Monday, February 26, 2007

New Claims On Iran Get Faint Skepticism From NYT

You know, there's a big difference between being against starting a pre-emptive war of choice with Iran (over trumped up evidence) because you think the US can't win that war as opposed to just realizing that starting wars of choice over trumped up evidence is plain wrong. A lot of neocon figures will currently tell you that they shouldn't be called warmongers because they don't think the US should start a war with Iran right now. Which is a logical sleight-of-hand designed to conceal their true natures - many of them have made pronouncements of warlike intent in the past - and really just means they aren't entirely stupid warmongers.

Rest assured, were Bush to launch an aggresive strike on Iran, those same pundits would haul down the peace flag and raise the Jolly Roger, gleefully pointing to their earlier statements that they always wanted war sometime and that, in the infinite wisdom of the Dear Leader, now was obviously the right time. Calls for diplomacy and caution would be thrown overboard in the rush to clear the decks for action. Anti-war they are not.

And so the narrative for war continues, preparing for the day when those with a lust for war will decide that an attack on Iran is suddenly right even if it is still morally wrong.

Thus to the NY Times today and an article which continues to bang the "weapons from Iran are killing our troops in Iraq" drum. At least we have a named source this time, a Maj. Marty Weber who is described as an explosives expert. The Bush administration have perhaps realized that anonymous officials giving briefs on such weighty matters won't fly post-2003. And on first glance we even have a balanced article with "healthy levels of skepticism" as described by Byron Calamie recently.

But then, on re-reading, you notice that the "skepticism" is of a nebullious, generalized kind with few actual skeptics quoted - one of them being a conservative who thinks while the evidence proves nothing that it "should be self-evident" that Iran (i.e. the leadership) is providing military assistance to Shiite militias. None of the skeptics actual misgivings are presented in real detail and none of Maj. Weber's assertions are challenged.

When the skeptics are presented as vague and the expert as detailled and unchallenged in that detail, the general public will naturally believe the expert. Yet it would have been simple enough for contributor Michael Gordon, say, to Google some of Weber's briefing.

For instance, take this key claim:
Major Weber said the use of precision copper discs combined with passive infrared sensors amounted to “a no-brainer” that the explosive components were of Iranian origin, because no one has used that sort of configuration except Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

Could copper discs be manufactured with the required precision in Iraq? “You can never be certain,” Major Weber said. But he said that “having studied all these groups, I’ve only seen E.F.P.’s used in two areas of the world: The Levant and here,” meaning in Hezbollah areas of Lebanon and in Iraq. Hezbollah is thought to be armed and trained by Iran.
Those may be the only places Maj. Weber has seen them used, but they are far from the only places. EFPs have been used by the IRA, FARC guerillas in Columbia and ETA in Spain too. This was all before the US military coined the new acronym to differentiate them from more common forms of IED, but they are nonetheless the same category of device, with explosively formed penetrators and infrared triggers. No-one has ever suggested Iran was arming any of those groups. Indeed, it has been alleged that the original design came from a botched UK intelligence sting in Northern Ireland.

Or this:
Still, Major Weber said, there were other indications of Iranian involvement in Hilla. In the raid, the Iraqi and American troops also found a red 1988 Chevy tow truck carrying 10 Strella rockets under a false bottom in the bed. The rockets had MJ-1 contact fuses and were probably made in China and repainted with Iranian markings — the usual practice for weapons that Iran imports and re-sells. Following international convention, the markings were in English, not Persian. They indicated that the rockets had been made in 2005 and each carried 18 kilograms of explosive.

As to why the Iranians would leave such obvious markings on the shells, Major Weber speculated that they had simply been taken out of stock and shipped across the border.
Note that word, "speculated". It means he guessed. The existence of these markings surely points to some rogue operators getting rich by selling off their nation's arsenal, since if this was a real covert operation the professionals everyone agrees Iran uses would hardly make such an amateurish mistake. The NY Times have included such an obvious observation but chose to let Maj.Weber's illogical guess go unchallenged.

Or this:
While he maintained that the copper liner also required specialized equipment and skills to make properly, that assertion also rests on some rather subtle distinctions. A senior military official displayed pictures of a stack of some 30 copper E.F.P. liners seized in a raid in Mahmudiya, a town south of Baghdad. Such liners, Major Weber said, were “copycats” stamped in Iraq, not Iran. To the untrained eye, the liners initially looked identical to the genuine ones.

But Major Weber then pointed out that there were often slightly visible cracks forming circles around the tops of the liners when they were set on a table with their concave sides pointing down. Those imperfections were signs that the liners had been made in Iraq, Major Weber said. And because of the imperfections, he said, an E.F.P. made with them would be much less deadly. Such an E.F.P. would fragment rather than curl into a ball, he said, and the fragments would be much less likely to pierce armor.
The assessment that cracks in some EFP lids mean those are the ones made in Iraq is another guess. Maj. Weber cannot possibly know for sure which were made in Iran or Iraq or Bumpoke, Indiana. Instead, he is relying on his personal preconception that Iraqis are incapable of the engineering expertise required and so they must be from someplace else and then his prejudgement that the someplace else is Iran.

