Iraq Redux? Media Parroting Dubious IAEA Iran Claims


In a remarkable column in the Guardian, Brian Whitaker points out both the uncritical way in which most of the press is merely parroting the accusations in the IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear technology and how this process feels very much like the propaganda campaign that led to the invasion of Iraq:

“One of the oldest tricks in the run-up to a war is to spread terrifying stories of things that the enemy may be about to do. Government officials plant these tales, journalists water them and the public, for the most part, swallow them.” I wrote this paragraph in December 2002, some three months before the US launched its invasion of Iraq, but it seems just as applicable today in relation to Iran.

The Iraq war of 2003 followed a long media build-up in which talk about Saddam Hussein’s imaginary weapons of mass destruction, simply by virtue of its constant repetition, led many prominent journalists to abandon their critical faculties. The Washington Post, for instance, devoted an extraordinary 1,800 words to an extremely flimsy (but scary) story suggesting Iraq had supplied nerve gas to al-Qaida. The paper later conceded that its coverage of the Iraqi WMD issue had been seriously defective, but by then it was too late to undo the damage.

Whitaker then goes on to cite a number of media stories that breathlessly cite the IAEA allegations without any meaningful evaluation of the claims therein.  He cites b’s work at Moon of Alabama on the nanodiamond alternative to the claims of an explosive trigger device as an example of how one would go about critically examining the claims in the report.

He then closes with this:

Of course, these are extremely murky waters and I’m not at all sure who to believe. There is probably a lot of deception taking place on both sides. But what seems to me extraordinary is the reluctance of journalists – especially in the US mainstream – to acknowledge the uncertainties and their willingness to accept what, as far as Iran is concerned, are the most incriminating interpretations.

In addition to the examples Whitaker cites in his column (please read the entire column), I would offer the video above, where Christiane Amanpour interviews David Sanger.  In this interview, as in most other media reports, there isn’t even acknowledgment that the report itself admits that there is no proof that an active nuclear weapons development program has indeed been restarted in Iran after it was halted in 2003.  Instead, Amanpour and Sanger go into speculative details of how the US can intervene and prevent full development of a nuclear weapon.  They do stop short of war, but certainly point out how it would not be surprising.

There is one more sadly ironic parallel between the current buildup of rhetoric over Iran and the buildup to war in Iraq.  Throughout this process it should be kept in mind that the CIA’s WMD program took a very big hit when Robert Novak Dick Cheney outed Valerie Plame on July 14, 2003 as the Bush administration madly tried to to justify the faulty intelligence it fabricated and spread prior to the March, 2003 Iraq invasion.  Had Plame not been outed, the CIA’s capability in gathering WMD intelligence could have continued unabated, rather than needing a major regrouping after one of its major operatives was outed.  Perhaps the current state of intelligence on what is happening in Iran would be much better had that not happened.

There are a number of posts at Moon of Alabama providing chapter and verse on the debunking of the IAEA report, so I won’t repeat those details and links here.  Instead, I would just note that the credibility of the report has been brought into question by a number of independent observers, but that is a very difficult piece of information to obtain if one is exposed only to the traditional media outlets.  Let’s hope that the Iraq 2003 parallel isn’t so complete that traditional media only realize the low quality of the current “intelligence” after a war has started.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
11 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    jim white –

    you are doing a superb job of journalism in both reporting on the iaea report when it was leaked and subsequently doing follow-up stories on the consequences of that u.s. generated leak.

    in situations like this, it is persistent following-up that is so critical to citizens obtaining an accurate view of what has transpired, who the players are, and what their motives might be.

    thanks for your fine effort.

  2. WilliamOckham says:

    I wonder if it ever occurs to anyone to ask themselves why Iran would stop pursuing the development of a nuclear bomb in 2003. I wonder what could have happened in 2003 that would change their minds. It’s almost as if they faced some sort of existential threat and in 2003 it was suddenly eliminated. Let me think here… What country invaded Iran most recently…. Oh yeah, back in the ’80s they has some sort of kerfluffle with their neighbors in Iraq. Hmmm.. did something change in Iraq in 2003 that made it less of a threat? If only our policymakers had access to information about what was going on in Iraq in 2003.

  3. GregLBean says:

    I find it sad that some of the best non-Corporate Media contributors I read daily repeatedly discuss what I see as symptoms rather than the root cause. Maybe it’s just me, but.

    Glenn Greenwald has an excellent new discourse about the breakdown of the-rule-of-law in America, which is a symptom, but never touches on the cause. Marcy and Jim write widely about a number of worrying developments which I see as symptoms but rarely ( I cannot remember an instance but my memory ain’t as good as it once was) address what seems obvious to me to be the root cause.

    Only Noam Chomsky repeatedly raises the cause but it gets little airtime as it seems, in the U.S., to be just too close to the painful truth to even be acknowledged.

    Of what do I speak? Religious fanatacism!

    Read carefully the page at the 50 second mark of this video.

