Fool me twice? -- NY Times, CBS, NBC report Bush allegations about Iran without context, skepticism

In reporting on the Bush administration's allegations about Iran's role in Iraq, media outlets have covered the matter in a muddled, incomplete manner, omitting any skeptical or critical analysis of these allegations, which suggests, in the words of's Dan Froomkin, that “the lessons we should have learned from Iraq may not have been learned at all.”

In his February 2 Nieman Watchdog column, blogger Dan Froomkin warned that the media's coverage of the Bush administration's posture toward Iran suggested that “the lessons we should have learned from Iraq may not have been learned at all.” Apparently bearing out Froomkin's concerns, media outlets such as The New York Times, CBS, and NBC have continued to report Bush's allegations about Iran's role in Iraq in a muddled, incomplete manner -- at times offering rebuttals to baseless and unsourced allegations of Iranian influence, while at other times serving as little more than stenographers.

In advising journalists to be skeptical of authority, Froomkin offered several suggestions:

  • Don't assume anything administration officials tell you is true. In fact, you are probably better off assuming anything they tell you is a lie.
  • Demand proof for their every assertion. Assume the proof is a lie. Demand that they prove that their proof is accurate.
  • Just because they say it, doesn't mean it should ... make the headlines. The absence of supporting evidence for their assertion -- or a preponderance of evidence that contradicts the assertion -- may be more newsworthy than the assertion itself.
  • Don't print anonymous assertions. Demand that sources make themselves accountable for what they insist is true.

Michael Gordon, The New York Times

A February 10 New York Times article by reporter Michael Gordon on the Bush administration's claim that the “most lethal weapon directed against American troops in Iraq ... is being supplied by Iran” appeared to contravene every one of Froomkin's suggestions:

  • “Don't assume everything administration officials tell you is true” : Gordon uncritically reported that the “assertion of an Iranian role in supplying the device” -- a weapon known as an “explosively formed penetrator” (EFP), used in roadside bombs -- “to Shiite militias reflects broad agreement among American intelligence agencies, although officials acknowledge that the picture is not entirely complete.” The article also uncritically quoted from an “intelligence assessment,” which apparently claimed that “Iran is implementing a deliberate, calibrated policy -- approved by Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and carried out by the Quds Force -- to provide explosives support and training to select Iraqi Shia militant groups to conduct attacks against coalition targets.”
  • “Demand proof for every assertion” : Gordon offered no indication that he asked for proof for these allegations.
  • “Just because they say it, doesn't mean it should ... make the headlines” : The article was headlined: “Deadliest Bomb in Iraq is Made by Iran, U.S. Says.”
  • “Don't print anonymous assertions” : Gordon claimed he obtained “specific details” regarding Iran's involvement in Iraq from unnamed “civilian and military officials from a broad range of government agencies.”

In his article, Gordon did not include any skeptical or critical analysis of these allegations, aside from noting that “Iran has publicly denied the allegations.” As Editor & Publisher noted on the day the article came out, Gordon is “the same Times reporter who, on his own or with [former New York Times reporter] Judith Miller, wrote some of the key, and badly misleading or downright inaccurate, articles about Iraqi WMDs in the run-up to the 2003 invasion.”

By contrast, in a February 12 article, to which Gordon contributed, the Times reported that anonymous “senior United States military officials on Sunday literally put on the table their first public evidence of the contentious assertion that Iran supplies Shiite extremist groups in Iraq with some of the most lethal weapons in the war,” and that “officials also asserted, without providing direct evidence, that Iranian leaders had authorized smuggling those weapons into Iraq for use against the Americans.” The Times added:

That inference, and the anonymity of the officials who made it, seemed likely to generate skepticism among those suspicious that the Bush administration is trying to find a scapegoat for its problems in Iraq, and perhaps even trying to lay the groundwork for war with Iran.

In a February 13 article by Helene Cooper and Mark Mazzetti, headlined "Doubts Greet U.S. Evidence On Iran Action" (the headline of the online version of the article was changed to “Skeptics Doubt U.S. Evidence on Iran Action in Iraq” ), the Times again noted that the administration offered no “direct evidence,” and that Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “told reporters that he 'would not say' that Iran's leadership was aware of or condoned the attacks.”

David Martin, CBS News

As Media Matters for America noted, during a February 12 report on the CBS Evening News on Iran's alleged ties to the supply of EFPs, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin uncritically quoted State Department spokesman Sean McCormack's claim that the “Iranians are up to their eyeballs in this activity.” Martin also uncritically reported what he said was CBS News consultant Reza Aslan's belief that “supplying the devices is Iran's way of saying, 'If you want us to stop, let's talk.' ” Martin did not note in his report that Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he “would not say” that Iran's government knew about or condoned the attacks, as noted by the Times on February 13. According to a February 12 McClatchy Newspapers article, Pace said:

“We know that the explosively formed projectiles are manufactured in Iran. What I would not say is that the Iranian government per se knows about this,” Pace replied. “It is clear that Iranians are involved and it is clear that materials from Iran are involved. But I would not say based on what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit.”

Andrea Mitchell, NBC News

Similarly, on the February 12 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell reported that “questions swirled today about the administration's long-awaited evidence,” adding: “The U.S. claims the targeted explosives used in Iraq are made in Iran. Even if true, would that prove Iran's government was involved?” Mitchell noted that “administration officials ... acknowledge that the evidence is at best, quote, 'circumstantial,' ” but at no point did she mention Pace's refusal to affirm that the government of Iran was involved.

From the February 12 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams:

MITCHELL: The Bush administration is on the defensive today, denying that it is exaggerating intelligence about Iranian support for insurgents in Iraq to justify a U.S. attack on Iran.

[begin video clip]

Is the government in Tehran responsible for the deadly, armor-piercing devices that have been targeting U.S. troops in Iraq, as the White House and Pentagon claim? The president on C-SPAN today denied trying to create a pretext for war with Iran.

PRESIDENT BUSH: My reaction to all the noise about, you know, “He wants to go to war” is -- first of all, I don't understand the tactics, and I guess I would say it's political.

MITCHELL: But questions swirled today about the administration's long-awaited evidence laid out for reporters yesterday in Baghdad by U.S. military officials who, in a highly unusual step, would not give their names. The U.S. claims the targeted explosives used in Iraq are made in Iran. Even if true, would that prove Iran's government was involved?

TONY SNOW (White House press secretary): There's not a whole lot of freelancing in the Iranian government, especially when it comes to something like that.

MITCHELL: Tehran, which celebrated the anniversary of its revolution yesterday, today denied the U.S. charge.

A spokesman said: “The United States has a long history of fabricating evidence.” How involved is Tehran? U.S. intelligence officials have some doubts. Nine days ago, the government's 16 intelligence agencies reported that Iran's influence was not “a major driver of violence” in Iraq. That same day, the White House said it wasn't satisfied the Pentagon's case against Iran was solid.

STEPHEN HADLEY (national security adviser): Quite frankly, we thought the briefing overstated, and we sent it back to get it narrowed and focused on the facts.

MITCHELL: So, why is the evidence now ready? Or is the administration trying to provoke a confrontation with Iran?

BRUCE RIEDEL (former CIA official): This is extremely dangerous territory we're moving into now. We're accusing the Iranians of killing American soldiers on a battlefield. That raises the ante pretty high between us and Tehran.

[end video clip]

MITCHELL: Today, administration officials say they had to make their case to protect U.S. troops from a growing threat, but they acknowledge that the evidence is at best, quote, “circumstantial.”