With discussions of a military attack on Iran circulating among U.S. and Israeli political elites, CNN has added fuel to the fire with a series of alarmist reports about supposedly Iranian-linked terrorist operatives inside the United States who are ready to strike.
On the March 21 broadcast of the Situation Room, anchor Wolf Blitzer announced that there could be "a terrifying new reason for all of us to be potentially very worried about U.S. tensions with Iran."
What's the terrifying potential worry? Some U.S. officials apparently claim:
Iran has a large terrorist-trained force right here in the United States right now. They say there may be hundreds, maybe even thousands of Hezbollah agents on American soil who could be ready and willing to attack.
Blitzer's words were accompanied by footage of what seemed to be Hezbollah militants marching and training. As CNN correspondent Brian Todd explained, witnesses at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing–many former U.S. officials–claimed that "many of Hezbollah's operatives have been in the U.S. for years, blending in, making a lot of money. A perfect resource for Iran if it's attacked and wants a quick counterstrike on the U.S. homeland."
Upping the fear factor, Todd added: "It's called Iran's A-team of terrorism. Hezbollah, a militant group that's killed more Americans than any other except Al-Qaeda." (This would seem to be mainly the 1983 attacks on U.S. Marines who were intervening in the Lebanese civil war.)
After all of this, though, Todd expressed some skepticism: "One law enforcement official tells CNN the cases they've been able to build against them involve things like fundraising, attempts to buy weapons, but no actual plot." Still, the point was that viewers should be extremely concerned. "The sophistication is almost breathtaking," Todd summed up. Blitzer was left only to say, "What a story."
Someone at CNN must think so. The same night a similar story was aired. "Stopping a threat to the homeland," anchor Erin Burnett announced on her show OutFront (3/21/12). Burnett focused on an official with the New York Police Department who suggested that Iranian operatives have been spotted "conducting surveillance"–taking photographs at Grand Central Terminal. (The train station is a New York City landmark; there are hundreds of thousands of photographs of it on Flickr, from every conceivable angle.) Another guest, former FBI official Michael Leverett, declined to answer Burnett's question about the approximate number of Hezbollah cells in the United States, but he nonetheless declared:
We don't know the exact number, but we know it's enough. We know there are enough people here that have military training and many more who are supporters and could be called upon or in some cases could be forced by extortion to do things they don't want to do.
On March 24, Blitzer was back to sounding the alarm: "A warning that Iran's A-team of terrorists have hundreds, maybe thousands of agents right here in the United States possibly ready to attack." He added:
Terrifying new reason to be worried about U.S. tensions with Iran. The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and other U.S. officials are now warning that Iran has a large terrorist-trained force right in the United States. They say there may be hundreds, even thousands of Hezbollah agents on American soil who could be ready and willing to attack.
Again, correspondent Brian Todd was on the case, reporting that according to the testimony at the hearing, "many of Hezbollah's operatives in the U.S. have been here for years, blending in, making a lot of money–a perfect resource for Iran if it's attacked and wants a quick counterstrike on the U.S. homeland."
Todd mentioned that the "operatives" seem to be involved in fundraising, but closed his report by alluding to law enforcement concerns about those aspects: "They have people inside who know how to work the financial system, who have been here for work. Those are the people they're worried about, the infrastructure."
Throughout all of this, CNN gave little reason for viewers to feel anything but frightened. A more sober approach might note more forcefully that, as the Associated Press (3/21/12) noted, "government officials have said there are no known or specific threats indicating Iranian plans to attack inside the U.S." Or they would point out that at least one of these cases of "Hezbollah" agents didn't have much to do with Hezbollah, as Marcy Wheeler (Emptywheel, 3/21/12) noted. Or that the New York Police Department, currently embroiled in a scandal over spying on Muslims, might not be the most credible source of information on Hezbollah operatives (Salon.com, 3/22/12). A Huffington Post report (3/21/12) on the King hearing noted:
Most of the testimony–which came from former officials at the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Treasury, among others–concerned Iranian-linked attacks in other countries that dated back decades in some cases.
Reporting on allegations that link an official enemy state currently under threat of military attack to vague terrorist plots should be extraordinarily cautious. When such charges suggest without evidence that there are "thousands" of terrorist agents living among us "ready and willing to attack"–implying that we are all in grave danger from our ethnically or religiously suspect neighbors–journalists need to be even more skeptical. CNN is taking the opposite approach: breathlessly reporting the most terrifying scenarios, while occasionally noting that there's nothing to substantiate these speculations.
This puts CNN in the company of disgraced former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, whose reporting on the Hezbollah threat for the right-wing website NewsMax (3/21/12) sounds a lot like Wolf Blitzer.