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Michael Gordon who never met a case for war with Iran, no matter how flimsy which he didn’t fall for, is at it again. Last Tuesday with the crisis over the captured 15 Royal Marines still ongoing and the sudden start of US naval wargames in the Persian Gulf just off Iranian shores, Gordon added his cup of gasoline to the fire. He revisited in the New York Times yet again the topic of EFPs (Explosively formed projectiles), a more lethal form of IED. I am not sure why he is so obsessed about this. Perhaps it is because his and the Times initial articles on the subject were sliced, diced, and given back to them to chew on. Perhaps this is his attempt to answer those charges. Perhaps this is his way of saying both for himself and the Times that it wasn’t really his their fault, that he didn’t make it up, that this was a legitimate concern that the government had had for a VERY LONG TIME. Or maybe he thought to recycle a discredited story ginning up the case for war with Iran, add a few caveats to the same old schlock, sell it for new, and hope nobody noticed. Have you noticed how so many journalists and politicians continue to have this naive belief that no one will remember in the age of the Toobz, the Internets, and the Google?

Gordon is definitely old school. He maintains the fine well established tradition of the Bush years of never naming a source when an unnamed one will do. Tim Russert would be proud of you, Michael, or should I say a reporter at a major American publication? Now to be fair Gordon does occasionally quote someone by name but most of his history of EFPs in Iraq is based on the following:

1. according to American officials familiar with the message.

2. interviews with officials in Washington and Baghdad, critics of the administration and independent experts

3. According to classified data gathered by the American military

4. Some Democrats in Congress . . . say

5. American intelligence analysts say

6. said one senior American official, who like several others would discuss intelligence and administration decision-making only on condition of anonymity.

7. According to one military expert

8. officials say

9. American intelligence officials say

10. Some people who are experts on military matters but who acknowledge they do not have access to the classified intelligence have said

11. But American officials say

12. According to officials involved in the discussion, who asked not [to] be identified

13. Other officials said

It just reeks of credibility, doesn’t it? No possibility of hidden agendas or axes to grind there, no sirree!

The wrinkle in Gordon’s argument this time around is that EFPs in Iraq and by extension the whole charge of Iranian (read Iranian government) involvement in arming Shia militias against us should be believed because it has been around for a while.

More than 20 months ago, the United States secretly sent Iran a diplomatic protest charging that Tehran was supplying lethal roadside explosive devices to Shiite extremists in Iraq, according to American officials familiar with the message.

This idea is repeated shortly later:

A review of the administration’s accusations of an Iranian weapons supply role, including interviews with officials in Washington and Baghdad, critics of the administration and independent experts, shows that intelligence that Iran was providing lethal assistance to Shiite militias has been a major worry for more than two years.

Even if I were willing to accept that this isn’t just another segment in the Great Iranian EFP Scare, Gordon’s assertion still raises some questions. For instance, if our government has known about Iranian EFPs in Iraq for more than two years why didn’t it do something about it back then? And why has it decided to make a big case of it only now.

OK, Gordon doesn’t answer the first question because well, hum, he and his unnamed sources couldn’t think up a good answer for it. But they do address the second question. EFP use intensified in the last quarter of 2006.

According to classified data gathered by the American military, E.F.P. attacks accounted for 18 percent of combat deaths of Americans and allied troops in Iraq in the last quarter of 2006.

Still I have to ask 18% of what? Casualties lists 303 US and allied combat deaths in Iraq during the period. 18% of these would be ~55. This is different from his claim in his original Feb. 10, 2006 article where he wrote “a significant portion of Americans killed and wounded in Iraq, though less than a quarter of the total.” There he was talking only about US casualties and a higher percentage. 25% of 288 is 72. Even in the current article, Gordon tries to massage the numbers noting that if Anbar is left out of the calculations the rate is close to 30%. He might just as well have said that if figures from all other causes are excluded the rate approaches 100%. There was also a third number given in the follow on James Glanz article of Feb. 11, 2006 of 170 American deaths due to EFPs since June 2004.

What do I make of all these numbers? Well, first, they all come from unnamed government sources, and none of them can be verified. In other words, this is more “trust us” from the people who brought you the Iraq war. Second, they keep changing. Sometimes it’s Americans, sometimes it’s US and allied forces. It’s 18% or less than a quarter or about 30%. Third, Gordon leaves out an alternate explanation for the alleged increase in deaths due to EFPs at the end of 2006, one that was mentioned in passing in his original article by Lt. Col. James Danna:

“To me it is a political weapon. There are not a lot of them out there, but every time we crack down on the Shia militias that weapon comes out.

So if American casualties increased at the end of 2006 due to EFPs, it may well have been because we were moving at the time more aggressively against Shia militias. Indeed Gordon reports casualty figures from EFPS decreased in the first months of 2007, quite likely because a political decision was made by Shia militias to go easy on the Americans while they were beating up on the Sunnis under the current security plan.

When I first saw Gordon’s 18%, I couldn’t help but think of a percentage that I had previously used and which itself formed part of my critique of this whole issue. If you take the highest number cited, Glanz’s number of 170, it represents 8% of US deaths over the period. While this is a significant number and, accepting for a moment that it isn’t manufactured, I am still left wondering why it isn’t more important to protect our forces from what’s killing the other 92%.

The Glanz number also makes a telling point about Gordon’s attempt to give a fuller and more complete history of EFPs in Iraq. You see Glanz’s count of US casualties begins in June 2004, almost a year before Gordon says the US started getting worried about EFPs. Do you see the problem? The Bush Administration knew about EFPS for a year before they got really worried about them, and then it was nearly two more years before they got really, really worried about them. This is a story that a parent wouldn’t buy from a 6 year old, but Michael Gordon apparently swallows it whole, and invites us to do the same.

The case for Iranian government involvement in arms trafficking in Iraq remains circumstantial and elusive, even after 3 years. In many ways, it is a red herring. First, it isn’t a major cause of US casualties. Second, it deflects attention away from allies like Saudi Arabia and its involvement on the Sunni side, where the vast majority of our casualties occur. Third, it misses in a big way the importance of the Iran-Iraq connection. They are both Shia states and share a common border. Iran is the largest country in the area and has historically been the regional hegemon in the Persian Gulf. In the current chaos in Iraq and our weakened position there, and in the region, it would be silly and unrealistic to think that we could keep Iranian influence out of Iraq. And that’s the rub. The current Republican, Bush, Cheney, Lieberman, McCain, Fallon, Petraeus strategy is predicated, not on a military victory, but a political solution. Such a solution is extremely unlikely but is virtually impossible if we exclude the Iranians from it. And that has absolutely nothing to do with EFPs.