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All the News That’s Fit to Buy
The Bush era has brought a robust simplicity to the business of news management: where possible, buy journalists to turn out favorable stories and, as far as hostiles are concerned, if you think you can get away with it, shoot them or blow them up.
As with much else in the Bush era, the novelty lies in the openness with which these strategies have been conducted. Regarding the strategies themselves, there’s nothing fundamentally new, both in terms of paid coverage, and murder, as the killing in 1948 of CBS reporter George Polk suggests. Polk, found floating in the Bay of Salonika after being shot in the head, had become a serious inconvenience to a prime concern of US covert operations at the time, namely the onslaught on Communists in Greece.
Today we have the comical saga of the Pentagon turning to a Washington DC-based subcontractor, the Lincoln Group, to write and translate for distribution to Iraqi news outlets booster stories about the US military’s successes in Iraq. I bet the Iraqi newspaper reading public was stunned to learn the truth at last.
More or less simultaneously comes news of Bush’s plan, mooted to Tony Blair in April of 2004, to bomb the hq of Al Jazeera in Qatar. Blair argued against the plan, not, it seems, on moral grounds but because the assault might prompt revenge attacks.
Earlier assaults on Al Jazeera came in the form of a 2001 strike on the channel’s office in Kabul. In November, 2002 the US Air Force had another crack at the target and this time managed to blow it up. The US military claimed that they didn’t know the target was an Al Jazeera office, merely "a terrorist site".
In April 2003 a US fighter plane targeted and killed Tariq Ayub, an Al Jazeera reporter on the roof of Al Jazeera’s Baghdad office. The Arab network had earlier attempted to head off any "accidental" attack by giving the Pentagon the precise location of its Baghdad premises. That same day in Iraq US forces killed two other journalists, from Reuter’s and a Spanish tv station, and bombed an office of Abu Dhabi tv.
On the business of paid placement of stories in the Iraqi press there’s been some pompous huffing and puffing in the US among the opinion-forming classes about the dangers of "poisoning the well" and the paramount importance of instilling in the Iraqi mind respect for the glorious traditions of unbiased, unbought journalism as practised in the US Homeland. Christopher Hitchens, tranquil in the face of torture, indiscriminate bombing and kindred atrocities, yelped that the US instigators of this "all-the-news-that’s fit-to-buy" strategy should be fired.
Actually, it’s an encouraging sign of the resourcefulness of those Iraqi editors that they managed to get paid to print the Pentagon’s handouts. Here in the Homeland, editors pride themselves in performing the same service, without remuneration.
Did the White House slip Judy Miller money under the table to hype Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction? I’m quite sure it didn’t and the only money Miller took was her regular Times paycheck.
But this doesn’t mean that We The Taxpayers weren’t ultimately footing the bill for Miller’s propaganda. We were, since Miller’s stories mostly came from the defectors proffered her by Ahmad Chalabi’s group, the Iraqi National Congress, which even as late as the spring of 2004 was getting $350,000 a month from the CIA, said payments made in part for the INC to produce "intelligence" from inside Iraq.
It also doesn’t mean that when she was pouring her nonsense into the NYT’s news columns Judy Miller (or her editors) didn’t know that the INC’s defectors were linked to the CIA by a money trail. This same trail was laid out in considerable detail in Out of the Ashes, written by my brothers, Andrew and Patrick Cockburn, and published in 1999.
In this fine book, closely studied (and frequently pillaged without acknowledgement) by journalists covering Iraq the authors described how Chalabi’s group was funded by the CIA, with huge amounts of money $23 million in the first year alone - invested in an anti-Saddam propaganda campaign, subcontracted by the Agency to John Rendon, a Washington pr operator with good CIA connexions.
Almost from its founding in 1947, the CIA had journalists on its payroll, a fact acknowledged in ringing tones by the Agency in its announcement in 1976 when G.H.W. Bush took over from William Colby that "Effective immediately, the CIA will not enter into any paid or contract relationship with any full-time or part-time news correspondent accredited by any US news service, newspaper, periodical, radio or television network or station."
Though the announcement also stressed that the text the CIA would continue to "welcome" the voluntary, unpaid cooperation of journalists, there’s no reason to believe that the Agency actually stopped covert payoffs to the Fourth Estate.
Its practices in this regard before 1976 have been documented to a certain degree. In 1977 Carl Bernstein attacked the subject in Rolling Stone, concluding that more than 400 journalists had maintained some sort of alliance with the Agency between 1956 and 1972.
In 1997 the son of a well known CIA senior man in the Agency’s earlier years said emphatically, though off the record, to a CounterPuncher that "of course" the powerful and malevolent columnist Joseph Alsop "was on the payroll".
