Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

Danner v. Cheney


Above the Fold

   Our own era, I am convinced, will be remembered for the American Government’s official development of, its placing the country’s legal imprimatur on, and Americans’ acceptance of, the techniques and practice of torture.

                                                                                             – Mark Danner, December 16, 2009

    This week Mark Danner synthesized the most important points from all of his articles and books about torture for the Irving Howe Memorial Lecture, which he delivered at the graduate center of the City University of New York.

    As I have pointed out before, when the history of this era is written, Danner will be remembered as one of a handful of journalists who summoned the necessary outrage to alert his readers to the horrendous costs of America’s broad embrace of torture during the Bush years.   Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, Scott Horton of Harper’s, Andy Rosenthal of The New York Times editorial page, Glenn Greenwald of Salon and Jon Stewart–yes, Jon Stewart–all deserve praise for their superb efforts in this area,  but none more so than Danner.

    Danner is a professor at Bard and the University of California at  Berkeley, where, he noted wryly, ex-Bush administration torture-enabler John Yoo is now his colleague: “I can hear the demonstrators down the street in front of his house.” 

   Earlier this year, Danner broke the story of the Red Cross report on American torture practices  in the New York Review of Books and an op-ed piece in The New York Times.

    This week he began his lecture by quoting Irving Howe on George Orwell’s 1984:

    The book appalls us because its terror, far from being inherent in the “human condition,” is particular to our century; what haunts us is the sickening awareness that in 1984 Orwell has seized upon those elements of our public life that, given courage and intelligence, were avoidable.

    Danner argued that courage and intelligence were exactly what had been needed to prevent America from falling into the abyss of torture.  He also noted the deadening similarities between our endless war on terror, and the permanent war among Oceania, Urasia and Eastasia depicted in 1984.

    Danner’s lecture was entitled “Escaping the State of Exception: Torture and Truth, Obama and Us,” and he reminded his listeners that America had endured many previous  “states of exception:”

* “The most famous:” when Lincoln  suspended habeas corpus and took other measures solely on his own authority in the months after his inauguration in 1861;

* John Adams’ imprisonment of hundreds of political opponents in 1798 and 1799 in the run up to an expected war with revolutionary France;

* Woodrow Wilson’s imprisonment and deportation of thousands who spoke out against the country’s entry into World War I;

* Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to imprison 110,000 Japanese-Americans afer Pearl Harbor – the great majority of them American citizens.

    So, Danner concluded, “we have been here before.”   But while each of these previous “exceptions” occurred within the confines of a well-defined event, like the Civil War or World War II–and thus ended along with those conflicts–elements of the current state of exception could last as long as the endless war on terror.  

   “So far,” Danner declared, “those elements have included wholesale arrest and long-term detention of aliens on American soil; massive wiretapping of Americans without benefit of a warrant, as prescribed by law; ‘extraordinary rendition’—secret kidnapping–of large numbers of foreign citizens on foreign soil and their transfer to other countries for interrogation or to secret American facilities; establishment of offshore prisons, the most notorious of which the one at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the long-term detention without trial of hundreds and, taken as a whole, thousands of prisoners; establishment of secret prisons–so-called “black sites”–for covert and prolonged detention of prisoners; and finally the development of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ so-called EITs, making use of suffocation, battery, close confinement and other measures and their widespread use on detainees held in secret prisons.”

    Danner said Barack Obama deserved praise for ending torture in the first week of his administration, and for this passage in the speech he gave last week when he accepted the Nobel in Oslo:

    “All nations–strong and weak alike–must adhere to standards that govern the use of force.    I–like any head of state–reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation.   Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards strengthens those who do, and isolates - and weakness–those who don’t….Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.  And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe that the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.

    On the other hand, so far there has been no renouncement of rendition, and Obama has said repeatedly that when it comes to torture, he wants to “look forward,” not “back.”  Danner called that “a pernicious phrase, and, if held to consistently, would preclude all punishment and prosecution, [because] rendering justice, by definition, implies looking backward.  But the political costs of justice, at least that provided by prosecution, are very great; for we live still in the ‘politics of fear.’”

