The U.S. establishment is not happy. They are not content with largely dominating media narratives on Syria and other critical foreign policy issues; they want total dominance.
Thus we now have the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act signed into law on December 24 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017. The bill will mandate the U.S. Secretary of State to collaborate with the Secretary of Defense, Director of National Intelligence and other federal agencies to “create a Global Engagement Center to fight against propaganda from foreign governments”.
The bill directs the future Center to be formed in 180 days and to share expertise among agencies and to “coordinate with allied nations”.
This bill was initiated in March 2016, before widespread allegations of “Russian hacking” began. Hillary Clinton voiced strong support for the bill: “It’s imperative that leaders in both the private sector and the public sector step up to protect our democracy, and innocent lives.”
Irony: USA is the Major Purveyor of Propaganda
This bill is remarkable because the US government and agencies appear to be major purveyors not victims of propaganda and disinformation. A good recent example is the accusations of Russian hacking at the Democratic National Committee and Clinton private email servers to “influence’ the U.S. election. Despite the widespread accusations, here is little or no no public evidence in support of this and much to contradict the claims. An analysis by veteran intelligence professionals leads to the conclusion this was a leak, NOT a “hack”, and allegations of hacking the election are “baseless”. On top of that, there is now a credible source, a former UK Ambassador, who says he received the Clinton email data from a disgruntled DNC staffer and delivered the data to WikiLeaks. The accusation that the US election was influenced by Russian hacking appears to be an example of what they claim to oppose: fake news and disinformation for political purposes.
There is a long history of U.S. disinformation and propaganda. Former CIA agents Philip Agee and John Stockwell documented how it was done decades ago. For the past ten years there has been increasing emphasis on using supplied, trained and paid “activists” and “independent journalists” along with social media to spread false stories and news and to undermine or discredit journalists who challenge the orthodoxy. Disinformation, fake news and propaganda are no longer the province of the CIA; it’s managed by the State Department using staff and contractors. The new bill to “counter foreign propaganda” will provide tax payer money and escalate this aspect of the information war.
Propaganda and Disinformation on Syria
Syria is a good case study in the modern application of information warfare. In her book “Hard Choices”, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote that the U.S. provided “support for (Syrian) civilian opposition groups, including satellite -linked computers, telephones, cameras, and training for more than a thousand activists, students and independent journalists.”
A huge amount of money has gone to “activists” and “civil society” groups in Syria as well as in the USA and west. These groups have shaped and manipulated public opinion. The fact they are recipients or contractors of one or more governments directly involved in trying to overthrow the Syrian government has generally been ignored or hidden.
In North America, representatives from the Syrian Local Coordination Committees (LCC) were frequent guests on popular media programs such as Democracy Now. The message was clear: there is a “revolution” in Syria against a “brutal regime” personified in Bashar al Assad. It was not mentioned that the “Local Coordination Committees” have been primarily funded by the West, specifically the Office for Syrian Opposition Support which was founded by the United States Department of State and UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
More recently, news and analysis about Syria has been conveyed through the filter of the White Helmets, also known as Syrian Civil Defense. The White Helmets were stated to be neutral, non-partisan, civilian volunteers courageously carrying out rescue work in the war zone. In fact, the group is none of the above. It was initiated by the US and UK using a British military contractor and Brooklyn based marketing company. While they may have performed some genuine rescue operations, the White Helmets is primarily a media organization with a political goal: to promote NATO intervention in Syria. The manipulation of public opinion using the White Helmets and promoted by the NY Times and Avaaz petition for a No Fly Zone in Syria is documented here. The White Helmets hoax continues to be widely believed and receive uncritical promotion but is increasingly being exposed as the creation of a “shady PR firm”. White Helmet individuals have been used as the source for important news stories despite a track record of deception.
Recent Propaganda: Blatant Lies?
As the armed groups in east Aleppo recently lost ground and then collapsed, western governments and allied media went into a frenzy of accusations based on reports from sources connected with the armed opposition. CNN host Wolf Blitzer described Aleppo as “falling” in a “slaughter of these women and children” while CNN host Jake Tapper referred to “genocide by another name”. The Daily Beast published the claims of the Aleppo Siege Media Center. They titled it “Doomsday is held in Aleppo” and claimed the Syrian army was executing civilians, burning them alive and “20 women committed suicide in order not to be raped.” These sensational claims were widely broadcast without verification.
In fact, the news and reports on CNN and throughout western media were coming from highly biased sources and many of the claims can be accurately described as propaganda and disinformation. As one indication, the Aleppo Media Center was created by the Syrian Expatriates Organization (SEO) based on K Street in Washington DC, the base of operations for Public Relations and Marketing firms.
In sharp contrast to the wailing and dubious reports of CNN and most western media, RT and other media outlets have broadcast videos and interviews showing popular celebrations at the “liberation of Aleppo”. Jan Oberg of Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research has published a powerful photo essay describing his eye witness observations in Aleppo including the happiness of civilians from east Aleppo reaching the government controlled areas of west Aleppo. Dr. Nabil Antaki, a medical doctor from Aleppo, describes the liberation of Aleppo in an interview titled “Aleppo is Celebrating, Free from Terrorists, the Western Media Misinformed.” The first Christmas celebrations in Aleppo in four years are shown here, replete with marching band members in Santa Claus outfits. Journalist Vanessa Beeley has published testimonies of civilians from East Aleppo. The happiness of civilians at their liberation is clear.
Contrary to the mythology of rebel “liberated zones” , there is persuasive evidence the armed groups were never popular in Aleppo. American journalist James Foley described the situation in 2012 like this:
Aleppo, a city of about 3 million people, was once the financial heart of Syria. As it continues to deteriorate, many civilians here are losing patience with the increasingly violent and unrecognizable opposition — one that is hampered by infighting and a lack of structure, and deeply infiltrated by both foreign fighters and terrorist groups.
