Tuesday, May 06, 2008

CounterProductive CounterPunch Story on Iran

At least one high profile war critic sounds alarmed by a recent revelation that Mr. Bush signed a “secret finding” against “the Iranian regime” six weeks ago. I’m frankly less than agog about it.

In a May 2 CounterPunch article, Andrew Cockburn wrote that Bush has launched a “covert offensive” on Iran that is "unprecedented in its scope." The “directive covers actions across a huge geographic area – from Lebanon to Afghanistan.” The directive, according to Cockburn, also permits an expanded range of actions, “up to and including the assassination of targeted officials.”

Wow, I thought as I read it. That’s some scary sounding stuff. Then, out of habit, I rescanned the piece to note who Cockburn’s sources on the secret finding were, and here’s what I found: “those familiar with its contents.”

Great. Caesar’s. Ghost. Credibility wise, that kind of thing puts Cockburn and CounterPunch on an even footing with Michael R. Gordon and the New York Times.

Lie, Lie Again

Judith Miller, Michael R. Gordon and others at the NYT helped the Bush administration spread the disinformation that sold the Iraq invasion to the American public by citing “facts” certified by anonymous “officials.” On September 8, 2002, NYT ran the infamous Nigergate story that heralded “Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.” To substantiate this explosive assertion, Miller and Gordon directly or indirectly quoted unnamed officials more than 25 times. We now know, of course, how tragically wrong those officials were.

One would think that America’s newspaper of record, the bastion of the so called “liberal” press, would have learned its lesson about allowing the Bush administration to use is at a black propaganda platform, but no. In February 2007, Gordon began citing “proof” certified by anonymous officials that Iran was directly involved in operations directed against American troops in Iraq. Those assertions have yet to be validated by hard evidence, but as recently as April 26, 2008, NYT reiterated the entire laundry list of Bush administration allegations against Iran supported by an eye-watering 30 citations of unidentified officials.

By now the rest of the mainstream media has followed NYT’s lead. Anonymous propaganda placement in the “news” has become the accepted standard, and the traditional fourth pillar that once protected our access to the truth is now the largest and most resilient wall in big brother Bush’s Rovewellian echo chamber.

It’s a tragedy of our era that so much of the alternative media, handed a golden opportunity to pick up the baton that the establishment has so callously dropped, has chosen instead to adopt the standards of check out line tabloids.

Monkey Do

As a reasonably discerning consumer of news who is somewhat knowledgeable in national security matters and has been following and writing about the Iran issue for years, I’m predisposed to accept the kind of information Andrew Cockburn presented. Thanks to the way he presented it, however, I’m now inclined to reexamine every assumption I have regarding Bush and Cheney’s long-standing strategem to entangle America in open hostilities with Iran.

For starters, I don’t know what “covert offensive” means exactly, and I strongly suspect that neither Cockburn nor “those familiar” with it know exactly what it means either. Whatever it means, I don’t see how its scope could be all that “unprecedented.” All that covert stuff Matt Helm and Smiley’s people did against the Soviets for a half-century was a robust precedent to go about trying to exceed.

I would be shocked to learn that we aren’t already conducting covert operations of one kind or another from Lebanon to Afghanistan, and I don’t know how much more covert operating we can do in that part of the world. Our satellites are already in space, and they don’t have much else important to do than spy on brown people. All of our special force types and undercover Arabic and Persian speakers are already gainfully employed by now I’d guess, and folks like that don’t grow on beanstalks.

Cockburn seems to want us to get excited that this Lebanon-to-Afghanistan offensive may involve assassination. H.G. Wells’ bells, fellow citizens, we’re already assassinating people in Somalia with freaking cruise missiles. We’re doing the same thing in Pakistan with Hellfire missiles fired from pilotless spy planes; the folks who pickle off the missles are dweebs sitting at consoles in an Air Force base in Nevada.

The door to this barn has been open for a long, long time. That the horses are gone shouldn’t be news to anybody.

Cockburn also says that during the January naval confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz, the American on scene commander “was about to open fire” on Iranian speed boats, and only “desisted” when “Fallon personally and explicitly ordered him not to shoot.” His source for this bombshell was “CENTCOM staff officers.”

A lot of officers work on the CENTCOM staff. If the ones who told Cockburn about the hold fire order were Navy captains who were directly involved with the operation, they probably knew what they were talking about. If they were the Army captains who pinned the stars on Fallon’s collars and shined his shoes every morning, they probably didn’t. Call me cynical, but I have a preconceived notion about which kind of captains talked to Cockburn about the Hormuz incident and which kind wouldn’t give him the time of day if he bought them a pitcher of beer.

