The New York Times ran an article on May 12 suggesting that the Syrian government has held back some of its chemical weapons and is using them against rebel fighters. Significantly, the allegation was backed by no evidence, yet the newspaper chose to run the story anyway.
In their story (“Inspectors in Syria find traces of banned military chemicals”) reporters Somini Sengupta, Marlise Simons and Anne Barnard cited a conclusion drawn by an anonymous Western diplomat who was briefed on findings by inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The inspectors had reportedly found traces of toxic nerve agents in Syria. The diplomat was quoted as saying that there’s a “strong suspicion” that the Syrians “are retaining stockpiles which are being held back.”
However, a close reading of the article showed that there was not one whit of evidence to back up the diplomat’s suspicion. Indeed, at various points in the article, the story’s lead was challenged by the journalists themselves.
• “[S]mall amounts of banned agents [have been found. But these findings] do not necessarily indicate a lingering weapons program.”
• “[T]here was no clear evidence of new use or production of forbidden chemicals.”
• “There is no evidence that banned materials were used in weapons after Syria signed the treaty, or that Syria possesses sufficient quantities to use in future weapons.”
A fitting headline would have read “Western diplomat accuses Syrian government of hiding chemical weapons, on no evidence.”
In the same article the reporters refer to “mounting evidence that Mr. Assad’s forces had violated the terms of the international treaty banning use of chemical weapons … by dropping jerry-built chlorine bombs on insurgent-held areas.” The mounting evidence turned out to be the testimony of witnesses who say the bombs have been dropped from government helicopters.
However, the quality of the evidence is untested, and virtually useless. There’s no way to determine whether the witnesses are authentic or simply opponents of the Syrian government who have an interest in spreading false allegations.
What’s more, there’s a compelling reason to believe that Syrian forces have not engaged in the action they’re accused of. Jerry-built chlorine bombs are capable only of briefly incapacitating a few fighters. Conventional bombs—which the Syrians have in abundance—permanently eliminate many more. Why, then, would Syrian forces risk worldwide condemnation to use an ineffective weapon, when they have more effective weapons at their disposable which world opinion does not condemn?
Sensing that their source’s allegation may be treated with suspicion, the New York Times journalists acknowledge that “Evidence of chemical weapons remains a fraught issue for global public opinion more than a decade after false claims of an Iraqi chemical weapons program were used to justify the American invasion that deposed Saddam Hussein.”
No less fraught is the complicity of Western media in propagating similarly baseless allegations to serve an obvious political agenda.
Israeli officials have backed off from a plan to bar Palestinians from West Bank bound buses, protesting in loud terms that this would smack of “apartheid,” and The New York Times has devoted much space to letting these spokespersons have their say.
We hear from Mark Regev, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s preferred mouthpiece, from opposition leader Isaac Herzog, and—at considerable length—from Israeli president Reuven Rivlin. We also hear indirectly from Netanyahu himself. Palestinians, who bear the brunt of segregated transportation policies, are represented by a single voice—politician and physician Mustafa Barghouti.
The plan would have forced Palestinians working inside Israel (those few who manage to get permits) to use designated entry points on their return. It was put forth by settlers who objected to riding on the same buses with Arabs and was originally announced last fall but put off until after the election.
The author of the Times story, Isabel Kershner, quotes the settlers along with the officials who denounced the plan, but in spite of many column inches devoted to this debate, she omits a significant detail: Although she writes that the plan has been “shelved” or “ended,” it is actually on hold.
Where the Times story failed to take note of this, others spoke up. The newspaper Haaretz states that it is “frozen,” and the Israeli liberal advocacy group Peace Now has said that “the defense minister must announce the cancellation of the bus segregation plan rather than settle for a suspension.” Richard Silverstein of Tikun Olam predicted that “apartheid buses are what the government wants and will eventually get” and when this happens “the world be damned.”
Kershner’s story, however, leaves readers with the impression that the plan was withdrawn and skims over the inconvenient fact that it is not dead but merely in suspension. At the same time she emphasizes the rhetoric of denial emanating from Israeli officials.
Rivlin said it could have caused “an unthinkable separation between bus lines, for Jews and Arabs,” an idea that “goes against the very foundations of the state of Israel.” Herzog called it “a stain on the face of Israel and its citizens.”
Both men emphasized the harm it would cause to Israel’s image in the world, and to many observers this is precisely why the plan was put off at this moment. Its announcement came as Israel was in negotiations to prevent a suspension from the world governing body of soccer over the country’s discriminatory policies and as European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini arrived to meet with Palestinian and Israeli officials.
The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem issued a press release noting that the temporary hold on the bus segregation plan was “probably due to the negative fallout for Israel’s public image,” and Silverstein wrote that the plan had been in the works for two years but was going into effect when “the time wasn’t right.”
B’Tselem also states that suspension of the bus plan leaves in place a longstanding “policy of segregation and discrimination against Palestinians that has existed on the ground.” It cited the two separate legal systems in the West Bank—one for settlers and another for Palestinians—separate roads for use by Palestinians and settlers and an “official policy of separation in downtown Hebron, and elsewhere.”
The organization notes that Palestinians who ride the buses now are already forced to arrive early in the morning to go through check points and that these are workers who have been lucky enough to get permits to enter Israel.
In the Times story the reality of segregation and discrimination in the West Bank only finds brief expression in a direct quote by Mustafa Barghouti, thus placing it in a context where readers could dismiss it as little more than rhetorical claims coming from a Palestinian opponent. The bus riders who would suffer most from the segregation plan have no voice at all.
The emphasis is on Israeli denials. We hear at length from those who are outraged by charges of apartheid, who speak in lofty terms of Israeli standards and show a sudden fit of indignation over a bus plan that has been in the works for over two years.
Readers would benefit from a look behind this rhetoric. Times reporters know, for instance, that Israel maintains separate roads and separate legal systems in the West Bank, but here we find no challenge to the official efforts to claim the high road, even in the face of obvious facts on the ground.
Ayelet Shaked, justice minister in the new Israeli government, gets a pass today in a “Saturday Profile” by Jodi Rudoren. Although Shaked is noted for her extremist rightwing views, it seems she faced no challenges in her interview with The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief. The story we find here is all about style and personality.
Rudoren makes a quick run through some of the most disturbing elements of Shaked’s agenda, noting that she favors annexing most of the West Bank, deporting African asylum seekers, limiting the power of the Supreme Court, punishing Israeli groups that criticize the occupation and creating laws that enshrine the rights of Jews over other groups.
There is no discussion of what this means for the future of Israelis and Palestinians apparently no attempt to engage the new justice minister over these issues. We learn that Shaked has drawn heated criticism (some of it sexist) and that she is “the most contentious appointment” in the new government, but we get no deeper look into her motivations.
Only one of her critics, the Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, is identified by name in the article. She is quoted briefly as saying that Shaked’s appointment is a “threat to peace and security” and “generates a culture of hate and lawlessness,” but Rudoren fails to examine the factors that inspire these fears.
Instead, the focus here is on Shaked’s reaction. We learn that she responded to the criticism that accompanied her appointment with a “this-too-shall-pass shrug,” a characteristic attitude according to those close to her. They have called her a “robot” and “the computer,” because she is not given to emotion. Her style is analytical and methodical, Rudoren tells us, and she is “disciplined” and “a doer.”
We also learn that Shaked studied ballet as a child, joined the Scouts and did well in math. In the same paragraph, as if this were one more dab of color in her resume, Rudoren informs us that Shaked served as an instructor in the Israeli army’s Golani Brigade in Hebron and “grew close to the religious Zionist settlers.” Her experience there “cemented her stance on the right.”
This bit of information calls for more discussion. Hebron settlers are noted for their violence against the indigenous Palestinians, and it would serve readers well to know why Shaked identified with them so closely.
Shaked is a member of the extremist Jewish Home party that opposes any kind of autonomy for Palestinians. One of its members is the racist rabbi Eli Ben Dahan, who has said that Palestinians “are beasts; they are not human” and that “a Jew always has a much higher soul than a gentile even if he is a homosexual.” (Rabbi Dahan has been named as head of the Civil Administration, the Israeli army agency in charge of the West Bank.)
This is the company that Shaked keeps, but the extremism of her party is off topic in this article. Although we get hints of her ultraconservative stance in the story, Rudoren skips over these clues quickly, preferring to dwell on style and trivia.
Rudoren should be asking what Shaked’s appointment means for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and what it means for dissident Palestinians and Jews in Israel, but this not in her sights. Her aim here, it seems, is to conceal the grim reality of Israel’s racist government, to make light of an ominous turn in Israeli society.
Once again, The New York Times is taking up the issue of divestment debates on college campuses, subjecting readers to yet another discussion of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and how the boycott movement affects student feelings.
For the third time in as many months, the Times has published a prominently displayed article on the subject. The latest is titled “Campus Debates on Israel Drive a Wedge Between Jews and Minorities;” it appears on page 1 of the print edition and notes that many minority organizations are now supporting Palestinian rights and this “drives a wedge between many Jewish and minority students.”
It is difficult to understand why the Times gives such play to this story, which rehashes material from earlier ones centered on debates at UCLA and Stanford, but all the articles take aim at the divestment effort. The previous ones attempted to connect the boycott movement (known as BDS for boycott, divestment and sanctions) with anti-Semitism (see TimesWarp posts here and here); this one tells us that the movement is divisive.
Each of the stories is notable for avoiding the substance of the campus debates. In the latest article, for instance, we learn only that students are objecting to “what they see as Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians” and that “they have cast the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a powerful force’s oppression of a displaced group.”
Readers would never know that students are motivated by the facts on the ground: the brutality of the occupation, the horrific attacks on Gaza, and a racist system that a South African jurist recently called “infinitely worse than those committed by the apartheid regime of South Africa.”
The Times obscures these facts in its daily reports from Israel and in its discussions of BDS, focusing instead on abstractions and political maneuverings. It attempts to change the subject from the very real Israeli oppression of Palestinians to talk of campus strife over the issue.
Meanwhile, it ignores another, more pernicious, BDS debate unfolding in the legislative bodies from Congress to state assemblies and senates. In these halls, Israel supporters are promoting attempts to outlaw and rein in BDS.
The U.S. House and Senate recently passed amendments authorizing negotiators for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership bill to push for efforts that would normalize trade with Israeli settlements on Palestinian land (even though these have been declared illegal under international law), effectively erase the boundaries between the West Bank and Israel and punish companies that resist collaboration with the occupation.
The House amendment openly identifies BDS as a target, saying that negotiators should discourage “politically motivated efforts to boycott, divest from or sanction Israel.” One observer has noted that some of the language in the amendments is identical to that in an Israeli bill adopted in 2011.