The rebels in Aleppo are predominantly from the countryside, further alienating them from the urban crowd that once lived here peacefully, in relative economic comfort and with little interference from the authoritarian government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The Overall Narrative on Syria
Analysis of the Syrian conflict boils down to two competing narratives. One narrative, pervasive in the West, is that the conflict is a fight for freedom and democracy against a brutal regime. This description has been promoted in the West and Gulf, in those countries which have been fueling the conflict from the start. This narrative is also put forward by some self-styled “anti-imperialists” who seek a “Syrian revolution”.
The other narrative is that the conflict is essentially a war of aggression against a sovereign state. The aggressors include western NATO countries plus Gulf monarchies, Israel and Jordan.
Censorship and domination of western media is so thorough that one rarely hears the second narrative. This is true of much of the liberal and progressive media as well as mainstream. For example, listeners and viewers of the generally progressive TV and radio program Democracy Now have rarely if ever heard the second narrative described in any detail. Democracy Now news has frequently broadcast the explanations of Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power and others associated with the US position. They have rarely if ever broadcast the explanation and viewpoint of the Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, the Syrian Foreign Minister or countless analysts inside Syria and around the world who have written about and follow events there closely.
Democracy Now has done repeated interviews with proponents of the “Syrian revolution” and never with analysts who say this is a war of aggression. This, despite the fact that many prominent international figures see it as such. For example, the former Foreign Minister of Nicaragua and former President of the UN General Assembly, Father Miguel D’Escoto, has said, “What the U.S. government is doing in Syria is tantamount to a war of aggression, which, according to the Nuremberg Tribunal, is the worst possible crime a State can commit against another State.”
In many areas of politics, the public affairs program Democracy Now is excellent and challenges corporate media. However in this area, coverage of the Syrian conflict, their broadcast is biased, one-sided and echoes the news and analysis of mainstream western corporate media. This shows the extent of domination of foreign policy news that already exists.
Suppressing and Censoring Challenges
One of the primary purposes of the new Global Engagement Center will be to “counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation.” This is another remarkable development because there is already widespread censorship and “countering” of alternative analyses of critical international issues. In an article titled “Controlling the Narrative on Syria,” Louis Allday describes the criticisms and attacks on journalists Rania Khalek and Max Blumenthal for straying from the “approved” western narrative on Syria. Some of the bullying and abuse has come from precisely those people, such as Robin Yassin-Kassab, who have been frequent guests in liberal western media.
Recently Canadian journalist Eva Bartlett returned to North America after being in Syria and Aleppo. She conveyed a very different image and criticized biased media coverage of the Syrian conflict. She pointed to western media broadcasting claims without credible sources or evidence. Bartlett appeared at a United Nations press conference and then did numerous interviews across the country during a speaking tour. During the course of her talks and presentation, Bartlett criticized the White Helmets and questioned whether it was true that Al Quds Hospital in opposition held East Aleppo was attacked and destroyed as claimed.
Snopes is a useful website which has exposed many urban legends and false rumors. Unfortunately they have many internal challenges and have become inconsistent in their investigations. In an examination titled “White Helmet Hearsay” Snopes writer Bethania Palmer says claims the White Helmets are “linked to terrorists” is “unproven”. She overlooks numerous videos, photos, and other reports showing White Helmet members celebrating Nusra/Al Qaeda battle victory, picking up the bodies of civilians executed by Nusra executioner, and alternatively being rebel/terrorist fighter with weapon but later wearing a White Helmet uniform. The “fact check” barely scrapes the surface of public evidence.
The same writer did another shallow “investigation” titled “victim blaming” regarding Bartlett’s critique of White Helmet videos and what happened at the Al Quds Hospital in Aleppo. Bartlett suggests that some White Helmet videos may be fabricated and include the same child at different times. Photographs appear to show the same girl being rescued by White Helmet workers at different places and times. While the similarity in appearance is clear, it is uncertain whether or not this is the same girl.
The Snopes writer goes on to criticize Bartlett for her comments about the reported bombing of the Al Quds Hospital in East Aleppo in April 2016. A statement at the website of Doctors Without Borders says the building was “destroyed and reduced to rubble”. This is clearly false since photos show the building with unclear damage. Five months later, the September 2016 report by Doctors Without Borders says the top two floors of the building were destroyed and the ground floor Emergency Room damaged yet they re-opened in two weeks. The many inconsistencies and contradictions in the statements of Doctors Without Borders resulted in an open letter to them. In their last report Doctors Without Borders (MSF) acknowledges that “MSF staff did not directly witness the attack and has not visited Al Quds Hospital since 2014”.
Bartlett referenced satellite images taken before and after the reported attack on the hospital. These images do not show severe damage and it is unclear whether or not there is any damage to the roof. This was the basis for Bartlett’s statement. In the past week, independent journalists have visited the scene of Al Quds Hospital and report that that the top floors of the building are still there and damage is unclear. The Snopes investigation about Bartlett’s statement is superficial and ignores much larger issues of accuracy and integrity. Instead it appears to be an effort to undermine the overall eye-witness observations and analysis provided by a journalist who is challenging the mainstream narrative.
The Coming New McCarthyism?
U.S. propaganda and disinformation on Syria has been overall effective in misleading much of the population. Most Americans are unaware how many billions of tax payer dollars have been spent on yet another “regime change” attempt. Many liberal and progressive news outlets have failed to challenge the propaganda and disinformation on Syria. It has been left to RT and a host of smaller media outlets to challenge the government and mainstream media.
The passage of HR5181 “Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation”, suggests that the ruling powers seek to escalate suppression of news and analysis which runs counter to their narrative. Despite their current dominance in the media and information arena, that is not enough. They seek to further squelch opposing voices. The bill calls for “countering” and “refuting” what they deem to be propaganda and disinformation. A slush fund of $20M is provided to hire or reward “civil society groups, NGOs, journalists and private companies “ who participate in the campaign.
