How the New York Times Magazine botched its Iran story

Joe Cirincione writes: A devious president and his top aides trick the nation into a dangerous foreign entanglement with the help of a gullible press corps and complicit experts. George W. Bush and war with Iraq? No, Barack Obama and diplomacy with Iran. At least according to David Samuels’ telling in an instantly controversial article for this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about White House adviser Ben Rhodes.

Rhodes, whom I know, is very talented, but he is no modern-day Rasputin casting a spell over Obama, the press and public. The truth is that Samuels used his access to Rhodes to attack a deal he never liked and publicly campaigned against.

In his article, Samuels claims Obama was “actively misleading” the public about Iran. He says the president made up a story of how the 2013 election of pragmatic Iranian President Hassan Rouhani created a new opening with Iran. This, so Obama could win “broad public currency for the thought that there was a significant split in the regime.” This, in turn, claims Samuels, allowed Obama to avoid a “divisive but clarifying debate of the actual policy choices” and eliminate the “fuss about Iran’s nuclear program” so that Obama could pursue his real agenda: “a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East.”

Every element of this thesis falls apart under scrutiny.

Obama did not mislead the public about negotiations with Iran. Most of the talks the United States held with Iran under the previous, hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were widely reported. Even the secret talks that opened up the engagement with the more pragmatic Rouhani government were disclosed by the dogged reporting of Laura Rozen and others well before the congressional vote last year. And the imagined plot to sell out our Middle East allies to Iran is a common talking point of the far right, without any supporting evidence.

But one of Samuels’ biggest fallacies is his claim that the world’s leading nuclear policy and national security experts were duped by Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser whom Samuels portrays as a digital Machiavelli spinning gullible reporters and compliant experts into accepting a bad deal.

Samuels says this is the only way to explain “the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal.” He claims that in the spring of 2015, “legions of arms-control experts began popping up at think tanks and on social media and then became key sources for hundreds of often-clueless reporters.”

This is utter nonsense.

In London, Paris, Berlin and Washington the deal was evaluated on its merits, not on spin. Nor did we wait for the White House to fire the starting gun. Ploughshares Fund, the group I head, began our campaign to shut down Iran’s paths to a bomb six years ago. We helped fund a network of experts, advocates, faith leaders, military leaders and diplomats who trade views and coordinate efforts.

Samuels takes a swipe at our work directly, quoting Rhodes as saying, “In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this. … We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else.” [Continue reading…]

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How an Obama adviser got played by a freelance writer with an agenda

Fred Kaplan writes: About a week ago, I told a friend that I didn’t understand how people like Ben Rhodes — who’s been working as deputy national security adviser since President Obama’s first day in the White House — could stand the nonstop pressure without going crazy. Then came David Samuels’ profile of Rhodes in the New York Times Magazine, and I wondered if he’d gone nuts after all.

The piece quotes Rhodes as ragging on the press corps (27-year-olds who “literally know nothing” other than political campaigns) and the foreign policy establishment (“the Blob”); boasting of how he manipulated reporters and commentators on the Iran nuclear deal (“We created an echo chamber,” with reporters “saying things that validated what we had given them to say”); and boosting his own status considerably (“I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends”).

Why was an experienced operator like Rhodes saying these things to a reporter on the record? And does he believe what he was saying?

It’s a very strange article all round. Samuels presents Rhodes — a 38-year-old, erstwhile aspiring novelist — as “the Boy Wonder of the Obama White House,” “the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy” besides the president himself, “the voice in which America speaks to the world.” The story’s headline hails Rhodes still more dramatically as “Obama’s foreign-policy guru” who “rewrote the rules of diplomacy for the digital age.”

Many have commented on the article as a fascinating, if gruesome portrait of how power works and how official narratives are woven in the age of Obama and social media. It is all that, but not entirely in the way that many bloggers and tweeters have inferred. It struck me as interesting in two ways: first, as a story of a senior staffer who has been hunkered down in a windowless West Wing office for too long; second, as the story of a freelance writer — David Samuels, the author of this piece — who has an ideological agenda to push and who hides it by hyping the importance of the man he’s profiling. [Continue reading…]

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‘All the News We Didn’t Print’: Anonymous group distributes parody New York Times — updated

Update from Salon: Jewish Voice for Peace — New York and Jews Say No! informed Salon that they had organized the protest. The former is the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, or JVP, an American human rights and social justice organization that challenges the Israeli government’s continued violence against and oppression of the indigenous Palestinian people. Jews Say No! is a New York City-based peace group that, like JVP, protests Israel’s illegal 48-year occupation of the Palestinian territories and periodic heavy bombing of Gaza.

