Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Uncritical Stenography of Beltway Reportage:
Is Robert Zeliger Killing Truth in Foreign Policy?

"The message is, 'Got to find a link with Iran, got to find a link with Iran.' It's sickening."
- U.S. Military Official in Iraq, 2007

An article published today on Foreign Policy's "Passport" blog demonstrates perfectly how desperate the media is to demonize Iran and that it will do so without even the slightest hint of journalistic integrity.

The post, written by news editor Robert Zeliger and ominously entitled, "Is Iran killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq?", purportedly addresses the causes for recent American troop deaths in Iraq. Zeliger tells us up front that "June has been the deadliest month for U.S. soldiers in Iraq since May, 2009 -- with 11 deaths, including two soldiers killed Sunday in northern Iraq."

Clearly crediting the rise in U.S. fatalities to the possibility (read: obvious inevitability) of a extended (read: permanent) U.S. military presence in Iraq even after the official 2008 Status of Forces Agreement, which has long given a December 2011 deadline for the full withdrawal of all remaining U.S. Occupation forces, Zeliger defers to two agenda-driven sources for an answer.

"A coalition of militant groups and outside actors is strongly opposed to that and are using violence to send a message to Washington," Zeliger writes, apparently citing the beliefs of Feisal Istrabadi, a former Iraqi diplomat to the United Nations who now teaches law at Indiana University. Istrabadi, also known as Feisal Amin al-Istrabadi, is an American-born Iraqi who strongly supported the 2003 American invasion and was an integral member of the Future of Iraq Project, a U.S. State Department study group of Iraqi exiles and ex-pats convened in October 2001. The project was tasked with planning for a new government infrastructure in a post-Saddam Iraq (a full year and half before the invasion) and was closely connected with Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress. Istrabadi was also a principle architect of Iraq's post-invasion provisional constitution, the Transitional Administrative Law, in close collaboration with U.S. officials.

Zeliger then quotes Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) fellow Michael Knights as confirming that the potential for prolonged U.S. occupation is "the primary driver" of the recent escalation of violence against American troops. "The Iranians and Sadrists are taking it very seriously," Knights says. WINEP, of course, is the AIPAC-created neoconservative Beltway think tank which consistently warmongers about Iran in service of the Likud lobbying group.

Knights has consistently claimed that Iran is involved in the Iraqi insurgency against the U.S. occupation. Back in 2005, during an interview with the Council of Foreign Relations, Knights stated his belief that "Iran is working indirectly to undermine the U.S. occupation of Iraq by making available certain difficult-to-access components for the construction of improvised explosive devices. Recently, we've heard a lot about passive infrared triggers going into Iraq from Iran. It might very well be that these kinds of components are being sent into Iraq and then being placed on the black market where, of course, they can then be bought by either Shiite or Sunni insurgent factions."

Zeliger tells us that, according to the New York Times, adamantly anti-occupation cleric Moqtada al-Sadr "has said that unless the United States fully withdraws its troops by the end of the year, he will reactivate his Mahdi Army," and then brings former Iraqi diplomat Istrabadi back to say that "Iran also opposes an extension of U.S. troop presence."

At this point, WINEP's Knights reveals that attacks against U.S. Occupation forces increased when news of a prolonged American presence was reported. These assaults, "including attacks on U.S. bases, with more sophisticated weaponry and an increased quality in the attacks," point to "Iranian backing," Zeliger writes, dutifully repeating Knights' contentions without even a whiff of supporting evidence. Knights claims that the Iranians have "raised their game, so to speak" and have "brought in more experienced operators and are supporting Shiite militants in southern Iraq."

"The result," he says, "has been better lethality."

And hey, if that guy, whoever he is, said it, well then it must be true.

And that's pretty much where the article ends. Nothing more than a few unsubstantiated statements by two people with clear neoconservative and anti-Iranian agendas and viola! - an article called "Is Iran killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq?", published by Foreign Policy.