State legislatures, such as those in Tennessee and Indiana, are taking aim at BDS, with bills declaring that the movement is anti-Semitic and requiring state pension funds to withdraw money from companies that boycott Israel. The Tennessee bill (and the Congressional amendment) includes passages taken directly from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2014 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
There is something askew here: The Times finds the BDS debate newsworthy when it takes place on college campuses but not worth mentioning when it shows up in legislative bodies, even at the federal level. It may be that such coverage would bring inconvenient facts to light—Israeli breaches of international law, for instance, and European restrictions on trade with settlements.
We can trace a link from Israel to lobbyists in the United States and from the lobbyists to the halls of Congress and state legislatures. It appears to connect also with The New York Times, where we find some of the familiar techniques for protecting Israel in play: avoidance and diversion.
Thus Times readers, uninformed about the full extent of Israeli atrocities in the occupied Palestinian territories (and within Israel proper), are directed away from the facts on the ground. They are sidetracked into discussions of anti-Semitism or divisiveness, all part of an effort to take the heat off Israel.
Today, the NY Times published what was essentially an unexpurgated series of IDF intelligence reports claiming Hezbollah had taken over a southern Lebanese town and turned it into a fortress bristling with fortifications. The story, written by Isabel Kershner, features photos and descriptions of intelligence data received directly from the army intelligence unit, AMAN.
At no point in the story does Kershner offer any skepticism about the substance of the material or its origins. Nor does she entertain any thoughts about the ultimate purpose of releasing the material to her. As I read the story, the biggest nagging question was: how did she vet this before publication? Did she get someone to visit the village to confirm details? Did she ask a military analyst or consultant to authenticate the documents proffered her?
The only indication in the report that these issues may’ve been considered is a statement that none of the information “could be independently verified.” You’re damn straight they couldn’t be verified. But how hard did you try?
There is an interview conducted by the Times’ Lebanon correspondent Anne Barnard with a figure representing Hezbollah. He refuses to address the specifics of the intelligence information and only affirms the Islamist movement’s determination to protect Lebanese sovereignty from Israeli attack.
I tweeted these questions to Jodi Rudoren, the paper’s Israel bureau chief, and she replied that since it was not her story I should contact Kershner directly. Given that she’s Kershner’s boss, I found the response odd.
We should also remember that Kershner’s husband is former Jerusalem Post IDF correspondent Hirsh Goodman. He is a researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank deeply connected to the Israeli military and intelligence apparatus.
I should make clear that I’m not taking any position on the accuracy of the report or the IDF documents. Instead, I’m most disturbed by the process used in putting this story together. The IDF and Israeli intelligence in general is well-known for putting forth false or fraudulent claims. Any Israeli journalist who is half-way honest knows this and would freely concede it. It is incumbent on any self-respecting journalist to authenticate such data before accepting it at face value. I don’t see any indication from the story itself that any of this was done.
Another critical aspect of this story you won’t find mentioned by Kershner is that Hezbollah is a Lebanese resistance movement whose goal, at least concerning Israel, is to defend the nation’s sovereignty. Yes, we can argue about its involvement in Syria diverging from this agenda, but aside from a few skirmishes Hezbollah is not fighting Israel in the Syrian Golan. Not to mention, that the IDF is complaining about Hezbollah fortifying a Lebanese village from attack by Israel. In other words, Hezbollah’s purpose is to defend Lebanese territory. How it does this is not something Israel has a right to complain about.
In the article itself, the IDF sources make crystal clear that their military strategy features an invasion of Lebanon. In other words, the Israeli army is conceding that it intends to violate Lebanese sovereignty. Yet on the other hand it denies Lebanese the right to defend against such an invasion. The army also makes clear Israel’s intent to kill civilians, as it has in numerous invasions and occupation over the decades. The difference this time around is that the IDF is warning beforehand that it intends to do this. It is telling the world that we will do to Lebanon what we did to Gaza. There will be no mercy. No punches pulled. It will unleash the full fury of its arsenal. Civilians will be treated no different than combatants.
In the midst of the massive civilian death toll it will trot out Kershner’s stenography and say: See, we told you so. We warned you that Hezbollah was using civilians as human shields. We warned you in no less a venue than the NY Times that we would have no choice but to decimate the militants along with the civilians. Now, you have no right to complain that we did precisely what we told you we would do.
The reporter quotes her intelligence source making yet another mendacious claim about the history of guerrilla warfare:
“Historically, armed forces have separated themselves from the population, in uniform,” the senior Israeli military official said. “This is not the case here or in Gaza.” He accused Hezbollah of cynically using civilians.
This is not only utterly false in general historical terms (remember the 250,000 dead in Leningrad or the two Warsaw Ghetto uprisings?), it’s false in terms of Israel’s own history. The Palmach and other Jewish resistance groups made extensive use of civilian infrastructure, including synagogues, to hide weapons caches. Military forces use whatever advantage they can muster which benefit their strategic position. If the IDF was in the position of Hezbollah it would do nothing different. In such a case, no one could argue Israel didn’t have the right to do so as long as it was defending its territory from invasion, as Hezbollah is doing. … Full article
As embarrassing as the Judith Miller case was for the New York Times, the fiasco underscores a more troubling development that strikes near the heart of American democracy – the press corps’ gradual retreat from the principle of skepticism on national security issues to career-boosting “patriotism.”
Miller – and many other prominent Washington journalists over the past quarter century – largely built their careers by positioning themselves as defenders of supposed “American interests.” Thus, instead of tough reporting about national security operations, these reporters often became conduits for government propaganda.
In that sense, Miller’s prominence at the Times – where she had wide latitude to report and publish whatever she wanted – was a marker for how the “patriotic” journalists had overwhelmed the competing “skeptical” journalists, who saw their duty as bringing a critical eye to all government information, including national security claims, by which the people were informed and empowered to judge what was truly in “American interests.” [For more on that broader history, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
For her part – both in the credulous reporting about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction and protection of a White House source who sought to discredit a whistleblower about a key WMD lie – Miller has come to personify the notion that American journalists should tailor their reporting to what is “good for the country” as defined by government officials.
Indeed, Miller seems to have trouble distinguishing between being a journalist and being part of the government team. Note, for instance, two of her comments about her grand jury testimony regarding the White House outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame, who was the wife of the WMD whistleblower, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.
Presumably to give some deniability to one of her anti-Wilson sources – Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis Libby – Miller said she told special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald “that Mr. Libby might have thought I still had security clearance, given my special embedded status in Iraq,” where she had traveled with a military unit in a fruitless search for WMD stockpiles.
In other words, Miller was saying that Libby might be forgiven for disclosing the identity of a covert CIA officer to a journalist because he might have thought Miller had government authorization to hear such secrets. But the notion that a reporter would accept a security clearance – which is a legally binding commitment to give the government authority over what information can be released – is anathema to anyone who believes in a free and independent press.
It is one thing for “embedded” journalists to accept the necessity of military censorship over tactical details in exchange for access to the battlefield. It is altogether different for a journalist to have a “security clearance.” For some journalistic purists, this statement was the most shocking element of Miller’s lengthy account of her testimony as published in the Times.
Secondly, toward the end of a Times chronology on the case, written by three other reporters, Miller is quoted as saying that she hoped she would eventually return to the newsroom and resume covering “the same thing I’ve always covered – threats to our country.” [NYT, Oct. 16. 2005]
To describe one’s “beat” as covering “threats to our country” amounts to another repudiation of a core journalistic principle – objectivity – the concept of a reporter setting aside his or her personal views so the facts can be researched and presented to the reader in as fair and balanced a way as possible.
Rather than insist on a separation between government and journalism, Miller appears to see little distinction between the two. Her comments suggest that she viewed her job as defending the security interests of the United States, rather than giving the public the unvarnished facts.
What that meant in the run-up to the war in Iraq was her serving as a conveyor belt for bogus intelligence on Iraq’s WMD. Most memorably, Miller co-wrote a key article asserting that Iraq’s purchase of aluminum tubes was evidence that Saddam Hussein was working on a nuclear bomb.
Cheney and other administration officials then cited the Times article as validation for their case against Iraq for alleged violation of arms control commitments. Both in Miller’s article and in TV appearances, administration officials told the American people that they couldn’t wait for the “smoking gun” proof of Iraq’s WMD to be “a mushroom cloud.”
The aluminum-tube story was later debunked by U.S. Energy Department experts and State Department analysts, but it remained a terrifying argument as George W. Bush stampeded the Congress and the country to war in fall 2002 and winter 2003. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Powell’s Widening Credibility Gap.”]
The aluminum-tube story, which Miller co-authored with Michael R. Gordon, was one of six articles that prompted a post-invasion Times self-criticism. Miller wrote or co-wrote five of the six articles that were deemed overly credulous of the U.S. government’s point of view. “In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged,” the Times editor’s note said. [NYT, May 26, 2004]
Since the Oct. 16, 2005, articles detailing Miller’s role in the Plame controversy, Miller’s image as a journalistic martyr – who went to jail rather than betray the confidence of a source – also has been tarnished.
After 85 days in jail resisting a federal subpoena, Miller finally agreed to testify about her three conversations with Libby regarding Ambassador Wilson’s criticism of another high-profile administration WMD claim, that Iraq had been seeking enriched uranium from the African nation of Niger.
In 2002, Cheney’s office expressed interest in a dubious report from Italy claiming that Iraq was trying to buy “yellowcake” uranium in Niger. Reacting to Cheney’s concern, the CIA dispatched Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador in Africa, to check out the allegations. Wilson returned believing that the claim was most likely baseless, an opinion shared by other U.S. government experts. Nevertheless, the claim ended up in Bush’s State of the Union speech in January 2003.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Wilson began speaking with journalists on background about how his Niger findings had diverged from Bush’s State of the Union claim. Libby, a leading architect of the Iraq War, learned about Wilson’s criticism and began passing on negative information about Wilson to Miller.
Miller, who said she regarded Libby as “a good-faith source, who was usually straight with me,” met with him on June 23, 2003, in the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House, according to the Times chronology. At that meeting, “Ms. Miller said her notes leave open the possibility that Mr. Libby told her Mr. Wilson’s wife might work at the agency,” the Times reported.
But Libby provided clearer details at a second meeting on July 8, 2003, two days after Wilson went public in an Op-Ed piece about his criticism of Bush’s use of the Niger allegations. At a breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel near the White House, Libby told Miller that Wilson’s wife worked at a CIA unit known as Winpac, for weapons intelligence, nonproliferation and arms control, the Times reported.
