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Ellen Gray | Events overtake CNN's role-playing exercise on Iran

SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS UNIT. 10 p.m. Saturday, CNN. YOU MIGHT recall a CBS show from a few years back called "Early Edition," in which each day a guy played by Kyle Chandler had the next morning's newspaper delivered by a cat.


YOU MIGHT recall a CBS show from a few years back called "Early Edition," in which each day a guy played by Kyle Chandler had the next morning's newspaper delivered by a cat.

You might have wondered at the time why the Daily News wasn't offering next-day service like this or even why we employ humans in our circulation department rather than outsource to cats in Bangalore.

I can't speak to the personnel issue, other than to point out that the phrase "herding cats" is not generally used to describe things that are running smoothly, but I can explain why you won't be getting Friday's paper today: A lot of stuff that's going to be in it hasn't happened yet.

This is such a given in the news business - that we don't report the news before it happens - that I was surprised recently to learn that CNN had scheduled a two-hour program called "CNN Presents: We Were Warned - Iran Goes Nuclear." Frank Sesno was to host the program, in which former high-ranking officials, including ex-New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who once headed the Environmental Protection Agency, would sit in a CNN-constructed situation room and play out a scenario set a few years in the future in which they responded to news of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.

(Whitman, the only woman in the group, plays the secretary of the Treasury.)

Scheduled to air Dec. 12, this bit of improvisational theater was conceived before this week's U.S. intelligence report that Iran had suspended work on its nuclear weapons program in 2003.


Not to worry - CNN's shelved that program for the moment, and instead Saturday night will present a "Special Investigations" report, "Iran: Truth or Fiction?"

Which wouldn't have been a bad title for the original show.

In the screener sent to critics, which contained about an hour of what was meant to be a two-hour program, Sesno tells viewers that the discussion by the former officials "was unscripted and unrehearsed" and that "the point was to take you inside the debate as it might sound in Washington at the highest levels of power."

As the scenario begins, the U.S. is entering the eighth year of war in Iraq, where it still has a "substantial presence," and Israel and Lebanon "are again at each other's throats," he says.

Against this backdrop, an Iranian nuclear physicist walks in to the U.S. consulate in Dubai and asks for a meeting with the U.S. station chief. His message: Iran is operating a secret uranium-enrichment facility and is perhaps four months away from having a nuclear weapon.

The discussion that follows includes, among others, former acting CIA director John McLaughlin as national security adviser, former White House staffer (and CNN political analyst) David Gergen as the "next president's" chief of staff and former CIA director Jim Woolsey as secretary of defense. Tossing around phrases like "regime change" and "boots on the ground," they speak about as candidly as you'd expect media-savvy people who know the cameras are running to do.

I've never been in the White House situation room, so I can only guess whether CNN's version is more or less accurate than what you'd see on Fox's "24," but I can say - yes, even warn - that it's less entertaining.

The role-playing exercise seemed oddly detached from the rest of the program, which largely consisted of Sesno's reporting about what at the time appeared to be the actual status of Iran's nuclear program, including interviews that seem to back up the U.S. intelligence disclosed this week.

So why engage in futuristic role-playing in the first place? Especially in light of the lessons the news media supposedly learned in the wake of the run-up to the Iraq war?

"This is a standard device that is used in D.C. all the time," argues Mark Nelson, vice president and senior executive producer of CNN Productions, referring to the scenarios played out in think tanks and elsewhere.

When I suggested to Nelson that a show like "We Were Warned," coming at a time when the White House is already talking about Iran's nuclear program as a clear and present danger, might have only fueled the fire, he disagreed.

"I think your picture is skewed," he said. "We weren't fueling the fire."

When news broke of the intelligence report, he said, "we were the first to realize it couldn't go on . . . This was news to everyone."

And don't expect CNN, which previously time-traveled to 2009 in a "We Were Warned" that speculated about a hurricane in Houston and a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia triggering an oil crisis, to get out of the crystal-ball business.

"I absolutely believe that it's a unique way of presenting things as long as the viewer understands it's an exercise," Nelson said.*

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