Monday, January 02, 2006

Impeachment is Now Real

An hour after the New York Times described Bush’s illegal surveillance program, I wrote on the Huffington Post that Bush had committed a crime, a “High Crime,” and should be impeached.

Was there then enough evidence to justify the beginning of an attempt to impeach the President?


Did the President have a good defense that he relied on Gonzalez, Ashcroft and the best lawyers in the country (in the Solicitor General’s and Department of Justice’s offices)?


What is the Bush Administration Trying to Hide?

President George W. Bush began the new year by telling the American people that his NSA domestic surveillance program was only used to monitor communications between members of al-Qaeda and people in the United States. He did not address the issue of why he deemed it necessary to bypass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) that had, for 24 years, been reviewing and approving such surveillance programs.

Read On

Imperialism and its young admirers

Democracy talk was a sham, and realists in Washington are getting worried as the vacant character of the neo-cons is exposed for what it is: adolescent, dangerous bravado

By Azmi Bishara

01/01/06 "
Al-Ahram" -- -- Apart from the inevitable readjustments necessitated by having become bogged down in a bloody and intractable situation in Iraq, Washington's policy towards the region remains essentially the same. Spreading democracy was not originally one of its aims, and it was not the goal of the Iraqi parliamentary elections, the Palestinian presidential elections or the Saudi municipal elections, which nonetheless have been cheered as the first tender shoots of a democratic future. Following all these elections, violence in Iraq intensified and spread in new directions. In spite of these elections, the US bore down on regimes that were targets for the policy the US secretary of state dubbed "constructive destabilisation". Meanwhile, Washington's allies in the region have become increasingly bolder in making it choose between accepting them with all their corruption and the spectre of radical political Islam.

The US still acts as though it is at the beginning of a historic mission in the region, as Britain had in the wake of World War I. Bush showered Sharon with promises in an exchange of letters in April 2004 that have a strong whiff of the Balfour Declaration. Then, as surreptitiously as Sykes and Picot, the US began to draw up plans for dividing the Middle East. Although these British and French colonial architects used their pens and straightedges to carve their map onto countries, Washington is carving up countries along sectarian and ethnic lines.

As awry as things have gone in Iraq, the US administration cannot bring itself to look at that disaster in any way other than how it impacts on its popularity ratings or on its allies in the area who are cringing at the prospect of the growing influence of Iran. The destruction of Iraq and the suffering of the Iraqi people acquire importance only from this perspective. Therefore, the American president sat down with his military chiefs on 28 September to ponder a way to lift the morale of the American public, and came up with the ingenious "plan for victory in Iraq". The "plan" is to enable the Iraqis to defend "the freedom they have won" by building an Iraqi army capable of that aim. Then, once the Iraqi army "stands up" America will "stand down", as the US president so eloquently put it. The "victory plan" is reaping yet more bloodshed and more destruction.

How odd it is that this is the US that inaugurated its occupation of Iraq by dismantling the Iraqi army in accordance with an imperial edict issued by Caesar Bremer the Great in May 2003, as part of its project to build a sectarian confederation. The effect of this project and its attendant policies was to increase the power and prestige of the Kurdish and Shia militias, and the operations and assassinations these militias have carried out have only worked to augment the violent rejection of the new order in so-called Sunni areas. The subdivision of Iraq into sectarian-based political areas was unknown to that country before the Iraq-Iran war, which was one of the disasters initiated by Saddam Hussein with the support of the US and all its then allies, and opposed by all of the US's current ones. However, the sectarian politicisation we see today, which exceeds all bounds of the imagination, is a purely American achievement.

American journalists and commentators have wondered why statements issuing from the White House with regard to the reconstruction of an Iraqi army capable of taking on the "insurgents" have fluctuated so wildly between the optimistic and the pessimistic. In the course of an article recounting his impressions during a visit to Iraq, one American journalist smuggled in his conviction that the real culprit in the whole business is the culture of fear and apathy that had become ingrained under the Saddam dictatorship, and that this whole culture would have to be changed in order to build an effective Iraqi army. (Thomas Friedman, The New York Times, 29 September 2005). The funny thing is that this illustrious columnist, whose epigram regularly boasts of him being a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, drew this conclusion after being witness to a single anecdote, during his visit to the Um Qasr naval base, of a boatload of Iraqi sailors who decided to take a long lunch break one scorching afternoon, causing training exercises to be delayed that day. Nor did he catch the inconsistency in the same article between this conclusion, and his admiration for the ingenuity of the insurgents who began to use infrared devices from garage door openers after coalition forces had introduced jamming methods to block the detonation of roadside bombs by means of cell phone signals.

Why did Friedman not pick up on the fact that this "enemy" who "just keeps getting smarter" was made up of the same people who were reared under Saddam's alleged culture of fear and lack of initiative? Why did it escape him that the members of the new army lacked motivation whereas their adversaries had motivation in spades? Because he, like his military informants, has fallen into the habit of regurgitating half-baked truths about the culture of the US's Iraqi allies. The attitude is reminiscent of the disdain with which the Americans regarded their allies in South Vietnam, in contrast to their respectful awe for the Vietcong, even though the latter are as Vietnamese as the former. What is at work, essentially, is contempt on the part of the occupiers for those dependent upon them. It must be this contempt that has blinded them to the reality that the destruction of an entire economy and national infrastructure, the opening of the floodgates to theft and corruption, the subcontracting of the reconstruction of the Iraqi army to a host of greedy private catering, construction and security firms, and that recruitment into this army has become virtually the only source of livelihood for millions of unemployed, does not offer the greatest motives for fighting.

One would think that the situation in Iraq would have compelled the powers that be in Washington to give much more careful study to the problems inherent in direct military intervention in other countries of the Arab world -- Syria for example. However, American policy has not changed. Indeed, it appears to be growing more obsessive in its intent to exploit the 11 September aftermath to settle old grudges, thereby keeping the train of destruction in motion. In so doing, the Bush administration wavers between the pragmatism needed to cater to domestic public opinion, so as to ensure that this is not the last Republican administration for a long time, and also needed to cater to international opinion in order to keep America's overseas interests up and running, and the fundamentalist idealism that characterises America's foreign policy creed under the neo-conservatives.

While reading some American strategic studies recently, I was struck by how deeply the conviction runs in those circles that the aim of US intervention in the world since the Spanish-American war and the occupation of Cuba and the subsequent occupation of the Philippines was "nation-building", by which is meant spreading democracy and representational government. Clearly there has been some heavy ideological indoctrination going on in America's military academies, well before the neo-cons rose to power and imposed their philosophy on US foreign policy. Somewhere along the line, neo-con theorists, their consummate zeal and arrogance cloaked behind a façade of academic detachment, dressed the pretexts for colonialist intervention in pseudoscientific jargon and forged them into a fully-fledged theoretical underpinning for an evangelistic drive to export democracy and defend the American way of life, using the word "liberty" as its clarion call.

Therefore, when the weapons of mass destruction pretext for invading Iraq collapsed with the reverberating ignominy that this "globalised lie" deserved, it was no great feat to pull "democracy" out of the hat. All that was needed then was some swift footwork to present this as the unique and noble characteristic that set American interventionism apart from all other forms of imperialism across the ages. As part of the packaging, the democracies of Germany and Japan were touted as renowned successes of this policy. What was not said, of course, was that this two-nation list that is always dragged out as ostensible proof of how democracy can be won by military occupation, forms the exception not the rule. Germany and Japan had already passed through a phase of modernisation and liberalisation not long before the American occupation of those countries. They had a strong unifying nationalist movement with which America could ally against divisive forces, and they were also relatively homogenous, linguistically and even ethnically. The American presence in those countries at the time also conformed to the commonly held domestic perception of the need to defend national interests against an outside threat emanating from China, the Soviet Union and East Germany. By contrast, in economically underdeveloped Iraq, which had not experienced democracy before the onset of dictatorship, the American presence encourages the disruptive tendencies, sectarian fragmentation, disunity and the building upon illegitimate sources of authority as opposed to legitimate ones that existed beforehand, even if these were not democratic.

The American experience in Iraq should bring to mind not the exception but the rule, as exemplified by Cuba, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Panama, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, Chile, Cyprus and other countries that had not had the luxury of a Marshall Plan, and in which most of America's "democratisation drive" met with dismal failure. Frequently overlooked, too, is direct American involvement in the security, politics and economies of the Central Asian republics, where the regimes that are being constructed with American supervision on the ruins of the soviet system are corrupt, despotic and anything but democratic.

On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, when the new American creed was being developed, Bush and Blair cited different reasons at various times for intervening militarily in Iraq: UN Security Council resolutions had to be enforced, Saddam had to be stripped of his weapons of mass destruction, the flow of oil had to be guaranteed, the Iraqi people had to be rescued from a cruel dictator, the democratic forces in Iraq needed support, and terrorism had to be fought. When one after the other of these myths toppled, Bush, reading from the neo-con script, continued to insist on the link between spreading democracy and fighting terrorism. The dictatorial regimes of the Arab world had the tendency to breed terrorism and export it to the US, he said. Therefore, breeding democracy in the Arab world was nothing less than a US national security imperative. Washington soon discovered, however, that after the fall of the Soviet Union -- after it was no longer necessary to maintain the status quo of dictatorial regimes if the status quo was in America's favour -- it was not necessarily in America's interests to promote regime change and impose democratic forms of government. After all, not only might the newly bred democratic governments prove unpredictable, sometimes it might better serve American security interests to keep existing dictatorships at the mercy of American blackmail.

Thus it was that some neo-cons, in spite of their Trotskyite-like radical temperament (in the opinion of this author, radicalism is as much a psychological state of mind as it is a political position) and their belief in "permanent revolution", discovered that there were times when the US would have to adopt the realism of Lenin. If Lenin felt it necessary to build the communist order in one state before exporting the revolution as an instrument for global domination, and to ally himself with non-communist states in order to better secure that state, neo-conss reached the conclusion that they had to give priority, for the moment, to building the capitalist democratic state in one country, temporarily give up the idea of permanent revolution and ally themselves with non-democratic nations if that better served their interests. Not all neo-cons welcomed this shift. In his article, "Who killed the Bush Doctrine?" appearing in Haaretz of 30 September 2005, Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, laments the compromise. A worshipper at the neo-con temple, the American Enterprise Institute, Rubin reminded his readers that Bush, in his inaugural speech of 20 January 2005, had pledged to support democracy and freedom around the globe. Rubin suspected that some clique had "got to the president or got around him," for nearly a year later it had become clear that the Bush administration had chosen to betray the "Bush Doctrine" and chosen, instead, to support the status quo in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and even Lebanon and Syria.

