NYT and the Iranian Capture Story

In a curious story yesterday, the NYT quotes freed Iranian captive Sarah Shourd explaining that when she and two other hikers were captured in July 2009, they were inside Iran.

Ms. Shourd, 32, said she wanted to correct the gathering false impression, fueled by a classified United States military report made public last week by WikiLeaks, as well as earlier American and British news reports, that the hikers were detained inside Iraq and forced across the border. Her comments came just days before her two fellow hikers, her fiancé, Shane M. Bauer, and their friend Joshua F. Fattal, both 28, are scheduled to go on trial in Iran on Saturday.

On the fateful day, when they approached the armed border guard who had gestured to them, “He pointed to the ground and said ‘Iran’ and pointed to the trail we had been on before he waved to us, then said ‘Iraq,’ ” Ms. Shourd said by telephone from her home in Oakland, Calif. “We did not actually enter Iran until he gestured to us. We were confused and worried and wanted to go back.”

The NYT reports this without acknowledging–or amending–their earlier report on the capture, which (not least because NYT used different redaction standards than Wikileaks) was a key part of spreading the story that they were captured in Iraq.

Perhaps the NYT has left the two contradictory stories as they are because of the later story’s implied suggestion about Shourd’s motive. Her fiance is about to go on trial in Iran, and she surely wants to do anything she can to improve his chances of being freed, even if it means supporting Iran’s version of the story. And if you think about it, the story most sources are telling is that the hikers had no idea which side of the border they were on, which means any certainty Shourd has about where they were captured would come primarily from her Iranian captors.

Note, too, that the NYT only seeks comment from the State Department, and not DOD or any other government agency, to clarify the question. The State Department appears very interested in avoiding any conclusion about whether the hikers were in Iraq or Iran.

The United States State Department has never suggested the version published by WikiLeaks, she said, always maintaining that it did not know how their arrest happened.

The State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley, confirmed that on Sunday. “We don’t know whether they had two feet on one side or the other or one foot on each,” he said. “All we know is Iran has held them far too long.”

Which in turn suggests that the NYT is not interested in using the story to get to the truth of the issue, but rather to make sure Shourd’s refutation of the DOD report appears in a prominent location.

At the moment, I won’t say any more about the credibility of the many conflicting stories that have been told about this capture, except to remind that the NYT (but not Wikileaks) left the closing date on the report unredacted; that closing date, at least, appears to show the report being closed–at 2:18 on July 31–almost two hours before the first time recorded in the report, 4:00.

That doesn’t say anything about the credibility of the report.

But what NYT’s contradictory stories about the capture appear to suggest is that, in their glee to release the Iran capture report in a form that served their Michael Gordon-written narrative about Iran, they may have done far more than Wikileaks itself did to put American lives at risk. That is, by publishing the report and the story, the NYT introduced a claim that Shourd feels obliged to refute before her fiance’s trial starts.

I’ll let others weigh in on the journalistic ethics of the NYT’s contradictory stories. I just wanted to note this to point out that the US’ own attempts to craft the Wikileaks dump with their preferred spin seems to have done the most damage, thus far.

  1. SaltinWound says:

    I haven’t seen a lot of commentary about just the one hostage being released. At first, there were reports about health concerns, but they were quickly dispelled after she was released. From the outside, it appears that they wanted to release the woman and keep the men, although I haven’t seen it reported in those terms. Was this choice due to Iranian ideas of gender roles, or was it meant to appeal to our values?

    • bobschacht says:

      Bargaining chips. Unlike Obama, they tend to hold bargaining chips in reserve, rather than throwing them all on the table before starting to bargain, as Obama does with Congress.

      Bob in AZ

  2. lakeeffectsnow says:

    the nyt has written about these “hikers” almost every single day since they were captured. it is unbelievable how many pixels / time / $$$ the nyt has spent on this story.

    and i still have to say that “hiking” in an active War Zone or in the vicinity of an active War Zone is either the height of stupidty or koff cia something else koff spy.

  3. Arbusto says:

    I’m sure the Iran/Iraq border is a world class hiking spot; safe, friendly border guards, well maintained trails, many hostels, restaurants and other amenities. Just the region for a fun filled vacation any discerning traveler frequents.

  4. skdadl says:

    Dear WikiLeaks: Given what we’ve now seen the NYT does with your stuff and with you, twice, might I suggest as a U.S. partner in your next co-op adventure the McClatchy group? They have spines with brains on top. The NYT would have to copy. yr friend, skdadl

  5. MadDog says:

    I wonder if this latest NYT article in conjunction with this Bloomberg article via the San Francisco Chronicle today:

    Iran Delays Trial of Three Americans Accused of Spying

    Is all of a piece of State Department “behind the scenes” public diplomacy to get the release of the remaining 2 hikers.

