Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifying before Congress, seated next to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey (Defense Department photo)
What can one say when the Washington Post's neoconservative editorial writers more correctly describe the U.S. and Israeli assessments on Iran's nuclear program than does a news story in the New York Times? In a Wednesday morning surprise, a Washington Post editorial got the nuances, more or less, right in stating: "U.S. and Israeli officials share an assessment that, though Iran is building up nuclear capability, it has not taken decisive steps toward building a bomb."
You could still say the Post is hyping things a bit, skewing the wording in an anti-Iranian direction, but the sentence is essentially correct on where U.S. and Israeli intelligence judgments stand, that Iran has NOT made a decision to build a nuclear bomb.
But then there's the New York Times. It continues to mislead its readers, albeit with a new weasel word inserted to avoid being accused of completely misstating the facts. In a news article on Wednesday, the Times reported that "the United States, Europe and Israel have all called [Iran's nuclear] program a cover for Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons capability, an accusation that Iran denies."
The key weasel word now is "capability," which is a very elastic concept since any work on nuclear research for peaceful purposes, such as low-level enrichment of uranium, could theoretically be used toward a weapons "capability." (The word also appeared in the Post editorial.)
There's a parallel here to President George W. Bush's statements about the Iraq War: Remember, after his promised Iraqi stockpiles of WMD didn't materialize, Bush retreated to claims about WMD "programs," i.e. the possibility that something might have occurred down the road, not that it actually had happened, was happening or was likely to happen. "Capability" is now filling a similar role.
So, instead of stating that U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies concur that Iran's leadership has NOT made a decision to go forward with a nuclear bomb, the Times creates a false impression that they have done so -- by suggesting Iran is making progress toward a "nuclear weapons capability."
If that wording leaves you with the notion that Iranian leaders have decided to press ahead in building a nuclear bomb (but are lying about their intent), you can be forgiven because that seems to be the misimpression the Times wants you to have. Indeed, even well-informed Americans have come away with precisely that misimpression.
And there's another parallel to Bush's case for war with Iraq, when he falsely implied that pre-invasion Iraq was allied with al-Qaeda, without actually saying precisely that. Any casual listener to Bush's speeches would have made the implicit connection, which was what Bush clearly intended with his juxtaposition of words, but his defenders could still argue that he hadn't exactly made the link explicit.
Now this sleight of hand is being done mostly by the U.S. news media, including the New York Times in its influential news columns. To state the obvious, employing misleading word constructions to confuse readers is an inappropriate technique for a responsible news organization.
The Times and most other major U.S. news outlets have refused to alter their boilerplate on Iran's nuclear ambitions (beyond slipping in the word "capability"), even as a consensus has emerged among the intelligence agencies of the United States -- and Israel -- that Iran has NOT made a decision to build a nuclear weapon.
As ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern has noted, this intelligence judgment has even been expressed recently by high-profile figures in the defense establishments of the two countries -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
In an article entitled "US/Israel: Iran NOT Building Nukes," McGovern wrote: "You might think that you would have heard more about that, wouldn't you? U.S. and Israel agree that Iran is NOT building a nuclear bomb. However, this joint assessment that Iran has NOT decided to build a nuclear bomb apparently represented too big a change in the accepted narrative for the Times and the rest of the FCM [Fawning Corporate Media] to process."
McGovern cited an interview by Barak on Jan. 18 in which the Defense Minister was asked:
Question: Is it Israel's judgment that Iran has not yet decided to turn its nuclear potential into weapons of mass destruction?