Ten days ago, the New York Times published a story about a memo on Iran from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to National Security Adviser Gen James Jones.
David E Sanger and Thom Shanker reported on the contents of this memo, yet neither of them possesses a copy of the memo, nor have they read it, nor did they even report directly on its contents. In fact, it was not until after their story appeared that they received official confirmation of the memo’s existence.
In an interview on National Public Radio, when asked what the memo said, Sanger neglected to mention that he had never set eyes on the document. Were he to have made that clear, he could not have presumed to say anything about what the memo said — merely what he had been told about what it said. To position his source as the gatekeeper and shaper of the report would make it rather obvious that Sanger was a willing tool of a senior administration official, but no self-respecting journalist wants to be seen prostituting his services.
Sanger’s NPR interviewer, Warren Olney, also appeared willing to collude in this charade by skirting around the fact that the reporter had not set eyes on the memo, but nevertheless Olney pressed Sanger on the issue of his source’s agenda:
Olney: Can you say anything at all about the motivations of the people that revealed this memo to you?
Sanger: Um, no, the only thing I would say is that I would caution people against — I would do this in many kinds of story — the assumption that somebody just dropped off word of this memo in front of us.
A classified memo in an unmarked manila envelope could be dropped off, but how exactly would word of such a memo be “dropped off”?
Sanger wants to dispel an image of his being a passive recipient of information he is being fed, yet given that he has no means to independently interpret the contents of the memo and contrast that interpretation with the one being provided by his primary source, what he recounts is merely his source’s angle.
As I wrote when the article came out, the identity of Sanger’s source may be more significant than the existence of the memo. If it turns out that it was Dennis Ross, then the New York Times may yet again be serving a role in preparations for military action.
We do not know who leaked the Gates memo. But the “senior officials” who did so were clearly seeking to use their selective description to catalyze more robust planning for potential military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets — the very option that Gates has consistently opposed.
This explains Gates’s public claim that his memo had been “mischaracterized” by the leaker. It also explains [Defense Undersecretary Michele] Fluornoy’s later statement that an attack against Iran is “off the table in the near term.” (Though, after White House intervention, Gates’s spokesman walked back Flournoy’s comment.)
The reality is that a cadre of senior National Security Council officials — including Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Dennis Ross, senior director for the central region (including Iran) — is resisting the adoption of containment as the administration’s Iran strategy.
For some, containment is problematic because it would be interpreted in Israel and pro-Israeli circles here as giving up on preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state. Republicans could use this to label Obama as weak on national security.
Others in this camp may actually believe that Washington should be preparing for military action against Iran.
As Ross told us before he returned to government service in the Obama administration, President George W. Bush’s successor would probably need to order military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.
Pursuing diplomatic initiatives early in Obama’s tenure, Ross said, would be necessary to justify potential military action to domestic and international constituencies.
That is precisely what the administration has done — first, by pursuing halfhearted diplomatic initiatives toward Tehran, then, when Iran did not embrace them, blaming Iran for the impasse.
Adopting containment as the administration’s posture toward Iran might undermine some White House officials’ efforts to prepare the political ground for an eventual presidential decision approving military strikes.
We have also heard former Bush administration officials close to Vice President Dick Cheney take note of the recent rise in U.S. public support for military action against Iran, as measured by some opinion polls.
Against that backdrop, these Republicans say, Obama — “a Chicago pol”— could ultimately see his way clear to ordering military strikes.