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Haaretz reports: An unidentified group claiming that the New York Times is guilty of bias against the Palestinians and in favor of Israel distributed a fake version of the daily newspaper with parodied content more to the group’s liking in Manhattan on Tuesday.

The mock newspaper, which is also available online and has its own Twitter account, is represented as an effort at reconsidering the Times’ coverage of Israel and the Palestinians over the past year. Presented in a design strikingly similar to the Times itself, the online version of the “supplement” is labeled “Rethinking Our 2015 Coverage on Israel-Palestine.” [Continue reading…]

To call this a “fake” edition is to imply it was intended to deceive readers into thinking it was the real thing. I doubt that was the intention of the producers; neither is it likely that many recipients of a free copy of the print edition failed to notice that stories such as Hillary Clinton’s departure from the presidential race were fictitious — especially since they actually referred to her as “Hilarity Clifton.”

If this is a piece of activism, why the anonymity? And why spend this amount of money on a stunt that will garner public attention for less than 48 hours?

Since The Yes Men did something very similar in 2008, some observers suggest they might be behind the current undertaking. Just as likely, they merely provided a model for imitation.

If triggering editorial reform in the newspaper was actually the goal, I would have thought a steady stream of genuine letters to the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, might actually be more productive — even if they never yielded a news event.

Moreover, to characterize this stunt as “pro-Palestinian” sounds dubious. Among the range of issues confronting Palestinians, biased reporting in the New York Times probably doesn’t rank among their most pressing concerns.

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Experts slam New York Times for ‘gullible’ puff piece on ‘amazing’ Kochs

Joe Romm writes: The New York Times published a fawning front-page profile of the Koch brothers last Friday. The article never mentions their efforts to secure unfettered fossil fuel consumption, which would destroy humanity’s livable climate. It was quickly criticized by leading experts as “poor journalism” and “gullible.”

The Times wants you to believe that the Kochs are “very private” but “brave,” that they are “sensitive to criticism,” and that “Charles [Koch] obviously is a classical liberal, who believes in the Bill of Rights.” What’s next for the Times — rehabbing the misunderstand Bernie Madoff?

This 1300-word piece never once mentions the Koch’s insidious efforts to fund climate science denial, block all climate action, and roll back clean energy standards at a state level. The Koch’s belief in the First Amendment extends to being the leading funder in the world of efforts to spread disinformation, smear and harass climate scientists, and generally destroy any honest national discussion of how to spare Americans and billions of people worldwide needless misery for centuries to come. Any classical liberal would do the same. [Continue reading…]

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Free speech vs. hate speech

An editorial in the New York Times says: There is no question that images ridiculing religion, however offensive they may be to believers, qualify as protected free speech in the United States and most Western democracies. There is also no question that however offensive the images, they do not justify murder, and that it is incumbent on leaders of all religious faiths to make this clear to their followers.

But it is equally clear that the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest in Garland, Tex., was not really about free speech. It was an exercise in bigotry and hatred posing as a blow for freedom.

That distinction is critical because the conflicts that have erupted over depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, most notably the massacre of staff members at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in January by two Muslim brothers, have generated a furious and often confused debate about free speech versus hate speech. The current dispute at the American chapter of the PEN literary organization over its selection of Charlie Hebdo for a freedom of expression courage award is a case in point — hundreds of PEN’s members have opposed the selection for “valorizing selectively offensive material.”

Charlie Hebdo is a publication whose stock in trade has always been graphic satires of politicians and religions, whether Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. By contrast, Pamela Geller, the anti-Islam campaigner behind the Texas event, has a long history of declarations and actions motivated purely by hatred for Muslims.

Whether fighting against a planned mosque near ground zero, posting to her venomous blog Atlas Shrugs or organizing the event in Garland, Ms. Geller revels in assailing Islam in terms reminiscent of virulent racism or anti-Semitism. She achieved her provocative goal in Garland — the event was attacked by two Muslims who were shot to death by a traffic officer before they could kill anyone.

