The Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, ABC News and Evans and Novak all reported that Israel illegally had sold U.S. weapons technology to China. They got it wrong.
In mid-March, an already tenuous relationship between Israel and the United States was rocked by a series of shocking news reports alleging that Israel had illegally sold vital U.S. technology to other countries. First came a story that Israel might have transferred a Patriot missile to China. Another article said that, among other illicit acts, Israel secretly sold U.S.-designed weapons systems to China and South Africa. But the most extravagant accusation was that Israel was planning to sell U.S. `stealth technology' to China.
Many of these charges were broadcast on television news shows and printed in newspapers throughout the United States. The allegations also generated an acrimonious debate between A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times and syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, who were making their own serious accusations against Israel.
When the smoke cleared, however, it turned out that some of the charges were patently false and others highly questionable. In their zeal to get a `good story,' did veteran U.S. journalists fail to obtain corroborative evidence to substantiate such serious allegations?
On the morning of March 12 the Washington Times, a newspaper known for its access to intelligence reports, ran a front-page banner headline proclaiming `China may have Patriot from Israel.' The article, written by Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough, reported that the `Bush administration is investigating intelligence reports that Israel secretly supplied a U.S. Patriot missile or its technology to China. ...'
If true, it was an extraordinarily shocking revelation. Disputes between Israel and the United States are always hot news. But coming at a time of extremely strained U.S.-Israeli relations and only days before a U.S. visit by Defense Minister Moshe Arens, the Patriot story spread quickly around Washington. The true test of whether it would become a high-profile national issue would come several hours later at daily briefings at the White House, State Department and Pentagon.
As a rule, Bush administration officials have refused to comment on intelligence reports. Moreover, the administration has demonstrated an aversion to leaks based on unverified raw intelligence reports, as illustrated by its bitter denunciation of the FBI reports leaked to reporters regarding allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
But on March 12, the Bush administration seemed to go out of its way to confirm this leak. At the State Department, Defense Department and White House, officials carefully stated on the record that they would `not comment.' Yet ubiquitous but anonymous `senior officials,' which included the briefers and top policymakers, made themselves available on `background' for reporters at daily briefings to `confirm' the existence of the allegations. For example, according to reporters present, Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian vouched that the allegations were `serious.' His comments, like those of his colleagues, guaranteed that the Washington Times story had legs.
In classic Washington cover-your-tracks style, however, Djerejian on March 17 publicly criticized leaks about alleged Israeli arms transfers. Before a congressional committee, Djerejian declared, `What is regrettable is there have been these irresponsible leaks by unnamed officials which have come into the press. . . .' (When asked about his March 12 background comments, a spokeswoman for Djerejian said the State Department would not comment on `anything Secretary Djerejian may or may not have said on background.')
By the end of the day on March 12, the story was publicized worldwide. While Israeli officials unequivocally rejected the Patriot missile charges and claimed they were leaked before being investigated by the Bush administration or before Israel had a chance to respond, neither they nor the U.S. media were privy to the intelligence report that generated the allegation. And if they couldn't see the report, how could they respond to the charge? It was a Catch-22 situation typical of the intelligence world.
In retrospect, it became apparent that the Washington Times had exaggerated the allegations against Israel to include the charge that Israel had possibly transferred a complete Patriot missile to the Chinese. Bush administration officials said that the `intelligence report' received by the administration raised only the possibility that China had acquired Patriot technology from Israel, not the missile itself. Nevertheless, by elevating the allegation to including the transfer of hardware, the Times helped raise the story to another level. And because anything is possible in the intelligence world, the notion of a missile transfer could not be dismissed out of hand. The Washington Times' Scarborough said in an interview that his article was accurate. `I'm firmly convinced that the intelligence report mentioned the possibility that the Patriot itself had been transferred,' he said. `We confirmed this through several sources in the administration.'
