Dexter Filkins has been one of the top journalists covering America’s wars since 9/11—first for the New York Times, and since 2011 for the New Yorker—often uncovering stories that were not welcomed by the US national security structure. But when Filkins, in a long-form New Yorker article last summer (7/20/15), took on the subject of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman’s untimely death and its relation to his role in indicting senior Iranian officials for a 1994 Buenos Aires terror bombing, it tested how far Filkins would go in questioning conventional wisdom.
The July 18, 1994, bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires (known by the Spanish initials AMIA), which killed 85 people and wounded nearly 300, is almost always blamed on Iran in media references to the attack. Other than my own investigation of the case in 2008 (The Nation, 1/19/08), I’m aware of no journalist who has gone beyond that frame in covering it.
Filkins apparently intended to write a journalistic portrait of Nisman and the disputed circumstances in which he died of a gunshot wound last January, rather than to explore the case itself. But in order to write such a portrait, Filkins had to deal with the evidence Nisman used in his AMIA indictment, and Filkins stumbled badly in writing about those issues.
Filkins’ failure goes to the root of a systemic problem of news media coverage of Iran and many other issues. Certain narratives about episodes and issues in recent history have become so unanimously accepted among political and media elites as to be virtually unchallengeable in media reporting. Such narratives have been repeated in one form or another for so many years that reporters simply would not think to question them for a moment, much less actually investigate their truth.
The narrative surrounding the AMIA bombing and its Iranian origins is a notable example of the phenomenon. Reporting on the Argentine investigation of the bombing and the indictment of the Iranians by Nisman in 2006 has treated Iran’s responsibility as an accepted and documented fact. And when Filkins believes he is adding independent reporting that corroborates Nisman’s interpretation of the evidence, he actually committed errors that a careful reporter would normally have avoided.
Filkins presents the primary evidence of Iranian/Hezbollah responsibility in Nisman’s 2006 indictment as follows:
In the course of 801 pages, he charged seven Iranian officials, including the former president, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, and also indicted Hezbollah’s senior military commander, Imad Mugniyah. “The decision to carry out the attack was made not by a small splinter group of extremist Islamic officials,” Nisman wrote, but was “extensively discussed and ultimately adopted by a consensus of the highest representatives of the Iranian government.” Drawing on the testimony of Iranian defectors, Nisman wrote that the decision was made on August 14, 1993, at a meeting of the Committee for Special Operations, which included the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
But if Filkins had read the English-language version of Nisman’s indictment, which is now available, or had done an online search on the subject, he would have learned that the sources that Nisman relied for that spectacular intelligence claim were not “defectors,” but the four members of the Mujahideen E Khalq’s political front, the National Council of Resistance Iran (NCRI). The MEK, an armed opposition group, had been a terrorist arm of the Saddam Hussein regime during the Iran/Iraq War, and had carried out terrorist actions against Americans and Iranians in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was taken off the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations in 2012 after a well-funded campaign to buy off prominent political and national security figures.
The two MEK sources that made specific claims about the meeting were senior officials of the organization: Reza Zakeri Kouchaksaraee, president of the NCRI’s Security and Intelligence Committee, and Hadi Roshanravani, a member of its International Affairs Committee. Nisman quotes from testimony by Kouchaksaraee before the Argentine Oral Court in 2003 that the decision to bomb the AMIA had been made by a meeting of the Supreme National Security Council on August 14, 1993: “This meeting lasted only two hours from 4:30 to 6:30 pm,” said the MEK official.
Nisman quoted Roshranravani as having testified to the same starting time, but a meeting date two days earlier: August 12, 1993. Roshranravani even claimed that the NCRI knew the exact agenda of the meeting, and that “the idea for an attack on Argentina” had been discussed during a discussion on “the strategy of exporting fundamentalism throughout the world.”
Neither NCRI official nor Nisman himself offered any explanation for how an exiled armed opposition organization could have penetrated the highest level of the Iranian government—or why Argentine investigators had been unaware of such crucial alleged intelligence for nearly a decade. Furthermore, the NCRI had by then a long history of publicizing intelligence claims—especially on alleged Iranian weapons of mass destruction—that Mossad, Israel’s international intelligence service, hoped would influence international opinion.
