Summary Judgments on Iraq, Iran and Global Warming [Karl]
Dan Collins has already blogged about the new Pentagon report on Iraq and Terrorism, but the disconnect between the general media coverage of the report (all focused on the lack of a direct operational link between Saddam’s regime and al Qaeda) Ã‚Â and its actual contents (showing a “considerable overlap” between their activities which ledÃ‚Â to a “de facto link between the organizations”) raises a larger issue.
Stephen Hayes opines that the likely source of the disconnect is the report’s executive summary, while Ed Morrissey concludes that it is due to the reporting being based more on advance leaks coming out of the Pentagon.Ã‚Â These theories are not mutually exclusive.Ã‚Â Moreover, both fit into a general pattern of political journalism.
Russell Seitz, in a slightly different context, has proposed the maxims that “reports universally referred to on prime-time go universally unread” and “nobody reads anything with a fourteen page abstract.”Ã‚Â That context was the reporting on the most recent report from the UN International Panel on Climate Change.Ã‚Â Seitz’s truisms are particularly problematic in the context of the IPCC report, insofar as the report itself can be altered to conform to the “summary for policymakers,” rather than vice versa.Ã‚Â But the tendency of journalists to rely on such summaries, often published in advance of the underlying report, tends to ensure the over-simplification of what are over-simplifications in the first instance.
A similar phenomenon surrounded the media coverage of the most recent national Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear ambitions in December 2007.Ã‚Â According to a New York Times news analysis:
Rarely, if ever, has a single intelligence report so completely, so suddenly, and so surprisingly altered a foreign policy debate here.
An administration that had cited IranÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s pursuit of nuclear weapons as the rationale for an aggressive foreign policy Ã¢â‚¬â€ as an attempt to head off World War III, as President Bush himself put it only weeks ago Ã¢â‚¬â€ now has in its hands a classified document that undercuts much of the foundation for that approach.
According to the Washington Post:
The new intelligence report released yesterday not only undercut the administration’s alarming rhetoric over Iran’s nuclear ambitions but could also throttle Bush’s effort to ratchet up international sanctions and take off the table the possibility of preemptive military action before the end of his presidency.
The dissenting view at the time, as exemplified by the Wall Street Journal, was that the NIE (the declassified version, to be more precise) wasÃ‚Â drafted byÃ‚Â three former State Department officials with previous anti-Bush reputations, who crafted it for the political effect it undoubtedly had, further noting:
In any case, the real issue is not Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but its nuclear program, period. As the NIE acknowledges, Iran continues to enrich uranium on an industrial scale–that is, build the capability to make the fuel for a potential bomb. And it is doing so in open defiance of binding U.N. resolutions. No less a source than the IAEA recently confirmed that Iran already has blueprints to cast uranium in the shape of an atomic bomb core.
By March 3, 2008, the New York Times reported that the NIE — or the NIE as reported by the media — had been essentially disavowed by director of national intelligence Mike McConnell (nominally the NIE’s aithor), foreign policy heavyweights likeÃ‚Â HenryÃ‚Â Kissinger and James R. Schlesinger, officials atÃ‚Â our nuclear laboratories, and our Western allies, notably France.Ã‚Â The NYT’s characterization of the NIE now reflects what was the dissenting view three months prior:
For decades, American spies assessed weapons programs mainly by a nationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ability to make bomb fuel. That is because experts say that perfecting the process of enriching uranium or making plutonium is far more difficult than designing warheads or building missiles to deliver the weapons. With Iran, they looked at progress in making centrifuges, machines that spin faster than the speed of sound to enrich uranium ore.
Behind the radical change of tone Ã¢â‚¬â€ and the headlines Ã¢â‚¬â€ lay an inconspicuous footnote at the bottom of the first of the unclassified versionÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s three pages. Ã¢â‚¬Å“For the purposes of this Estimate,Ã¢â‚¬Â it said, IranÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s nuclear weapons program is defined as including warhead design but excluding IranÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ã¢â‚¬Å“declared civil workÃ¢â‚¬Â to enrich uranium.
Officials later said intelligence analysts had rarely if ever based a weapons estimate on such a narrow definition. So too, the footnote and estimate said nothing of IranÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s expanding effort to build long-range missiles.
The NIE’s authors, by dumping a key point into a footnote (the sole footnote in the declassified NIE, incidentally), were able to shape the media coverage of the report, the political environment and perhaps policy.
These examples are simply part of a pattern.Ã‚Â Federal bureaucrats know that journalists operate onÃ‚Â deadlines.Ã‚Â In the case of broadcast television, the deadline may be formal.Ã‚Â In the case of newspapers, the deadline may be a remnant of tradition.Ã‚Â In the case of cable television and InternetÃ‚Â journalism — including blog punditry — the deadline is informal, but the pressure to be timely with breaking news remains.Ã‚Â
Accordingly, official WashingtonÃ‚Â knows that the important first impressions of a report are likely to be drawn from the executive summary, abstract or introductory text.Ã‚Â Ã‚Â It follows that anyÃ‚Â bureaucrat seeking to advance an agenda would prefer to write the summary than the report itself.Ã‚Â The bureaucrat who summarizes a report need not rely on the general biases of the Washington press corps; he or she need only rely on the competitive pressure of journalism and the general sloth of journalists to advance a particular agenda.