As with the term “covert offensive,” I don’t know what Cockburn means by “was about to open fire.” If he means that the commander had his weapons loaded and manned, big deal. I can’t imagine a U.S. warship transiting Hormuz any other way these days.

It’s a huge story if Fallon told the commander not to shoot even in self-defense; that would violate the core tenet of U.S. rules of engagement that defines self-defense as both an inherent right and responsibility of the unit commander. It would mean Fallon committed a George W. Bush class overreach of his legal authority.

If on the other hand Fallon simply reminded the commander that he had no supplemental ROE or mission tasking that required him to fire except in self-defense, Fallon was acting in a wholly prudent and suitable manner.

But I can’t tell from Cockburn’s story what was really going and neither can anyone else because it’s questionable whether his sources know their facts from their elbows and it’s darn near certain that Cockburn doesn’t know his.

That’s a shame, because there’s probably something to Cockburn’s story, but he way he told it—incendiary allegations accompanied by murky sourcing and rail thin amplifying details—makes it sound like tinfoil conspiracy theory and cable news sensationalism.

Cockburn’s piece reflects poorly on the entire anti-war movement and the earnest work of investigative journalists who are unearthing credible information about the abuses of power practiced by the Bush administration.

If this is the best he’s got, he should just zip it.

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword .

"So we can play war…"

"Populated by outrageous characters and fueled with pompous outrage, Huber’s irreverent broadside will pummel the funny bone of anyone who’s served." — Publishers Weekly

"A remarkably accomplished book, striking just the right balance between ridicule and insight." — Booklist

View the trailer here.


  1. Anonymous2:40 AM

    I highly recommend the free book, "The Authoritarians", by Prof. Bob Altemeyer (Univ. of Manitoba, Canada), available at the following link: http://members.shaw.ca/jeanaltemeyer/drbob/TheAuthoritarians.pdf . This free book provides deep insights into how we got led into our current predicament and specific actions to take to help reduce the threat authoritarianism poses to democracy. It is recommended by John Dean who wrote "Conservatives Without Conscience."

  2. We're all very concerned -- those of us paying attention and/or who have learned somewhat from Sun Tzu -- about what BushCheneyCorp. may do in the next few months. But you're exactly right, sensationalism without substance doesn't help.

    Predictions are fun to make, though. I myself kept half-expecting Osama bin Laden's dramatic capture around mid-October 2004.

  3. Anonymous9:59 AM

    May be a case of too many "Cockburns" writing for one political newsletter.

    Alexander, Counterpunch co-editor, with Jeffrey St. Clair; Patrick: MidEast correspondent since 1979; Andrew: who knows? Lots of writers in the Cockburn family competing for an audience --- anywhere.

    Thanks for the in-depth analysis, Commander.

    There are enough people, who call themselves journalists/analysts who prey on our fear. Do we really need one more?

    Probably not.

  4. Thanks, Jeff and Anon. LIke I said, a story like Cockburn's makes the whole anti war movement look like a pack of wild eyed yahooligans.

    Yeah, there's almost certainly something to Cockburn's story, but I don't think he knows what it is.


  5. Anonymous11:47 AM

    Somewhat OT, but here's Adm Mullen:

    With a national election looming, a cadet asked about the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law and what would happen if someone took office who wants to change it. “It’s a law, and we follow it,” Mullen said. Should the law change, the military will carry that out too, he said.

    “We are a military that is under the control of our civilian elected leaders,” he said. “It has served us well since we’ve been founded. That is a special characteristic of our country and I would never do anything to jeopardize that.”

    (I like the part about civilian control.)

  6. I'm a firm believer in it too, Wk> I'm just not sure how we handle it when generals act like politicians and politicians act like generals.

  7. Anonymous12:21 AM

    Well, this is the problem, isn't it? On the one hand you have the MainStream Media with their "Objective Journalism," which is anything but. And then you have the Alternative Media with "Advocacy Journalism," in which they boast of their point of view being reflected in the article. There's also "Gonzo Journalism," where the reporter IS pretty much the story, but that's neither here nor there.

    Advocacy Journalism can be very good or very bad. It can be very bad when the journalism gets in the way of the advocacy and the reporter cherry picks only evidence which fits their pistol.

    But it can also be good when you remember that the reporter isn't neutral, so any balance applied to the article is entirely up to the reader. This is a lot easier than with Objective Journalism, where they'll lay out a big case for something with the only "balance" consisting of four words buried beneath a mountain of so-called proof--"Some experts dispute this." So the hapless reader is led to conclude that the overwhelming evidence must be that it's true, since the dissenters are dealt with so summarily.

