Shaping the Story on Iran

by , May 20, 2010

There have been recent reports that Iran has enabled the travel of al-Qaeda leaders to Afghanistan and Pakistan where they will be able to confront and kill American soldiers.  If you think you have heard the story before, you have, in another context.  In the earlier rendition it was Saddam Hussein who was hand-in-glove with al-Qaeda, helping the group in its nefarious planning to attack the United States and kill Americans.  Saddam, who was in reality only a threat to his own people, was on the receiving end of a barrage of fabricated information claiming that he was secretly developing weapons of mass destruction and clandestinely dealing with the terrorists who were responsible for 9/11.  Or so the story goes.  And now it is Iran’s turn and the story and the storytellers are exactly the same.

Even when everything changes, nothing changes for the American mainstream media (MSM), which continues to be wedded to a policy of all war all the time. There is a long history of media lies. William Randolph Hearst’s New York Morning Journal used deliberately sensationalized news reports to stir up hysteria in 1897 that led to war with Spain, a war that he later boasted had been enabled by his newspaper.  But other leading American newspapers of that era were a lot more cautious in their reporting and some even lampooned Hearst’s hysterics in the lead-up to the conflict.  Today it is different as newspapers rarely compete for market share and have no interest in exposing the half-truths of their peers.  The unanimity of view is particularly evident on the editorial pages where the neocons and the groupthink that they have fostered have become deeply embedded.  Everyone in the MSM agrees that Iran either already has nukes or is about to go nuclear and that the country shelters terrorists on every block, all colluding to attack a completely innocent and guileless United States.  Saturated with the propaganda, the American public more or less accepts that narrative.

How we Americans have arrived at this sorry point is somewhat difficult to explain.  That most media outlets have become parts of much larger corporations that are uninterested in challenging authority, making their news coverage a large dose of pablum, is clearly part of the problem.  The closure of most overseas newspaper bureaus hasn’t helped either as it has reduced the number of local reporters who might have applied their own insider knowledge to developing stories.  Also the use of embedded journalists in war coverage has meant that only reporters writing stories favorable to the Pentagon spin are given access to the "hot information."  But the biggest factor has been the de facto takeover of many editorial pages by hardliners who perversely believe that the United States can resolve its problems by continuing with the so-called "long war," a conflict in which Washington is fated to engage in never ending struggles against an enemy that is increasingly being seen around the world as all Muslims.

The media hypes the threat and keeps the story going so the public is acquiescent as more Americans die and countless billions of dollars are thrown down a money pit.  This is frequently accomplished by redirecting the narrative when the truth is somehow unpalatable.  If, for example, Israel’s bestiality towards the Palestinians is creating danger for American soldiers deployed overseas it is far better to write instead about how deeply concerned Israelis are about the "existential" threat coming from Iran.  That ignores the actual clear and present danger to Americans and moves the discussion to the completely theoretical threat experienced by Israelis, reinforcing along the way the old narrative about Jews as victims, not as persecutors.

How this process works in practice with Iran is not too dissimilar to the way it worked with Saddam.  Make up a bunch of garbage and let it fly, hoping that some of it might stick.  Readers of Antiwar.com might recall the phony Iranian nuclear triggers allegations that Gareth Porter and I put to rest back in January.  The Sunday Times of London, which is owned by Zionist stalwart Rupert Murdoch, has an astonishing track record for floating stories that in all likelihood come from Israel’s intelligence service Mossad.  The Times story, which claimed that Iran was developing an electronic trigger for a nuclear weapon in 2007, was important because if it had been true it would have meant that the December 2007 CIA National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was flawed.  The NIE had maintained (and the intelligence community still maintains) that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003.  Undermining that judgment has been a key objective of the various neocon talking heads, all claiming that Iran has a secret program that the CIA does not know about.  The nuclear trigger story would have challenged the main conclusion of the NIE while also serving as confirmation of the allegations about the hidden nuclear laboratory, so it would have been a two-for-one if it had been accepted.  Fortunately, the story proved so full of holes that it went nowhere, but not for lack of trying.

Which brings us to the tale being spun by the Associated Press (AP).  If nukes are number one in the Iran narrative, terrorists are certainly number two.  And if allegations about Hezbollah and Hamas don’t excite you what could be better than producing a link to the ultimate nasties, al-Qaeda?   A week ago an investigative story was featured as an AP Exclusive:  "CIA tracks al-Qaeda moving from Iran."  The account is based on the fact that a handful of al-Qaeda officers, including at least one of Osama bin Laden’s sons, fled to Iran after the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and were subsequently placed under house arrest. They have been there ever since. 

The AP story claims that there is intelligence suggesting that some of the detainees have now been released.  The authors of the story opine that the change in policy is so al-Qaeda can "replenish its ranks."  They cite a number of "current and former" intelligence officers as their sources but actually only quote two former CIA officers who apparently claim to have current knowledge about the movement of the terrorists.  The other sources are anonymous and it is not even completely clear if they are all American. One of the cited authorities, Bruce Riedel, has been retired from the Agency since 2006 and now works at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute.  How Riedel would have access to highly sensitive information on the movement of al-Qaeda is by no means evident and the article does not reveal his connection to Haim Saban, a Hollywood billionaire whose deep attachment to Israel is well documented. 

The second CIA officer is Clare Lopez, who is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy, which claims to be non-partisan but is basically a pro-Israel Muslim-bashing organization, as revealed by its website.  Leading neocon Frank Gaffney is the founder and president.  Lopez retired from CIA at some point prior to 2005, so she has been out of the loop even longer than Riedel.  Is the AP story being honest about the likely reliability and possible biases of its sources?  Apparently not.

The AP story’s contention that al-Qaeda is "replenishing its ranks" is nowhere supported by evidence that any of the detainees has shown up in any terrorist operation.  Nor is it clear how a handful of detainees could effectively replenish anything.  The account also ignores one fundamental problem in depicting a pattern of Iranian-al-Qaeda interaction.  Al-Qaeda is a Sunni fundamentalist group that thinks that Shi’ite Muslims are heretics and should be killed.  Iranians are predominantly Shi’ites.  It is hardly a basis for bonhomie.  And the account is sprinkled with questionable commentary, like the assertion that Iran "has historically allowed al-Qaeda members safe passage through the country," which is flat out untrue.  The speculation that the departure of some al-Qaeda from Iran "foreshadows the release of al-Qaeda’s ‘management council,’ including some of al-Qaeda’s most dangerous figures" is also advanced without any evidence, apparently to hype the danger.  Even if it is true that some of the al-Qaeda are being released it is not credible to believe that a handful of men who have been under house arrest for nine years will suddenly appear in Pakistan and make magic, particularly as their prior to 2001 experience would count for little as both al-Qaeda and the American response to it have shifted dramatically since that time. Also, al-Qaeda would not be likely to trust the returnees, suspecting, not unreasonably, that they had been turned by the Iranians and were actually little more than spies for Tehran.

The AP story received considerable replay in the usual places, including on NPR, increasingly a shameless promoter of neocon foreign policy.  Thoroughly indoctrinated by propaganda, most readers or listeners would not question the fantasy tale of a handful of aging al-Qaeda men appearing from nowhere and using their ancient wisdom to turn the tables on the US Army.  And most would also unthinkingly buy into the explicit linkage of Iran to active support of the most reprehensible type of terrorists.  Ironically, Adolph Hitler’s Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, responsible for orchestrating the Third Reich’s media, best explained what is happening in today’s America vis-à-vis Iran.  He wrote, "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic, and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State."  

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