Now, as we mourn the death of democracy, leaving only desolation, the spread of terrorism to other countries such as Jordan, and the growing Iranian influence in Iraq through the Iraqi elections, studies have begun to emerge refuting the established lore about the relationship between the spread of democracy and the fight against terrorism, or between dictatorship and the breeding of terrorism. Suddenly, scholars have observed that terrorism in non-democratic China pales next to terrorism in democratic India; that democracy in Britain did nothing to dampen the resolve of a group of native-born British youths to mount a series of terrorist acts, and that domestic terrorist movements emerged in democratic Germany, America, Italy, Israel and Japan in the 1970s, 1980s and up to the end of the last century. It is not true, of course, that democracy breeds terrorism. It is true that liberal democracy is the best of all systems of government, or more precisely, the least pernicious. However, there is no relationship between democratisation and ending terrorism. Nor has a clear relationship been established between dictatorship and the breeding of terrorism (see Gregory Gause, 'Can democracy stop terrorism?' in Foreign Affairs, September/October 2005). More importantly, terrorism has gained a new base of operations, in dictatorship-free Iraq.

Odd how China and India can crop up suddenly -- or vanish just as quickly -- as the needs of proponents of the theory of exporting democracy to fight terrorism dictate. Liberal democracy is better than dictatorship because it is a more humane system of government, not because it is more effective in fighting terrorism.

It is clearer than ever that this aphorism that used to be quoted in connection with communism -- "the idea is great; the problem is in its application" -- does not hold in the case of neo-con dogma. The problem is that the idea was turned into a creed of action, which is to say that it could no longer be distinguished from practice. The idea -- democracy -- was packaged for export and placed at the end of the barrel of a gun. The problem also resides in the belief that America's non-democratic allies who toe the line with US foreign policy are capable of building democratic governments just because they know which side their bread is buttered on. In addition, it is naïve to think that just because some hardcore neo-cons believe in exporting democracy, the pragmatists among US foreign policy architects designed their policy in accordance with this doctrine. Spreading democracy was not initially their creed. Rather, the creed served their purposes at a time in which they were drumming up support for a certain plan of action and exploiting the post-11 September hysteria towards this end.

The constant in US foreign policy planning is imperial interests. Imperial interests may dictate that some of the young zealots who believed in Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld bewail the death of a doctrine, just as the tears shed by Israeli settlers at the time of disengagement served Sharon's designs. The bottom line is that national interests prevail. The concept is less emotive and less ideologically coherent than it appears.

Its proponents are also less grandiose and less prone to feigning a worldly callousness than they appear, unlike adolescents trying to act as grownups and certainly unlike those neo-con intellectuals who had never fought a war in their lives, yet who swagger around spouting their notions about the greater picture. These self-styled intellectual giants are indifferent to petty details, such as the cries of misery issuing from the death and destruction below, as they stomp relentlessly forward to fulfil the historical mission to which they appointed themselves ever since they started working as journalists, think-tank scholars, congressional members or under-secretaries. The realists share this insensitivity to the suffering of others, of course. However, their insensitivity is real, not a pose, not the bravado of the university grad who prattles on blithely about the necessity of war, bloodshed, the displacement of people and the partition of nations.

The neo-cons have a soft spot in their heart for such things as ideology, doctrinal consistency and the historic mission of imperialism. They are always taken by surprise by realists whose soft spot is in their pockets and by others for whom imperialism is not a religion, or a substitute for religion, or a logically coherent ideology to be used against heresy, but something to be implemented on the ground, with all the conflicting demands this makes, with all the trial and error that is required and with all the concessions to imperial interests that are needed in order to consolidate and expand the dominion of hegemony.

This is why the realists in Washington have begun to recalculate their strategy. They realise that they have to keep the increasingly fidgety home front under control, and that they have to make some concessions to opinion abroad now that the disaster they wrought in Iraq has made the international situation so much more complex.

The war against terror has produced only one result so far, which was to expand the range of terrorism. Nor has exploiting terrorism to expand the realm of American hegemony had any sure-fire results apart from having opened the gates of hell. And the Iraqi model of democracy has few buyers; indeed, it is repellent even to Syrian opposition forces.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Gary Hart on Gods and Caesars

By Mark Karlin, BuzzFlash
Posted on January 2, 2006, Printed on January 2, 2006

Former Colorado Senator Gary Hart has written a powerful commentary on religion and democracy, entitled "God And Caesar in America: An Essay on Religion and Politics." Hart speaks with the kind of reflective persuasion born of our Jeffersonian tradition, combining that with his own religious upbringing and pursuit of a divinity degree at Yale (where he also received a law degree).

Note: Read an excerpt from "God and Caesar" at Talk2Action.

Most Americans may not realize that you were raised as a Nazarene and you went to divinity school. What sort of impact did that background have on you, and what sort of denomination is the Nazarene denomination?

Well, when you become a kind of finalist for the presidency, virtually all aspects of one's background come out. But it was vastly different 20 years ago. Religious affiliation was just of minor interest to the press and public. Now that the religious right has occupied the Republican Party -- taken it over -- the whole issue of "faith" and "values" has moved to the forefront. In writing the essay, I simply highlighted my own background to qualify myself to speak on these issues. Given the fact that the religious right had pretty much dominated the conversation for the last five or ten years, I thought it was time for some of us to speak up. I'm gratified that President Carter and others have spoken, as well.

The Church of the Nazarene broke off about 100 years ago from the Methodists on doctrinal issues and issues of practice. The founders of the church felt that the Methodists might be becoming too liberal. The Church of the Nazarene founders emphasized being born again, but also, particularly in the Southern parts of the church, strict practices of no drinking, no smoking, no dancing, no jewelry or makeup on women, no attendance at movies, and things of that sort. In the college that my wife and I attended, and where we met in Oklahoma, those rules were pretty strongly enforced. I gather, since then, that some of those rules have taken a back seat and been less important in the church.

You have a section in "God and Caesar in America" called the "Awful Warmth of the Gospel of Jesus." Drawing on your background -- Bethany Nazarene College, Yale Divinity School, and the Church of the Nazarene -- you seem extremely comfortable talking about Jesus. But you're very uncomfortable with how Jesus has become a political football. You comment that we've gotten to the point that there are arguments over what political party He might belong to if He were around today. Can you embellish that a little bit more?

I made that comment with my tongue in my cheek. I'm not "uncomfortable" with the way Jesus is being tossed around -- I'm angry about it. I'd go well beyond discomfort. I think the religious right is making Jesus into some kind of Old Testament wrathful prophet who is judgmental, divisive, and opposed to any notion of liberalism, whereas the teachings of Jesus tell quite a different story. He was tolerant. He was forgiving. He preached love, not hate. In many ways, the literal reading of the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, particularly not filtered through the later apostles in the New Testament, but the literal teachings of Jesus as portrayed in the gospels, are almost totally at odds with the teachings of the present-day religious right.

You cite Micah 6:8: "What does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God." What do we have to learn from that?

It's an oft-quoted phrase. And it was one of the more tolerant prophetic visions of the prophets. The Old Testament prophets preached wrath, and judgment on the Jewish people when they transgressed, or followed false idols, or adopted other religions; they preached that God would bring wrath down upon them. And quite often it happened. But Micah, in a way, was a forerunner of Jesus in the sense that he was trying to answer the question: What does God really want from us? Micah said that He wanted us to observe justice. By that, I think he meant not just legal justice, but social justice -- to do justice was the way he put it actually.

To love mercy -- again,very much a Jesus and Christian message, and not one of the religious right. And to walk humbly with our God. Again, this is a simple reduction of what the religious life is supposed to be about. It is so diametrically opposed to the preachings and teachings of the religious right today. For them, justice is legal, and they are pro-death penalty, for example. That's their definition of justice. That's not what Micah meant. They don't show mercy. They are divisive. You either support the President or you're going to hell. And they don't talk about humility -- a theme that carries throughout Jesus' teachings also. They are not humble people. They're proud and arrogant people. So I put Micah in there as a kind of a standard for how we are to behave, and to draw the distinction between the simple but profound message that Micah taught, and what we are hearing from the so-called religious figures today.

America is composed of many different faiths. Even within Christianity, there are many different denominations and viewpoints. Sometimes we lose sight of that, because the far right -- the Pat Robertson right and the Jerry Falwell right -- tend to assert themselves as though they're speaking for all of Christianity. They're really speaking for a small segment of Christianity.

No question. It's not that they tend to -- it's that they assume to. It's an assumption that they are the spokespersons for all Christianity, and that's underwritten in everything they say. There's a man who appears on TV from the Southern Baptist Convention -- when you listen to him talk, he positions himself as a spokesperson for all Christianity. This is not true, and I think it's particularly dangerous for people who are not Christians and who do not quite understand the complexity of, first of all, the Reformation and the split between Protestantism and Catholicism, and then the multiplicity of Protestant denominations. There are lots of variations, by the way, in Catholicism, as well. But among the Protestants, each tends to design his own church. And clearly the people on the right had no authority to speak for other Christians.

On the other hand, part of the blame rests with the so-called mainstream Christian churches that haven't done a very good job of communicating a different message to the public at large. If you asked a hundred Americans what the Methodist position on the war was, they'd probably guess it was in support.

In "God and Caesar in America" there is a section called "The Tyranny of the Faithful: The Dangers of Theocracy." Perhaps you can take us back in history a bit. We've certainly covered on BuzzFlash the issue of separation of church and state. Our Constitution was in some way the fruit of the Enlightenment and Age of Reason, when people accepted God and the divine, but said religion was something that should exist separate from the state, because the states in Europe were theocracies. In essence, much of early America was a rebellion against theocratic states and monarchies.

No question. The Founders had in mind, if not from direct experience, certainly the vivid recollection of the history of the intertwining of the church and the state in their ancestral homes in Europe. That kind of theocracy resulted in all kinds of disasters involving the picking of kings, and kings inaugurating popes, and the repression of enlightened thought. That's why they felt so strongly about all this. And all I warn about here, and I think others have as well, is that you don't have to slip very far back into that before it begins to happen.

I have a couple of passages where I say, here's what a theocracy is like, and then say, if we're not there already, we're very close. The vaguely defined "White House" -- probably Karl Rove -- calls James Dobson, or makes a conference call to a select group of religious figures to seek approval of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court, or policy issues. To submit any judge -- for their approval -- that's virtually a theocracy right there -- very dangerous.

