Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Media Microscope: NIE News is Exaggerated

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Jamie Hyams


The US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, while downgrading reports of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, still pointed out that Iran is illegally enriching uranium, and poses a grave threat to peace. To the extent that Iran is today less committed to nuclear weapons than previously, this can be seen as vindication of US policies in the region since 2001. However, some news services overlooked these aspects in all the excitement.

Roz Childs, anchor on ABC TV’s “Midday Report”, claimed on Dec. 4, “The White House has some explaining to do.” Mark Simkin then reported, “Despite the threats and the sanctions, it appears that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program.” In fact, if Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program, it is because of the threats and sanctions, not despite them. Simkin did point out that Iran is still enriching uranium and could have enough to build a bomb in two to seven years. That night’s evening news carried the same report but with a less overstated introduction.

On SBS TV that night, Amrita Cheema announced, “Their surprise conclusion is a major setback for hawks in the US administration.” The next night, Brian Thomson reported, “The release of the NIE yesterday…appeared to torpedo US policy towards Iran.”

On the Dec. 4 edition of “The World Today” on ABC Radio, host Eleanor Hall described the NIE as a “bombshell” and reporter Barbara Miller claimed, “The findings appear to be in stark contrast to the message Washington has been sending out about the dangers posed by Iran.” This was despite the fact that she also reported the NIE said Iran continued to enrich uranium.
Most excited, however, appeared to be “Lateline” on ABC TV. Introducing a Dec. 5 report on the NIE, Tony Jones stated, “The US National Intelligence Report, which revealed that Iran had shelved its plans to build a nuclear bomb, has been described as one of the most powerful assessments ever, with the potential to reframe the foreign policy debate in the United States. But if anyone thought the report would cause President Bush to tone down his aggressive language on Iran, or admit to exaggerating the threat, they’ve been proven wrong. Today the President went on the attack, declaring that vigilance was as important as ever.” In his report, however, Conor Duffy noted, “Britain and Israel agree there is still a risk of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon,” and played footage of British Foreign Secretary David Miliband saying, “It confirms that there is a serious enrichment program, enrichment of uranium being a potential source of nuclear weapons.”

Jones then interviewed US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns about the NIE. Jones opened with, “Now has the US plan to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities gone onto the backburner now?” Burns explained that, for the last three years, “we have been on a diplomatic track” and trying to arrange negotiations. Jones responded, “Instead of bombing them you mean?” Burns replied that the Iranians had turned negotiations down. He added that the US still had concerns with Iran in that “Iran, we believe, is continuing research through enrichment and processing. The IAEA reports on that. The Iranians have admitted they’re doing that. That’s a concern. The other concern is that Iran of course is funding and arming groups as disparate as the Taliban in Afghanistan, militants in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.”

Jones, not to be diverted, asked, “Can you recall a time when a single intelligence report has so completely, so suddenly and so surprisingly altered a foreign policy debate in the United States?” Burns explained, “Now what that report said was that they apparently stopped in 2003 a nuclear weapons development program, but they continued a ballistic missile program and very importantly, they continue this research in enrichment and reprocessing, which could be an avenue… towards the production of fissile material at their plant at Natanz in Iran.”

Perhaps the strangest take on the issue came from Professor Michael Nacht, of the University of California, Berkeley, appearing on ABC Radio’s “PM” on Dec. 10. Professor Nacht couldn’t quite bring himself to believe the NIE was genuine, instead preferring to speculate on conspiracy theories. He told credulous host Mark Colvin, “I was surprised by the whole thing. I’m actually very curious as to what the real origins are. There are various theories. One is that it is CIA blowback against the administration. One is that Bush became convinced that he could not act militarily so he wanted to change the assessment so he can’t act. I’m not sure if either of those are right. Maybe it is just an honest new assessment, but it is just going to be very difficult to generate the support [for military action].”

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