    The main actor in keeping that fear alive, of course, has been former vice president Dick Cheney, who began his relentless assault on the current administration barely a week after it took office, and continued it by scheduling a speech on terror which he delivered almost simultaneously with one Obama gave on the same subject.  Danner quoted several of Cheney’s core arguments, including these:

 * “If it hadn’t been for what we did—with respect to the…enhanced interrogation techniques for high-value detainees…—then we would have been attacked again. Those policies we put in place, in my opinion, were absolutely crucial to getting us through the last seven-plus years without a major-casualty attack on the US….

 * “I think there’s a high probability of [another] such an attempt. Whether or not they can pull it off depends [on] whether or not we keep in place policies that have allowed us to defeat all further attempts, since 9/11, to launch mass-casualty attacks against the United States….”

    Danner called  these “dark admonitions,” which are “both exculpatory, pointing back to what the administration did and justifying it, and minatory, warning about what will happen in the future and laying down a predicate for who will be blamed.”  Partly because of them, “Congress has been reluctant to vote funds for the President’s plan to close Guantanamo, fearful of warning cries that the new president will be ‘putting terrorists in our neighborhoods.’ And we see its effect in the increasing refusal to release photographs and memoranda, and the increasing willingness to take positions similar to the Bush administration when it comes to lawsuits regarding torture and detainee rights.”   

    The decision “that expresses most purely the ambivalence of the Obama Administration…is the decision not to bring criminal investigations against those who have tortured – or rather to do so only in the case of those who have gone beyond the Bush Administration’s immensely wide guidelines.”

    Danner is not opposed to broad prosecutions of those responsible for formulating the Bush administration’s torture policies, but the professor is more practical than polemica– and he sees no possibility of such prosecutions in the current political climate.   Therefore, he argues that the road to justice must run through education, which should take the form of a truth commission, “to investigate what was done in the realm of interrogation, who did it, what it accomplished and, not least, how it hurt the country. For the priority must be not destroying the torturers but destroying the idea of torture.”

    Danner cited poll numbers showing that many more people in America now believe that torture is sometimes necessary than their counterparts in Europe, or Egypt, or most other countries of the world:

    There are many reasons for this – the myth of the ticking bomb, the desire for harsh justice expressed from the American Western to Dirty Harry – but it is clear these attitudes are deep seated and damaging. They represent the stark reality of a society that, post-9/11 – has come to accept torture. It is only through an effort to change those attitudes that we can approach a state of justice.

    So far, there hasn’t even been any broad political pressure to create a truth commission, much less the political will to prosecute those who sanctioned torture.   Under these circumstances, the road back to sanity and justice is likely to be very long indeed.


The President and the Nobel

 Above the Fold

We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

                                         –Martin Luther King Jr., Riverside Church, 1967

“Perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars.”                              

                                          –President Barack Obama, Oslo, 2009

    Barack Obama gave the best speech he could last week–given the fact that he had decided to expand the war in Afghanistan just ten days before he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.   He nodded to Gandhi and quoted the speech Martin Luther King gave when  he  accepted the Nobel : “Violence never brings permanent peace.  It solves no social problem:  it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” 

   Obama added, “As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence.  I know there’s nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.”

    It’s true that presidents do not have the same freedom of action as civil rights leaders.  But it is also true that Martin Luther King’s decision to oppose to the War in Vietnam was one of the best and most important things he ever did–even though it brought him the opprobrium of practically the entire white liberal establishment at the time.

    Just like Lyndon Johnson, Obama has chosen to commit American blood and treasure to a deeply corrupt government which lacks the support of most of his citizens, without any real plan for victory, or even much of a benchmark for success.  And in Obama’s latest speech we also hear another echo of LBJ, who was forever invoking the ghost of appeasement in Europe in the 1930’s as a reason for American adventurism in the 1960’s: “A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies,” Obama declared in Oslo.

    It is Obama, rather than his critics, who has misread the historical lessons of Vietnam.   Here, I believe, we are paying a serious price for having elected a president who is too young to have any adult memories of Vietnam.

    Naturally, Obama tried hard to put the best face on America’s infatuation with war:
“Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this:  The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.  The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans.  We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will.  We have done so out of enlightened self-interest – because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.”

    Obama also said, “America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens.”   That’s true, but our closest friends also include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and many other governments which are famously contemptuous of the rights of their citizens.

    But the biggest part of recent American history Obama needed to ignore to portray us as democracy’s defender is our shameful role as chief arms merchant to the world.   Not since Jimmy Carter was president has anyone made even a cursory effort to restrain American arms makers from selling their most expensive weapons to many of the poorest nations in the world.

