October 2009 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

October 2009

Winners & Sinners

Sinner  Dexter  Filkins  and  Winner  Jane  Mayer

Sinner: Dexter Filkins.

Filkins is a fine reporter, one of the best foreign correspondents working for The New York Times, and the author of countless scoops, including the one he co-authored this morning  about the regular payments the CIA has been making for years to Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president who has repeatedly been accused of being a major player in that country’s drug trade.

    Given Filkin’s track record, FCP was extremely eager to read his recent piece about Stanley McChrystal and the Afghan war in The New York Times magazine.  The cover line suggested Filkins had written something particularly important: “Is it just too late — politically and militarily — for Gen. Stanley McChrystal to win in Afghanistan?”

    That head made me hope that Filkins might have written a piece like Walter Cronkite’s famous report from Vietnam, right after the Tet Offensive in 1968, in which Cronkite concluded, “To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion..It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate…”

    However,  Filkins failed to reach any clear conclusion about our prospects in Afghanistan the same way Cronkite had in Vietnam.  But that was not the main problem with his article.   Like so many other reporters before him, Filkins had clearly been seduced by the general.  Here is a typical passage: “With his long and gaunt face and his long and lean body, McChrystal looks almost preternaturally alert — coiled, hungry. He pushes himself mercilessly, sleeping four or five hours a night, eating one meal a day. He runs eight miles at a clip, usually with an audiobook at his ears. ‘I was the fastest runner at Fort Stewart, Ga., until he arrived,’ Petraeus told me recently. ‘He’s a tremendous athlete.’” (What is it about being a jock that is so irresistible to so many male reporters?)

    Seduction, of course, leads to sloppiness.   As FCP pointed out earlier this month, McChrystal has some very large skeletons in his closet,concerning  the torture of prisoners interrogated by his men, and his central role in covering up the fact that former football star Pat Tillman had been killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

    Regarding the multiple accusations of prisoners tortured by men under McChrystal command, this was all Filkins wrote: “One of JSOC’s units, Task Force 6-26, was cited for abusing detainees, many of them at a site known as Camp Nama, in Baghdad. McChrystal himself was not implicated, but at least 34 task-force members were disciplined. ‘There were cases where people made mistakes, and they were punished,’ McChrystal told me. ‘What we did was establish a policy and atmosphere that said that is not what you do. That is not acceptable.’

    As for his role in the Tillman cover-up, McChrystal gave Filkins the same misleading, non-denial-denial that the general had offered at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year: “McChrystal said he never intended for Tillman’s death to be exploited politically or to convey an incorrect impression about his death. ‘I certainly regret the way this came out,’ McChrystal told me.

    In an e-mail to Filkins, FCP reminded The Times reporter what Tillman’s father had written about the Army’s supposedly unintentional deceptions:

The Army reported that information ‘was slow to make it back to the United States.’ To the contrary, the information was sent almost immediately, but there was one set of ‘facts’ for the military and another for my family. As to the military’s claim that it kept the family informed, I was briefed three times with a sales pitch of made-up “facts” and assurances of investigative integrity. With respect to the Army’s reference to ‘mistakes in reporting the circumstances of [my son’s] death’: those ‘mistakes’ were deliberate, calculated, ordered (repeatedly) and disgraceful – conduct well beneath the standard to which every soldier in the field is held.

    I also reminded Filkins that the officers at the camp where McChrystal’s men had been accused of routinely torturing their prisoners never used their real names–to make it more difficult to prosecute them later.  They also allowed their soldiers to decorate the base with signs reading “NO BLOOD, NO FOUL“–which the Times itself had reported in 2006 “reflected an adage adopted by Task Force 6-26: ‘If you don’t make them bleed, they can’t prosecute for it.’”

    Then I asked Filkins these questions:

1.  Don’t these facts make it impossible to believe that “McChrystal… never intended for Tillman’s death to be exploited politically or to convey an incorrect impression about his death,” or that he “certainly regrets the way this came out?” Is there some reason you don’t find Tillman’s father’s description of the Army actions to be credible?  That the deceptions were willful, and repeated many times?

2.  Do you not find the interrogator interviewed by Human Rights First and the Esquire reporter [who described the torture committed by McChrystal’s troops] to be credible?  I think it’s flatly false–or at least gravely incomplete–to assert that McChrystal was “not implicated” in any of the abuses at Nama.  In fact, I believe he was questioned behind closed doors about these allegations by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
3.  And then there’s this:  “What we did was establish a policy and atmosphere that said that is not what you do. That is not acceptable.”  How could you allow the posting of signs reading  “NO BLOOD, NO FOUL” if that you were trying to establish “such a policy and atmosphere”?

    Filkins did not reply.