If these are the "distinctive markings" quoted in previous briefings to prove these EFP's were coming from Iran, then the whole case rests on seriously shaky footing. It wouldn't have taken the NY Times much effort to find a contrary opinion in detail. Like this from Michael Knights, chief of analysis for the Olive Group, a private security-consulting firm, and the world's foremost independent expert on IED's and EFP's.
Knights, the most knowledgeable and politically neutral source on the issue, says these components could have been manufactured by a "small handful of external bomb-makers". He notes that the only source to claim that the Iranian defense industry is the source of the EFP components is the opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran.

The US briefers argued that EFPs are not being manufactured within Iraq. The New York Times quoted a "senior military official" as saying that they had "no evidence" that the machining of components for EFPs "has ever been done in Iraq".

But Knights presents evidence in Jane's Intelligence Review that the Iraqi Shi'ites have indeed manufactured both the components for EFPs and the complete EFPs. He observes that the kind of tools required to fabricate EFPs "can easily be found in Iraqi metalworking shops and garages".

He also notes that some of the EFPs found in Iraq had substituted steel plates for the copper lining found in the externally made lids. Knights calculates that the entire production of EFPs exploded thus far could have been manufactured in one or at most two simple workshops with one or two specialists in each - one in the Baghdad area and one in southern Iraq.

"I'm surprised that they haven't found evidence of making EFPs in Iraq," Knights said in an interview. "That doesn't ring true for me." Knights believes that there was a time when whole EFPs were imported from outside, but that now most if not all are manufactured by Iraqis.
That wasn't to hard, was it NYT?

Update David Hambling, an expert on military affairs himself, is also skeptical in a post at Wired's "Danger Room".

Update Needlenose on the Maj. Weber's logic: "Just so we're clear on this, we have Vietnam-war era Soviet-designed Strella (aka SA-7) rockets, marked in English, with Chinese-made contact fuses, and towed by American-made Chevy trucks. This is clear proof that Iran is involved. When do we start bombing? (Call me a cynic, but I'd say the only thing this "evidence" proves is that Globalization has clearly done wonders for the arms trade.)"

Update Today, the US military in Iraq displayed over 150 compnent parts for EFP's and C-4 explosives to fill the bombs seized from a huge cache inside Iraq.

The LA Times writes (emphasis mine):
In the latest attempt to link the deadliest form of roadside bombs in Iraq to components manufactured in Iran, U.S. Army officers today displayed plastic explosives they said were made in Iran and recovered during a raid Saturday in violence-racked Diyala province.

An Army explosives expert said the C-4 plastic explosives were used to make lethal bombs that the military calls EFPs -- explosively formed projectiles. The explosives were found alongside enough bomb-making materials to build 150 EFPs capable of penetrating heavily armored vehicles, according to the expert, Maj. Martin Weber.

Mortars and rockets found in the same cache also were manufactured in Iran, Weber said. The cache included 150 machine-milled copper plates that form a shaped, concave lid on the projectile. When the weapons explode, those lids form balls of molten metal that can punch through the armor on vehicles.

The cache was believed to be the first EFP manufacturing site found inside Iraq, officers said. They had previously assumed that most EFPs were assembled outside the country and brought in nearly whole.

Officers said they did not know where the copper plates were manufactured, or by whom. They also said they could not prove who supplied the materials or who was building the EFPs.
Why the illustrious Maj. Weber should assess an EFP manufactury found inside Iraq as being proof of Iranian manufacturing of those EFP's is quite beyond me.

UpdatePaul Kiel from TPM Muckraker today looks at two follow-up articles about the Monday super-cache find:
A raid in southern Iraq on Saturday seems to have complicated the case. There, The Wall Street Journal reports (sub. req.), troops "uncovered a makeshift factory used to construct advanced roadside bombs that the U.S. had thought were made only in Iran." The main feature of the find were several copper liners that are the main component of EFPs. But, The New York Times reports, "while the find gave experts much more information on the makings of the E.F.P.’s, which the American military has repeatedly argued must originate in Iran, the cache also included items that appeared to cloud the issue."

Among those cloudy items were "cardboard boxes of the gray plastic PVC tubes used to make the canisters. The boxes appeared to contain shipments of tubes directly from factories in the Middle East, none of them in Iran."

Possibly, the Times muses, "the parts were purchased on the open market" and then "the liners were then manufactured to the right size to cap the fittings."
But where were the liners made? The Army captain who led the raid doesn't know. From the Journal:
Capt. [Clayton] Combs said the copper caps were smooth and perfectly symmetrical, suggesting they had been made with a high degree of technical precision. He said he didn't know where the caps came from or whether they had been made in Iran. "That's the hard thing about this war," he said.
It seems more and more likely as details emerge that "the intelligence is being fixed around the policy" again - or at the very least fixed around the prejudgements and preconceptions of US analysts, who already know what their superiors want to hear.

Meanwhile Glenn Greenwald points out that this new-found MSM skepticism, after some shockingly stenographic initial reporting in the US about that first baghdad briefing, is entirely due to blogospheric pressure. I'm personally fairly confident that the stenography would have continued unabated without blogs who questioned that original briefing. (And Glenn says some very nice things about Newshog too - Thanks Glenn!)

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