The New York Times editorial board declared firmly Tuesday that the accusation that the Obama administration paid a ransom to ensure the release of American hostages was “fake,” and the Obama administration’s diplomatic actions deserve to be lavishly praised. We know this, they argue, because the Obama administration says so.
That’s only a barely an exaggeration. The easiest way to describe the editorial, “The Fake $400 Million Iran ‘Ransom’ Story,” is lazy; it literally just takes the administration’s talking points and repeats them verbatim:
The truth is that the administration withheld the payment to ensure Iran didn’t renege on its promise to free three detainees — a Washington Post journalist, a Marine veteran and a Christian pastor. That’s pragmatic diplomacy not capitulation.
What really happened was this: President Obama announced the $400 million payment along with the release of the Americans in January, the day that the nuclear deal was implemented. But the money was part of a separate negotiation over funds the United States has owed Iran since its 1979 Islamic Revolution.
At that time, Washington froze Iranian assets in the United States, including money paid by Tehran for military hardware that the United States never delivered after its ally there, the shah, was overthrown. In 1981, the two countries agreed that a tribunal at The Hague would adjudicate the legal claims.
The United States and Iran have wrestled with this issue for decades, but efforts to reach a settlement intensified once the two sides began work on the nuclear deal. Tribunal decisions are binding, and the administration concluded it would lose at The Hague; in addition to $400 million, Iran was seeking billions of dollars in accumulated interest.
Translation: “what really happened” is exactly what the White House says happened. Move along.
The lack of healthy journalistic skepticism is a bit embarrassing, really. It reminds me uncomfortably of The Times‘ unquestioning acceptance of the Bush administration’s claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a mistake that prompted a rare apology from the editors.
The Times’ regurgitation of course raises all the same questions and objections as when you hear it from the horse’s mouth. Is it really just a massive coincidence that a 40-year-old dispute over $400 million was settled the same day a separate, unrelated hostage negotiation came together? Why does it matter that the two negotiations were carried out by separate teams that didn’t interact, when both teams presumably answered to the Secretary of State? Why did Josh Earnest refuse to say whether the hostages would be released if Iran didn’t get their money? Why did one of the hostages say they weren’t allowed to leave until a mysterious second plane landed, calling into question the official timeline?
It also buys into the pedantry and twisting of words required to take the administrations denial of a “ransom” payment seriously. It wasn’t ransom, we’re told, because Iran was already owed the money, a redefinition that ought to excite loan sharks across the country. It also wasn’t ransom because the Iran turned over the hostages before they got the money, despite the fact that no definition of “ransom,” legal or otherwise, has been incumbent on who pays in what order.
Most importantly, The Times just ignored the elephant in the room: why should we buy into the administration’s story when they’ve already admitted to lying to us once already?
Only once at the end of the editorial does The Times come even close to admitting that perhaps the Obama’s administration has been less than forthcoming throughout this entire controversy. “Where the administration went wrong was in not being more transparent sooner about how the detainees’ release unfolded,” they admit.
Rather euphemistic, that. The Obama administration wasn’t non-transparent about how the exchange went down; they actively misled the American people. Here’s what the State Department said after the initial Wall Street Journal story broke, explicitly denying there was a “quid pro quo” or “linkage” between the payment and the hostage release:
STATE DEPARTMENT DEPUTY SPOKESMAN MARK TONER: But the idea that this was all orchestrated as part of some kind of quid pro quo is just not accurate. And the reason is is that the settlements team, they were toiling in that vineyard separate and apart from the other negotiations that were ongoing for, as I said, years if not decades before on some of these settlement issues. But we were – and we saw an opportunity to close out this settlement case as part of this – as I said, as part of the implementation day agreement, or reaching implementation day, rather.
And at the same time, we were working the release of these detainees. I recognize, I can see, the optics of this and that people would draw assumptions. People do. We can’t keep them from doing so, but it’s just not true that there’s any linkage.
We now know this to not be true. But even after being forced to admit that they would not deliver the money until the hostages were released, the administration bizarrely continues to maintain that there was no quid pro quo and that any link between the two is a mirage. At times, the State Department’s spin has been embarrassing to watch.
QUESTION: Beyond saying there’s no ransom, you’ve said several times – a lot of people from different podiums in this government have said there was no quid pro quo. What you just described is by definition a quid pro quo, is it not?
STATE DEPT SPOKESMAN JOHN KIRBY: No.
QUESTION: How is it not? You said they would not get the money until they were released – quid, quo.
MR KIRBY: Thank you for the Latin expert. The Latin lesson, the Latin lesson.
But despite the administration being caught red-handed bending the truth, we are now told that what they say this time must be true. Presumably, if the New York Times had deigned to weigh in on this story in January or earlier this month, we would have been told that that was the truth, too.
This is not even taking into account the fact that Obama administration officials have openly bragged about lying to the American public and deceiving gullible reporters about the Iran deal. Or how those same officials have spoken candidly about the media “echo chamber” that will dutifully repeat whatever talking points the administration gave them, sometimes word-for-word.
That outlet that first reported on that “echo chamber,” by the way, was The New York Times.
[Image via screengrab]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.