Ghost of Judith Miller returns to the NY Times

The Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman has a cover story in the New York Times magazine about whether Israel will attack Iran to set back its nuclear weapons program that has sparked considerable debate, not all of it desirable. A Google search of the author, publication, and the word ‘propaganda’ returns nearly 12,000 hits — including this post by Jeremy Hammond in Foreign Policy Journal — which is surely a record for the New York Times, at least since the Judith Miller era ended. What made the now-disgraced Judith Miller’s puff pieces in the Times about Iraq’s WMD program stand out was the way in which they felt like a train that was barreling ahead, blithely rushing past the fundamental questions — chiefly, was there even an Iraqi WMD program? — as if their answer could be safely assumed and instead stopping only at the stations that might help the warmongers frame the case for invasion. They read as articles in the service of policy-makers rather than readers. Bergman’s article is in this vein and reads like a talking points memo issued by the principal war hawks: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, and Moshe Ya’alon, who is Israel’s vice prime minister and minister of strategic affairs.

I mean that literally.  Here is how the article is cast in the table of contents: “For the first time since the Iranian nuclear threat emerged, the conditions for an Israeli assault have been met.”  There are three conditions, as it turns out: an Israeli attack must be able to severely damage the weapons program, it must have tacit international support for the attack, and all other possibilities for containing the weapons program have been exhausted. And who laid out these conditions, framed this way? They come directly from Ehud Barak, one of the principals ostensibly in need of convincing, and nowhere among them is a condition that there be certainty on the fundamental question of whether Iran even has a nuclear weapons program.

This is a fatal omission, you would think, one that Bergman might have considered making the subject of his article. Instead, he follows Barak’s lead blindly, laying out the case for an Israeli attack in a way that reminds me of the old joke ‘explaining’ the magic trick of pulling a rabbit out of a hat that begins, “First, you take your rabbit…”  But, of course, the magic is in having the rabbit in the first place; likewise, the real debate is whether the Iranians have a nuclear weapons program, as distinct from whether they have (as they claim) a peaceful nuclear energy program.  The only persuasive case for an attack on Iran would begin with proving this point, because there is, in fact, quite a lot of high-level dissent on whether the Iranians are at work on nuclear weapons.  But Bergman skillfully elides this question in his rush to justify action:

When I mentioned to [Ehud] Barak the opinion voiced by the former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and the former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi — that the Iranian threat was not as imminent as he and Netanyahu have suggested and that a military strike would be catastrophic (and that they, Barak and Netanyahu, were cynically looking to score populist points at the expense of national security), Barak reacted with uncharacteristic anger. He and Netanyahu, he said, are responsible “in a very direct and concrete way for the existence of the State of Israel — indeed, for the future of the Jewish people.” As for the top-ranking military personnel with whom I’ve spoken who argued that an attack on Iran was either unnecessary or would be ineffective at this stage, Barak said: “It’s good to have diversity in thinking and for people to voice their opinions. But at the end of the day, when the military command looks up, it sees us — the minister of defense and the prime minister. When we look up, we see nothing but the sky above us.”

One really has to marvel at the way in which the whole question of fact is ignored and turned into a study of Ehud Barak’s anger.  When I look up at the holes in Bergman’s argument, I see nothing but sky above me too.

Then there is this remarkable series of paragraphs:

Many European analysts and some intelligence agencies have in the past responded to Israel’s warnings with skepticism, if not outright suspicion. Some have argued that Israel has intentionally exaggerated its assessments to create an atmosphere of fear that would drag Europe into its extensive economic campaign against Iran, a skepticism bolstered by the C.I.A.’s incorrect assessment about Iraqi W.M.D. before to the Iraq war.

Israel’s discourse with the United States on the subject of Iran’s nuclear project is more significant, and more fraught, than it is with Europe. The U.S. has made efforts to stiffen sanctions against Iran and to mobilize countries like Russia and China to apply sanctions in exchange for substantial American concessions. But beneath the surface of this cooperation, there are signs of mutual suspicion. As one senior American official wrote to the State Department and the Pentagon in November 2009, after an Israeli intelligence projection that Iran would have a complete nuclear arsenal by 2012: “It is unclear if the Israelis firmly believe this or are using worst-case estimates to raise greater urgency from the United States.”

