at a NATO meeting in Spain. In fact, he said, the administration has consciously tried to 'tone down' its rhetoric on the subject."

But Michael Hirsh and Maziar Bahari write in a Newsweek cover story: "At least one former White House official contends that some Bush advisers secretly want an excuse to attack Iran. 'They intend to be as provocative as possible and make the Iranians do something [America] would be forced to retaliate for,' says Hillary Mann, the administration's former National Security Council director for Iran and Persian Gulf Affairs. U.S. officials insist they have no intention of provoking or otherwise starting a war with Iran."

Hirsh and Bahari conclude that "the longstanding war of words between Washington and Tehran is edging toward something more dangerous. A second Navy carrier group is steaming toward the Persian Gulf, and Newsweek has learned that a third carrier will likely follow. Iran shot off a few missiles in those same tense waters last week, in a highly publicized test. With Americans and Iranians jousting on the chaotic battleground of Iraq, the chances of a small incident's spiraling into a crisis are higher than they've been in years."

And Ewen MacAskill writes in The Guardian: "US preparations for an air strike against Iran are at an advanced stage, in spite of repeated public denials by the Bush administration, according to informed sources in Washington.

"The present military build-up in the Gulf would allow the US to mount an attack by the spring. But the sources said that if there was an attack, it was more likely next year, just before Mr Bush leaves office.

"Neo-conservatives, particularly at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, are urging Mr Bush to open a new front against Iran. So too is the vice-president, Dick Cheney. "

Arnaud de Borchgrave writes for UPI: "At a farewell reception at Blair House for the retiring chief of protocol, Don Ensenat, who was President Bush's Yale roommate, the president shook hands with Washington Life Magazine's Soroush Shehabi. 'I'm the grandson of one of the late Shah's ministers,' said Soroush, 'and I simply want to say one U.S. bomb on Iran and the regime we all despise will remain in power for another 20 or 30 years and 70 million Iranians will become radicalized.'

"'I know,' President Bush answered.

"'But does Vice President Cheney know?' asked Soroush.

"President Bush chuckled and walked away."

Iran Opinion Watch

Former CNN executive Eason Jordan writes in his blog: "Why are US officials hiding behind the cloak of anonymity when presenting the most detailed evidence yet that Iran is supplying weaponry to anti-US forces in Iraq?

"After weeks, if not months, of US official planning to present a damning 'dossier' of incriminating evidence against Iran, and after this same US administration presented us with lopsided, erroneous information about the capability and evil intentions of the Saddam Hussein regime, the best the US government can give us today is incendiary evidence presented at a Baghdad news conference by three US officials who refuse to be quoted by name?"

He adds that an Iraqi news service report "identified one of the three speakers as Major General William Caldwell, whose portfolio includes public affairs and who holds frequent news conferences and grants one-on-one interviews. So, if the . . . report identifying Caldwell is correct, why did every other news organization apparently agree to grant anonymity to the general who's the official spokesman of the US-led Multi-National Force in Iraq?"

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "[T]here's no way Congress will approve another war resolution. But if you can claim that Iran is doing evil in Iraq, you can assert that you don't need authorization to attack -- that Congress has already empowered the administration to do whatever is necessary to stabilize Iraq. And by the time the lawyers are finished arguing -- well, the war would be in full swing. . . .

"Why wasn't any official willing to take personal responsibility for the reliability of alleged evidence of Iranian mischief, as opposed to being an anonymous source? If the evidence is solid enough to bear close scrutiny, why were all cameras and recording devices, including cellphones, banned from yesterday's Baghdad briefing?

"It's still hard to believe that they're really planning to attack Iran, when it's so obvious that another war would be a recipe for even bigger disaster. But remember who's calling the shots: Dick Cheney thinks we've had 'enormous successes' in Iraq."

Dick Cheney Watch

Will Cheney testify at Scooter Libby's trial? We're on pins and needles waiting to find out.

Scott Shane and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times: "One figure has dominated the trial of I. Lewis Libby Jr. without even showing up in the courtroom. Day after day, the jury has heard accounts of the actions of Vice President Dick Cheney, watched as his handwritten notes were displayed on a giant screen, heard how he directed leaks to the news media and ordered the White House to publicly defend Mr. Libby, his top aide and close confidante. . . .

"If he testifies, Mr. Cheney will bring to the jurors the awesome authority of his office and could attest to Mr. Libby's character as policy adviser and family man, and to his crushing workload and dedication to keeping the country safe. . . .

