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The Good and Bad of the Western Media’s Iran Coverage

Facility at Aramco’s Shaybah oilfield in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia in 2018. (Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)

On the menu today: In light of the recent military tensions with Iran, it’s worth looking back at how the major U.S. and other Western media covered the attack on the Saudi Arabian oil facilities in September, and how they consistently suggested the administration’s claims were flimsy and that Iranian denials were worth keeping in mind; some terrific reporting on how the administration responded to intelligence that Iran was planning a missile attack; and Senator Mike Lee just wants a little consultation that’s consistent with the Constitution.

How the Media Botched Their Coverage of Iran’s Attack on Saudi Arabia in September

Foreign affairs are covered and discussed poorly in the Western media, and the habits, instincts, and mental framework of those who cover these events work to the benefit of dishonest and authoritarian entities such as the Iranian regime. Let’s look back at the Iranian attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities from this September.

On September 14, 2019, drones attacked two key oil installations inside Saudi Arabia, damaging facilities that process most of the country’s crude oil and briefly disrupting world oil supplies. America’s intelligence community quickly determined this was an Iranian attack. Despite the Iranian regime’s long sponsorship of terror, aggression against its neighbors, and well-established history of lying about all of it, the Western media treated the Tehran’s denial of responsibility as sufficiently plausible to doubt claims of U.S. intelligence officials. Few Western media entities came out and outright denied that Iran launched the attacks, but almost none were willing to spotlight the implausibility of the Iranian regime’s denials. The net effect was to create a blurry gray area and confusion about who launched the attack, which was exactly what Tehran wanted.

The day of the attack, Secretary Pompeo declared on Twitter, “There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”

This is such irresponsible simplification, and it’s how we get into dumb wars of choice,” Senator Chris Murphy, (D., Conn.) said about Pompeo’s tweet to ABC News. “The Saudis and Houthis are at war. The Saudis attack the Houthis and the Houthis attack back. Iran is backing the Houthis and has been a bad actor, but it’s just not as simple as Houthis [equal] Iran.”

On September 15, a tweet from Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, claimed, “having failed at ‘max pressure,’ Secretary Pompeo’s turning to ‘max deceit.’ US & its clients are stuck in Yemen because of illusion that weapon superiority will lead to military victory. Blaming Iran won’t end disaster.” That denial was all it took to get the Western news media to treat the U.S. claims about the attack with a consistently skeptical tone.

The Washington Post, September 15: “There was ‘no evidence the attacks came from Yemen,’ Pompeo said in a tweet; he has not offered evidence for his claims.”

The retired military officials cited by CNN on September 15 contended that the available evidence just couldn’t confirm the U.S. claims: “Ret. Gen. Mark Hertling said the images ‘really don’t show anything, other than pretty good accuracy on the strike of the oil tanks.’ Ret. Adm. John Kirby echoed this point, stating ‘there is nothing I see in these pictures which confirms a launch from any particular location.’”

The New York Times, September 16: “The publicly available evidence is consistent with a few aspects of the White House claims. But American officials have offered no evidence beyond the satellite photos, which analysts said were insufficient to prove where the attack came from, which weapons were used and who fired them.”

Slate, September 16: “the Saudis aren’t yet backing up the administration’s confident claim that Iran was the staging ground for the attack. The Trump administration really is all on its own.”

Robin Wright of The New Yorker wrote a lengthy article on the attacks that acknowledged that U.S. officials said Iran was responsible, but then laid out the evidence and arguments that the Houthis in Yemen could have done it:

The Houthis had previously fired ballistic missiles and drones at Saudi oil installations, military facilities, and airports—from Jeddah, in the west, to the oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia, on the Persian Gulf.

For years, Iran has been the primary arms supplier to the Houthis, whose military capabilities have increasingly expanded. If the attacks did come from Yemeni soil—a fact the United States and Saudi Arabia disputed—the drones would have had to fly more than five hundred miles. In January, the U.N. reported that the Houthis had drones capable of flying up to fifteen hundred kilometres, or about nine hundred and thirty miles. On Monday, Sare’e threatened further Houthi attacks on the kingdom. “We assure the Saudi regime that our long arm can reach any place we choose and at the time of our choosing,” he tweeted. Future attacks, he said, “will expand and be more painful.”

The argument that the identities of the perpetrators of the attack were a great unsolved mystery, and that any U.S. claims that Iran launched it had to be irresponsible warmongering, was also asserted by the Russian Foreign Ministry, September 16: “We strongly recommend not rushing to conclusions about who carried out this attack on the Saudi refineries. We consider it counterproductive to use what happened to build up passions around Iran in line with the well-known U.S. line and all the more unacceptable are options that provide for retaliatory force measures, which are allegedly being discussed at present in Washington.” I mention this only because we’ve spent much of the past three years hearing that the absolute worst thing the American news media could do would be to echo Russian propaganda.

September 17, the Washington Post: “Officials in Washington and Riyadh spent the day analyzing satellite photos and other intelligence that they said indicated that Iranian weapons were used in the assault on the Saudi Aramco facilities. But they presented no new information that would conclusively show that Iran directed or launched the attack.”

Vox, September 20: “At this point it’s mostly America and Saudi Arabia’s word against Iran’s, and the current governments of those three countries are not exactly known for their commitment to honesty and transparency.”

Long after the attack had fallen out of the headlines, Western media continued to contend that this was another case of American scapegoating. The BBC reported on December 11, “The UN has reportedly so far been unable to confirm Iran was involved in drone and cruise missile attacks on two key Saudi oil facilities in September.”

