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Criticism of 'False Flag' piece is misguided and simply wrong

In his attempt to deconstruct Mark Perry’s Foreign Policy piece, Rafael Frankel overlooks the fact that quality writing on covert government action often relies on unnamed sources, and, through reductive means, glosses over the undeniable influence of the Israel lobby on U.S. policy. 

By Mitchell Plitnick

In his criticism of Mark Perry’s Foreign Policy article, False Flag¸ ex-journalist Rafael Frankel demonstrates how disturbing Perry’s article was for many. But Frankel’s criticism of the piece fails to demonstrate any more than that.

Frankel’s main problem with Perry’s piece is that it was based on information Perry gathered from anonymous sources. According to Frankel, “…without one single on-the-record source for this reporting, Perry should not have written the article and Foreign Policy should not have published it.”

While I admire Mr. Frankel’s journalistic ethics, this statement is simply untrue. I have been reading articles dealing with covert operations, as well as many that report on governmental deliberations on policies and actions, that rely exclusively on anonymous quotes. It is a very common practice in the most mainstream and reliable of news sources.

Just as an example, let’s look at a rather important story from a few years ago:  In 2005, James Risen and Eric Litchblau wrote their Pulitzer Prize-winning story on NSA wiretapping in the New York Times. The fifth paragraph of that story reads:

Nearly a dozen current and former officials, who were granted anonymity because of the classified nature of the program, discussed it with reporters for The New York Times because of their concerns about the operation’s legality and oversight.

No sources with direct knowledge of the program go on the record with the Times. Should the Times not have printed that story?

Mr. Frankel, whose archive shows some impressive reporting under difficult conditions, impugns bloggers for watering down a journalistic standard that is not and has never been held to. Anonymous sources are a well-established channel for reporting and while I’m sure Mark Perry would have preferred someone go on the record, a climate of fear cannot be allowed to stop journalists from reporting important news stories. That’s why the phenomenon of anonymous sourcing is, in my experience, much more common in mainstream news outlets than in blogs. Bloggers are more worried about people doubting their veracity.

I have some experience as a professional journalist, and the half dozen career reporters and editors I asked about this point were unanimous–Mr. Frankel’s assertion is simply dead wrong.

Frankel, in fact, undermines his own point when he writes:

Hillary Clinton insisted that Washington did not have a hand in the latest assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. A high-ranking Israeli official insisted that the false flag story was “absolute nonsense.” Why should the American denial be any more believable than the Israeli denial?

After giving a completely inaccurate lecture on anonymous sourcing, Frankel pits what was the most strenuous denial imaginable from a top US official about a covert operation — the Secretary of State, no less, who proclaimed: “I want to categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran” — against the word of a single, unnamed source, a “senior Israeli government official,” speaking to Haaretz. This is the height of hypocrisy.

I agree with Mr. Frankel on one point, and that is the danger of glossing over crimes by the US government by blaming Israel. I’ve seen that happen, but that is not what Mark Perry’s article was about.

Indeed, Perry does not “disenfranchise” the United States, as Frankel put it, he simply points out that the significantly smaller power, Israel, was able to take certain actions contrary to US interests and did so with impunity because of what Perry’s sources described as “political and bureaucratic inertia.”

It is Frankel who then brings in the issue of the “Israel Lobby” and the Stephen WaltJohn Mearsheimer thesis. He attempts to caricaturize the entire debate over US Mideast policy thusly:

Perry’s false flag story brings to the fore another disturbing trend beginning to emerge. In much the same manner as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer blamed the Israel Lobby  for the Iraq War despite all evidence to the contrary, a segment of the anti-war establishment is once again propagating a false construct that paints Israel as the party mostly responsible for a coming war with Iran. In this narrative, Israel is either an all-powerful state that has the global dominance to dictate the foreign and security policy of the United States (and a host of other world powers as well), or it is acting on its own to provoke a war while a hapless and uninformed Obama Administration desperately tries to stop the crazy Jews from dragging the United States into a war it doesn’t want.

