(This story originally appeared at the website of the Columbia Journalism Review.)
A source provides details to the American government about the nefarious activities of a Middle Eastern country. That information ends up in scores of secret U.S. government documents. Subsequently, the information winds up on the front pages of major newspapers, and is heralded by war hawks in Washington as a casus belli.
Sound familiar? It should, but perhaps not in the way you're thinking. Here's a hint: It's not 2003, but 2010. This is the story of what happened recently to Iran in the wake of the latest WikiLeaks document release, where US military field reports from Iraq made their way into major national newspapers and painted the Islamic Republic as a force out to murder U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
While the WikiLeaks document dump provided a useful way to glean historic details of the seven-year-old occupation, much of the prominent media coverage focused closely on the extent of Iranian support for anti-U.S. forces in Iraq and Iran's alleged role.
"Leaked Reports Detail Iran's Aid for Iraqi Militias," blared the headline on a front page story in The New York Times, which went on to report on several incidents recounted in WikiLeaks documents that journalist Michael Gordon called "the shadow war between the United States and Iraqi militias backed by Iran's Revolutionary Guards."
"The field reports also provide a detailed account of what American military officials on the ground in Iraq saw as Iran's shadowy role training and equipping Iraqi Shiite militias to fight the U.S.," wrote Julian Barnes in The Wall Street Journal. "American intelligence believed the training was provided not only by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iran, but also by Hezbollah, their Lebanese ally."
And the hawks went wild.
Iraq war supporter and Newsweek Middle East regional editor Christopher Dickey wondered about the inevitability of the U.S. getting ready to "strike back with a vengeance." Neoconservative journalist Jamie Kirchick wrote a piece on his Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty blog headlined "How WikiLeaks Makes Confrontation With Iran More Likely." He went on to say that "what is now beyond dispute is that it clearly sees itself as engaged in a war against the United States."
But, despite Kirchick's assertions, the details in the WikiLeaks document dump were not actually "beyond dispute."
The Journal's take hinted at the problem, and the Times mentioned that the reports were based on events "as seen by American units in the field and the United States' military intelligence." These reports are accounts--and often single-source accounts--by U.S. military officials, based largely on unnamed sources whose motivations cannot even be guessed at, let alone their version of events confirmed.
"What the documents reflect is the American military's view of what was happening," NYU Center on Law and Security fellow Nir Rosen told the radio show Democracy Now! "If they record a death, if they record a torture incident, then that's a factual incident that occurred and we know it's true historically."
"But a lot of the other allegations about Iranian involvement or various plots, people have been giving them too much credence," he continued. "The New York Times, for example, has been really celebrating the alleged role of Iran simply because American guys on the ground have been reporting the role of Iran."
"This is the same American intelligence that thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and thought that Saddam had connections to September 11," said Rosen, who just finished a second book chronicling his time in Iraq. "We need to be skeptical about some of the allegations."
Indeed, if one amended the above opening paragraph to say, 'the U.S. launched an invasion of said nefarious Middle Eastern country,' this tale would obviously be the story of Curveball, the famously fraudulent defector source who provided details of Iraq's alleged biological weapons program to German intelligence, which passed it on to their U.S. counterparts.
Curveball's information made its way into 112 reports from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency between January 2000 and September 2001. Eventually, Curveball's story wound up in the controversial October 2002 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, which omitted early warnings about Curveball's reliability. The NIE was created to pass to Congress ahead of a vote to authorize force against Iraq, which Congress did. The false accusation about mobile biological weapons labs eventually made into President George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union address and, just nine days later, in Secretary of State Colin Powell'saddress to the U.N. Security Council. Exactly six weeks after that, the U.S. launched its invasion of Iraq.
And now this drama is replaying with Iran at center stage. Given the intelligence debacle in the run up to the Iraq war, many observers are urging a more cautious reading of the intelligence reports contained in the WikiLeaks dump.
"The documents released by WikiLeaks are U.S. government documents produced by intelligence agencies and others and, as such, should not be accepted as confirming anything other than that the U.S. is producing information about Iran's perceived role in Iraq," said Joost Hiltermann, the deputy director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East Program.