Miller’s notebook, the one used for that interview, contained a reference to “Valerie Flame,” an apparent misspelling of Mrs. Wilson’s maiden name. In the Times account, Miller said she told Fitzgerald’s grand jury that she believed the name didn’t come from Libby but from another source. But Miller claimed she couldn’t recall the source’s name.
In a third conversation, by telephone on July 12, 2003, Miller and Libby returned to the Wilson topic. Miller’s notes contain a reference to a “Victoria Wilson,” another misspelled reference to Wilson’s wife, Miller said.
Two days later, on July 14, 2003, conservative columnist Robert Novak publicly outed Plame as a CIA operative in an article that cited “two administration sources” and tried to discredit Wilson’s findings on the grounds that his wife had recommended him for the Niger mission.
Miller never wrote an article about the Wilson-Plame affair although she claimed she “made a strong recommendation to my editor” for a story after Novak’s column appeared, but was rebuffed. Times managing editor (and later executive editor) Jill Abramson, who was Washington bureau chief in summer 2003, said Miller never made such a recommendation, and Miller said she wouldn’t divulge the name of the editor who supposedly said no, the Times chronology said.
A Criminal Probe
The Wilson-Plame affair took another turn in the latter half of 2003 when the CIA sought a criminal investigation of the leak of Plame’s covert identity. Because of conflicts of interest in George W. Bush’s Justice Department, Fitzgerald – the U.S. Attorney in Chicago – was named as a special prosecutor in December 2003.
Known as a hard-nosed and independent-minded prosecutor, Fitzgerald demanded testimony from Miller and several other journalists in summer 2004. Miller refused to cooperate, saying she had promised her sources confidentiality and arguing that waivers signed by Libby and other officials had been coerced.
Almost a year later, Miller was imprisoned for contempt of court. After 85 days in jail, she relented and agreed to testify, but only after she received a personal assurance from Libby that he wanted her to appear. But the details of the Miller-Libby minuet over the waiver put Miller’s refusal to testify in a different – and more troubling – light.
According to the Times account, Libby’s lawyer, Joseph A. Tate, assured Miller’s lawyer Abrams as early as summer 2004 that Miller was free to testify, but he added that Libby already had told Fitzgerald’s grand jury that Libby had not given Miller the name or undercover status of Wilson’s wife.
“That raised a potential conflict for Ms. Miller,” the Times reported. “Did the references in her notes to ‘Valerie Flame’ and ‘Victoria Wilson’ suggest that she would have to contradict Mr. Libby’s account of their conversations? Ms. Miller said in an interview that Mr. Tate was sending her a message that Libby did not want her to testify.”
According to Miller’s account, her attorney Abrams told her that Libby’s lawyer Tate “was pressing about what you would say. When I wouldn’t give him an assurance that you would exonerate Libby, if you were to cooperate, he then immediately gave me this, ‘Don’t go there, or, we don’t want you there.’”
Responding to a question from the New York Times, Tate called Miller’s interpretation of his position “outrageous.” After all, if Miller were telling the truth, Tate’s maneuver would border on suborning perjury and obstruction of justice.
But there is also a disturbing element for Miller’s defenders. Her subsequent actions could be interpreted as finding another means to protect Libby. By refusing to testify and going to jail, Miller helped Libby – temporarily at least – avoid a possible indictment for perjury and obstruction of justice.
Miller’s jailing also drew the Times editorial page and many Washington journalists into a campaign aimed at pressuring Fitzgerald to back off his investigation. In effect, many members of the Washington news media were pulled, unwittingly or not, into what looks like a cover-up of a criminal conspiracy.
The Times editorialized that Miller would not reverse her refusal to testify and that additional incarceration was unjustified. But the jail time worked. When Miller realized that Fitzgerald wouldn’t relent and that she might stay in prison indefinitely, she decided to reopen negotiations with Libby about whether she should testify.
Libby sent her a friendly letter that read like an invitation to testify but also to stick with the team. “Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning,” Libby wrote. “They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them.”
When Miller finally appeared before the grand jury, she offered an account that seemed to twist and turn in underground directions to protect Libby. For instance, she insisted that someone else had mentioned “Valerie Flame,” but she said she couldn’t recall who. Before testifying to the grand jury, Miller also extracted an agreement from Fitzgerald that he wouldn’t ask her questions about any source other than Libby.
But the longer back story of “Plame-gate” was how the Washington media culture changed over a generation, from the skeptical days of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers to an era in which leading journalists see their “roots” connecting to the national security state.
Part Two: Rise of the ‘Patriotic Journalist’
(Originally published on Oct. 20, 2005)
The apex for the “skeptical journalists” came in the mid-1970s when the press followed up disclosure of the Vietnam War’s Pentagon Papers and exposure of Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal with revelations of CIA abuses, such as illegal spying on Americans and helping Chile’s army oust an elected government.
There were reasons for this new press aggressiveness. After some 58,000 U.S. soldiers had died in Vietnam during a long war fought for murky reasons, many reporters no longer gave the government the benefit of the doubt. The press corps’ new rallying cry was the public’s right to know, even when the wrongdoing occurred in the secretive world of national security.
But this journalistic skepticism represented an affront to government officials who had long enjoyed a relatively free hand in the conduct of foreign policy. The Wise Men and the Old Boys – the stewards of the post-World War II era – faced a harder time lining up public consensus behind any action. This national security elite, including then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush, viewed the post-Vietnam journalism as a threat to America’s ability to strike at its perceived enemies around the world.
Yet, it was from these ruins of distrust – the rubble of suspicion left behind by Vietnam and Watergate – that the conservative-leaning national security elite began its climb back, eventually coming full circle, gaining effective control of what a more “patriotic” press would tell the people, before stumbling into another disastrous war in Iraq.
One early turning point in the switch from “skeptical” journalism to “patriotic” journalism occurred in 1976 with the blocking of Rep. Otis Pike’s congressional report on CIA misdeeds. CIA Director Bush had lobbied behind the scenes to convince Congress that suppressing the report was important for national security.
But CBS news correspondent Daniel Schorr got hold of the full document and decided that he couldn’t join in keeping the facts from the public. He leaked the report to the Village Voice – and was fired by CBS amid charges of reckless journalism.
“The media’s shift in attention from the report’s charges to their premature disclosure was skillfully encouraged by the Executive Branch,” wrote Kathryn Olmstead in her book on the media battles of the 1970s, Challenging the Secret Government.
“[Mitchell] Rogovin, the CIA’s counsel, later admitted that the Executive Branch’s ‘concern’ over the report’s damage to national security was less than genuine,” Olmstead wrote. But the Schorr case had laid down an important marker. The counterattack against the “skeptical journalists” had begun.
In the late 1970s, conservative leaders began a concerted drive to finance a media infrastructure of their own along with attack groups that would target mainstream reporters who were viewed as too liberal or insufficiently patriotic.
Richard Nixon’s former Treasury Secretary Bill Simon took the lead. Simon, who headed the conservative Olin Foundation, rallied like-minded foundations – associated with Lynde and Harry Bradley, Smith Richardson, the Scaife family and the Coors family – to invest their resources in advancing the conservative cause.
Money went to fund conservative magazines taking the fight to the liberals and to finance attack groups, like Accuracy in Media, that hammered away at the supposed “liberal bias” of the national news media.
This strategy gained momentum in the early 1980s with the arrival of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Spearheaded by intellectual policymakers now known as the neoconservatives, the government developed a sophisticated approach – described internally as “perception management” – that included targeting journalists who wouldn’t fall into line. [For the latest on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Victory of ‘Perception Management.’”]
So, when New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner reported from El Salvador about right-wing death squads, his accounts were criticized and his patriotism challenged. Bonner further infuriated the White House in early 1982 when he disclosed a massacre by the U.S.-backed Salvadoran army around the town of El Mozote. The story appeared just as Reagan was praising the army’s human rights progress.
Like other journalists who were viewed as overly critical of Reagan’s foreign policy, Bonner faced both public attacks on his reputation and private lobbying of his editors, seeking his removal. Bonner soon found his career sidetracked. After being pulled out of Central America, he resigned from the Times.
Bonner’s ouster was another powerful message to the national news media about the fate that awaited reporters who challenged Ronald Reagan’s White House. (Years later, after a forensic investigation confirmed the El Mozote massacre, the Times rehired Bonner.)
Though conservative activists routinely bemoaned what they called the “liberal media” at the big newspapers and TV networks, the Reagan administration actually found many willing collaborators at senior levels of U.S. news organizations.
At the New York Times, executive editor Abe Rosenthal followed a generally neoconservative line of intense anticommunism and strong support for Israel. Under owner Martin Peretz, the supposedly leftist New Republic slid into a similar set of positions, including enthusiastic backing for the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.
Where I worked at the Associated Press, general manager Keith Fuller – the company’s top executive – was considered a staunch supporter of Reagan’s foreign policy and a fierce critic of recent social change. In 1982, Fuller gave a speech condemning the 1960s and praising Reagan’s election.
“As we look back on the turbulent Sixties, we shudder with the memory of a time that seemed to tear at the very sinews of this country,” Fuller said during a speech in Worcester, Massachusetts, adding that Reagan’s election a year earlier had represented a nation “crying, ‘Enough.’ …
“We don’t believe that the union of Adam and Bruce is really the same as Adam and Eve in the eyes of Creation. We don’t believe that people should cash welfare checks and spend them on booze and narcotics. We don’t really believe that a simple prayer or a pledge of allegiance is against the national interest in the classroom. We’re sick of your social engineering. We’re fed up with your tolerance of crime, drugs and pornography. But most of all, we’re sick of your self-perpetuating, burdening bureaucracy weighing ever more heavily on our backs.”
Fuller’s sentiments were common in the executive suites of major news organizations, where Reagan’s reassertion of an aggressive U.S. foreign policy mostly was welcomed. Working journalists who didn’t sense the change in the air were headed for danger.
By the time of Reagan’s landslide reelection in 1984, the conservatives had come up with catchy slogans for any journalist or politician who still criticized excesses in U.S. foreign policy. They were known as the “blame America firsters” or – in the case of the Nicaragua conflict – “Sandinista sympathizers.”
The practical effect of these slurs on the patriotism of journalists was to discourage skeptical reporting on Reagan’s foreign policy and to give the administration a freer hand for conducting operations in Central America and the Middle East outside public view.
Gradually, a new generation of journalists began to fill key reporting jobs, bringing with them an understanding that too much skepticism on national security issues could be hazardous to one’s career. Intuitively, these reporters knew there was little or no upside to breaking even important stories that made Reagan’s foreign policy look bad. That would just make you a target of the expanding conservative attack machine. You would be “controversialized,” another term that Reagan operatives used to describe their anti-reporter strategies.