    When the cause can be discussed widely, and the religious leaders who pull the levers behind the scenes are thrust front and centre and told to solve the problem they create, maybe then we will see a change in attitude on a wide range of symptoms.

    Until then the fanatically religious U.S. will continue to wage religious war on the fanatically religious middle-east and support their fanatically religious middle-eastern state partner (even if the leader is widely seen as a liar) and the discussion will be about tactical rather than strategic efforts.

    2,000 years of crusades and we are still unable to even talk about the core problem.

    @GregLBean

  4. KWillow says:

    For decades, every few years Israel loudly claims Iran has or will soon have Nukes. And everyone starts running around in circles screeching in terror.

  5. rugger9 says:

    So, as noted in #3, someone wants he war very very badly, whether it’s Bibi needing a war to stay in power, or the fundies trying to hurry the Second Coming along [though the Lord says no one can predict the hour, much less hurry it along]. Somehow we need to shine the light on this, and tying the game to Iraq ought to help. Otherwise our kids die for Bibi, AIPAC, and Pat Robertson.

  6. JohnLopresti says:

    The new report probably is old news to lots of people. One of the political glosses, for me, in understanding the timing of its publication harkened back to the events in Egypt in the spring of 2011, at which time the recently exited from iaea leader elB figured in some negotiations with the transitional governing entities. I have not followed egyptian news much, so, do not know how soon, in what capacity, and to what extent, elB’s next career phase might pertain to further endeavors on his part to assure the events of spring in Egypt engender more middle class opportunity in that country.

    All those northern Africa events aside, there remain the post’s and comments’ fundamental questions about extent of advances in technology of ‘unconventional’ (in armsspeak) arms in iran currently, as well as viewed trendwise. Another area which I have not followed or studied was some of the reporting preceding the recent address at the UN from iran’s leader, which stimulated the US delagate and allies to march out of the audience. Ostensibly that leader’s political star was on the wane and the UN speech a tactic on his part to shore up constituencies.

    Attempting to peer beyond all these personal ignorances of mine, I scanned the excellent, and musically interesting, blogpost by JeffreyLewis posted last Monday, at recent viewing aggregating an additional 70+ comments in the thread there. ArmscontrolwonkLewis writes often about iran’s technology at that website. The thread from Monday he captioned “At The Crossroads With Iran”, and its musical allusion is framed in Lewis’ reproduction of an image of the young genius Robert Johnson, who composed a blues song with a similar name. I am not sure how far the parallel might extend, going thru all the lyrics. And the thread comments are all over the political and arms control maps. But it made a nice read, and continues to receive written contributions, evidently. A few of its comments, for me, were reminiscent of trying to understand the BP gulf oil spill by reading HeadingOut at the PeakOil blog last year; some of the analysis was very accurate and well framed in terms of capabilities and what was getting divulged into various media fora at the time.

  7. eCAHNomics says:

    Hi Jim,

    Scott Horton has also done a good series of interviews over at antiwar.com on IAEA ‘report’.

    In addition to citing Moon’s work, they also go thru all the basics again, about what the IAEA’s job actually is, how the current head ups the rhetoric vs el Baradei, etc. While a lot of this is old stuff, I find it useful to listen to it again.

    Flynt Leverett, after he read report.
    Flynt Leverett before he read report.
    Muhammad Sahimi

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    One would think that a free press would want to encourage skeptical, open debate before the US launches another war, in the Middle East or anywhere else. It’s track record on Iraq was so bad that it is credibly considered to have aided and abetted going to war on false pretenses. How many dead bodies and maimed lives and economies are worth the access top reporters think they are buying with their cooperative, unquestioning stenography. “Because it’s out there” may be enough for Cokie Roberts. It ought not be enough for a reporter or a citizen worthy to be one.

  9. rugger9 says:

    @earlofhuntingdon: # 9
    That’s what baffles me so much here, it really wasn’t that long ago that the entire press was made completely aware they were duped.

    However, these are people who will believe whatever they are paid to believe, and not a lot of alternatives if they are blackballed by Murdoch, GE, Koch, et al.

    Let’s get an Electric Monk.

  10. GregLBean says:

    @Rugger9: #10 I’d not heard of Electric Monks, but their widespread existence would explain many things.

    “Electric monks are coincidentally humanoid robots designed to practice religion in their owners’ stead. This particular monk had accidentally been connected to a video recorder and, in attempting to believe everything on the TV, had malfunctioned and begun to believe “all kinds of things, more or less at random”, including things like tables being hermaphrodites and God wanting a lot of money sent to a certain address. Since it was cheaper to replace the Monk than to repair it, the Monk was cast out in the wilderness to believe whatever it liked”

    On a more serious note, yes, “it wasn’t that long ago that the entire press was made completely aware they were duped”, or if you are more cynical as I am, suffer from great moral turpitude.

    But whichever it is, they duped us in the process.

    As the old chinese proverb says, “fool me twice, shame on me”.

    @GregLBean

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