"Under cross-examination by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, a veteran prosecutor who is likely to be deferential but dogged with questions, the vice president may be forced to describe in uncomfortable detail how he directed the counteroffensive on Joseph C. Wilson IV, the former ambassador who accused the administration of twisting prewar intelligence.....

"If Mr. Cheney makes a statement that conflicts with the public record -- and nearly every witness so far has done so at least once -- it could prove embarrassing for him and for the administration."

David Johnston writes in the New York Times: "If he testifies as expected, Dick Cheney would be the first sitting vice president, at least in modern times, to appear as a witness in a criminal trial. And if he testifies in court, he may also be the first to give live testimony in defense of a subordinate's actions on his behalf, legal historians said."

Michael Isikoff writes in Newsweek with an important point: If Libby's lawyers want Cheney to testify, they'd better act quick.

Cheney "is due to leave the country for a 10-day trip to Asia on Feb. 19.

"So conveniently or not, the vice president's loyalty to his former top aide may now run smack up against the imperatives of U.S. foreign relations. The vice president recently called Libby 'a strong friend and supporter.' But Cheney already has meetings scheduled with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister John Howard, according to a recent press release from his office that has gotten virtually no media attention."

Other Libby News

Amy Goldstein and Carol D. Leonnig write for washingtonpost.com today: "Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus testified in court this morning that then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, not I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, was the first person to tell him that a prominent critic of the Iraq war was married to undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame."

Richard B. Schmitt of the Los Angeles Times wonders if Libby himself will testify.

"Libby and his lawyers face a Hobson's choice about what is normally the make-or-break decision in criminal trials.

"His unusual defense to perjury charges in the CIA leak case -- that he misspoke because he was having to juggle so many other duties as Cheney's chief of staff -- would seem to require that he take the witness stand to explain it.

"But if he testifies, Libby also risks exposing himself to serious questions about his credibility and a grilling by a prosecutor with a reputation for doggedness."

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "Just when you thought it was impossible for more harm to come to the national news media's reputation, the defense in the trial of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff is about to present its case.

"Starting today, when Libby's attorneys try to show that he did not intentionally lie about his role in leaking the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame, they will rely heavily on a string of journalists as witnesses. In several ways, those witnesses will be asked to raise doubts about the testimony and accuracy of other reporters, and some may end up tarnishing themselves or their sources."

The Big Picture

Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor that "what has captured the fascination of the press and observers of the Bush administration is how this case has pulled back the curtain on the inner workings of a White House known for being secretive and on the ways of elite Washington -- much of it less than flattering. And even if the perjury trial of a former aide may seem to be a sideshow to the weightier issues of the day, the context of the Libby trial remains central: the runup to the Iraq war and its aftermath when the rationale for the war came under question.

"'This trial stands for something much bigger than what it is,' says Paul Rothstein, a law professor at Georgetown University. 'In the public mind, it stands for, "Was Bush lying about the war, and was he willing to destroy a woman's career to cover up a lie about the war?" Viewed that way, it's a big case. The case doesn't actually go that far, but that's how it will be read if Libby is convicted.' "

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Sworn testimony in the perjury trial of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby has shone a spotlight on White House attempts to sell a gone-wrong war in Iraq to the nation and Vice President Dick Cheney's aggressive role in the effort. . . .

"'What didn't he touch? It's almost like there was almost nothing too trivial for the vice president to handle,' said New York University professor Paul Light, an expert in the bureaucracy of the executive branch.

"'The details suggest Cheney was almost a deputy president with a shadow operation. He had his own source of advice. He had his own source of access. He was making his own decisions,' Light said."

Cheney's Power

Yochi J. Dreazen writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Dick Cheney's diminished popularity outside the White House hasn't affected his power within the Bush administration, where he continues to hold considerable clout. From the surge of troops in Iraq to the tough line on Iran to opposition to tax increases, the vice president has helped to shape an array of recent administration policies. . . .

"Mr. Cheney's top foreign policy aide, John Hannah, shaped the administration's 'surge' proposal for Iraq. David Wurmser, Mr. Cheney's top Middle East aide, helped to craft the administration's tougher stance toward Iran. On the domestic front, senators from both parties said last week that Mr. Cheney's antitax positions had contributed to derailing talks between congressional Democrats and the administration on a budget plan that might include changes to the Social Security and Medicare entitlement programs. . . .

"But as his standing erodes among the administration's most conservative supporters, Mr. Cheney finds himself being criticized by former allies and emerging as a focal point for Republican anger about the war in Iraq. That is making it easier for Republicans to split with the administration on a number of issues, notably Iraq."

