From the very large photo dominating page nine of the New York Times of Nov. 29, you can just tell from the look on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s face, not to mention the endless ranks of military officers standing in rows behind him, that Iran is determined to build a nuclear weapon. Anyone can tell. It’s obvious, right?
Never mind the doubting Thomases in those 16 U.S. intelligence agencies who -- this time at least -- have been demanding actual evidence before reversing their “high confidence” three years ago that Iran had stopped work on the warhead in the fall of 2003 and their belief that the work hadn’t resumed.
But can’t everyone tell from the defiant look on Ahmadinejad’s face that the Iranian president is a menace to us all?
I know someone will ask about those 19 advanced missiles Iran supposedly bought from North Korea. After all, we have a photo of them in a parade in North Korea, which proves this “mystery missile” really exists -- despite some missile experts believing the North Koreans were just wheeling around a mock-up of the missile, not the real thing.
But the missiles -- or the mock-ups -- still looked real enough to be cited by the likes of Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman to highlight the grave threat from Iran.
And the New York Times editors don’t want to let up on what’s become their long campaign to rally the nation behind regime change for Iran, much as the Times and many other leading U.S. newspapers pumped for regime change in Iraq. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Pushes Confrontation with Iran.”]
So, with the new WikiLeaks documents, the Times highlighted how Sunni Arab leaders and Israelis alike have “Sharp Distress Over a Nuclear Iran,” as the Times offered little context regarding the long history of the often hysterical hostility against Shiite-ruled Iran that has emanated from Riyadh as well as Tel Aviv. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Cables Hold Clues to US-Iran Mysteries.”]
If you’re a Times editor who knows it's smart to go with the flow, don’t forget to post the missile-parade photo in color on the NYT’s Web page, making the menacing missiles seem even more dangerous, dripping with bright red blood-color paint on the payload tips. Yes, and give it a scary title, say, “Iran Fortifies Its Arsenal With the Aid of North Korea.”
And don’t forget to tell the reader that “advanced missiles from North Korea ... could let [Iran] strike at Western European capitals and Moscow and help it [sic, presumably Iran, not Moscow] develop more formidable long-range ballistic missiles.”
It’s just too bad that U.S. intelligence can’t snap some satellite photos showing those missiles actually being in Iran. It’s a sure bet that if Washington had such images, they’d be all over the place, whether “classified” or not.
Though Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld may be long gone, his dictum still applies: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” No satellite images or other hard evidence? No problem.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could perhaps track down those graphic artists who offered up the “renderings” of Iraq’s non-existent mobile biological weapons labs that Secretary Colin Powell cited in his infamous United Nations speech in 2003.
And if war with Iran does comes – as many powerful people around the world apparently hope – and if there’s no subsequent discovery of any nuclear weapons program, perhaps President Barack Obama can blame the Iranians for not proving their program didn’t exist, much as President George W. Bush blamed Iraqi leaders for not convincing him that they really didn’t have weapons of mass destruction.
Or retired Gen. James R. Clapper, who’s now Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, might reprise his explanation for not finding any WMD caches in Iraq, namely that they must have been shipped to Syria — or in Iran’s case, perhaps Turkmenistan.
Consider that the Times had several weeks to get the “long-range missiles from North Korea” story right, or at least to include the doubts from missile experts. But authors William J. Broad, James Glanz and David E. Sanger decided to cherry-pick the evidence within one WikiLeaks-released cable to highlight one version — the version U.S. officials were pushing with their Russian counterparts who didn’t believe them.
Update: It took the Times five days to let its readers in on the fuller story. On Friday, the Times included at the bottom of page 11 a story by Mark Mazzetti and William J. Broad entitled "Wider Window Into Iran's Missile Capabilities Offers a Murkier View."
The new article acknowledges that the earlier alarmist one was based on a single diplomatic cable containing "provocative assertions" about Iran's alleged possession of the more powerful BM-25 missile.
"But a review of a dozen other State Department cables made available by WikiLeaks and interviews with American government officials offer a murkier picture of Iran's missile capabilities," the article said. "There are disagreements among officials about the missiles, and scant evidence that they are close to being deployed."
The new article also revealed that the alarm about the missiles was rung by the Israelis through a briefing to Lieberman four years ago.
"The first cable in the WikiLeaks cache that refers to the BM-25 came from the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, sent to Washington on May 5, 2006," the Times reported. "The cable discusses a meeting a month earlier between ... Lieberman ... and Meir Dagan, director of Mossad, Israel's main spy agency."
