Joho the Blog » iran

March 25, 2015

[shorenstein] Farnaz Fassihi on Reporting from the Middle East

I’m at a Shorenstein lunchtime talk where Farnaz Fassihi is giving a talk titled “Reporting from the Middle East.” Farnaz writes for the Wall Street Journal. Among other achievements (and there are a lot), she is the author of an email in 2004 that was at the time a shockingly frank and dire assessment of how things were going in Iraq.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She was a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger on 9/11. She insisted that her editor assign her to the Afghan war. “I always wanted to cover wars. I don’t know why.” She thinks that she wanted to make sense of events in her own life, including the revolution in Iran when she was 8. She was sent to Afghanistan, covered the second Intifada, the Iraq invasion, became WSJ’s Beirut bureau chief, covered Arab Spring, etc. She has only recently returned to the US.

“How we approach reporting has significantly changed” since she first went to Afghanistan she says. In part this is because journalists are more at risk than ever. Before 9/11, it would have been fine for her to pack a backpack and a satellite phone, and head off into Afghanistan. Now journalists have security guards, and there are zones into which journalists simply don’t go. “That’s taken some of the serendipity” out of the coverage and has made it harder to cover what’s happening on the ground. You have to rely on sources “and most of them have an agenda.” Also, now it’s visual first and mobile first, “putting even more pressure on journalists to turn things around quickly.” As a result, reporting is less original than before: when all the journalists are covering Syria from Beirut, they’re using the same Youtube feeds, tweets, etc. It makes it harder to make readers care by “putting a human face” on the tragedies and horrors. As a result, readers in the US have grown tired of reading about these events.

On the other hand, “the invasion of Iraq has gotten the US to where it is today.” There’s thus even more of an obligation to have reporters on the ground. E.g., Al Qaeda didn’t have a presence in Iraq until the invasion. “We no longer have an isolated crisis in Syria but an entire region up in arms.” We need journalists in place because, e.g., Yemen is a very tribal society that is difficult to understand. “When I started out, even in Iraq, I’d get in a car with translator, go out and talk to people. Much of my coverage in the past 13 yrs has been to put a human face on war.” She’s written a book about this. “I have a very hard time now replicating that when it comes to Syria or Yemen because I’m not there. It can be extremely frustrating as a reporter. Not just for me but for all my colleagues.”

As the result of not being on the ground, journalists sometimes miss where things are heading. “We all missed the takeover of Mosul.” “I think that was because of our lack of access.”

“In terms of where the Middle East is going, I’m not optimistic at all.” “The same forces seem to be going in cycles.” “I don’t have an answer about the right way out of this, but I do feel there is some level of responsibility that the US has.”


Q: [alex jones] If you were advising the US President about what to do, what would you suggest, if only to have the least worst path?

A: We missed the window when we could have had real influence on the Syrian rebels. We were so traumatized by Iraq that we didn’t want to be blamed for another Arab state’s disintegration. At this point I don’t know what we can do. America’s involvement is always a double-edged sword. If you don’t go in, you get blamed for letting the radicals win. If you do, you get blamed for radicalizing moderates.

Q: [alex] If we do nothing, what happens?

A: Countries in the Middle East will turn into what Afghanistan was before the US invasion: institutional breakdown of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya. The conflict might spread. And that’s a region the US has a lot of interests in in: oil, Israel. And we’ll have to accept that the Islamic Republic will become a major power player. It already is one. If we do nothing, our influence will even further diminish.

Q: [alex] Why aren’t other Arab states as fearful of ISIS as we are?

A: They are.

Q: [alex] Why aren’t they fighting ISIS?

A: Many Saudi and Kuwaiti businessmen have funded ISIS. A lot of private donations. But local countries are fighting in different ways. Iran is fearful and leading the show. Saudi Arabia knows that now it has a very real rival.

Q: [alex] Why do the Saudis allow their citizens to support ISIS?

A: The Saudis are fearful of Shia dominance, and Iran gaining power, as well as of ISIS. After the US invasion we saw a Shia revival which was a real threat to Sunni dominance of the Middle East. These are rivalries that are thousands of years old.

Q: [alex] Why do these Shia and Sunni cultures have such incredible animosity? If you’re a Moslem do you feel a primary identity to Shia or Sunni instead of to Islam?

