Last night, the New York Times posted an article purporting to detail how the FBI spies on Israeli officials and on American supporters of the U.S.-Israeli alliance. The piece is important, though not for anything having to do with the actual story. The revelation the U.S. government has the Israeli embassy wired isn’t exactly news. Ha’aretz had a better sourced piece with more specifics on the topic last year, and here are a couple of videos of former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds talking about spying on AIPAC. At the end of the article, even author Scott Shane described the practice as “taken for granted.”
What’s significant about the article isn’t the scoop, such as it was. What’s striking is that, at least on Israel-related issues, there no longer seem to be any standards as to who counts as a legitimate source for the Paper of Record.
The source for this spying story was blogger Richard Silverstein. His tale involved him receiving classified documents from FBI translator Shamai Leibowitz and then subsequently burning them in his Seattle backyard. Leibowitz was tried for leaking the papers and pleaded guilty, but many surrounding details – including the documents’ content and recipient – remained unknown. The Times story ostensibly cleared the fog by identifying Silverstein as the recipient and letting him describe how the transcripts were wiretaps of Israeli officials.
No doubt the FBI – which once indicted two AIPAC workers for hearing stuff – will be explaining why Silverstein is not currently on trial for obstruction of justice. While everyone’s waiting on that, maybe the Times can explain how functionally single-sourced stories from agenda-driven partisans now qualify as publishable.
Silverstein is an anti-Israel blogger who modestly calls himself the Israeli Julian Assange (Hebrew) and has been accused with some regularity of making up his leaks and intelligence. His blog has years of posts insisting the Israelis are fueling up their jets right now to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, yet there remain Iran’s nuclear facilities, pointedly unbombed.
The bad predictions can be written off as cloak-and-dagger Walter Mitty fantasizing. What can’t be easily dismissed is Silverstein’s admitted antipathy for the Jewish State, a topic that moves him to “sputter[ing] with rage and indignation.” CiF Watch has a fairly comprehensive rundown of that line and some of his other greatest hits. He has declared that listening to news from the Middle East made him feel “like killing [an] Israeli soldier.” He has explained away the Mumbai Chabad House murders as designed “to avenge the suffering of the Palestinians.” He has even gone so far as to deny he can find any “humanity and decency among Israelis.”
Silverstein’s feelings toward Israel’s friends and supporters in the United States are exactly as Walt-and-Mearsheimer-esque as you’d expect: “Likudist advocacy groups and thinktanks,” “proof of scripting and amplification of the Israeli government’s agenda,” “the lobby went into overdrive,” etc. So when he comes to you with unprovable yarns of lobbyists collaborating with congressmen collaborating with Israeli officials, you shouldn’t run the story without sourcing him fully.
Yet the Times did exactly that, offering that while “Mr. Silverstein’s account could not be fully corroborated,” his story “fit the publicly known facts about the case.” Of course it did. It wouldn’t be very useful to invent a story that didn’t fit publicly known facts. Maybe he’s telling the whole truth. Maybe he’s coloring the facts. But not contradicting what everyone already knows is a useless metric. Almost by definition, it simply isn’t a confirmation of anything.
This isn’t an issue of abstract journalism ethics. The Times has not failed just once to adequately source anti-Israel partisans. In the immediate aftermath of the Gaza Flotilla the paper relied on Greta Berlin, a leader of the pro-Palestinian Free Gaza Movement, to convey “passengers were peaceful” propaganda that is now known to be false. The Electronic Intifada has become per the Times a legitimate source that “analyzes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” And now there’s this Silverstein thing. It’s almost like they’re not very concerned about the possibility an anti-Israel agenda might seep into their reporting.
We’re entering a month that’s going to be insane even by the unhinged standards of Middle East politics and journalism. Gaza Palestinians are trying to start a war between Egypt and Israel by slaughtering Israeli civilians. West Bank Palestinians seem intent on abrogating the Oslo Accords by seeking a unilateral declaration of statehood. Erdogan is threatening to fulfill his neo-Ottoman fantasies by sailing into Gaza under a Turkish flag of victory. Iran is dispatching its own naval assets into the general area, which will stabilize things not at all, while its proxies in Syria and Lebanon find themselves increasingly isolated. In the center of everything are a bunch of very nervous and well-armed Israelis.
With all the inevitable confusion, it’s important major media outlets not channel the feverish delusions of wide-eyed career Israel haters.