On March 13, the Israel-China story picked up steam when veteran investigative reporter Edward T. Pound of the Wall Street Journal published a front-page report in which senior U.S. officials alleged improper Israeli transfer of U.S. technology to China, Ethiopia, South Africa and Chile. The result of a six-week investigation, the Journal story was extensively documented and included references to a classified draft of an upcoming report on technology transfer to Israel by State Department Inspector General (IG) Sherman Funk.
The article further reported that government officials `suggest Israel uses several schemes to transfer' U.S. technology, including repackaging American components in systems exported by Israel and `reverse-engineering'--disassembling U.S. weapons to appropriate their secret designs.
For journalists, Pound's story seemed to indirectly confirm the Washington Times story, even though the Journal didn't focus on the Patriot missile allegations, if only because it alleged that Israel was selling other advanced U.S. technology without permission. The Journal story was particularly damning because its description of purported Israeli deception and scheming made any charge of Israeli duplicity more credible.
Israel's response to the Journal story seemed equivocal. An Israeli government spokesperson said that the stories about alleged sales to China and other countries `are sensitive matters which are subject to negotiation' between Israel and the United States. Was that an implicit acceptance of the U.S. allegations, as some reporters believed and indeed wrote?
The fact that journalists had paid relatively scant attention to previous disputes over technology transfer did not make the charges against Israel any less newsworthy. Although U.S. officials did not inspect Israeli military systems, Pound concluded in his Wall Street Journal article that `the intelligence reports have been so pervasive as to leave no doubt in the intelligence community that Israel has repeatedly engaged in diversion schemes.'
Yet contrary to the portrayal of an intelligence community holding a monolithic view on alleged Israeli diversion, a series of interviews with officials in the Defense Department, State Department and CIA leaves no doubt that there are major and bitter disagreements about whether the intelligence reports about Israel were as conclusive as some claimed. For example, a senior Defense Department official who examined both the classified and unclassified versions of the IG report, as well as the raw intelligence reports collected by Funk to assemble his study, said firmly that the `IG abjectly misrepresents the intent and bottom line of the documents upon which his report was based.' And a former government official who had access to the raw intelligence charged that the IG report was politicized. `The IG report,' he said, `was a dumping ground for anyone who wanted to get their digs in on Israel.'
Pound cannot be faulted for accurately reporting what various intelligence officials had told him and what had been confirmed by government documents. Yet the debate about Israel in the intelligence community often parallels the debate about U.S. Middle East policy. Officials collect, interpret and even generate `intelligence' designed to promote their views. Were the sources interviewed for this story simply providing the opposite of what Pound's sources told him?
Perhaps. But in reporting on the IG document, the unclassified version of which was released April 1, journalists largely overlooked evidence that raised doubts about the accuracy of the IG's conclusions. Moreover, the media generally disregarded the same independent Israeli military analysts who are quoted extensively when they criticize Israeli policies. This time, these Israeli analysts rejected the technology transfer charges as entirely unfounded and a `smear' against Israel.
One of the few American reporters to delve into the issue beyond merely restating charges along with Israeli denials was Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post. In a March 18 story, Diehl reported from Jerusalem that `as Israeli sources explain it, the dispute over technology is, in fact, a tangled and technical one that reflects the degree to which the military establishments of the two countries became meshed in recent years.' Diehl's point lay at the heart of the issue: Israel and the United States have been involved in joint research and weapons development for the past 25 years. Some of the research is so intertwined, according to U.S. and Israeli defense officials, that it is impossible to determine the exact nature of its parentage.
Another factor, which most reporters missed, is that because of the huge decline in international arms sales, the United States and Israel are now beginning to compete in an increasingly desperate search for arms buyers. What better way to undercut Israeli competition than to assert U.S. parentage of technology?
In addition to the evidence supporting Israeli claims that it developed its own weapons systems, reporters missed another key element that would have demonstrated why the entire affair was much more gray than black and white. In recent years, the United States has exported weapons systems that have incorporated advanced Israeli technology to Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This hardware includes enhanced F-16 fuel tanks, helicopter altitude warning systems and F-16 avionic and structural improvements.