A: Sectarian identity is very important in the Middle East. And the Shia were oppressed for many many years. It’s a political and social organization as well as religious; it rebuilds the villages that Israel bombs when the government does not. “I don’t think we can necessarily crush” ISIS. With all of the effort in Iraq we were unable to keep Al Qaeda in check. The question is: what are we trying to accomplish? Will aerial bombardment turn it around? I don’t think so.

Q: [alex] So we’re just headed to genocide?

A: We’re already seeing that. 100,000 killed in Syria. Chemical weapons.

Q: [alex] So there’s nothing to be done.

Q: I was with the Yemen Times. How do you maintain your sanity as a reporter in a war zone. And how do your own balance your own agenda?

A: I don’t think we have an agenda. But we are human beings. It depends on the info we’re getting. Sometimes our sources are unbalanced, and that can reflect in the story. I write about Yemen with a Yemeni stringer, and we have a trust relationship. But if I’m talking with a source, I have to be very aware of what their agenda is, which can be hard when you’re on deadline.

A: 9/11 created a new generation of war correspondents. There are maybe 40 of us and we go from zone to zone. We’ve formed intense bonds. Those friendships are the most important thing. But if you spend that much time in the Middle East, you have scars. It’s difficult to continuously put yourself at risk and hear the stories of what people are going through.

Q: Covering ISIS reflects the problems of journalistic cutbacks. How do we cover these issues given the cutbacks and the dangers?

A: Security comes first. I discourage new journalists from going to rebel-controlled territory. But people do. If our paper is not sending staff, we don’t send freelancers. The idea is that no story is worth your life. We try to fill the gap by having more experienced regional reporters who understand the context. So you mainly have seasoned reporters writing the analytic pieces. But the unique and amazing reporting usually comes from freelancers who take those risks.

Q: Charlie Sennott‘s GroundTruth project tries to set up guidelines for coverage. Is it having an effect?

A: Too soon to tell. But no matter how much security you have, if you’re surrounded by militants who are determined to behead you, you can’t really protect yourself. When I went to Afghanistan I didn’t get any training. Now journalists are trained. The more training the better, but nothing can fully protect you.

Q: Talk about Iranian domestic politics?

A: Grand policies in Iran such as nuclear negotiations or its goals in Syria are determined by Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader. From everything we can gather, he’s given the green light for a deal. I think the reality of sanctions and falling oil prices is making it very difficult for the Iranian regime to sustain itself. They also know that there’s real dissent in the country. The regime is trying to hold off by the working class. Getting a nuclear deal is essential for that. It seems that for the first time Iran genuinely wants a deal. But just like in the US there are hardliners that don’t. As Pres. Obama said, it’s very odd that those 47 US Senators have such much in common with the Iranian hardliners.

Q: When you were 4 yrs old, I was a guest of the empress of Iran for two weeks. At this Meeting of 100 Leaders, no one anticipated that the change would come from the right. Now my source is Anthony Bourdain. His program on Iran is spectacular and says that the public is nowhere near the leaders.

A: You’d be very surprised if you went to Iran now. It’s become very urban — 70%. 60% of university students are women. Women are big part of the workforce. The Iranian Republic has pushed to modernize rural areas, with healthcare, and modern roles for women. Women are a force of change from within. Iran is also very connected: one of the top users of the Internet. The young generation is very eager to be in touch. It’s probably the most pro-American population in the Middle East. Iranians are not extremists by nature. Change will not occur there the way it’s occurred in Syria. They want change through moderate means.

Q: The bombing in Yemen and Tunisia?

A: Tunisia was the one example of where Arab Spring worked. I don’t want to rush to judgment and say Tunisia is a failed enterprise, but it does make one worry that ISIS is gaining momentum there. The conflicts are no longer localized.

Q: Couldn’t the US help bolster Tunisia. Are we?

A: I don’t know.

Q: It’s ironic that the French Defense Minister lost her job at the beginning of the revolution by suggesting France could help. Tunisia is tiny and unable to defend itself. But back to Iran: the Supreme Leader is apparently ill. Could Pres. Rouhani become the Supreme Leader?

A: He’s lacking the right credentials, although exceptions can be made. But the council that picks the next Leader just appointed a very conservative council head.

Q: Anything positive?