Now, I am on record as disagreeing with Walt and Mearsheimer about the Lobby’s role in the Iraq misadventure, and I was critical of their collapsing disparate forces, especially the various pro-Israel groups and the Neoconservatives (who are certainly radically hawkish on Israel-Palestine and overlap a great deal with the Lobby. But the Neocons and the Lobby are not the same entities, especially in that the Lobby encompasses many groups who have an agenda so far removed from the Neocons’ that they could easily be seen as being oppositional).

But the Lobby quite obviously has a massive influence on US policy in the Middle East. Tom Friedman is only the most recent pundit to state the obvious fact that most members of Congress toe the Lobby line out of political pressure and campaign funding. And one only need look at how AIPAC-affiliated figures like Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk have held pivotal positions in policy formation in numerous administrations to understand that the influence goes well beyond Congress. Anyone who denies this simple reality–one which AIPAC is proud to trumpet, incidentally, and why shouldn’t they be?–is either completely oblivious to the world around them or is being willfully disingenuous.

What Frankel does in the quote above is to employ what is becoming a very tired and increasingly transparent bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand by merging the Israel Lobby, the State of Israel and the Jewish people. These are three different entities, but by conceptually merging them, it becomes a simple matter to reduce a serious discussion of the forces everyone here in Washington is familiar with to mere conspiracy theory and even to anti-Semitism.

The forces that are trying to lead us into war with Iran are very American–my friends at LobeLog have done a remarkable job of tracking them on a nearly daily basis. Those forces are also complementing efforts by the Netanyahu government, which has made no secret of its desire to see the US and other countries take a more confrontational stance with Iran. If Mr. Frankel is unaware of these things, I’d suggest he is spending too much time on his Ph.D. coursework and not enough just looking at the headlines, let alone the substance of the news.

I am a big fan of +972 Magazine, and have established great relationships with a number of the folks running it. I have no problem with them running Mr. Frankel’s piece in principle. I’m delighted that they are committed to bringing their readers a range of views. Mr. Frankel himself seems to be a worthy journalist, judging by some of the pieces I saw on his web site.

And Mr. Perry’s article, like any other piece of reporting, should be subject to critical scrutiny. One should hope, though, that such scrutiny would be less ideologically driven and thought out a lot better than this was.

Mitchell Plitnick is a blogger and writer. He has formerly served as director of B’Tselem’s US Office, and director of Jewish Voice for Peace. Visit his blog here

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    1. nina

      A tour de force.

      Frankel’s piece read more like a primal scream than any serious analysis. Outright denial of reality is never likely to be very seriously taken.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Rebecca Subar

      Thanks for printing Plitnick, 972.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Rafael Frankel

      I’ve read the criticism of my article, here and in the comments section on my article’s page, and I have one larger point to make and a few smaller ones.

      First, the large point…

      Having reported for some years from Gaza and the West Bank, I’m quite accustomed to taking heat from the right wing. I’ve been called a “self-hating Jew” and “anti-Israel” more times than I can count. So when I’m criticized from the left wing, I keep in mind what my journalism professor at UC Santa Cruz told me way back when: “When both sides hate your work, then you are doing a good job.”

      To some smaller points…

      You and others used the NY Times wiretap story to point out that newspapers use anonymous sources when reporting on intelligence matters. But you neglect to mention that when the NY Times took that story to the Bush Administration, the administration ADMITTED that it was true. That’s even better than getting an on-the-record source—that’s an outright admission. And that’s a huge difference from this case where all sides are making denials.

      I see how the fact that the Israeli denial was anonymous while the American denial came from Sec. of State Clinton is somewhat glaring given the content of my article. Perhaps I could have been more careful here. But the large point of that paragraph is that, given history, there is no reason to believe that either side is more believable than the other.

      When I read the insinuation that I didn’t read enough news, I nearly fell off my chair in laughter. If I didn’t spend hours per day reading the news as I do now, I would probably be able to finish my dissertation many months sooner than I am. That, at least, was funny. Whereas other comments on my article accusing me of lacking integrity in reporting, or loyalty to the US, because I’m Jewish were just downright bigoted.

