When Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns declared in Paris this week that there was "irrefutable evidence" that Iran was arming the Taliban forces in Afghanistan, he was unwittingly echoing a previous categorical statement that was aimed at priming public opinion for war.
On September 20, 2002, Dick Cheney said, "We now have irrefutable evidence that [Saddam] has once again set up and reconstituted his program to take uranium, to enrich it to sufficiently high grade, so that it will function as the base material as a nuclear weapon."
This pair of "irrefutable evidence" quotes prompts me to reflect on the ability of the Bush-Cheney administration to establish the parameters of debate on policy by planting its preferred message in the news media. That is precisely what the Cheney and Rove did during the run-up to war in Iraq through the infamous White House Iraq Group (WHIG), which orchestrated the dissemination of highly-charged political messages on Iraq on a day by day basis.
The practice of manipulating the media to promote a policy line didn't stop with the Iraq debacle. It has been going on for over five years in regard to Iran. The master message has been that Iran is "harboring al Qaeda", a charge based on nothing more than the fact that there have been some al Qaeda figures hiding out somewhere in Iran after fleeing from Afghanistan in 2001-2002. Based on the same primitive logic, the fact that the 9/11 hijackers were able to function freely for many months in the United States is evidence that the Bush administration "harbored" the al Qaeda terrorists.
Since early 2007, however, the master message has been "Iran is sending weapons to those who are killing our troops", and, despite skepticism by anti-war critics, it has worked like a charm. No matter that there was never any evidence that the Iranian government was involved in the acquisition of weapons by militias. No matter that there was already evidence of private arms-buying networks and of Iraqi arms workshops providing such devices to the militias. No matter even that the New York Times reported just a few days after the anti-climactic Baghdad briefing of February 10 that Iraqi militants had been caught manufacturing the explosives that U.S. officials had just solemnly declared were not manufactured in the country.
The current administration story of Iran's arming the Taliban forces in Afghanistan was far more obviously false than the story of sending arms to Shiite militias in Iraq, because Iran has been the single most consistent enemy of the Taliban since the mid-1990s. If the Bush administration had really been interested in finding a dependable ally against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, it would have made Iran its ally - not Pakistan, whose assistance to the Taliban and providing safe haven for its militants is well documented.
In fact the whole story is part of a carefully orchestrated information strategy reminiscent of the Cheney-Rove manipulation of the media in the autumn of 2002. In an article this past week, I described a media campaign that relied on quotes from an anonymous senior administration official, to introduce the story that Iran is following a conscious policy of giving military assistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan refused to buy it, suggesting clearly that the media campaign was the work of Dick Cheney and his staff rather than an official policy. On June 4, Gates said, flatly, "We do not have any information about whether the government of Iran is supporting this, is behind it, or whether it's smuggling, or exactly what is behind it."
Gen. Dan McNeill, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, went even further in dismissing it. In an interview with Jim Loney of Reuters on June 5, he said, "[W]hen you say weapons being provided by Iran, that would suggest there is some more formal entity involved in getting these weapons here. "That's not my view at all."
But the repudiation of Cheney's narrative on Iran and Taliban by Gates and McNeill did not derail it. Since those statements, Cheney has apparently managed to get a gullible president to make his line about Iranian arms to the Taliban the official policy of the United States government. That is why "irrefutable evidence" has again been applied to a story line that is so easily refuted by the facts.
Thus Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, a professional diplomat who has never been a camp follower of Cheney, suddenly began to sound like the Cheney cabal on Iran earlier this week. On June 12 Burns told reporters, "Iran is now even transferring arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan" and the following day he claimed "irrefutable evidence" of such a policy. "It's certainly coming from the government of Iran," said Burns. "It's coming from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard corps command, which is a basic unit of the Iranian government."
But of course there was no such "irrefutable evidence". There wasn't the slightest evidence to support Burns's categorical statements, as became clear when reporters asked State Department spokesman Sean McCormack about them. McCormack made no effort to claim that there was any new information to back up the "irrefutable evidence" claim. "I can't tell you the extent of Iranian Government involvement in that," he said. And he repeated, "I can't at this point draw a link - a hard link for you between an Iranian Government-approved program and the transfer of those arms." And again, "I can't give you the chain of evidence to indicate that...."
When a reporter asked how we reconciled the lack of evidence with Nick Burns categorical statement of "irrefutable" evidence that the arms were coming from the IRGC, McCormack replied, astonishingly, "Again, I think what Nick was doing was giving voice to tall these concerns and suspicions that all of us have."
In other words, what Burns called "irrefutable evidence" was actually "concerns and suspicions".
It can hardly be doubted that Burns was mouthing words that were crafted by Dick Cheney, the author of the original "irrefutable evidence". Cheney understood that the headlines all over the world would carry their chosen message about Iranian policy, and that the backing and filling by the State Department would be soft-pedaled in the media.
The Bush-Cheney administration has been able to frame the debate on Iran policy because of its ability to plant its messages in the mass media, in the confidence that the realities contradicting the message will never get enough attention to become part of the debate. As long as the news media remain such "lapdogs" -- to use the apt term suggested by media critic Eric Boehlert -- the policy debate will continue to tilt toward the systematic purveyors of lies.