A: Some of the most gratifying moments have been encountering the resilience of human beings in war zones. Even in those circumstances, people still try to find a way to live a dignified life. E.g., a wedding in Baghdad was made enormously difficult because of security. Car bombs were going off but people were dancing. Or the women in Afghanistan. I interviewed a teacher who had been banned because women were not allowed in the workforce. She turned her basement into a classroom for neighborhood girls, staggering their hours so the Taliban wouldn’t notice the stream of children.

Q: In addition to all of the dangers there’s the incredible apparatus of the US military’s PR machine. What’s it like dealing with the US military?

A: If you embed you have to follow guidelines: your PR person stays with you, if you’re in an attack you can’t send photos of injured or dead soldiers, etc. If you violate the rules, you’re kicked off the embed. Because they take you on the embed and protect you, they expect you to write something positive. Sometimes you don’t. And then you and your organization are in the doghouse. They didn’t like what I wrote about the capturing Saddam Hussein and for three months the WSJ couldn’t get an embed.

Q: [me] A few times in my life I’ve seen an about-face in coverage of villified countries. Are we likely to see this with Iran?

A: I think we’re already seeing it. Since Ahmadinejad left, it’s been quite positive coverage.

Q: Why are there no gay people in Iran? (laughter)

A: [audience member] It’s a world leader in sex change operations.

A: I know many gay Iranians.

Q: What is Iran’s real attitude toward Israel?

A: Despite the rhetoric, I don’t think Iran has any plans to eradicate Israel. But they do support the Palestinian cause, and arm Hezbollah and Hamas. So I don’t think those tensions will go away. Netanyahu would like to derail the talks because then Israel loses its puppet enemy.

Q: If there’s no deal?

A: I think Iran will open up their centrifuges and continue with the program.

Q: A Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian has been jailed in Iran. Why? Also: The former head of Mossad said that Iranians are the most well-educated, brilliant people in the the world.

A: Journalists are arrested all the time in Iran. He mostly wrote features, not investigative reports that would anger the govt. But reports, especially Americans, are always at risk. Sometimes Iran wants a bargaining chip, or a prisoner exchange, or domestic politics. It’s very seldom because the person is a real threat.


March 3, 2015

[liveblog] David Sanger on cybersecurity. And Netanyahu

David Sanger of the NY Times is giving a Shorenstein Center lunchtime talk about covering security.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

David begins by honoring Alex Jones, the retiring head of the Shorenstein Center with whom he worked at the Times.

David tells us that he wrote his news analysis of the Netanyahu speech to Congress last night, before the talk, because people now wake up and expect it to read about it. His articles says that a semantic difference has turned into a strategic chasm: we’ve gone from preventing Iran from having the capability of building a weapon to preventing Iran from building a weapon. Pres. Obama dodged this question when David asked him about it in 2010. If the Iran deal goes through, says David, it will be the biggest diplomatic step since Nixon went to China.

Probably six years ago David had just come back from writing The Inheritance, which disclosed that GW Bush had engaged in the first computer attacks on Iran. He came back to the newsroom saying that we need to start thinking about the strategic uses of cyber as a weapon, beyond worrying about kids in a basement hacking into your bank account. This was an uphill struggle because it’s extremely difficult to get editors to think about a nontraditional form of warfare. Drones we understand: it’s an unmanned aircraft with familiar consquences when it goes wrong. We all understand nuclear weapons because we saw Hiroshima. Cyber is much harder to get people to understand. To make matters worse, there are so many different kinds of cyber attacks.

When you think about cyber you have to think about three elements, he says. 1. Cyber for espionage, by states or by thieves. 2. Cyber for economic advantage, on the cusp between business and govt. E.g., Chinese steal IP via operations run out of the Chinese Army. The US thinks that’s out of bounds but the Chinese think “What’s more important to our national interest than our economy? Of course we’ll steal IP!” 3. Cyber for political coercion, e.g. Stuxnet. This tech is spreading faster than ever, and it’s not just in the hands of states. We have no early concept of how we’re going to control this. We now claim Iran was behind cyberattacks on Las Vegas casinos. And, of course, the Sony hack. [He recounts the story.] “This was not a little drive-by attack.”

