Sunday, 31 July 2011

Incredible Military Arrogance

The New York Times' At War Blog is usually worth reading. It's where CJ Chivers does a lot of posting, and Chivers is a journalist I respect and follow as closely as I can. A recent entry, penned not by Chivers but by another Times blogger named Tim Arango, is called "Weapons Retrieved in Iraq Point to Iran." In intent, it is similar to a series by Chivers that is one of the best pieces of war reporting I've ever read. If you haven't read it, it's worth reading from the beginning*.

The $.25 version is that Chivers used social media and the expertise of professional weapons geeks in the following way: 1.) he took photographs of the debris left by munitions in Libya 2.) he used e-mail contacts with an expert who 3.) used Facebook to tap into a network of ordinance experts to 4.) identify the origins of the munitions, which provided strong evidence that Qadaffi used cluster bombs in Libya.

Arango, unfortunately, relied on a different sort of expert with a very different attitude toward evidence and transparency (emphasis added):

After the 2003 invasion and the failure of the Bush administration to find the unconventional weapons it said was a reason for the war, the subsequent claims by the American military that Iran was supplying weapons and training to Shiite militias to attack American forces were met with abundant skepticism by the American public and other countries. [This is where a decent journalist would have said something about Judy Miller and the Times' role in leading the charge to war in Iraq, but the Times rarely acknowledges its role in framing events - see also the "policy on use of the word 'torture'" debate at the NY Times or NPR for further examples of this rancid behavior. - CRB]

Partly to blunt that skepticism, which persists today, and the continued denials emanating from Tehran, the military has invited reporters to view the evidence and discuss – both on background and on an off-the-record basis – the forensic indicators that the group of military and civilian officials who work here have lifted from the battlefield, evidence that they say proves that the weapons originated from factories in Iran.

"Good news, everyone!"

They are reticent to betray any secrets of the trade for publication.

"We'll show you as much proof as isn't secret, which is all of our secret proof!"

One of the lead military explosives experts – all of the officials here spoke on the condition that they be identified only this way – who is in charge of compiling evidence of Iranian complicity in the attacks on Americans likened his work to that of a “antique car dealer.” By this, he meant that his long experience allowed him to spot “distinguishing characteristics” on munitions that are trademarks of Iranian manufacturing. (He declined to allow any elaborations on this for publication.) When pressed to say more, he said, “a gemologist can look at a diamond and say it’s a diamond.”

After we went to war in Iraq on false pretenses, this culture of smug secrecy, of "we know best" and "we'll tell you what you need to know" has been pervasive in certain places in the military (certainly in every aspect of the military that deals with information or the press).

I truly hope this Iran/Iraq thing isn't the military telegraphing where our next little adventure is going to take place, but whether it is or not - hell, even giving the anonymous military "antique car dealer" the benefit of the doubt - this isn't what transparency or good military-press relations looks like. "just trust us" isn't compatible with "inviting the press to view the evidence and discuss forensic conclusions."

*: For your ease and convenience, this is what ACTUAL war journalism looks like:
Following Up, Part 1: Battlefield Refuse, Social Media and Qadaffi's Cluster Bombs

Following Up, Part 2: Down the Rabbit Hole: Arms Exports and Qadaffi's Cluster Bombs

Following Up, Part 3: Down the Rabbit Hole: Qadaffi's Cluster Munitions and the Age of Internet Claims

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