Though the new article represented a major clarification of the earlier story, it could not be found on the New York Times' Web site as of Friday morning, while the earlier alarmist one was still prominently displayed. Normally when the Times makes a clarification -- even for trivial reasons -- an editor's note is attached to the misleading story to direct readers to the revision, but apparently not when an article targets Iran.
To its credit, on Dec. 1, the Washington Post decided it had to be a tad more honest. “Experts cast doubt on Iran missile cache” was the headline of a surprisingly contrite article placed above the fold on page one, no less!
Post writers John Pomfret and Walter Pincus laid out so many problems with the U.S. side of the case that readers should have been just as incredulous about the missile claims as the Russians were.
“There is no indication that the Musudan [the “missile” paraded by the North Koreans on Oct. 10] is operational or that it has ever been tested,” the Post article noted. “Iran has never publicly displayed the missiles, according to experts and a senior U.S. intelligence official, some of whom doubt the missiles were ever transferred to Iran. Experts who analyzed Oct. 10 photographs of the Musudan said it appeared to be a mock-up.”
Later, the Post’s article quotes a senior U.S. intelligence official saying, “There has been a flow of knowledge and missile parts” from North Korea, “but sale of such an actual missile does not check out.”
And those familiar with the dubious reputation of the German tabloid Bild Zeitung may be more than a little surprised that U.S. government officials told their Russian counterparts that Washington was relying “on news reports” — specifically from Bild Zeitung “as proof” of the sale of 19 advanced missiles by North Korea to Iran.
It turns out that U.S. officials were being even more imaginative than Bild, which quoted German intelligence sources as saying that Iran had purchased 18 kits made up of missile components — not 19 of the missiles themselves.
Greg Thielmann, formerly State Department intelligence director for strategic systems and now with the Arms Control Association, posted his own take on the case of the “mysterious missile” on Nov. 30:
“Bilateral interagency discussions about Iranian and North Korean missiles with a Russian delegation in Washington on December 22, 2009, revealed significant differences between U.S. and Russian assessments of the threat, according to a SECRET State Department cable released by Wikileaks.
“The substance of the detailed discussions challenged some of the missile threat estimate timelines most commonly heard in U.S. political circles...
“So far, the U.S. press seems to have passed over some of the most interesting elements in the cable, highlighting instead the U.S. claim that Iran had obtained 19 missiles from North Korea, based on the R-27 (SS-N-6), a Russian submarine-launched design from the 1960s. Notable exceptions to this common story line can be found in the commentary of David Hoffman and Gareth Porter.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Takes US Side in Iran Missile Flap.”]
Thielmann continued: “Both the New York Times and the [initial] Washington Post coverage led with the 19 imported missiles angle and left an impression of imminent danger not merited by the specifics in the cable. For example, The New York Times declared: ‘[Iran] has in its arsenal...’
“The Washington Post carried an Associated Press story, leading with: ‘[Iran] has received advanced North Korean missiles capable of targeting Western European capitals and giving the Islamic Republic’s arsenal a significantly farther reach than previously disclosed.’
“This language implies that those missiles are ready for operational use. However, the text of the cable makes clear this is not the case. Moreover, independent studies such as the May 2010 IISS dossier, ‘Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities’ and the report’s principal drafter, Michael Elleman, have noted that Iran or North Korea would have to introduce some ‘very significant changes’ and conduct multiple flight tests if they wanted to use this missile type as a mobile platform ...
“According to the leaked cable, the U.S. admitted it had not seen the missile in Iran and both sides agreed there had been no flight tests of the system in Iran or North Korea; the Russians even expressed doubt that the missiles exist.
“Experts will differ on whether Moscow’s focus on current operational threats or Washington’s on technically feasible future threats is most relevant for policy makers. But looking back on a cable reporting a meeting from the end of last year, Russian skepticism about U.S. projections for Iranian capabilities seems warranted.
“With regard to the most capable solid-fueled MRBM Iran has flight-tested to date, the Sejjil-2, ‘The U.S. said that it would not be surprised if a two-stage [solid] system with a range up to 2,000 km were fielded within a year, at least in limited numbers.’ That system was not fielded in 2010. In fact, the Iranians did not even conduct a single flight-test of any medium-range ballistic missile all year long.”
And so it goes.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. During his service as a CIA analyst included chairing National Intelligence Estimates, and preparing the President’s Daily Brief for Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. McGovern is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). Watch McGovern discuss this issue on TheRealNews.com.
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