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May 25, 2016

A Guide to the Perplexed: Ploughshares and the Iran Deal Echo Chamber

Joe Cirincione, President of Ploughshares, declares victory in a video produced by his organization and posted on Youtube.com in September, 2015.

Last week, the Associated Press reported that Ploughshares has given a total of $700,000 to National Public Radio to support its coverage of Iran and the diplomatic effort to convince the mullahs who lead that country to refrain from building a nuclear bomb.

The story is important because Ben Rhodes, a national security advisor who works at the White House, described Ploughshares — a non-profit that promotes nuclear disarmament — as part of a pro-negotiations “echo chamber” that he helped create and use to manipulate public opinion. He created the echo chamber to promote support for the diplomatic agreement that relaxed sanctions on Iran in exchange for promises that it would dismantle parts of its nuclear program, in hopes of making it less likely that the country would be able to build an atomic bomb and menace its neighbors in the Middle East.

He also stated that his ability to create this echo chamber was a consequence of the youth and ignorance of American journalists. “They literally know nothing,” he told Samuels.

Rhodes said all this in a May 5, 2016 article by David Samuels that appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. The main thrust of the article was that Rhodes had successfully manipulated the press and incorporated it into the NSC echo chamber, a point that the AP article about Ploughshares money going to NPR seemed to confirm.

Prior to the AP article, Samuels’ reporting in The New York Times Sunday Magazine was subjected to tremendous pushback, but The New York Times stood by the article, saying it was extensively fact-checked.

In a subsequent article published on May 13, 2016, Samuels reported that during his interviews with Rhodes, the young speechwriter “readily admitted to me that the work he does is a potentially dangerous distortion of democracy but he also felt it had become a necessary evil caused by the fracturing of 20th century mass audience and the decline of the American press. He expressed a deep personal hopelessness about the possibility of open, rational public debate in a brutally partisan environment.”

It’s an odd argument to make — that American journalists and thought leaders need to be manipulated because media audiences are not as unified as they once were and that journalists are no longer the intellectual giants that walked the earth during the 20th century. Rhodes is stating in effect that American civil society is in decline and as a result, he must behave in a dangerous way that accelerates its decline.

NPR Denies Impact on Coverage

NPR denies that the money it got from Ploughshares had any impact on its coverage of the Iran Deal. This denial is getting some pushback from at least one U.S. Rep. opposed to the Iran Deal who states that he was dropped from a scheduled interview about the deal, a point NPR initially denied, but later confirmed.

It doesn’t help NPR’s reputation that the annual report for Ploughshares lends credence to the notion that its donations did have an impact on NPR’s coverage. The organization’s annual report highlights three NPR stories that apparently advance Ploughshares’ agenda under the headline “Amplifying Our Collective Voice.” In its annual report, Ploughshares seems to be taking credit for the sympathetic coverage that NPR denies giving. Here’s a screenshot of the section in question:

Plougshares amplifying.jpg

Other Organizations Feeding at the Ploughshares Trough

NPR was not the only organization to get money from Ploughshares. J Street, which bills itself as a pro-Israel lobby, but is regarded with deep suspicion by many Jews in America, received $576,000 from Ploughshares to promote the negotiations with Iran.

Ploughshares also gave the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops $50,000 to promote relations between religious leaders in Iran and America, according to the organization’s annual report for 2015.

The fact that the organization representing American Catholic bishops took Ploughshares money to promote better relations between the U.S. and Iran is interesting, because the USCCB took part of a coalition of religious leaders in the U.S. that supported the Iran Deal in letters to Congress.

Other religious organizations that belonged to this coalition included the National Council of Churches, the Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ, the United Church of Christ itself, and the Presbyterian Church USA.

All of these institutions have to varying degrees, condemned antisemitism, and yet here they were promoting the notion of Iran, one of the leading promoters of genocidal antisemitism in the world today, as a trustworthy negotiating partner.

National Iranian American Council

Also associated with this coalition was the National Iranian American Council, an organization that is viewed by some observers as an unofficial lobbying group of the Islamic Republic of Iran, or in other words, the mullahs who control Iran with an iron fist and promote Jew-hatred throughout the world and have bragged of being able to destroy Israel “in minutes.”

As CAMERA analyst Sean Durns revealed in a recent report on NIAC, the organization is regarded with suspicion by Iranian human rights activists and dissidents:

“You cannot find any difference between [NIAC’s] statements and the Iranian regime’s statements. Either official or unofficially they are following the path of the regime,” explained Amir Fakhravar, a once-jailed Iranian dissident who heads the Iranian Freedom Institute from the United States.

