Criticism of ‘False Flag’ piece is misguided and simply wrong

In his attempt to deconstruct Mark Perry’s Foreign Policy piece, Rafael Frankel overlooks the fact that quality writing on covert government action often relies on unnamed sources, and, through reductive means, glosses over the undeniable influence of the Israel lobby on U.S. policy. 

By Mitchell Plitnick

In his criticism of Mark Perry’s Foreign Policy article, False Flag¸ ex-journalist Rafael Frankel demonstrates how disturbing Perry’s article was for many. But Frankel’s criticism of the piece fails to demonstrate any more than that.

Frankel’s main problem with Perry’s piece is that it was based on information Perry gathered from anonymous sources. According to Frankel, “…without one single on-the-record source for this reporting, Perry should not have written the article and Foreign Policy should not have published it.”

While I admire Mr. Frankel’s journalistic ethics, this statement is simply untrue. I have been reading articles dealing with covert operations, as well as many that report on governmental deliberations on policies and actions, that rely exclusively on anonymous quotes. It is a very common practice in the most mainstream and reliable of news sources.

Just as an example, let’s look at a rather important story from a few years ago:  In 2005, James Risen and Eric Litchblau wrote their Pulitzer Prize-winning story on NSA wiretapping in the New York Times. The fifth paragraph of that story reads:

Nearly a dozen current and former officials, who were granted anonymity because of the classified nature of the program, discussed it with reporters for The New York Times because of their concerns about the operation’s legality and oversight.

No sources with direct knowledge of the program go on the record with the Times. Should the Times not have printed that story?

Mr. Frankel, whose archive shows some impressive reporting under difficult conditions, impugns bloggers for watering down a journalistic standard that is not and has never been held to. Anonymous sources are a well-established channel for reporting and while I’m sure Mark Perry would have preferred someone go on the record, a climate of fear cannot be allowed to stop journalists from reporting important news stories. That’s why the phenomenon of anonymous sourcing is, in my experience, much more common in mainstream news outlets than in blogs. Bloggers are more worried about people doubting their veracity.

I have some experience as a professional journalist, and the half dozen career reporters and editors I asked about this point were unanimous–Mr. Frankel’s assertion is simply dead wrong.

Frankel, in fact, undermines his own point when he writes:

Hillary Clinton insisted that Washington did not have a hand in the latest assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. A high-ranking Israeli official insisted that the false flag story was “absolute nonsense.” Why should the American denial be any more believable than the Israeli denial?

After giving a completely inaccurate lecture on anonymous sourcing, Frankel pits what was the most strenuous denial imaginable from a top US official about a covert operation — the Secretary of State, no less, who proclaimed: “I want to categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran” — against the word of a single, unnamed source, a “senior Israeli government official,” speaking to Haaretz. This is the height of hypocrisy.

I agree with Mr. Frankel on one point, and that is the danger of glossing over crimes by the US government by blaming Israel. I’ve seen that happen, but that is not what Mark Perry’s article was about.

Indeed, Perry does not “disenfranchise” the United States, as Frankel put it, he simply points out that the significantly smaller power, Israel, was able to take certain actions contrary to US interests and did so with impunity because of what Perry’s sources described as “political and bureaucratic inertia.”

It is Frankel who then brings in the issue of the “Israel Lobby” and the Stephen WaltJohn Mearsheimer thesis. He attempts to caricaturize the entire debate over US Mideast policy thusly:

Perry’s false flag story brings to the fore another disturbing trend beginning to emerge. In much the same manner as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer blamed the Israel Lobby  for the Iraq War despite all evidence to the contrary, a segment of the anti-war establishment is once again propagating a false construct that paints Israel as the party mostly responsible for a coming war with Iran. In this narrative, Israel is either an all-powerful state that has the global dominance to dictate the foreign and security policy of the United States (and a host of other world powers as well), or it is acting on its own to provoke a war while a hapless and uninformed Obama Administration desperately tries to stop the crazy Jews from dragging the United States into a war it doesn’t want.

Now, I am on record as disagreeing with Walt and Mearsheimer about the Lobby’s role in the Iraq misadventure, and I was critical of their collapsing disparate forces, especially the various pro-Israel groups and the Neoconservatives (who are certainly radically hawkish on Israel-Palestine and overlap a great deal with the Lobby. But the Neocons and the Lobby are not the same entities, especially in that the Lobby encompasses many groups who have an agenda so far removed from the Neocons’ that they could easily be seen as being oppositional).

But the Lobby quite obviously has a massive influence on US policy in the Middle East. Tom Friedman is only the most recent pundit to state the obvious fact that most members of Congress toe the Lobby line out of political pressure and campaign funding. And one only need look at how AIPAC-affiliated figures like Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk have held pivotal positions in policy formation in numerous administrations to understand that the influence goes well beyond Congress. Anyone who denies this simple reality–one which AIPAC is proud to trumpet, incidentally, and why shouldn’t they be?–is either completely oblivious to the world around them or is being willfully disingenuous.

What Frankel does in the quote above is to employ what is becoming a very tired and increasingly transparent bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand by merging the Israel Lobby, the State of Israel and the Jewish people. These are three different entities, but by conceptually merging them, it becomes a simple matter to reduce a serious discussion of the forces everyone here in Washington is familiar with to mere conspiracy theory and even to anti-Semitism.

The forces that are trying to lead us into war with Iran are very American–my friends at LobeLog have done a remarkable job of tracking them on a nearly daily basis. Those forces are also complementing efforts by the Netanyahu government, which has made no secret of its desire to see the US and other countries take a more confrontational stance with Iran. If Mr. Frankel is unaware of these things, I’d suggest he is spending too much time on his Ph.D. coursework and not enough just looking at the headlines, let alone the substance of the news.

I am a big fan of +972 Magazine, and have established great relationships with a number of the folks running it. I have no problem with them running Mr. Frankel’s piece in principle. I’m delighted that they are committed to bringing their readers a range of views. Mr. Frankel himself seems to be a worthy journalist, judging by some of the pieces I saw on his web site.

And Mr. Perry’s article, like any other piece of reporting, should be subject to critical scrutiny. One should hope, though, that such scrutiny would be less ideologically driven and thought out a lot better than this was.

Mitchell Plitnick is a blogger and writer. He has formerly served as director of B’Tselem’s US Office, and director of Jewish Voice for Peace. Visit his blog here