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Anatomy of a False Allegation; The Petraeus Controversy


You've heard it from CNN and from the BBC on March 20, 2010 that David Petraeus, "the most influential general of recent times" has warned, "that American lives are being endangered by the widespread bitterness engendered by an unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict."  The original source of General Petraeus's alleged remarks is an obscure blogger writing for an Internet site called Foreign Policy blog on March 13, 2010. CNN and the BBC ran with the story without apparently bothering to confirm its accuracy. Despite repeated public denials by General Petraeus, neither CNN nor the BBC have issued corrections, putting their trust in the blogger's account over the general's own public statements.
 
The blogger who wrote the piece is Mark Perry, one-time advisor to PLO leader Yasir Arafat who advocates for American engagement with Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists. Claiming to have a scoop on a briefing Petraeus and his staff gave to Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Perry alleged Petraeus warned "that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region" and that Israel needs to know that its relationship with America is "not as important as the lives of American servicemen." Perry also reported that Petraeus took the unusual step of sending a direct request to the White House to place Israel, the West Bank and Gaza within his area of responsibility.
 
These allegations fold neatly into the narrative of increased tension between the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In fact, Petraeus's written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee lists the stalled Middle East peace process as one of eleven factors contributing to regional instability. Using Perry's alleged revelations as a backdrop, the BBC, CNN and others have interpreted the inclusion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as proof that Petraeus intended to deliver the message that Israeli policies put American lives at risk in the region.
 
Petraeus bluntly rejected that interpretation of his testimony at a speech in New Hampshire on March 24. On April 13, speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Petraeus again sought to correct the misperception promulgated in the media. While acknowledging that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict complicated his job, Petraeus reiterated that his Senate statement "did not say anything about [Israeli] settlements, didn't say anything about putting our soldiers at risk or something like that."
 
CNN's Role in Lending Credibility to Allegations by Arafat Advisor Mark Perry
 
The Foreign Policy blog story gained exposure when Mark Perry was interviewed by CNN's Rick Sanchez on March 16, 2010. Despite Perry's checkered associations, Sanchez assured his viewers that he was a "solid reporter from everything we have checked on him." Later Sanchez added, "some people would wonder if you're partisan... But what you're saying is not opinion. As I understand it, you're reporting an event that took place between U.S. military officials, and they're concerned that actions of the Netanyahu government with the U.S. government would hurt our guys, hurt our soldiers, right?" Perry responded, "Rick, I don't expect people to take my word for it just because I say it. I'm only reporting it."
 
Sanchez read from Perry's account that "the Mullen briefing and Petraeus' request hit the White House like a bombshell. The Obama administration decided it would redouble its efforts, which may be why the Vice President went to the Middle East." Later in the interview, CNN ran a video clip showing Petraeus denying that he sent a request to the White House. Confronted with Petraeus contradicting his account, Perry dissembled, admitted that he got it wrong, but then claimed "so, with that minor, but I think confirmatory, recommendation of my own piece, yes, he's right."
 
Fortunately for Perry, Sanchez displayed a similarly partisan agenda toward Israel. This became clear when he rhetorically asked: "This relationship between the United States and Israel is... being directed or controlled by the Israelis and not the United States?"
 
Perry responded: "The question is how close an ally of ours are they?... you can't announce 1600 new housing units and expect us to win the war on terror." Perry charged that Israel's failure to modify its behavior despite admonitions led Petraeus to publicly testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee that Israeli behavior was putting the lives of American servicemen at risk.
 
In response to the distorted statements about his Senate testimony, Petraeus went on record at Saint Anselm's College in New Hampshire on March 24, 2010, stating: "There is no mention of lives anywhere in there. I actually reread the statement. It doesn't say that at all." When questioned about Perry's account at Saint Anselm's Petraeus emphatically replied "all three items in it were wrong... just flat wrong".
 
Despite the lack of substantiation of the story when it initially broke, the lobbying group J-Street the left leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz and others took it up. Even after Petraeus's denial on March 24, columnists critical of the Israeli government found it useful to play up the distorted Petraeus account. DeWayne Wickham in USA Today accused Israel of ingratitude towards America, charging: "The investment of treasure [U.S. material support] and as Petraeus hinted, perhaps U.S. blood, on behalf of Israel should evoke deep gratitude."
 
