A few days ago I published a post based on an Israeli source who told me there had been sabotage at the Fordo uranium enrichment plant. Just before I decided to publish I wrestled with whether to go forward or to wait till journalists I knew with sources in U.S. intelligence could vet this story. I erred on the side of haste and publication. This is one of those instances when I wish I’d heeded my instinct for caution at the expense of getting the scoop.
To put my decision in perspective, I’d verified the story with a separate Israeli journalist I respect. A generally respected Israeli newspaper ran a headline about the Fordo explosion. I thought between my source and him I’d authenticated the story. Shortly after I published, the Times of London and Die Welt each published stories confirming the incident using their own independent sources, one Israeli and one Iranian.
But there has always been dubiousness regarding it as I noted in the post I wrote. A number of Iranian-Americans I respect warned me to exercise caution. It turns out they were probably right. Iran itself denied the story (though it initially denied Stuxnet was a problem only to admit it was later).
It has taken a few days for me to reach those U.S. reporters and for them to reach their own sources. But now, two different individuals, one of whom spoke directly with a U.S. government source, have told me the story is likely false. Also, Reuters reported yesterday that Jay Carney said the U.S. could not verify the report and that it was likely not credible. According to that journalist’s government source, this appears to have been an exercise by Israeli diplomats testing how world media would react if Israel were to succeed in sabotaging Fordo. There is a discrepancy here between what my source told me (that his source was based in Israeli intelligence) and what the U.S. source said. But given that another reporter told me his newspaper had researched the story and been told there’s nothing there, I’m prepared to recalibrate my own judgment and say my source was likely wrong.
All this raises the question: why would Israeli intelligence or diplomats go to the trouble of putting out a hoax like this? There is of course the possibility that it would discredit me as a journalist and that is a distinct possible motive. Though I’m not sure I’m a big enough fry to warrant this treatment. They may’ve wanted to see which media outlets would report the story so they’d have an idea which publications would be most sympathetic for planting future stories. Though that too doesn’t seem persuasive.
Or the Israelis might’ve simply been trying to psych out the Iranians to get them thinking about the possibility that Israel could sabotage one of Iran’s most critical nuclear facilities. It doesn’t seem like a very effective way of doing that, because the Iranians are more likely to laugh at the audacity and foolishness of such an enterprise.
All this reinforces the shadow war that constitutes relations between Iran and the west. We know so little about what’s really happening on the other side. We have so few sources and contacts there, and both sides are doing such a poor job of communicating with each other, that a netherworld of rumor, fakery and shadowy figures like Reza Khalili can prosper. It allows intelligence agencies like the Mossad and others to exploit ignorance and information vacuums to create fictional narratives that advance Israeli interests. It also indicates how faulty may be the intelligence on which both sides make their judgments about policy. At any rate, all this means journalists have to exercise extra care and not be hurried into decisions that may reflect poorly afterward. But of course if we don’t at times take risks, then we may not report a story that is important for the world to know.
It’s important to take credit when you get a story right and to acknowledge when you got it wrong. It appears the latter was likely the case with this story. The only thing to do in such a situation is to admit the possibility of error and move on.
One final note: this should hammer a nail in the coffin of Reza Khalili, WND and Hamidezra Zakeri, who initiated this hoax by being the first to report it.
UPDATE: Now, an Iranian monarchist comes out of the wood work to try to revive the story with this report.