  8. Well said, Montag. Add to that news versus editorial, the line between which I say never really existed in the first place, then consider that "official" sourcing is a different matter from protecting anonymous whistle blowers.

    A complex calculus with a lot of variables, but I think Cockburn (Andy not Alex this time) failed to meet minimum standards in any category.


  9. Anonymous11:04 AM

    I guess Adm. Fallon thought he was one Captain William C. Rogers III away from all out war with Iran..

  10. Anonymous11:30 AM

    in light of the recent poll that said Bush has lowest popularity of any president, do you believe, as I do that the U.S. lacks the political mandate to invade Iran? A few days ago, the rhetoric changed to 'Let's do dialogue with Iran'... this sounds a little like what you talked about in "the proxy war with Iran...", namely backpeddling.

  11. Vive,

    That was my first thought, then I changed my mind a bit. When you get down to it, if I'm that ship's CO and I'm not sure if my tasking has changed or not vis a vis national intent toward Iran, there's nobody I'd rather hear "you have no further ROE or tasking than to practice self-defense," than from my theater commander. I mean, there wouldn't be any doubt in my mind that his intent was being misinterpreted by an intermediary.


    I honestly don't know what to think anymore. If you want to talk wheels-within-wheels theory, all this Iran bluster could be part of a big PSYOP, and Cockburn could have been an unwitting part of it.


  12. Anonymous9:25 PM

    Say, did you "get the memo" about the Fourth Fleet being reinstated in the Caribbean, effective July 1? Wikipedia already has an entry on it. It only existed during 1943-50, until it was absorbed by the Second Fleet. I take it there's otherwise a very real danger of American tourists in Cancun getting shortchanged.

  13. Holy Cow. Thanks, Montag. They must need another three-star command billet to groom guys to take over those four-star Army billets. ;-)


  14. Anonymous12:06 AM

    2 items:

    1: patrick cockburn is more to be trusted than his brother alexander, who can be a snide and superior acting guy, as i once found out. at least patrick is reporting as an eyewitness.

    2: I BOUGHT BATHTUB ADMIRALS! but only yesterday, so i haven't read it yet.

  15. Petey,

    There's been much confusion and consternation over which brother wrote this particular article. It was Andrew, whom a "source familiar with him" tells me is as reliable as Michael R. Gordon. (Seriously.)

    I hope you enjoy the book.


  16. Anonymous7:31 PM


    "Kitty Hawk air wing commander removed"

    (Another story that has bounced around some online alarmists, probably with even less cause for actual alarm than whatever were the real facts behind the Andrew Cockburn alarm. After all, there must be SOME things happening in the military that aren't part of Sauron's (Dick Cheney's) intricate plan.)

    (Then again, maybe Sauron's mind control rays made me think that?)

    (It's hard to strike the right balance betwen complacency and paranoia, sometimes.)

  17. Anon,

    This sounds like what we used to call a "P.R.I." to me, something more to do with personal conduct than with professional competence. But I really can't say because I really don't know.

    As to whether it's related to the Iran situation, I rather doubt it, but again, I don't know.


  18. Anonymous12:30 PM

    Here's a truly bizarre story about an Admiral who's taking "early retirement" because he didn't know the statute of limitations had expired on a transgression and got nailed for lying about it. If you had used this in your book they'd have accused you of writing Science Fiction. He'd qualify as Poster Boy for, "Deny, Stonewall, Make Counter-Accusations"--and he totally screwed himself into the ground when telling the truth would have saved his career. "IG: 3-Star Lied About Sex In The White House:"


  19. Montag,

    It looks like they took down that story, but I'm familiar with it.

    Another P.R.I.;-)


  20. Commander,

    Great story this morning on the Editor and Publisher website on Joe Galloway, and some e-mail correspondence he had with Rumsfeld's office.


    Worth the time.

  21. EL,

    Thanks for the link. Cool story.


  22. Anonymous3:23 PM

    "There's been much confusion and consternation over which brother wrote this particular article. It was Andrew..."

    awww FLIPPIN' HECK! well patrick is still good. but thanks for the heads up on andrew, that's 2 cockburn brothers now i'll less than implicitly trust. of the sister i know nothing. the father wasn't much to be relied on either, tho'.

  23. FWIW, Petey, I'm working on another piece about a false Iran hysteria story. These things just keep on cropping up.

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