Often I am asked why it took so long for the U.S. news media to uncover the secret operations that later became known as the Iran-Contra Affair, clandestine arms sales to the Islamic fundamentalist government of Iran with some of the profits – and other secret funds – funneled into the Contra war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.
Though the AP was not known as a leading investigative news organization – and my superiors weren’t eager supporters – we were able to get ahead on the story in 1984, 1985 and 1986 because the New York Times, the Washington Post and other top news outlets mostly looked the other way. It took two external events – the shooting down of a supply plane over Nicaragua in October 1986 and the disclosure of the Iran initiative by a Lebanese newspaper in November 1986 – to bring the scandal into focus.
In late 1986 and early 1987, there was a flurry of Iran-Contra coverage, but the Reagan administration largely succeeded in protecting top officials, including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The growing conservative news media, led by Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times, lashed out at journalists and government investigators who dared push the edges of the envelope or closed in on Reagan and Bush.
But resistance to the Iran-Contra scandal also penetrated mainstream news outlets. At Newsweek, where I went to work in early 1987, Editor Maynard Parker was hostile to the possibility that Reagan might be implicated. During one Newsweek dinner/interview with retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft and then-Rep. Dick Cheney, Parker expressed support for the notion that Reagan’s role should be protected even if that required perjury. “Sometimes you have to do what’s good the country,” Parker said. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
When Iran-Contra conspirator Oliver North went on trial in 1989, Parker and other news executives ordered that Newsweek’s Washington bureau not even cover the trial, presumably because Parker just wanted the scandal to go away. (When the North trial became a major story anyway, I was left scrambling to arrange daily transcripts so we could keep abreast of the trial’s developments. Because of these and other differences over the Iran-Contra scandal, I left Newsweek in 1990.)
Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, a Republican, also encountered press hostility when his investigation finally broke through the White House cover-up in 1991. Moon’s Washington Times routinely lambasted Walsh and his staff over minor issues, such as the elderly Walsh flying first class on airplanes or ordering room-service meals. [See Walsh’s Firewall.]
But the attacks on Walsh were not coming only from the conservative news media. Toward the end of 12 years of Republican rule, mainstream journalists also realized their careers were far better served by staying on the good side of the Reagan-Bush crowd.
So, when President George H.W. Bush sabotaged Walsh’s probe by issuing six Iran-Contra pardons on Christmas Eve 1992, prominent journalists praised Bush’s actions. They brushed aside Walsh’s complaint that the move was the final act in a long-running cover-up that protected a secret history of criminal behavior and Bush’s personal role.
“Liberal” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen spoke for many of his colleagues when he defended Bush’s fatal blow against the Iran-Contra investigation. Cohen especially liked Bush’s pardon of former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who had been indicted for obstruction of justice but was popular around Washington.
In a Dec. 30, 1992, column, Cohen said his view was colored by how impressed he was when he would see Weinberger in the Georgetown Safeway store, pushing his own shopping cart.
“Based on my Safeway encounters, I came to think of Weinberger as a basic sort of guy, candid and no nonsense – which is the way much of official Washington saw him,” Cohen wrote. “Cap, my Safeway buddy, walks, and that’s all right with me.”
For fighting too hard for the truth, Walsh drew derision as a kind of Captain Ahab obsessively pursuing the White Whale. Writer Marjorie Williams delivered this damning judgment against Walsh in a Washington Post magazine article, which read:
“In the utilitarian political universe of Washington, consistency like Walsh’s is distinctly suspect. It began to seem … rigid of him to care so much. So un-Washington. Hence the gathering critique of his efforts as vindictive, extreme. Ideological. … But the truth is that when Walsh finally goes home, he will leave a perceived loser.”
By the time the Reagan-Bush era ended in January 1993, the era of the “skeptical journalist” was dead, too, at least on issues of national security.
The Webb Case
Even years later, when historical facts surfaced suggesting that serious abuses had been missed around the Iran-Contra Affair, mainstream news outlets took the lead in rallying to the Reagan-Bush defense.
When a controversy over Contra-drug trafficking reemerged in 1996, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times went on the attack – against Gary Webb, the reporter who revived interest in the scandal. Even admissions of guilt by the CIA’s inspector general in 1998 didn’t shake the largely dismissive treatment of the issue by the major newspapers. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
(For Webb’s courageous reporting, he was pushed out of his job at the San Jose Mercury News, his career was ruined, his marriage collapsed and – in December 2004 – he killed himself with his father’s revolver.) [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Warning in Gary Webb’s Death.”]
When Republican rule was restored in 2001 with George W. Bush’s controversial “victory,” major news executives and many rank-and-file journalists understood that their careers could best be protected by wrapping themselves in the old red-white-and-blue. “Patriotic” journalism was in; “skeptical” journalism was definitely out.
That tendency deepened even more after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as many journalists took to wearing American flag lapels and avoided critical reporting about Bush’s sometimes shaky handling of the crisis. For instance, Bush’s seven-minute freeze in a second-grade classroom – after being told “the nation is under attack” – was hidden from the public even though it was filmed and witnessed by White House pool reporters. (Millions of Americans were shocked when they finally saw the footage two years later in Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.”)
In November 2001, to avoid other questions about Bush’s legitimacy, the results of a media recount of the Florida vote were misrepresented to obscure the finding that Al Gore would have carried the state – and thus the White House – if all legally cast votes were counted. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “So Bush Did Steal the White House.”]
In 2002, as Bush shifted focus from Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan to Saddam Hussein and Iraq, the “patriotic” journalists moved with him. Some of the few remaining “skeptical” media figures were silenced, such as MSNBC’s host Phil Donahue whose show was canceled because he invited on too many war opponents.
In most newspapers, the occasional critical articles were buried deep inside, while credulous stories accepting the administration’s claims about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction were bannered on Page One.
New York Times reporter Judith Miller was in her element as she tapped into her friendly administration sources to produce WMD stories, like the one about how Iraq’s purchase of aluminum tubes was proof that it was building a nuclear bomb. The article gave rise to the White House warning that Americans couldn’t risk the “smoking gun” on Iraq’s WMD being “a mushroom cloud.”
In February 2003, when Secretary of State Colin Powell made his United Nations speech accusing Iraq of possessing WMD stockpiles, the national news media swooned at his feet. The Washington Post’s op-ed page was filled with glowing tributes to his supposedly air-tight case, which would later be exposed as a mix of exaggerations and outright lies. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Powell’s Widening Credibility Gap.”]
The rout of “skeptical” journalism was so complete – driven to the fringes of the Internet and to a few brave souls in Knight-Ridder’s Washington bureau – that the “patriotic” reporters often saw no problem casting aside even the pretense of objectivity. In the rush to war, news organizations joined in ridiculing the French and other longtime allies who urged caution. Those countries became the “axis of weasels” and cable TV devoted hours of coverage to diners that renamed “French fries” as “Freedom fries.”
Once the invasion began, the coverage on MSNBC, CNN and the major networks was barely discernable from the patriotic fervor on Fox. Like Fox News, MSNBC produced promotional segments, packaging heroic footage of American soldiers, often surrounded by thankful Iraqis and underscored with stirring music. [See Neck Deep.]
“Embedded” reporters often behaved like excited advocates for the American side of the war. But objectivity also was missing back at the studios where anchors voiced outrage about Geneva Convention violations when Iraqi TV aired pictures of captured American soldiers, but the U.S. media saw nothing wrong with broadcasting images of captured Iraqis. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “International Law a la Carte.”]
As Judith Miller would later remark unabashedly, she saw her beat as “what I’ve always covered – threats to our country.” Referring to her time “embedded” with a U.S. military unit searching for WMD, she claimed that she had received a government “security clearance.” [NYT, Oct. 16, 2005]
While Miller may have been an extreme case of mixing patriotism and journalism, she was far from alone as a member of her generation who absorbed the lessons of the 1980s, that skeptical journalism on national security issues was a fast way to put yourself in the unemployment line.
Only gradually, as Iraq’s WMD stockpiles failed to materialize but a stubborn insurgency did, the bloody consequences of “patriotic” journalism have begun to dawn on the American people. By not asking tough questions, journalists contributed to a mess (that ultimately cost the lives of almost 4,500 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis).
Retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, a top military intelligence official under Ronald Reagan, predicted that the Iraq invasion “will turn out to be the greatest strategic disaster in U.S. history.”
At the core of this disaster were the cozy relationships between the “patriotic” journalists and their sources. In her Oct. 16, 2005, account of her interviews with Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, Miller gave the public an inadvertent look into that closed world of shared secrets and mutual trust.
Libby talked with Miller in two face-to-face meetings and one phone call in 2003, as the Bush administration tried to beat back post-invasion questions about how the President made his case for war, according to Miller’s story.
As Miller agreed to let Libby hide behind a misleading identification as a “former Hill staffer,” Libby unleashed a harsh attack on one whistleblower, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was challenging Bush’s claims that Iraq had sought enriched uranium from the African nation of Niger. The Miller/Libby interviews included Libby’s references to Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, who was an undercover CIA officer working on proliferation issues.
While the Plame case became a major embarrassment for the Bush administration – and for the New York Times – it did not stop many of Miller’s colleagues from continuing their old roles as “patriotic” journalists opposing the disclosure of too many secrets to the American people. For instance, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen – who hailed George H.W. Bush’s pardons that destroyed the Iran-Contra investigation in 1992 – adopted a similar stance against Fitzgerald’s investigation.
“The best thing Patrick Fitzgerald could do for his country is get out of Washington, return to Chicago and prosecute some real criminals,” Cohen wrote in a column entitled “Let This Leak Go.”
“As it is, all he has done so far is send Judith Miller of the New York Times to jail and repeatedly haul this or that administration high official before a grand jury, investigating a crime that probably wasn’t one in the first place but that now, as is often the case, might have metastasized into some sort of cover-up – but again, of nothing much,” Cohen wrote. “Go home, Pat.” [Washington Post, Oct. 13, 2005]
If Fitzgerald did as Cohen wished and closed down the investigation without indictments, the result would have been the continuation of the status quo in Washington. The Bush administration would get to keep control of the secrets and reward friendly “patriotic” journalists with selective leaks – and protected careers.
It is that cozy status quo that was endangered by the Plame case. But the stakes of the case were even bigger than that, going to the future of American democracy and to two questions in particular: Will journalists return to the standard of an earlier time when disclosing important facts to the electorate was the goal, rather than Cohen’s notion of putting the comfortable relationships between Washington journalists and government officials first?
