Monday, August 16, 2010

Jeffrey Goldberg's Credibility on Attacking Iran

Unless you're completely oblivious to the blogosphere, you know that Jeffrey Goldberg's new report in The Atlantic about the supposedly high probability of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites within the next year has been drawing huge attention.  Although Goldberg claims to be ambivalent as to whether or not there ought to be an attack, many see his piece as a blatant attempt to prepare the American public for one and predispose them to accept it as both inevitable and just.  In any event, commentators across the political spectrum have been weighing in (among them, George Will in the WaPo, whose piece bears the ominous title "Netanyahu's Warning"), and The Atlantic's website is now hosting a series of comments on Goldberg's piece from various "experts" - including today's installment from Robin Wright.

A major issue that several have brought up is Goldberg's credibility, both as a reputable journalist  and as an impartial observer.  (He was, once upon a time, Corporal Goldberg of the IDF, in which capacity he served as a prison guard during the First Intifada.)  Both Tony Karon and Juan Cole have addressed the latter issue.  But as to Goldberg's method of research, here's a little perspective from Harper's Mag's Ken Silverstein, from 4 years ago, examining Goldberg's role in building the case for the disastrous invasion of Iraq:

. . . . Goldberg was, in the year leading up to the war, a strong proponent of invading Iraq, and wrote a number of articles that echoed the administration's arguments for toppling Saddam Hussein. That was no coincidence, since his reporting relied heavily on administration sources and war hawks (and in at least one crucial case, a fabricator).

Goldberg and his friends predicted that events would unfold smoothly in Iraq, and now that they haven't, he wants to make sure that U.S. troops stay put and fight the war that he helped promote. The Democrats, he told the Washington panel, can regain power only by reaching out to their conservative wing (and to voters even further to the right who over the years have migrated from the party to the G.O.P.). He's been interviewing members of this vital voting-bloc, he said, and he was able to report that they would “like to leave Iraq but they'd really like to win Iraq” and are looking for “a party and leadership” that can lead the way to victory.

Prior to the American-led invasion of Iraq, Goldberg wrote two lengthy articles in the New Yorker which argued that there were extensive ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Much of what he wrote in a mammoth March 2002 story was based on the testimony of Mohammed Mansour Shahab, a prisoner in a Kurdish-controlled town in northern Iraq. Jason Burke of the London Observer later demolished Goldberg's story when he spoke to the same prisoner and found that he couldn't even describe the city of Kandahar, where Shahab had claimed that he'd traveled on Al Qaeda-related business. “Shahab is a liar,” Burke concluded. “[S]ubstantial chunks of his story simply are not true.” Goldberg also peddled the Iraq–Al Qaeda connection during a February 2003 interview on All Things Considered, delivering the grim news that Saddam's agents had some years earlier helped Al Qaeda “in the teaching of the use of poison gas.”

Goldberg's hysteria peaked when it came to his claims regarding Saddam's “weaponization” of a biological agent called aflatoxin. Aflatoxin, he wrote on October 3, 2002 in Slate, “does only one thing well: It causes liver cancer. In fact, it induces it particularly well in children.” (In this same Slate item Goldberg attacked Slate contributors who opposed the war, saying the critics had “limited experience in the Middle East” and that this led them to “reach the naive conclusion that an invasion of Iraq will cause America to be loathed in the Middle East, rather than respected.”) Within an hour of President Bush signing a congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, Goldberg was on CNN and again claimed that Saddam had “weaponized aflatoxin, which is a weapon that has no military value. Its only value is to cause liver cancer, primarily in children.”

Saddam, to state the obvious, was indeed an evil man, and any experimenting his regime was doing with aflatoxin would have been cause for concern. But the September 2004 report from Charles Duelfer, the Bush Administration's chief weapons inspector in Iraq, stated that Iraqi scientists conducted experiments with aflatoxin, possibly as a means to “eliminate or debilitate the Regime's opponents,” but concluded that there was “no evidence to link these tests with the development of BW [biological weapons] agents for military use.” (His broader conclusion was that there was “no direct evidence that Iraq, after 1996, had plans for a new BW program or was conducting BW-specific work for military purposes. Indeed, from the mid-1990s, despite evidence of continuing interest in nuclear and chemical weapons, there appears to be a complete absence of discussion or even interest in BW at the Presidential level.”)

Whatever Saddam's regime intended to do with aflatoxin—and Duelfer's report reached no conclusion on that subject—it did not involve wholesale tot-slaughter. But it seems to me that Goldberg was out to prove that Saddam was singularly evil—a man who would kill kids with cancer, no doubt cackling with glee as he watched them expire—because the American public might be less willing to support war if he was merely an evil dictator, which are a dime a dozen.

In urging war on Iraq, Goldberg took highly dubious assertions—for example, that Saddam was an irrational madman in control of vast quantities of WMDs and that Iraq and Al Qaeda were deeply in bed together—and essentially asserted them as fact. From these unproven allegations, he demonstrated that an invasion of Iraq was the only rational policy.

It is truly amazing - and disheartening - that "experts" of Goldberg's ilk - who argued repeatedly and vociferously about how wise and just an invasion of Iraq would be - are still afforded platforms as lofty as The Atlantic from which to peddle their nonsense.

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