As happens so often in Washington journalism, the allegations of Israeli transfer of technology had provided a hook for other reports about Israeli wrongdoing. By this time, the invisible critical mass--the journalistic threshold that results in pack reporting--had been reached. Now it seemed as if almost any allegation related to the Israel-China nexus was fair game, regardless of its accuracy, as long as it could be pinned on anonymous `U.S. intelligence sources.'
In a segment on ABC's `World News Tonight' on March 16, John McWethy reported that Israel had secretly transferred a laser-guided artillery shell called the Copperhead to China. But there was a serious problem with the story: It wasn't true. According to Defense Department and congressional officials, Israel has not purchased any Copperheads (whereas dozens were sold to Arab countries). A spokesman for `World News Tonight' said in an interview, `We stand by our report.'
Meanwhile, some editorial writers presumed the error-filled reports were true instead of questioning the leaks of unverified intelligence or raising questions about the accuracy of the charges. For example, the March 20 lead editorial in the New York Times blasted Israel in unusually harsh rhetoric for the `alleged sale of Patriot technology' to China and for `installing U.S. components' in Israeli-exported weapons systems. The editorial said that `stern sanctions' should be imposed on Israel if the reports proved to be true. At the same time, Times columnists Leslie Gelb and A.M. Rosenthal questioned the truthfulness of the allegations and the political agenda behind the leaks.
In early April the Israel-Patriot-China story came to a conclusion. A special 17-member U.S. military inspection team had been dispatched to Israel--a development that had reinforced the credibility of the initial charges but which had originated at Israeli insistence--to investigate whether any of the Patriot missiles in Israel had been tampered with. On April 2, the State Department announced that the investigators found `no evidence that Israel had transferred a Patriot missile or Patriot missile technology' to China and that `the Israeli government has a clean bill of health on the Patriot issue.'
The day before the United States exonerated Israel, State Department Inspector General Funk released an unclassified 69-page report alleging a `systematic and growing pattern of unauthorized transfer of sensitive United States items and technology' by an unidentified country that was unambiguously Israel. In interviews with reporters, however, Funk revealed, according to David Hoffman's account in the Washington Post, that State Department `auditors had never actually tracked any transfer of U.S. technology by Israel, but rather established that intelligence reports about such transfers were credible.'
In the end, journalists were left to report unverified allegations about possible technology transfers. Every day government officials receive scores of such intelligence reports, but often they consist of nothing more than an allegation by an informant, often with a political agenda, who reports it to a U.S. intelligence agent or diplomat. Most reports don't check out. Consider the famous 1981 report of a secret Libyan hit squad stalking President Reagan. The report, it turned out, was not true; the informant had misled U.S. officials.
The New York Times and the Washington Times acknowledged publishing tainted intelligence reports on Israeli weapons transfers and blamed their sources. On April 4, the New York Times tried to make amends for its premature editorial that had blasted Israel. Noting that Israel was found `not guilty' of the Patriot missile transfer charge, the Times editorialized that the `U.S. officials who hurried to publicize the allegation before all the facts were in owe Israel an apology.'
On April 13, the Washington Times published a lead editorial that also criticized government leakers for feeding the press false information. The editorial, which conceded that the paper had printed the original unsubstantiated report on the Patriot transfer, enumerated the charges and counter-charges that had been reported subsequently in the Wall Street Journal and in the Evans and Novak-Rosenthal exchanges. `The blame,' the Washington Times concluded, `lies not with the press, which is reporting what it finds out, but with whomever is doing the leaking of spurious accusations.'
The Washington paper also chastised the `highest officials' in the Bush administration for failing `to say anything on Israel's behalf to counterbalance the feeding frenzy in the press that the [original] leak set off. They now owe Israel an apology for allowing the erroneous report to further undermine relations between the two countries.'
To be fair, perhaps the New York Times, The Washington Times--and much of the Fourth Estate--should apologize as well.