Winner:   Karen DeYoung for a powerful portrait of Matthew Hoh, a former Marine corps captain turned  Foreign Service officer, who was “exactly the kind of smart civil-military hybrid the administration was looking for to help expand its development efforts in Afghanistan.”  Last month Hoh resigned from the State Department in protest over the Afghan war, which he had come to believe simply fueled the insurgency.  “I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan,” he wrote Sept. 10 in a four-page letter to the department’s head of personnel. “I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end.”  DeYoung’s piece gives a far better sense of the hopelessness of the American effort than Filkins’ did.

Winner: Nathaniel Frank for the most thorough evisceration in memory at The Huffington Post of an appalling piece by Sinner James Bowman in The Weekly Standard.   Bowman’s essential argument against allowing gays to serve openly in the military: “We know that soldiering… is inextricably bound up with ideas of masculinity… ‘Being a man’ typically does mean for soldiers both being brave, stoic, etc.–and being heterosexual…. [and] includes the honor of being known for heterosexuality.”

Frank’s rebuttal makes it clear that Bowman’s pristine ignorance of all of the actual data on this subject leads him to get almost every single fact wrong in his piece.   Bowman’s piece is a classic example of stupidity and intellectual dishonesty masquerading as objective analysis.

Frank is the author of Unfriendly Fire, the brilliant and definitive book he published on this subject earlier this year.

Winner: The great Jane Mayer for another superb New Yorker article  excerpted here about the steep decline in the moral standards associated with the way America now conducts its wars.  Mayer’s subject this time: the predator drones used by the CIA to assassinate “terrorists.”   Piloted by remote controllers thousands of miles from their targets, the drones are regarded within the American government as one of our most effective tools against terrorism.  But Mayer makes it clear that the collateral damage they often cause is probably creating even more terrorists than they are destroying.

General McChrystal: American "Hero"


                                                 General Stanley A. McChrystal 

  Above the Fold

   The next time John McCain or David Gregory or some other Washington sage demands to know why President Obama hasn’t already acceded to General Stanley A. McChrystal’s demand that we immediately send 40,000 additional troops to the bottomless cesspool known as Afghanistan, (just imagine: A Commander-in-Chief who thinks that generals are supposed to work for him, rather than the other way around) consider these facts:

* McChrystal was a personal favorite of George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney;

* Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh says that McChrystal ran what Hersh called Cheney’s personal “executive assassination wing”;

*Newsweek reported in 2006 that “Rumsfeld is especially enamored of McChrystal’s ‘direct action’ forces or so-called SMUs–Special Mission Units–whose job is to kill or capture bad guys…But critics say the Pentagon is short-shrifting the ‘hearts and minds’ side of Special Operations that is critical to counterinsurgency–like training foreign armies and engaging with locals.”

* A former interrogator at an American-run prison outside Baghdad called Nama, (soldiers said that stood for Nasty Ass Military Area), told a reporter for Esquire  that all of the officers there went by first names only, and that prisoners were repeatedly beaten, and exposed to all of the torture techniques that the Bush administration pretended were only administered by “rogue soldiers.”

*The Colonel the interrogator worked for at Nama promised him that the Red Cross would never visit the facility. The Colonel was certain of that because “He had this directly from General McChrystal.”

* The same interrogator said that the Colonel was fully aware of all of the abuses taking place on the base. Asked by an investigator from Human Rights Watch where the Colonel’s orders were coming from, the interrogator said, “I believe it was a two-star general. I believe his name was General McChrystal. I saw him there a couple of times.”

* According to Jon Krakauer’s new book, Where Men Win Glory, McChrystal was at the center of the effort to pretend that former football star Pat Tillman had been killed by the enemy, instead of being a victim of friendly fire. At the same time that the general was approving a Silver Star for Tillman, he was cabling the White House, to warn, in secret, that the soldier had actually been killed by his American comrades.

* Krakauer says that Tillman’s uniform and body armor were burned, and his weapon, helmet, and even a part of his brain, which fell to the ground after the attack, disappeared.

* Queried about the cover up during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, McChrystal said he had failed to review the Silver Star citation “well enough to capture” the fact that it implied that Tillman was not a victim of friendly fire.

* Although McChrystal told the committee that those involved with the Tillman cover-up “just didn’t line things up right,” the general also said “it was not intentional…I didn’t see any activities by anyone to deceive.”

   Pat Tillman, senior had a very different view of the cover-up of his son’s death in which McChrystal was a principal participant. In a letter to the Washington Post, Tillman wrote,

   The Army reported that information ‘was slow to make it back to the United States.’ To the contrary, the information was sent almost immediately, but there was one set of ‘facts’ for the military and another for my family. As to the military’s claim that it kept the family informed, I was briefed three times with a sales pitch of made-up “facts” and assurances of investigative integrity. With respect to the Army’s reference to ‘mistakes in reporting the circumstances of [my son’s] death’: those ‘mistakes’ were deliberate, calculated, ordered (repeatedly) and disgraceful – conduct well beneath the standard to which every soldier in the field is held.  I have absolute respect and admiration for Army Rangers acting as such. As to their superior officers, the West Point-Army honor code is: ‘I will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those that do.’ They should reissue the booklet.

