AP’s Iran-Trained Hit Squads Story: Iraq News Nadir?

In covering the story of Iran’s role in Iraq, far too many reporters have passed on blatant propaganda without the slightest effort to point out its inconsistency with documented facts, much less to try to uncover the truth. But a story by Pamela Hess of Associated Press distributed Aug. 15 sets a new standard for abetting official disinformation.

In the story, she acts as an enthusiastic megaphone for a patently phony story from an anonymous "senior intelligence officer."

Hess’ hit-squad training story should be assigned to journalism classes for the next generation to open a discussion about what went wrong with American journalism before and during America’s overtly imperial war in the Middle East. And Hess should be seen as a stunningly clear illustration of what happens when a reporter gives up any pretense of independence from the national-security state.

Hess’ lede announces what appears to be a significant development in the otherwise waning U.S.-Iran conflict over Iraq. "Iraqi Shi’ite assassination teams are being trained in at least four locations in Iran by Tehran’s elite Quds force and Lebanese Hezbollah," she writes, "and are planning to return to Iraq in the next few months to kill specific Iraqi officials as well as U.S. and Iraqi troops, according to intelligence gleaned from captured militia fighters and other sources in Iraq."

But a careful reader quickly learns from perusing the next several paragraphs that this official assertion is actually based on nothing more than speculation. It is just another propaganda blast in the guise of an intelligence briefing.

Hess, writing from Washington, describes her source as "senior U.S. military intelligence officer in Baghdad" who "spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence." That is the first misleading statement in the piece. The story later reveals that the anonymous officer told her quite explicitly that the story was being released for the U.S. command’s own political objectives.

The source apparently remains anonymous for another reason entirely: the U.S. command is not willing to have any individual be held accountable for the new narrative it is attempting to create with the Hess story.

The story then says the anonymous officer had "provided Iraq’s national security adviser with several lists of the assassination teams’ expected targets" and that the officer "said the targets include many judges but would not otherwise identify them."

But wait a minute. Just what are these "lists of the assassination teams’ expected targets"? If they are me merely lists of "expected targets," then the U.S. intelligence has not intercepted communications or otherwise tapped into what some Shi’ites now in Iran are planning to do. They are simply inventions of unidentified U.S. officials whose understanding of Shi’ite intentions may have little or nothing to do with reality.

Hess passes on the claim that "Iraq’s intelligence service is preparing operations to determine where and when the special group fighters will enter the country and is to provide an assessment to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki." That tells us that neither Iraqi nor U.S. intelligence services have any sources that know anything directly about any plans by any Shi’ite group in Iran to return to the country.

Like virtually every other reporter covering Iraq, Hess uses the term "special groups" as though this is the self-designation of some set of Shi’ite militia groups rather than a term created by the U.S. military to suggest that there were Mahdi Army fighters who might agree to accept the U.S. occupation. Although she provides no context for the term, what Hess and the U.S. military call "special group fighters" are in fact simply any Shi’ites who are suspected of involvement in resistance to the U.S. occupation.

Inexplicably, Hess writes that what the U.S. now calls the “special group criminals” had their origins in Sadr’s unilateral cease-fire of August 2007, and that they "are not thought to be under his control now." Since Hess has been covering Iraq for years, she certainly knows that the U.S. line about "special groups" first surfaced in early 2007 – not after the August cease-fire.

The anonymous military official admits that the command has explicit political objectives in disseminating the story: putting pressure on Iran and even more on the Iraqi government. The official told Hess that the United States wants Iran to suspend training of Shi’ites in Iran and to "prevent the militia fighters from returning to Iraq."

The U.S. command also wants the Maliki regime to "confront Iran with the information in diplomatic channels," Hess reports. What Hess fails to tell the reader, however, is that Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker have been trying to pressure Maliki to do that for months, and he has refused. In fact senior officials of the al-Maliki regime have very good reason to believe that Iran has been restraining the Sadrists rather than supporting military activities by those forces against the government.

Hess writes that Shi’ite fighters, who fled to Iran after nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gave up his political-military positions in Basra, Sadr City, and Amarah last spring, "are expected to return to Iraq between now and October." This "information" is said to have come from "militia fighters captured in Iraq and other sources in the country that the officer would not describe."

