A study by the Center for Public Integrity and Fund for Independence in Journalism released yesterday found that in the run-up to the Iraq War, President George W. Bush and his administration made at least 935 demonstrably false statements about the security threat posed by Saddam Hussein. The folly that followed during the execution of operations in Iraq is well documented, but whatever degree of shame is associated with being fooled 935 times apparently isn’t enough to learn a lesson.
Just this month, in its reporting of an alleged incident with Iranian patrol boats in the Strait of Hormuz, the press reverted back to accepting ominous threat assessments from an administration that lacks any firm evidence at all.
On January 6, U.S. Navy ships were approached by five small speedboats, which may have been affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. There was some radio communication, and the boats turned away.
The Pentagon released video of the encounter, with a soundtrack containing a voice warning that the ships would blow up. There are many things that couldn’t possibly have been known by reporters at the time: when it was recorded, where it was recorded, who the speedboats were affiliated with, whose voice was on the tape, and whether the voice on the tape even corresponded to the video footage of the encounter.
Instead of an even-handed examination of the Pentagon’s claims, there was simply repetition of their claims without any hint of skepticism. It was 2002 all over again, with speedboats serving as the new mushroom clouds. A New York Times editorial said Iran “played a reckless and foolish game in the Strait of Hormuz this week that—except for American restraint—could have spun lethally out of control.”
ABC News anchor Charles Gibson reported that “President Bush called it a provocative act, and the Navy video would indicate that’s something of an understatement.” What Gibson saw in the video that led to that assessment is unclear. But Wolf Blitzer agreed, calling the incident “very scary stuff” on “The Situation Room”; Katie Couric described it as a “dangerous confrontation” that almost “led to a battle at sea.”
The Fox News channel also saw in the Pentagon video a frontal assault on the United States. “It wouldn’t have bothered me one bit, Geraldo, if we blew those ships right out of the water,” Sean Hannity told his guest, Geraldo Rivera. “The captain would have been justified,” replied Geraldo. When Alan Colmes interjected to suggest that nobody knew what actually happened in the Strait, and that the timing was curious, given that President Bush was headed to the Middle East to build a coalition against Iran, Rivera rejoined: “But that’s skepticism, Alan.”
Skepticism has since proven to be beyond warranted in this case. After Iran released its own video of the incident, Pentagon officials began backing away from the claim that the speedboats issued any verbal threats. Officials began telling reporters that they couldn’t be sure the threatening voice came from the speedboats, just that it happened at the same time. The Navy Times reported that the voice could be from a well-known “Navy heckler” that jumps onto radio frequencies and shouts insults.
Moreover, even if these five speedboats had verbally threatened the U.S. Navy warships, it would have been akin to a Pop Warner football team challenging the New England Patriots. “They had neither anti-ship missiles nor torpedoes. And I wouldn’t characterize the posture of the U.S. 5th Fleet as ‘afraid’ of these ships or these three U.S. ships ‘afraid’ of these small boats,” Said U.S. Navy Commander Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff.
In fact, Gareth Porter reports that no information on the incident was even released until 24 hours later, “indicating that it was not viewed initially as being very urgent.” In fact, he points out, an unnamed Pentagon official told the Inter Press Service that similar encounters with small boats occurred throughout the 1990s and are “just not a major threat to the U.S. Navy by any stretch of the imagination.” Even just two weeks earlier, the USS Whidbey Island fired on a small Iranian boat that allegedly approached it at a high speed, an event that went unreported to the media.
At some point over that 24 hours, however, a decision was made at the Pentagon to publicize the incident, with a good deal of flourish. “Military officials” told Barbara Starr of CNN that the Iranian boats had carried out “threatening maneuvers” and claimed “I am coming at you” and “you will explode,” and that the commander of one boat was “in the process of giving the order to shoot when they moved away.” Porter reports the ominous information likely came from Bryan Whitman, the top Pentagon official in charge of media relations, who gave the ominous briefing off the record but was mistakenly identified by the Associated Press.
The story of the U.S. government issuing stern, but shaky, allegations of threat against a nation that it is already suspected of seeking a confrontation with—and the blind acceptance of the press—is certainly not a new one. Before Iran and Iraq, there was Vietnam and the second Gulf of Tonkin incident—another supposed confrontation at sea that never took place.
In 1964, the warship Maddox reported “continuous torpedo attack,” and owing to the mistake of a single 23-year-old sonarman, it did mistakenly believe this to be true. But it wasn’t. An all-out assault took place but it took place against nothing and no one. Admiral James B. Stockdale, flying off the deck of the Ticonderoga “with the best seat in the house from which to detect boats,” moving directly over the Maddox and the Turner Joy with no surface haze or ocean spray to cloud his vision, saw “nothing.” “No boats, no boat wakes, no ricochets off boats, no boat gunfire, no torpedo wakes—nothing but the black sea and American firepower.” By then, the lie was more than halfway around the world while the truth was still sleeping soundly in its pajamas.
Time magazine, making stuff up as it went along to please the military brass and the Johnson administration—which, infamously, used the phony incident to start bombing North Vietnam—informed readers: “There were at least six of them, Russian-designed ‘Swatow’ gunboats armed with 37-mm and 28-mm guns, and P-4s. At 9:52 they opened fire on the destroyers with automatic weapons, this time from as close as 2,000 yards. The night glowed eerily with the nightmarish glare of airdropped flares and boats’ searchlights. For 3 1/2 hours, the small boats attacked in pass after pass.”
The key difference between Iraq, the Gulf of Tonkin, and current exaggerations of threats from Iran is that the latter has not—yet—led to a war. But can it be coincidence that this phony crisis was fomented just as George W. Bush was on his way to the region to scare up support for confronting Iran, denouncing his own intelligence agency’s report on the way?
Much of the mainstream media would have us believe it is. What’s that old saying? “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 936 times….”
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will be published in March.
George Zornick is a New York-based writer.