Progressives need to prepare for the escalation of the information war.
Rick Sterling is an investigative journalist and member of Syria Solidarity Movement. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fair-and-balanced Fox News reported on Wednesday that “Cuban military operatives reportedly have been spotted in Syria, where sources believe they are advising President Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers and may be preparing to man Russian-made tanks to aid Damascus in fighting rebel forces backed by the U.S.” Fox’s claim of an imaginary enemy alliance relies on two sources: the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies and an anonymous U.S. official.
The source at the Miami Institute indicated that “An Arab military officer at the Damascus airport reportedly witnessed two Russian planes arrive there with Cuban military personnel on board. When the officer questioned the Cubans, they told him they were there to assist Assad because they are experts at operating Russian tanks.”
It is unclear what nationality the “Arab” officer was. Perhaps, said Arab determined the people aboard the Russian plane were Cubans because he saw them smoking cigars and drinking mojitos. The Cuban soldiers then volunteered – supposedly – they were “there to assist Assad” because of their expertise manning Russian tanks. However improbable this may seem to an unbiased observer, the source from the Miami Institute said that “it doesn’t surprise me.”
The supposed U.S. official – who Fox grants anonymity to without giving a reason why – related “evidence” from “intelligence reports” that Cuban troops “may” have trained in Russia and “may have” come to Syria in Russian planes. Sounds legit.
Despite the thinness of the report’s sourcing and the improbability of its content, other news organizations were quick to parrot its claims. Spanish newspaper ABC noted the next day that media from Germany to Argentina to the Middle East had echoed the Fox News report, while ABC did the same themselves.
By Friday, the story had gained enough traction that it was raised at a White House briefing. In a response that should have been enough to put the story to rest, the White House Press Secretary said “we’ve seen no evidence to indicate that those reports are true.”
But a few hours later, the Daily Beast had definitively declared in a headline that: “Cuba Is Intervening in Syria to Help Russia. It’s Not the First Time Havana’s Assisted Moscow.”
Progressive concern troll James Bloodworth turned Fox’s rumors into fact and wrote that “Not for the first time Cuban forces are doing Russia’s dirty work, this time in Syria… Obama has been holding his hand out in a gesture of goodwill to America’s adversaries only for them to blow him a raspberry back in his face – while standing atop a pile of Syrian corpses.”
In reality, Obama’s “gesture of goodwill” is little more than behaving less overtly hostile after decades of American aggression against Cuba and Iran. If you are choking someone unprovoked and you loosen your grip, it is far from a gesture of goodwill.
Bloodworth also tries to make an historical argument that Cuba’s (imaginary) military actions in Syria are consistent with their “bloody” interventions elsewhere. He decries “Cuban terror in Ethiopia” that resulted in hundreds of thousands of people being killed. “The tragedy was largely a consequence of the policies pursued by the Communist dictatorship that ruled Ethiopia at the time – a regime propped up by Cuba and the Soviet Union.”
In 1977, Somalia had invaded Ethiopia in an attack that “had been encouraged by ambivalent signals from Washington,” according to historian Piero Gleijeses in his book Visions of Freedom.  Initially reluctant to become involved, Fidel Castro finally agreed to Ethiopian requests to send troops to repel the Somali invasion.
Gleijeses found in his extensive review of formerly classified military documents that Cuba’s motives in aiding Ethiopia were sincere:
With hindsight, we know that Mengistu’s policies resulted in disaster, but this was not clear in 1977: though the process was undeniably bloody, the Ethiopian junta had decreed a radical agrarian reform and taken unprecedented steps to foster the cultural rights of the non-Amhara population… The evidence indicates that the Cubans intervened because they believed, as Cuban intelligence stated in March 1977, that ‘the social and economic measures adopted by Ethiopia’s leadership are the most progressive we have seen in any underdeveloped country since the triumph of the Cuban revolution.’  In addition to correcting the record on Ethiopia, Gleijeses’ study also serves to set the record straight on Cuba’s historical modus operandi in its military interventions abroad. Cuba did maintain a large military presence in Angola for nearly 15 years, starting in 1975.
Castro first sent troops in November 1975 after Angolan President Agostinho Neto warned of a South African invasion of the country already underway which would inevitably topple the nascent government without outside support. Cuba agreed to send soldiers to Angola right away. Several months later, they would repel the apartheid army back to Pretoria. They remained in Angola at Neto’s bequest to prevent further incursions from the racist South African army into the country’s sovereign territory.
At the same time, there was an ongoing civil war between Neto’s MPLA, the largest and most popular of the guerilla groups, and the South African and American-backed UNITA guerillas led by former Portuguese collaborator Jonas Savimbi.
Castro was adamant that Cuban troops would be responsible for preventing a South African invasion, while Angolan troops should deal with their own internal conflict. In meetings with Neto, Castro “kept hammering away on the need to fight the bandits … He explained to us that the fight against the bandits was necessarily and without question the responsibility of the Angolans, that we could not wage this war, that it was their war.” 
Cuba’s position during the Angolan conflict is consistent with the diplomatic approach they have repeatedly espoused in Syria, that the Syrian conflict is a domestic problem for the Syrian people and government to resolve themselves, while the international community works to achieve a peaceful solution.
“Cuba reiterates that international cooperation, based on the principles of objectivity, impartiality and non-selectivity, is the only way to effectively promote and protect all human rights,” Cuban representative to the UN Human Rights Council Rodolfo Reyes said at a meeting in Switzerland. He added that “Cuba is confident of the capacity of the Syrian people and government to solve their domestic problems without foreign interference.”
