Major mainstream news outlets uncritically repeated in headlines the Trump administration’s claim that the drone strike carried out against Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani was conducted because of an “imminent threat” to American lives. Subsequent reporting has raised serious doubts about the credibility of the Trump administration’s claims, with one New York Times correspondent reporting that evidence of an imminent attack was “razor thin.” News outlets that credulously repeated the Trump administration’s initial claims have failed to update their headlines to reflect subsequent developments.
Soleimani was killed on January 2 in a strike ordered by President Donald Trump while the general was traveling in a convoy near Baghdad International Airport, spurring a crisis in the Middle East and fears of an outright war with Iran. The following morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shared the administration’s justification for the strike, claiming on Twitter and during a CNN appearance that it was carried out to prevent an imminent attack against Americans. Major mainstream news outlets uncritically repeated Pompeo’s claim in headlines the same day:
The Hill: “Pompeo: Soleimani killed due to ‘imminent threats to American lives’”
USA Today: “Pompeo says attack that killed Iran military leader Qasem Soleimani was in response to ‘imminent attack’” (Updated later on January 3 to read: “Trump: Iran's Soleimani was plotting 'imminent' attacks on diplomats, soldiers before US killed him”)
Reuters via The New York Times: “Pompeo Says U.S. Killed Iranian Commander to Prevent ‘Imminent Attack’”
Axios: “Pompeo says Soleimani strike disrupted ‘imminent’ attack”
ABC News: “Pompeo: US strike on Iran’s Soleimani ‘saved American lives,’ disrupted ‘imminent attack’” (Updated later on January 3 to read: “US strike on Iran’s Soleimani saved hundreds of American lives, disrupted attacks in three countries: State Dept.”)
Given the Trump administration’s penchant for dishonesty, media outlets should not have uncritically elevated Pompeo’s claims, especially because he refused to provide details to back up the “imminent threat” claim.
In a call with members of the press after Pompeo spread the Trump administration justification, the Department of Defense refused to reveal the plot that the drone strike supposedly prevented:
Likewise, lawmakers in Congress briefed on the strike were also not provided with “any details about the alleged Iranian targets or what made them imminent,” according to a Washington Post report. CNN, one of the outlets that uncritically promoted Pompeo’s claims, including devoting a splash page at CNN.com to his comments, later reported that “the administration has failed to connect the dots in a way that provides a clear picture of an imminent threat and that argument has been obscured by inconsistent messaging from US officials.” It also reported that “one Democratic source who was briefed Friday by administration officials said the information offered was ‘absolutely unconvincing’ as far as proving there was an imminent threat” and that “Democratic lawmakers have raised similar concerns.”
Also on January 4, New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi reported that evidence for the “imminent threat” was “razor thin,” according to her sources in the U.S. government:
Callimachi and several of her Times colleagues later published a report in the Times that the Pentagon presented Trump with several potential military responses to Iran that included an extreme option of targeting Soleimani, which the officials didn’t think he would choose:
In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable.
After initially rejecting the Suleimani option on Dec. 28 and authorizing airstrikes on an Iranian-backed Shiite militia group instead, a few days later Mr. Trump watched, fuming, as television reports showed Iranian-backed attacks on the American Embassy in Baghdad, according to Defense Department and administration officials.
By late Thursday, the president had gone for the extreme option. Top Pentagon officials were stunned.
The Times also reported that some U.S. officials saw Soleimani’s travel to Iraq as “business as usual” and that intelligence suggested Soleimani was not planning an imminent attack on Americans because he did not have approval from Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
After credulously repeating the Trump administration’s “imminent threat” claim in headlines on January 3, mainstream news outlets continued to carry water for Trump, no matter how baseless his claims were. For example, news outlets uncritically repeated Trump’s claim that the purpose of the Soleimani strike was to prevent a war with Iran, even though the strike obviously made that scenario more likely. Trump then followed up his comments about trying to prevent a war with a series of tweets that threatened U.S. military action against Iranian cultural sites, among other targets.
Given the high stakes involved with a U.S. military escalation with Iran, it is not good enough for major news outlets to uncritically repeat baseless claims from the Trump administration in headlines only to later report that the claims lack credibility. Instead, Trump administration claims should be treated with immediate skepticism and headlines should indicate when those statements lack supporting evidence.