You provide some extremely enlightening analysis of the issue of separation of church and state. You make the point that some of the Founders feared that, if a religion became too identified with the state, the religion itself would ultimately become impure and tainted by the political process. It wasn't just a question of the state becoming a theocracy, but of the religion itself starting to become corrupted by the machinations of politics.

It works both ways. The separation was not just to protect the state from the church, but to protect the church from the state. The people who are trying to insert themselves into positions of authority in government, through the Republican Party, ought to be awfully careful, because the same state that takes them in is a state that can turn around and, if it chooses to, by using the same authority, begin seriously to condition their behavior. People with a bit in their teeth, and the arrogance of power, don't think that way, but they ought to.

You are an attorney who went from Yale Divinity to Yale Law. Our legal system is based on equal protection for people of divergent backgrounds, divergent beliefs, from divergent income statuses -- it protects them, and it's supposed to level the playing field -- all people are equal in a courtroom and before the court of law under our Constitution. If the Supreme Court starts to view cases through a theological lens, what happens then?

Well, all the bad things one can imagine.

For instance, suppose the Supreme Court looks at the abortion issue. Judges Alito and Scalia have at least intimated that it is against their religious viewpoint. If judges begin to assess constitutional issues through a religious filter, what happens to our legal underpinnings?

It's very murky, and very, very tough. We're living in a time where holding office requires you to have, as I say in the essay, "faith" and "values," often undefined. Then you come up with judicial nominees who do have "faith" and "values," but they say, faced with confirmation for the highest court, I will set those aside when I make decisions. It almost stands the whole process on its head. The religious right believes that, by getting George elected, and a majority of Congress, and having a veto power over judges, it is achieving exactly their objective of putting judges on the courts, including the highest court, who will impose their faith and values on the system.

It makes an objective observer very suspicious when the leaders of the world say, I will set my "faith" and "values" aside. They're being nominated because of their "faith" and "values." Republicans get upset when Democrats are suspicious, but there's good reason for suspicion, since the whole point is to get people on the court who will insert their faith and values into the judicial process.

Your concluding section, entitled "God and Caesar," alludes to the well-known advice, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and render unto God that which is God's." This sums up the dilemma in a nutshell. What is God's, and what belongs to the realm of politics?

There's no simple conclusion. There is not a night-and-day distinction. Almost all of us have faith in something, and we certainly have values. I talk about that old phrase that used to be used -- "the moral majority" -- well, I think, with rare exception, almost everybody in America and the world is moral, or has a moral compass. Obviously some don't always follow that compass, but that's what the judicial process is all about.

My essay is not an argument about taking "values" -- I prefer to call them "principles" -- out of public life, or even causing people of faith or religion to not participate in public life. I think they should. This is not the argument. It's a question of when one wing of one religion dominates one party, and then seeks to impose its values on the rest of America, that we've gone too far. And I would simply say that we've got to get back to the kind of moderate consensus which prevailed up until, let's say, the age of Reagan, and the period in which the religious right began to assert itself through the Republican Party, where people were tolerant. I keep coming back to those values of Jesus -- tolerance, forgiveness, mercy, a sense of social justice and equality. Otherwise, a mass democracy of 300 million people simply will not work.

The divisiveness was introduced by the religious right, and a new set of Republicans in the eighties and nineties, and it has polarized this country. I will make that assertion. I don't think it was liberals that polarized this country. Liberal Democrats got along well with moderate Republicans. I was there in the seventies in the Senate. You could compromise. You could reach agreement. It is when a different kind of Republican began to be elected that the divisiveness set in.

As I point out in the essay, the reason you can't mix religion and politics is, religion is about absolutes, right and wrong, good and evil. Politics is about compromise. If you cannot compromise on issues that are not central to a person's faith -- and that's about 99% of the issues our country faces -- then the country doesn't work. The government doesn't work. That's why we've had government grinding to a halt in recent years. People are frustrated by it.

I'd like to quote from page 84 of your essay: "The time will come, and it will come sooner rather than later, when the ponderous pendulum of American public opinion begins its return to its inevitable moderate center. Politicians hiding behind the robes of ministers, policy makers courting a vociferous religious element, adventurers cloaking foreign military ventures in the crusader's rhetoric, political manipulators cynically using public fears to turn out voters all will be swept back into our nation's nooks and crannies from when they emerged. This must happen, because America cannot be governed otherwise." So the $64 million-dollar question is: When will that happen?

It is happening. It is happening, and what was required, obviously, was that their myth be penetrated. The myth is being penetrated by exposing the corruption in Congress in the majority party. The people who were preaching "faith" and "values" the most cynically were on the take. And I think we've just scratched the tip of the iceberg there. The neo-conservatives who use the religious right to justify a kind of crusader war in the Middle East have proved to be misleading at best, and deceptive at worst. Also, the chickens are coming home to roost.

I often refer to Jefferson's great quote. He used to be questioned about all the things that could go wrong in this new experiment. He said, when the chips are down, the success of the republic depends on the common sense and good judgment of the American people. We all know that, throughout American history, common sense and good judgment often have been swept aside by demagogues and radical movements of one kind or another. But ultimately, always, the salvation of the republic is the returning of the common sense and good judgment of the American people. I think that's what we're witnessing now.

Mark Karlin is the editor of

© 2006 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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While we come from many faith backgrounds, we all agree on, at least, one thing: Those who spew murderous hatred in the name of the Divine do far worse harm than those who hate and murder for nation and/or money and power.
To use the Divine as a reason for bombs, destruction, occupation, murder, torture and other horrors is, to us, the most unforgivable of "sins."
It matters not to us, who is doing it or which religion they use for an excuse.

Stupidity, Survived (atleast, for now)

By Molly Ivins, AlterNet
Posted on December 31, 2005, Printed on January 2, 2006

2006 makes the ninth year in a row the federal minimum wage has been stuck at $5.15 an hour. It's bad economics, it's bad policy, it's stupid, it's unfair, and it's high damn time to do something about it. It is also, as Sen. Edward Kennedy says, a moral issue.

The Democrats have a new strategy that may finally get the Republicans off the pot. They're working to get a minimum wage increase on state ballots, including Ohio, Michigan, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Arkansas and Montana. The theory is that putting a minimum-wage increase on the ballot does for Democrats what putting on an anti-gay marriage proposition does for Republicans -- it gets out the base.

Of the seven states with the best chance to have minimum wage ballot initiatives, five were decided by less than 10 percentage points in the most recent presidential election. In theory, this should scare the happy pappy out of the Republicans, who will then vote to increase the minimum wage the first chance they get in Congress, thus assuring an increase either way. Clever, eh?

The last minimum wage increase dates to September 1997, and inflation has since eroded the wage's buying power to its second-lowest level since 1955, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Republican opposition to an increase is based entirely on ideological grounds. Many Republicans keep saying increasing the minimum wage will hurt small business, for which there is no evidence, and cause people making the minimum wage to be laid off. But again, there is no evidence. Time after time, round after round, these same arguments, which are demonstrably false, keep getting repeated. It is really quite painful, since the economic effects of a minimum wage increase have been documented so often.

If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since 1968, when it was $1.60 an hour, it would be $7.60 an hour today, according to the AFL-CIO. A year-round, full-time worker would have to make $7.74 an hour just to be at the poverty level for a family of three -- $2.59 above the current minimum wage. The gap between middle-class workers and those making the minimum wage is the largest on record.

Of course, we all enjoy reading about the record Christmas bonuses various CEOs, top executives and board members have voted themselves lately. The business pages are just a jolly recap -- no one ever gets coals and switches when they set their own salary. Here's to starting 2006 off with this simple bit of fairness.

Well, nothing like getting to the end of the year to give us occasion to pause in wonder that we have once again survived even in the face of fresh heights of human stupidity. From the day Sen. Bill Frist, M.D., successfully diagnosed Terri Schiavo by watching her on videotape ("She certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli," he said. Her autopsy later revealed she was blind) to the happy day Veeper Cheney told us the Iraqi insurgency was in its last throes, it's been just one delightful episode after another. Truly, I do not understand how people can become discouraged about our national life, when players like Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay and Ralph Reed face just deserts. For a new standard in graciousness, who can forget Barbara Bush speaking of refugees from Hurricane Katrina stashed in the Astrodome: "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

Sure, Katrina was awful, but it brought Michael heckuva-job-Brownie Brown to our attention, so we got to read his inspiring e-mails -- such as, "I am a fashion god."

For those who have been wondering where all the heroes are, let me recommend Russ Feingold, John Murtha and Cindy Sheehan. Isn't it amazing how often all you have to do to be a hero is to stand up and tell the truth?

With those few, shining exceptions, we can bid adieu to 2005 without great regret. Or, as Texas Gov. Rick Perry said to a reporter earlier this year, "Adios, mo-fo."

Apology: I bit on a bad story in my Dec. 20 column. The tale of the UMass-Dartmouth student who was visited by the feds for checking out Mao's "Little Red Book" has turned out to be a hoax. So sorry.

Molly Ivins writes about politics, Texas and other bizarre happenings.

© 2006 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at:

Excerpt: Feet to the Fire

By Kristina Borjesson and John Walcott, AlterNet
Posted on January 2, 2006, Printed on January 2, 2006

Editor's Note: The following excerpt, an interview from 'Feet to the Fire' by Kristina Borjesson, is reprinted with permission from Prometheus Books.

More often than any other journalist or news organization, Knight Ridder was mentioned by those in "Feet to the Fire" as the best source for post-9/11 reporting.

The person most responsible for setting this platinum standard of journalism is John Walcott.

Long after the Twin Towers had collapsed, Walcott and his crack team of reporters were virtually alone in their pursuit of what the real intelligence analysts were saying about the White House's case against Saddam.

Cumulatively, Knight Ridder's reporting damns the Bush administration in devastating detail. The thing is, for now, Knight Ridder isn't on the radar where Team Walcott's work would really count: Washington and New York. Nonetheless, Walcott persists

Besides his obvious zeal for journalistic excellence, Walcott felt an acute need to look hard at the rationales for going to war for another reason: "Unlike a lot of our competitors who write for the people who send other people to war, we write for the people who get sent to war, and for their mothers and fathers and their sisters and brothers and their sons and daughters. We don't publish in Washington and New York. We write for Columbus, Georgia, and Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and Fort Hood, Texas, and Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, where the people who get sent to war live and where they leave their families behind."

In this interview, Walcott reveals the inner workings of how he and his team do what they do, providing a fascinating window into how the very best journalism is achieved.

John Walcott: It was clear to everyone within days of 9/11 that the administration was already beginning to turn its attention to Iraq, so the reporting we did from the very start was on three tracks.

