As 2005 drew to a close, the scandal over the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame potentially threatened to overwhelm leading figures in the Bush White House. Meanwhile, editors and journalists have been struggling to keep a straight face while affecting shock at the central revelation of the case—namely, that major news stories commonly derive from leaks within government and that, in most cases, such leaks are explicitly designed to damage some rival faction or tarnish some troublesome individual. This obvious fact is so embarrassing because it so starkly discredits the Woodstein myth, the Watergate-era image of heroic investigative journalists struggling to discover and publish the truth at whatever risk to their own safety.
Yet while the Plame scandal thus shows us nothing new, it does remind us of some of the critical skills we need to apply when reading or viewing virtually any news story that depends on official sources—and that means, basically, all of them. Speaking personally, this recognition is déjà vu all over again. From the late 1980’s, I taught a college course on terrorism and always found wonderful mileage from a detailed reading of a New York Times analysis of one particular incident from that wave of international carnage. This was the savage 1985 attack on Istanbul’s Neve Shalom synagogue, in which dozens of worshipers were slaughtered. That the attackers were Muslim scarcely seemed to demand proof, but which specific group was responsible? And which country, if any, had served as sponsor—and would likely become the target of U.S. or European retaliation?
All these questions were addressed and, seemingly, solved in a stunning exposé that appeared in the New York Times Magazine on January 4, 1986—a lengthy article on “The Istanbul Synagogue Massacre” by one Judith Miller, who has recently hit the headlines as a conduit of official misinformation. At the time, though, everything about her synagogue article carried conviction, with its photos of weapons and ammunition used in the blast, its Photofit pictures of the participants, and the confidential interviews with a dazzling array of diplomats and spooks, few quoted by name. The reader was seemingly led directly into the rococo world of international terrorism and espionage, through which Miller served as expert cicerone. This looked not so much like a magazine article as a confidential intelligence file that had somehow leaked into the publication.
In such a setting, the reader was unlikely to challenge Miller’s conclusions. Two men had entered the synagogue, armed with machine pistols and grenades, and had locked the doors behind them, indicating that this would be a suicide attack. After massacring worshipers, the two exploded their bombs, killing themselves and the remaining victims. The suicidal nature of the attack was critical to Miller’s interpretation, which firmly laid the blame at the feet of Shiite radicals, presumably from Lebanon, but likely working for the Iranian secret services. A further culprit was Iran’s ally Syria, which also had close dealings with the Lebanese radicals. Whatever the identity of the actual shooters and bombers, the chief guilt obviously attached to the deadly triangle of Iran, Syria, and Lebanese Hezbollah. And as one anonymous terrorism expert was quoted in Miller’s story (How are you these days, Mr. Netanyahu?), the only way of preventing future atrocities was by retaliating against states that sponsored and commissioned such horrors. The message: Sanction Syria, and penalize Iran.
Accepting that particular version would represent wonderful news for various forces in the political world and the intelligence community, not least the U.S. administration, anxious to keep up pressure on Iran and Syria at a critical phase in the Iran-Iraq War. Israel, of course, gained from increasingly tight sanctions against its deadly enemy, Syria. Another beneficiary would be Turkey herself, which could attribute this act of terrorism to purely external forces without the slightest connections with local Muslims. Moreover, the fact that all the terrorists were dead meant that Turkish police could not be criticized for failing to capture any survivors or accomplices. Is it any wonder, then, that Miller’s story earned her a red-carpet entreé into the back offices of the U.S., Israeli, and Turkish intelligence services, all of whom had a story to tell and wanted to ensure that they were speaking to someone who would recount it exactly as they specified?
Because oddly, there was another story, which ran contrary to Miller’s tale of suicidal Syrians. We find it, for example, in the excellent 1987 biography of Abu Nidal by Israeli writer Yossi Melman, The Master Terrorist, a work that often shows rich access to Israeli intelligence sources. According to these sources—rather than the ones who talked to Miller—the incident had a completely different context. According to Melman, several men attacked the synagogue, and they had no intention of becoming martyrs. After the worshipers had been murdered, police arrived on the scene, and some of the attackers made their getaway. Two hapless terrorists locked themselves in the synagogue, where one pulled the pin on a grenade—accidentally or otherwise, we will never know. If this was not a suicide attack, that removes any reason to link it to Hezbollah, or to the Lebanese or Iranians. Melman, instead, unequivocally links the attack to “Abu Nidal,” which was the transparent nom de guerre adopted by the Iraqi secret services when conducting international atrocities. At the time, of course, Iraq was very much a U.S. ally, a bastion against monstrous Iran. Many, many reasons existed why Western intelligence agencies should have wanted to publicize an alternative story, if they could find a sufficiently uncritical journalist and a credulous newspaper.
Two decades later, the synagogue-massacre story still teaches valuable lessons about reading the news. Always look for the sources behind any story, ask what their motives were in providing this information, and never forget the crucial question: Cui Bono? To whose benefit?