Nisman called two other NCRI members who testified before the same court “defectors.” But one of them, Ali Reza Ahmadi, was identified as an Iranian foreign service officer from 1981 to 1985, while the other, Hamid Reza Eshagi, was not otherwise identified. Those two witnesses made only joint statements, merely supporting what the senior officials of the NCRI had testified. They made no claim to independent knowledge of the meeting.
A review of the indictment reveals that Nisman cited the same four NCRI members a total of 61 times to document the alleged participation of each of the seven senior Iranians for whom Nisman was requesting arrest warrants. Nearly half of the citations were for Kouchaksaraee, the head of NCRI’s Security and Intelligence Committee.
Filkins appears to have been unaware, however, of Nisman’s reliance on the testimony of the armed opposition to the Iranian regime, with its shady history, for the crucial information on which his indictment of the Iranians was based. “Much of the testimony that guided Nisman toward the Iranian regime,” Filkins writes, “was provided by a man referred to in court documents as ‘Witness C’—Abolghasem Mesbahi, an Iranian intelligence agent who defected to Germany in 1996.”
But in identifying Mesbahi as the key source, Filkins not only misrepresents the alleged evidence in Nisman’s indictment, but also demonstrates a remarkable lack of curiosity about a figure whose record as a witness on this and other cases was marked by serious anomalies and even absurdities.
Mesbahi’s claims about Iranian sponsorship of the AMIA terror bombing had provided fodder for a number of stories on the case for years. But it turns out his story was not consistent. Mesbhai’s initial statement to Argentine investigators, in a secret 100-page deposition in 2000, claimed that Iranian planning for the AMIA bombing began in 1992. According to the transcript, Mesbahi said one Iranian intelligence cell was devoted to “cooperating with members of the Argentine police, corrupting them or threatening them to collaborate with the attack,” while another worked on obtaining the explosives.
But when Mesbahi testified to the oral court by video conference from the Argentine embassy in Berlin in November 2003, he declared: “It’s a rule that in terrorist operations, local sources of the chosen country can never be trusted. It is not possible that anyone who lived in Argentina was involved in or informed about the attack.”
In the same sensational 2000 deposition, Mesbahi claimed that, after the attack, Argentine President Carlos Menem had sent an emissary to Tehran, whom he described as a bearded man of about 50 years of age, who had negotiated a deal that resulted in a $10 million deposit to a numbered account that Menem had provided. In return, Mesbahi testified, Menem agreed to “make declarations that there was no evidence against Iran that it was responsible.” The money, he writes “was paid from another Swiss account, controlled by Rafsanjani, the Iranian president.”
But in his 2003 testimony, Mesbahi backed away from this account, saying that everything he knew about the affair had come from someone who had died in 1997, and that he did not know if any payments had actually been made.
And as for the previous date for the Iranian decision to carry out the bombing, Mesbahi told the oral court the decision was made in 1993, not 1992, as he had claimed before.
It was not only in regards to AMIA that Mesbahi was known to the US intelligence community as a “fabricator.” He had claimed to German investigators that Iran asked Libya and the Abu Nidal terrorist organization to carry out the attack on Pan Am 103 in December 1988. That claim was discredited by the FBI.
Even more outrageously, he had also concocted a tale of having been tipped off by Iranian contacts, through a series of “coded messages” in the summer and early September of 2001, about plans for a coming Iranian terrorist strike in the United States that would involve crashing civilian airliners into buildings in major US cities, including Washington and New York, on September 11–and that he had frantically tried to contact someone in German or US intelligence about the information. In fact, neither the German nor US government ever got any communication from Mesbahi.
Filkins does quote a single sentence from the head of the FBI’s mission to Buenos Aires to assist in the AMIA investigation, James Bernazzani, summing up his view of Mesbahi as a witness: “Mesbahi was full of shit.” But he does not confront the significance of Bernazzani’s comment. “Still, many American officials believe that Iran was involved in the bombing,” he writes, as if to dismiss questions of Mesbahi’s suspect credibility.
Filkins quotes former CIA operative Robert Baer as saying Iran could be presumed to be involved because of the alleged involvement of the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia group Hezbollah:
The assumption was that the Iranians were involved, because the attack was carried out by a unit that they created…. [Hezbollah security chief Imad] Mugniyah never did anything without the green light of the Supreme Leader.
