by Adam Johnson
It’s rare to see evidence of an administration plot to manipulate the media unfolding in real time, but such is the case this week—and thus far, corporate media have taken the bait hook, line, and sinker.
The Washington Post reported Sunday (11/19/17) that the Trump Justice Department had been ordering national security prosecutors to single out cases involving Iranian nationals to help push for new sanctions on Iran. The Post’s Devlin Barrett, citing Justice Department officials, laid out the strategy (emphasis added):
Last month, national security prosecutors at the Justice Department were told to look at any ongoing investigations involving Iran or Iranian nationals with an eye toward making them public.
The push to announce Iran-related cases has caused internal alarm, these people said, with some law enforcement officials fearing that senior Justice Department officials want to reveal the cases because the Trump administration would like Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran. A series of criminal cases could increase pressure on lawmakers to act, these people said.
Some federal law enforcement officials have also voiced concerns that announcing the cases, rather than keeping them under seal, could imperil ongoing investigative work or make it harder to catch suspects who might travel out of Iran, according to the people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing investigations.
Here we have several insiders effectively whistleblowing on the Trump DoJ that its national security investigations are being politicized to advance a hawkish policy agenda. Under a “normal” presidency, this would likely be a major scandal, but under Scandal-a-Day Trump, it hardly registered notice.
What’s perhaps more shocking is that numerous major media outlets—either ignorant of or indifferent to the Post’s revelations—took the bait, reporting about an “Iranian” hack of HBO without noting the Trump DoJ’s cynical motives:
- LA Times (11/21/17): “Iranian Man Charged With Hacking HBO and Leaking Game of Thrones Information”
- BuzzFeed (11/21/17): “Let The Puns Begin: ‘Winter Has Come’ to the Iranian Who Pirated HBO‘s Game of Thrones”
- Reuters (11/21/17): “US Prosecutors Charge Iranian in Game of Thrones Hack”
- New York Daily News (11/21/17): “Iranian Hacker Charged With Stealing Game of Thrones Scripts to Extort HBO for $6M in Bitcoin”
- Guardian (11/21/17): “US Prosecutors Charge Iranian With Game of Thrones Hack”
- New York Times (11/21/17): “Iranian Hacker Charged in HBO Hacking That Included ‘Game of Thrones’ Script”
All of these reports were 36–48 hours after the Post broke the story that the targeting of Iranian nationals was a deliberate political ploy by Trump to single out their alleged crimes for the entirely unrelated purposes of stoking a war panic, imposing harsher sanctions, and doing what the administration has long—and quite openly—wanted to do: get out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran Deal. But none of these reports mention this crucial piece of context, context that would put the sensational headlines about Iranians hijacking our precious pop culture assets into proper perspective.
Most of the articles had a throwaway line explaining that Justice wasn’t technically implicating the Iranian government, but it was heavily implied they were involved, with citations of the defendant’s “links” to the Iranian military, and one or two paragraphs devoted to previous Iranian and North Korean government hacks.
After noting the alleged hacker had “previously worked as a hacker for the Iranian military,“ and spending roughly 100 words on historical examples of government’s hacking, LA Times’ Ryan Faughnder did note in paragraph 11 that “the indictment did not say the Iranian government was behind the HBO hack.”
The Daily News skipped the caveat all together and strongly suggested the defendant was working on behalf of the Iranian government, writing he was a “member of the Iran-supported Turk Black Hat Security team” and “had worked on behalf of the Iranian armed forces to attack military and nuclear software systems, as well as Israeli infrastructure.” The DoJ’s reluctant admission that he had no connection to the government didn’t merit a mention.
One outlet, NBC News (11/21/17), actually added the context of potential DoJ bias after initially omitting it and hyping up the Iran connection, noting prosecutors denied the allegations. (The archived version can be seen here.)
Clearly NBC editors realized this context was crucial. How many other people around the world have committed similar crimes? How many hacks of this nature are currently under FBI investigation? If the number is 100 and the Trump DoJ, under pressure from anti-Iran ideologues in the administration, selectively highlighted this case to paint a broader narrative, certainly this would put the story in a whole new light.
This isn’t to necessarily blame specific journalists writing up the DoJ’s press conference. It’s possible they missed the Washington Post’s report on political corruption at the DoJ on Iran. Certainly, no reporter can know all relevant reports all the time. But it does speak to a much broader problem of the media taking FBI press releases at face value, and declining to contextualize the broader political implications. (As FAIR has noted previously—4/1/15, 7/1/15—this usually manifests in treating every manufactured “terror” plot as the Lindbergh Baby case.) But to those who do know—and those covering the case moving forward—certainly the blatant politicization of Trump administration prosecutions should be put front and center in any subsequent coverage.
Evidence of anti-Iran positioning at Justice comes on the heels of Trump’s CIA head Mike Pompeo cherry-picking files captured at the assassination of Osama bin Laden in an effort to link Iran to the terrorist mastermind and Al Qaeda to Iran—then giving the only advance copy of this report to a partisan anti-Iran think tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, for heavy spin. It was a highly unusual move that ex-Obama official and ex-CIA analyst Ned Price argued on Twitter and in an article in The Atlantic (11/8/17) was a clear attempt to undermine Obama’s Iran deal. “The ploy is transparent despite the fact that the newly released documents don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know,” Price said on social media:
What’s not as transparent are the motives of Pompeo, the administration’s leading and most influential Iran hawk…. These moves suggest he’s reverting to the Bush administration’s playbook: Emphasize terrorist ties as a rationale for regime change.
To anyone paying attention to the bigger picture, the trend is obvious.
Given the Trump admin’s open and well-documented attempts to undermine the Iran deal and build up tensions with Iran, any gestures against the country should, at the very least, be contextualized as part of this broader propaganda effort—especially when confirmation of this effort is relayed by DoJ officials themselves in real time. Thus far, the media is taking DoJ and CIA moves at face value and not presenting these stories as what they clearly are: marketing collateral in a broader PR push for sanctions and potentially war against Iran.
Reprinted, with permission, from the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting blog. Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org.