That the Fox News could cause such a stir is a testament to the refusal of mainstream news organizations to verify sources. In all of the iterations of the “Cuban troops in Syria” fantasy, there are no new sources cited. The original Fox News report cites one anonymous U.S. official who may, or may not, even exist. The only source on record with their incredulous claims is someone from the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS) at the University of Miami.
ICCAS is notorious for its reactionary, anti-Communist politics revered among the fanatically right-wing Cuban and Cuban-American population in Miami. Their academic research includes a conspiracy theory that appears to implicate Fidel Castro in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Another ICCAS report claims “the often-repeated view in many countries that the United States is an evil power, guilty for much of the problems and sufferings of the developing world, is owed in great part to the propaganda efforts of Fidel Castro” – not, rather, to decades of direct U.S. military intervention; profligate support to fascist military dictatorships; and predatory, neo-colonial lending policies that demand neoliberal structural adjustment programs which funnel public assets and resources to creditor interests, at the expense of the employment, health and well-being of the vast majority of local populations.
ICCAS is also home to the Cuba Transition Project whose mission is “to study and make recommendations for the reconstruction of Cuba once the post-Castro transition begins in earnest.” CTP acknowledges on its Web site that “the project was established in 2002 and supported by grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) until 2010.” It’s funding indicates it is at least indirectly an arm of the U.S. government’s destabilization and subversion efforts dedicated to regime change of the politically and economically independent Cuban government.
Cuban Prensa Latina reporter in Syria Miguel Fernández noted that ICCAS has reported six or seven times since 2006 that Fidel Castro has died. He suggested reports such as those originating with ICCAS about Cuban troops in Syria were part of the campaigns of reactionary groups opposed to normalization to tarnish the new relations between Cuba and the United States.
The Cuban Embassy in Damascus reportedly “laughed” at the report of Cuban troops in Syria, and told Sputnik News : “It’s pure lunacy. It is as if they were claiming that Russia had sent its troops to Madagascar to protect lemurs.”
Despite claims of Cuban troops in Syria contradicting Cuba’s stated policy and historical modus operandi, and the fact that now four days have passed without a single piece of corroborating evidence to the laughable Fox News report, the imaginary Cuban troops in Syria are likely to morph into more outrageous fantasies of media who have shown themselves primarily interested in fabricating tales of intrigue about America’s evil enemies rather than reporting actual verifiable facts.
 Gleijeses, Piero. Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991. The University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Kindle edition.
 as quoted in Gleijeses, 2013
The neoconservatives are going to extraordinary lengths to try and convince the world (and probably themselves) that ‘al Qaeda’ is a huge complex homogeneous business organisation that deals in ‘terrorism’ through various franchise organisations scattered throughout the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.
In a recent article by neocon writers Josh Rogin and Eli Lake in The Daily Beast it was actually claimed that the leaders of the various ‘franchises’ around the world held a conference call to plan acts of terrorism. According to the report from Rogin and Lake we are supposed to believe that up to 20 ‘al Qaeda’ franchise managers were in on the conference call – a call which ultimately led to the US and some of their allies shutting down embassies in the Middle East and elsewhere. What led the participants of the conference to believe that their calls were not being monitored remains unexplained by the writers and their sources.
According to Rogin and Lake, participants included:
…representatives or leaders from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and more obscure al Qaeda affiliates such as the Uzbekistan branch. Also on the call were representatives of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates such as al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula… The presence of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates operating in the Sinai was one reason the State Department closed the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, according to one U.S. intelligence official. “These guys already proved they could hit Eilat. It’s not out of the range of possibilities that they could hit us in Tel Aviv,” the official said.
US intelligence official? ‘… hit us in Tel Aviv’? Surely a slip of the tongue; tell me he meant Washington.
Just to reinforce the delusion, Abe Greenwald, a neoconservative propagandist writing in Commentary attempts to paint a picture of ‘al Qaeda in the Sinai’ that’s not so much bigger than life but more from a vivid imagination.
Do these neocons honestly think that any real such organisations would be dumb enough to have such a link-up conference?
Clearly they do because they also think that ordinary folk around the planet are dumb enough to believe their delusional nonsense.
All we have here are neocons perpetuating the myth of a larger than life ‘al-Qaeda’.
(For those interested, there is apparently an ‘al Qaeda’ franchise currently available in the Gaza Strip due to the Israelis defaulting on the franchise fee for one they attempted to start back in 2002.)
In an attempt to dispel embarrassing reports that Senator John McCain’s “surprise” trip to Syria featured a meeting with kidnappers — including Mohammad Nour of the Northern Storm rebel group — behind the 2012 abduction of 11 Lebanese religious pilgrims, The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin cited Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of a little-known organization called The Syrian Emergency Task Force:
“Nobody self-identified as Nour, and none of the guys who were standing outside were in the meeting with McCain,” said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an American nonprofit that helped organize the McCain trip. Moustafa is in the picture and was also inside McCain’s meeting with the rebel commanders, along with Task Force political director Elizabeth O’Bagy.
Rogin’s defense of McCain, of course, rests on the perceived independence of Moustafa’s “NGO.” The Syrian Emergency Task Force, however, appears to have close ties to one foreign government and its powerful American lobby. Not only is Mouaz Moustafa listed as one of the Washington Institute’s “experts,” he recently addressed the AIPAC-created think tank’s annual Soref symposium on the theme of “Inside Syria: The Battle Against Assad’s Regime.”
Even more intriguingly, one of the web addresses for his nonprofit is “syriantaskforce.torahacademybr.org.” The “torahacademybr.org” URL belongs to the Torah Academy of Boca Raton, Florida whose academic goals notably include “inspiring a love and commitment to Eretz Yisroel.”
Of course, none of this will come as any surprise to those who familiar with John McCain’s lifelong service to the Land of Israel, a commitment that has invariably been at the expense of U.S. interests.
Maidhc Ó Cathail is an investigative journalist and Middle East analyst. He is also the creator and editor of The Passionate Attachment blog, which focuses primarily on the U.S.-Israeli relationship. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter @O_Cathail.