Put differently, will journalists decide that confronting the powerful with tough questions is the true patriotic test of a journalist?
(Eventually, the Plamegate investigation ended with Fitzgerald bringing no charges for the leak of a covert CIA officer but he did convict Libby of lying to investigators and he was sentenced to 30 months in prison. But Libby never did go to jail because President Bush commuted his sentence.)
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
Read the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal on Baltimore, and they tell you violence broke out there Monday. You hear an NPR correspondent refer to an “eruption of violence” in the city. The New Republic’s Rebecca Traister disagrees. “Violence broke out and erupted not when students threw stones at police, but when Freddie Gray suffered a spinal cord injury while in police custody, and, eventually, died.”
Maybe. But the Baltimore Sun concluded last September that, in the preceding four years, “more than 100 people [had] won court judgments or settlements related to allegations,” against police, “of brutality and civil rights violations.” Reporter Mark Puente detailed the “head trauma, organ failure, and even death” awaiting victims. This was when violence broke out.
Perhaps—though Christian Parenti, in 1997, explained that “police violence is soaring.” “By mid-August of this year Baltimore Police had already shot more than 70 civilians,” he added. It was the dawn of the “zero tolerance” era. The approach directs cops to “stop, frisk, and arrest vast numbers of young black and Hispanic men for minor offenses,” Jeffrey Rosen clarified. It made a believer of Martin O’Malley, Democrat, Mayor of Baltimore from 1999 to 2007. The city’s population was 640,000 in 2005. There were more than 100,000 arrests that year.
Was this when violence broke out? Possibly—but in March 1980, “an off-duty police detective, without warning, shot and paralyzed a 17-year-old black youth,” Associated Press reported. “The officer later said he thought the youth, Ja-Wan McGee, was going to rob a pizza parlor, but young McGee was taking a cigarette lighter out of his pocket.” In August 1978, the Baltimore Afro-American broke a story about a trio of white cops. They issued black teenager Derek Copeland “a green pass giving the youth permission to walk neighborhood streets”—“similar,” the paper observed, “to the one issued by the South African government led by John Vorster.”
Was it then that violence erupted? Or was it early the morning of June 27, 1969, when Helen Smith sat on a stoop with Donald Best? Patrolman Alvin Nachman approached with his dog, and an order: “hold the noise down.” No neighbors had complained. The dog attacked Helen first, and the officer maced her as she tried to fight off the animal. She got 75 stitches, and Donald 32 “to close the dog bite wounds in his side and hip,” the Afro disclosed. “Both Mrs. Smith and Mr. Best were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. They were both forced to spend the night in jail after treatment for their wounds.”
If not then, violence hit Baltimore five years earlier. Raymond Petty drove there from Halifax, VA, to visit his sister Hazel in June 1964. She was ill and the outlook was not good. Raymond was in a mild car accident after arriving. His brother Louis was at the scene, the cops arrived. The Afro described how policemen bludgeoned Louis “although they had arrested him illegally, and continued to beat him in a patrol wagon while transporting him to the police station.” He was dead two days later.
But really the violence began before that. It was 1956. There were five police killings in four months. Patrolman Charles Fennell shot Harry Boyd, Jr. in the back on June 25. Patrolman Walter Mina, Jr.’s bullet wounded Robert Harper in the leg on July 7. The blood drained from Harper’s injury until he died. On August 15, Sergeant Albert Heck killed 24-year-old Frank J. Williams. Patrolman Benjamin Ledden opened fire on September 19—in self-defense, he insisted—terminating Donald Jackson’s life at 23. Patrolman Marshall V. Brewer took out 14-year-old Benjamin Brown with a rifle he “didn’t know was loaded.” Of these five policemen, only Brewer was suspended.
Those were just the 1956 shootings. The Afro’s Elizabeth Murphy Oliver wrote of her visit to Northwestern Police Station that September. What she saw shattered her. She “hoped it was a dream.” It wasn’t. She had witnessed “a policeman beat a man and drag him roughly on the floor while the victim writhed and rolled in agony.” Vernon Johnson “was still sobbing and holding his eye” when it ended. “Blood was dripping from somewhere.” Oliver “wondered how an eye could run blood,” watched Johnson’s tears fall, “mixed with blood.” The Afro visited Johnson a week later. “His eye is still closed. He doesn’t sleep much, and his chest hurts when he breathes.” This was when the violence started.
No. In February 1942, Patrolman Edward Bender shot his second black victim, Thomas Broadus, as he fled. His friends rushed over to take him to the hospital. Bender blocked them, and Broadus died in the street before “scores of persons,” according to the Afro. This was when the violence began.
No—it was before that. Officer Charles Harris shot Roland Freeman dead on November 14, 1931. On March 29, 1930, the Afro wrote that “Officer Herman Trautner, white, killed Roosevelt Yates, an unarmed man he was seeking to arrest.” “The trouble is police brutality in Baltimore has gone as far as some people are going to stand,” the paper warned, 85 years ago.
That same year it profiled Rev. E. W. White, pastor of the Provident Baptist Church. “Baptist Minister Says Brutality Surpasses Anything South Has Seen,” ran the headline. Two decades earlier, in 1911, the Afro alerted readers that cops were “shooing colored people out of neighborhoods where a majority of the residents are white.” “It is just this kind of conduct,” a 1906 story on a mass arrest of blacks affirmed, “that often makes well-disposed people do what under other circumstances they would not do.”
“To us,” Baltimore resident D. Watkins explained this week, the city’s “Police Department is a group of terrorists;” major news outlets, on violence in Baltimore, recall the fish in the joke. “How’s the water?” the fisherman asks. “What’s water?” replies the fish, oblivious to what makes its world—like the establishment media, unaware of the violence shaping theirs.
Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
President Obama claims to value “openness” as a core principle of democracy, but the truth is that his administration has been among the most secretive and manipulative in modern times, tailoring what the public hears about foreign crises to what serves his agenda.
In disclosing the deaths of two Western hostages in a U.S. drone strike on an Al-Qaeda compound, President Barack Obama said on Thursday that he had ordered the declassification of the secret operation because “the United States is a democracy committed to openness in good times and in bad.”
But the reality of the past six years has been that his administration has enforced wildly excessive secrecy, selectively declassified material to mislead the American people, and failed to correct erroneous information on sensitive international issues.
A photograph of a Russian BUK missile system that U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt published on Twitter in support of a claim about Russia placing BUK missiles in eastern Ukraine, except that the image appears to be an AP photo taken at an air show near Moscow two years ago.
This failure to trust the people with accurate information has arguably done great harm to U.S. democracy by promoting false narratives on a range of foreign conflicts. With all its talk about “public diplomacy” and “information warfare,” the Obama administration seems intent on using half-truths and falsehoods to herd the people into a misguided consensus rather than treating them like the true sovereigns of the Republic, as the Framers of the Constitution intended with the explicit phrase “We the People of the United States.”
For instance, the Obama administration rushed to judgments on pivotal international events – such as the Syrian-sarin case in 2013 and the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shoot-down over Ukraine in 2014 – and then refused to update those assessments as new evidence emerged changing how U.S. intelligence analysts understood what happened.
Instead of correcting or refining the record – and pursuing meaningful accountability against the perpetrators of these crimes – the Obama administration has left outdated, misleading accusations in the public domain, all the better to fit with some geopolitical goals, such as delegitimizing the Syrian and Russian governments. In other words, providing the American people with substantive updates on these atrocities and advancing the cause of justice take a back seat to keeping some geopolitical foe on the defensive.
In both the Syrian-sarin case and the MH-17 shoot-down, I’ve been told that U.S. intelligence analysts have not only refined their understanding of the events but – to a significant degree – reversed them. But the original assessments, which were released nine and five days after the events, respectively, were still being handed out to the press many months later. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “A Fact-Resistant Group Think on Syria” and “US Intel Stands Pat on MH-17 Shoot-down.”]
What is perhaps most troubling in both cases, however, is that the killings involved serious crimes against humanity and the perpetrators have not been identified and brought to justice. Whatever new evidence U.S. intelligence has collected could help track down who was responsible but that doesn’t appear to be a priority for President Obama.
In the MH-17 case, the timetable for the next scheduled release of information is on the first anniversary of the shoot-down, which occurred on July 17, 2014. Given that the shoot-down, which killed 298 people, should be an active criminal investigation, it makes little sense to delay disclosures for something as artificial as an anniversary, giving whoever was responsible more time to slip away and cover their tracks.
In the meantime, the U.S. government continues to re-release its initial claims putting blame on foreign adversaries – the governments of Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin – so the assumption may be drawn that the updated analyses go in different directions, possibly implicating U.S. allies, such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia regarding the sarin attack and elements of the U.S.-backed Ukrainian regime in the MH-17 case. Whatever the truth, however, it is hard to justify why the U.S. government has withheld evidence in these criminal cases, whoever is implicated.
Of course, double standards sometimes appear to be the only standards when the U.S. government is involved these days. When ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine resist a coup that overthrew their elected president in 2014 – and get some help from Russians next door – the Obama administration and the mainstream U.S. news media decry “Russian aggression.”
On Wednesday, the Obama administration declassified its own claims that Russia had deployed air defense systems in eastern Ukraine and had built up its forces along the border with Ukraine, assertions that Russian officials denied, though those denials were not included in the article on Thursday by New York Times’ national security reporter Michael R. Gordon, who treated the allegations essentially as flat fact.
After citing some analysts musing about different explanations for Russian President Putin’s supposed actions, Gordon wrote, “Either way, the new military activity is a major concern because it has significantly reduced the amount of warning that Ukraine and its Western supporters would have if Russian forces and separatists mounted a joint offensive.”
Gordon then quoted State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf saying: “This is the highest amount of Russian air defense equipment in eastern Ukraine since August. … Combined Russian-separatist forces continue to violate the terms of the ‘Minsk-2’ agreement signed in mid-February.”
Though Gordon included no Russian response to these charges, he did mention that Russia had complained about what Gordon called “a modest program” of 300 American troops in Ukraine training national guard units, a program that Russian officials said could “destabilize the situation.” Gordon wrote that the Obama administration, in response to this Russian complaint. “declassified intelligence describing a range of Russian military activities in and near Ukraine.”
But the intelligence appeared to be just U.S. accusations. In Kiev, U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt tweeted about “the highest concentration of Russia air defense systems in eastern Ukraine since August” and illustrated his claim by showing a photo of a BUK anti-aircraft missile system. But the photo appeared to be an Associated Press photograph taken of a BUK system on display at an air show near Moscow two years ago, as the Russian network RT noted.