Now the United Nations investigation is complete, and we learn . . .

Yesterday, Reuters: “Yemen’s Houthi group did not launch an attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in September, according to a confidential report by U.N. sanctions monitors seen by Reuters on Wednesday, bolstering a U.S. accusation that Iran was responsible.”

Also yesterday, a New York Times article declared: “with tensions between the United States and Iran at the highest level in four decades, the unexpected success of the September strike on the Saudi oil facilities is a stark reminder that Tehran has an array of stealthier weapons in its arsenal that could pose far greater threats if the hostilities escalate.”

Somewhere along the line, the American national news media either decided or realized that Secretary Pompeo and the U.S. government were not lying, were not making this up, and were not using shoddy intelligence to hype a threat from an authoritarian Middle Eastern regime. The declaration that Iran was responsible stopped being controversial, disputed, or unproven. It just became a fact, one that can be cited in an article about how dangerous the current moment is and the high risks of the president’s actions.

This is all leftover guilt about the Iraq War, isn’t it? So many of the people in foreign affairs journalism imbibed the “Bush lied us into war” rhetoric so deeply that they’ve concluded that American officials must be treated with way more skepticism than officials in secretive and serially dishonest authoritarian regimes. They say generals are always fighting the last war; apparently journalists are always covering the last one, too.

‘Haspel Had Predicted the Most Likely Response Would be a Missile Strike from Iran’

With that complaint out of the way, it’s worth remembering American coverage of foreign policy isn’t all bad. The New York Times has a terrific story today on how the administration and military responded when spy agencies determined that an Iranian missile attack would be launched within three hours. This section is particularly intriguing:

Appearing on a video screen was Gina Haspel, the C.I.A. director, who was monitoring the crisis from the agency’s headquarters in Northern Virginia. In the days before General Suleimani’s death, Ms. Haspel had advised Mr. Trump that the threat the Iranian general presented was greater than the threat of Iran’s response if he was killed, according to current and former American officials. Indeed, Ms. Haspel had predicted the most likely response would be a missile strike from Iran to bases where American troops were deployed, the very situation that appeared to be playing out on Tuesday afternoon.

Though Ms. Haspel took no formal position about whether to kill General Suleimani, officials who listened to her analysis came away with the clear view that the C.I.A. believed that killing him would improve — not weaken — security in the Middle East.

When You’ve Lost Mike Lee, You’re Just Not Trying Very Hard

Look, Trump administration, Senator Mike Lee is one of the most reasonable senators out there. He’s no peacenik dove, he’s no knee-jerk critic of the administration (he votes with the Trump administration 74 percent of the time) he’s no softie on the Iranian mullahs, and he’s not looking for an excuse to criticize or attack the White House. So if Lee comes out of a classified briefing on the strike that killed Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and calls it the “worst briefing I’ve had on a military issue” during his nine years in the Senate, it means you’ve made a genuine unforced error.

Almost every Congress thinks that the president and the administration are insufficiently cooperative, but the two most recent presidencies have hit the accelerator to the point where the White House simply ignores Congress. (Obama’s “I have a pen, and a phone” philosophy led to a lot of sweeping policy changes enacted by executive orders.)

At one point one of the briefers said something like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll consult you,’” Lee said. “Consultation isn’t a constitutional declaration of war. Drive-by notification or after the fact lame briefings like the one we just received are inadequate.”

Just a little bit of effort to keep Congress in the loop — at least with the overall goals of policy in the region, if not in specific operations — would do a lot of good. Even if the Congressional Democrats remain implacably opposed to every administration action, you would at least get Congressional Republicans to buy in and feel invested in defending those policies. Ideally, you get the opposition to believe they suggested the idea.

ADDENDUM: I am amazed about the way some people discuss the “Rooney Rule” in the National Football League. I figured that whether you’re white, black, Latino, or whatever, you would like to see every talented potential head coach to get a fair shot at getting hired for the top job. Whether you think the NFL currently having three black head coaches and one Latino is enough or a striking underrepresentation, I’d like to think that everyone would like to see as many good coaches as possible get a decent opportunity to prove themselves in the top spot. I also marvel that anyone who really follows the NFL can believe that the dearth of minority coaches is just a reflection of owners picking the best possible person for the job, and my perspective is not entirely fueled by my volcanic disdain for New York Jets head coach Adam Gase. I think it’s really odd that Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has interviewed for seven jobs in the past two years and never gotten an offer. (Does he just bomb in every interview?) I think it’s weird that Jim Caldwell, who got the Colts to the Super Bowl, has interviewed for another three jobs and not gotten hired. Was Freddie Kitchens a better choice in Cleveland? Was Pat Shurmur a better hire by the Giants? How’s Matt Patricia working out for the Detroit Lions so far? Or Zac Taylor with the Bengals?

(And yeah, I don’t understand how Gase gets another chance after three years of mediocrity with the Dolphins but a guy like Caldwell doesn’t.)

I doubt that overt racism motivates these hiring choices, but I think NFL owners have an idea of who they want to hire before they fire the old coach, that in many case the owners’ preferences are for recognizable names that will generate buzz, and that most owners don’t know many promising minority coaching candidates and can’t be bothered to look for them. And I think minorities have a fair gripe that a rule that was designed to give them a fair shot has turned into a laughably transparent process of meaningless interviews of token candidates.

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