- John McCain and the Desperate Flailing of Syrian Oppositionists’ External Supporters (alethonews.wordpress.com)
For nearly a quarter century, Howard Kurtz has served as hall monitor for Washington’s conventional wisdom, handing out demerits to independent-minded journalists who don’t abide by the mainstream rules. So, there is some understandable pleasure seeing Kurtz face some accountability in his ouster as bureau chief for Newsweek and The Daily Beast.
However, the more salient point is that Kurtz, who continues to host CNN’s “Reliable Sources” show, should never have achieved the level of influence in journalism that he did. Throughout his career, he has consistently – and unfairly – punished journalists who had the courage to ask tough questions and pursue truly important stories.
When one looks at the mess that is modern journalism in the United States, a chief culprit has been Howard Kurtz. Yet, his downfall did not come because of his smearing of fellow journalists – like Gary Webb and Helen Thomas – but rather from a blog post that unfairly criticized basketball player Jason Collins after he revealed that he was gay.
Kurtz faulted Collins for supposedly not revealing that he had once been engaged to a woman, but Collins had mentioned those marriage plans. Twitter exploded with comments about Kurtz’s sloppy error. On Thursday, The Daily Beast retracted the post, and the Web site’s editor-in-chief Tina Brown announced that Kurtz would be departing.
However, Kurtz has committed far more serious offenses during his years destroying the careers of journalists who dared make life a bit uncomfortable for Official Washington’s powerful elites. For instance, Kurtz played a key role in the destruction of investigative reporter Gary Webb, who had the courage to revive the long-suppressed Contra-cocaine story in the mid-1990s.
Working at the San Jose Mercury-News, Webb produced a multi-part series in 1996 revealing how cocaine that was smuggled into the United States by operatives connected to the Nicaraguan Contra war of the 1980s had contributed to the “crack cocaine” epidemic that ravaged U.S. cities. Webb’s articles put the major U.S. news media on the spot because most mainstream outlets had dismissed the Contra-cocaine allegations when they first surfaced in the mid-1980s.
My Associated Press colleague Brian Barger and I wrote the first story about the Contra-cocaine scandal in 1985 and our work was met with a mix of condescension and contempt from the New York Times and the Washington Post, where Kurtz worked for many years. Even after an investigation by Sen. John Kerry confirmed – and expanded upon – our work, the big newspapers continued to dismiss and downplay the stories.
It didn’t matter how much evidence was developed on the Contra-cocaine smuggling or on the Reagan administration’s role covering up the crimes; the conventional wisdom was that the scandal must be a “conspiracy theory.” Journalists or government investigators who did their job, looking at the problem objectively, risked losing their job.
Journalistic up-and-comers, such as Michael Isikoff (then at the Washington Post), advanced their careers by focusing on minor flaws in Kerry’s investigation rather than on major disclosures of high-level government complicity with drug trafficking. Newsweek’s “conventional wisdom watch” mocked Kerry as “a randy conspiracy buff.”
So, when Gary Webb revived the Contra-cocaine scandal in 1996 by pointing out its real-world impact on the emergence of crack cocaine that ravaged inner cities across the United States in the 1980s, his stories were most unwelcome.
At first, the mainstream news media tried to ignore Webb’s work, but African-American lawmakers demanded investigations into the scandal. That prompted a backlash from the major news organizations. Webb’s articles were dissected looking for tiny flaws that could be exploited to again discredit the whole issue.
On Oct. 4, 1996, the Washington Post published a front-page article knocking down Webb’s series, although acknowledging that some Contra operatives indeed did help the cocaine cartels.
The Post’s approach was twofold: first, the Post presented the Contra-cocaine allegations as old news — “even CIA personnel testified to Congress they knew that those covert operations involved drug traffickers,” the Post sniffed — and second, the Post minimized the importance of the one Contra smuggling channel that Webb had highlighted in his series, saying that it had not “played a major role in the emergence of crack.” A Post sidebar dismissed African-Americans as prone to “conspiracy fears.”
Next, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times weighed in with lengthy articles castigating Webb and his “Dark Alliance” series. The big newspapers made much of the CIA’s internal reviews in 1987 and 1988 — almost a decade earlier — that supposedly had cleared the spy agency of any role in Contra-cocaine smuggling.
But the CIA’s cover-up began to unravel on Oct. 24, 1996, when CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz conceded before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the first CIA probe had lasted only 12 days, and the second only three days. He promised a more thorough review.
Sealing Webb’s Fate
By then, however, Webb had already crossed over from being a serious journalist to an object of ridicule. Washington Post media critic Kurtz effectively sealed Webb’s fate with a series of articles confirming Webb’s new status as a laughable pariah.
For instance, Kurtz mocked Webb for saying in a book proposal that he would explore the possibility that the Contra war was primarily a business to its participants. “Oliver Stone, check your voice mail,” Kurtz chortled.
However, Webb’s suspicion was no conspiracy theory. Indeed, White House aide Oliver North’s chief Contra emissary, Robert Owen, had made the same point in a March 17, 1986, message about the Contras leadership. “Few of the so-called leaders of the movement . . . really care about the boys in the field,” Owen wrote. “THIS WAR HAS BECOME A BUSINESS TO MANY OF THEM.” [Emphasis in original.]
In other words, Webb was right and Kurtz was wrong. Even Oliver North’s emissary had reported that many Contra leaders treated the conflict as “a business.” But accuracy had ceased to be relevant in the media’s bashing of Gary Webb.
While Webb was held to the strictest standards of journalism, it was entirely all right for Kurtz — the supposed arbiter of journalistic standards — to make judgments based on ignorance. Kurtz faced no repercussions for disparaging an embattled journalist who was factually correct. (Kurtz’s sloppiness regarding Webb was similar to Kurtz’s cavalier approach to Collins’s brave announcement as the first player in a major U.S. team sport to declare that he is gay.)