But Filkins’ assumption that the United States had hard evidence of Hezbollah’s involvement is seriously misguided. Filkins cites Bernazzani’s account of assisting the Argentine intelligence agency SIDE with its investigation of the bombing by examining the truck and finding “bits of flesh and bluejeans stuck to a fragment of metal.” Filkins completes Bernazzani’s account:
Technicians at an FBI lab quickly identified a man who they believed was the driver: Ibrahim Hussein Berro, a Hezbollah operative from Lebanon. Intelligence analysts determined that Berro’s family had been fêted by Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, shortly after the bombing. “The case we made would have stood up in the US judicial system,” Bernazzani said.
But that is not what happened. As Bernazzani told me in a November 2007 interview, the FBI investigators did believe the DNA evidence they found in an evidence locker had come from the suicide bomber, but they could not link it with any specific individual, because they had no DNA sample at that point with which the compare the evidence. In fact, the only evidence the FBI and its Argentine colleagues were able to find for Iranian and/or Hezbollah involvement in the bombing for several years was, he said, “circumstantial.”
Bernazzani recalled that it was more than eight years after he began working on the case in late 1996 that Nisman had taken a DNA sample from one of Ibrahim Hussein Berro’s brothers during his visit in September 2005. Bernazzani told me that he assumed—though he didn’t know for a fact—that the Argentines had compared the DNA found earlier with that of the brother.
But Nisman never talked about the DNA evidence publicly—including in his indictment—except to claim to a reporter in 2006 that the samples had been contaminated. Bernazzani was certainly under the impression in 2005, before he retired from the FBI, that the sample was not contaminated. The implication is that the DNA sample from the evidence locker and the sample taken from Berro’s brother did not match.
Filkins cites Nisman’s claim in the indictment that the coordinator of the entire AMIA bombing operation was Mohsen Rabbani, previously the leader of the Al Tawhid mosque in Buenos Aires and, in 1994, the cultural attache of the Iranian embassy. It was Rabbani, according to Nisman, “who financed the attack, oversaw the purchase of the Renault [van used in the bombing] and directed the assembly of the bomb.”
But the evidence of Rabbani’s guilt cited by Nisman is based on the kind of inferential leaps usually employed to construct crude conspiracy theories. The indictment argues, for example, that it is “reasonable to infer” that Rabbani’s withdrawal of a total of $94,000 from a bank account between March 22 and July 18, 1994, was to pay for expenses related to the AMIA attack.
The evidence for Nisman’s conclusion that Rabbani had overseen the purchase of the suicide bomb car consists entirely of the fact that Rabbani “made inquiries at various Buenos Aires car dealers concerning the purchase of a van that was identical or similar to the one that was used as a car bomb in the AMIA attack several months later.” But in fact the Renault Trafic van was just about the only vehicle available in Buenos Aires for hauling relatively small loads, and the intelligence report on the surveillance of Rabbani available in the public record of the Argentine investigation shows that Rabbani had looked at a car dealer’s white Trafic on May 1, 1993—15 months before the bombing—but had not bought it.
Filkins notes approvingly Nisman’s use of phone metadata and travel dates to infer the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah in the plot to carry out the bombing. The approach used by the Argentina’s SIDE, as described in Nisman’s indictment, began with the assumption that a certain set of phones that were in contact with one another only from July 1 through July 18, 1994, represented the “operational group” for the bombing. Then they inferred that the fact that some of those phones were in contact with subscribers in Lebanon who were, in Nisman’s words, “suspected of having ties with Hezbollah” was evidence of Hezbollah’s involvement in the bombing.
Bernazzani told me that he was appalled by SIDE’s use of “link analysis” to establish responsibility, and that officials in Washington had not taken such “speculative” theorizing seriously either.”It can be very dangerous,” he said. “Using that analysis, you could link my telephone to bin Laden’s.”
Filkins thus assembled a set of “facts” from Nisman and others supporting his thesis of Iranian guilt, without any serious effort to inquire into its accuracy, reliability and significance. His handling of Bernazzani’s testimony further suggests a readiness to interpret data that doesn’t fit the accepted picture in such a way as to keep it intact.
The point of deconstructing this New Yorker piece is not that Filkins is more careless about checking facts than his journalistic peers; rather, it is to direct attention to much more bigger and more complex problem affecting the entire news media structure: a climate of opinion in which certain issues are matters of such solid consensus that normally alert and energetic journalists suspend their skepticism and factchecking, because, after all, “everybody knows” that certain propositions are true.
Gareth Porter, an independent investigative journalist and historian on US national security policy, is the winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. His latest book is Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, published in 2014.