The New York Times on March 17 and again on March 29 also  noted Petraeus's concerns  about the failure to make progress in the Middle East peace process. In fact, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not part of Petraeus's opening statement; it was raised in a question by Senator John McCain. Petraeus first took the opportunity to correct the misperception that he had sent a memo to the White House requesting Israel, the West Bank and Gaza be placed in his area of responsibility. Then responding to Senator McCain, he indicated that it would be important to create
a sense of progress moving forward in the overall peace process, because of the effect that it has on particularly what I think you would term the moderate governments in our area. And that really is about the extent of our involvement in that, Senator.
Petraeus's Submitted Statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee
 
CNN, the Times and others conflated Petraeus's oral testimony on March 16, 2010 with a 56 page document prepared earlier by his staff which was submitted to the Committee bearing his signature. The document titled, Statement of General David H. Petraeus, U.S. Army Commander U.S. Central Command before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Posture of U.S. Central Command lists eleven factors that "can serve as root causes of instability or as obstacles to security." The first factor listed is Middle East peace. It reads as follows:
Insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace. The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas. 
The Petraeus episode has sparked an intense debate among those who favor a close relationship between America and Israel.  Several commentators, including Max Boot in Commentary and Philip Klein in American Spectator , dismissed the whole episode as an attempt by anti-Israel activists to superimpose their own views on a respected, non-political figure in order to drive a wedge between Israel and America. Boot and Klein checked with senior military officials close to Petraeus who confirmed that the allegations are false. 
 
Their perspective is supported by a follow-up piece that appeared in Foreign Policy blog on March 16, 2010 titled  Petraeus's denial . The piece reveals that Perry's description of how a "33-slide, 45-minute PowerPoint briefing stunned Mullen" was  contradicted by Admiral Mullen, himself, in an email he sent to Foreign Policy blog. Mullen wrote that he was not ‘stunned' by the briefing and  "found it somewhat out of date."  
 
Andrew McCarthy in the National Review On-Line on April 8, 2010  takes a different  position than Boot and Klein.  McCarthy questions Petraeus's denials and suspects that Petraeus goes along with the sentiment often voiced  among segments of the American foreign policy establishment and among some in academia that American support for Israel is largely responsible for animosity towards America in the Muslim world. 
 
McCarthy sees Petraeus adroitly manuevering between two political environments by offering a nuanced message to different audiences. To accomplish his military mission, Petraeus must cooperate with the U.S. State Department and regional Arab leaders who, according to McCarthy, are dedicated to the view that "we must be absolute neutrals in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. No material distinction is to be drawn between one side’s construction of housing and the other’s suicide bombings."  At the same time, Petraeus recognizes the need to be sensitive to a domestic American audience that strongly identifies with Israel as an ally of America. Hence his clarification that he did not point a finger at Israel.
 
McCarthy observes that the Petraeus document submitted to the Senate committee seems to accept "the flawed perception that American favoritism towards Israel helps fuel hatred of America."  As far as McCarthy is concerned, this hatred is intrinsic to radical Islamic ideology, regardless of American policy towards Israel. McCarthy further notes that
Nowhere in Petraeus’s 56-page statement did he discuss Islamist ideology. Nowhere did he relate the fact that calls for Israel’s destruction, based on scriptural interpretations by Islam’s most influential authorities, are entirely mainstream in his "area of responsibility." That, somehow, is not a "root cause" of instability.
McCarthy  understands why "reliable Israel basher," Stephen Walt of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, as well as Palestinian academic, Rami Khouri, "could barely contain [their] delight that Petraeus had 'openly criticized Israel.'" He points out that the Senate document's identifying the stalled Middle East peace process as a root cause of regional instability has not been withdrawn despite Petraeus's denials.
 
Petraeus, for his part, acknowledges that the failure to advance the peace process is a problem. The divide between Klein and Boot and McCarthy is over trusting Petraeus's  public clarifications that he was not placing the blame on Israel and was not holding Israel responsible for endangering American lives.
 
The Public Record Versus Unsubstantiated Claims
 
From the perspective of media accountability, the most striking aspect of this episode has been the endorsement by major media outlets like CNN and the BBC of  an unsubstantiated blogger's account to support their selective reading of Senate testimony  against the General's own word. While Petraeus's written testimony to the Senate Armed Service Committee does leave room for interpretation, the claim by CNN, the BBC and others that he holds alleged Israeli intransigence in the peace process responsible for putting American lives at risk is not supported by anything the general has said or written.  This episode provides an example of how some in the media promote controversy and sensationalize a story through selective interpretation of testimony and then attempt to substantiate their story by giving credibility to a dubious source.
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