Yet, with Kurtz’s imprimatur, the Big Three’s assault on Webb — combined with their derogatory tone — had a predictable effect on the executives of the Mercury-News. By early 1997, executive editor Jerry Ceppos, who had his own corporate career to worry about, was in retreat.
Webb was forced out of his job to the satisfaction of Kurtz and many in the mainstream media. Webb’s humiliation served as a vindication to their longstanding dismissive treatment of the Contra-cocaine story.
Even when CIA Inspector General Hitz determined that, indeed, the Contra movement had been permeated with cocaine traffickers and that the CIA had shielded them from law enforcement, the mainstream media’s focus remained the alleged shortcomings in Webb’s journalism. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
So, while Kurtz and other Contra-cocaine “debunkers” saw their careers soar, Webb couldn’t find decent-paying work in his profession. Finally, in December 2004, despondent and in debt, Webb took his own life. Even after his death, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and other major news outlets continued disparaging him. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Warning in Gary Webb’s Death.”]
Hooting at Democracy
As the 1990s ground to a close with the Washington news media obsessing over “important” issues like President Bill Clinton’s failed Whitewater real-estate deal and his sex life, Kurtz and his fellow-travelers were setting the sorry standards for modern U.S. journalism. Many were swooning over the manly man George W. Bush and happily hazing the wonky Al Gore.
Though Gore won the national popular vote in Election 2000 and would have prevailed in the swing state of Florida if all the legal ballots had been counted, five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court stopped that counting and installed George W. Bush in the White House – with little protest from the national news media.
That pro-Bush/anti-Gore attitude grew stronger after the 9/11 attacks when a group of news organizations completed an unofficial tally of the ignored Florida ballots, which showed that Gore would have carried that key state. Yet, instead of simply telling the American people that the wrong guy was in the White House, the major U.S. news outlets twisted their own findings to protect Bush’s fragile “legitimacy.”
Out front defending that journalistic malfeasance was Howard Kurtz. He rallied behind the decision of the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN and other heavy-hitters to focus on hypothetical partial recounts rather than what the Florida voters actually voted for, i.e., a Gore victory.
On Nov. 12, 2001, the Post’s headline was “Florida Recounts Would Have Favored Bush” and Kurtz backed that judgment up by dismissing anyone who actually looked at the statistical findings of the recount as a kook. Kurtz’s sidebar – headlined, “George W. Bush, Now More Than Ever” – ridiculed as “conspiracy theorists” those who thought Gore had won.
“The conspiracy theorists have been out in force, convinced that the media were covering up the Florida election results to protect President Bush,” Kurtz wrote. “That gets put to rest today, with the finding by eight news organizations that Bush would have beaten Gore under both of the recount plans being considered at the time.”
Kurtz also mocked those who believed that winning an election fairly, based on the will of the voters, was important in a democracy. “Now the question is: How many people still care about the election deadlock that last fall felt like the story of the century – and now faintly echoes like some distant Civil War battle?” he wrote.
After reading Kurtz’s dismissive tone, it was a bit jarring to examine the actual results of the statewide review of 175,010 disputed ballots. “Full Review Favors Gore,” the Washington Post admitted in a box buried on page 10, showing that under all standards applied to the ballots, Gore came out on top. The New York Times’ graphic revealed the same outcome.
However, based on the “journalism” promoted by Howard Kurtz, any reporter who actually read and reacted to the real findings would be risking his or her career. Thus, millions of Americans continued to believe that Bush was the legitimate winner in Florida when the facts showed otherwise. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Sandra Day O’Connor’s ‘Maybe’ Regret.”]
Demonizing Helen Thomas
Given Kurtz’s history as hall monitor for the conventional wisdom, it surely should come as no surprise that he would join in the demonization of longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas, known for her courage in asking uncomfortable questions and for her critical views toward Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
When Thomas made an impolitic remark about Israelis leaving what had been Palestine, her mainstream media colleagues joined the loud calls for her career to be brought to an ignominious end, her apology notwithstanding.
Kurtz penned a harsh retrospective on Thomas’s sudden retirement from journalism, giving Thomas’s critics a free shot at denouncing her for an alleged lack of “objectivity” and her supposedly off-the-wall questions to politicians.
“She asked questions no hard-news reporter would ask, that carried an agenda and reflected her point of view and there were some reporters who felt that was inappropriate,” CBS correspondent Mark Knoller was quoted as saying. “Sometimes her questions were embarrassing to others.”
“She’s always said crazy stuff,” added National Review Online columnist Jonah Goldberg, whose “journalism” career was launched as a defender of his mother, Lucianne Goldberg, after she advised disgruntled federal employee Linda Tripp to tape her conversations with President Clinton’s girlfriend Monica Lewinsky and to save the semen-stained blue dress.
“I did my bit in the trenches of Clinton’s trousers,” Goldberg once wrote. So, in the funhouse-mirror world of today’s Washington news media, Goldberg parlayed his time in Clinton’s trousers into a slot as a frequent guest on high-profile TV news shows, such as ABC’s “Good Morning America,” “Nightline,” MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” CNN’s “Larry King Live,” and, of course, many Fox News programs.
As examples of Helen Thomas’s “crazy stuff,” Kurtz cited some of her questions as if the very words proved her unfitness to work as a national journalist. For instance, he wrote: “In 2002, Thomas asked [White House press secretary Ari] Fleischer: ‘Does the president think that the Palestinians have a right to resist 35 years of brutal military occupation and suppression?’”
Apparently, no further comment was needed for Washington Post readers to understand how outlandish such a question was. Kurtz continued: “Four years later, Thomas told Fleischer’s successor, Tony Snow, that the United States ‘could have stopped the bombardment of Lebanon’ by Israel, but instead had ‘gone for collective punishment against all of Lebanon and Palestine.’ Snow tartly thanked her for ‘the Hezbollah view.’”
