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We’ve had this conversation before…


Glenn Greenwald and I have disagreed in the past about the journalism of Michael Gordon. Perhaps because I’m interested specifically in security and defense issues, I find much of Gordon’s work useful. Cobra II was an outstanding account of the invasion of Iraq, and Gordon helped break news of the North Korean arms shipment that the administration failed, in spite of treaty obligations and good sense, to intercept on its way to Ethiopia. He’s also, unfortunately, pro-surge, and for all I know favored the Iraq War. That said, I view his work with the same critical eye that I see Sy Hersh’s; they’re much different reporters, with different ideological lenses, and they are often wrong in an ideologically predictable way. Both of them are also, in their own way, often quite useful.

I read Gordon’s article this morning (on US claims that Iranian backed militants tried to kidnap 5 US soldiers) and found it utterly unremarkable. Similar reports (from independent reporting) had been made on CNN and on several defense oriented blogs. I didn’t note that the writer of the NYT article was Gordon, and it certainly didn’t occur to me that the author harbored some hawkish, pro-war motive. When the US military spokesman in Iraq makes claims about Iranian behavior, it’s news, and the job of a journalist is to report the news. Indeed, I thought that the article had appropriately noted that all of the evidence came from a US source. Call me a cynic, but whenever I read “a US military source indicated” and “Iran” in the same sentence, I’m deeply skeptical of whatever claim is being put forth. I’ve never bothered to impute motive to this form of sentence, but I guess I kind of assumed that this was a journalist’s way of saying caveat emptor. Glenn reads it differently:

The Bush administration’s most reliable pro-surge “reporter,” Michael Gordon of The New York Times, this morning filed an article — headlined: “U.S. Ties Iranians to Iraq Attack That Killed G.I.’s” — that might be the most war-fueling article yet with regard to Iran. Gordon’s article is 23 paragraphs long, and makes some of the most inflammatory accusations against Iran imaginable.

Right. There’s also a story in AP (also dependent on the same source, Brigadier General Kevin J. Bergner), and a story by Michael Ware at CNN that makes the same allegations using different sources. As I noted above, in reading the article I simply don’t see the bias that Glenn asserts; at every point Gordon is quite clear that these are administration and military claims, rather than claims that can be independently verified. Like Ware, Gordon could have done more to verify those claims. However, given that Ware’s reporting makes pretty much the same case as Gordon’s, it’s unclear to me how the alternative manner in which the article should have been written. I suppose he could have included the comments from Pace a while ago that there was no clear evidence that Iran was involved, but those hardly seem appropriate given that we’re dealing with new claims and new evidence. Glenn further argues:

Gordon, as is his wont, does not question a single statement that he conveys, does not include a single dissenting view, does not provide a single reason to hold such assertions in doubt, does not obtain or include any responses to the accusations, does not identify any evidentiary gaps in the accusations. Instead, the article does nothing but magically transform the highly provocative yet unverified statements of military leaders into “news” on the pages of The New York Times. Again, read the article carefully — is there even a single sentence that advances beyond the role of loyal court stenographer to Gen. Bergner?

I don’t know; reporting the statements of a US military spokesman, and noting clearly and repeatedly that these are the statements of a spokesman and not independently verified facts, don’t seem to me to constitute “loyal stenography” or hawkish Iran warmongering. Nor does it rise to the level of Judy Miller, whose reporting on WMD was far more aggressive and far less qualified than this, and was indeed objectionable in large part because she neglected to qualify in the way that Gordon does here; she wrote as if the Iraqi WMD programs were verifiable facts, and failed to indicate that all of her evidence came from US sources with identifiable incentive to deceive.

But to repeat, “highly provocative yet unverified statements of military leaders” ARE news; I suppose that Gordon could have revisited the WMD fiasco, or pointed out that some in the administration harbor aggressive intent against Iran, but since everyone reading the article already knows those things, it’s unclear to me that they had much place. In fairness to Glenn, the NYT had edited the Gordon piece to include some of those caveats, but it’s not clear to me that noting that the Iranians deny the allegations is actually a significant improvement in the article. Noting the doubts on the EFPs is an improvement, and probably should have been in the original, but I doubt that the omission has the consequential impact that Glenn suggests.