He says he would have predicted that if we got into a cyber war with another country, it would be an attack on the grid or some such, not an attempt to stop the release of a “terrible” commercial movie. “We’re in a new era of somewhat constant conflict.” Only now is the govt starting to think about how this affects how we interact with other companies. Also, it’s widened the divide Snowden has opened between Silicon Valley and the govt. Post-Snowden, companies are racing to show that they’re not going to cooperate with the US govt for fear that it will kill their ability to sell overseas. E.g., iPhone software throws away the keys that would have enabled Apple to turn over your decrypted data if the FBI comes along with a warrant. The head of the FBI has objected to this for fear that we’re entering a new era in which we cannot get data needed to keep us secure.

The govt itself can’t decide how to deal with the secrecy around its own development of cyber weapons. The Administration won’t talk about our offensive capabilities, even though we’re spending billions on this. “We can’t have a conversation about how to control them until you admit that you have them and describe the circumstances under which you might use them.”


Q: [alex jones] Laypeople assume that there are no secrets and no privacy any more. True?

A: By and large. There’s no system that can’t be defeated. (Hillary Clinton must have come to be so suspicious of the State Dept. email system that she decided to entrust it to gmail.) There’s no guaranteed system. We’d have to completely redesign the Internet to make it secure.

Q: [alex] What’s the state of forensics in this situation?

A: It’s not a sure thing. All govts and law enforcement agencies are putting a lot of money into cyber forensics. In the nuclear age, you could see where the missiles are coming from. Cybercrime is more like terrorism: you don’t know who’s responsibile. It’s easy to route a cyberattack through many computers to mask where it’s coming from. When the NYT was hacked by the Chinese govt, the last hop came from a university in the South. It wouldn’t have been so nice to have assumed that that little university was actually the source.

The best way to make forensics work is to have implants in foreign computing systems that are like little radar stations. This is what the NSA spends a lot of its time doing. You can use the same implant for espionage, to explore the computer, or to launch an attack. The US govt is very sensitive about our questions about implants. E.g., suppose the NSA tells the president that they’ve seen a major attack massing. The president has to decide about reacting proactively. If you cyber-attack a foreign computer, it looks like you struck first. In the Sony case, the President blamed North Korea but the intelligence agencies wouldn’t let him say what the evidence was. Eventually they let out a little info and we ran a story on the inserts in NK. An agency head called and officially complained about this info being published but said more personally that releasing the fact that the govt can track attacks back to the source has probably helped the cause of cybersecurity.

Q: Are there stories that you’re not prepared to publish yet?

A: We’ve held some stuff back. E.g., e were wondering how we attacked Iran computers that were disconnected from the Net (“air gap”). If you can insert some tech onto the motherboard before the product has been shipped you can get access to it. A Snowden document shows the packaging of computers going to Syria being intercepted, opened, and modified. Der Spiegel showed that this would enable you to control an off-line computer from 7 miles away. I withheld that from the book, and a year or two later all that info was in the Snowden docs.

Q: [nick sinai] Why haven’t the attacks on the White House and State Dept. been a bigger story?

A: Because they were mainly on the unclassified side. We think it was a Russian attack, but we don’t know if was state-sponsored.

Q: How does the Times make tradeoffs between security and openness?

A: I’m not sure we get it right. We have a set of standards. If it would threaten a life or an imminent military or intelligence operation we’re likely not to publish it. Every case is individual. An editor I know says that in every case he’s withheld info, he’s sorry that he did. “I don’t blame the government” for this, says David. They’re working hard to prevent an attack, and along comes a newspaper article, and a program they’ve been working on for years blows up. On the other hand, we can’t debate the use of this tech until we know what it can do. As James Clapper said recently, maybe we’re not headed toward a cyber Pearl Harbor but toward a corrosive series of attacks, institution by institution.

Q: At what point do cyberattacks turn into cyberwarfare?

“Cyberwarfare” is often an overstated term. It implies that it might turn into a real-world war, and usually they don’t. Newspapers have to decide which ones to cover, because if you tried to cover them all, that’s all you’d cover. So the threshold keeps going up. It’s got to be more than stealing money or standard espionage.

Q: Will companies have to create cyber militias? And how will that affect your coverage?

A: Most companies don’t like to report cyber attacks because it drives down their stock market valuation. There’s a proposed law that would require a company to report cyber attacks within a month. The federal govt wants cybersecurity to come from private companies. E.g., JP Morgan spends half a billion dollars on cyber security. But there are some state-sponsored attacks that no private company could protect itself against.