Friends Committee on National Legislation

The coalition to which NIAC, the UCC, the NCC, the USCCB and the PCUSA belonged to was created by the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby organization that, predictably enough, received money from Ploughshares to promote negotiations with Iran.

In 2014, Ploughshares gave $100,000 to FCNL and in 2015, it gave $175,000 to the organization.

Kate Gould, lobbyist for FCNL’s Middle East program, says her group was not part of Ben Rhodes’ echo chamber in this CAMERA-authored piece in The Algemeiner about the echo chamber.

Her denial notwithstanding, Gould features prominently in Ploughshares’ 2015 annual report. Here’s a screenshot of a profile of Gould that appeared in the report:

Kate Gould.jpg

Email List

In recent days, The Washington Free Beacon has published another story about the role Ploughshares had in setting the terms of the debate regarding negotiations with Iran. According to journalist Alana Goodman, Ploughshares supported an email forum, known as “Gulf/2000” that “was originally created by Columbia University professor and former Jimmy Carter aide Gary Sick in 1993.” Goodman reports the following:

Gulf/2000 members said the forum posts, which are supposed to focus on Gulf State policy issues, often veer into defenses of the Iranian regime or conspiracy theories about Israel. Another member, speaking on background to the Washington Free Beacon, compared the group to a pro-Iran “info-op”—military jargon for a campaign to influence policy decisions.

“The most significant forum for scholars of Iranian studies to exchange ideas and views was dominated by apologists for the Iranian regime and was dominated by people who would reflexively push back on any argument that the Iranian regime was involved in what we would call ‘malign activities’ or ‘illicit activities,’” said the member, who added that the majority of his colleagues who work on Gulf issues belong to the forum.

This isn’t the first time Gary Sick’s email list has been described as having a potentially negative impact on the debate surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. The Institute on Science and International Security (which goes by the moniker “@ThegoodISIS” on Twitter) raised serious questions about the impact of the Gulf/2000 listserve and its impact on Iran-related analysis.

In a document published in late 2014, institute researchers stated that three organizations, Al Monitor, Arms Control Association (ACA), and the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) mischaracterized how Iran will deal with its stockpile of low enrichment uranium under the deal it signed with Western powers. It was a technically arcane, but important aspect of Iran’s nuclear program. The article continues:

There appears to be groupthink going on among some of these and other groups leading to a willingness to uncritically and unwaveringly support the interim deal and defensively react to any compliance questions. In the past, at least, individuals from these three groups in particular participated in a Ploughshares Fund sponsored Iran listserv that shared and shaped positions on addressing the Iranian nuclear issue in the media and in analysis. Based on ISIS staff’s experience as participants on this listserv a few years ago, this shaping too often devolved into poor analysis. ISIS first attempted to improve and correct analysis, and then ISIS staff decided to remove themselves from the listserv. It is unclear if the groupthink element and one-sided shaping are happening here, or if the listserv still exists, but it is worth asking.

When perusing the above paragraph, readers should remember that it is referring to National Iranian American Council that has been criticized by Iranian human rights activists as a potential shill for the Iranian government.

And they should also know that, another outlet mentioned above, Al Monitor, is a Washington, D.C.-based website whose correspondent in Washington, D.C., Laura Rozen, was described in the David Samuel’s May 5, 2016 article as part of Ben Rhodes’ echo chamber, an implication she denies. (Al Monitor, by the way, is also described by journalist Lee Smith in The Tablet as having published articles by pro-Hezbollah journalists from Lebanon.)

Conclusion

When thinking about the role Ploughshares had on media coverage of the Iran Deal, it is useful to ask some questions. Such questions include:

Would the Iranian government allow an organization like Ploughshares to operate in its country?

Would it allow such an organization to portray the United States (and Israel) as reliable negotiation partners, whose motives can be trusted or would it shut it down and imprison its members, the same way it has imprisoned dissidents, members of the Bahai faith and Christian missionaries?

Would the Iranian government allow an organization analogous to the National Iranian American Council operate in its country?

These questions are not meant to suggest that non-profits like Ploughshares and NIAC should not operate in the United States, which thankfully, is an open and free society.

These questions, however, do help focus attention on a crucial issue that American journalists cannot forget: The manner in which public opinion and discourse can be manipulated — not just by the country’s leaders — but by its totalitarian adversaries.

It’s an age-old issue facing democracies that responsible journalists must consider in times such as these.

Posted by dvz at May 25, 2016 12:54 PM

Comments

Who funds Ploughshares?

Posted by: Matthew Levison at May 26, 2016 05:11 PM

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