There was a terrorist track that had to do with al Qaeda, and what was known about that. There was an Afghan war track, where we formed a fairly extensive team of people from all over Knight Ridder to go to Afghanistan and cover combat operations while some of us here tried to learn what we could about al Qaeda as documents were uncovered.

So there was a terrorism track, an Afghanistan track, and almost from the beginning, an Iraq track. Literally the day after 9/11, people either close to or in the administration began talking about Iraq. As 2001 turned into 2002, it became clear that the president had made the fundamental decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Warren Strobel and I wrote a story about it on February 13, 2002, "Bush Has Decided to Overthrow Hussein."

The lead was: "President Bush has decided to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power and ordered the CIA, the Pentagon and other agencies to devise a combination of military, diplomatic and covert steps to achieve that goal, senior U.S. officials said Tuesday."

Kristina Borjesson: What were your colleagues reporting at the time?

JW: Nothing of that sort, and there's been a big semantic debate about when the decision to invade Iraq was made, because the decision to overthrow Saddam was not necessarily a decision to invade the country.

But it's becoming clearer that the decision was made a good deal earlier than the administration let on. A British memo that recently was leaked to the Sunday Times of London reported that the president had decided to invade Iraq before the end of July 2002.

Warren Strobel and I wrote a story ["'Downing Street' Memo Indicates Bush Made Intelligence Fit Iraq Policy," May 5, 2005] about it a few days after it appeared in Britain because it not only says that the decision was made much earlier than the administration has said it was, but it also reports that the administration arranged the intelligence about Iraq to support what it knew was a weak case for war:

A highly classified British memo, leaked in the midst of Britain's just-concluded election campaign, indicates that President Bush decided to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by summer 2002 and was determined to ensure that U.S. intelligence data supported his policy."

"The document, which summarizes a July 23, 2002, meeting of British Prime Minister Tony Blair with his top security advisers, reports on a visit to Washington by the head of Britain's MI-6 intelligence service. The visit took place while the Bush administration was still declaring to the American public that no decision had been made to go to war."

"There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable," the MI-6 chief said at the meeting, according to the memo.

"Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD, weapons of mass destruction."

The memo said that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

Once you begin making plans, ordering up troops, and making commitments, it gets harder and harder to stop the train. In fact, the train develops a timetable of its own. You can't get forces in motion and leave them in limbo for long periods of time. It's something of a mystery why all of this came to a head when it did, in March of 2003, but I think the best explanation is that's simply when things reached a point of no return and holding them up any further would have been impossible militarily, logistically, and politically. But as the British memo indicates, the fundamental decision to use military force to overthrow Saddam was made very early and everything else flowed from that.

A couple of things flowed from the decision to overthrow Saddam. One was that it was reasonable to assume that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was going to require military action. The United States did not have the covert means to overthrow him. We knew perfectly well that the CIA had no operations of any note inside Iraq. They had, for a long time, been relying almost entirely on exiles and defectors, so they didn't have the wherewithal to mount an internal coup against Hussein. The political situation inside Iraq was such that there was no one to work with. Saddam had killed everyone who even looked at him cross-eyed. So trying to find an opposition to support was a nonstarter, as was the idea that he would leave voluntarily. There was no prospect of that.

KB: At the time that you were first reporting that the Bush administration was saying that he had to go, were you getting any sense of why they felt he had to go?

JW: There clearly was a fear that Saddam and al Qaeda would make common cause and that the next World Trade Center attack would include biological, chemical or radiological, or even nuclear weapons. Warren Strobel and I reported that in the February 13, 2002, story, "Bush Has Decided to Overthrow Hussein."

The president feared another attack and, I'm afraid, feared being held accountable for such a terrible thing. No administration wants something like that to happen on its watch. That's sensible enough. As time went on, the administration was talking about Saddam more and more frequently, and the decision to invade Iraq was being more and more clearly articulated.

This prompted two basic questions. One had to do with the war in Afghanistan, which was unfinished at best: What were the implications of subordinating the war against al Qaeda, the group that did attack the United States and kill three thousand people, to a new war?

Second, a decision to go to war, even a war against a third-rate power such as Iraq, is the most serious decision any president can make, and we wanted to know: What was the case for war? Why was it essential?

We thought that our readers would be particularly interested in the answers to these questions because, unlike a lot of our competitors who write for the people who send other people to war, we write for the people who get sent to war, and for their mothers and fathers and their sisters and brothers and their sons and daughters.

We don't publish in Washington and New York. We write for Columbus, Georgia, and Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and Fort Hood, Texas, and Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, where the people who get sent to war live and where they leave their families behind.

KB: But why wouldn't that be important coverage for everyone?

You'd think it would be. But the other news organizations are going to have to answer for themselves. To me, it's self-evident. Any time a country proposes a step that dramatic, one that may cost lives, one that asks our young men and women to go and kill someone else's young men and women, that should receive the toughest scrutiny. It doesn't get more serious than that. It does not. We know that not only from going to Arlington Cemetery but from going to Walter Reed Hospital. This is serious stuff. We felt that it was our duty to examine as critically as we could the case for war as the administration made it. We felt that we had to ask the questions about whether the case stood up. We felt a real responsibility to do that.

There were, from the outset, some very troubling things about what the administration was saying. They were troubling at a commonsense level. The first one was the notion that Saddam and al Qaeda were going to make common cause. Blind acceptance of this idea had red flags all over it from the very start. It simply didn't make sense.

A secular regime run by a guy with two Cognac-swilling sons is not a likely ally of a Wahhabi3 extremist. In fact, one of Osama's goals is to establish a new caliphate in the Arab world and to sweep away apostate rulers such as Saddam Hussein, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, the Saudis, King Abdullah of Jordan, and the rest of them.

So the idea that Saddam would do anything to strengthen a mortal enemy raised a lot of questions in our minds. I think that the basic fact of Saddam's secularism, despite his putting on Islamic trappings rather late in his career, and Osama's theocratic agenda were perfectly plain for anyone to see, even somebody who wasn't deeply versed in Wahhabism or the nature of Saddam's regime. I think it was fairly obvious. So to me, the question of why these two would get together, what was the likelihood of their getting together, was pretty obvious and bore looking into.

The minute we started looking into it, the answers that started coming back from people inside the government were: "No way, there's no evidence of it," and even more interestingly, "a lot of the things the administration and its allies are talking about are not true."

These people were also growing more and more alarmed by two things: First, this fixation with Iraq was beginning to detract from the war against Osama, which to this day is still unfinished. Second, intelligence information was being misused to assemble the case for war.

This started coming out in the summer of 2002. I'll give you two concrete examples of the misuse of intelligence information. The first one was the allegation that was very frequently made that Saddam had a hijacking training facility at a place called Salman Pak.

That one was being bandied about a lot both by people in the administration and by members or allies of the Iraqi National Congress. When we called folks in the government who were knowledgeable about that and asked, the answer that came back was that the intelligence indicated that Salman Pak was a counterhijacking training facility and that there was no evidence that foreign terrorists had visited the facility. There were no passport records and no overhead photography.

Now, American intelligence on this was, to put it mildly, limited because of the CIA's and other agencies' inability or unwillingness to take the risks necessary to penetrate Iraq. So you didn't necessarily want to bet the farm on what intelligence sources said. But it was interesting that there was no evidence to support the allegation that Iraq had set up an international terrorist training camp to teach people how to hijack airplanes. The evidence did suggest that what they were doing was teaching their own people how to foil hijackings, which was even more interesting because, who were they afraid might hijack their planes? Probably people like bin Laden.

A second example of the misuse of intelligence information occurred when the administration argued at one point that the Iraqi ambassador to Turkey, who was a former director general of the Iraqi intelligence services, had gone to Afghanistan in 1998 after the Clinton administration bombed some al Qaeda camps in retaliation for U.S. embassy bombings in Africa. They said that this gentleman had offered sanctuary in Iraq to Osama and to bin Laden's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. They also said that he had met with Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

So we asked our sources about that. It turns out that there was a record showing that the guy had gone and met with Mullah Omar and bin Laden and made such an offer. But the administration never mentioned bin Laden's answer. Bin Laden not only said no, but he turned to one of his people later on and said, "We're not going to Iraq because if we go there it will be his agenda and not our agenda."

So not only had he declined the offer, but he also had made it clear that he didn't share Saddam's agenda. He preferred to stay in Afghanistan, even at the risk of getting bombed, to pursue his own agenda rather than subordinating it to Saddam's secular agenda. The administration simply left out the second part of the story.

We reported this on October 8, 2002, in "Some in Bush Administration Have Misgivings about Iraq Policy."

The crux of that story, though, was that a growing number of military officers, intelligence professionals, and diplomats were having misgivings about the White House's rush to war:

"These officials charge that administration hawks have exaggerated evidence of the threat Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein poses -- including distorting his links to the al Qaeda terrorist network -- have overstated the amount of international support for attacking Iraq, and have downplayed the potential repercussions of a new war in the Middle East. They charge that the administration squelches dissenting views and that intelligence analysts are under intense pressure to produce reports supporting the White House's argument that Saddam poses such an immediate threat to the United States that pre-emptive military action is necessary.

"Analysts at the working level in the intelligence community are feeling very strong pressure from the Pentagon to cook the books," said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A dozen other officials echoed his views in interviews with Knight Ridder. No one who was interviewed disagreed. They cited recent suggestions by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice that Saddam and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network are working together.

The story was ignored here in Washington. We don't have a paper here. Our nearest paper is in Philadelphia. I think the administration felt, probably correctly, that it could afford to ignore us, and that, in fact, the wisest course was to ignore us, because no one else was reporting this. It was a perfectly sensible political decision on their part, and that's pretty well how it went for a year and a half. But the important thing, I think, is that almost all of the reporting we did was prompted by allegations that we knew were dubious or that simply didn't make any sense.

I'll give you another example from the famous Powell speech to the United Nations. Just off the top of my head, two things stuck out. First, there was the notion that the Iraqis had been photographed backing trucks up to secret facilities to go hide stuff. The Iraqis know to the minute when American satellites are overhead because the Soviets taught them long ago how to figure it out.

So why, if they were trying to hide something, would they back up trucks in broad daylight when they knew a satellite was passing overhead? It doesn't make any sense.

Second, knowing that virtually all of their communications had been compromised, why would Iraqi officers get on the telephone and talk about hiding stuff? It's almost as if they wanted us to believe they had WMD; as if they were trying to fool us into believing they had them. They might have wanted us to think that because their only hope of heading off an invasion would have been to make us believe that they had this stuff and were ready to use it.

KB: Why do you think we went to war?