Praise for Critics
Kurtz also praised some of Thomas’s colleagues who alerted the world to the dangers of Helen Thomas earlier. He wrote: “A handful of journalists questioned her role over the years. In a 2006 New Republic piece, Jonathan Chait accused Thomas of ‘unhinged rants,’ noting that she had asked such questions as: ‘Why are we killing people in Iraq? Men, women, and children are being killed there … It’s outrageous.’”
Again, Kurtz appeared to believe that the absurdity of Thomas’s statement was self-evident.
Yet, as President George W. Bush’s unprovoked invasion and bloody occupation of Iraq claimed the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, perhaps the greater absurdity was that Helen Thomas was often alone in asking such impertinent questions.
Thomas also had the integrity to refuse to allow her name and reputation to be used by South Korean theocrat (and right-wing funder) Sun Myung Moon when he took over United Press International in 2000. Then the best-known journalist at UPI, she resigned as an act of principle.
Though Moon was a notorious propagandist who had founded the Washington Times in 1982 as a vehicle for supporting some American politicians (such as Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush) and for tearing down others (such as John Kerry, Bill Clinton and Al Gore), much of the “objective” Washington press corps tolerated and even promoted Moon’s curious newspaper.
In the mid-1980s, after Moon’s newspaper signed up for the Associated Press wire service, AP executives told AP staffers, including me, that we were no longer allowed to mention Moon’s connection to the newspaper when we cited the Washington Times’ reporting in AP copy. That policy change meant that readers of AP stories around the world wouldn’t be alerted to the propaganda element of Moon’s operation.
Other respected Washington news figures, such as C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, actively promoted Moon’s newspaper by hoisting up its articles before viewers, many of whom had no idea that the Times’ owner was a religious cult leader with mysterious ties to foreign intelligence services and to international crime syndicates. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
So, while Moon’s newspaper was influencing the U.S. political debate with propagandistic articles – and while Moon was spreading around money for political and journalism conferences – Helen Thomas was one of the few prominent figures in the Washington press corps to object. (After resigning from UPI, she took a job as a columnist for the Hearst newspapers.)
Nevertheless, at the end of her long and groundbreaking career as one of the first women to operate in the male-dominated Washington press corps, Helen Thomas was the one pilloried as crazy and unprofessional by the arbiter of all that is good in journalism, Howard Kurtz.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
- Howard Kurtz comes out as illiterate (salon.com)
- Unreliable source: The Howie Kurtz saga (politico.com)
- Howard Kurtz Finds It Easier To Criticize Jason Collins’ Coming Out Story Than Read It (queerty.com)
Over at The Daily Beast‘s Cheat Sheet, which serves as a news aggregator, a post went up today with the eye-catching headline: “Iranian President Ahmadinejad Arrested.”
The blurb accompanying the post claims:
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was arrested Monday while on a visit to a book fair in Tehran, where he was held for seven hours and questioned by the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence unit. According to a source within the guards’ unit, Ahmadinejad was intercepted while on his way to a meeting at the supreme leader’s office. His security team was stripped of communication devices and Ahmadinejad was questioned about documents that may be detrimental to the regime. He was warned, essentially, to keep his mouth shut about all matters that could harm the regime going into the upcoming presidential election.
How positively scandalous! The infamous Iranian bogeyman, along with his entourage, accosted, interrogated, threatened and silenced by the very security forces the hysterical Western media and political pundits would have you believe he himself commands and wields with an iron fist!
At the bottom of its short post, the Beast sources the information to The Guardian and links to the original article. But following the link, something doesn’t feel right. Or look right.
Because it isn’t right.
The link leads to a site called “The Guardian Express” at the URL guardianlv.com. ‘Hey, what’s the “lv” stand for?,’ one might ask if one cared about such things as accuracy. It stands for “Las Vegas,” because the website is actually a local community news forum in Nevada, not the prestigious British news outlet.
The article found on “The Guardian Express” site – posted by a forum member who goes by the moniker “randy77” – is a nearly completely plagiarized story stolen from the latest piece of nonsense published Tuesday by the pseudonymous neocon darling “Reza Kahlili,” a serial liar and propagandist beloved by the Bomb Iran crowd who wears a surgical mask in public for absolutely no reason. “Kahlili” claims he is a former CIA agent who infiltrated the highest echelons of the Iranian intelligence apparatus and apparently some people believe him. He may also be a San Francisco Giants fan, but that might actually be a clever ruse to throw the pursuing mullahs off his trail.
|Yes, he does this.|
“Kahlili” is a regime change enthusiast who wants Iran attacked by the United States and Israel yesterday. He consistently publishes scoops on the right-wing loony-toon website WorldNetDaily that contain no factual information, save that a country called Iran does actually exist.
A few years ago he insisted that there is “no doubt” the Iranian government is “going to commit the most horrendous suicide bombing in human history. They will attack Israel, European capitals and the Persian Gulf region at the same time, then they will hide in a bunker [until a religious prophecy is fulfilled]… and kill the rest of the nonbelievers.” He also said Iran had already enriched uranium to 90%, that is, weapons-grade, and that “they have missiles that they have not publicly shown, because that would verify their intention of carrying out nuclear warheads,” whatever that means.
He’s also warned of an “Iranian dominated worldwide terror network that now reaches the United States” and said that the Iranian government has planted sleeper cells in the U.S. that are ready to strike if Iran is attacked. Impending terrorist acts carried out in the United States by Iranian agents is a recurring theme in his creative writing.
Wondering about “Kahlili”‘s bona fides and impressive associates? “I thought I knew a lot about Iran until meeting with him,” admitted racist Islamophobe Peter King, who is also somehow a U.S. Congressman. He was a featured guest of the AIPAC-affiliated Washington Institute on Near East Policy in 2010. This insane interview with leading lunatic Pam Geller might also be useful.