Those two men were would-be murderers. But their thwarted attack, or the murderous rampage of the Charlie Hebdo killers, or even the greater threat posed by the barbaric killers of the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, cannot justify blatantly Islamophobic provocations like the Garland event. These can serve only to exacerbate tensions and to give extremists more fuel.

Some of those who draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad may earnestly believe that they are striking a blow for freedom of expression, though it is hard to see how that goal is advanced by inflicting deliberate anguish on millions of devout Muslims who have nothing to do with terrorism. As for the Garland event, to pretend that it was motivated by anything other than hate is simply hogwash.

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What to keep secret in a secret war

Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor for the New York Times, writes: If you were reading the two sentences by themselves, you might be surprised they appeared in the same newspaper.

One suggested a news organization that is tough-minded, calling its own shots about acceding to government requests for secrecy. It appeared in an article about whether the C.I.A.’s drone-strike program is properly monitored by Congress. The story named the program’s architect, Michael D’Andrea.

“The C.I.A. asked that Mr. D’Andrea’s name and the names of some other top agency officials be withheld from this article,” it said, “but The New York Times is publishing them because they have leadership roles in one of the government’s most significant paramilitary programs and their roles are known to foreign governments and many others.”

The other sentence suggested, by contrast, a news organization that provides anonymous cover for government officials touting the merits of their underexamined war. It appeared in an article on the effectiveness of the drone program, based partly on interviews with American officials. One of them was quoted anonymously: “‘Core Al Qaeda is a rump of its former self,’ said an American counterterrorism official, in an assessment echoed by several European and Pakistani officials.”

As The Times covered the recent unintended deaths of two Western hostages in a drone strike, a split personality was on view.

In many ways, the coverage has been remarkable for straightforward truth-telling.

A front-page news analysis by Scott Shane, for example, included this memorable paragraph, not in a quote but in the author’s own voice: “Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. Gradually, it has become clear that when operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess.” (Mr. Shane’s knowledge comes in part from his book, due for September publication, on the 2011 drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam.)

But in other ways, drone coverage is still lacking in skepticism about government claims on classified killings — something I criticized in 2012. [Continue reading…]

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Why the New York Times named names in CIA drone story

Michael Calderone reports: The New York Times reported across the top of Sunday’s front page that Congress is doing little to oversee the CIA’s targeted killing program. In the process, the paper identified three high-ranking CIA officials with key roles in secret drone operations.

The CIA asked the Times to withhold the names in its report, a request that executive editor Dean Baquet told The Huffington Post on Monday that he took seriously, but decided not to honor.

Baquet said the officials are not undercover agents carrying out clandestine operations in the field, but rather figures with significant roles in “one of the major issues in modern American warfare.” The CIA is now playing a “quasi-military role” through the drone program, a departure from its traditional functions that deserves scrutiny. In order to debate the program, he said, the public needs to know who is making key decisions. In addition, as the Times wrote in its article, the CIA officials’ “roles are known to foreign governments and many others.”

“It would have been weird to not name the guys who run it,” Baquet said. “They’re not undercover. They’re not unknown. They’re sort of widely known.”

A CIA spokesman declined to comment to The Huffington Post.

Baquet’s decision shows the news organization’s increasing willingness to push back against government requests to withhold information, unless officials provide specific reasons why doing so may damage national security. [Continue reading…]

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Thomas Erdbrink — ‘Our man in Tehran’ (parts 2 & 3)

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New York Times: Our man in Tehran

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NYT reporters parrot unsubstantiated statements from U.S. counterterrorism officials. What’s new?

A report in the New York Times claims in its opening paragraph:

The younger of the two brothers who killed 12 people in Paris last week most likely used his older brother’s passport in 2011 to travel to Yemen, where he received training and $20,000 from Al Qaeda’s affiliate there, presumably to finance attacks when he returned home to France.

The source of that information is presumably the American counterterrorism officials referred to in the second paragraph.

Reporters Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti, too busy scribbling their notes, apparently didn’t bother asking these officials how they identified the money trail.

That’s an important question, because an alternative money trail has already been reported that has no apparent connection to AQAP.

