In the Arena

How Actual Journalism Works

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Commenter Terrapinion is on a really silly crusade to find out if my military sources include any of the generals who have been tarnished by their association with the Pentagon:

Of course, it is very likely that Joe Klein’s sources include many of the retired generals mentioned in the NYT article – the ones who spread disinformation to United States citizens over the public airwaves. And there is no reason to expect them to be more truthful to Joe Klein than they were on the air. So what about Klein’s other sources? I am not asking him to name them, rather I am requesting that he engage us in a short discussion about how he views the information being fed to him in light of the recent verification of a program that many of us have suspected for a very long time. I realize that one must trust somebody in order to form an opinion so lets talk about how that trust is established.

First of all, the vast majority of my military and intelligence sources have never been on television. Most are active duty military. Several of them took real career risks, especially during the Rumsfeld era, to get out the truth about a war they saw going terribly wrong.

Second, I always rely on at least two separate sources when I’m writing about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some sources are reliable on some topics, but not on others. Some sources are not likely to give new information, but are willing to say whether some of the things I’ve learned are true or not. Theoretically, even a general who has been hired by one of the networks–and is fed by the Pentagon–might be reliable to back up another source’s story. That’s happened once or twice. I don’t remember ever using a TV general as a primary source.

Third, look at the record. Tell me where I’ve been misled by my sources. A year ago, I reported that real progress had been made in al-Anbar province–but that our intelligence community was extremely pessimistic about the Shi’ites and Sunnis getting their act together to actually govern the country. (Greenwald and others ridiculed that column.) Nine months ago, I warned against getting involved in the intra-Shi’ite battle between the Hakim and Sadr families. In recent months, I’ve emphasized my fear–and that of some of my sources, but not others–that the U.S. is trying to establish long-term bases in Iraq. I’ve also reported that we need more troops in Afghanistan, that we should consider cross-border special operations against the terrorist camps in Pakistan and that we should not pause in our Iraq troop withdrawals. All of these opinions were derived after extensive and ongoing conversations with a wide variety of sources–active duty military, diplomatic and others; retired military and think-tank people; politicians, diplomats and military sources from the region. I also try to visit the region as often as I can…and I read a lot.

That is how I report on the war in Iraq–in fact, that’s how most of the journalists I respect report on the war, from Spencer Ackerman on the left to Max Boot on the right. It is about as far from simply relying on some TV general as you can get.