Gordon, who co-authored with Judith Miller the famously bogus Times’ exposé in 2002 about Iraq procuring aluminum tubes for building nuclear bombs, has been an eager conduit for U.S. government propaganda over the years, including his role last year in a page-one Times scoop that cited State Department and Ukrainian government claims about photographs that proved Russian troops were in Ukraine but turned out to be false. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Retracts Russian Photo Scoop.”]
Yet, while Russia is not supposed to mind the forced ouster of a friendly government on its borders or the presence of U.S. and NATO forces supporting the successor regime, a more sympathetic view is taken when Saudi Arabia intervenes in Yemen’s civil war by bombing the country indiscriminately, reportedly killing hundreds of civilians and devastating ancient cities with priceless historical sites that date back thousands of years.
“They’re worried about their own security – and of course we’ve supported them,” stated White House communications director Jen Psaki. “But, again, we’re trying to redirect this to a political discussion here.” (The New York Times article about this “Saudi resolve” – with a similarly understanding tone toward the Saudis – was co-authored by Gordon.)
This pattern of perverting U.S. intelligence information to bolster some U.S. foreign policy agenda has become a trademark of the Obama administration – along with an unprecedented number of prosecutions of U.S. government whistleblowers who release real information that exposes government wrongdoing or waste. This double standard belies President Obama’s assertion that he values openness in a democracy. [For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com’s “President Gollum’s ‘Precious’ Secrets.”]
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
On Sunday evening, CBS’s “60 Minutes” presented what was pitched as a thorough examination of the infamous sarin gas attack outside Damascus, Syria, on Aug. 21, 2013, with anchor Scott Pelley asserting that “none of what we found will be omitted here.” But the segment – while filled with emotional scenes of dead and dying Syrians – made little effort to determine who was responsible.
Pelley’s team stuck to the conventional wisdom from the rush-to-judgment “white paper” that the White House issued on Aug. 30, 2013, just nine days after the incident, blaming the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. But Pelley ignored contrary evidence that has emerged in the 20 months since the attack, including what I’ve been told are dissenting views among U.S. intelligence analysts.
The segment also played games with the chronology of the United Nations inspectors who had been invited to Damascus by Assad to investigate what he claimed were earlier chemical attacks carried out by Syrian rebels, a force dominated by Islamic extremists, including Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the even more brutal Islamic State.
Though Pelley starts the segment by interviewing a Syrian who claimed he witnessed a sarin attack in Moadamiya, a suburb south of Damascus, Pelley leaves out the fact that Moadimiya was the first area examined by the UN inspectors and that their field tests found no evidence of sarin. Nor does Pelley note that UN laboratories also found no sarin or other chemical agents on the one missile that the inspectors recovered from Moadamiya.
The two labs did have a dispute over whether trace elements of some chemicals found in Moadamiya might have been degraded sarin. But those disputed positives made no sense because when the UN inspectors went to the eastern suburb of Zamalka two and three days later, their field equipment immediately registered positive for sarin and the two labs confirmed the presence of actual sarin.
So, if the sarin had not degraded in Zamalka, why would it have degraded sooner in Moadamiya? The logical explanation is that there was no sarin associated with the Moadamiya rocket but the UN laboratories were under intense pressure from the United States to come up with something incriminating that would bolster the initial U.S. rush to judgment.
The absence of actual sarin from the rocket that struck Moadamiya also raises questions about the credibility of Pelley’s first witness. Or possibly a conventional rocket assault on the area ruptured some kind of chemical containers that led panicked victims to believe they too were under a chemical attack.
That seemed to be a working hypothesis among some U.S. intelligence analysts even as early as the Aug. 30, 2013 “white paper,” which was called a U.S. “Government Assessment,” an unusual document that seemed to ape the form of a “National Intelligence Estimate,” which would reflect the consensus view of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies and include analytical dissents.
By going with this new creation – a “Government Assessment,” which was released by the White House press office, not the Office of Director of National Intelligence – the State Department, which was then itching for war with Syria, got to exclude any dissents to the hasty conclusions. But the intelligence analysts managed to embed one dissent as a cutline to a map which was included with the “white paper.”
The cutline read: “Reports of chemical attacks originating from some locations may reflect the movement of patients exposed in one neighborhood to field hospitals and medical facilities in the surrounding area. They may also reflect confusion and panic triggered by the ongoing artillery and rocket barrage, and reports of chemical use in other neighborhoods.”
In other words, some U.S. intelligence analysts were already questioning the assumption of a widespread chemical rocket assault on the Damascus suburbs – and the strongest argument for the State Department’s finger-pointing at Assad’s military was the supposedly large number of rockets carrying sarin.
Possible ‘False Flag’
However, if there had been only one sarin-laden rocket, i.e., the one that landed in Zamalka, then the suspicion could shift to a provocation – or “false-flag” attack – carried out by Islamic extremists with the goal of tricking the U.S. military into destroying Assad’s army and essentially opening the gates of Damascus to a victory by Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.
That was what investigative journalist Seymour Hersh concluded in ground-breaking articles describing the alleged role of Turkish intelligence in assisting these Islamic extremists in securing the necessary materials and expertise to produce a crude form of sarin.
In December 2013, Hersh reported that he found a deep schism within the U.S. intelligence community over how the case was sold to pin the blame on Assad. Hersh wrote that he encountered “intense concern, and on occasion anger” when he interviewed American intelligence and military experts “over what was repeatedly seen as the deliberate manipulation of intelligence.”
According to Hersh, “One high-level intelligence officer, in an email to a colleague, called the administration’s assurances of Assad’s responsibility a ‘ruse’. The attack ‘was not the result of the current regime’, he wrote.
“A former senior intelligence official told me that the Obama administration had altered the available information – in terms of its timing and sequence – to enable the president and his advisers to make intelligence retrieved days after the attack look as if it had been picked up and analysed in real time, as the attack was happening.
“The distortion, he said, reminded him of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, when the Johnson administration reversed the sequence of National Security Agency intercepts to justify one of the early bombings of North Vietnam. The same official said there was immense frustration inside the military and intelligence bureaucracy.”
Despite Hersh’s legendary reputation dating back to the My Lai massacre story during the Vietnam War and revelations about CIA abuses in the 1970s, his first 5,500-word article — as well as a second article — appeared in the London Review of Books, a placement that suggests the American media’s “group think” blaming the Assad regime remained hostile to any serious dissent on this topic.
Much of the skepticism about the Obama administration’s case on the Syrian sarin attack has been confined to the Internet, including our own Consortiumnews.com. Indeed, Hersh’s article dovetailed with much of what we had reported in August and September of 2013 as we questioned the administration’s certainty that Assad’s regime was responsible.
Our skepticism flew in the face of a “group think” among prominent opinion leaders who joined in the stampede toward war with Syria much as they did in Iraq a decade earlier. War was averted only because President Barack Obama was informed about the intelligence doubts and because Russian President Vladimir Putin helped arrange a compromise in which Assad agreed to surrender his entire chemical weapons arsenal, while still denying any role in the sarin attack.
A Short-Range Rocket
Later, when rocket scientists — Theodore A. Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Richard M. Lloyd, an analyst at the military contractor Tesla Laboratories — analyzed the one home-made, sarin-laden rocket that landed in Zamalka, they concluded that it could have traveled only about two to three kilometers, meaning that it would have been fired from an area controlled by the rebels, not the government.
That finding destroyed a conclusion reached by Human Rights Watch and the New York Times, which vectored the suspected paths of the two rockets — one from Moadamiya and one from Zamalka — to where the two lines intersected at a Syrian military base about 9.5 kilometers from the points of impact. Not only did the vectoring make no sense because only the Zamalka rocket was found to contain sarin but the rocket experts concluded that it couldn’t even fly a third of the way from the military base to where it landed.
After touting its original Assad-did-it claim on the front page on Sept. 17, 2013, the Times snuck its retraction below the fold on page 8 in an article published on Dec. 29, 2013, between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
But none of these doubts were examined in any way in Pelley’s “60 Minutes” presentation. Instead, Pelley simply pointed the finger at the Syrian government, citing U.S. intelligence. Pelley said: “The rockets were types used by the Syrian army and they were launched from land held by the dictatorship. U.S. intelligence believes the Syrian army used sarin in frustration after years of shelling and hunger failed to break the rebels.”
Pelley did note one anomaly to the conventional wisdom: Why would Assad have ordered a chemical attack outside Damascus after inviting in a team of UN inspectors to examine another site? Pelley then shrugs off that contradiction while offering no alternative scenario and leaving the clear impression that the attack was carried out by the Syrian government.
When I asked the Office of Director of National Intelligence about the “60 Minutes” segment, spokesperson Kathleen C. Butler responded with this e-mailed response: “The intelligence community assess[es] with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack against opposition elements in the Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013. The intelligence community assesses that the scenario in which the opposition executed the attack on August 21 is highly unlikely.”
In a subsequent e-mail, she added that there was “full consensus on the assessment.” [For more details on the sarin incident, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Collapsing Syria-Sarin Case.”]
Clueless over Iraq
Pelley has built a highly successful CBS career by always parroting the official line of the U.S. government no matter how obviously false it is. For instance, in 2008, he conducted an interview with FBI interrogator George Piro who had questioned Iraq’s Saddam Hussein before his execution.
Pelley wondered why Hussein had kept pretending that he had weapons of mass destruction when a simple acknowledgement that they had been destroyed would have spared his country the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
“For a man who drew America into two wars and countless military engagements, we never knew what Saddam Hussein was thinking,” Pelley said in introducing the segment on the interrogation of Hussein about his WMD stockpiles. “Why did he choose war with the United States?”
The segment never mentioned the fact that Hussein’s government did disclose that it had eliminated its WMD, including a 12,000-page submission to the UN on Dec. 7, 2002, explaining how its WMD stockpiles had been destroyed. In fall 2002, Hussein’s government also allowed teams of UN inspectors into Iraq and gave them free rein to examine any site of their choosing.
Those inspections only ended in March 2003 when President George W. Bush decided to press ahead with war despite the UN Security Council’s refusal to authorize the invasion and its desire to give the UN inspectors time to finish their work.
But none of that reality was part of the faux history that Pelley delivered to the American public. He preferred the officially sanctioned U.S. account, as embraced by Bush in speech after speech, that Saddam Hussein “chose war” by defying the UN over the WMD issue and by misleading the world into believing that he still possessed these weapons.
In line with Bush’s made-up version of history, Pelley pressed Piro on the question of why Hussein was hiding the fact that Iraq no longer had WMD. Piro said Hussein explained to him that “most of the WMD had been destroyed by the UN inspectors in the ‘90s, and those that hadn’t been destroyed by the inspectors were unilaterally destroyed by Iraq.”