If Zeliger were a more honest reporter, he might have titled his piece "Is Iran killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq? - Who knows, there's literally no evidence supporting that claim, but I suppose anything's possible." If he were even more honest, he probably would have just written something else entirely. Perhaps a penetrating look at Muammar Qaddafi's wacky wardrobe would have been more worthwhile.

Apparently, for Zeliger and Foreign Policy, because an Iraqi resistance group (which disarmed in 2008 and hasn't broken an Iran-brokered ceasefire for nearly four years) and a regional government (which is consistently threatened with an unprovoked attack) oppose the eight-plus-year U.S. occupation of Iraq, that automatically means that those very groups must be behind the recent rise in American casualties. No proof required.

If, as Istrabadi told Zeliger, Iran is natural suspect due to the fact that it "opposes an extension of U.S. troop presence," perhaps we should see who Iran is aligned with in this oh-so-anti-American position.

In 2005, a Gallup poll released by CNN and USA Today revealed that 52% of Americans wanted "all U.S. soldiers" to "withdraw from Iraq either immediately or over the next 12 months." By the following year, 72% of American troops said "the US should withdraw within 12 months" with an additional 29% preferring an immediate pullout of all U.S. military. (The same poll revealed that 85% of American service members believed the "U.S. mission [in Iraq] was mainly 'to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9/11 attacks'."

By 2007, 64% of Americans desired a full withdrawal of U.S. from Iraq within a year and 28% wanted troops "brought home immediately." Last year, Gallup revealed "a majority of the American people (55%) think the Iraqi war was a mistake" and 53% believe it to be a "failure." The poll showed that "an even larger majority (63%) would oppose American troops once again taking part in combat operations there." 61% of Americans wanted all its troops home within a year, with nearly a quarter preferring an immediate withdrawal.

Earlier this year, a Bloomberg poll found that a whopping 66% of Americans favor "pulling all troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan." This is unsurprising considering that, back in March, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that "two-thirds of Americans thought the Afghan war was not worth fighting." An even more recent poll found that, when asked about the decade-long U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, "56% of respondents said they thought troops should come home 'as soon as possible.'"

So who opposes continued U.S. occupation of countries surrounding Iran? Iranians, of course, but also a vast majority of Americans. Perhaps Michael Knights believes his Washington neighbors are attacking U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Or, better yet, maybe it's the Mexicans!

A global survey of 23,000 people in 22 countries, conducted in 2007 for the BBC World Service by the international polling firm GlobeScan and the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, showed that "a majority of citizens across the world (67%) think US-led forces should leave Iraq within a year." A staggering 68% of Mexicans polled favored an immediate withdrawal of troops. That's more than Egypt (58%), Turkey (64%), Russia (49%) , China (46%), Brazil (54%) and Indonesia (65%). It's more than France (34%) and Germany (33%) combined.

By Istrabadi's logic, we should be looking for IED and EPF factories in Tijuana.

But, oh right, it's well-known that Iran has long supplied Iraqi "insurgents" with weapons with which to kill American soldiers who just happen to be occupying Iraq.

Compulsive liar Michael Ledeen put it this way in early March 2010:
"Iran kills Americans whenever and however it can. It took years before it was possible in polite society here or anywhere else to point out that the IEDs, which were the single-greatest cause of American casualties in both Iraq and Afghanistan, were largely of Iranian origin and that the component parts of those things were actually tracked back to Iranian factories; they had Iranian identification numbers and letters on them."
Ledeen has also claimed that "our guys are getting killed and maimed by Iranian weapons used by Iranian, Afghan and Arab terrorists who have been trained in Iran." Yet, despite these accusations - and countless others over the years from the Bush, Blair and Obama administrations - no credible evidence has ever been released to support such allegations.

When, during the 2005 CFR interview, WINEP fellow and Zeliger source Michael Knights spoke of the "passive infrared triggers going into Iraq from Iran," he was referring to allegations made to the mainstream press by "U.S. military and intelligence officials" who claimed that "American soldiers intercepted a large shipment of high explosives, smuggled into northeastern Iraq from Iran" which contained "dozens of 'shaped charges' manufactured recently." The "shaped charges" were described as being "especially lethal." Yet, by January 2006, British government officials - who had been making similar accusations in recent months - backed away from these assertions, admitting to the Independent (UK) that there was no "reliable intelligence" connecting Iran to the IEDs.