    Only once in the last thirty years did the world pay any attention to the consequences of the fervent competition among the developed nations to sell every tank and missile and airplane they can to the undeveloped ones.   That occurred after Saddam Hussein’s remarkably quick and successful invasion of Kuwait.

    As one historian has noted:
    Observers were initially struck by the speed and brazenness of the invasion, which could only be viewed as a willful violation of international law. But another aspect of the invasion also sparked international attention: the fact that Iraqi forces were equipped with very large numbers of sophisticated weapons that had been obtained from foreign suppliers. During the previous eight years Iraq had spent an estimated $43 billion on imported weapons, giving it the most modern and powerful arsenal of any nation in the developing world. Many of these arms were supplied by the Soviet Union (long Iraq’s major supplier), but others were acquired from France and other Western countries. This led to widespread charges that the major suppliers bore some degree of responsibility for Iraq’s aggressive behavior, in that they had provided the means for mounting the 1990 invasion.

    In the aftermath of Kuwait, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council met twice in 1991 and pledged to develop new controls on the international arms trade.  But before the next scheduled meeting of the group of five took place in 1992, to formalize the restrictions, the first president Bush decided sell 150 F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan.  A furious China withdrew from the negotiations, which gave everyone else an excuse to boycott them–and they have never been revived since.

    During the administration of the second President Bush, foreign arms sales exploded–from $12 billion in 2005 to $32 billion in 2008.  As Eric Lipton noted  in a fine story in The New York Times last year,

    The United States has long been the top arms supplier to the world. In the past several years, however, the list of nations that rely on the United States as a primary source of major weapons systems has greatly expanded. Among the recent additions are Argentina, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Georgia, India, Iraq, Morocco and Pakistan, according to sales data through the end of last month provided by the Department of Defense. Cumulatively, these countries signed $870 million worth of arms deals with the United States from 2001 to 2004. For the past four fiscal years, that total has been $13.8 billion.  In many cases, these sales represent a cultural shift, as nations like Romania, Poland and Morocco, which have long relied on Russian-made MIG-17 fighter jets, are now buying new F-16s, built by Lockheed Martin.

    This is just the tip of the military-industrial complex Obama confronts as president, and he has gotten practically no pressure from anyone to confront it head on.

    The key moment in the Afghanistan debate occurred in London at the end of September when General Stanley McChrystal rejected the possibility of scaling back the American war effort there.   This was a clear act of insubordination, which, in another time and place, would have led to the general’s firing. 

   That, of course, is the way Harry Truman dealt with General Douglas MacArthur when he ignored the president’s wishes during the Korean War.

    But this time no one ever thought McChrystal would be fired.   Justin Feldman, the wisest political analyst I know, observed that if Defense Secretary Robert Gates had responded to the London speech the way he should have–by firing McChrystal–Obama would at least have had the option of rejecting his demand for tens of thousands of additional troops.   “Obama was boxed in politically as a new president,” Feldman said.   “He has too much on his plate–and if Gates wouldn’t fire McChrystal, Obama couldn’t afford to have Gates and McChrystal bail out on him.”

    So instead of the dramatic change so many of us hoped for when we cast our ballots for president 13 months ago, when it comes to war and peace, it seems we will mostly continue to see more of the same.



Leo Siqueira of Brazil’s canal da imprensa interviews FCP about Obama here.

Afghanistan, the Economy, and Obama's “Anti-MacArthur Moment”

The President at West Point                           Job losses January 2008–November 2009

  Above the Fold

     “The longer we delay the process [of withdrawal] and the harder we try to prevent it, the more certain it is that the Taliban will dominate. This has been uniformly true of insurgencies for the last two centuries all over the world: those who fought hardest against the foreigners took control.”   -William R. Polk         


      Give credit to the victors.  Their campaign was nothing short of brilliant.  Like the policy brigands they were, they ambushed the president, held him up with their threats, brought to bear key media players and Republican honchos, and in the end made off with the loot.”    - Tom Englelhardt 

                                                                                                          Barack Obama’s week began with a deeply dubious policy decision and ended with a huge, early-Christmas present.  The misstep was his decision to continue his steady escalation of the war in Afghanistan; the gift was a very surprising improvement in the economy, the shedding of just 11,000 American jobs, which could signal an earlier-than-expected end to the recession.

       The question is whether the economic recovery will ever be strong enough to compensate for the black hole of war, which drains more and more billions from our economy every year. 