“So,” Pelley asked, “why keep the secret? Why put your nation at risk, why put your own life at risk to maintain this charade?”
After Piro mentioned Hussein’s lingering fear of neighboring Iran, Pelley felt he was close to an answer to the mystery: “He believed that he couldn’t survive without the perception that he had weapons of mass destruction?”
But, still, Pelley puzzled over why Hussein’s continued in his miscalculation. Pelley asked: “As the U.S. marched toward war and we began massing troops on his border, why didn’t he stop it then? And say, ‘Look, I have no weapons of mass destruction,’ I mean, how could he have wanted his country to be invaded?”
On Sunday, Pelley was reprising that role as the ingénue foreign correspondent trying to decipher the mysterious ways of the Orient.
Just as Pelley couldn’t figure why Hussein had “wanted his country to be invaded” — when no one at “60 Minutes” thought to mention that Hussein and his government had fully disclosed their lack of WMD to save their country from being invaded — Pelley couldn’t fully comprehend why the Assad regime would have launched a sarin gas attack with UN inspectors sitting in Damascus.
The possibility that the attack actually was a provocation by Al-Qaeda or Islamic State extremists — who have demonstrated their lack of compassion for innocents and who had a clear motive for getting the U.S. military to bomb Assad’s army — was something that Pelley couldn’t process. The calculation was too much for him even after last week’s disclosure that Syrian rebels had staged a 2013 kidnapping/rescue of NBC’s correspondent Richard Engel, whose abduction was falsely blamed on Assad’ allies.
Inviting a Massacre
Besides being an example of shallow reporting and shoddy journalism – using highly emotional scenes while failing to seriously investigate who was responsible – the “60 Minutes” episode could also be a prelude to a far worse human rights crime, which could follow the defeat of the Syrian army and a victory by Al-Qaeda or its spin-off, the Islamic State.
Right now, the only effective fighting force holding off that victory – and the very real possibility of a massacre of Christians, Alawites, Shiites and other religious minorities – is the Syrian army. Some of those Syrian Christians, now allied with Assad, are ethnic Armenians whose ancestors fled the Turkish genocide a century ago.
The recent high-profile comment by Pope Francis about the Armenian genocide can be understood in the context of the impending danger to the survivors’ descendants if the head-chopping Islamic State prevails in the Syrian civil war, the possibility that these Sunni extremists backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia might finish the job that the Ottoman Empire began a century ago.
Yet, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the American neocons are still set on the overthrow of the Assad government and continue to pretend that Obama could have averted the Syrian crisis if he had only bombed or invaded Syria several years ago.
The Washington Post’s neocon editorial page editor Fred Hiatt recited that theme in an op-ed on Monday that made a major point out of the Assad government’s alleged use of something called “barrel bombs” — as if some crude explosive device is somehow less humane than the more sophisticated weapons that were used to slaughter countless innocents by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel in Gaza and Lebanon and now Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
“Obama could have destroyed Assad’s helicopters or given the resistance the weapons to do so,” Hiatt said, arguing the neocon assertion that to have intervened earlier would have somehow prevented the rise of Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State. But that is another simplistic argument since there were terrorist elements in the Syrian civil war from the beginning and many of the so-called “moderates” who were trained and armed by the United States have since joined forces with the extremists. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Syrian Rebels Embrace Al-Qaeda.”]
The key question for Syria’s future is how can a realistic political settlement be reached between Assad’s government and whatever reasonable opposition remains. But such a complex and difficult solution is not advanced by irresponsible journalism at CBS and the Washington Post.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
Mainstream media accounts of the seventh Summit of the Americas, held last weekend in Panama, provide a deceptively rosy picture of U.S.-Latin American relations, echoing the official viewpoint of the U.S. government. In the mainstream account, the U.S. government’s decision to alter its policy towards Cuba by reestablishing diplomatic relations and working to ease—though not end—the fifty-four-year-old U.S. embargo has dramatically transformed U.S.-Latin American relations. At the summit, President Obama declared, “The days in which our agenda in this hemisphere presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity, those days are past”.
Obama is right: the era of uncontested U.S. domination in Latin America is over. This is not, however, because the U.S. has suddenly realized that Latin American nations deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. While the region’s leaders have universally praised Obama for his recent actions with respect to Cuba, Latin America remains profoundly wary of the United States. This is not simply because of “history,” as Obama would have the world believe. Rather, it is because of Washington’s continuing efforts to assert its dominance over Latin America. The most flagrant recent example of this came on March 9, 2015, when the White House made a strategically disastrous decision to label Venezuela an “unusual and extraordinary threat to U.S. national security.”
Media accounts of the Summit of the Americas acknowledge that Latin American leaders have expressed displeasure with this action. The New York Times reported that, “Several Latin American nations have criticized recent United States’ sanctions against several Venezuelan officials it has accused of human rights violations.” This statement, however, is so deceptive that it warrants an official retraction by the Times. “Several” Latin American nations did not criticize U.S. sanctions on Venezuela. Latin American nations universally condemned U.S. sanctions against Venezuela. On March 26, 2015, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which represents all 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, issued a statement rejecting U.S. sanctions on Latin America and calling for the reversal of the executive order issued on March 9. As Eva Golinger wrote, “Even staunch U.S. allies such as Colombia and Mexico signed onto the CELAC statement.” In a remarkable display of how out of touch the U.S. government has been when it comes to Venezuela, even the anti-government opposition in Venezuela rejected the view that Venezuela constitutes a threat to the US, issuing a statement that, “Venezuela is not a threat to any country.”
The U.S. government deserves a modicum of measured praise for its recent decision to backtrack on its criticism of Venezuela. In the lead-up to the Summit, a White House official declared that, “The United States does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security”. This about-face is significant, since it demonstrates the truth of Obama’s statement that the U.S. can no longer “meddle with impunity” in Latin America.
It is important to understand why this is the case.
It is not because the U.S. has stopped trying to “meddle with impunity.” In addition to the recent sanctions on Venezuela, there are many other recent examples of U.S. “meddling” in Latin America. For instance, the US has vocally and openly supported the Venezuelan anti-government opposition’s strategy of regime change. The George W. Bush administration supported the 2002 coup against Hugo Chávez. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have provided the opposition millions of dollars on an annual basis. The Obama administration provided tacit support for the 2009 coup in Honduras, first refusing to label president Manuel Zelaya’s unconstitutional removal from office a “coup,” and then legitimizing a post-coup government led by the forces that orchestrated Zelaya’s removal. Even though most Latin American nations refused to recognize the results of an election widely viewed as fraudulent, the White House gave the government its stamp of approval. Obama cannot claim that these actions are “history” or that they occurred “before [he] was born.”
It is now harder for the U.S. to “meddle with impunity” because Latin American nations have made substantial progress over the last fifteen years in increasing their ability to effectively assert national and regional sovereignty. This can be seen in the increasingly important role that intra-Latin American organizations that exclude the U.S. and Canada, such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and CELAC, now play in regional affairs. By contrast, the role of the Organization of American States (OAS), which includes the US and Canada, has diminished considerably.
Recent mainstream media accounts of Latin America acknowledge the region’s increasing independence from the U.S., and note that this is one of the factors that pushed the U.S. to change its stance towards Cuba. These accounts do not, however, properly acknowledge the fact that Latin America’s increased independence is due to the actions of “anti-U.S.” leftist leaders, like the late Hugo Chávez, and, just as importantly, the popular movements that brought these leaders to power and have kept them in office.
The Obama administration deserves the credit it has received, including from many Latin American leaders, for its decision to alter the U.S.’s anachronistic, ineffective, and imperious policy towards Cuba. The transformation of U.S.-Cuba relations must, however, be seen for what it is: a U.S. attempt to maintain influence in a region that has shown its ability to act independently. Latin American nations remain quite wary of the U.S. government. Unless Washington shows the ability to consistently respect Latin American sovereignty—most of all in countries, like Venezuela, that it disagrees with—skepticism about U.S. actions is likely to remain, with U.S. influence in the region continuing to decline. Given the evidence that the U.S. has not yet kicked its nasty habit of treating Latin America as its backyard, this should be seen as a good thing for the people of Latin America.
The historic meeting between President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba at the Summit of the Americas in Panama over the weekend could be interpreted as a steppingstone toward the end of U.S. subversion and economic warfare relentlessly carried out since the success of the Cuban revolution 55 years ago. But it is questionable whether President Obama intends to transform relations, treating the government of Cuba as a sovereign equal and recognizing their right to choose different political and economic models, or merely to continue the same decades-old policy with a more palatable sales pitch – the way he has done with drones and extrajudicial surveillance. U.S. media, however, appear to have fully embraced the idea that Washington is acting in the best interests of the Cuban people to liberate them from political repression. The New York Times weighed in the day before the Summit by claiming that most Cubans identify not with the sociopolitical goals advanced by their country’s government, but rather with those supported by Washington.
In an editorial titled “Cuban Expectations in a New Era” (4/7/2015), the New York Times advances the proposition that engagement between the two governments will lead to Cuba’s integration (at least partially) into the global capitalist economy. This in turn will create increased financial prosperity as Cuba grows its private sector and turns away from the failed model the government has imposed since the start of the revolution.
The New York Times portrays the Cuban government as intransigent, stubbornly holding its citizens back from the inevitable progress that would result from aligning itself with Washington. The Times claims that the Cuban government maintains a “historically tight grip on Cuban society.” They may be alluding to a Cuban version of the U.S.’s political police, the FBI, who for decades spied on nonviolent activists representing African Americans, Puerto Rican nationalists, the anti-war movement, animal rights and environmental groups to prevent social change through political activities. Many of the activists illegally targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program still remain incarcerated as political prisoners. But the Times doesn’t mention any such Cuban equivalent.
The fault of Cuba’s financial situation is placed squarely on the country’s government. The Times editorial only mentions the 51-year-old embargo by stating that “untangling the web of sanctions the United States imposes on Cuba will take years because many are codified into law.” Yet they then claim “the Obama administration’s gamble on engaging with Cuba has made it increasingly hard for [Cuba’s] leaders to blame their economic problems and isolation on the United States.”
They might have mentioned the embargo against Cuba cost the country $3.9 billion in foreign trade last year, bringing the inflation-adjusted total to $1.1 trillion since the policy was implemented. The embargo is still directly harming the Cuban economy and public health sector. The administrative measures implemented by Obama will provide, at most, minor relief. Extraterritorial provisions of the Helms-Burton Act that prevent Cuba from trading with 3rd countries remain firmly in place.