"It won't take much to convince me, based on research in Iraq, that Iran has been playing a certain role in Iraq involving weapons supplies, armed attacks, war by proxy, and what have you," Hiltermann continued. "But this is not the same as accepting intelligence documents produced by a party to the conflict between the U.S. and Iran hook, line, and sinker as incontrovertible proof that Iran has been doing x, y, and z."
University of Minnesota professor William Beeman wrote on his blog that the documents do not constitute proof, but rather only give "verbatim internal reports" instead of broader accusations previously made by senior military officials in Iraq. The older allegations seem to have been based on the reports, but Beeman notes that "the evidence is no more compelling for its repetition."
And at the Foreign Policy Journal website, Jeremy Hammond, in the course of picking apart the Times piece for inconsistencies, notes that the claim that some revelations were "broadly consistent" with other classified documents and official accounts--all of which would also come through the lens of the U.S. government.
"As for being 'broadly consistent' with public accounts by military officials, this is a meaningless statement from which no conclusions about the accuracy of the reports may be drawn," continues Hammond. "After all, the infamous documents purporting to show that Iraq under Saddam Hussein had sought to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger were 'broadly consistent' with public claims about Iraq's possession and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but they were fabrications nevertheless."
And therein lies the call for more caution in reading single-source U.S. government (in this case, military/ intelligence) reports--mistakes have been made before, and they left Iraq in a bloody shambles. Skepticism would be especially well-founded for the New York Timespiece on Iran's ties to the Shia insurgency in Iraq. Consider this sampling of Times articles on the subject, along with the bylines:
- "Iran Aiding Shiite Attacks Inside Iraq, General Says," June 23, 2006, by Michael R. Gordon
- "Iran Ties Role in Iraq Talks to U.S. Exit," December 10, 2006, by Hassan M. Fattah and Michael R. Gordon
- "U.S. Says Captured Iranians Can Be Linked to Attacks," December 27, 2006, by Sabrina Tavernise with contributed reporting from Michael R. Gordon
- "Deadliest Bomb in Iraq is Made by Iran, U.S. Says," Feb. 10, 2007, by Michael R. Gordon
- "U.S. Says Arms Link Iranians to Iraqi Shiites," Feb. 12, 2007, by James Glanz with contributed reporting from Michael R. Gordon
- "Why Accuse Iran of Meddling Now? U.S. Officials Explain," Feb. 15, 2007, by Michael R. Gordon
- "U.S. Says Raid in Iraq Supports Claim on Iran," Feb. 26, 2007, by James Glanz and Richard A. Oppel Jr. with contributed reporting from Michael R. Gordon
- "U.S. Long Worried that Iran Supplied Arms in Iraq," March 27, 2007, by Michael R. Gordon and Scott Shane
- "U.S. Ties Iran to Deadly Attack," July 2, 2007, by Michael R. Gordon
- "U.S. Says Iran Helped Iraqis Kill Five G.I.s," July 3, 2007, by John F. Burns and Michael R. Gordon
- "U.S. Says Iran-Supplied Bomb Kills More Troops," August 8, 2007, by Michael R. Gordon
- "Hezbollah Trains Iraqis in Iran, Officials Say," May 5, 2008, by Michael R. Gordon
Now fast forward two years, and we arrive at the article about the WikiLeaks document dump and Iran's involvement in Iraq:
- "Leaked Report Detail Iran's Aid for Iraqi Militias," October 22, 2010, by Michael R. Gordon and Andrew W. Lehren
You might be forgiven for seeing a consistent pattern emerging here. And when you look at the two-year-long string of articles about Iran and Iraq listed above, with all those accounts from often unnamed U.S. officials, and then the WikiLeaks documents that bear out these anonymous accounts with more detailed anonymous accounts, you wonder if Gordon is not defending his own record when he wrote last month that:
During the administration of President George W. Bush, critics charged that the White House had exaggerated Iran's role to deflect criticism of its handling of the war and build support for a tough policy toward Iran, including the possibility of military action.
Given that last clause, and in light of what happened in 2002 and 2003, you might even wonder if Gordon is reading the WikiLeaks documents cautiously enough and seeking out dissent. The least, it seems, we readers can do--maybe must do--is show some caution of our own in accepting these claims about Iran.
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