No, I have not deleted the paragraph between those two in which Bergman addresses the substance of European skepticism about Iran’s activities.  It does not exist.  While the Europeans are easy to dismiss as wets on matters of military action — though, it should be acknowledged, last time around they were mostly right on Iraq and the Americans and Israelis mostly wrong — one would think Meir Dagan, the former Mossad chief whose expertise at assassination occasioned Ariel Sharon to say “Dagan’s specialty is separating an Arab from his head,” would be well positioned to know the status of Iran’s nuclear program and not much inclined to wishful thinking.  Dagan contends that Iran will not be able to develop a nuclear capability — that is, the precursor to nuclear weapons rather than the weapons themselves — before 2015 at the earliest, because Mossad’s campaign of sabotage and assassination has been effective.  As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz explains:

The Israeli intelligence community’s assessments of Iran’s nuclear capability have changed during Dagan’s tenure. In 2003, Israeli intelligence officials thought Iran would have its first bomb by 2007. In 2007, they thought it would be 2009, and a year later they put it at 2011. Now the date has moved to 2015. These adjustments were not the result of mistaken evaluations, but due to the difficulties Iran has encountered in advancing its program, largely because of the Mossad’s efforts.

Bergman acknowledges this dissent only to underscore, without effective rebuttal, that (surprise) Netanyahu and Barak — along with three unnamed “very senior military intelligence officers” — don’t agree with Dagan and think an attack is necessary within the next nine months.  One wonders what contributed to this particular time frame but it is worth noting that the Obama administration has been very concerned that Israel will force a confrontation on Iran before the US elections in November (essentially, nine months from now) when campaign considerations would make it very difficult for Obama to do anything other than blindly support Israeli action, no matter how ill conceived.  In any case, Bergman tries to suture the holes in his argument through another crafty elision:

Over the past year, Western intelligence agencies, in particular the C.I.A., have moved closer to Israel’s assessments of the Iranian nuclear project. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressed this explicitly when he said that Iran would be able to reach nuclear-weapons capabilities within a year. The International Atomic Energy Agency published a scathing report stating that Iran was in breach of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and was possibly trying to develop nuclear weapons…Now that the facts have been largely agreed upon, the arguments [Moshe] Ya’alon anticipates are those that will stem from the question of how to act — and what will happen if Israel decides that the moment for action has arrived.

Here is what Leon Panetta actually said: “Are [the Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon?  No.  But we know they are trying to develop a nuclear capability.  And that’s what concerns us.”



Thus, Bergman turns Panetta’s comments into confirmation of the Israeli war-hawk view when a more honest assessment would be that it stands in stark contradiction of it.  There is more nuance, too, in the IAEA report on Iran issued in November 2011 than simply that it was ‘scathing’ — though, by bureaucratic standards, it was indeed a pointed and hard-hitting report, stating that the agency had ‘serious concerns’ about the character of Iranian nuclear research.  The crucial nuance is that those concerns related to a program abruptly stopped in 2003; what has happened since then, the agency says, has been more ambiguous and might be happening in secret.  That is worrisome, to be sure, but does not represent ‘an agreement on all the facts’ as Bergman would have it.  Certainly, it does not represent agreement on the conditions for an attack: the IAEA — which is in Iran this week negotiating to gain access to those suspected sites — believes that what is needed are more robust and intrusive inspections; naturally, the Iranians hope to avoid this, but that suggests that greater diplomatic pressure be brought to bear on this point to compel compliance.

Finally, let’s consider the fundamental question Bergman so carefully obscures.  There is no uncertainty at all that the Iranians have a nuclear program of some sort, one that they claim — with the same wink of deliberate ambiguity Saddam Hussein used to give — is for entirely peaceful energy purposes.  Should we trust them?  Clearly not: the Iranians have numerous strategic reasons for pursuing a nuclear weapons program and, through their belligerent rhetoric in the past, have earned no trust whatsoever.  But, as I have argued previously, the Iranians would also have sound strategic reasons for bluffing about a nuclear weapons program: Saddam did for years and was a regional power to be reckoned with as a consequence of it, teaching everyone the lesson that the next best thing to actually having nuclear weapons is making people believe you might have them.  Of course, Saddam bluffed so effectively that the gullible naïfs in the Bush administration, caught up in their 9/11 fever, took him down.  The Iranians must be calculating now that the American appetite for another large-scale invasion is less than zero, so the only military risk to wink-wink ambiguity on this issue is from some sort of targeted strike, either by the Israelis alone or in concert withe the US.  But this would be all gain from the Iranian perspective: the failure to strike would be a demonstration of Iran’s power to intimidate and a strike would cause some material damage — though, of course, if there is no weapons program it cannot be destroyed this way — but would be a massive propaganda coup for the unloved Iranian regime and help them shore up domestic support.

This strategic logic, in itself, does not mean the Iranians are bluffing, only that they might be, and this possibility should be taken seriously by the people in a position to undertake military action.  In almost every situation, Netanyahu behaves like an enraged bull that will charge at anything.  The Iranians are holding up a cape.  The journalist’s job is to look skeptically at what is behind that cape. Ronan Bergman should know that; if he doesn’t, his editors at the Times should have demanded it of him.