   The reference of the interrogator to the failure of officers at Nama to use their real names describes one of the most serious breakdowns in the chain of command sanctioned by the Bush administration. The purpose of this anonymity, of course, was to make it as difficult as possible to prosecute officers for the war crimes which they had sanctioned.  And the strategy was extremely successful.

   In 2006, a superb story  by New York Times reporters Eric Schmitt and Carolyn Marshall reported that soldiers from McChrystal’s Task Force 6-26 had been accused by the son of one of  Hussein’s bodyguards of forcing him to strip, punching him in the spine until he fainted, putting him in front of an air-conditioner while cold water was poured on him, and kicking him in the stomach until he vomited.

   “Army investigators were forced to close their inquiry in June 2005,” the Times reported, “after they said task force members used battlefield pseudonyms that made it impossible to identify and locate the soldiers involved. The unit also asserted that 70 percent of its computer files had been lost.”

    McChrystal refused to be interviewed by The Times, which also reported that the general’s soldiers had decorated the post with signs reading NO BLOOD, NO FOUL.” The signs “reflected an adage adopted by Task Force 6-26: ‘If you don’t make them bleed, they can’t prosecute for it.’”

   The Times also said, “the abuses [at Nama] appeared to have been unsanctioned, but some of them seemed to have been well known throughout the camp. For an elite unit with roughly 1,000 people at any given time, Task Force 6-26 seems to have had a large number of troops punished for detainee abuse. Since 2003, 34 task force members have been disciplined in some form for mistreating prisoners, and at least 11 members have been removed from the unit.”

   Despite all of this excellent reporting in the Times, when McChrystal was chosen to be the new American commander in Afghanistan earlier this year, the same newspaper published a worshipful profile,  which described the general as someone who had “moved easily from the dark world [of killing terrorists] to the light.” The Man in the News article mentioned McChrystal’s central role in the Tillman cover-up only in passing, calling it  “one blot on his otherwise impressive military record.”

   The story made no mention at all of the involvement of McChrystal’s men in torture, but it did quote a retired general as saying that the new commander was “lanky, smart, tough, a sneaky stealth soldier” who  has “all the Special Ops attributes, plus an intellect.”

   Now the General who orchestrated one of the Bush administration’s most famous cover-ups, and whose men were specialists in torture and assassination, has been reborn with a brand new preoccupation with the fate of civilians in Afghanistan.

   As The Times of London observed a couple of weeks ago, “This compassion [for civilians] was a long way from the reputation McChrystal had enjoyed as America’s ruthless ‘chief terrorist pursuer’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, caught up in a scandal over torture and prisoner abuse. His transformation into a ‘scholar-soldier’ is perhaps one of his greatest achievements in a remarkable career.”

   There is a searing irony to the fact that McChrystal is the man President Obama selected to re-invigorate the American effort in Afghanistan–and that the general has now gone public, in London, with a demand for 40,000 additional troops for this quagmire. (That was such an egregious abuse of the chain-of-command,  even Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a mild reprimand.)

   The presidential candidate who campaigned on the promise of a sharp break with the shameful abuses of the Bush administration now seems to have made himself hostage to one of the men most closely identified with all of them.

                                                                                                     –Charles Kaiser


Remembering Washington's Loved Ones

 Above the Fold

   Nothing brings out Washington’s passion for mediocrity like the death of one of its favorite pundits.

    When syndicated columnist and long time TV personality Bob Novak died last August, he was lionized by David Broder, praised by Howard Kurtz, and given a mostly friendly obituary in The New York Times.

    Nowhere in in The Times or The Post could you find a hint of the fact that Novak and his late partner Rowland Evans had pioneered the corruption of Washington journalism, by charging lobbyists to attend annual conferences populated by sources corralled by the columnists–sources who felt compelled to attend, lest they fall out of favor with two of Washington’s most successful opinion makers.  (It was this model that the Atlantic Magazine has emulated for several years, and which Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth briefly, and disastrously, embraced last summer,  until the newsroom rose up in disgust, forcing Weymouth to abandon it, at least temporarily.)

    What you did learn from his loving colleagues after Novak died was that he was “notable… for the energy with which he tackled his assignments” and “his instinct was to help his friends whenever they needed it” (Broder); that Fred Barnes thought he was “ideological but not partisan at all” and that he “prided himself on being a shoe-leather reporter” (Kurtz); and “he was also a great reporter who liked a good story even more than his ideology” (The New York Times.)

