Trump's Tweet About Old Iranian Missile Footage Isn't A Good Sign

The US president does not appear to have consulted intelligence officials before Tweeting about incorrect reports.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

U.S. officials have reportedly told Fox News that the footage Iran showed of its new Khorramshahr ballistic missile was not from a new test, appearing to confirm The War Zone’s own original report. This underscores both a significant misreading of media reports from Iran itself by Western media, as well as the worrying suggestion the U.S. President Donald Trump relies more on those outlets than on information from his own intelligence agencies.

On Sept. 22, 2017, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), Iran’s quasi-state operated media monopoly, released footage of a test of the new Khorramshahr just hours after the country publicly displayed the medium range ballistic missile for the first time as part of Sacred Defense Week. Various western media outlets reported that the video was of a new missile test, mostly citing a separate report from PressTV, one of the IRIB affiliates.

On Sept. 25, 2017, Fox News reported that the release was “fake” and not of a new or successful launch, citing a number of anonymous U.S. government sources. Instead, it showed a test of the missile the Iranians had more than seven months earlier. In January 2017, Iran had reportedly fired another Khorramshahr, but the missile exploded shortly after launch. Whether or not the footage displayed during Sacred Defense Week was of this failed launch or a separate earlier launch remained unclear.

However, a closer reading of the original English-language PressTV report at the time, as well as their post promoting the piece on Twitter, never said that the footage is new, though they did say the launch had been a success. The outlet said the missile itself was new, which it was in a broad sense since Iran had never shown it publicly before, but never offered any details about where or when the test in the video occurred.

“Iran has released footage of the successful test-launch of its new ballistic missile, Khorramshahr, a few hours after it was unveiled during a military parade in the capital city of Tehran,” the lede sentence in PressTV’s Sept. 22, 2017 story said. “Video footage aired by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) on Friday showed the missile launched from an unknown location.”

The associated Tweet uses similar language. “Video: #Iran successfully test-fires new ballistic missile,” it reads without saying that the launch itself was new.

At The War Zone, we debated how to cover this important detail, settling on adding a note at the bottom of our piece and caveats throughout that there was no actual indication from the Iranian news reporting that the footage reflected a recent launch, though it did appear to us to have been successful. It seemed to me at the time that if there had been a new launch that Iran would have touted this achievement as they are inclined to do and would not have used such ambiguous language. It is entirely possible that they wrote it in this unclear way specifically to prompt sensational reporting elsewhere.

The misreporting is one thing, it happens to everyone and appears to have been an easy and honest mistake. But what is significantly more worrisome is that it appears President Trump saw those initial reports, took them at face value, and rushed to make a public statement without first consulting with the U.S. Intelligence Community.

On Sept. 23, 2017, Trump Tweeted out that “Iran just test-fired a ballistic missile capable of reaching Israel,” likely referencing a news report given that the Iranians had aired the footage the day before.  The President also slammed the Iran Deal, which he has criticized on numerous occasions, including at his first speech before the United Nations General Assembly earlier in the week, in the same post.

If Fox News’ newest report is to be believed, and we have no reason to think otherwise given the wording of the original Iranian story, it would mean that neither the U.S. Intelligence Community nor the military could communicate this to Trump at the time or they could not make sure he absorbed this information. Furthermore, it's no secret that both American intelligence agencies and the U.S. Strategic Command keep an eye out for ballistic missile launches, if for no other reason than to protect the United States and its interests abroad, and the U.S. government routinely releases statements after any such tests that it deems to be provocative. 

North Korea and Iran especially are subject to heavy surveillance given the U.S. government's criticisms of the governments in those countries and their policies. It's hard to believe that if the Iranians had launched a missile, that it would have gone unnoticed. Also it seems odd that the President would be comfortable enough with vague reports from the press before opining on those reports instead of getting the best information from national security team. Wouldn't he just ask his aids what's the deal with the launch?

Whether or not Trump himself is to blame for the oversight, his Tweet is concerning in light of previous reports about the difficulty intelligence agencies have in making sure the president digests important updates in a timely manner. Making critical statements without having all the facts only serves to undermine the president's credibility and that of his administration, as well as possibly limiting policy options in the future. 

In addition, given that the Trump Administration is reportedly actively considering either scrapping or attempting to renegotiate the Iran Deal, in no small part over Iran’s continued ballistic missile developments, it would seem especially important for the president to not miss details about the state of its advanced weapons programs. The importance of the topic behooves media outlets to make sure their reporting is as accurate as possible, as well.

Trump has not brought the issue up again since his Tweet, so it is very possible that he has gotten the correct information now. We definitely hope this is the case.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com