A few other intriguing bits leap out from this article.  Here is Moshe Ya’alon trying to convince the US that it has an interest in taking the lead on attacking Iran:

“It is not for nothing that [Iran] is establishing bases for itself in Latin America and creating links with drug dealers on the U.S.-Mexican border. This is happening in order to smuggle ordnance into the United States for the carrying out of terror attacks. Imagine this regime getting nuclear weapons to the U.S.-Mexico border and managing to smuggle it into Texas, for example. This is not a far-fetched scenario.”

How much does this sound like Condeleezza Rice’s famous smoking gun/mushroom cloud fearmongering?

Then there is this nonsense, which no one believes:

Operating in Iran, however, is impossible for the Mossad’s sabotage-and-assassination unit, known as Caesarea, so the assassins must come from elsewhere.

No one knows who is in this unit but it is scarcely conceivable that Mossad did not long ago recruit from the large Iranian Jewish community assassins who could infiltrate Iran undetected.

And then there is this unwise remark from Rafi Eitan, one of Mossad’s most well-known operatives, which will probably not help the credibility of an Iranian opposition already accused by the regime of serving as foreign agents:

The way to fight it is by changing the regime there. This is where we have really failed. We should encourage the opposition groups who turn to us over and over to ask for our help, and instead, we send them away empty-handed.”

Finally, in an almost unrelated tangent, Bergman quotes from top secret documents dating to 1967 that reveal Israel told the US in advance about planning to attack Egypt in what became the Six Day War. The CIA chief in Tel Aviv encouraged the director of Mossad to ‘help’ by instigating an attack on an Israeli ship that could be used as a pretext for the US to intervene on Israel’s behalf — this, just three years after a nearly identical gambit was used in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify escalating the Vietnam war and eleven years after the Suez debacle of 1956 in which Israel invaded Egypt as a pretext for the former colonial powers of Britain and France to justify intervening. In this case, Israel wanted more enthusiastic support so the Mossad director went to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara — yes, the very same McNamara of Tonkin infamy — and received from him what Israel chose to interpret as a ‘flickering green light’ to start the 1967 War:

[Director of the Mossad, Meir] Amit: “We are approaching a turning point that is more important for you than it is for us. After all, you people know everything. We are in a grave situation, and I believe we have reached it, because we have not acted yet. . . . Personally, I am sorry that we did not react immediately. It is possible that we may have broken some rules if we had, but the outcome would have been to your benefit. I was in favor of acting. We should have struck before the build-up.”

[Then C.I.A. chief in Tel Aviv, John] Hadden: “That would have brought Russia and the United States against you.”

Amit: “You are wrong. . . . We have now reached a new stage, after the expulsion of the U.N. inspectors. You should know that it’s your problem, not ours.”

Hadden: “Help us by giving us a good reason to come in on your side. Get them to fire at something, a ship, for example.”

Amit: “That is not the point.”

Hadden: “If you attack, the United States will land forces to help the attacked state protect itself.”

Amit: “I can’t believe what I am hearing.”

Hadden: “Do not surprise us.”

Amit: “Surprise is one of the secrets of success.”

Hadden: “I don’t know what the significance of American aid is for you.”

Amit: “It isn’t aid for us, it is for yourselves.”

That ill-tempered meeting, and Hadden’s threats, encouraged the Israeli security cabinet to ban the military from carrying out an immediate assault against the Egyptian troops in the Sinai, although they were perceived as a grave threat to the existence of Israel. Amit did not accept Hadden’s response as final, however, and flew to the United States to meet with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Upon his return, he reported to the Israeli cabinet that when he told McNamara that Israel could not reconcile itself to Egypt’s military actions, the secretary replied, “I read you very clearly.” When Amit then asked McNamara if he should remain in Washington for another week, to see how matters developed, McNamara responded, “Young man, go home, that is where you are needed now.”

From this exchange, Amit concluded that the United States was giving Israel “a flickering green light” to attack Egypt. He told the cabinet that if the Americans were given one more week to exhaust their diplomatic efforts, “they will hesitate to act against us.” The next day, the cabinet decided to begin the Six-Day War, which changed the course of Middle Eastern history.



Update (2 Feb): Whether Ronen Bergman is in on the joke or not, his article is plainly on point as far as the principal war hawks in Israel are concerned. Moshe Ya’alon, who invoked (above) the specter of Mexican drug dealers smuggling Iranian nukes over the Texas border, announced today that the Iranians were working on/have already developed/anyway really badly want missiles with a range sufficient to hit the US. In fact, says Ya’alon, that mysterious explosion at a testing ground near Tehran three months ago hit a site where they were:

“getting ready to produce a missile with a range of 10,000 kilometers.”

“That’s the Great Satan,” [Ya’alon] said, invoking the term Iran often uses to refer to the United States. “It was aimed at America, not at us.”

Mr. Yaalon was trying to make the point that the Iranian nuclear program is not a threat only to Israel but, as he put it, “a nightmare for the free world.” He said that it was a concern to Arab states as well as to the United States and Israel.



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