Information is always 'leaked' with a purpose. News that Israel will bomb Iran before the end of the year is deliberate misinformation to incite Iran's fears.
A deliberate misinformation campaign incites Iran fears
Ever since the Washington Post's expose of the 1973 Watergate scandal that ended the Nixon presidency, the US media has venerated the "leak". That's the misnomer for information handed to a select reporter by a government official outside of the channels of anodyne public communication, on condition of anonymity. The Watergate myth invites Americans to believe such "revelations" on the inner thinking or workings of government are a result of government officials somehow being duped or cajoled by cunning and relentless journalists into revealing secrets.
That's nonsense, of course: information is always "leaked" with a purpose - even Watergate was driven by a senior official pointing journalists to information that would bring down Richard Nixon. Government officials, by providing these "exclusives", routinely use the media to fight battles with rival factions or to manipulate public opinion.
The Bush administration, for example, leaked what turned out to be spurious claims about an Iraqi nuclear weapons programme to The New York Times's Judith Miller, which put the story on the paper's front page - which then enabled administration officials to invoke the authority of the Times when reiterating those claims to make their case for war.
If journalists are often easily seduced by ostensibly being taken into the confidence of senior officials, it benefits their editors to cast a more jaundiced eye. But editors do love dramatic exclusives.
The New York Times Sunday magazine last weekend ran a piece by the Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, warning that Israel will bomb Iran before the end of 2012. This, he writes, is his conclusion from conversations with senior Israeli officials, chief among them the defence minister Ehud Barak, who insists that Israel has the capacity to seriously set back Iran's nuclear programme, that it has tacit support from the US, and that it is fast running out of options - all of which are questionable assumptions.
Mr Barak tells Bergman that Israel has but one year to strike, since Iran is rapidly putting its bomb-making capability in hardened facilities beyond the reach of even bunker-buster bombs. The story appeared just days after Mr Barak had told reporters that any decision about bombing Iran was "very far off" - although last November he said Israel had a window of only six months left in which it could mount a successful strike. Mr Barak has made a career of saying things that appear to be at odds with things he said before, and will say after. That's why he was known as "Mr Zig-Zag" in Israeli political circles during his tenure as prime minister in the late 1990s.
Bergman's piece appeared a week after the European Union adopted an embargo against importing Iranian oil, a move for which Israeli columnists credited their leaders' relentless threats of military action. "The Israeli campaign launched during the previous fall, where rumours of an imminent Israeli strike on Iran were disseminated, [has] secured its objectives," wrote Yedioth Ahronot's Sever Plocker. "Western statesmen clung to this campaign and utilised it in order to impose on Iran the devastating sanctions that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded two years ago."
The Israelis have long played a "bad cop" according to the playbook outlined by US President Barack Obama's former Middle East adviser Dennis Ross, using the threat to start a potentially disastrous war to leverage other countries into putting more pressure on Iran. When former Mossad chief Meir Dagan dismissed the idea of an Israeli strike on Iran, many in the Israeli establishment castigated him for giving the game away. "This threat [to bomb Iran] is crucial for scaring the Iranians and for goading on the Americans and the Europeans," wrote Haaretz's Ari Shavit. "[Israel] must create the fear that if it is pushed into a corner it will behave insanely."
It was hard to miss, also, the remarkable similarity between Bergman's piece and the September 2010 article in The Atlantic by pro-Israel hawk Jeffrey Goldberg, who predicted an Israeli strike on Iran by June 2011. In a blog post expressing scepticism of Bergman's timeframe, Goldberg noted that both reporters had relied on many of the same sources.
And like Goldberg, Bergman tends to downplay the evidence that suggests an Israeli military strike is unlikely. A number of sceptics have pointed out that Bergman reaches his conclusion about the likelihood of a strike this year despite much of his own reporting suggesting otherwise. He quotes Israel's top intelligence chiefs warning that their country lacks the technical capacity to seriously set back the Iranian nuclear programme.
Indeed, two weeks ago, Gen Michael Hayden, who served as CIA director to President George W Bush, told reporters, "The Israelis aren't going to [attack Iran] ... they can't do it, it's beyond their capacity." A number of analysts have noted that while the Israeli air force could stage a massive raid on Iran, it lacks the ability to sustain the days and weeks of bombing that would be required to set back Iran's programme for any significant length of time. And a number of Israeli and US officials have warned that military action would make Iran more likely to build nuclear weapons in secret.
Bergman acknowledges that the Israeli leadership could simply be trying to scare up more sanctions, but clings to his conclusion despite. Former National Security Council Iran specialist Dr Gary Sick notes: "Recounting [Bergman's] discussions with key Israeli military and intelligence officials, present and former, who describe to him in great detail: (1) why Israel is incapable of conducting such an attack; (2) why such a foolhardy action would fail to stop Iran's nuclear programme; and (3) why it would actually leave the situation far worse than it is now."
The underlying flaw, however, may be the tricks played by the egos of journalists who believe themselves to be the confidants to whom decision-makers reveal their true intent and innermost convictions.
Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst
Follow on Twitter: @TonyKaron