THE BLOG
01/22/2008 05:36 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The 1994 Buenos Aires Bombing and Our False Narrative Problem

The accusation by both Clinton and Bush administrations that Iran was behind the 1994 terror bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires is now so widely accepted that my investigation of that issue, published last weekend at thenation.com, will be shock to many readers.

It documents the fact that the investigation of the bombing turned up no evidence linking Iran to the crime.

That is what U.S. Ambassador in Buenos Aires, James Cheek and two other senior diplomats in the Embassy during and after the bombing, as well as the head of the FBI team which was sent to help the Argentine investigation in late 1997 and early 1998, all told me in interviews. That did not stop the Clinton administration's State Department and FBI from continuing to publicly claim that Iran and Hezbollah were behind the bombing and urging the Argentine government to come to the same conclusion.

After George W. Bush came into office, there were new developments in the case, but they were surrounded by evidence of deception. A Hezbollah militant who had been announced in September 1994 as having been killed in an attack on Israeli forces in southern Lebanon was named in news stories coming out of Israel as the "suicide bomber" in Buenos Aires, even though it turned out that the head of the Argentine intelligence agency counter-intelligence didn't believe the story. And the claim that an eyewitness had identified the Hezbollah member from photos turned out to be a serious misrepresentation of the facts.

There is much more to the story of the Argentine investigation of the crime, which reeked of official cover-up and frame-up from the very beginning. But the reader may wonder why it so important to pay attention to yet another false narrative about Iran -- this time one that actually began under the Clinton administration -- especially when fresh lies about what happened recently in the Strait of Hormuz are still relevant to current policy issues?

One reason is that the Bush administration is still using a false narrative about the 1994 bombing to pursue a witless and self-defeating policy in the Middle East. But in the large perspective it is important to understand that the problem of fabricating narratives about the threat emanating from regimes designated as enemies did not begin with George W. Bush, the neocons and Saddam.

It is a fundamental characteristic of the U.S. national security system. National security policymakers and bureaucracies have a powerful interest in creating certain narratives about states designated as enemies in order to sell the programs and policies that are their bread and butter, even if the facts do not support the required line.

In the Buenos Aires bombing case, the policymakers surmounted the problem of lack of evidence by holding fast to the logic that the bombing was a suicide bombing against Jews, and therefore must have been a Hezbollah operation. (In fact, most of the suicide bombings against Israelis were being carried out by secular nationalists.)

Officials obviously do consciously decide to lie sometimes about national security issues when they feel it is necessary to advance their agendas. But even short of that, officials are constantly under pressure to to align their treatment of a specific issue with the general policy line.

When the bombing occurred in Buenos Aires, the Clinton administration was already committed to a policy of isolating and pressuring Iran and portraying it as the main state supporter of terrorism in the world. It could not fail to find Iran guilty in the bombing without weakening its own strategy. Similarly the Bush administration could not accept any intelligence conclusion about Iran's nuclear program that would weaken its diplomatic strategy toward Iran, and had to create the illusion of an Iranian threat to U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz in order to sell the idea of an explicitly anti-Iran coalition to Arab states.

In this sense, the Clinton administration's subordination of the truth about the terror bombing in Buenos is not fundamentally different from Douglas Feith's Pentagon cherry-picking exercise aimed at justifying the invasion of Iraq. All such concoctions originate from the same political imperative to make national security policy or program more salable.

If progressives don't begin treating the problem of falsified narratives as an institutional imperative of the national security state for state enemies, we are doomed to witness the repetition of this pattern over and over again.