Q: How does US compare with our enemies? And in 30 yrs how will we remember Snowden?

A: The usual ranking puts US on top, the British, the Israelis. The Chinese are very good; their method seems to be: attack everyone and see what you get. The Russians are stealthier. The Iranians and North Koreans are further down the list. A year ago if you’d told me that the NKs would have done something as sophisticated as the Sony attack, I would have said you’re crazy.

I have no problem believing both that Snowden violated every oath he took and multiple laws, and that the debates started by the docs that he released is a healthy one to have. E.g., Obama had authorized the re-upping of the collection of metadata. After Snowden, the burden has been put on private companies, none of which have taken it up. Also, Obama didn’t know we were listening in on Angela Merkel. Now all those programs are being reviewed. I think that’s a healthy kind of tradeoff.

Q: What enduring damage has Snowden done?

A: The damage lies between immediate to enduring. Immediately, there were lots of intelligence programs that had to be redone. I don’t see any real damage outside of a 5 year frame.

Q: Might there be a deal that lets Snowden come home?

A: A year ago there was interest in this in order to find out what Snowden knows. But now the intelligence services feel they have a handle on this.

Q: Netanyahu speech?

A: Politically he probably did a little more damage to his cause than good. Some Dems feel coerced. On the substance of it, I think he made the best case you can make for the two biggest weaknesses in the deal: 1. It doesn’t dismantle very much equipment, so when the deal’s term is over, they’ll be up and running. 2. We’re taking a bet that the Iranian govt will be much easier to deal with in 10-15 yrs, and we have no idea if that’s true. But Netanyahu has not put forward a strategy that does not take you down the road to military confrontation.


September 28, 2010

Hoder in for 19.5

It’s hard to muster any enthusiasm for Iran’s sentencing Hossein Derakhshan — “Hoder” — to “only” 19.5 years in jail instead of executing him, as they had threatened.

Maybe the Canadian government can do something for Hoder since he holds dual Iranian-Canadian citizenship. I don’t want to have to wait until I’m almost 80 to hear that he’s free.


July 23, 2009

Accountable bloggers and journalists

[Note 1.5 hrs after posting this: Ethan Zuckerman has just put up a superb post on this topic. I suggest you read that instead of this.]

Jillian York of the Berkman Center explains the current confusion about the NY Times’ rather casual suggestion (in a blog post) , based on an accusation in a tweet from Omid Habibinia, that Hossein Derakhshan (aka Hoder) has been an agent for the Iranian government, basically ratting out pro-democracy bloggers. The NY Times has now gone meta on the accusation, saying it only reported it because it’s a sign of the discord and distrust, etc., etc. But it’s still a dangerous charge to propagate. Jillian wants to know why we’re blaming the NY Times blogger and not Habibinia.

I’ve got enough blame in my backpack for both. But I do think that since the NY Times trades on its credibility, it has a greater responsibility. When the NY Times reports a rumor, it not only amplifies the rumor, it inevitably adds credibility to it. That’s just the way it is, and, it’s also how the NY Times wants it.

(I wish I could track down the article I read today about the difficult the human brain has in unlearning bad info even after it’s been shown to be bad. The article talked about the increase in the belief that Iraq had WMDs after it was shown that it did not.)

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June 23, 2009

Isenberg on the WSJ on Iran on Nokia

David Isenberg questions the veracity of the Wall Street Journal’s report about Iran using Nokia equipment to do deep packet inspection. Interesting on its own and also as yet another example of smart bloggers raising journalism’s bar.

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June 16, 2009

Google: Make security the default (Now with Iranian tweets)

Chris Soghoian has posted an open letter to Google, asking it to make encryption the default. This is in line with the talk he gave recently at the Berkman Center.

[Update later that day: Two hours after releasing the letter, Google agreed to try setting encryption as the default for a subset of users, as a trial. If it works out, they’ll consider expanding it.]

Also, Jonathan Zittrain has posted about why the Iranians have problems blocking Twitter. [Tags: ]

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May 30, 2009

The YouTube election … in Iran

Hamid Tehrani at GlobalVoices posts about how Iranian candidates for the presidency are using YouTube…including controversies about jokes and ad hoc footage…

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