      The most useful analysis of Afghanistan FCP has encountered recently is also the most depressing one: William R. Polk’s “Let America Be America,” posted last month as a guest editorial on Juan Cole’s indispensable blog.         

      These are some of Polk’s most trenchant observations: 

* “For the first time that I know of in recent American history, the uniformed military have created what amounts to a pressure group of their own. Generals Petraeus and McChrystal are the leaders but, by influencing or controlling promotions panels, they have fostered the advancement of middle grade and junior officers who agree with them. Some have been brought into a group called ‘the Colonels’ council.’ And numbers of retired senior officers have joined not only in what President Eisenhower called the ‘military-industrial complex’ but have become the opinion-makers on foreign policy in the media.” 

*   Obama “must hope that the general public will reach the conclusion that ‘staying the course’ is costly, does not work and is pointless. But, if [he]waits until a course of action is completely evident to everyone, it will be probably be too late to implement easily, cleanly and in command of our principal objectives. Thus, a large part of a president’s responsibility is educating the public.” 

* “As the current Russian ambassador and long-time KBG expert on Afghan affairs, Zamir N. Kabulov, has commented, there is no mistake the Russians made that has not been copied by the Americans.” 

* America probably lost its last, best chance to convince most Afghans of the legitimacy of a new national government seven years ago, when it ignored the wishes of two thirds of the delegates to a loya jirga (a national meeting of tribal councils), who signed a petition to make the exiled Afghan King, Zahir Shah, president of an interim government. “But we had already decided that Hamid Kara was ‘our man in Kabul’ and did not want the Afghanis to interfere with our choice..As Thomas Johnson and Chris Mason reported…. ‘This was the Afghan equivalent to the 1964 Diem Coup in Vietnam; afterward, there was no possibility of creating a stable secular government.’ While an Afghan king could have conferred legitimacy on an elected leader in Afghanistan; without one, as they put it, ‘an elected president is a on a one-legged stool.’”  

* “At our current level of activity - before the introduction of more troops - we are “burning”…about $60 billion a year. Next year, our direct costs will probably rise to at least $100 billion. And even that figure will surely rise in the years to come. So the Congressionally allocated funds in the coming few years under even the most modest form of “staying the course” would amount to a minimum of $600 billion and more likely to much more…. This is money that we don’t have and will have to borrow form overseas.” 

* “General McChrystal has told us that we must have large numbers of additional troops to hold the territory we ‘clear.’ He echoes what the Russian commanders told the Politburo: in a report on November 13, 1986, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev commented that the Russians attempted the same strategy but admitted that it failed. ‘There is no piece of land in Afghanistan,’ he said, ‘that has not been occupied by one of or soldiers at some time or another. Nevertheless, much of the territory stays in the hands of the terrorists. We control the provincial centers, but we cannot maintain political control over the territory we seize … Without a lot more men, this war will continue for a very, very long time.’” 

      At the heart of the president’s argument for an escalation is the idea that we must–at all costs–deny al-Qaeda a renewed sanctuary in Afghanistan.  But this idea ignores two essential facts: 1) it is far beyond our capacity to deny al-Qaeda sanctuary everywhere else–from Somalia to Germany, and 2) whatever benefit we may gain from denying them Afghanistan is far outweighed by the huge damage we are doing to our security by guaranteeing the recruitment of thousands of new terrorists through our continued involvement in what is now an eight-year-old war. 

      Polk thinks the best chance we have of creating a manageable situation lies with the Pakistanis.  It may be a long shot, but its chances of success strike me as far greater than what we can expect from a continuing escalation of American involvement.  Polk writes, 

      The Pakistanis have a long history with the Taliban, know them intimately, have subsidized them and have sought in the Taliban a barrier against Indian infiltration of their backyard, Afghanistan. That long-term interest remains despite the current conflict. And, at base, the Pakistanis share with the Afghanis, religion, a population of nearly 30 million Pashtuns and the desire to preserve their neighborhood from foreign control. Thus, I believe that in the coming months, they will do what neither the Russians nor we have been able to do – bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. This move would offer a wise American president an opening to begin the process of turning over the war to our ally Pakistan. 

