Thursday, May 29, 2008

Another False Iran Alarm

So this guy with an odd name writes an article in the Asia Times that says Bush plans to run an air strike on Iran by August. Do we ignore it or do we start squirreling away canned pears in the family fallout shelter?

Self described “former broadcast news producer” Muhammad Cohen writes in a May 28 article that “The George W. Bush administration plans to launch an air strike against Iran within the next two months.” This is according to something “an informed source tells Asia Times Online.” We can be reasonably certain that “Asia Times Online” is Mr. Cohen. The identity of the “informed source” is somewhat less scrutable.

The “source,” according to Cohen, is “a retired U.S. career diplomat and former assistant secretary of state still active in the foreign affairs community, speaking anonymously.” What seems to make the source so reliable, in Cohen’s estimation, is that he or she is “echoing other reports that have surfaced in the media in the United States recently.”

Hence, what the source told Cohen seems reliable because it sounds like the noise the rest of the echo chamber is making. That’s the new journalistic litmus test for veracity all right, but Cohen’s the first writer I’ve heard come right out and admit it.

The anonymous former assistant secretary of state, assuming that’s a genuine credential, has to be one of oh, twenty or thirty people, so one has to wonder why he or she felt the need to cling to anonymity. I’m starting to think it’s a status thing in Washington now to be cited anonymously about something electrifying as long as everybody inside the beltway knows the anonymous source was you.

Cohen says the former assistant secretary told him that details of the planned strike “raised alarm bells on Capitol Hill.”

“After receiving secret briefings on the planned air strike,” Cohen writes, “Senator Diane Feinstein, Democrat of California, and Senator Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, said they would write a New York Times op-ed piece ‘within days.’”

Cohen didn’t bother to confirm any of that with Feinstein or Lugar because “Senate offices were closed for the U.S. Memorial Day holiday, so Feinstein and Lugar were not available for comment.”

Senate offices were open on Wednesday the 28th, the day Cohen’s story hit the Asia Times web site, so I called Feinstein and Lugar’s offices. Both senators’ press secretaries said the story was untrue: neither senator had been given a briefing on a strike on Iran, secret or otherwise, and neither senator intended to write a New York Times op-ed piece about the brief they hadn’t received “within days” or any time after that.


All we know for certain about the former assistant secretary is that whomever he, she or it may be they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. On Muhammad Cohen we have a bit more granularity.

The first thing I noted when visiting on May 28 was the banner at the top of the page that read “Muhammad Cohne.” Cohen tells us that he’s an alumnus of Yale and Stanford; apparently the criteria for graduating from those bastions of higher learning don’t include knowing how to spell your own name. (Heck, Bush graduated from Yale and Condi Rice taught at Stanford, so the standards can’t be all that high at either place.) Neither, evidently, is spelling one’s name a talent required to be a cable news producer. Cohen worked for CNN and he moved to Hong Kong in 1995 to help start CNBC Asia. Cohen is presently promoting his book Hong Kong on Air which is, as you may have guessed, fiction.

Oh, about the name… Native New Yorker Eliot Cohen married a Muslim woman in 2002 and changed his first name to prove, according to one of his press releases, “that the ‘Muhammads’ and the ‘Cohens’ are not all that different. Can’t we all just get along?” A praiseworthy sentiment to be sure, but for the net effect his name change had Cohen might as well call himself Gary Goof.

I hope his goofiness helps him sell a lot of books, but I sure wish he hadn’t written his stupid article on Iran for Asia Times, and I wish his editor buddy at Asia Times had said, “Interesting, but we can’t use this just now. I’m sure you can find other ways to promote your novel.”

Thanks to legitimate investigative efforts by serious journalists like Gareth Porter and Larisa Alexandrovna and Seymour Hersh, we know about the efforts of Dick Cheney and the “crazies” in his Iranian Directorate to sell young Mr. Bush and the American public on a war with Iran the way they peddled the invasion of Iraq. We also (thankfully) hear more and more voices in the information sphere pointing out how the Cheney Gang broadcasts unfounded allegations against the Iranians through compliant media conduits like Michael R. “Anonymous Officials Say” Gordon of the New York Times.

But every time a yahooligan like Muhammad Cohen writes something alarming about the impending assault on Iran that turns out to be as genuine as a blue dollar bill, it makes everybody who’s making responsible efforts to keep Cheney’s crew in check sound like a kook too. The more the public hears false alarms, the more likely it is to ignore the warning when the wolf is really at the door.