Dreazen writes that conservative displeasure with Cheney centers around Iraq, the administration's failure to limit government spending, and Cheney's "support for his daughter Mary's decision to have a child and raise it with her partner, another woman."

Cheney's Snub

The Associated Press reports: "Vice President Dick Cheney will not meet with Japan's defense minister during his trip to the country next week, a decision Japanese media characterized as a snub over the official calling the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq a 'mistake.'

"Kyodo news agency said Cheney has asked Japan not to schedule any talks with Defense Minister Jumio Kyuma, who criticized the decision to go to war last month because he said it was based on the erroneous assumption that Saddam Hussein's government had weapons of mass destruction.

"Kyuma later backtracked, saying he meant that the decision to attack Iraq should have been thought through more cautiously."

Young Cheney

Adam Liptak writes in the New York Times: "Returning to the White House after the Memorial Day weekend in 1975, the young aide Dick Cheney found himself handling a First Amendment showdown. The New York Times had published an article by Seymour M. Hersh about an espionage program, and the White House chief of staff, Donald H. Rumsfeld, was demanding action."

In Cheney's notes, "his own views shine through. He is hostile to the press and to Congress, insistent on the prerogatives of the executive branch and adamant about the importance of national security secrets."

Iraq Opinion Watch

Former NSA director William E. Odom writes in The Washington Post's Outlook section: "The new http://www.odni.gov/press_releases/20070202_release.pdf

National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq starkly delineates the gulf that separates President Bush's illusions from the realities of the war. Victory, as the president sees it, requires a stable liberal democracy in Iraq that is pro-American. The NIE describes a war that has no chance of producing that result. In this critical respect, the NIE, the consensus judgment of all the U.S. intelligence agencies, is a declaration of defeat."

Odom outlines what he calls the most pernicious myths invoked to try to sell the president's new war aims. Among them:

"1) We must continue the war to prevent the terrible aftermath that will occur if our forces are withdrawn soon. Reflect on the double-think of this formulation. We are now fighting to prevent what our invasion made inevitable! Undoubtedly we will leave a mess -- the mess we created, which has become worse each year we have remained. Lawmakers gravely proclaim their opposition to the war, but in the next breath express fear that quitting it will leave a blood bath, a civil war, a terrorist haven, a 'failed state,' or some other horror. But this 'aftermath' is already upon us; a prolonged U.S. occupation cannot prevent what already exists."

Odom, one of the earliest advocates of an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, outlined his position in six major articles on NiemanWatchdog.org starting in August 2005.

Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "The war in Iraq is a historic strategic and moral calamity undertaken under false assumptions. It is undermining America's global legitimacy. Its collateral civilian casualties, as well as some abuses, are tarnishing America's moral credentials. Driven by Manichean impulses and imperial hubris, it is intensifying regional instability.

"Yet major strategic decisions in the Bush administration continue to be made within a very narrow circle of individuals -- perhaps not more than the fingers on one hand. With the exception of the new Defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, these are the same individuals who have been involved from the start of this misadventure, who made the original decision to go to war in Iraq and who used the original false justifications for going to war."

'Not Ready to Make Nice'

J. Freedom du Lac writes in The Washington Post: "The Dixie Chicks got the last laugh Sunday night. Rejected by the country establishment, the polarizing group was tickled to find itself in the warm embrace of the broader Recording Academy, which honored the Chicks with five Grammy Awards -- including the three biggest: album of the year, record of the year and song of the year. . . .

"' Not Ready to Make Nice,' the group's defiant answer to the angry country fans who'd criticized the group for criticizing Bush, won song of the year, the industry's top songwriting award."

Lead singer Natalie Maines told a London concert crowd, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003: "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas."

As Geoff Boucher writes in the Los Angeles Times: "That led to radio bans, CD burnings, death threats and the Nashville career collapse for a group that had been among country music's most bankable acts."

Russert Watch

Scott Collins writes in his Los Angeles Times TV column: "Those of us who get a kick out of watching Tim Russert every Sunday on NBC's 'Meet the Press' are feeling a little hangdog these days. We always thought Big Russ Jr. was tough on the powerful. Now we learn that to some Washington media types on both the right and the left, he's just a tool for the powerful."

Collins's verdict: "Russert can seem overly dispassionate, particularly during a time when opinion has increasingly bled into the news. And it's the lack of emotion that can make his approach look, after a while, less like real toughness than a facsimile of it."

Cartoon Watch

John Sherffius on the Libby trial; Mike Luckovich on Tim Russert; Tony Auth on Bush and the truth.

And in the Los Angeles Times, Joel Pett showcases several withering Cheney cartoons.

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