      Meanwhile, over at TomDispatch, Tom Engelhardt identifies the single most depressing aspect of the president’s decision: 

      It’s been a long time coming, but finally American war commanders have effectively marshaled their forces, netcentrically outmaneuvering and outflanking the enemy.  They have shocked-and-awed their opponents, won the necessary hearts-and-minds, and so, for the first time in at least two decades, stand at the heights of success, triumphant at last. And no, I’m not talking about post-surge Iraq and certainly not about devolving Afghanistan.  I’m talking about what’s happening in Washington. You may not think so, but on Tuesday night from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, in his first prime-time presidential address to the nation, Barack Obama surrendered.   

      Engelhardt calls this Obama’s “anti-MacArthur moment,” and I’m afraid that’s exactly what it was.  Engelhardt recalls, “In April 1951, in the midst of the Korean War, President Harry Truman relieved Douglas MacArthur of command of American forces.  He did so because the general, a far grander public figure than either McChrystal or Centcom commander Petraeus (and with dreams of his own about a possible presidential run), had publicly disagreed with, and interfered with, Truman’s plans to ‘limit’ the war after the Chinese intervened.” 

      This failure is as much the fault of the left as it is the president’s.  Somehow we managed to convince ourselves that simply by electing a new president, we could achieve a fundamental change of direction in America.  But, as usual, after being beaten at the ballot box, the right wing has redoubled its efforts to maintain control over the American political process, while the left remains just as impotent as it was during the Bush years. 

      In the long run, the good economic news at the end of the week may be more important to Obama’s long-term fortunes than his poor judgment about the war.   A resurgent economy in 2010 could prevent Republicans gains in the House and Senate in the fall. 

      However, it now seems just as likely that Obama’s flawed foreign policy will cripple his other ambitions for change–just as Lyndon Johnson’s repeated failure to face down his own generals in Vietnam fatally crippled him. 

Special thanks to FCP contributor JWS.


Obama, So Far

   Above the Fold

    On the eve of the most important foreign policy speech of his presidency, pundits are more divided than ever over what Barack Obama has or has not accomplished in the first ten months of his presidency.

    FCP’s common-sense-of-the-week-award goes to Jacob WeisbergWriting in Slate, Weisberg makes a series of extremely sensible observations.

Among them:

* This conventional wisdom about Obama’s first year isn’t just premature—it’s sure to be flipped on its head by the anniversary of his inauguration on Jan. 20. If, as seems increasingly likely, Obama wins passage of a health care reform a bill by that date, he will deliver his first State of the Union address having accomplished more than any other postwar American president at a comparable point in his presidency. This isn’t an ideological point or one that depends on agreement with his policies. It’s a neutral assessment of his emerging record—how many big, transformational things Obama is likely to have made happen in his first 12 months in office.

* Through the summer, Obama caught flak for letting Congress lead the process, as opposed to setting out his own proposal. Now his political strategy is being vindicated. The bill he signs may be flawed in any number of ways—weak on cost control, too tied to the employer-based system, and inadequate in terms of consumer choice. But given the vastness of the enterprise and the political obstacles, passing an imperfect behemoth and improving it later is probably the only way to succeed where his predecessors failed.

*  If Obama governs for four or eight years and accomplishes nothing else, he may be judged the most consequential domestic president since LBJ.

* Obama’s claim to a fertile first year doesn’t rest on health care alone. There’s mounting evidence that the $787 billion economic stimulus he signed in February—combined with the bank bailout package—prevented an economic depression. Should the stimulus have been larger? Should it have been more weighted to short-term spending, as opposed to long-term tax cuts? Would a second round be a good idea? Pundits and policymakers will argue these questions for years to come. But few mainstream economists seriously dispute that Obama’s decisive action prevented a much deeper downturn and restored economic growth in the third quarter.

    That’s all true.  The other side of the coin, which Weisberg ignores, is best expressed by Glenn Greenwald, who has become the conscience of America on all questions of torture and civil liberties.  Greenwald takes Kevin Drum, Andrew Sullivan and Matthew Yglesisas to task for giving Obama more or less of a free pass for his failure to reverse many of Bush’s policies in these areas.   Yglesias, for example, wrote “I agree that the civil liberties record hasn’t been exactly what I would have wanted, but I’m continually surprised that people are disappointed in this turn. Of all the things for an incumbent President of the United States to take political risks fighting for, obviously reducing the power of the executive branch is going to be dead last on the list. If you want to see civil liberties championed, that’s going to have to come from congress.”

