Sunday, February 11, 2007

syntax and propaganda

Michael Gordon, whom you might recognize from several of the boners cited in the New York Times' Iraqi WMD mea culpa, landed this whopper on the front page of the Friday Times:

The most lethal weapon directed against American troops in Iraq is an explosive-packed cylinder that United States intelligence asserts is being supplied by Iran.

That's quite a lede. Let's look closely at the phrasing. Take the first clause, "The most lethal weapon directed against American troops in Iraq is an explosive-packed cylinder..." It's attributed to no one. Later on, he attributes that claim to "military officials." Well, sort of:

In the last three months of 2006, attacks using the weapons accounted for a significant portion of Americans killed and wounded in Iraq, though less than a quarter of the total, military officials say.

Because the weapon can be fired from roadsides and is favored by Shiite militias, it has become a serious threat in Baghdad. Only a small fraction of the roadside bombs used in Iraq are explosively formed penetrators. But the device produces more casualties per attack than other types of roadside bombs.

There is no attribution for the last sentence, unless it ties back to the "military officials" in the previous paragraph. If it does, that means he is waiting five paragraphs to cite his explosive lede, and then only indirectly.

If that claim in fact came from intelligence, not military, he could have moved the attribution to the top: "United States intelligence asserts that the most lethal weapon directed against American troops in Iraq is an explosive-packed cylinder supplied by Iran." But by phrasing it the way he did, he makes it sound incontrovertible that the most lethal weapon is the explosive-packed cylinder, and that only the cylinder's provenance--Iran--need be attributed to United States intelligence.

At any rate, here's a suggestion for a correction:

"According to United States intelligence--which took my credulous ass (and Judy Miller's, too) for a ride over Iraqi WMDs, allowing us to enable a clearly untrustworthy president to launch an illegitimate and ultimately disastrous war--someone in Iran is supplying what military officials say is the most lethal weapon directed against American troops in Iraq. This means we can attack Iran. Yee-haw!"

Of course, buried in the sixth and seventh grafs is a little CYA:

The officials ...were not trying to lay the basis for an American attack on Iran...They recognized that intelligence failures related to prewar American claims about Iraq’s weapons arsenal could make critics skeptical about the American claims.

Oh, everyone's a critic. Well, everyone except anyone who matters.

UPDATE: A nice catch at Unclaimed Territory: A young journalist wrote to Gordon, taking exception to the Iranian explosives article. Gordon, while generous enough to write back, ignored his criticism and simply snapped at him.

I suggest you embed in Iraq for a few months, live with the troops, ride in their Humvees, learn about the risk of EFP attacks, then spend several months asking military and Western experts about the technology, the tactics for employing them and its origin. Let me know what you learn and we'll compare notes.

MG

Also worth bringing up: the Times public editor's wrist-slapping of Gordon for his appearance on Charlie Rose, during which addressed the "surge":

So I think, you know, as a purely personal view, I think it’s worth it [sic] one last effort for sure to try to get this right, because my personal view is we’ve never really tried to win. We’ve simply been managing our way to defeat. And I think that if it’s done right, I think that there is the chance to accomplish something.

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