10 March 2013 — New Left Project
Yesterday, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that journalists and experts are bullshitters, nearly to the last one.
Some background. One unambiguous Israeli victory in its attack on Gaza last November, journalists and experts widely concurred, was the performance of its ‘Iron Dome’ missile defence shield in shooting down projectiles fired from Gaza. The BBC‘s Jonathan Marcus reported on the “remarkable” progress in missile defence technology represented by Iron Dome, evidenced by its “recent success” in the field. His colleague, Mark Urban, described Iron Dome‘s “impressive” performance, while theGuardian‘s Harriett Sherwood reported Iron Dome‘s “considerable success”. “The naysayers now are few”, observed the New York Times‘s Isabel Kershner—or non-existent, to judge by the number quoted in her article. The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg was satisfied that Iron Dome “is doing a very good job”, though he quoted a “friend… who knows a great deal” fretting that Iron Dome might, if anything, be too effective. The experts, too, seemed to agree. For dovish Israeli academic Ron Pundak Iron Dome was a “game changer”; for Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) it “represent[ed]… a major shift for Israel”; for the respected International Crisis Group, “the success of… Iron Dome” was not in doubt. The Council on Foreign Relations’ Max Boot spoke for most when he wrote:
“The latest Gaza war is only a few days old, but already one conclusion can be drawn: missile defence works”.
This expansive edifice of journalistic and expert analysis, pontification and reportage was based on a single source: official Israeli government statistics, which claimed a success rate for Iron Dome of approximately 84%. The BBC‘s Mark Urban was unusual in noticing that this was a not entirely disinterested authority—Israel’s government being “anxious to dismiss the impression that it has not [sic] been humiliated by Hamas“—but he proceeded to rely on its data regardless. Most reported Israel’s official line uncritically.
With surprising speed, the accumulating media and expert consensus on the success of Iron Dome became self-reinforcing, its existence taken as evidence of its own accuracy. Thus Max Fisher informed readers of the Washington Post that Iron Dome is, “by every appearance, a remarkable success”—”every appearance” being useful journalistic shorthand for “every regurgitation of the exact same set of official Israeli data”.
The sole sceptical note was sounded by the American scholar Norman Finkelstein, who wondered, in a post on his website, whether Iron Dome might be better named ‘Swiss Cheese‘. There, and in an article for New Left Project, Finkelstein observed that whereas during the three weeks of Operation Cast Lead (2008-09) three Israeli civilians were killed by projectiles from Gaza, during Operation Pillar of Defence—Iron Dome notwithstanding—rockets and mortars landing in Israel killed four in one week. Given that Hamas, with perhaps an occasional exception, did not use much more advanced weaponry in the most recent conflict, his conclusion was straightforward: Iron Dome “almost certainly did not save many and perhaps not any lives”. Recalling the hype over U.S. Patriot missiles deployed in 1991 against Iraqi Scuds, subsequently revealed as completely ineffective, Finkelstein expressed scepticism about the veracity of the Iron Dome statistics provided by Israel. This scepticism was rooted in his political analysis of Israel’s attack on Gaza, one that found no expression in the reams of columns, articles and reports published by mainstream journalists and experts. Israel attacked Gaza, he argued, to re-establish ‘deterrence’ vis-a-vis its regional neighbours. This backfired as Palestinians and regional powers managed to impose a ceasefire on Israel and residents of Gaza emerged from the conflict triumphant. The only plausible victory to which desperate Israeli officials could point was Iron Dome, which they plugged for all it was worth. Given this political context, and the Israeli government’s clear commercial interest in marketing Iron Dome abroad, it was obvious that Israeli figures about Iron Dome‘s performance ought to be taken with a pinch of salt—except, it seems, to the journalists and experts quoted above, and many more besides.
Finkelstein’s initial doubts were soon echoed by others. Notably, Ted Postol, the MIT researcher who led the debunking of the Patriot missiles in 1991, recanted his initially positive assessment of Iron Dome‘s performance: “I’m skeptical. I suspect it is not working as well as the Israelis are saying … but there is great value in the strategic deception”. (See also here). But the conventional wisdom has stood firm.
Which brings us to yesterday’s article in Ha’aretz. The Israeli military already effectively admitted, earlier this month, that Iron Dome cannot protect Sderot and other Israeli communities bordering the Gaza Strip, whose defence was its initial rationale for existence. Now Ha’aretz reports that separate studies by Ted Postol and two other scientists, formerly of Raytheon (which manufactured the Patriot missiles) and Rafael (which co-developed Iron Dome), have concluded that the official Israeli data on Iron Dome is almost certainly false. Whereas Israel claimed a successful intercept-rate of 84%, Postol, after examining video footage of Iron Dome in action, concludes that the real rate was “perhaps as low as 5%“, and “could well be lower”.
For the Israeli state, relying on Iron Dome‘s alleged success to qualify what was otherwise an unmitigated disaster in Gaza, the scientists’ findings are deeply inconvenient. For all the journalists and experts who relayed official Israeli data uncritically, they are devastating.
The BBC, the Guardian, the New York Times and the Washington Post have so far decided against reporting Postol et al.’s critical findings. Nor, to my knowledge, have Joshi, Jeffrey Goldberg, the ICG et al. seen fit to alter their expert analysis.
How Iron Dome Works – BBC diagram (updated)
Update: I included Shashank Joshi as an example of a bullshitting expert, above, based on the (bullshit) quote attributed to him in this article. Joshi has objected to this on twitter, claiming that he prefaced every comment to journalists about Iron Dome with the caveat that the official stats may not be true, and that he can hardly be blamed if they then chose not to quote the caveat. He posted this screenshot as evidence that he was indeed sceptical about the accuracy of Israel’s stats. I can’t check this, but obviously, if Joshi was misrepresented or misquoted, then the fault lies with the reporter rather than with him.