Press manipulation was always a paramount concern of the CIA, as with the Pentagon. In his Secret History of the CIA, published in 2001, Joe Trento described how in 1948 CIA man Frank Wisner was appointed director of the Office of Special Projects, soon renamed the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC). This became the espionage and counter-intelligence branch of the Central Intelligence Agency, the very first in its list of designated functions was "propaganda".
Later that year Wisner set an operation codenamed "Mockingbird", to influence the domestic American press. He recruited Philip Graham of the Washington Post to run the project within the industry.
Trento writes that
"One of the most important journalists under the control of Operation Mockingbird was Joseph Alsop, whose articles appeared in over 300 different newspapers." Other journalists willing to promote the views of the CIA, included Stewart Alsop (New York Herald Tribune), Ben Bradlee (Newsweek), James Reston (New York Times), Charles Douglas Jackson (Time Magazine), Walter Pincus (Washington Post), William C. Baggs (Miami News), Herb Gold (Miami News) and Charles Bartlett (Chattanooga Times).
By 1953 Operation Mockingbird had a major influence over 25 newspapers and wire agencies, including the New York Times, Time, CBS, Time. Wisner’s operations were funded by siphoning of funds intended for the Marshall Plan. Some of this money was used to bribe journalists and publishers."
In his book Mockingbird: The Subversion Of The Free Press By The CIA, Alex Constantine writes that in the 1950s, "some 3,000 salaried and contract CIA employees were eventually engaged in propaganda efforts".
Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner said recently, apropos the stories put into the Iraqi press by the Lincoln Group, that it wasn’t clear whether traditionally-accepted journalistic practices were violated. Warner can relax. The Pentagon, and the Lincoln Group, were working in a rich tradition, and their only mistake was to get caught.
Harold Pinter’s Great Speech and How the CIA May Have Silenced Paul Robeson
Harold Pinter is by no means the first eloquent enemy of the American Empire to have got the Nobel Prize for literature. In 1967 for example, when revulsion was rising across the world at the U.S.inflicted bloodbath in Vietnam, the committee picked the Guatemalan writer, Miguel Asturias, whose work was notable for its savage depictions of the US-backed destruction of democracy in Guetemala in 1954, at the instigation of the United Fruit Company. (Asked for its reaction to Asturias’ selection, United Fruit’s high command said stiffly that it had never heard of Asturias and would have no comment.)
I can’t find the text of Asturias’ acceptance speech, but I would guess that it didn’t rival the intensity and fury of Pinter’s depictions of the ravages of the American Empire since 1945. It was as though the works of Noam Chomsky had been compacted into one searing rhetorical lightening bolt. It will go into the history books, alongside such imperishable excoriations of empire as the speeches Thucidides put into the mouths of the Melians, and Tacitus into the mouth of Calgacus.
Here some of Pinter’s most savage paragraphs (the full speech ran on CounterPunch on Wednesday):
But my contention here is that the US crimes in the [postwar] period have only been superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone recognised as crimes at all. I believe this must be addressed and that the truth has considerable bearing on where the world stands now. Although constrained, to a certain extent, by the existence of the Soviet Union, the United States’ actions throughout the world made it clear that it had concluded it had carte blanche to do what it liked.
Direct invasion of a sovereign state has never in fact been America’s favoured method. In the main, it has preferred what it has described as ‘low intensity conflict’. Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people die but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It means that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom. When the populace has been subdued – or beaten to death – the same thing – and your own friends, the military and the great corporations, sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera and say that democracy has prevailed. This was a commonplace in US foreign policy in the years to which I refer. The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.
Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn’t know it.
It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.
I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self love. It’s a winner. Listen to all American presidents on television say the words, ‘the American people’, as in the sentence, ‘I say to the American people it is time to pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I ask the American people to trust their president in the action he is about to take on behalf of the American people.’
It’s a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words ‘the American people’ provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don’t need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it’s very comfortable. This does not apply of course to the 40 million people living below the poverty line and the 2 million men and women imprisoned in the vast gulag of prisons, which extends across the US.
The United States no longer bothers about low intensity conflict. It no longer sees any point in being reticent or even devious. It puts its cards on the table without fear or favour. It quite simply doesn’t give a damn about the United Nations, international law or critical dissent, which it regards as impotent and irrelevant. It also has its own bleating little lamb tagging behind it on a lead, the pathetic and supine Great Britain.
Pinter recorded the speech sitting in a wheel chair. He’s just fought off an onslaught cancer of the esophagus and was suffering new pains in his legs. Michael Billlington, the drama critic of The Guardian, gave a good account of Pinter’s delivery.
Pinter deployed a variety of tactics: the charged pause, the tug at the glasses, the unremitting stare at the camera. I am told by Michael Kustow, who co-produced the lecture, that after a time he stopped giving Pinter any instructions. He simply allowed him to rely on his actor’s instinct for knowing how to reinforce a line or heighten suspense.