This is the giveaway for the entire Hess piece. Militia fighters captured in Iraq would not have direct knowledge of either training in Iran or the intentions of any Shi’ites who fled to Iran. Allegations about relationships between Shi’ite militiamen and Iran have been rife in Baghdad and southern Iran since early 2007, but they are based on rumor rather than personal knowledge.

As for the mysterious "other sources" that cannot even be described, the refusal to provide any information about the nature of these sources suggests the involvement of the familiar, self-interested, anti-Iran group the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), on which the military has relied heavily for "intelligence" on Iran’s role in Iraq and its nuclear program – most of it wildly inaccurate. The MEK has a history of carrying out terrorist attacks against Iranian civilian targets in the past and remains on the U.S. State Department’s terrorist list. No doubt MEK officials are the unmentionable sources to which Hess refers.

When Hess writes that the Shi’ites are being provided training in a long list of military subjects, including "assassination techniques," she does not suggest what evidence the anonymous official has to back up the claim. But it is evident that the sources are the same captured militiamen and interested Iranian resistance sources who lack any firsthand basis for such a charge.

Another giveaway that the U.S. military has no real intelligence on which to base the assassination training narrative is the claim that the training also includes the use of "rocket-propelled grenades, including the RPG-29." The idea that Iran has been supplying RPG-29s to Shi’ite militiamen in Iraq has been a staple of U.S. military propaganda since late 2006. But in fact, as I reported two months ago, the U.S. command spokesman, Col. Scott Maw, admitted to me that "very few" RPG-29s have ever actually been found in Iraq. Indeed, not a single RPG-29 has ever been displayed to the media, nor was one even pictured in the Feb. 10, 2007, slide show for reporters. So the command is now claiming that Shi’ites are being trained in Iran to use a weapon that the Shi’ites do not have in their arsenal.

Having claimed inside information about the movement of "special groups" into Iran to be trained, the anonymous briefer then reveals, unintentionally, that the U.S. command is operating essentially on surmise. Hess reports that one of the reasons the U.S. command "believes" Shi’ite militiamen moved into Iran is "the sharp decline in the number of deadly roadside bombs bearing Iran’s signature explosive design" in recent months. By choosing to make that argument, the officer is admitting that this new narrative about Shi’ites being trained for assassination in Iran is based on a combination of rumor and inference.

It is no accident that Pamela Hess is the author of this classic piece of journalistic promotion of military disinformation. She has been the favorite journalist covering Iraq among right-wing bloggers, because of her willingness to state her support for the war with such clarity. She is a true believer in America’s wars who views U.S. troops in Iraq as rescuing children from the path of a bus, as she explained in an interview with Brian Lamb.

Equally important, Hess long ago decided quite consciously to become part of the military system of information to advance her career, giving up her freedom to pursue the truth in order to keep her military sources in the military. Here is Hess explaining to an interviewer how she puts access to her sources over independent reporting.

"And every once in a while a government official will call you and say, ‘We’d like you not to be working on that story and here’s why.’ And sometimes you agree with it – you agree to their demands, because sometimes they offer you a better deal, ‘Well, when we’re ready for this to come out, I’ll give you the exclusive on it’ or ‘Here’s why we don’t want this.’ I remember one, there was one story many years ago that I worked on that I had had – I got from three different sources that were in a closed-door meeting in the tank in the Pentagon, and one general in there had said – I think this was almost a direct quote, but something along the lines of ‘America’s going to have to get over its fear of casualties.’ … So this is, of course, a very important story. A general that outranked that general, who I actually had a very good relationship with, who I could talk to off-the-record or on background frequently, called me and asked me not to report that story, and I didn’t. And the reason that I didn’t was twofold. Number one, I needed this second general more than I needed that story. And number two, I thought he made a great point, which is, ‘If they can’t speak their minds in these closed-door meetings, then we’re really robbing the Pentagon of its ability to do its job.'”

Hess is certainly not the only reporter to make such deals with the military to keep their sources. But her personal account of the unsubtle corruption of journalism by the military is stunningly free of any embarrassment. Her stenographic account of the Petraeus command’s latest invention on Iranian training of assassination squads can be best understood in the context of that corruption.

Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.