    Now it is true, as any knowlegeable Washington octogenarian will tell you, that Novak was a great reporter when he covered Capital Hill for The Wall Street Journal–in the late 1950’s.  But that was five decades ago.  When he switched from reporter to columnist, Novak’s pieces were so riddled with factual errors that he and his partner Rowland Evans quickly became known as Errors and No Facts.”

    In one of dozens of famous non-scoop-scoops, the column reported days before the 1980 presidential election that Jimmy Carter’s White House counsel, Lloyd Cutler, had just flown back from Geneva, where he had secured a “handshake” agreement with the Iranians to release the American hostages in Teheran.   Had the columnists taken the elementary precaution of telephoning Cutler before writing that, they would have learned that hehadn’t been out of the country at all–since the previous summer.

    LAST WEEK, IT WAS DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN, with the death of Bill Safire, the Nixon flak turned Times columnist, whose hiring by Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger ssent shivers through the rest of The New York Times at the end of 1972.

    But Safire quickly won over his Washington bureau colleagues by feeding them the scooplets that he didn’t use in his own column.   And while Nixon was still in office, he occasionally got a special leak–as he did the day the White House gave him the transcripts of an early set of Nixon tapes, several hours before other news organizations received them.

    Last week his Times colleague Maureen Dowd caught Washington’s mood with a worshipful column extolling Safire as “a man who loved women,” wrote novels “full of zesty sex scenes,” and had “none of the vile and vitriol of today’s howling pack of conservative pundits.”  Her kicker was to declare him a “mensch”–the ultimate Yiddish compliment, which, in this case, could not have been more inappropriate.

    Only Slate’s Jack Shafer suggested Safire’s true nature: “A human hybrid of flack, hack, speechwriter, book author, novelist, and politician, he answered to nobody but himself, and for all his alleged skill as a reporter, he never asked himself any tough questions.”  Many years ago, writing in Newsday, Sydney Schanberg made a similar point, when Safire suddenly embraced Al D’Amato for his ethical zeal, because he was investigating Bill Clinton’s alleged misdeeds in the Whitewater affair–even though, as Schanberg pointed out, the New York Senator had “perhaps the most dubious ethics record of any figure on the national scene.”

    (Full Disclosure: when I was the press critic at Newsweek, I wrote a piece accusing New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal of using the paper to “reward his friends and punish his enemies,” after he commissioned Times reporter John Corry to write a 6,500 word apologia for Jerzy Kosinski on the front page of the Arts & Leisure section.  Corry’s piece was a response to an article in The Village Voice, which  had accused Kosinki of not being the sole author of all of his novels.  Corry suggested that the writers at the Voice had been duped by a Polish government campaign defaming the emigré author–because he was an anti-commnist.  Almost every senior Times critic told me they were horrified by Corry’s piece, because they believed it had been motivated solely by Rosenthal’s close friendship with Kosinski.   But Abe’s other close friend, Bill Safire, responded to my criticism with a column which attacked me for attacking Abe–and extolled Corry’s article as “a piece of cultural sleuthing worthy of a Pulitzer Prize.”)

    David Broder unwittingly identified the real problem with writers like Novak and Safire, when he described Novak as one of those reporters who “cultivated not just sources but friendships with many of the main players in the drama they loved.” Broder meant that as a compliment, of course, even though such a posture actually makes it impossible to practice real journalism.  George Orwell, the antithesis of this kind of pundit, once explained to Stephen Spender that he didn’t “mix much in literary circles” partly because “I know from experience that once I have met & spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to.”

    The one person toward whom Safire almost never showed any “intellectual brutality” was his first important patron, Richard Nixon.   Safire labored in Nixon’s White House with Pat Buchanan, and togther they wrote the speeches that vice president Spiro Agnew delivered in the mid 1970’s, which inaugurated the right-wing war against the mainstream press, which has been waged so successfully ever since then.

    When Abe Rosenthal died  three and a half years ago, Safire was one of the speakers at his funeral, at Central Synagogue in Manhattan.

    He recalled that Rosenthal often said that he wanted his epitaph to be, “He kept the paper straight”–words which actually appear on Rosenthal’s grave stone.

    Then Safire recalled being in The New York Times newsroom in the summer of 1974, on the day when the news came over the wire that Richard Nixon had decided to resign.  According to Safire, the entire Times newsroom had erupted in applause.

    There was only one problem with this anecdote, as I pointed out to Safire on the synagogue’s steps when the funeral was over: it never happened.   I was in the Times newsroom for twelve hours that day, because I was Abe Rosenthal’s news clerk, and there was never any applause to celebrate the president’s resignation. If there had been, Abe would surely have fired any reporter who had put his hands together at such a moment.

    Like many of Safire’s own columns, this was another story “too good to check”–but he used it anyway, because it worked so well to confirm his  life-long prejudices.