    For Greenwald, and for anyone who shares George Orwell’s conviction that one’s own side must live up to its own principles, Yglesias’ analysis simply won’t do.

    “It’s interesting how what was once lambasted as ‘Constitution-shredding’ under George Bush is now nothing more than:  Obama’s ‘civil liberties record hasn’t been exactly what I would have wanted,’ writes Greenwald.  “Also, the premise implicitly embedded in Matt’s argument is the standard Beltway dogma that there would be serious political costs from reversing the Bush/Cheney abuses of the Constitution and civil liberties.  The success of Obama’s campaign – which emphatically and repeatedly vowed to do exactly that  – ought to have permanently retired that excuse.”

    “Whatever else is true,” Greenwald continues, “watching Obama embrace extremist policies can still be ‘disappointing’ even if one isn’t surprised that he’s doing it.  I could understand and accept a lot more easily this blithe acquiescence to Obama’s record if it weren’t for the fact that progressives and Democrats spent so many years screaming bloody murder over Bush’s use of indefinite detention, military commissions, state secrets, renditions, and extreme secrecy – policies Obama has largely and/or completely adopted as his own.”

    FCP shares all of Greenwald’s disappointment over Obama’s failure to repeal all of Bush’s extra-consitutional policies.   So far, the only major act of the administration on the other side of this argument–besides the outright banning of torture–has been the appointment of Michael Posner as assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

   Posner, who headed Human Rights First for three decades, has as good a record of fighting the Bush administration’s torture policies as anyone else in America,  so his selection was extremely encouraging.  It has also gone almost completely unreported by the MSM and the blogosphere alike.

    Meanwhile, holding up the radical fringe this week is Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, with a piece which could easily make him even more of a laughing-stock than he was before. So far, Meacham is the only “mainstream” pundit I know to take Liz Cheney seriously, after she suggested her father really ought to run for president.

    Ignoring the fact that Cheney was the author of almost all of the foreign policy decisions which have brought the nation to the edge of catastrophe, Meacham heartily endorses Liz Cheney’s suggestion–“Because Cheney is a man of conviction, has a record on which he can be judged, and whatever the result, there could be no ambiguity about the will of the people. The best way to settle arguments is by having what we used to call full and frank exchanges about the issues, and then voting. A contest between Dick Cheney and Barack Obama would offer us a bracing referendum on competing visions.”

    Bracing indeed.   Apparently, the plight of Newsweek is now so desperate, Meacham will do literallyanything to try to bring attention to his magazine.


Update: For a shameful example of the non-journalism so often favored by Washington journalists, don’t miss this morning’s appalling interview  with Meacham’s would-be Republican presidential nominee in Politico.  Conducted by Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei, the 90-minute exchange does not include a single tough question.   It also contains absolutely zero news, just an endless repetition of the same Cheney rant we have heard over and over again this year.  I guess that’s why Politico is leading with it today.

   The intrepid Politico reporters reported:

   “Cheney was asked if he thinks the Bush administration bears any responsibility for the disintegration of Afghanistan because of the attention and resources that were diverted to Iraq. ‘I basically don’t,’ he replied without elaborating.”

   Follow up, gentlemen? Naturally, there was none.

   If either of these reporters knew any of the details about this subject, they might have asked the former vice president why reducing the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 48,000 to 37,000 in Cheney’s final year of office–and slashing aid to Afghanistan from State and the Department of defense from $9.6 billion to $5.4 billion during the same period– had nothing to do with the current meltdown over there.   But the pristine ignorance of these reporters insures an utterly free ride for the their subject.

   As the indispensable Steve Benen points out  at The Washington Monthly this morning, “there’s no real journalism to be found. No fact-checking, no pushback, no scrutiny. Just an uninterrupted string of predictable, misguided nonsense. Cheney could have just written a blog post/screed, and had Politico publish it. This would have saved Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei the trouble of adding quote marks to their stenography.”




Lessons for Afghanistan from Lyndon Johnson's last Secretary of Defense

 Above the Fold

   Forty odd years ago, in the spring of 1968, when America was trapped in another terrible quagmire, William Westmoreland, the commanding the general in Vietnam, made a startling request of  president Lyndon B. Johnson: on top of the 500,000 American troops already serving in Southeast Asia, Westmoreland said he  needed 206,000 more to finish the job. 

    When that 206,000 number was reported in a headline on the front page of The New York Times, it caused “a national disturbance,” Clark Clifford remembered.