Most of these sky-is-falling-on-Tehran stories involve a “revelation” that someone is planning a military action of some kind on Iran. Everybody needs to understand that there are probably more than 10 thousand people on active duty whose full time job it is to plan operations. When they don’t have any new operations to plan they pull out old plans and re-plan them. I’m not shocked that there’s a plan for any and every conceivable kind of operation against Iran. I’d be shocked if there weren’t.

If you’re shocked that we have standing war plans for Iran, it’s a good thing you don’t know about all the other military operations we have in the can. You’d be so scared you’d never get up off the toilet.

Don’t worry too much, though, there’s good news in all this. When I visited around noon on the 29th, “Cohen” was spelled correctly. The guy’s former assistant secretary pal must have tipped him off.

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword . Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books) is on sale now.


  1. Anonymous9:07 PM

    I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Or both. I also hear that we have standing war plans in China so that when the earth opens up completely and China sinks into the fault line and then reappears in Kansas,we will have a corner on the Fortune Cookie Market. Mark my words, just a few more tremblors and Iran will be in Montana looking down the barrel of Dick Cheney with a longing for Duck L'Orange.

    Seriously, kudos to you for checking with the primary sources! One cannot blame our overseas critics for expecting us not to do any due diligence on fact checking. Isn't that how our former press secretary sold out the first two printings of his book even before the release date? It is the New American Way--make it up as you go along. Seriously, good analysis Jeff.

  2. Mr. President, we're facing a Mandarin cuisine gap!

  3. Instead of plans and rumors, a journalist should, God forbid, think like an intelligence officer and look for the necessary indicators of a major air strike. For an air strike, I would hang out in the bars just outside the bases where the requesite aircraft are located and LISTEN. Of course, this would require leaving the office and actually working (and milling about with ground crew enlisted that are definitely not in the journalist's social class).

  4. Thia guy talked to one source only, and that source couldn't possibly have known all the details he supposedly revealed.


  5. This simply points out that "authority" has a very low correlation with "reliable." The mistake is to take the details of the story and the "authority" of the teller and just make it so. In reality, my natural bias in today's world is to assign very low reliability to highly placed anonymous sources because they are seldom corroborated by anything other than yet another anonymous source. Junk in, bad intelligence out. More junk in, worse intelligence out. Replace intelligence with news if you like.

  6. Not to mention how this looks for CNN. Since I am very busy with the distraction of raising two kids (don't talk to me about toilets!), I don't always have the wherewithall to distinguish the real and 'anointed' journalists so I rely on people like you to do that for me. Now of course, this guy's name raised major alarm bells for me (and thank you for the explanation, he must love his wife very much) and as shallow as it is, I must say his name doesn't inspire faith of any kind here. That aside, what a thought to think that there are a 'few' contingency' plans for attacks all over the world. And here we are wondering how the heck they were so ill-prepared in Iraq!

  7. John,

    Good observation. Intel and news are just about same-o as far as I'm concerned.


    Good point about plans, here's a real quick clarification: We'll plan stuff for decades, then when it really goes down the plan changes entirely. Branches and sequels and post-conflict planning tend to take a back seat to the "fires closest to us," which at that point are the main combat phases. Plus, nobody I know of ever made general by specializing in post-conflict reconstruction.

    In the case of Iraq, Rumsfeld apparently had no interest in post-conflict planning, and even threatened, jokingly or otherwise, to fire anyone who brought up the subject.

    Hope that helps.


  8. Now that we are all in the "cynicism" phase of the American MSM, (thanks to the tell-all of a former WH Press Secretary) we will, understandably have to apply the cynicism/skepticism criteria, to all corporate media, here and abroad.

    Little League baseball season ended here last night. Also ending was my "non-propaganda" sponsored baseball. I may now take up bowling.

    Commander, when I read somewhat believable, and alarming articles such as those by someone with the unbelieveable name of Muhammed Cohen, what I am most grateful for, believe it or not --- is that I am old.

    I don't wish dealing with this prospect, on my kids, grandkids, or great-grandkids. I am just undeniably glad for the years I've had. Even tho' most of them have been lived through several wars.

    Thanks for the research. Next time, before I ring the fire alarm, I'll do some myself, and make sure there is more than smoke.

    (Survival garden is underway. Saw my first tomato this morning. Blooms everywhere.)

  9. EL,

    I hope your survival garden is doing better than mine. The rabbits and squirrels are helping themselves to it like there's no tomorrow.