Although the content of the speech was highly political, especially in its clinical dissection of post-war US foreign policy, it relied on Pinter’s theatrical sense, in particular his ability to use irony, rhetoric and humour, to make its point. This was the speech of a man who knows what he wants to say but who also realises that the message is more effective if rabbinical fervour is combined with oratorical panache.At one point, for instance, Pinter argued that "the United States supported and in many cases engendered every rightwing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the second world war". He then proceeded to reel off examples. But the clincher came when Pinter, with deadpan irony, said: "It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening, it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest." In a few sharp sentences, Pinter pinned down the willed indifference of the media to publicly recorded events. He also showed how language is devalued by the constant appeal of US presidents to "the American people". This was argument by devastating example. As Pinter repeated the lulling mantra, he proved his point that "The words "the American people" provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance." Thus Pinter brilliantly used a rhetorical device to demolish political rhetoric.
But it was the black humour of the speech I liked best. At one point, Pinter offered himself as a speechwriter to President Bush – an offer unlikely, on this basis of this speech, to be quickly accepted. And Pinter proceeded to give us a parody of the Bush antithetical technique in which the good guys and the bad guys are thrown into stark contrast: "My God is good. Bin Laden’s God is bad. His is a bad God. Saddam’s God was bad except he didn’t have one. He was a barbarian. We are not barbarians." Pinter’s poker face as he delivered this only reinforced its satirical power.
One columnist predicted, before the event, that we were due for a Pinter rant. But this was not a rant in the sense of a bombastic declaration. This was a man delivering an attack on American foreign policy, and Britain’s subscription to it, with a controlled anger and a deadly irony. And, paradoxically, it reminded us why Pinter is such a formidable dramatist. He used every weapon in his theatrical technique to reinforce his message. And, by the end, it was as if Pinter himself had been physically recharged by the moral duty to express his innermost feelings.
I remarked after reading Pinter’s text that it’s a sign of the debility of the American Empire that its agents didn’t manage to kill off his nomination, or–having failed at that–to kill Pinter before he was able to record his remarks. Hyperbole, but only up to a point.
Consider the CIA’s probable poisoning, at a fraught political moment, of Paul Robeson, the black actor, singer, and political radical. As Jeffrey St Clair and I wrote a few years ago in our book Serpents in the Garden, in the spring of 1961, Robeson planned to visit Havana, Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The trip never came off because Robeson fell ill in Moscow, where he had gone to give several lectures and concerts. At the time, it was reported that Robeson had suffered a heart attack. But in fact Robeson had slashed his wrists in a suicide attempt after suffering hallucinations and severe depression. The symptoms came on following a surprise party thrown for him at his Moscow hotel.
Robeson’s son, Paul Robeson, Jr., investigated his father’s illness for more than 30 years. He believes that his father was slipped a synthetic hallucinogen called BZ by U.S. intelligence operatives at the party in Moscow. The party was hosted by anti-Soviet dissidents funded by the CIA.
Robeson Jr. visited his father in the hospital the day after the suicide attempt. Robeson told his son that he felt extreme paranoia and thought that the walls of the room were moving. He said he had locked himself in his bedroom and was overcome by a powerful sense of emptiness and depression before he tried to take his own life.
Robeson left Moscow for London, where he was admitted to Priory Hospital. There he was turned over to psychiatrists who forced him to endure 54 electro-shock treatments. At the time, electro-shock, in combination with psycho-active drugs, was a favored technique of CIA behavior modification. It turned out that the doctors treating Robeson in London and, later, in New York were CIA contractors. The timing of Robeson’s trip to Cuba was certainly a crucial factor. Three weeks after the Moscow party, the CIA launched its disastrous invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. It’s impossible to underestimate Robeson’s threat, as he was perceived by the U.S. government as the most famous black radical in the world. Through the 1950s Robeson commanded worldwide attention and esteem. He was the Nelson Mandela and Mohammed Ali of his time. He spoke more than twenty languages, including Russian, Chinese, and several African languages. Robeson was also on close terms with Nehru, Jomo Kenyatta, and other Third World leaders. His embrace of Castro in Havana would have seriously undermined U.S. efforts to overthrow the new Cuban government.
Another pressing concern for the U.S. government at the time was Robeson’s announced intentions to return to the United States and assume a leading role in the emerging civil rights movement. Like the family of Martin Luther King, Robeson had been under official surveillance for decades. As early as 1935, British intelligence had been looking at Robeson’s activities. In 1943, the Office of Strategic Services, World War II predecessor to the CIA, opened a file on him. In 1947, Robeson was nearly killed in a car crash. It later turned out that the left wheel of the car had been monkey-wrenched. In the 1950s, Robeson was targeted by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist hearings. The campaign effectively sabotaged his acting and singing career in the states.
Robeson never recovered from the drugging and the follow-up treatments from CIA-linked doctors and shrinks. He died in 1977.
Footnote: an earlier version of the first item appeared in the print edition of The Nation that went to press last Wednesday