Washington Post joins Times in trumpeting anonymous claims on Iranian weapons

by Greg Mitchell, Editor and Publisher

First it was Michael Gordon in The New York Times on Saturday. Now The Washington Post and other media outlets have joined in suggesting a slam dunk case for Iranian weapons killing Americans in Iraq.

An article by Joshua Partlow from Baghdad -- long atop the Post's Web site -- first carried the declarative headline, "Iran Sending Explosives to Extremist Groups in Iraq," without even "U.S. officials say." The headline was later changed but, amazingly, the story remained at the top of the site a full 24 hours later.

As in case of Michael Gordon's article, none of the U.S. officials are named.

The Associated Press, The New York Times, Reuters and others also reported on a briefing in Baghdad on Sunday, agreeing beforehand to the condition that none of the three U.S. officials taking part could be named or even described closely.

The Times, after accepting the terms, found itself in the embarrassing position of reporting, "During the briefing, the senior United States military officials were repeatedly pressed on why they insisted on anonymity in such an important matter affecting the security of American and Iraqi troops."

It added: "The official also criticized recent news reports, saying they overstated the importance of today’s presentation, which had been previously announced and then delayed." This didn't stop the Times, the Post and other outlets from featuring these new charges at the top of their sites all day. The Times then put the story at top of its front page on Monday.

National Public Radio, at least, concluded its report this way: "In today's briefing, the U.S. officials admitted there was a gap between what they say they know, and what they can show, leaving reporters with more questions than answers."

And in Monday's New York Times, columnist Paul Krugman points out, "Why wasn’t any official willing to take personal responsibility for the reliability of alleged evidence of Iranian mischief, as opposed to being an anonymous source? If the evidence is solid enough to bear close scrutiny, why were all cameras and recording devices, including cellphones, banned from yesterday’s Baghdad briefing?"

The Washington Post article, which was published online at 12:30 on Sunday afternoon, stated, "Iranian security forces, taking orders from the 'highest levels' of the Iranian government, are funneling sophisticated explosives to extremist groups in Iraq, and the weapons have grown increasingly deadly for U.S.-led troops over the past two years, senior defense officials said Sunday in Baghdad."

"Three defense officials from the U.S.-led Multi-National Force in Baghdad, laid out for reporters what they described as a 'growing body of evidence' that Iran is manufacturing and exporting into Iraq the armor piercing explosives, known as 'explosively formed penetrators,' or EFPs, that have killed more than 170 coalition troops, and wounded more than 620 others, in the past two years."

The officials all spoke "on condition of anonymity."

Partlow added: "The allegations against Iran marked the farthest that coalition forces have gone to make the case that Iran is working to attack U.S. and Iraqi troops. The revelations threaten to further enflame tensions between America and Iran."

Of course, the article itself -- and its placement on top of the Post site and with that headline -- is sure to "enflame" as well.

Newsweek reports in a major article on Sunday (and in this week's print issue) on the many ways the U.S. is trying to provoke Iran into war, stating flatly: "The Iranians have reason to feel paranoid."

The officials today in Baghdad who blamed Iran for killing Americans said they decided to speak "on the condition of anonymity so the trio's explosives expert and analyst who would normally not speak to reporters could provide more information. The analyst's exact job description was not revealed to reporters. Reporters' cell phones were taken before the briefing, and the officials did not allow reporters to record or videotape the proceedings....

"On two tables in a briefing room in Baghdad, military officials laid out tubular rocket propelled grenades, football-shaped mortars, a cylindrical EFP, and about 40 tail fins of exploded mortars, which they say are manufactured in Iran -- just a 'smattering' of the examples they have found in Iraq, said the defense analyst. Iran is the only country in the region that produces these weapons, the officials said."

The Associated Press also attended the briefing and noted that it could not reveal the names of the three officials. The AP's Steven Hurst did open his article on a more neutral note, saying that the Americans "accused" Iran in this case.

The New York Times' James Glanz also covered the briefing -- again, accepting the terms of allowing total anonymity -- but he did note, "Today’s presentation of evidence is bound to generate skepticism among those suspicious that the Bush administration is trying to find a scapegoat for its problems in Iraq and, some political analysts and White House critics believe, is looking for an excuse to attack Iran."

On his new site, Iraqslogger.com, Eason Jordan observed in response, that "one of the three supposedly unnamed US officials apparently has been outed by an Iraqi news service, Voices of Iraq, whose report on the Baghdad news conference identified one of the three speakers as Major General William Caldwell, whose portfolio includes public affairs and who holds frequent news conference and grants one-on-one interviews.

"So, if the VOI report identifying Caldwell is correct, why did every other news organization apparently agree to grant anonymity to the general who's the official spokesman of the US-led Multi-National Force in Iraq? Why would Caldwell insist on not having his name associated with these allegations today?

"After the bogus Iraq evidence debacle in 2002 and 2003 -- allegations that led to war, tens of thousands of lives lost, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent -- only a fool would accept as the gospel supposed evidence against another country that's presented by officials who insist on making their allegations anonymously.

"We deserve better from the US government. We deserve better from the western news media."

And what do the Iraqis think of all this? The Washington Post reports Monday that Iraq's deputy foreign minister, Labeed M. Abbawi, said in an interview Sunday that the Iraqi government remains in the dark about the full U.S. investigation. "It is difficult for us here in the diplomatic circles just to accept whatever the American forces say is evidence," he said, according to the Post.

"If they have anything really conclusive, then they should come out and say it openly, then we will pick it up from there and use diplomatic channels" to discuss it with Iran, he said. "The method or the way it's being done should be changed, to have more cooperation with us."

An E&P article earlier this weekend pointed out echoes of the WMD charges in the run-up to the Iraq war. Michael Gordon, for example, had co-authored with Judith Miller the wildly inaccurate "aluminum tubes" article in 2002 that proved so influential.

article originally published at http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey