With tensions escalating between Washington and Tehran, and the IAEA trying to cut through both sides’ spin, some in the intelligence community are getting an eerie sense of déjà vu. Guest host Mark Jurkowitz talks to McClatchy Newspapers foreign affairs correspondent Warren Strobel about what journalists can do this time to avoid the mistakes they made in the lead-up to the Iraq war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
MARK JURKOWITZ: And I'm Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, sitting in for Bob Garfield. When President Bush and his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad finally took to the U.N. rostrum on Tuesday, confrontation was in the air. But what might have once played as a battle royale, this bout had more the tone of a warm-up match, a warm-up for something much larger. Time Magazine reported this week that the Pentagon is actively reviewing war plans. And with the International Atomic Energy Agency disputing the threat assessments coming out of Washington, the skirmish also has the eerie tone of something all too familiar. This week, reporters John Walcott and Warren Strobel of McClatchy Newspapers reported that some intelligence officials fear a replay of the mistakes in the lead-up to the Iraq war. I asked Strobel if journalists were feeling deja vu as well.
WARREN STROBEL: I think the answer is yes. The colleagues that I have talked to, and myself, and my editors at McClatchy - there is a little bit of a sense of "here we go again." And I think there's a determination this time to be a little bit more aggressive, to be a little bit more suspicious about what the Administration says, to be a little bit more questioning about where they are headed.
MARK JURKOWITZ: One of my theories about what happened in the run-up to Iraq was that there was a sense all along that there was an inevitability to this war, and that quickly media organizations got into this "let's get ready to cover a war," you know, mode, rather than really spending much time investigating the rationale for the war. Do you get a sense among fellow journalists and people you've talked to at this point that the same dynamic is occurring? Or is there much more question in people's minds about whether this will ultimately lead to a military conflict?
WARREN STROBEL: You know, I think you make a really good point. I remember distinctly, in October of 2002, I was sent with many of my colleagues to a place in Virginia to do some battlefield training kind of stuff, and just virtually every news organization was doing the same kind of thing for its reporters. As you say, we were all getting ready to cover a war that had a sense of inevitability about it. I have to wonder whether it's going to be different this time. Let's say the Bush Administration does start doing more overt things that look like they're going to attack Iran, I have a feeling and a fear that the news media will do what it sort of has to do by its institutional nature, which is to just gear up to cover another conflict.
MARK JURKOWITZ: This week, Time Magazine was the beneficiary of a leak having to do with naval planning for a possible war in Iraq. It was a dramatic story. It involved orders to ships and minesweepers to prepare to deploy. There was a sense that something might happen in October. Did anything about these leaks strike you as unusual?
WARREN STROBEL: Let me say for starters we had heard actually somewhat the same thing that Time Magazine reported this week. We didn't put it in our article because we only had it from one source, and we didn't feel it was confirmed, but they seemed to have it pretty solidly. I thought it was, yeah, a little unusual that that kind of military planning would leak, because from the perspective of certainly the White House and even of military officers, it kind of looks like it would be helping the enemy, right - you know, telling them what the U.S. is doing in advance. But I think it's probably an indicator of the degree to which people in uniformed military and elsewhere in the Administration are wary this time of where the Administration is going.
MARK JURKOWITZ: You and your colleague Jonathan Landay have been widely praised by press critics for being among the very few mainstream news reporters who did report on the debate within the intelligence community in the lead-up to the war with Iraq, who were able to find voices who disagreed with the Administration's position on WMD. What did you do that your peers weren't able to do?
WARREN STROBEL: I think it's very easily explained. What we did is we made a conscious, or at least semiconscious decision that we were going to put faith in what the professional diplomats, military officers and intelligence analysts were saying more than what the Administration was saying, people at the middle levels of government, what my boss, John Walcott, calls the "blue-collar sources." I think, without naming names, what most of the other media did was to put most of the emphasis on what Rice and Rumsfeld and Cheney and Bush were saying, and then in the tenth or eighth paragraph of a story put in a couple of paragraphs about dissent or questioning elsewhere in the Administration. I also have to add that despite some of the leaks, it's still difficult to get people in the Bush Administration to talk about things like that. There tends to be really heavy punishment for people who not only leak classified information, but for people who say anything except the approved Administration, you know, talking points.
MARK JURKOWITZ: Well, you're a Washington journalist. That raises a very interesting question. Obviously, sort of in the first Bush Administration, or even further, there was almost an awestruck admiration for the, quote, unquote, "message discipline" within the Bush Administration, the lack of leaks that had plagued [CHUCKLES] so many other administrations here. Do you find that, frankly, as the Iraq war has proved to be a significant problem, that that climate has eased up a little bit, that it is easier to get contrary information, unflattering information out of the Administration, or are they still pretty good about keeping their stories straight?
WARREN STROBEL: I think what you see is on the outside, with your retired generals, members of Congress, people outside the Administration, they're more willing to speak up now. Maybe even occasionally some actual active-duty officers are a little bit more willing to speak up. But I have to say within the Administration itself, I'm finding that in some senses the second term is even more difficult than the first term. And the reason for that is in the first term, there were policy wars going on between the Pentagon and the White House on one side, and on the other side, the State Department and the CIA, and it was usually possible to talk to one side or the other and to get information. In this Administration, and especially with Condoleeza Rice, the Secretary of State, they've imposed even more message discipline.
MARK JURKOWITZ: Is there any possibility in your mind that, frankly, the media might sort of overcompensate for what it clearly saw as a shortcoming in 2002, 2003 and be too skeptical of what we end up hearing from our political leadership about the threat from Iran?
WARREN STROBEL: You know, that's another [LAUGHS] excellent question, and I think the answer is possibly yes – and not just the media, but the international community. I have this fear that, you know, Iran actually is a much greater threat than Iraq ever was, but that because of what the Bush Administration did in Iraq, it'll be very hard for it to make the case internationally for concerted action. And I'm not just talking about military action. I'm talking about sanctions or whatever it takes to stop them from proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon. So it's really a horrible irony if that were to be the case. Every journalist hates to be called a wimp or a sap, so I think you could very easily see journalists overcompensating, being overly aggressive this time around. But maybe that's not such a bad thing.
MARK JURKOWITZ: Make up for last time, anyway. Thanks for joining us today, Warren.
WARREN STROBEL: Thanks very much for having me.
MARK JURKOWITZ: Warren Strobel is foreign affairs correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]