In 2011, “Kahlili” claimed both that Iran was planning an EMP attack on the United States and wrote, “Not only does the Islamic Republic already have nuclear weapons from the old Soviet Union, but it has enough enriched uranium for more. What’s worse, it has a delivery system,” because, hey why not?
He likes suggesting that the Iranian government is both messianic and genocidal, that it’s planning to “annihilate the Jews” and wage an apocalyptic war to hasten the end times. Last fall he declared that “a three-person delegation of the Obama administration led by a woman engaged in secret negotiations with a representative of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,” and cut a sanctions-alleviating deal before the 2012 presidential election.
Earlier this year, “Kahlili” repeated the claim that Iran had “successfully… built a nuclear bomb with the help of Russia and North Korea and has enough weapons-grade uranium and plutonium for more.” Soon thereafter, he pretended that there had been a massive explosion at the Iranian enrichment facility at Fordo, even though it wasn’t true.
Just a couple months later, however, he claimed his super secret sources revealed that “Iranian scientists are working on nuclear warheads – and trying to perfect them – at an underground site unknown to the West,” adding that Iran had, as yet, only “succeeded in enriching uranium to 20 percent, which is 80 percent of the way to weapons grade.”
Perhaps the most ridiculous allegation “Kahlili” has made in recent memory was when, on April 22, he stated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps was responsible for the bombings at the Boston Marathon a week earlier and that the Tsarnaev brothers were devoted followers of Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
Needless to say, the claim that Ahmadinejad was arrested has not been corroborated by any other sources and should be taken with a grain of salt the size of Atlantis.
That The Daily Beast would promote such silliness, with false attribution that lends the tale the imprimatur of a real news story, no less, is a testament to both its own lack of fact-checking and willingness to believe whatever nonsensical stories pop up about Iran are floating around in cyberspace. A glimpse at the Beast‘s own “Xtra Insight” link on that same post, which brings the reader to an asinine article by shameless self-promoter, staunch Zionist and self-described “public intellectual” Bernard-Henri Lévy about regime change in Iran only drives the point home.
With “insight” like that, it’s no wonder The Daily Beast has troubling seeing clearly.
As a result of this post getting some attention, The Daily Beast has issued a correction on its Cheat Sheet post:
Still no reference to the “sourcing” being WorldNetDaily or “Kahlili”, but hey, it’s something, right?
Meanwhile, Britain’s Daily Mail has already picked up the story and run with it.
- Report: Iranian President Ahmadinejad Arrested by Revolutionary Guard (breitbart.com)
- Iranian President Ahmadinejad Arrested (aworldchaos.wordpress.com)
- Iran Source: President Ahmadinejad Arrested (fluechtlingshilfeiranev2010.wordpress.com)
- Iran source: President Ahmadinejad arrested (vineoflife.net)
The Daily Beast disavows patriotic American’s website; Jeffrey Goldberg smears both as anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists
On January 30, The Daily Beast published an article entitled “Newt Gingrich’s Deep Neocon Ties Drive His Bellicose Middle East Policy.” In the well-researched piece on the Republican presidential hopeful’s ties to the Israel partisans who devised the influential “Clean Break” plan to destabilize the Middle East, Wayne Barrett warns:
If elected, Gingrich would be the first American president to emerge from the dark think-tank world born in the Reagan era that gave us the Iraq War and lusts now for an Iranian reprise.
Some time after its publication, The Daily Beast appended the following note to Barrett’s article:
Correction: The original version of this story included an embedded link in the text to a blog called the Neocon Zionist Threat. The author did not use this site in the reporting of the piece, and does not support the views expressed. The link has been redirected to the correct source.
The following day, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg commented on the correction to what he described as “a Daily Beast story that might have been entitled ‘The Jews are Coming.’” In a snide post entitled “Correction of the Day, International Jewish Conspiracy Edition,” Goldberg, a former prison guard in the Israeli army, claimed:
The website “Neocon Zionist Threat” argues that a cabal of Jews is trying to drive the U.S. into a war with Iran. The Daily Beast article, on the other hand, argues that a cabal of Jews is trying to drive the U.S. into a war with Iran. (h/t Jamie Kirchick)
Contrary to Goldberg’s smearing of “Neocon Zionist Threat” as an anti-Semitic site, a cursory look at neoconzionistthreat.com shows that its critique is based primarily on the research compiled in three eminently respectable sources: James Bamford’s A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies; John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy; and Stephen J. Sniegoski’s The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel.
Considering that Goldberg’s award-winning March 25, 2002 “exposé” in The New Yorker on the supposed ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda made a significant contribution to the push for war with Iraq, it’s not surprising that he would resort to such disingenuous smear tactics. The same goes for Kirchick who is currently a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, whose “advocacy of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, its hawkish stance against Iran, and its defense of right-wing Israeli policy,” according to a 2011 Think Progress report, “is consistent with its donors’ interests in ‘pro-Israel’ advocacy.”
What is surprising, however, is that Wayne Barrett felt it necessary to disavow the more extensive efforts of a patriotic American blogger and YouTube video producer to expose the same people he had just written about.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the news-and-commentary website he writes for is part-owned by former Congresswoman Jane Harman, whose service on Capitol Hill allegedly included a promise to an Israeli agent to lobby the Department of Justice to reduce espionage charges against two former officials at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee for trafficking in classified information on Iran — information AIPAC used to push for a war that Barrett’s article professes to oppose. As a patriotic former CIA officer wrote of the Harman case, some might call it treason.
- Jeffrey Goldberg pushes false neocon smear scrubbed by Washington Post (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Warmongering Jeffrey Goldberg calls on Obama to use missile strikes against Iran (alethonews.wordpress.com)