Good Intelligence Reporting Making a Comeback

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As everyone knows by now, good journalism was late to the party on the Iraq War. Many very, very good books have come out in the last two years that detail how intelligence was twisted, how reconstruction was bungled, how sectarian violence was inflamed instead of dampened, and on and on, but all of them came several years too late to nip support for the war in the bud or to end it in its early stages. There was some serious work done before the invasion that examined the Bush Administration’s justifications for war, often finding — like in the case of the aluminum tubes that Iraq allegedly was using for a nuclear program — that the evidence was flimsy, but stories of that nature were frequently overshadowed by front-page reporting by people like Judy Miller that put incorrect evidence into the public realm and helped the administration make its case.

Journalists know this sordid history, and one of the positive consequences of it has been a robust skepticism on their part about the Bush Administration’s claims about Iran. A good example comes from Newsweek, where Mark Hosenball is asking difficult questions and his sources, more so than before the Iraq invasion I would wager, are willing to answer. Hosenball looked at the administration’s claim that Iran is inflaming violence in Iraq, and then at the recent NIE’s claim that foreign actors are actually playing a relatively small role in the Iraq turmoil, and went to some people in the know to see who was telling the truth. The results:

…three U.S. officials familiar with unpublished intel (unnamed when discussing sensitive info) said evidence of official Tehran involvement is “ambiguous,” in the words of one of the officials. For example, U.S. troops have been attacked by homemade bombs triggered by infrared sensors (like ones used on American burglar alarms). U.S. agencies know Iranian purchasers have made bulk orders for the sensors—which cost as little as $1 each—from manufacturers in the Far East. Some analysts think most of the sensors are used for innocent purposes: they note that the devices are so widely available that would-be supporters of Iraqi militants could simply buy them in an Iranian store and smuggle them to Iraq; high-level government involvement wouldn’t be necessary.

Last week U.S. military officials in Baghdad were set to brief reporters about evidence American forces had assembled about Iran’s interference in Iraq. But the briefing was canceled; one of the U.S. officials suggested it had been put off because intel officials couldn’t agree about the info.

The simple fact that the press is reporting skepticism as a major story in itself is a big improvement from the pre-Iraq period. And the Christian Science Monitor reports today that even the White House realizes it has to back down on the tough talk with Iran. As we wrote in the Iraq War Timeline, truth was a casualty of war long before we invaded Iraq. Looks like it’s making a comeback.

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