      Many people, including you, accused me of waging an ideological argument. I find nothing can be further from the truth. In no place in my article do I make a single ideological point. The article makes no case for or against war (covert or otherwise) against Iran; no case that Israeli or American actions are or are not justified; no judgment as to what extent the US should or should not support Israel; and no case that generally hawkish or dovish foreign policy is better than the other. The two main points I make are… (1) Given the sourcing, Perry’s article is weak. (2) That the US, like every other state, is responsible for its own actions. If you disagree with US policy, then pointing fingers at Israel, or anyone else, unjustifiably relieves the US of responsibility for its actions. Those two points I wholeheartedly stand by.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Sinjim

      @Frankel: This line of thinking

      “When both sides hate your work, then you are doing a good job.”

      represents one of the biggest problem of journalism today.
      The idea behind that simplistic cliche is that there are two sides to an issue and the truth resides somewhere in between. If you’ve pissed off both sides, then you know you’ve arrived at the truth.
      What if the two sides are the NAACP and the KKK, to cite a rather extreme example? If you’ve pissed off both of these sides, are you necessarily “doing a good job”? And what if there is more than two sides to a particular issue, would you still be able to arrange them in such a way that the truth will necessarily be in the middle?
      When all the people and sides you’re reporting on criticize your work, that is an indication of nothing more than disagreement over your presentation of the facts, not that you’re right. It doesn’t even come close to guaranteeing that you’re doing a good job.

      Reply to Comment
    5. directrob

      So your large point is you are doing a good Job because you are criticized by left and right. No comment.
      As to the main point of your article, it seemed to me to be, that it is ludicrous “… that Israel is the mastermind behind American Middle East belligerence…”. Actually no such is claim is made by Mark Perry although his sources suggest that Israels actions could escalate and get the US involved. (Not really ludicrous given that Netanyahu keeps open the option of a unilateral attack).
      I must conclude that for your position the “American passport” affair is unimportant so the whole Perry article is irrelevant. You just seems upset by fingers pointing to Israel for the terrorist attacks in Iran and the claim by the secretary of state that the US is not involved in assassinations of Iranians. In this case I guess the US is telling the truth.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Rob

      Excellent discussion with a critical point that bears repeating :
      “What Frankel does in the quote above is to employ what is becoming a very tired and increasingly transparent bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand by merging the Israel Lobby, the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”
      1) “Indeed, Perry does not “disenfranchise” the United States, as Frankel put it…”
      – Actually, he does exactly that here : “I think the U.S. government, my country, has lots of problems. But joining with terrorist groups is not one of them.” – I would definitely characterize that as “disenfranchisement”, though it depends whether one is referring to the specific issue of the murder of Iranian scientists (where Perry’s statement might well be true), or in a more general historical sense (where this statement is clearly false).

      2) Pr. Frankel’s statement in comments about neither side having more credibility than the other is certainly correct, as any official statements, even if openly declared, should really be taken with a grain of salt, especially in matters of war and “covert” operations. No law of nature says that the truthfulness of any statement is directly proportional to the openness or the anonymity of the source. It is better to just look at the historical record and notice patterns of behavior, and in this particular case everything does indeed point to the Mossad. Even if it wasn’t, Israelis seem to want to make Iranian leaders THINK it was, as a game of psychological warfare, so, in this sense it is almost irrelevant who did it.

      3) There are three issues (or more, as I am not particularly well-informed about any of it) which need to be separated and not confused regarding the covert operations in Iran :
      a)The fact that covert operations by US forces in Iran have been reported, and are probably ongoing, though most likely through proxies (dissident groups)
      b)This most recent murder in particular (which some experts are attributing to MeK, working with Mossad) which may have little to do with Mr. Perry’s revelations
      c)The fact that Mossad was recruiting Jundallah agents using US passports (which may have been just dual-citizens, so, valid passports?)

      Reply to Comment
    7. ToivoS

      The reason Mark Perry’s article had credence is because he has established a reputation as 1) credible and 2) had sources inside government especially the CIA.

      To a certain extent I believe he was being used by his sources to down play the role of the CIA in fomenting trouble inside Iran. I suspect that Mark knows that as well. But he was being supplied intelligence that was not previously known.

      Should the time arrive that Mark is egregiously exploited to spread false information I will withdraw my trust in his reporting. But so far his insights have high credibility.

      Reply to Comment