French media have reported that Amedy Coulibaly — who in a video declared his affiliation with ISIS — purchased the weapons, used both by him and the Kouachi brothers, from an arms dealer in Brussels and that he paid for these with:

a standard loan of 6,000 euros ($7,050) that Coulibaly took out on December 4 from the French financial-services firm Cofidis. He used his real name but falsely stated his monthly income on the loan declaration, a statement the company didn’t bother to check, the reports say.

Whereas the New York Times reports receipt of the money and its amount as fact, CNN — no doubt briefed by the same officials — makes it somewhat clearer that this information is quite speculative:

U.S. officials have told CNN it’s believed that when Cherif Kouachi traveled to Yemen in 2011, he returned carrying money from AQAP earmarked to carry out the attack. Investigators said the terrorist group could have given as much as $20,000, but the exact amount has not been verified. [Emphasis mine.]

This isn’t a money trail — it’s speculation. And even if AQAP did put up some seed capital, that was four years ago. In the intervening period, the gunmen seem to have been busy engaged in their own entrepreneurial efforts:

Former drug-dealing associates of Coulibaly told AP he was selling marijuana and hashish in the Paris suburbs as recently as a month ago. Multiple French news accounts have said the Kouachi brothers sold knockoff sporting goods made in China.

Another gaping hole in the NYT report is its failure to analyze the AQAP videos — there were two.

The first video, released on January 9, praised the attacks but made no claim of responsibility. Were its makers restrained by their own modesty? The second video, which does claim that AQAP funded and directed the operation, provides no evidence to support these claims.

The top spokesman for the Yemen branch of al-Qaida publicly took credit Wednesday for the bloody attack on a French satirical newspaper, confirming a statement that had been emailed to reporters last week.

But the 11-minute video provided no hard evidence for its claims, including that the operation had been arranged by the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki directly with the two brothers who carried it out before Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011.

The video includes frames showing Awlaki but none of him with the brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, nor any images of the Kouachis that haven’t been shown on Western news broadcasts for days.

So it seems premature for the New York Times to start talking about how the attacks might:

serve as a reminder of the continued danger from the group [AQAP] at a time when much of the attention of Europe and the United States has shifted to the Islamic State, the militant organization that controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq and has become notorious for beheading hostages.

The NYT report also makes a claim that I have not seen elsewhere:

In repeated statements before they were killed by the police, the Kouachi brothers said they had carried out the attack on behalf of the Qaeda branch in Yemen, saying it was in part to avenge the death of Mr. Awlaki.

Are we to suppose that Awlaki was funding an operation to avenge his own death before he had been killed?

Based on the information that has been reported so far — and obviously, new information might significantly change this picture — the evidence seems to lean fairly strongly in the direction that the Paris attacks should be seen to have been inspired rather than directed by Al Qaeda.

And to the extent that Anwar al-Awlaki played a pivotal role in these attacks, the lesson — a lesson that should be reflected on by President Obama and the commanders of future drone strikes — is that Awlaki’s capacity to inspire terrorist attacks seems to be just as strong now as it was when he was alive.

Indeed, the mixed messages coming from AQAP might reflect an internal debate on whether it can wield more power as an inspirational force or alternatively needs to sustain the perception that it retains control over operations carried out in its name.

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NYT reporter prevails in three-year fight over CIA leak

Bloomberg: New York Times reporter James Risen prevailed over the U.S. government in its three-year effort to force him to testify at trial about a confidential source as part of a CIA leak prosecution.

The request by prosecutors that Risen be dropped as a witness capped a longer battle to avoid revealing his sources. The fight reached the U.S. Supreme Court, focusing attention on the Obama administration’s aggressive pursuit of leaks. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder reacted to the controversy by issuing guidelines last year restricting the use of subpoenas and search warrants for journalists.

Risen told a judge Jan. 5 he wouldn’t answer questions that could help identify the sources for his report on a bungled Central Intelligence Agency program to give Iran false nuclear weapon development data.

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How the New York Times briefly invented a new country

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A ‘quiet night’ in Gaza? Just five deaths and 25 sites bombed

Just imagine if in the space of 12 hours there were 25 bomb attacks in Israel and five people were killed.

In the United States, the cable news networks would devote round-the-clock coverage to the “terrorist bloodbath” (or whatever other sufficiently dramatic branding they chose) and this would go down as an important date in history.

