Sunday, December 12, 2004

# Posted 7:36 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

LEAKS, TAPS AND PLANTS: Why is the US tapping Mohammed El Baradei's phone? Perhaps more importantly, who told the Washington Post about it?

The information in this morning's front-pager is attributed to "three U.S. government officials". It's pretty reasonable to assume that they weren't all leaking the same information, either individually or in concert. But one of them may have leaked the information to the Post, which then contacted the other two for confirmation.

Since this whole story is pretty embarrassing for the Bush administration, there isn't much reason to believe that the story was planted. Unless, of course, it was a pre-emptive plant meant to head off more embarrassing revelations from unauthorized sources.

One of the interesting things about this story is the way in which it illustrates how the journalistic imperative to educate the public clashes with the imperative of objectivity. As is so often the case with stories about national security, correspondents know far more about the situation than they are allowed to tell their readers. Moreover, they sometimes label their sources in a deceptive manner in order to prevent public identification of those sources.

The issue here isn't ideological bias but rather the intentional confusion of the public. Although written like any other regular news story, the WaPo front-pager about El Baradei omits the information that is most important for anyone who truly wants to assess its significance.

Now, I am hardly the first person to point out how a reliance on anonymous sources threatens objectivity. But I think I am one of the few to note how the presentation of such confusing material is done in exactly the same manner as the presentation of a run-of-the-mill news story.

Thus, the overwhelming majority of WaPo readers don't know that they have to read this kind of story far more carefully than the would any other. And even those of us familiar with the relevant journalistic devices have no way to judge the accuracy of what's being reported.

What it all comes down to is the same issue responsible for so many problmes with the mass media: a total lack of accountability. What I wish I knew was how to introduce some sort of accountability without ensuring a cut off of the valuable information that unofficial sources provide.

Anyhow, getting back to El Baradei, the Post suggests that the US wiretap is part of a vindictive and heavy-handed effort by the White House to get back at El Baradei for being uncooperative first on Iraq and now on Iran. My instincts says that that assessment is just about right. But I prefer evidence to instincts.

If we are trying to bully El Baradei, I think its a bad idea. As the article points out, there isn't much available in the way of replacements. And what exactly could a better IAEA director do to resolve the situation with Iran? Going after El Baradei seems like a particularly self-destructive way of ignoring the message and killing the messenger.
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