Truth and Consequences

The press, like government officials, has had no immunity from the newly coined "Iraq Syndrome" -- and that is a positive development.

We wish we had come up with the expression first, but it was only a matter of time before someone did. In the end, Karen DeYoung at the Washington Post gets the prize, calling it the “Iraq Syndrome.”

She found an administration official who describes the condition best: “Everyone is reliving the whole thing again in everything we do,” referring to the faulty intelligence in the leadup to the Iraq war, and the administration’s recent charges of Iranian influence in Iraq. “In the old days, if the U.S. government had come out and said, ‘We’ve got this, here’s our assessment,’ reasonable people would have taken it at face value. That’s never going to happen again.”

The official, fittingly anonymous, is alluding of course to the secret briefing in Baghdad last Sunday in which the administration presented its case against Iran. The intelligence, which is said to implicate the Iranian government in the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, was met with more skepticism than acquiescence. Even those who accepted the premise that Iranian-made explosive devices were present in Iraq (which almost everyone did) had a hard time believing the claim that this pointed a finger at the likes of Ahmadinejad or Khomenei, as the president’s men initially suggested it did. The skepticism, as DeYoung pointed out, comes from the feeling now, among most in government, that bad intelligence, overhyped and spun, had duped everyone into the Iraq war. They were not going to let it happen again. Thus, the “Iraq Syndrome.”

DeYoung is referring to government officials, senators and representatives when she talks about the syndrome. But the same is true of the press. It has had no immunity from this illness. This week’s reporting on the Iran intelligence should be proof enough.

What a difference a botched war makes. It seemed no mention of the government’s evidence was left unaccompanied by a very prominent caveat, warning readers that there was much that was still sketchy about the information. A few articles actually framed the story of the new intelligence by first referencing the skepticism that has been raised about it.

A quick LexisNexis search of the country’s major papers this past week turned up 33 articles that mentioned both the words “Iran” and “skepticism.” And it’s no wonder with headlines like these: from the New York Times, “Skeptics Doubt U.S. Evidence on Iran Action in Iraq,” or from the Washington Post, “Skepticism over Iraq Haunts U.S. Iran Policy.”

No one, it seems, wants to be the next Judy Miller, swallowing the administration’s line hook, line and sinker. We even worried earlier this week that the pendulum had swung too far in the other direction, with all this skepticism clouding reporters’ ability to actually assess the intelligence presented by the government. But, generally speaking, more skepticism is better than not enough, and seems more in line with the press’s job — after all, the right has plenty of pundits and spin doctors to sell us a war without the press’s help.

We don’t want to jump the gun here, but is it too early to say that we are seeing one of the possibly few positive outcomes from the Iraq war? Has the press finally shaken off a bit of the “9/11 Syndrome,” that other disease that caused it to acquiesce to every declaration by the government of a national security threat, and finally taken on this much healthier affliction of “Iraq Syndrome”? The prognosis based on this past week’s coverage is good. Hopefully this malady will be with us for the near future.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.