May 2011 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

May 2011

Must Reads from Mayer and Barry


Rick Welts, president of Phoenix Suns, comes out (in The New York Times); Jane Mayer writes a blockbuster about the Obama Administration’s dangerous obsession with leaks

The most important and the most depressing piece of 2011 is by Jane Mayer in the current New Yorker.  When the history of this era is written, Jane’s work about American torture under Bush and “national security” under Obama will stand out as being some of the most courageous and intelligent journalism of our time.

    In stark contrast to many of her national security rivals in the Washington bureau of The New York Times (especially the ones with alliterative names) Mayer never gives the impression that she is merely repeating the official government line.

    Jane’s story this week is a horrifying tale of the persecution through unnecessary federal prosecution of Thomas Drake, a 54-year-old former employee of the National Security Agency, a whistle blower who was disgusted by waste and mismanagement–and the implementation of some of the most intrusive and most illegal surveillance programs in the history of the republic.

    As Yale law professor Jack Balkin told Mayer, “We are witnessing the bipartisan normalization and legitimization of a national-surveillance state”–something which comes much closer to George Orwell’s nightmare vision in 1984 than most people realize.  Obama, Balkin says, has “systematically adopted policies consistent with the second term of the Bush Administration”–although torture is a notable exception to that statement.

    Among the scariest developments is the perversion of a program called ThinThread, developed by Bill Binney, a now-retired NSA analyst.  “Binney estimated that there were some two and a half billion phones in the world and one and a half billion I.P. addresses. Approximately twenty terabytes of unique information passed around the world every minute. Binney started assembling a system that could trap and map all of it.”

    Binney actually believed that if ThinThread had been deployed before 9/11, it would have detected the plans for the attacks before they occurred.  “Those its of conversation they found too late?” Binney said.  “They would never have happened.” 

    But the NSA bureaucracy focused instead on a rival system called Trailblazer, which was abandoned in 2006 after it had become a $1.2 billion flop.

    When ThinThread was finally put to use by the agency, it was stripped of the controls Binney had built into it which would have prevented it from being used to spy on Americans, in direct violation of Federal Law.  Binney says his program was twisted.  “I should apologize to the American people,” Binney said.  “It’s violated everyone’s rights. It can be used to eavesdrop on the whole world.” Binney added that Thomas Drake had taken  his side against the N.S.A.’s management and, as a result, had become a political target–leading to what appears to be a wholly unjustified Federal prosecution that could send him to jail for thirty-five years.

    The single most horrifying fact in Mayer’s story: Binney believes that the NSA now stores copies of all e-mails transmitted in America, in case the government wants to retrieve the details later.  Binney says that an N.S.A. e-mail database can be searched with “dictionary selection,” in the manner of Google.

    Look for 60 Minutes to take up this story next Sunday.

                                                       ~    .     ~    .    ~

    This week’s other must read story is Dan Barry’s superb account in The New York Times of the coming out of Rick Welts,  the president and chief executive of the Phoenix Suns, who had spent his entire career in the closet because of the neanderthal attitude of professional sports towards every gay man and woman who participates in them.   Barry does a magnificent job of describing Welt’s three-decade long odyssey to honesty, including the extremely supportive role of National Basketball Commissioner David Stern.

    The story notes that when former N.B.A. player John Amaechi announced that he was gay in 2007, that prompted former N.B.A. star Tim Hardaway to say that, as a rule, he hated gay people.  

    Note to Hardaway, and his fellow homophobes everywhere: the only people who ever make statements like that are invariably afraid that they might be gay themselves. 

    People who are certain they are straight are never upset by gay people at all.







Winners & Sinners: from Mary Murphy to Mark Mazzetti


Pulitzer winner David Leonhardt, National Magazine Award winner Scott Horton, Filmmaker Mary Murphy, New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti

Winner: Mary Murphy, for her superb documentary Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mocking Bird, which opens today at the Quad Cinema in New York and soon in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Boston, Mobile, Long Beach, Palm Springs and Norfolk, Va.  

Murphy, a veteran journalist, fell in love with Scout as a child and has  fashioned a beautiful love letter to her creator and this great American novel.   Watch the trailer here   or listen to Murphy charm her interviewer on NPR here.  And then get yourself to the theatre as soon as possible, for a treat for the whole family.

