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Hostage to the Rules of Espionage

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“Trump emphasized the need to work together to end the conflict in Syria” . . . and “emphasized his desire to build a better relationship between the United States and Russia.”

Welcome to the last paragraph of a Washington Post story the other day, a loose fragment of news, a homeless child, a cynical trigger. This is the story in which we learn that “President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week” and the let’s-be-friends comment was part of the official White House statement about the meeting, the point of which was to dismiss the Post’s allegations as false.

And indeed, the statement comes wrapped in cynicism, as though our proto-fascist, race-baiting, bomb-happy president carries the world’s hope for peace in his heart. Nonetheless, I feel the need to rescue this paragraph from the rest of the Post’s story, which details the latest manifestation of Russiagate in Trumpville.

The president, apparently in a moment of reckless, “off-script” conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, allegedly tossed some classified data — which came to us via an ally (Israel, according to the New York Times) and so was supposed to be handled with ultra-secrecy — into the evening’s festivities: “I get great intel,” he said to the Russians, an unnamed official who was present told the Post. “I have people brief me on great intel every day.”

And another Trumpboast dominates the news for several days. The story amounted to this, as the Post explains: “Under the rules of espionage, governments — and even individual agencies — are given significant control over whether and how the information they gather is disseminated, even after it has been shared. Violating that practice undercuts trust considered essential to sharing secrets.”

So, OK, the president was boasting like a college sophomore after his fourth beer and, in the process, he violated “the rules of espionage.” That’s the story. For several days, it came blasting at us with the intensity of a firehose. It was reported with the urgency of Armageddon, which is how every Trump story is reported. And then it passes and we move on to the next one.

My point is that there’s a lot more urgency here than there is news. The story is about the rules of the national and global security state — which, please be clear, is not the same thing as national and global security. The story does not penetrate into the world of secrets those rules guard, or address the crucial need to resolve the planet’s hemorrhaging military conflicts. Rather, it stays on the surface of the matter, yammering that a rule has been violated. And the rule is presented as objective reality.

And suddenly I find myself careening backwards in time: The Bush administration has launched its war on terror and is preparing to invade Iraq and the mainstream coverage of this is sheer public relations for the invasion, completely dismissing the global opposition that has erupted across the planet. Fifteen years later, nothing has changed. The war and its subsequent ebb and flow of surges, the rise of terrorism, the collapse of the Middle East, the global flood of refugees — all of this is covered with a shrug, in a contextual void. And the planners and supporters of the invasion — the war-on-terrorists — remain securely in power, alarmed, apparently, about only one recent occurrence: the election of Donald Trump.

In the Post story, the only window on the larger reality in which we live is in that last paragraph, when a White House statement talks about “building a better relationship” between the United States and Russia. Such a statement has potentially world-changing consequences . . . except, alas, it’s not reported as news.

I’m not saying I believe Trump has the will or intelligence to advance the cause of global peace — or even much of an interest in anything beyond his own ego — but I am saying, if the media want to hold him accountable, they should do so in relation to the cause of peace, not the rules of espionage.

But, of course, neither George Bush nor Barack Obama — nor any American president — have ever been held accountable to the cause of peace, which is a remarkable fact to contemplate.

Another memory comes to mind. In the summer of 2004, I got a fundraising call from a member of the John Kerry presidential campaign; when I pushed him on where Kerry stood on the occupation of Iraq — needing to hear some indication he was against it — the caller eventually hung up on me in frustration. I was so troubled by this I called Kerry’s central campaign headquarters, where a spokesman expounded a point of view that I called at the time “Wolfowitz lite.”

“The antiwar voice, the soul of John Kerry’s support and a prime source of his funding . . . is totally shut out of this campaign,” I wrote.

And this voice is still shut out, but as a consolation prize we get to be spectators in our own democracy. As Chris Hedges writes:

“Forget the firing of James Comey. Forget the paralysis in Congress. Forget the idiocy of a press that covers our descent into tyranny as if it were a sports contest between corporate Republicans and corporate Democrats or a reality show starring our maniacal president and the idiots that surround him. Forget the noise. The crisis we face is not embodied in the public images of the politicians that run our dysfunctional government. The crisis we face is the result of a four-decade-long, slow-motion corporate coup that has rendered the citizen impotent. . . . Trump is the symptom, not the disease.”

So far the media have shown little curiosity beyond the symptom. I fear it’s because their benefactor is the disease.

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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