    Clifford had been brought into Johnson’s administration in 1968 to be the new Secretary of Defense, because he had been a reliable hawk on the Vietnam war and–to Johnson’s dismay–Clifford’s predecessor, Robert McNamara, had lost confidence in America’s ability to prevail in Vietnam.   But after Clifford arrived at the Pentagon, his views about the war underwent a very rapid metamorphosis.

    “Will three hundred thousand more men do the job?” Clifford asked his generals, and he received no assurance that they would.  How long would  the war last with hundreds of thousands of more troops to wage it?  Six months?  A year? Two years?   No one could agree.  Worse still, Clifford couldn’t even find a single man willing to express any confidence in his own guesses.

    “It all began to add up to the realization on my part that we’d been through a period of the never-never land in thinking that we were going to win this,” Clifford told me twenty years later–and  Clifford ended up convincing Lyndon Johnson that another huge troop increase in Vietnam would be a disaster.

    Now we are mired in another unwinnable war, half a world away, in a country governed by a deeply corrupt president.   If we are lucky–really lucky–Karl W. Eikenberry, the retired lieutenant general now serving as America’s ambassador to Afghanistan, will have the same effect on his president that Clark Clifford had on his.

    Just as Clifford had special standing as a hawk on the Vietnam War, Eikenberry’s words carry special weight because he is the former American military commander in Afghanistan.  The news last week that Eikenberry had sent two cables questioning the wisdom of General Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for 40,000 additional troops may have come just in time to prevent Obama from drowning his presidency in another hopeless war.

    Eikenberry’s sensible skepticism was a refreshing contrast to the attitude of so many Washington “journalists” who are, almost unbelievably, repeating all of the mistakes they made as cheerleaders in the run up to our last spectacular national adventure, the War in Iraq. 

    Why are they doing this?

    As Hendrik Hertzberg explained the fundamental problem of Washington to me a couple of years ago, “It’s much harder to damage your career by consistently supporting war and cruelty than by consistently supporting peace and love. The default position is ‘bombs away.’”

   And that goes for journalists and public officials alike.

    In that venerable “bombs away” spirit,  David Broder echoed dozens of his confreres when he wrote in The Washington Post last week  that “the cost of indecision is growing every day.”   Instead of rejoicing that there was now some real debate within the administration over the idiotic idea of sharply escalating American involvement in Afghanistan, Broder reached for exactly the wrong quote from exactly the right person.  Broder wrote that “Obama needs to remember what Clark Clifford, one of Harry Truman’s closest advisers, said: that the president ‘believed that even a wrong decision was better than no decision at all.’ “

   If only Broder wasn’t too senile to remember what Clifford had said to Lyndon Johnson about Vietnam, instead.

    Then we have intrepid TV reporters like Chip Reid, the chief White House Correspondent for CBS News.  Why Reid holds that title is another deep Washington mystery–except that he looks right for the job.  Last Thursday, Reid filed a lengthy and not completely unbalanced report for the CBS Evening News,  about the president’s deliberations on Afghanistan.  It was perfectly OK, really, until Reid got to his kicker–the place reporters often use to put their own opinions in someone else’s mouth.

    “That the president is so thoroughly researching such a critical decision is a good thing,” said Reid, “according to CBS News national security consultant Juan Zarate.  But, there’s great danger,  [Zarate] says, if it looks like uncertainty.”  Then we got Zarate himself, the only talking head in Reid’s whole piece:

    “It’s the body language of indecision, or the perception of indecision, that may matter more, in some ways.  It matters in terms of how our allies view our sense of resolve in Afghanistan, how our enemies perceive our willingness to have backbone for whatever decision is made.”

    Once upon a time, not so very long ago, when the former deputy national security advisor to the previous president made a completely mindless observation like that one, he would at least have been identified as a former Republican official now challenging  a Democratic president. But in the wonderful world of 21st century Washington, a Bush aparatchek like Zarate can now have his past magically erased by CBS News, where he is reborn on the evening news as an objective “national security consultant to CBS“–with no mention whatsoever of his previous employment.