I also think it’s simply absurd to insinuate, as Glenn does, that Peter Pace was silenced for arguing that there’s little evidence for a link between Iran and attacks in Iraq. We can’t argue, on the one hand, that Pace was fired for being incompetent, while at the same time suggesting that he was removed and silenced for being insufficiently hawkish on Iran. Moreover, it’s not even as if he’s been silenced; he remains quite capable of describing publicly his views on Iran, and it’s quite likely that people will listen if he wants to argue that there’s no evidentiary basis for claims that Iran is interfering in Iraq. If the administration wanted to silence Peter Pace, firing him was a bloody stupid way to do it. It’s a lot more likely that Gates, like Harry Reid, didn’t think much of Pace and didn’t think that he could get through his next set of hearings.

Most importantly, I think that Glenn has embarked on, fundamentally, the wrong fight. Khameinei and Ahmadinejad may be personally supervising and planning a guerilla campaign against the United States in Iraq. Elements of the Revolutionary Guard may be assisting some Iraqi insurgents with training and weapons. On the other hand, there may be no connection whatsoever between Iran and the Iraqi insurgency. I really don’t know; I’d guess that some elements in Iran are supporting some militants in Iraq with some mixture of training and equipment, but that’s just speculation based on realist theory and some knowledge of the Iranian regime. I do know, however, that whatever hand Iran has in the insurgency has no bearing whatsoever on my beliefs about whether it’s sensible for the US to attack. Even if Iran is supporting insurgents, I cannot visualize a military campaign that would, at reasonable cost, prevent Iran from engaging in that behavior. In other words, attacking Iran is stupid whether or not Iran is aiding Iraqi insurgents. Glenn wants to make a consequentialist case against Gordon (indeed, he uses the words “extraordinary”, “enabling”, and “inflammatory” to describe the article), but he’s missing the point; if we allow that the article was all of these things, then what happens if the allegations turn out to be true? The way to fight a potential attack on Iran is not to assail Michael Gordon, but rather to point out that, even if the claims that the American military is making are true, they do not provide a plausible reason for launching a military assault on Iran.

The chemical weapons fiasco has led to a substantial misunderstanding of the argument about the case for invading Iraq. While the allegations about chemical weapons formed the center of the administration’s case for war, the real problem is not that the administration was lying (although it was), but rather that Iraqi WMD, even if they existed, did not furnish a plausible reason for war. It doesn’t excuse the administration to say that its sin was two-fold; on the one hand, it lied about the existence of WMD, and on the other it lied about the implications of WMD. Even if the United States had found a rump WMD program, it would not have justified the war, and I doubt very much that it would have affected the course of the insurgency. Like an attack on Iran for supporting Iraqi insurgents, invading Iraq for having WMD was stupid on its own merits.

An attack on Iraq is too stupid of an idea to allow it to hinge on the empirical question of whether or not Iran is interfering in Iraq. I suppose it’s possible that there are people out there who really will be “inflamed” to the degree that the administration is “enabled” to attack Iraq through the medium of Michael Gordon’s reporting, but I really have my doubts. I’m not even sure what the causal logic behind that claim is; the administration cares so much about public opinion that a 3% shift in polling on attacking Iran is going to embolden it to launch strikes? But by describing such claims as “inflammatory”, I think Glenn is granting them far too much weight in the calculus of war. If they’re inflammatory in an article that quite clearly refused to verify them, what happens if genuinely compelling evidence of Iranian interference comes to light in the future? For me, and I suspect for most people, nothing, which makes me doubt the severity of the attacks the Greenwald is launching against Gordon. Finally, I have to return to the argument that I made the last time; there is danger in imputing motivation based upon what may well be a faulty dispositional diagnosis. Gordon is a loyal, arrogant stenographer, except when he’s not, but we never allow the times he’s not to change our initial assessment.

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