But when the dead are Palestinians, it’s a completely different story.

The New York Times reports that last night was:

… a relatively quiet night, in which the Israeli military bombed 25 sites in Gaza, killing five Palestinians in the southern cities of Rafah and Khan Younis, according to the Gaza Health Ministry; about 1,400 others have been wounded.

Ashraf al-Qedra, the Health Ministry spokesman, and local journalists said that Ismail and Mohammed Najjar, relatives in their 40s who worked as guards on agricultural land in a former Israeli settlement in Khan Younis, were killed early Tuesday. In Rafah, drone strikes killed Atwa al-Amour, a 63-year-old farmer, and Bushra Zourob, 53, a woman who was near the target, a man on a motorbike, who was wounded.

Perhaps reporters Jodi Rudoren and Anne Barnard are employing Benjamin Netanyahu’s novel definition of quietness, that being: the silence that follows explosions.

The Israeli prime minister said:

[I]f Hamas does not accept the cease-fire proposal, as it looks now, Israel will have all the international legitimacy in order to achieve the desired quiet.

So far Israel has launched 1,609 air strikes, detonating hundreds of tons of explosives in order to create quietness.

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Supreme Court rejects appeal from Times reporter over refusal to identify source

The New York Times reports: The Supreme Court on Monday turned down an appeal from James Risen, a reporter for The New York Times facing jail for refusing to identify a confidential source.

The court’s one-line order gave no reasons but effectively sided with the government in a confrontation between what prosecutors said was an imperative to secure evidence in a national security prosecution and what journalists said was an intolerable infringement of press freedom.

The case arose from a subpoena to Mr. Risen seeking information about his source for a chapter of his 2006 book, “State of War.” Prosecutors say they need Mr. Risen’s testimony to prove that the source was Jeffrey Sterling, a former C.I.A. official.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., ordered Mr. Risen to comply with the subpoena. Mr. Risen has said he will refuse. [Continue reading…]

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In the Middle East, time for the U.S. to move on

The Editorial board of the New York Times writes: The pointless arguing over who brought Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to the brink of collapse is in full swing. The United States is still working to salvage the negotiations, but there is scant sign of serious purpose. It is time for the administration to lay down the principles it believes must undergird a two-state solution, should Israelis and Palestinians ever decide to make peace. Then President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry should move on and devote their attention to other major international challenges like Ukraine.

Among those principles should be: a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with borders based on the 1967 lines; mutually agreed upon land swaps that allow Israel to retain some settlements while compensating the Palestinians with land that is comparable in quantity and quality; and agreement that Jerusalem will be the capital of the two states.

Perhaps the Obama administration’s effort to broker a deal was doomed from the start. In 2009, the administration focused on getting Israel to halt settlement building and ran into the obstinacy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and resistance from the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to entering peace talks. Since then, members of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition government have tried to sabotage the talks. As Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator, told the website Ynet, “There are people in the government who don’t want peace.” She cited Naftali Bennett, the leader of the pro-settler party Jewish Home, and Uri Ariel, the housing minister.

Mr. Obama made the right decision to give it a second try last summer, with Mr. Kerry bringing energy and determination to the negotiations. But, after nine months, it is apparent that the two sides are still unwilling to move on the core issues of the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and guarantees for Israel’s security. The process broke down last month when Israel failed to release a group of Palestinian prisoners as promised and then announced 700 new housing units for Jewish settlement in a part of Jerusalem that Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state. According to Mr. Kerry that was the “poof” moment when it all fell apart, and the Palestinians responded by applying to join 15 international conventions and treaties. That move won’t get them a state, but it is legal and they did not seek to join the International Criminal Court, a big fear of Israel’s.

In recent days, Israel, which denounced the Palestinians for taking unilateral steps, took its own unilateral steps by announcing plans to deprive the financially strapped Palestinian Authority of about $100 million in monthly tax revenues and retroactively legalizing a 250-acre outpost in the Gush Etzion settlement, which the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said was the largest appropriation of West Bank land in years.

An Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is morally just and essential for the security of both peoples. To achieve one will require determined and courageous leaders and populations on both sides that demand an end to the occupation. Despite the commitment of the United States, there’s very little hope of that now.

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