JW: I think there was a genuine fear in the administration that Iraq somehow was going to link up and provide some material support to al Qaeda. I think there were a lot of officials who believed that Iraq had WMDs. The Iraqis had been lying, and their track record with the UN inspectors was not a very encouraging one. It was a logical enough thing to worry about. But worrying about something and having enough evidence to send people to war are two different things in my mind.

KB: What about the conflicts between the intelligence agencies and the White House?

JW: I assume Jon Landay has talked to you in some detail about how this first burst into full view during the controversy over the aluminum tubes. The administration said Saddam was trying to procure them for his nuclear weapons program, while others said that the tubes were for launching artillery rockets.

The State Department intelligence bureau and the Energy Department -- which is the repository of most of the expertise on technical matters such as this -- disagreed with the administration and registered their dissents in the National Intelligence Estimate report.7 The dissents were ignored. We found that this pattern was repeated over and over again. In fact, it was worse than that because officials who dissented tended to be punished, exiled, banished, not listened to, and not invited to meetings.

KB: What other examples can you give that you reported on about that pattern?

JW: I'm trying to go back. The best single report of that is the one that Jon Landay did on the comparison between the public version of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq and the classified version, in which they stripped all the caveats, all the dissents, and all the cautionary notes out of the public version. They ran up every red flag and produced a report that the Silberman-Robb WMD Commission says is one of the many things that was, in its words, "dead wrong."

Landay wrote up a whole laundry list of differences between the public and classified versions of the NIE in his February 9, 2004, article, "Doubts, Dissent Stripped from Public Iraq Assessments:"

For example, the public version declared that "most analysts assess Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program" and says, "if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon this decade." But it fails to mention the dissenting view offered in the top-secret version by the State Department's intelligence arm, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, known as the INR.

That view said, in part, "the activities we have detected do not, however, add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what INR would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons. Iraq may be doing so, but INR considers the available evidence inadequate to support such a judgment."

What the comparison showed is that while the top-secret version delivered to Bush, his top lieutenants and Congress were heavily qualified with caveats about some of its most important conclusions about Iraq's illicit weapons programs, the caveats were omitted from the public version. The caveats included the phrases, "we judge that," "we assess that" and "we lack specific information on many key aspects of Iraq's WMD programs."

These phrases, according to current and former intelligence officials, long have been used in intelligence reports to stress an absence of hard information and underscore that judgments are extrapolations or estimates.

Among the most striking differences between the versions were those over Iraq's development of small, unmanned aircraft, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs]. The public version said that Iraq's UAVs "especially if used for delivery of chemical and biological warfare [CBW] agents -- could threaten Iraq's neighbors, U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, and the United States if brought close to, or into, the U.S. Homeland."

The classified version showed there was major disagreement on the issue from the agency with the greatest expertise on such aircraft, the Air Force. The Air Force "does not agree that Iraq is developing UAVs primarily intended to be delivery platforms for chemical and biological warfare [CBW] agents," it said. "The small size of Iraq's new UAV strongly suggests a primary role of reconnaissance, although CBW delivery is an inherent capability."

The public version contained the alarming warning that Iraq was capable of quickly developing biological warfare agents that could be delivered by "bombs, missiles, aerial sprayers, and covert operatives, including potentially against the U.S. Homeland." No such warning that Iraq's biological weapons would be delivered to the United States appeared in the classified version."

Deleted from the public version was a line in the classified report that cast doubt on whether Saddam was prepared to support terrorist attacks on the United States, a danger that Bush and his top aides raised repeatedly in making their case for war. "Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW [Chemical Biological Weapons] against the United States, fearing that exposure of Iraqi involvement would provide Washington with a stronger case for making war," the top-secret report said.

Also missing from the public report were judgments that Iraq would attempt "clandestine attacks" on the United States only if an American invasion threatened the survival of Saddam's regime or "possibly for revenge."

Landay concluded that "as a result, the public was given a far more definitive assessment of Iraq's plans and capabilities than President Bush and other U.S. decision-makers received from their intelligence agencies. The stark differences between the public version and the then top-secret version of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate raise new questions about the accuracy of the public case made for a war that's claimed the lives of more than five hundred U.S. service members and thousands of Iraqis."

KB: One of the assessments mentioned in the new report from the presidential commission assigned to look into intelligence failures that came out March 30, 2005, was that they were recommending more interagency discussions, more devil's advocate exchanges among the intelligence agencies about the intelligence.

JW:The opposite was true during the prewar phase. Dissenters were punished.

KB:What, then, do the administration's prewar activities in the intelligence area amount to?

JW: They took the nation to war using a lot of bogus information. The other thing I should mention in the bogus information category is Mr. Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress. Why anyone would take at face value information from a group that was thoroughly distrusted by the intelligence professionals -- not only at the CIA but also at the DIA and the Department of State -- and that had a clear interest in encouraging an American attack, is beyond me. I just can't understand why that kind of information was accepted so uncritically.

KB: Do you think there was an orchestrated deception campaign?

JW: Yes, I wrote about this in a June 1, 2003, article: "Doubt on War Felt at Top Levels." The INC delivered the same bogus information to the news media and the Defense Department. So when the New York Times and other publications did what looked like homework and called the Defense Department and were told, "Oh yes, we've heard that too, we think that's authoritative," reporters thought they had two sources.

In fact, they had only Chalabi, as their source and as the Defense Department's source. Hearing the same information from two different directions is no guarantee that it came from two different sources.

There's a second issue here, which is the nature of your sources. There's a mistaken notion in a lot of journalism, but especially in Washington, that the value of a source is directly proportional to his or her rank.

I think that the relationship is more often the inverse for two reasons: The first one is that in any bureaucracy, whether it's a company, a newspaper, a television network, or a government, information flows from the bottom up. Not from the top down. There are many, many more people at the bottom of the pyramid collecting information, sorting it and passing it up, than there are at the top. The people at the top almost universally rely on their subordinates for information. They don't have time to read everything that people at lower ranks with more specialized jobs read. Often they don't have the same expertise. They don't speak the language. They haven't spent time in the culture. They're simply not as expert; that's not their job.

The second reason is the obvious one, which is that the higher you go in any hierarchy, the more political people become and the more what they tell you is prepackaged or spun. So if you confine yourself to reporting on people you go to cocktail parties with, and whose names you like to drop to impress other people, you are exposing yourself to a much greater risk of being spun by people who are, first of all, more skilled at spin, and second, whose job it is to spin you.

What we did was burrow down into all of the bureaucracies to the people who were not just reading the cables but writing them; not just reading the analysis but writing it; and not just reading the reports but making them. That's where we found a real cognitive dissonance between what was being said and believed at the middle levels and what we were hearing at the top levels. Now I don't want to go too far with that because there were also people at very high levels in this administration who shared the doubts of the people below them.

KB: One of the most fascinating things that I've discovered doing this book is that among this nation's top messengers there really is no consensus about why we went to war.

JW:Yes, and I don't have an answer for you on that one. You've heard all the speculation, and I don't know what the real answer is. The one thing I will say is that I do believe there was a genuinely deep, deep fear that another attack was coming and that somehow Saddam would seize an opportunity with al Qaeda to strike back at the United States in some much more dramatic way. There was a very deep-seated fear of that.

KB: Why was he so much on the radar for that when he was pretty much contained?

JW: He was contained, but it was reasonable to think that he was trying to keep his weapons programs alive. He was a thoroughly bad actor on the international scene and at home.

KB: Yes, but he wasn't particularly effective.

JW: He was never particularly effective and, second, he had no particular track record of international terrorism. The now-deceased Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal provides an instructive example. Abu Nidal was a terrible problem when he was based in Libya. When he relocated to Iraq, he ceased being a problem because the Iraqis sat on him and wouldn't let him do anything. The same is true of a much lesser known fellow named Abu Ibrahim, who was a Palestinian bomb maker. Once he was in Saddam's clutches, Saddam pretty well sat on him. So there was not a big record of Iraq being a big exporter of terrorism.

KB: I don't know there was any record.

JW: No, there really wasn't. There is the one contentious incident of Saddam allegedly trying to assassinate the president's father in Kuwait. There are questions about that. Once again, there's dissent within the intelligence community about that, but if it were my father, I might be inclined to take it a little more seriously, too.

KB: Well, you might be inclined to look into it to see exactly who it was.

JW:I think the president said at one point, "He tried to kill my dad."

KB: What was he basing that on?

JW: That he was a thoroughly bad guy. He was a terrible person.

KB: He was a friend to the United States in the past, though.

JWNo, he was the enemy of our enemy. He was never America's friend.

KB: He was the guy who we were dealing with and we certainly helped him.

JW: In that case, I think you could make a case and probably still can today that Iran was a much greater threat to American interests and American lives than Iraq was and had claimed more of them through its surrogates in Lebanon and elsewhere.

KB: I think you're right about that.

JW: And that Iran was an active exporter of terrorism, as opposed to Iraq, which was less so.

KB: Absolutely. The Europeans have a lot of direct personal experience with Iran, particularly the French What I found fascinating with the prewar coverage was we went to Afghanistan looking for Osama and al Qaeda, which made sense, and then all of a sudden we were going to Iraq, and no one seemed to question the leap of logic there when it happened.

JW: A lot of it rests on Ramzi Yousef. The administration sent Jim Woolsey to Wales to interview the South Wales Constabulary to try to prove that Yousef was an Iraqi and to forge a link between him and Iraq. He came up empty on the connection between Yousef and Iraq.

Clearly there was an effort to find every potential link, but my impression is that when that effort fell short, they began stretching the truth, as in the case of the Iraqi ambassador to Turkey.

KB: The other thing that I find interesting is why, if you have this fear that he's going to be involved in terrorism, why don't you just tell the public? Why don't you just give that as the reason for going to war? Because it seems like the WMDs and the connection to al Qaeda were pretexts.

JW: I don't know. I can't say that. I'm not sure anyone can say that they're pretexts.

KB: Why?

JW: I think it's entirely likely that the vice president, his chief of staff, the president, and others honestly were convinced that Saddam had these weapons squirreled away and was likely to give them to somebody to use against Americans, either at home or somewhere else in the world. Now, was that an uncritical belief? Was that belief accepted too readily? Clearly it was, because now we have stacks and stacks of reports saying that that was not the case and that no evidence has been found to support that allegation. But did they believe it at the time? Yes, I think they probably did.

KB: So that basically means then that there is a crisis within our intelligence services.

JW: I think there are two crises. First of all, it is tragic that our intelligence services did not have enough reliable information to provide an antidote to the unreliable information that was being spooned up by others in their own self-interest. I think that's highly unfortunate.