  10. For the survival of the garden:

    On the tomato cages, find yourself some red somethings, and hang them on the wire. (Mine are tree ornaments about 2 inches around.) Birds will peck at them. Don't like them, and will leave the real red round things alone.

    For the squirrels, which I also have, in abundance, -- advice given to me was a spray bottle filled with water. Add to that about 1-Tbsp. dishwashing liquid and about 1-Tbsp. Cayenne pepper. Spray after watering, or rain. Doesn't hurt the plants, and does discourage the critters.

  11. I'll give that a try. I don't actually mind sharing with the critters. In some ways, the garden is really sort of a mammal version of my bird feeder. I just ask that the rabbits and squirrels leave something for me!

    But you know what they say: give a squirrel an inch...


  12. Are we absolutely certain that Rachel Ray wasn't sending him a secret signal with that terrorist shawl at Dunkin'Dognuts?

  13. Maybe Muhammad Cohen is part of a black propaganda operation to discredit opponents of an attack on Iran. Put out a few incredible stories against an attack and then, with the assistance of the supine US media. you can claim that all opposing articles are incredible, even the ones that are true.

  14. You know, Blowback, the sad part is that's not at all outside the realm of possibility. We know the administration is paying overseas journalists to write fake news for them.


  15. "We'll plan stuff for decades, then when it really goes down the plan changes entirely. Branches and sequels and post-conflict planning tend to take a back seat to the "fires closest to us," which at that point are the main combat phases. Plus, nobody I know of ever made general by specializing in post-conflict reconstruction.

    In the case of Iraq, Rumsfeld apparently had no interest in post-conflict planning, and even threatened, jokingly or otherwise, to fire anyone who brought up the subject."

    Sounds like one 'party' plans, another party executes the plan (no pun intended), and 'THE' Party doesn't have the post-conflict least in this case.
    I heard from a mother in our neighbourhood that she and other parents had to send their sons batteries in the battle field at the beginning of the war as Rummy couldn't even do the pre-planning of the whole thing. I checked out as I am a (civilian) member of carissa picards' military spouses for change and I saw how you got flack for your post. As a non American, some of those comments are so far fetched, it boggles my mind. Good thing you have equally many who understand and accept what you are writing about.
    There is a Dutch saying 'tall trees catch a lot of wind' which means, if you're a visible, famous, or 'important' person, you'll catch a lot more youknowwhat more easily than your average joe schmo. And I can tell you're not an average joe schmo just by some of those comments alone!
    good luck on the gardening. Here in TX, where 'everything' is bigger, we have bigger bugs to tend with..but THAT's a whole other story, have a good weekend,


  16. Ingrid,

    Everybody who writes opinion columns for catches you know what. It's embarrassing, really, to admit that the folks who post there were once "America's finest."


  17. Montag3:56 PM

    To quote Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan when addressing a singularly ill-informed critic: "You're entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts."

  18. Commander,

    I have a query. Why is The Secretary of Defense jumping up and down, lying on the floor, turning blue in the face, because he can't rescue Burma?

    (I did see one photo on-line, that shows the rescue consists of at least one aircraft carrier, some other ships that look maybe like destroyers or something.) Didn't we used to just airlift stuff in cargo planes?

    And, what happened to the Red Cross?

    (Yes, I did some research. They do have some natural gas resources, and a little oil.)

    If they, the U.S. military, really want to save some, or any, of those people, they will parachute those supplies where they are needed, and just STFU.


    We do not need to put into play any more "Disaster Capitalism".

  19. Montag,

    I've always been a big Moynahan fan. Funny guy.


    One thing to keep in mind: if aircraft carriers can do disaster relief that gives them something to justify the expense of keeping them.


  20. Still can't get past the name: "Reporting from Singapore, Muhammad Cohen. Over to you, Abdullah Liebowitz..."

  21. Montag4:23 PM

    Here's something that might even be worth an essay. Should the U.S. Navy name a warship after George W. Bush after he leaves office? I know that people laughed when one was named "Jimmy Carter," but Carter served honorably as a Navy officer back in the day. Bush's Father was a WWII Navy hero, so no problem there. But Shrub?

    Unlike the ancient Roman Senate we don't award divinity to dead Emperors, but we do name ships after ex-Presidents. Shouldn't we follow their lead in REFUSING to honor such a Royal Pain In The Ass?

  22. Yes, we should refuse.


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