The U.S. stuck with its story, bolstered by an endless stream of unnamed government officials using an gullible and unskeptical mainstream media to uncritically repeat its evidence-free allegations.

That is, until February 2007 when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, dared tell the truth at a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia. Associated Press reported that Pace told journalists that "there was no evidence the Iranian government was supplying Iraqi insurgents with highly lethal roadside bombs", thereby "contradicting claims by other U.S. military and administration officials." While Pace maintained that some of the material used to make the roadside bombs originated in Iran, AP quoted the General as saying, "That does not translate that the Iranian government per se, for sure, is directly involved in doing this. What it does say is that things made in Iran are being used in Iraq to kill coalition soldiers."

Consequently, George W. Bush, while holding fast to the narrative that Iraqi militants were being armed with IEDs by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Force, told reporters, "[W]e also know that the Quds Force is a part of the Iranian government. That's a known. What we don't know is whether or not the head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds Force to do what they did.  But here's my point: Either they knew or didn't know. And what matters is that they're there."  Bush then repeated this at least two more times within the span of a few minutes.

Exasperated, he finally insisted, "The idea that somehow we're manufacturing the idea that the Iranians are providing IEDs is preposterous. My job is to protect our troops. And when we find devices that are in that country that are hurting our troops, we're going to do something about it, pure and simple.  Does this mean you're trying to have a pretext for war? No."

The admissions of Pace and Bush contradicted then-recent New York Times reports that, according to an array of anonymous American officials, "as part of its strategy in Iraq, Iran is implementing a deliberate, calibrated policy--approved by Supreme Leader Khamenei and carried out by the Quds Force--to provide explosives support and training to select Iraqi Shia militant groups to conduct attacks against coalition targets."  As a result, the paper's own Public Editor condemned the administration's "saber-rattling about Iranian intervention in Iraq," and called upon its own reporters and editors to be more diligent in presenting "conflicting views" and better qualifying government claims.

The Los Angeles Times reported in late February 2007, "After U.S. officials released the evidence [purporting to show that the Quds Force...has supplied Iranian-made weapons to Shiite militias] to reporters in Baghdad two weeks ago, however, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other Pentagon officials scrambled to retreat from the incendiary claim that the 'highest levels' of the Tehran government were directly involved," and quoted Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the officer in charge of daily operations in Iraq, telling journalists, "I don't know if it goes to the highest levels of the government. What we do know is that the Quds Force has had involvement with some extremist groups in Iraq."

Furthermore, in 2008, a cache of thousands of weapons - containing 20,000 rounds of ammunition, 45 rocket-propelled grenades, 570 assorted explosive devices, 1800 mortars and artillery rounds - was seized during raids of Mahdi Army arsenals around Karbala. U.S. military spokesman Major General Kevin Bergner, when asked about the proportion of Iranian weapons then in the hands of Iraqi fighters, claimed that Iraqi resistance groups "could not do what they're doing without the support of - foreign support." He defined such "support" as training and funding the groups, in addition to arming fighters with weapons. However, the so-called "evidence" for Iranian intervention or responsibility, which was eventually handed over to the Iraqi government by U.S. forces a few months later, was found to provide no solid proof that the seized weapons had come from Iran and the charges were withdrawn after a meeting with Iranian officials.

The allegations completely collapsed when the weapons were further examined by the Americans who, via a military spokesman, "attributed the confusion to a misunderstanding that emerged after an Iraqi Army general in Karbala erroneously reported the items were of Iranian origin." Subsequently, IPS investigative journalist Gareth Porter revealed that the alleged weapons were clearly not of Iranian origin (they were mostly manufactured in China, Russia, and the former Yugoslavia) and were obtained by Iraqi militias on the international black market.