I also think that the report looking into intelligence failures released on March 31, 2005, by the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, as well as other reports, suggests that the same is true of the intelligence on North Korea.

If anything, North Korea is an even harder target than Iraq was. In Iran, we've had two networks of agents taken down. We've never really been able to penetrate the high levels of the Iranian government or its nuclear program. So there's a problem there. The second problem is the relationship between the intelligence community and policymakers and the ability of policymakers to skew intelligence reports, to be selective about what they choose to believe and to use carrots and sticks to get intelligence community members to tell them what they want to hear. The tendency to please the boss is powerful in any institution.

We've seen a lot of private businesses, including newspapers, fall victim to that syndrome, so it's not unique to this administration or to government. But when you are dealing with something as serious as going to war, it becomes a serious issue when policymakers are deciding that they'll ignore this department and they'll ignore that opinion, and that they'll create their own intelligence office to tell them the kinds of things they want to hear.

They were looking for reasons to go to war, and they knew they had to make a public case for it. In a democratic society and in the world community, they made every effort to collect allies for this venture using the same kinds of information. They needed to put together a campaign that suggested that risking thousands of lives was not just justified but necessary.

KB: So they ignore the institutions that are supposed to provide them with this service and they actually create ad hoc groups and offices to come up with what they want to hear.

JWCorrect. Is there something wrong here? There are two things wrong here.

First of all, the deep distrust that a lot of people in this administration had for the intelligence community is pretty well founded. The intelligence community did not perform well in Iraq. It isn't performing well in Iran, isn't performing well in North Korea, missed the Indian nuclear test, and missed the sale of Chinese Silkworm missiles the size of boxcars to Saudi Arabia. Not a great track record.

They had all sorts of problems: counterintelligence problems, intelligence collection problems, and analytical problems. So that distrust is not crazy in any way, shape, or form. The CIA long ago became bureaucratized and risk-averse, partly in the wake of the Church and Pike Commission reports.13 Almost all of its agents were operating out of embassies. There were very few so-called NOCS or nonofficial cover agents.

So the idea of trying to be more aggressive and setting up your own operation to bypass this very troubled agency is there from the start. And it's compounded in Afghanistan where the Department of Defense is frustrated once again at the absence of an on-the-ground network there and has to build one from scratch after 9/11. Rumsfeld is on the record as being impatient waiting for the CIA and having to depend on it, so that heightens the notion that some officials held: "If we want to do this right, we've got to do it ourselves, and we can't wait for them."

So that's not crazy. The problem -- and maybe the irony -- here is that a lot of the people who believe this had as their scripture the "B team" exercise of the 1970s,14 Paul Wolfowitz chief among them. He's a very smart guy and a much more complicated fellow than the caricature would have it.

KB: I wish our press would do a better job of telling us who these people are.

JW: It's hard to get anybody to read things like that. Believe me, Paul is a very complicated person, and you're starting to see it a little bit now as he talks about this World Bank job. He talks about his experience as US ambassador in Indonesia, when he was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and when he really tangled with the Reagan administration about Marcos.

The president's inclination was to stick with Marcos, and Paul and a few others argued, "No, we should be pressuring the guy to leave." That's not the side of Paul you ever hear about, but it's true.

Anyway, the "B team" exercise crystallized a lot of the belief that you couldn't really fully trust the agency and that you ought routinely to second-guess them. The trouble, in my judgment, is that this B team didn't set up another B team to second-guess themselves.

KB: Did they want to be second-guessed?

JW: Nobody likes to be second-guessed.

KB: Well, no, but you do when you are considering such an extreme activity as war.

JW:I would want to be a little more careful, for example, with the information from defectors and exile groups, not just the INC but the Kurdish17 groups and walk-ins like "Curveball."

KB: With respect to Curveball, it's been a given for a long time that you can't trust a defector because he wants asylum and is going to blow as much smoke as he can to get the best deal.

JW: That's somewhere in the first week of case officer training, absolutely, but it's also human nature to believe what you want to believe and to filter out what you don't want to believe. What you have to do in government, and in intelligence work as in journalism, is to set up procedures that don't allow you to do that. And they didn't.

KB: I was asking one big reporter about the weapons of mass destruction story and this reporter said, "Look, the only thing we could do was report what the administration was saying," and "how are we going to confirm this story, we can't go and do a needle-in-the-haystack tour of Iraq and do a physical inventory." When I was talking to Jon Landay, he said that he went through this whole analytical process of trying to figure out how to find out if the statement was true or not and he asked himself, "If Saddam had these WMDs, what facilities would he have, and so on, and what could be easily seen," and he investigated that.

JW: Look, I can't emphasize strongly enough the fact that an awful lot of the things the administration alleged didn't make sense and raised big questions: Saddam was going to put a biological weapons facility in his own basement? A Kurdish defector had complete access to Iraq's most secret weapons programs?

KB: How does this nonsense become real?

JW: I can't answer that. All I can say is that it didn't become real here. And it doesn't make any sense to me that it was treated as real elsewhere. Why would you believe that Saddam would have given a Kurd access to his most sensitive facilities? Why would you believe he would put a biological weapons facility in his own basement?

KB: Reading your prewar reporting, which is all about raising these questions, I'm surprised that nobody ever called you from various places, the State Department or the Pentagon, for example. Another reporter I spoke to said the Pentagon absolutely believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

JW: No, they didn't. It depends on who you ask. If you ask about Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith,19 he believed it. Donald Rumsfeld believed it. Paul Wolfowitz believed it. Remember what I told you. You have to talk to the lower-echelon people who were most expert and actually handled the information in the first instance.

KB: I'm just telling you this reporter has been in the Pentagon for almost two decades. And this reporter's sources were saying, "We believe it."

JW: You didn't have to go very far to find people who had doubts. Having said that, no one ever told us absolutely that he didn't have them. It took two years of going through the place with a fine-toothed comb to be able to say with some certainty that he didn't have them. So no one ever told us he didn't have them, but what they did tell us was, "This piece of information has been twisted, this piece of information got left out, this doesn't make any sense, this contradicts what they're saying." That's the most that people could say. But going back to where I started, if what you're talking about is making a decision to go to war, those dissents, questions, and loopholes become pretty important. So the contrast between people at the most expert levels across the government saying, "We're not so sure," and people at the top level saying, "We're absolutely sure," was really striking.

KB: The other thing is that the leadership of the country has instant and continuous access to the mass consciousness media, to television, so if they want to send out a message that is quite different from that of their experts, they can.

JW: That's right, sure.

KB: So Knight Ridder, and I say this with all due respect, was, in a sense, reporting the experts' messages from inside a paper bag.

JW: That's correct. I don't disagree with that at all. It wasn't just television; it was the most powerful print institutions in the country or in the world that were reporting mostly what the leadership was saying.

KB: Yes, but TV is what really matters with the public.

JW: Yes, but TV get its lead from reading the New York Times What I'm suggesting is that the likelihood of a major television network taking a reporting tack very different from that of the Times is nil.

KB: It's less than nil, because even what they would take from the New York Times would be dry-cleaned. That's the nature of their business.

JW: Sure. So if you were setting out to influence public opinion, how would you do it?

KB: You have to go on TV.

JW: Yes, but if you were going to set the tone, to establish that it's a given that he has all this stuff and that he's a great danger to us

KB: You just send that message over and over and over.

JW:They're very good at this "message discipline," as they call it. The repetition was very effective. So effective, in fact, that we still have a healthy percentage of people -- not all of them Fox News viewers -- who still believe that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and somehow was involved in 9/11.

KB: This is the most troubling aspect to me. Fox, let's face it, only has 1.8 million viewers. That's pretty small. We have more than 295 million people in this country. How can so many of these people still believe this?

JW: Because the most powerful institutions in our country, both in media and government, said it was so. It's a pretty potent alliance.

KB: Did you come under any pressure from the administration?

JW: Oh, Lord, we sure did. It was the usual. It works in a couple of ways. Again, it's carrots and sticks. You don't get phone calls returned, you get taken off the call lists, you can't travel with Rumsfeld or Cheney, you get berated, and there are the usual phone calls

They made accusations: "The story was inaccurate," "You're looking for trouble here" -- the usual stuff. It's all the normal Washington game.

KB: But no active campaign to silence you.

JW:  It was an active campaign to discredit us with other reporters, but I'll tell you in all honesty that if we had been the New York Times on the Pentagon Papers or the Washington Post on Watergate, we would have gotten a lot more heat. Although we're bigger than either of those organizations by quite a lot in terms of the number of readers, our national reach, and our presence in a lot of key electoral states, we're under the radar most of the time.

KB: Well, you don't have a presence in this town.

JW: No, we don't, but the Internet is changing that. By the way, I don't think the New York Times did a terribly good job on the prewar reporting, but they do a very good job on any number of other things. It's one of the best papers in the country.

KB: I spoke to Walter Pincus at the Washington Post. Walter was interesting because he was talking about how all his reports asking the pertinent prewar questions were ending up on page seventeen. Who makes the decisions on your papers for what gets on the front page?

JW: Each paper makes its own decisions. The important thing is that there was never any second-guessing, much less pressure, from above my head about any of the prewar reporting. Never once did anyone at corporate, from Tony Ridder on down, do anything but encourage us to keep doing what we were doing or express anything other than pride in what we were doing, even though they came under pressure.

I don't think the president ever called them and I don't think the vice president ever called them, but friends in local Republican parties and local activists came at them. I'm sure they were attacked in blogs when they ran stuff that Republicans didn't like. But never once did any of that roll back.

At that level, we had nothing but support. The bottom line is very simple: we could not have done what we did throughout this entire period without the support of my boss, Clark Hoyt, who is the Washington editor, and the total support of his boss, Jerry Ceppos, the vice president for news, and his boss, Tony Ridder.

KB: I'm very interested in the fact that your reporters here, Jon Landay and Warren Strobel, are still pursuing the prewar story.

JW: Sure, because there are still some unanswered questions. You've asked a lot of them that I can't answer.

KB: One reporter told me that he thought that the reason we went to war was predetermined even before Bush came into office, and that this was clear from the "Clean Break" document and from the Project for a New American Century.

JW: That's not a plan to go to war, but there are a number of very sensible reasons for thinking that way. First, the continued reliance on Saudi Arabia doesn't look like a very good bet. We're coming very quickly to a generational change in that country. The "Sudairi seven," the seven members of the royal family, are all elderly, and the next generation is much larger, on the order of two thousand princes, and much more diverse. They range from very pro-Western and English-educated to Osama types.