Sinner: Mark Mazzetti, whose coverage of American torture will forever live in infamy.  His latest contribution to his torture canon, the day after Osama Bin Laden was assassinated, was a story (with Helene Cooper and Peter Baker) which credulously adopted the line of former Bush administration officials (as Mazzetti has done dozens of times before) who  were desperately trying to convince the world that torture was the main reason that Bin Laden had been located.   The offending paragraphs were these:

The raid was the culmination of years of painstaking intelligence work, including the interrogation of CIA detainees in secret prisons in Eastern Europe, where sometimes what was not said was as useful as what was…

It wasn’t until after 2002, when the agency began rounding up Qaeda operatives  and subjecting them to hours of brutal interrogation sessions in secret overseas prisons  that they finally began filling in the gaps about the foot soldiers, couriers and money men Bin Laden relied on.

Prisoners in American custody told stories of a trusted courier. When the Americans ran the man’s pseudonym past two top-level detainees  the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed; and Al Qaeda’s operational chief, Abu Faraj al-Libi  the men claimed never to have heard his name. That raised suspicions among interrogators that the two detainees were lying and that the courier probably was an important figure.

This prompted FCP to write the following e-mail to Mazzetti, Times executive editor Bill Keller, managing editor Jill Abramson, and Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet:

Everything I’ve read today–from Feinstein’s press conference to Donald Rumsfeld in NewsMax [Rumsfeld reversed himself under neocon pressure the following day] to Jane Mayer to the round-up in Talking Points Memo–suggests that your strong implication on the front page of today’s newspaper that torture played an essential role in developing the information that led to Osama’s killing is flatly false… Judging from what everyone else has said today, once again, for the umpteenth time,  all you are doing is repeating the CIA line to protect the people who tortured their prisoners.
I trust  tomorrow’s newspaper will either
1) retract the implication of those graphs
2) provide some substance to support them?

Keller acknowledged receipt of the e-mail but did not respond to it; Abramson and Mazzetti ignored it.  Baquet wrote, “Good to hear from you again. I’m not sure I read those paragraphs the way you did.”

However, in the following day’s paper, there was indeed a new story on the front page by Scott Shane and Charlie Savage which seemed to take back the implication of Mazzetti’s story:

As intelligence officials disclosed the trail of evidence that led to the compound in Pakistan where Bin Laden was hiding, a chorus of Bush administration officials claimed vindication for their policy of “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding…But a closer look at prisoner interrogations suggests that the harsh techniques played a small role at most in identifying Bin Laden’s trusted courier and exposing his hide-out.

Harper’s contributing editor Scott Horton, whose writing about torture always features all of the skepticism and sophistication which Mazzetti’s–and, frequently Shane’s–so often lack–said this to FCP about the first day story in the Times: 

I’m quite sure that this is precisely the way the folks who provided this info from the agency wanted them to be understood, but there is certainly more than a measure of ambiguity in them, planted with care by the NYT writers or their editors.  This episode shows again how easily the Times can be spun by unnamed government sources, the factual premises of whose statements invariably escape any examination.

Winner: the very same Scott Horton, for winning a National Magazine Award for his blockbuster piece in Harper’s which explored the possibility that what had been described as the suicide of three prisoners at Guantanamo may actually have been murders committed by their captors.  FCP first wrote about Horton’s piece in January of last year.

Horton’s reporting directly contradicted an earlier piece in The New York Times magazine and the Times has alternated between ignoring Horton’s story and denigrating it.   Happily, the judges of the National Magazine Awards felt very differently about it.

Sinners: The Pulitzer Board for awarding Joseph Rago a Pulitzer for “for his well-crafted, against-the-grain editorials challenging the health care reform advocated by President Barack Obama.”   As the Nation’s Greg Mitchell pointed out,  the young Rago’s arguments were not only utterly predictable but also frequently “fact-challenged.”

Among the editorials for which Rago was honored was one in which he blasted PolitiFact for identifying the right’s successful branding of Obama’s “government takeover of health care” as its “lie of the year”–which of course, is exactly what it was.

Winner: David Leonhardt, whose Pulitzer Prize for his superb economic analysis in the New York Times was as deserved as Rago’s honor was misguided.   For many years, Leonhardt has done a brilliant job of making the field of economics accessible to his lay readers.   And the fact that FCP has known Leonhardt since birth–and shared the same table at Passover for more than three decades–has absolutely nothing to do with this citation.

Winner: Barack Obama, for his splendid interview with Steve Croft for 60 Minutes in which he explained all of the risks in the operation and all of the very sensible reasons for burying the terrorist at sea–and not releasing any photographs of his corpse afterwards. 

