CBS, Panetta and (Hypothetical) Iranian Nukes

21 December 2011 — Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

The Monday broadcast of CBS Evening News (12/19/11) began with big news, with anchor Scott Pelley announcing:

The secretary of Defense says tonight that the United States will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. In an interview with CBS News, Leon Panetta says that despite efforts to disrupt their nuclear program, the Iranians have reached a point where they can assemble a bomb in a year or potentially less.

To ratchet up the drama, Pelley told viewers that Panetta was aboard  ‘the jet nicknamed the Doomsday Plane. This is the command post where he and the president would direct a nuclear war.’

Pelley reiterated that, according to Panetta, ‘Iran needs only one year to build a nuclear weapon.’ Then came this exchange:

PELLEY: So are you saying that Iran could have a nuclear weapon in 2012?

PANETTA: It would be sometime around a year that they would be able to do it. Perhaps a little less. The one proviso, Scott, is if they have a hidden facility somewhere in Iran that may be enriching fuel.

PELLEY: So that they could develop a weapon even more quickly than we believed?

PANETTA: That’s correct.

Near the end of the segment, Pelley made this remark:

Panetta told us that while the Iranians need a year or less to assemble the weapon, he has no indication yet that they have made the decision to go ahead.

So Iran could have a weapon in a year–or maybe not at all.

In today’s New York Times, we see a story headlined, ‘Aides Qualify Panetta’s Comments on Iran,’ which leads with this:

An assertion by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta that Iran could have a nuclear weapon as soon as next year was based on a highly aggressive timeline and a series of actions that Iran has not yet taken, senior Pentagon officials said Tuesday.

The report added these comments from a Pentagon spokesperson (bolded for emphasis):

The secretary was clear that we have no indication that the Iranians have made a decision to develop a nuclear weapon,’ Mr. Little said. ‘He was asked to comment on prospective and aggressive timelines on Iran’s possible production of nuclear weapons–and he said if, and only if, they made such a decision. He didn’t say that Iran would, in fact, have a nuclear weapon in 2012.’

Now without knowing what was actually said in the full interview, it’s hard to know whether Panetta’s office is trying to walk back his careless, inaccurate rhetoric, or whether the CBS interviewer was pushing a hard line on Iran and nuclear weapons, treating the allegations being made about that country’s nuclear program as if they were facts.

If it’s the latter, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. At the December 15 Republican debate, Fox host Bret Baier posed this question to Ron Paul:

Congressman Paul, many Middle East experts now say Iran may be less than one year away from getting a nuclear weapon. Now, judging from your past statements, even if you had solid intelligence that Iran, in fact, was going to get a nuclear weapon, President Paul would remove the U.S. sanctions on Iran, included those added by the Obama administration. So, to be clear, GOP nominee Paul would be running left of President Obama on the issue of Iran?

Paul tried to explain to Baier that there is not, in fact, any intelligence suggesting Iran is less than a year from having the bomb. As Paul explained:

For you to say that there is some scientific evidence and some people arguing that maybe in a year they might have a weapon, there’s a lot more saying they don’t have it. There’s no UN evidence of that happening. Clapper at the–in our national security department, he says there is no evidence. It’s no different than it was in 2003. You know what I really fear about what’s happening here? It’s another Iraq coming. There’s war propaganda going on.

Baier, for his part, followed up by demanding that the candidate answer a question based on a false premise:

Congressman Paul, the question was based on the premise that you had solid intelligence, you actually had solid intelligence as President Paul, and yet you still at that point would pull back U.S. sanctions, and again, as a GOP nominee, would be running left of President Obama on this issue?

It’s probably not that these journalists want Iran to have a nuclear weapon. But they do seem to want to have a public debate that assumes Iran is about to have a nuclear weapon. Given the possible repercussions, that’s bad enough.

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