There They Go Again

Should the _New York Times_ op-ed page introduce fact-checking? Given recent trends, it really couldn’t hurt.

A couple days ago, the _Times_ ran an “op-ed by John Bolton”: For reasons known only to the author, he chose to revive a “canard about Obama strong-arming Israel into the NPT before it is ready to join”:

I mention this only because it’s in my pet rock collection. It was just one of a series of “questionable representations” “catalogued and dissected at the PONI blog”: earlier today. Among other things, PONI locates “an Israeli account”: of the substance of the Obama-Netanyahu exchange on nuclear opacity. I’ll quote it in full:

On another issue, Obama told Netanyahu at their meeting on Monday that Washington has no plans to change its policy on Israel’s nuclear program, according to an Israeli source.

“At the talks, Obama expressed his deep commitment to Israel’s security and his full adherence to the deep presidential understandings in this area,” the source said.

In 1969, the United States and Israel reached an understanding under which Israel would maintain ambiguity about its nuclear program and would refrain from conducting a nuclear weapons test. In exchange, the U.S. would refrain from pressing Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which would require Israel to give up any military nuclear capabilities it had and place the reactor in Dimona under international supervision. These understandings, which have remained in force to this day, form the basis of Israel’s nuclear policy.

In recent weeks, Israeli commentators have expressed fear that the U.S. was planning to change this policy, after a mid-level State Department official publicly declared that Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea should all join the NPT. But this comment was actually mere routine, reflecting America’s commitment in principle to eventual worldwide nuclear disarmament, and was not aimed specifically at Israel.

During his previous term as prime minister, Netanyahu requested and obtained a written commitment from then-president Clinton that the U.S. would preserve Israel’s strategic deterrence capability – a euphemism for nuclear capability – and make sure that its arms control initiatives did not impair this capability. Netanyahu also told Clinton that Israel would not join an American initiative to draft a new treaty that would ban the production of plutonium.

The above account appeared in _Ha’aretz_ five days before Bolton’s op-ed went to print.

PONI observes that op-eds, because of their brevity,

bq. can be frustrating because they do not have to cite or explain their interpretation of facts. Maybe they should.

Roger that. Writers should at least have to justify themselves to an editor. Fact-checking is bad enough on the news side of the house. On the op-ed side, it’s nonexistent.

Another Example

Two days before the Bolton piece, the _Times_ ran an item by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann claiming in part that

bq. the Obama administration has done nothing to cancel or repudiate an ostensibly covert but well-publicized program, begun in President George W. Bush’s second term, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to destabilize the Islamic Republic.

This appears to refer to _overt_ “programs to support”: “democracy in Iran”:, whose usefulness has “come into question”: (Human rights and democracy, as “previously noted around here”:, look pretty threatening to some governments.) But these total well short of “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

If Leverett and Mann are referring to some other “well-publicized” program, it has eluded me completely. But maybe I’m not reading the _Times_ attentively enough.

Then, there is the small matter of how to “cancel or repudiate” a covert program in such a way that anyone would know about it.

So what has the Administration done with the Iran democracy programs that people besides Leverett and Mann actually know about? Mostly, they were funded by a supplemental, and never budgeted. It doesn’t appear that all the money was actually obligated (i.e., spent down). So are Leverett and Mann calling for a rescission (i.e., withdrawal of the unspent funds)? It’s not clear.

Perhaps they are expressing concern about the new and amusingly titled “Near East Regional Democracy”: program. Yes, NERD! Right now, it looks like $25 million, to be awarded “on a competitive basis.” Some of that could conceivably go to NGOs in Iran, if they choose to apply. But there is no assurance that they ever will.

Op-ed fact checking: an idea whose time has come.

3 thoughts on “There They Go Again

  1. Josh

    The first comment (above) strikes me as being right on the money. The authors are referencing the Hersh story. I should have remembered it, but did not.

    A few words about Seymour Hersh seem called for. He has what may courteously be called a mixed record as a reporter. On one hand, there is My Lai and Abu Ghraib. On the other hand, there is… well, almost everything else. I do not take his work, too, too seriously when it cannot be replicated by other reporters. Especially when it comes to Iran.

    Covert operations of some variety involving Iran are not too difficult to imagine. But covert operations running to “hundreds of millions of dollars”? That’s very hard to imagine.

    Now, as for the second comment above. Even Hersh does not go so far:

    In recent months, according to the Iranian media, there has been a surge in violence in Iran; it is impossible at this early stage, however, to credit JSOC or C.I.A. activities, or to assess their impact on the Iranian leadership.

    In truth, separatist and/or terrorist violence have been a problem in Iran going back to the early days of the revolution and beyond. It’s in the clear interest of IRI officials to lay the blame at the doorstep of the U.S., but there’s no good reason for anyone else to believe it.


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