Obama on Osama with Steve Kroft




Triumph & Tragedy


President Obama announcing the Death of Osama Bin Laden; The Terrorist in his prime

 Above the Fold

    There are plenty of reasons to rejoice over the death of Osama Bin Laden, including the sense of closure his killing should bring to the relatives of all the victims of his heinous attacks.

     But one of the most important reasons isn’t being mentioned much at all: the commando raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan is the first truly effective response the United States has managed since the terrorist launched his horrific assault against us almost ten years ago.

    The tragedy of the deaths of thousands of civilians in those four airplanes, and in the three buildings they crashed into, was fearfully compounded by George Bush’s response to it.   

    Instead of staying with a limited operation in Afghanistan–and an all-out effort to hunt down the man responsible for 9/11–the president and his neocons used these events to play perfectly into the hands of the man who perpetrated them.

    George Bush did that by launching a huge, completely unnecessary war in Iraq, where we are still bogged down almost a decade later, a war which killed and maimed thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraquis–and has left that country still barely governable today.  It also did as much as anything else to bankrupt the Federal treasury.

    Instead of bringing Bin-Laden to his knees, for a very long time the war in Iraq had exactly the opposite effect.  As the indispensable Juan Cole pointed out today,“aside from the sheer scale of destruction in Iraq set off by Bush’s illegal and ill-considered adventurism,” the worst thing about this war was the way it “clearly gave al-Qaeda an opening to grow and expand and recruit.  I think if Bush had gone after Bin Laden as single-mindedly as Obama has, he would have gotten him, and could have rolled up al-Qaeda in 2002 or 2003. Instead, Bush’s occupation of a major Arab Muslim country kept a hornet’s nest buzzing against the US, Britain and other allies.”

    And as my Hillman colleague Hendrik Hertzberg blogged  today, yesterday’s raid “underlines one of the many weaknesses of the ‘war’ metaphor and mentality that was immediately adopted in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks: the simplistic notion that the key to defeating Al Qaeda was the military conquest and occupation of territory. Not for the first time, that notion has been exposed as tragically misleading.” 

    One of Bin Laden’s principal goals was to rid Saudi Arabia of American troops, and less than two years after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, all but 220 of some 5,000 American soldiers had been withdrawn from the Saudi kingdom.  His other mission was to do everything he could to weaken the United States–and by giving the fools in the Bush Administration the pretext they had been praying for to invade Iraq, Bin Laden succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

    There is something else important that we can all be grateful for today.  By the time Bin Laden was finally hunted down, the extraordinary events of the Arab spring had made it clearer than ever that his ideas have already been relegated to the dustbin of history.    Again, Juan Cole explains:

    Bin Laden was a violent product of the Cold War and the Age of Dictators in the Greater Middle East. He passed from the scene at a time when the dictators are falling or trying to avoid falling in the wake of a startling set of largely peaceful mass movements demanding greater democracy and greater social equity. Bin Laden dismissed parliamentary democracy, for which so many Tunisians and Egyptians yearn, as a man-made and fallible system of government, and advocated a return to the medieval Muslim caliphate (a combination of pope and emperor) instead. Only a tiny fringe of Muslims wants such a theocratic dictatorship. The masses who rose up this spring mainly spoke of “nation,” the “people,” “liberty” and “democracy,” all keywords toward which Bin Laden was utterly dismissive. The notorious terrorist turned to techniques of fear-mongering and mass murder to attain his goals in the belief that these methods were the only means by which the Secret Police States of the greater Middle East could be overturned. 

    As Dr. Wahid Abd-al-Majid, an adviser at the Al-Ahram Center for Political Studies, explained to al-Arabiya a couple of weeks ago, Bin Laden’s number two man, Ayman al-Zawahiri “dreamt of being the one who topples President Husni Mubarak, only for the president to be toppled by the youth in a peaceful and democratic revolution that has absolutely no connection to Al-Qa’ida’s long-held claims.”

      Finally, yesterday’s success will give pause to Barack Obama’s critics, who have long berated him for his supposed incompetence in foreign affairs. The splendid outcome of this daring raid fulfilled a specific promise that candidate Obama made during the presidential campaign in 2007.  Because of it,  Obama is probably more powerfu today than he has been at any other time since he entered the White House.   And the notion that any of the Republican dwarfs now toying with a run for the presidency might offer him a serious challenge seems even more farcical than it did before.