So the stability of Saudi Arabia can't be taken for granted in terms of it continuing to provide military bases for the United States, which were very important during and after the first Gulf War, and in terms of it being a reliable provider of oil and a regulator of the global oil market. It was sensible to look around for other ways to secure America's economic and military interests in that part of the world.

For reasons we talked about before, Iraq looked like a pretty decent candidate. It had a highly unpopular tyrannical minority regime that was hated by 80 percent of the country's people. That's not a bad place to start. It has a tradition of secular rule, again, thanks to Saddam. There was no highly organized radical Islamic movement, no Iraqi Islamic Jihad, and no Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood to speak of.

You also have to look at going into Iraq in terms of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. When Arafat was still alive, you didn't have the hopes that the new PLO chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, and company have raised in terms of discussing peace with Israel. That picture looked pretty bleak with Arafat in power. So if you could knock out another one of the props underneath Palestinian radicalism -- it's not the only one, but there aren't too many left -- by getting Iraq under control and willing to sign a peace treaty with Israel, you might finally be able to bring the Palestinians around to accepting the fact that they've got to make a deal.

The plan was to install Ahmed Chalabi. And the idea of having American military bases in Iraq constraining the ability of both the Iranians on one side and the Syrians on the other to misbehave and having a friendly government headed by Chalabi in Baghdad willing to allow these bases seemed like a good one. Remember, another part of Chalabi's sales pitch was that he would sign a peace treaty with Israel. So if you believe he could deliver on that, what would the effect be on the Palestinians if an Iraqi government did a complete 180 and did what the Egyptians first did and signed a formal peace treaty with Israel? That looks pretty attractive.

KB: As a journalist who's been in that region and had experience in that region, what is your response to that?

JW: Analytically, it's a pipe dream. I'm afraid that Iraq may not be nearly as fertile soil for democracy as it might appear to be, because of the ethnic divisions. I have to admit that, as I sort of "B team" myself, a Lebanese-style civil war weighs very heavily in my thinking, maybe too heavily, because they're two completely different countries with two completely different histories. But I see Sunnis and disenfranchised Shia and Kurds, and I tend to see Lebanon, which may be a mistake, but there it is.

Kristina Borjesson is an investigative journalist and the author/editor of 'Into the Buzzsaw' and 'Feet to the Fire.' John Walcott is Washington bureau chief for Knight Ridder.

© 2006 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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The Failures of Post-9/11 Media

By Laura Barcella, AlterNet
Posted on January 2, 2006, Printed on January 2, 2006

Kristina Borjesson knows well what can happen to journalists who push too hard to expose government secrets.

The award-winning reporter-cum-media critic was actually fired from her job at CBS after digging too deep -- and refusing to shut up -- about what caused the 2001 crash of TWA flight 800. In her acclaimed 2002 book "Into the Buzzsaw," Borjesson chronicled her forced exile from mainstream media and encouraged other banished reporters to share their stories, too.

Now she's at it again. In October, Borjesson released "Feet to the Fire" (Prometheus Books), a strapping collection of 21 interviews with the country's most influential TV, newspaper and magazine journalists. Her subject at hand? The impact of muddled intelligence -- and White House spin -- on mainstream media's desultory reporting of the lead-up to Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq.

What might be different today if the press hadn't swallowed so many administration lies, hook, line and sinker? Is it the media's responsibility to report what the people need to know, or what the government wants us to hear? And which -- if any -- journalists got their war reporting right?

With an arsenal of questions like these, Borjesson aims for the heart -- and the top -- of the "media elite," brain-picking notables such as Ted Koppel, Ron Suskind, John Walcott and Christopher Hedges.

And with Bush's approval at recent all-time lows, his administration marred by a succession of increasingly Orwellian scandals, Borjesson's timing couldn't be better.

AlterNet spoke with Borjesson via telephone about the power and prejudice behind the "free press."

Why and how did you decide to do this book?

Kristina Borjesson: Actually, it's a logical extension of my last book, "Into the Buzzsaw," which looked at the problems big investigative journalists have. It was important to me to tell people who these [journalists] were. It's important to me that the American public knows who the good journalists really are and the lengths they go to bring the important stories to the public.

Here we are in this amazing era of profound crisis. Particularly pre-war, I was watching television and reading the news, and when it was announced that we were going to war with Iraq, I was wondering why no one was really holding the administration's feet to the fire and asking loudly and often, "Why are we doing this, and why is nobody presenting information that reflects reporting is really digging into this?"

Then when we went off to Iraq, I felt like I needed to understand how this country's top journalists interact with this country's leadership at a time of crisis, to figure out what went right and what went wrong. I decided to pick journalists who were covering areas that I thought were most germane to that period -- whether it was people covering the White House [or] covering the war -- national security intelligence reporters, which is where the rubber met the [road], because the reasons for going to war were ostensibly based on intelligence.

The bottom line for me is to try to examine the best journalists out there, and see what it is about them and how they go about doing their work. And in the course of it, I just exposed a lot of stuff.

Were you shocked or scared by anything you learned over the course of your interviews for "Feet to the Fire"?

The thing that I found really profound was that there really was no consensus among this nation's top messengers about why we went to war. [War is the] most extreme activity a nation can engage in, and if they weren't clear about it, that means the public wasn't necessarily clear about the real reasons. And I still don't think the American people are clear about it.

The other thing that I found interesting was looking into why their reporting didn't get the kind of traction it should. The best reporters were from Knight Ridder. This is not according to Kristina; this is according to all the other top reporters that I spoke to. The reason why their reporting didn't get traction was because their reporting wasn't on television, and while they have a huge audience of 11 million readers during the week, they're not in the power centers of this country, meaning that they don't have a presence in New York or Washington.

Again, what does that say? It's not as if there aren't other bright reporters in television. If you look at the two power newspapers, the New York Times -- most famously, or infamously, their key reporter was Judith Miller. And Walter Pincus [of the Washington Post] was doing all this great reporting, but it was ending up on page 17.

It's what I said about "Buzzsaw" -- people who are on the major radar don't do the kind of reporting that people below that radar do. The question is to look into why. The more powerful the news outlet is, the more visible it is, the more attention it attracts from people who, either inside or outside, want to suppress that reporting.

The other thing that was very clear in the pre-war phase is that the relationship between the White House (the executive branch) and the public, and the executive branch and Congress has changed profoundly. Walter Pincus mentioned that.

Basically it's about decisions that are made inside, and then it's a PR job. It's no longer this dialogue among our executive branch and our top leaders and Congress and the people via the press. [TV news is] essentially a PR job, and it's a very effective one; it's very sophisticated, and it's all day.

That created public perception that was pro-war. So people in television, a lot of whom tried to ask questions, were met with public outcry. That's another reason why [pro-war] reporting got traction. There is intense pressure and intense PR and perception-bending going on that makes it hard for really critical reporting on these sensitive issues to get out.

Were any nonmainstream media outlets reporting the real story?

There were plenty of them. But I was trying to look at the most powerful outlets I could find that were doing a good job. And basically what I'm doing with this book is bringing these people to the public's attention and saying, "Forget about Chris Matthews on 'Hardball.' Go ahead and watch 'Hardball' if you want, but if you want the real nuts-and-bolts reporting, go to Knight Ridder. Look at what John Walcott, Jonathan Landy, Warren Strobel are doing."

I am going to try to make the great journalists of this country stars, and bypass all those little triggers that suppress great journalism and keep the public misinformed or uninformed.

If you had to make one or two interviews from your book required reading for the American public, which would you pick?

You've got to read the Landy and Strobel one, and the Walcott one. The national security and intelligence reporters are the key ones in the book for a lot of reasons.

Why? What might people be shocked to learn in those particular interviews?

Jonathan Landy was invited just recently to speak on "Hardball" about his reporting. For some reason he got bumped, and the producer on the show read his pre-war stuff and she goes, "Oh my god, you were reporting this stuff back in 2002."

When he was doing the comparison between the national intelligence estimate's classified version and the public version, and he was doing the analysis on what it would take to have nuclear weapons and what could you see just read those chapters.

There's Ron Suskind as well. He really tells you who these people are and how they're operating. And Pincus is interesting because he explains the problems, the whole PR attitude. That's a huge component of the problem, because it creates the other problem, which is a public that's hostile to getting the real information.

The only other thing that people should be aware of is the bigger picture of what Krugman calls "the Revolution" -- how this group of people came into power through a system that they are now trying to dismantle, both on the national and international level. And that in the superbig picture. It's basically about the paradigm shifting from nation-states to corporate states, where the nation-state's resources -- their money and their military, and so on -- are used in the furthering of corporations.

Bush and Blair's press conference [at Camp David on Sept. 7, 2002], when they quoted from a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, came up repeatedly in your interviews. Can you explain its significance in the context of pre-war intelligence?

In [that] joint press conference, they talked about this IAEA report [which allegedly said] that Saddam Hussein could reconstitute his nuclear arsenal in a very short time. The fact of the matter was that no such report existed.

In fact, older reports basically said the opposite.

It was reported, and a few journalists picked it up. It was picked up by NBC's Robert Wyndham that day. But it was interesting, because when [Wyndham] mentioned that there was no such report, the White House didn't say, "We're sorry, we didn't mean the IAEA report, we meant another report." Their answer was, "Well, that was our perception at the time."

It was just a bizarre response. And then the report disappeared from their website, and that was it. The whole event disappeared.

It's fascinating what's going on, because there's this virtual reality that's created by speeches and statements. If there's nothing there to counter it, it becomes the [public's] perception. And everybody acts on the perception. Whether it's real or not, it's now treated as real, so it becomes real.

The press is going 50 on this issue, and the administration and their perception-bending machines are going 500. And that's the problem that needs to be solved institutionally.

When, for example, Colin Powell goes and gives his speech to the U.N., how, as a reporter covering it, can you question every fact that he [gives] while he's putting it out, so that when that speech is over, you know what's true and what isn't?

It's possible. The networks could do it, the print reporters could do it, just by having somebody checking everything back at the office and staying in touch with that reporter in the field. It's possible to do. But it's not done

I think they should have access to international fact-checkers. One of the biggest problems with investigative journalism, and journalism in general, is the delay between when statements are made and when they're checked out, because you have to report what the president says right away when [he says] it.

Do you think that lack of fact-checking and follow-through are part of the reason that the American people are still so muddled about the link (or non-link) between Saddam Hussein and 9/11?

Well, yes. The fact is that unless networks are willing to do the real reporting, it's a tough thing to ask of them. Because of the leadership's PR machine, if the public is hostile to getting critical information, then you could lose a lot of money.

What's happening now is that there's a whole alternative press system out there that is doing their homework, and they're doing it really fast. And people are beginning to know where the good sites are and where conscientious reporters [are] -- whether they're journalists or professors or whatever.