But the Times seems to believe the Cuban government is doing nothing more than making excuses when they complain about the devastating affects of the embargo on their economy and their population. They don’t mention that in October 187 other nations voted in the UN for the 23rd straight year to condemn the U.S. embargo against Cuba as illegal and demand that it end.
In her study “Unexpected Cuba,” economist Emily Morris rejects the argument that Cuba’s leaders have damaged their country’s economic performance and put its social progress at risk by failing to adopt capitalist reforms like privatization and liberalization.
“The problem with this account is that reality has conspicuously failed to comply with its predictions,” Morris writes. “Although Cuba faced exceptionally severe conditions – it suffered the worst exogenous shock of any of the Soviet-bloc members and, thanks to the long-standing US trade embargo, has confronted a uniquely hostile international environment – its economy has performed in line with the other ex-Comecon countries, ranking thirteenth out of the 27 for which the World Bank has full data.”
The New York Times then claims that the Cuban dissidents attending sideline events at the Panama Summit deserve to have regional leaders “amplify their voices.” They claim that such dissidents “have struggled for years to be heard in their own country, where those critical of the Communist system have faced repression.”
There is no evidence that the dissidents have struggled in Cuba because they have been repressed rather than that most of the population simply does not agree with their ideas or sympathize with them. In a presumptuous attempt to delegitimize the Cuban government, the Times claims it is actually the dissident contra-revolution that represents the majority of the Cuban people. “The government will have to reckon with the fact that many of the dissidents’ aspirations are shared by most Cubans,” the Times editorial states.
Again, there is no evidence that this is actually the case anywhere other than in Washington’s fantasies. The dissidents’ aspirations are not even stated. One assumes this refers to the objective of repealing socialism and instituting capitalism, which is also the official policy of the U.S. government. Mere changes to Cuba’s economy within the socialist structure is not a dissident position. Such changes and improvements are proposed and debated at all levels of Cuban politics, and have been openly embraced by Raúl Castro since he assumed the Presidency.
That the majority of the Cuban people share dissidents’ desire for capitalism is a bold claim. It infers that the Cuban government is not representative of its people, but rather forcibly imposes a socioeconomic system they oppose.
People familiar with Cuba have reached the opposite conclusion. Victor Rodriguez, a professor in the Ethnic Studies department of California State University Long Beach, recently returned from a visit to Cuba and had a different outlook.
“I spoke with at least 50 Cubans of all ages and walks of life,” he said. “Themes were that sovereignty, health care, and education are non-negotiable.” Rodriguez said that Cubans did have complaints about their system, with many stressing the need for higher salaries.
But the three areas he cites as resoundingly popular are the most basic hallmarks of the revolution. If Cuba were to abandon its socialist economic system – either willingly or under pressure from the United States – these would be the first areas to be sacrificed on the neoliberal altar. Dozens of countries in the global South from Africa, Latin America to Asia that now find themselves in the vice grip of suffocating debt can surely attest to this fact.
It is worth examining who are the voices that the New York Times claim deserve to be amplified. Among the “dissidents” are Guillermo Fariñas and Manuel Cuesta Morúa. Fariñas had fought in Angola against the racist South African apartheid regime and had supported Cuba’s revolutionary movement until a sudden change, notes Salim Lamrani, a French professor who specializes in Cuba-USA relations.
“It was only in 2003 that Fariñas made a 180 degree ideological switch and turned his back on the ideas he had defended in years past,” Lamrani writes. Contrary to representation in Western media, Fariñas had been sentenced to prison for crimes such as assaulting a colleague and an old man who had to have his spleen removed because of his injuries. Lamrani notes that Fariñas was admittedly financed by the US Interests Section in Havana. Perhaps not coincidentally, Fariñas became an outspoken critic of the Castro regime. Yet he was still permitted to speak freely with foreign media. His decision to express his political views, which happen to coincide with those of the interests that finance him, has paid handsomely.
“Guillermo Fariñas has chosen, as have those Cuban dissidents sensationalized by the western press, to live off his dissident activities, which offer undeniable financial opportunities and a standard of living much higher than other Cubans living in a context marked by economic difficulties and material scarcity,” Lamrani writes.
Cuesta Morúa is likewise a dissident who considers the Cuban revolution an abject failure, and who downplays any U.S. responsibility for the economic conditions Cuba faces.
Unlike dissidents in the United States, who cannot start a political organization or journalistic enterprise without concerning themselves with how it will impact their ability to pay for health care, a mortgage, food for their family or education, dissidents in Cuba do not have any of these worries. They enjoy a robust safety net that covers every single citizen, regardless of their view of the Cuban political system.
Many Cubans in attendance at the Summit in Panama had a different view of the dissidents than that espoused by the New York Times. They referred to the dissidents as mercenaries because of their financial links to a hostile foreign regime and coziness with anti-Castro exiles such as Luis Posada Carriles, the “Cuban bin Laden,” who has been implicated in numerous terrorist activities including the downing of a civilian airline and a string of hotel bombings in Havana.
The Cuban Web site Juventud Rebelde noted that the Cuban delegation, which represents more than 2,000 associations and Non-Governmental Organizations from the island, denounced the presence of people who are paid by interests seeking to destabilize Cuban society and the Cuban government.
Liaena Hernandez Martinez, of the National Committee of the Federation of Cuban Women, which represents more than 4 million Cubans said that: “For the Cuba dignified and sovereign that has resisted more than five decades of blockade it is inadmissible that people are here of such low moral character.”
The Times predictably aligns itself on the side of the U.S. government regarding their opinion of the true political aspirations of Cuban people. The idea that the U.S. is a disinterested observer nudging the Cuban government in the direction of greater democracy and human rights is nothing but pure propaganda, contradicted by more than half a century of history. The U.S. has always been the aggressor against Cuba, coercing it to become a neo-colony that could be exploited by the U.S. military and corporate interests from the time of the Platt amendment until the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista was ousted in 1959.
It should be no surprise that the U.S. government and corporations like the New York Times still presumptuously attempt to delegitimize the Cuban revolution and pretend that the Cuban politics are best understood and articulated by those either outside Cuba or in their service as paid agents. The notion that a population can create a socioeconomic system representing the will of its people that starkly rejects the Washington Consensus is simply unthinkable. Anyone who agrees with the government’s official line, regardless of their questionable motives or failure to resonate inside the country, is seen as Cuba’s true political representative class. It may take another 55 years to realize this is simply not the case.
On February 31, Obama announced the lifting of what the New York Times called “an arms freeze on Egypt”.
The US arms export restrictions the Times is referring to had been put in place following a 2013 coup, which removed Egypt’s democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi.
This Times piece titled, “Obama Removes Weapons Freeze Against Egypt” states:
“President Obama on Tuesday lifted an arms freeze against Egypt that he had first imposed after the military overthrow of the country’s democratically elected government nearly two years ago.”
The piece states that the “freeze” was imposed after the coup. Given this, readers will naturally assume the Obama administration enacted a significant policy shift towards the Egyptian government as a result of this affront to democracy.
But the Times quickly qualifies the extent of this arms freeze by listing the very small number of “big ticket” items which had been restricted.
The piece states:
“Mr. Obama cleared the way for the delivery of F-16 aircraft, Harpoon missiles and M1A1 Abrams tanks, weapons prized by Egyptian leaders, who have smoldered at the suspension.”
NPR handled this same issue in a more confused way. An NPR story called “US Ends Freeze on Military Aid to Egypt” stated:
“Certain types of training and military equipment never stopped flowing. But in 2013, the flow of weapons deliveries was halted after Egypt’s military takeover.”
These seemingly contradictory sentences seem to both admit US arms deliveries never really ended, but then also imply that they in fact had stopped.
Both the Times and NPR do correctly point out that F-16s, Harpoons, and M1A1 Tanks were held up by the Obama administration, and that now these items—along with the full allotment of the $1.3 billion in this year’s military assistance—will again flow to Egypt.
However, what the Times and NPR didn’t mention is that in essence US military aid to Egypt was never really frozen. The ‘freeze”, it turns out, was little more than a light frost.
Export data from the US Census Department shows that in 2014 alone the US shipped Egypt almost $44 million in parts for military aircraft, over $36 million in parts for armored fighting vehicles, and over $68 million in guided missiles.
In addition, both the NPR and Times piece fail to mention the 10 Apache helicopters, which the US delievered to Egypt in October of 2014 (worth $171 million), and which were previously included in the so called “arms freeze”.
What both the Times and NPR do mention is that these weapons are going to an Egyptian government which may be a titch less than perfect. However, they both completely fail to explain the depth of the abuses.
The Times piece mentions that Egyptian authorities have arrested over 40,000 people since the coup, and the NPR story states there are at least 20,000 political prisoners.
Both reports brush over how Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the now president of Egypt, seized control of Egypt following the coup and immediately instituted a serious crackdown on human rights, which continues to this day.
Neither NPR nor the Times mention the 1,300 protesters killed, the mass death sentences, that a major political party has been deemed a terrorist organization, that media outlets have been closed, that activists and journalists remain detained, that protest is essentially outlawed, and that there have been no serious steps towards democracy taken.
Despite these very serious human rights abuses, the US continued shipping, not only parts for advanced weapons systems like jets, helicopters, and tanks, but also smaller arms, which could be used against the Egyptian population.
In 2014, the US shipped a small number of military machine guns, military rifles, as well as over $600,000 worth of parts for military rifles.
These exports are especially troubling given that in August of 2013 the Egyptian security forces opened fire on a protest camp killing at least 1,000 people and injuring almost 4,000. This is a massacre similar in scale to the one in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Times and NPR faithfully played their servile role by peddling the myth that the US froze arms to Egypt. But surely human rights groups got the story right? Well, no.
Human Rights Watch have documented rights abuses perpetrated by the Egyptian government, however they haven’t documented much on the US responsibility for these abuses. This is especially true when it comes to US military support and US arms exports.
Egypt receives the second largest amount of US military aid, and the US and Egypt have a decades long history of military cooperation. Given this, the US could exert a significant amount of influence in Egypt. However, this context is absent in both the Times and NPR articles.
The Times, NPR, and HRW also all fail to mention that the end of US arms restrictions to Egypt means that the last remaining aid and weapons to Egypt, which had been held-up, have now been released.
This means that after a military coup, a massacre, systematic human rights abuses, and even continued detention of Americans, Egypt didn’t lose a single dollar of US taxpayer funded aid, or a single weapons shipment.
Shamefully, NPR, the Times, and HRW all lead readers to falsely believe that the US significantly changed its policy towards Egypt to respond to concerns for democracy and human rights. Unfortunately, the data says otherwise.