    Something like the State Department “admits” the hikers were actually in Iran, without permission the Iranians will dutifully insist, and then with appropriate diplomatic hemming and hawing (groveling to us laypersons), the final 2 hikers get “expelled” from Iran.

    I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

        • bobschacht says:

          It’s all the same. Note that one of the common moves in chess involves a “trade” of captured pieces. For example, I take your Bishop with my Knight, knowing full well that you will then have the opportunity to take my Knight with your Rook. What’s involved, of course, is a calculation about whether my Knight is worth more or less than your Bishop, both in terms of intrinsic value, and board position. And whereas we tend to think only one or two moves ahead, they’re thinking 8-10 moves ahead, and how they’re going to capture our “King.”

          An often overlooked aspect of chess is board position. An over-simplified example of this is the idea that he who controls the central 16 squares of the board has the advantage. Each side has 16 pieces, so this involves simultaneously tracking the board position of your pieces, and your opponents pieces, and their strike paths.

          Experience with chess in adolescence is good preparation for a career in diplomacy or the military.

          Bob in AZ

          • MadDog says:

            Then I’m a normal American it seems.

            My first girlfriend when I was 15 used to destroy me in minutes every time I tried to play chess with her.

            Checkers I could do. Chess, not so much. *g*

            • bobschacht says:

              I used to play an annual chess match with my niece. I beat her about six years in a row. Finally, she went off to Swarthmore and started to get smart, and a few years later, I must have been asleep at the switch and she beat me. This turned out to be quite an event. We had to take pictures of her in a triumphal posture. We haven’t played chess since.

              BTW, I’m no chess master, but in my experience, you need a certain amount of aggressiveness to win. What works, usually, is to make your opponent feel constantly threatened, so s/he is too worried about defense to think much about offense. And you want to have multiple strike paths to keep your opponent off balance about where you’ll strike. If you focus too much on only one avenue of attack, your opponent can usually defend that and have time to think of your vulnerabilities.

              Bob in AZ

  6. MadDog says:

    OT – Strange testimony today in the Ghailani trial from the AP via the Boston Globe:

    FBI agent: Guantanamo defendant had detonator

    A former FBI agent says he found a detonator in the bedroom cabinet of a purported accomplice in the 1998 terrorist bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa…

    …He told jurors he discovered the blasting cap while assigned to the investigation in Tanzania. He said he was so startled he dropped the device and called in a bomb tech…

    …”I dropped it,” Bamel said. “I saw that it was a blasting cap, and I was afraid that it would detonate in my hand and blow my hand off…”

    Ummm…from what I’ve read over the years, dropping a blasting cap would itself be a likely cause for detonation. Sheesh!

  7. MadDog says:

    And more OT via the Los Angeles Times of AP’s Kimberly Dozier’s article. Has anyone yet found a copy of the CIA Inspector General Report mentioned here:

    CIA punished 16 officers in Peru’s 2001 shootdown of US missionary and her daughter

    In a footnote to a tragic mistake, the CIA revealed Monday that 16 retired and current officers were given administrative punishments for their role in Peru’s 2001 shootdown of a plane carrying two innocent Americans…

    …A declassified 2008 CIA inspector general report released Monday recommended punishments for the CIA personnel. Agency Director Leon Panetta accepted those penalties in December 2009, the CIA said in a statement…

      • MadDog says:

        I don’t know how much of this CIA IG Report will really bubble to the surface of the public’s radar, but I have to say that in reading just the Conclusions section (starting at page 271), the corruptive, unethical and just plain outright criminal mindset within many parts of the CIA is sadly mindblowing.

        Particularly the then Directorate of Operation’s Latin American division, the Office of General Counsel and folks like Jose Rodriguez.

        He was Chief of the Latin America Division for the Agency’s Directorate of Operations during part of this time, and then later as we all know, the Director of the National Clandestine Services (formerly called the Directorate of Operations) when he ordered the destruction of the Torture tapes).

  8. harpie says:

    O/t This came up on the drone thread:

    Steve Inskeep at NPR interviews “Gregory Johnsen [who] studies Yemen at Princeton University.]


    Gregory Johnson was a participant in the Preventive Force Conference called The Princeton Project on National Security; at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; March 15-16, 2006.

    Here’s the Agenda [pdf]


    Discussion 2, at 9:30-11am on March 16:

    “Military Capabilities and Other Options”


    Major General William L. Nash, U.S. Army (Ret.), General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations


    Admiral Gregory Johnson, U.S. Navy (Ret.), former Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Allied Forces Southern Europe

    Lieutenant General Victor E. Renuart, Jr., U.S. Air Force, Director for Strategic Plans and Policy (J5), the Joint Staff