Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Story Plants, Leaks And The White House Narrative

Remember how the media and hawkish pundits were manipulated by the Bush administration in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq? You would think they would have learned their lesson by now...

On Monday, one or more "senior intelligence officials", speaking "on condition of anonymity" leaked secret information to the nation's two major newspapers. The Bush administration, which has stated it's intention to pursue leakers vigorously, hasn't said a word about these leaks.

The Washington Post was given access to parts of a secret memo from the Marine Corps. It said that Al Qaida was now in control of the Sunni province of Anbar in Iraq.

The New York Times was told by their official (the same one, a different one?) that the government of Iran had arranged for a couple of thousand menbers of Sadr's Mahdi militia to be sent to Lebanon for training by Hezbollah.

The two stories went out in the Tuesday editions and were met by immediate interest from conservative pundits who retold, by and large, the obvious narrative. That narrative being that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would hand Anbar to Al Qaeda, that any hopes of getting Iran to help stabilize Iraq were misplaced because that nation was not acting in good faith, that pulling U.S. troops out anytime soon would be a disaster.

Very, very few noted that both stories came with caveats.

The first had their intelligence source disagree with the leaked memo, saying that the local Sunni insurgents and tribe, rather than Al Qaeda, were the dominant force in Anbar. That caveat agrees with a whole bunch of previous reports from the region. A few conservative blogs noted those earlier reports and disagreed with the Marine Corps memo story, but even they assumed that the "leak" was made by those trying to harm the Bush administration.

The second story also quoted an expert who felt the leak greatly over-stated the possibilities. That was ignored. The logistic unlikelihood of moving a couple thousand Shiites to Lebanon when there are no civilian flights from Iraq and the land route runs through Sunni-held Anbar and Sunni Syria - neither of whom would be liable to take kindly to such an effort to train militia who would then kill Sunnis - well, that too was ignored. As was the utter lack of hard evidence for previous allegations of Iranian meddling in Iraq. Everyone assumed that this story too was an unsanctioned "leak". Denials by Hezbollah and the Sadrists went unnoticed.

Then, hours after the stories broke and just as the blogs and pundits talking up the narrative peaked...

...Bush used his world-stage speech in Latvia to say that a withdrawal from Iraq would hand a safe haven to Al Qaeda and that Iran couldn't be trusted to negotiate in good faith since it was meddling in Iraq already - and so U.S. troops would stay until the mission was accomplished.

And still no-one made the obvious connection. That these "leaks" were deliberate administration manipulation of the media to set the narrative for Bush's speech.

Sheesh. Dumb, or what?

Maybe they were thrown by the recent change in administration rhetoric. For three years we've always heard happy talk about how the Iraq occupation was going - place up the successes and deny or play down the setbacks, because they needed to prove to the American people that "staying the course" was working well. Now, though, it is obvious to everyone that the wheels are coming off in Iraq and so "staying the course" must be justified by scaring the American people with tales of what will happen if troops are withdrawn.

The White house has moved from happy talk to scary stories. They do scary stories better than happy talk, they've had more practise. Maybe that's why no-one has questioned the latest media-spinning story plants.

Or maybe it's just because the mainstream media feels it needs the access these sanctioned leads represent more than it needs to fully inform the American public.

Update While we're on the subject of deliberate leaks designed to further the Bush administration's agenda and spin the American public, John at AmericaBlog notes that the leak of a memo by the head of the CIA that trashes Iraq's prime minister is obviously more of the same. Here's the full text. The notion that a secret memo of this kind, by this senior a Bush staffer and with this small a circulation, being leaked the day before the Bush - Maliki summit is absurd unless the leak was an officially sanctioned one. It is designed to have the effect of pre-setting the public - and Maliki - to believe that Bush will be a tough guy in his talks with the Iraqi PM.

Putting pressure on Maliki and other members of the Iraqi government, while setting up the unwarranted conclusion that Maliki needs Bush more than vice-versa, is probably the intent of another article today too - this time about Saudi Arabia maybe mounting an intervention if the U.S. withdraws. It was written by a Saudi government insider who is also an adjunct fellow at the neoconservative Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The official leaks and arranged stories fit the usual Bush administration pattern. They are almost supernaturally prescient in their timing - as they would be since their timing is arranged to suit the White House. They don't actually tell outright falsehoods, but instead point up and highlight those areas the White House wants highlighted while glossing over any contrary opinions. And most importantly of all, no-one in the mainstream media is willing to call them for what they are.

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