When Iran was accused of training and arming Taliban fighters in Afghanistan last year, General Stanley McChrystal, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, admitted that "the numbers [of supposedly Iranian-trained fighters] are not operationally significant, they have not changed the fight, and I am not prepared to tell you that the government of Iran is executing that as a policy." Making sure not to completely undermine long-used anti-Iranian talking points, he added, "But I am prepared to say that we watch it closely, and if something were to increase, it would be something that would concern me significantly."

In November 2007, The Guardian ran an article detailing the pressure U.S. military interrogators in Iraq were under by their superiors "to find incriminating evidence pointing to Iran."

Micah Brose, who the report described as "a privately contracted interrogator working for American forces in Iraq", revealed U.S. officials "push a lot for us to establish a link with Iran." He continued:
"They have pre-categories for us to go through, and by the sheer volume of categories there's clearly a lot more for Iran than there is for other stuff. Of all the recent requests I've had, I'd say 60 to 70 per cent are about Iran.

"It feels a lot like, if you get something and Iran's not involved, it's a let down...I've had people say to me, 'They're really pushing the Iran thing. It's like, shit, you know.'

"We're not asked to manufacture information, we're asked to find it. But if a detainee wants to tell me what I want to hear so he can get out of know what I'm saying."
Just as detainees, tortured or not, tend to tell their interrogators what they want to hear, uncritical reporters like Robert Zeliger obediently write what Washington think tankers and government officials have established as the unquestioned narrative of boundless Iranian aggression. As such, although Iran probably isn't "killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq," it's more than clear that Foreign Policy's "Passport" blog is doing its best to murder the truth.



June 29, 2011 - With regard to U.S. public opinion on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, ThinkProgress' Ben Armbruster posted this news flash today:
GALLUP: 63 PERCENT EITHER SUPPORT AFGHANISTAN WITHDRAWAL TIMELINE OR WANT TROOPS OUT SOONER | A new Gallup poll out today finds that 72 percent of Americans support President Obama’s Afghanistan withdrawal plan he announced last week. Sixty-three percent said they either agree with the timetable the President laid out or said the U.S. should withdraw sooner, 30 percent and 33 percent respectively. Those results mirror findings from a recent poll conducted for The Hill, which found that 69 percent either support Obama’s timeline or say it’s not fast enough. (HT: National Journal)


July 2, 2011 - More of the same.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports:
Iran has dismissed U.S. claims that Tehran has smuggled weapons to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The semi-official Fars news agency quotes Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi as saying "the ridiculous and repeated lies of the Americans are aimed at justifying their own errors."

"The Wall Street Journal" on July 1 quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard Corps has supplied allies in Iraq and Afghanistan with rocket-assisted exploding projectiles which have been used to kill American troops.

The newspaper quoted the same officials as saying Iran has also given long-range rockets to the Taliban in Afghanistan, increasing the insurgents' ability to hit coalition positions from a safer distance.
The Wall Street Journal article is full of quotes from U.S. officials and wholly lacking in a single shred of evidence. "I think we are likely to see these Iranian-backed groups continue to maintain high attack levels" as the U.S. pretends to begin withdrawing its troops, "Maj. Gen. James Buchanan, the U.S. military's top spokesman in Iraq," told the Journal's stenographer Jay Solomon. "But they are not going to deter us from doing everything we can to help the Iraqi security forces."

How noble of the occupying military!

[It should also be noted that the "top spokesman in Iraq" is actually Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, not James. But who can expect Solomon - or any of the WSJ fact-checkers or editors - to get catch such an error when there's so much propaganda to publish! - h/t Marsha B. Cohen]

The article continues, again with no evidence other than government claims:
In Afghanistan, the Pentagon has in recent months traced to Iran the Taliban's acquisition of rockets that give its fighters roughly double the range to attack North Atlantic Treaty Organization and U.S. targets. U.S. officials said the rockets' markings, and the location of their discovery, give them a "high degree" of confidence that they came from the Revolutionary Guard's overseas unit, the Qods Force.
Perhaps the clearest example of the nonsensical talking points comes from a U.S. official in Afghanistan who says that Iran is "supporting the Taliban because they want us out of here. If we're making gains, I can see them upping their support. If they're making gains, they'll probably stay quiet."


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