Misinformation and Mythology and the Mainstream Media

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Too much reporting on national security in the mainstream media is based on official government sources, consisting of assessments and interpretations that the government wants to circulate. The fact that it is difficult for contrarians or dissidents to get their views into the media adds to the one-sided nature of reporting and editorializing, which limits the public debate.  This oped is the first of several occasional pieces that will expose what I consider to be myths or beliefs that have been given uncritical acceptance by the media and the general public.  These myths are far too prevalent in the field of national security.

The CIA’s Intelligence Failure Regarding 9/11.  For the past 20 years, oped writers have indulged the myth that the Central Intelligence Agency provided genuine warning to President George W. Bush for al Qaeda’s attack on 9/11.  The most recent example appeared in the Washington Post in an oped by James Hohmann titled “An Insurrection hiding in plain sight.” Hohmann wrote that on August 6, 2001, the CIA’s Presidential Daily Brief “cautioned” Bush that Osama bin Laden was “determined to strike in the U.S.” and that CIA director George Tenet warned that the “system was blinking red” during the summer.

The CIA warnings were formulaic and very general, and not very helpful.  In actual fact, the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General prepared an authoritative account of the 9/11 intelligence failure, which pointed to the failures of Tenet and CIA deputy director John McLaughlin, but the Obama administration failed to release of the report.  The public still lacks a comprehensive understanding of the intelligence failure that contributed to the tragedy of 9/11.

In this particular case, Bush correctly dismissed the CIA’s very general warning that was based on no new information, but his lies in the run-up to the Iraq War two years later cast a cloud over the account in his memoir (“Decision Points,” 2010).  Bush accurately stated that the CIA had been worried about al Qaeda prior to 9/11, but “their intelligence pointed to an attack overseas.”  In response to a request from the president, the CIA prepared an item for the PDB that stated “We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that…bin Laden wanted to hijack U.S. aircraft.”  Bush told the briefer that he thought the CIA was using the PDB item to “cover its ass” on al Qaeda and terrorism.

Hohmann also indulges the myth that the 9/11 Commission did a thorough analysis of the terrorist attacks.  In fact, the Commission focused on budgets and funding for the intelligence community; organizational problems; and structural problems within the community.  The failure was about personal failure; accountability; and bureaucratic cowardice.  As a result of the Commission’s work, we ended up with the Office of National Intelligence that relies on government contractors and hasn’t reformed the intelligence community.  The Democratic and Republican members of the Commission spent much of their time protecting the reputations of former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, respectively.  President Barack Obama contributed to the failure of accountability because—similar to his position regarding CIA’s program of torture and abuse—he wanted to look ahead and not “look into the rear view mirror.”

Misinformation Regarding Afghanistan.

Several general officers, who oppose President Joe Biden’s decision to end the war, have been predicting that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan would lead to civil war.  In fact, Afghanistan has been in a civil war since the early 1970s when a bloodless coup removed the King, whose forty-year reign was relatively peaceful and prosperous—for Afghanistan.  An overwhelming majority of the Afghan population has known only war.

For nearly fifty years, Afghanistan has been in a state of chaos and discontinuity as Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Hazara, and Tajiks—among others—have been fighting for control of the country’s regions and district capitals.  The media treat the Taliban as outliers, but in fact the Pashtun represent Afghanistan’s major tribal group.  Their majority status as well as their sanctuary in Pakistan have assured a Taliban victory over the long term.  The U.S. military has been unwilling to accept the humiliation of its defeats in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and have tried to place the blame on external factors such as congressional opposition or premature withdrawal.  The wars were never winnable, as the guerrilla fighters in both wars had sanctuaries across the border.  The military and the media indulged the myth that the Taliban were simply “accidental” guerrillas, initially underestimating the organization and discipline of the Taliban.  Even President Obama was susceptible to this misinformation and mythmaking, giving uncritical acceptance in his presidential campaign to the absurd notion that Afghanistan was the “good war.”

As far as Pakistan is concerned, U.S. media for too long treated that country as an ally. Another myth!  While we have spent more than $1 trillion to defeat the Taliban, Pakistan has been spending far less to ensure the Taliban’s return to Kabul so that Islamabad could focus on its genuine enemy—India.  Pakistan and the Taliban wanted to start negotiations with the United States soon after our success against al Qaeda and bin Laden, but the Bush administration had no interest in talks that possibly could have prevented a twenty-year disaster.  The United States successfully toppled the Taliban and ousted al Qaeda from Afghanistan in 2001 within 90 days and could have withdrawn the very small force of Green Berets and CIA special forces soon after and claimed victory.

Meanwhile, the intelligence community, including CIA director William Burns, is circulating the notion that our military withdrawal from Afghanistan would hamper our intelligence collection in Afghanistan.  The United States does not have to be on the ground to collect intelligence regarding Afghanistan.  In fact, much of our actionable intelligence comes from foreign liaison sources who warned us twenty years ago about the threat of weaponizing commercial aircraft; the planning of al Qaeda to attack vulnerable U.S. targets; and bin Laden’s focus on hijacking aircraft from American Airlines and United Airlines.  A blizzard of such warnings went unheeded, while the media perpetuates the myth of the failure to “connect the dots.”  The real failure was one of rigor and imagination as the CIA lacked a system for collecting intelligence against such indicators as the weaponization and hijacking of commercial aircraft.

Defense Budget Myths.

There are many media myths associated with our bloated defense budget, but the notion that the United States devotes as much spending to defense as the next ten leading countries is particularly risible.  In fact, the United States spends more than the entire global community on defense when the entire investment devoted to the military is taken into account.  It is insufficient to cite only the spending of the Pentagon (roughly $750 billion) when an additional $500 billion is spent by such agencies as the Department of Energy, the Veterans Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Intelligence Community.  The VA is devoted to the terrible costs of our mostly unnecessary wars; the Energy Department is responsible for our nuclear inventory; the DHS includes the Coast Guard; and the military dominates the spending of our $70 billion intelligence community, which now includes 17 different departments and agencies.

Future articles will deal with media mythology that exaggerates the threat from China; places far too much blame on Russia for disputes over Ukraine; and indulges the self-proclaimed notion that the United States has been pursuing a “rules-based” international order.


Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.