Here we go again. The clichés come frighteningly easy when one ponders the recent efforts of the hawks to gin up the case for military confrontation with Iran. The playbook is familiar: Pump up the threat, use the media as a conveyor and watch public opinion swing toward war.
A campaign of this sort has been under way for weeks. In late August the staff of the GOP-led House Intelligence Committee released a report on Iran that depicted it as a pressing strategic danger. Iran "probably" has a biological weapons program and "likely" has a chemical weapons research and development program, it said. More alarming, the report stated that Iran was definitely "seeking" nuclear weapons and enriching weapons-grade uranium. It conceded that US intelligence lacked crucial information on Iran's WMDs, but it warned intelligence analysts not to be wimps in reaching assessments about Iran's WMD capabilities and not to "shy away from provocative conclusions." That is, don't wait for hard-and-fast evidence before pronouncing Iran a nuclear threat.
The media coverage of the report was straightforward--a bit too straightforward. Major news stories did not question the report's assertion that Iran is producing weapons-grade uranium. Yet three weeks later, the International Atomic Energy Agency sent a letter to Peter Hoekstra, Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, criticizing the report for being "outrageous and dishonest." It noted that uranium for weapons must be 90 percent enriched but that Iran had enriched uranium only to 3.5 percent. The IAEA letter--first reported by the Washington Post--also challenged the committee's unsupported assertion that the IAEA has a policy barring its officials "from telling the whole truth about the Iranian nuclear program."
The report was born of an agenda: to whip up public support for military action against Iran. Its principal author was Frederick Fleitz, a former CIA official who had worked for hard-liner John Bolton at the State Department. The report was not fully vetted by the intelligence committee before being released by Hoekstra (who in June was claiming that there had been WMDs in Iraq), but it was reviewed by the office of John Negroponte, the hawkish Director of National Intelligence. Pardon our suspicion, but this whole deal appears to be an end run orchestrated by a Boltonite keen on clearing the way for military action.
The obvious question is, can they get away with it again? In this sequel the war advocates have another repressive regime to demonize and another proliferation challenge they can portray as a dire and immediate threat. Knight Ridder reports that CIA and Pentagon intelligence officials are concerned that the offices of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are "receiving a stream of questionable information" on Iran from Iranian exiles (à la Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress). But the Knight Ridder report adds: As was not the case during the Iraq episode, "intelligence analysts and others are more forcefully challenging claims they believe to be false or questionable." And foreign policy "realists" and retired and currently serving members of the military are warning that with Iraq falling apart, confrontation with Iran is not feasible. At the same time, a European push is growing to drop the threat of sanctions against Iran in favor of negotiations.
That's good news. However, the House intelligence report shows that the hawkish clique is prepared to roll over analysts and experts who don't reach the desired conclusion. And such dissenters will not have the (aptly named) bully pulpit routinely available to George W. Bush.
Which brings us to the media and Congress. Each will have to be far more discriminating and diligent than it was the last time around. No automatic transmission belt. No rubber stamp. No forgetting.