Look at Juan Cole's Informed Comment [blog]. A lot of people I know don't watch the network television news anymore. Every once in a while when I do catch it, it's a day or two behind sometimes. So why bother? They're going to suffer from that; they are suffering from that.

How have the internet and blogs contributed to this -- the way we're getting our news, credibility ?

It's making it very scary for the networks, because they're obsolete from A to Z. This woman, Robin Meade on CNN in the morning, with the Jessica Simpson look-alike makeup? If you put Jonathan Landy and Warren Strobel on television, that's it -- they will have no competition.

These guys are good-looking, they're edgy, they're intense and they're telling you the truth -- they're lifting the veil. Nothing would glue people to their chairs more than something like that. Because what you're getting are these older white guys who are coloring within the lines constantly. Even the subjects that they choose to cover for the news are just obsolete from beginning to end.

They keep trying to make it more entertaining. And they don't realize that, in this new world now, what would be most compelling is just really hard, true reporting being presented, by the way, by the people who are actually doing it -- and packaged in a way that is more interesting, and that moves more, with more cuts.

Even I have to admit that I love MTV -- I love the style.

When I watch network news, it's just so hard to watch. It isn't attractive. They all look alike, they all sound alike, they all say the same things. And I don't care how much makeup Robin wears, or how high she teases the back of her head and smiles and whatever. She's not interesting, and she's not covering interesting stories.

Literally -- the other day, she was covering something about dogs. It was obviously a throwback to one of those [ideas that] "the key stories are vets, pets, tits and tots."

You said earlier that it can be hard for reporters to deliver the truth if Americans are hostile to that truth. Do you think this has changed at all since the war started?

What's interesting is that there's a pattern to the coverage whenever we go to war. Before the war, everybody is gung-ho, because the PR machine is in full swing [and] everybody wants to get behind the president. Really, if you want to be re-elected, start a war, because people don't like to change presidents.

And then you go to war, and there's bang-bang footage and it's all exciting. And the people start to die, and now you're into the everyday flogging of the war. It's the same stuff all the time, so people get tired of that.

But as the casualties start to rise, that's when the reporting starts getting critical, because it's hitting a critical mass with the public that their kids are dying. Once a critical mass of kids start arriving home in coffins, the reporting starts to change, because journalism is not proactive, it's reactive.

In the case of this war, there is another added element to that. People have discovered, way before the war is over, [that] the president's reasons for going to war turned out to have no basis. That creates questions in people's minds, too.

But again, you're constantly swimming against the PR machine that comes out with, "You're not supporting the troops if you're critical. We're going to win this war; it's important -- the Iraqi people are behind it." Our tax dollars are being used to blow smoke at us. That is profoundly troubling.

You can see that people are sidestepping the mainstream system now, with the internet and so on. You can do the Buckminster Fuller thing with getting out the information, but now, when you've got this machine that's constantly trying to create and bend perceptions, and that doesn't go through the journalism outlets.

In one of your chapters, Tom Yellin said that his biggest question as a [ABC News] producer is determining whether to lead viewers to the right story or respond to what they want to hear. That seemed to be a common conflict among most of the reporters you spoke with.

That's the vise they're in, exactly.

How do they reconcile the two?

This is where James Bamford, who's independent, really slams the network people. And, by the way, all of these journalists, when asked, "Who do you think did the best job?" Many pointed to Sy Hersh [of the New Yorker], but he didn't feel comfortable being interviewed.

The decision to run a story, or not, ultimately doesn't rest in the hands of the journalists who do the stories -- it rests in the hands of their superiors. And their superiors are the ones who have to make decisions based on whether it's good business or not. And believe me, if you're going to lose viewers because you're going to tell a highly critical story, more often than not, in television, the story will not go on.

In newspapers, what they do is just put it on page 17. They marginalize it in the back pages.

Krugman has a fan base over at the New York Times, but he is "balanced" by David Brooks, so there is always a mitigating factor that keeps a certain perspective from gaining primacy. For example, Bamford pointed out that, on television talk shows, the way they "balance" things is this: If you're going to have Richard Perle on, he's a neo-con, super-right-wing guy. So his real equal, on the other side, might be someone like [Noam] Chomsky. But Chomsky will never get on television; he's too left-wing.

But Perle isn't too right-wing. So what they do is take a centrist, slightly left-wing senator, maybe, who is going to provide a weaker left-wing perspective to Perle's overwhelming right-wing perspective. And that's how it's done on television. That's how a certain viewpoint is controlled on television. That's why the whole thing about the left-wing mainstream media is laughable, particularly when it comes to television, just by virtue of the sources that they choose to bring on.

It seemed like most of the journalists you interviewed were very concerned with their credibility, and how that would convey to their audience. Tom Yellin talked about it being all-important for journalists to earn the public's trust. Do you think people are as worried about that as journalists are?

This is a strange era that we're living in, because it's polarized now between right and left. Obviously there are people who choose their news sources because their politics dovetail with that of the news source. But that should not be a concern of any good journalist.

It seems like most American people don't care about a journalist's credibility unless it's called into question.

Well, they certainly attack it enough. If you read Ron Suskind's chapter, I ask him, "Given all the events that have occurred, what kind of system of government are we moving towards?"

There was this silence. And I said, "I'm going to record the fact that there's a long silence here."

[Then] he started talking about how you have to be judicious in what you say, so as not to be marginalized.

I don't know if it's on both the right and the left, but if the truth is 12 inches long, some journalists will only go six inches into that truth. Because to go the full 12 inches might create a backlash that could marginalize them. But to go six inches into it is still safe.

Because [under] this administration, if you're on their radar, and you write or air something that is critical enough and gets their attention, they will lash out at you, and they're very good at it. That does have a deterring effect, even on the big journalists.

The Washington Post's Bart Gellman gets letters all the time from people at the Pentagon, or they send letters to the press saying Gellman's reporting is inaccurate. Just recently, the Washington Post had to respond to something like that publicly in an editorial. A lot of the guys in here, certainly the Knight Ridder boys, have no compunctions about reporting exactly what they find, no matter what.

Most of the reporters you talked with denied that there was self-censorship in their news organizations. Do you agree?

I know from firsthand experience that self-censorship goes on. I also know that agenda reporting goes on in these major outlets.

From time to time you'll see a "Nightline" that is so satisfying to watch, because it's looking at some critical issue that needs to be aired, and it's looking at it intelligently and it's presenting facts. Just as often, you'll see reports that are just ridiculous. But what goes on most consistently is just reporting that is either inane or doesn't cover what needs to be covered to the extent that it needs to be covered. That's why people are turning away in droves from those news divisions.

How do you think news coverage of the war has changed?

It has become more critical. More questions are being asked because all this money has been spent. More than 2,000 of our men and women have died over there, and there doesn't seem to be any end in sight.

Notwithstanding the fact that the president keeps talking about victory, we paid a huge price in terms of national prestige and our relationship with countries around the world.

I think the reporting is becoming more critical. I mean, that's why [the Bush administration] keeps mounting all these new campaigns. It's fascinating --it's one campaign after another. They have a message, and then all of them go out there and put out the same message.

But sometimes it backfires, like when they came out against the anti-war critics, it didn't fly very well. After that, Bush came out with a campaign message of, "We will be victorious, and good things are happening and there's an Iraqi election coming up."

They keep waving the flag of democracy under people's noses, but I was reared in Haiti, and the Americans "helped bring democracy" on a couple of occasions, but they didn't like the results. I'm not impressed by the whole "democracy" thing.

What about the international press? How does it compare with the American press in terms of reporting the truth and not kowtowing to what people want to hear?

It's easier to be free to critically cover major events if your own country and the blood of your own countrymen are not invested. In terms of the Iraq war, sure, everybody else has probably been able to do a better job, because they don't have the stake in it that we do. The Germans, of course, having gone through Nazism, [are] more vigilant about censorship and so on.

Although, again, their big media conglomerate, Bertelsmann, controls a lot of the media over there. The corporatization of mainstream media is not just happening here.

But again, the fact that they're not as invested in the Iraq war makes it easier for them to cover it critically.

Do you now have more faith or less in American media and the journalistic process?

I have more faith, because I've met and talked to 21 really smart, conscientious journalists, so obviously that buttresses my faith. I have faith in American journalists just because I've spent since 2001-2002 championing the best journalists, and trying to promote good journalists by having them write about their experiences and, in this case, interviewing them.

What's more important to me is that I've found a way to make the public more conscious of good journalism and journalists. I think it's important for people to know who the good sources of information are. Who they are, because it's an individual matter. It's not Knight Ridder so much as it's Walcott, Strobel, and Landyonce. These people go out over the airways or on panels around the country, and people meet them and hear them speak. People will say, "Oh, now I get it." And to me, there's no better mission right now because of the crisis we're in.

How do you feel about Fox News' impact on TV journalism? Did the reporters you spoke with consider it a valid threat to what they were doing?

Some of them, like Peter Arnett, felt the impact of Fox News. He was interviewed on Iraqi TV and was summarily pulled from view. It was fascinating, because you have Geraldo drawing little maps in the sand and nothing happens to him, but Arnett gets it between the eyes for basically quoting what the American military was saying about itself.

Some of them, like Arnett, felt the power of Fox, because they did 24-hour attacks on him and what he did. He was pulled from view as a result of that.

Then there's Tom Curley, the president and CEO of the Associated Press, who thinks that Fox is an important voice because they present this right-wing point of view. He talks about the diversity of voices, and how Fox is great because it's part of that.

Me, I don't care what wing the truth flies in on -- right or left -- as long as it's the truth.

I frankly do not see Fox as a purveyor of the truth. I don't give a damn that they're right-wing. I don't want to paint them with one big, broad, black brush and say they lie all the time. Sometimes -- I've got to give credit -- in the morning, you can't find anything on Iraq, because Robin's there [on CNN] talking about little pet dogs, but at least Fox is in Iraq.

Really, Fox's audience is very small. It's only about 1.8 million, I believe. But they're powerful, because they are connected philosophically and politically to the White House.

Are there any news websites that you love and would like to promote?

I love Asia Times online. You've got to do a story on those people.

I wouldn't have Juan Cole in my book if I didn't think his website was amazing. It's just intelligent analysis and real information. That's the thing -- you can't just report the facts. If you don't have history and context and good analysis, then that reporting makes no sense. If you want really great analysis, plus the facts, plus people who use all kinds of sources when they're covering the Middle East.

I love AlterNet, too. I go there all the time.

Laura Barcella is an associate editor at AlterNet.

© 2006 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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