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The Amorphous iPad of the Media 

Larry Beinhart's Body Politic

Every once in a while, the New York Times comes out with a stunning, game-changing piece of journalism. 

On January 15, they ran a front-page story about Mossad and CIA efforts to subvert Iran's nuclear program.

Iran has constantly and consistently claimed that they have no intention of developing nuclear weapons. I heard them personally when I visited Iran in 2008. The mullahs I met cited a 2003 fatwa against making nuclear weapons by the Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the revolution and then the Supreme Leader, which made him as infallible as the pope on a good day. They quoted Koranic verses about not poisoning the Earth, which the explosion of a nuclear device would surely do. Admittedly, the way they phrased it left the impression that if Israel could be surgically detached from the Palestinian population it would be perfectly fine, but as that can't be done, the Prophet's injunction seemed to be applicable and binding.

As with any religious command to stay one's hand, hold back from force, turn the other cheek, there are always other leaders to quote other verses. It appears that, yes, Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. They come smiling, affable, and reasonable to the bargaining table, but they are merely testing to see how far their opponents will push, while they continue to pursue their goals. It's a very Persian thing to do, like merchants bargaining in the bazaar, and I expect they take great delight in it.

Iran has made very strident statements that call for the elimination of Israel. There are arguments over how precisely accurate the translations of those statements are, it's hard to tell how sincere they are, and, in reality, if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons the retaliation from Israel, which is much better equipped, and the United States, and some of the rest of the world, would devastate their country.

The other Arab countries also hate the idea ("Possibility of a Nuclear-Armed Iran Alarms Arabs," New York Times 10/30/09, and Wikileaks' release of US diplomatic cables, November 2010).

The January Times story is a remarkable saga of successful sub-rosa warfare.

Centrifuges are required to make usable nuclear material. Iran's uses a machine called the P-1, designed in the 1970s in the Netherlands. A. Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist, stole the plans and took them to Pakistan where they were manufactured. Khan went on to become the world's No. 1 nuclear black marketer and sold them to North Korea, Libya, and Iran.

Several Western countries got hold of P-1s to see how they worked. Only Israel was really successful. Like other modern, complex machines, they're run by computers. The Israelis—perhaps with American assistance—developed a worm that would not merely cause the Iranian programs to malfunction, "the computer program also secretly recorded what normal operations at the nuclear plant looked like, then played those readings back to plant operators, like a pre-recorded security tape in a bank heist, so that it would appear that everything was operating normally while the centrifuges were actually tearing themselves apart." Pretty cool, huh?

The story in the Times was filled with scintillating details that should have had Homeland Security grabbing their TEC-9s, surrounding the building, and shooting everyone for breaching national security. 

Then I thought about it.

The New York Times is not Wikileaks. Wikileaks gets the data and puts it out in the world, consequences be damned.

Maybe this wasn't the product of diligent research, details teased out bit by bit from reluctant whistle-blowers whispering in the shadows of parking garages. Maybe this was a sort of press release by interested parties who wanted to make their story the accepted narrative by using the Times to put it on the front page as objective reality.

There are lots of stories that are "known" to many people in the media but are not published. Sometimes no one will go on record or editors don't want to endanger national security or offend the powerful.

Was this a known story? Something very similar appears in the novel The Increment, by David Ignatius, an associate editor of the Washington Post and a reporter for over 30 years. He's the sort of journalist-turned-novelist that fictionalizes what he can't put in the news. His depiction of Iran and portrait of the intelligence services ring exactly true. The novel was published in May 2009, which means it was written in 2008.

So my guess is that this was a story that people "knew" about. But didn't publish. Who, then, put it out there? And for what purpose? 

There are factions in both Israel and the US that have publicly called for bombing Iran to stop their nuclear program. (See, for one example of hundreds, "The Case for Bombing Iran," Norman Podhoretz, Commentary, June 2007). Since some of Iran's nuclear facilities are buried deep beneath the ground, this would be very difficult and probably ineffective. Many of them are in or very near major civilian areas, so it would be murderous and politically disastrous.

There are two named sources in the story: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Meir Dagan, who retired as head of the Mossad on January 1. They both make the claim that the Stuxnet worm has set the Iranian nuclear program back at least as much, and probably more, than an armed attack. Bush is credited for initiating the program and Obama for continuing it. It has the bipartisan seal of approval, by golly!

It's an exciting piece of journalism. It's a great espionage tale.

But it is also necessary to think of it as the inverse of the Judith Miller episode. Miller wrote a story that described Saddam Hussein's "dogged insistence on pursuing his nuclear ambitions," and his "worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb." The Times put it on the front page. It became the official narrative. Indeed, the day the story appeared I knew we were, irrevocably, going to war. 

This time, I approve of the goal. To avoid yet another war. Plus, I get a genuine kick out of seeing the CIA and Mossad pull of something insanely clever, yet nonviolent. Kudos to all.

But I am reminded that journalism—even at its best, and the Times is the best we've got—is by no means an objective pursuer of the facts, offering the most accurate information possible to the public, because an informed citizenry makes a great nation. It's useful to think of the mainstream media as a sort of vast, amorphous iPad that public relations experts use to deliver their messages to you. Without, of course, telling you that they're doing it, or what their true interests are.

That's up to you. To visualize which puppet master is making the newspeople do their dance. And to what end.  

Speaking of...

  • Larry Beinhart on the distinction between Wikileaks and the New York Times.


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