    There’s another piece of extremely recent history that all of the Washington hawks demanding that Obama escalate the war have conveniently forgotten.   In his final year in office, it was George Bush who reduced the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 48,000 in June of 2008, to 37,000 in January of this year.  During the same period, aide to Afghanistan from State and the Department of defense was slashed almost in half, from $9.6 billion in 2007 to $5.4 billion in 2008, according to an excellent new report from the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

    So after spending more than $167 billion on the war in Afghanistan, and failing for seven years in a row to come up with a winning strategy, Bush sharply reduced American resources in Afghanistan during his final year in office, pretty much guaranteeing the god-awful mess Obama inherited when he took office. 

   Now we can only pray that Obama will follow the advice of his ambassador and his vice president, and reverse course before this war buries his presidency exactly the same way Vietnam buried Lyndon Johnson’s.


Update: For Ed Koch’ clarion call for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan go here;
 and for additional, relevant Westmoreland quotes, see Barry Eisler’s post.

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.


The Wall Street Journal, Re-invented

    It’s Rupert’s Journal now.

    The big question twenty-two months ago, when Rupert Murdoch bought The Wall Street Journal for $5 billion from the Bancroft family, was how long he would wait before he started to transform the business newspaper of record in his own image.

    For many decades before Murdoch acquired the Journal, news aficionados revered the paper as the only national news outlet in America where special interests of any kind never seemed to interfere with the news pages.  (The hard-right editorial page was always another matter altogether.)  Of the three publications where FCP worked as a staffer--The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Journal–the Journal was the only one where there was never any evidence of anyone tampering with my copy to satisfy someone else’s prejudices.

    Since Murdoch had never owned any news organization with that kind of reputation, the consternation over the paper’s future was understandable.

    The first font dropped just five months after his purchase was completed when Marcus Brauchli was pushed out of the managing editor’s slot, and replaced by Robert Thomson, a News Corp veteran who started his career as a copy boy at Murdoch’s Herald in Melbourne in 1979.  Before coming to the Journal, Thomson was the editor of Murodch’s Times of London, where he drove the paper’s content relentlessly down market (and obliterated much of its reputation for factual accuracy.)

    When Brauchli left the paper (he later became executive editor of The Washington Post), one Journal staffer told Politico, “This is a clear sign that it’s over—the Dow Jones culture is dead.”

    Now that trend seems to be accelerating.

    When Teddy Kennedy died last August, the Journal posted a lengthy and balanced obituary on its website by Naftali Bendavid.  But when the same article appeared on the front page of the newspaper   the next day, the piece had a new seventh paragraph which hadn’t been there before:

    Blasting what he called “slobbering media coverage” of Mr. Kennedy’s death that ignored his past “bad behavior,” conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh on Wednesday said Mr. Kennedy was a politician who “uses the government to take money from people who work and gives it to people who don’t work.”

    Journal reporters immediately started complaining to their friends at other newspapers that the Limbaugh paragraph had been inserted at the insistence of editors in New York.  Naftali Bendavid and Journal Washington Bureau Chief John Bussey both  refused to comment when asked by FCP about the change.

    A former top Journal editor told FCP that he saw evidence of ideological meddling “seeping into the paper all the time.   I heard that story about Kennedy, and I hear they’re under pressure to be tougher on Obama all the time.  I also heard the labor reporter in Washington was told her stories were too pro-labor.”

    Contacted by FCP, Journal labor reporter Melanie Trottman declined to comment.

    Although it may be becoming more common, ideological tampering within the news columns is still relatively rare.   The trouble is, because of the identity of the new owner, news professionals are constantly questioning the way the paper plays stories in ways that they never would have before.

    “I find myself now almost dismissing a story,” said another former top Journal editor.  “When they were way ahead on the Denver terrorist story, my presumption was, this was the Fox News filter–when in fact they were just doing a really great job on the story.”

    But the biggest difference between the old Journal and Rupert’s Journal is a sharp shift toward more general interest stories, and away from the in-depth business coverage which was always at the heart of the paper’s franchise.

    “I read the paper all the time thinking how incredibly different it is,” said a former Journal reporter who wrote for the paper at home and abroad for more than a decade.  “The  editing is a different thing now.  First of all, there’s less of it.  It used to be so buttoned up.  Now there are weird attributions, and graphs toward the end where you can tell they cut out two graphs and just left the last one.”

    “There’s also a sense of campaigns,” the former reporter continued.  “Remember the private aircraft fleet for Congress?  That was a big story, a legitimate story, but they rode it like a campaign trying to stir up the readers.  That’s something the old Journal never did.  It would pat itself on the back, but it wasn’t that sort of campaigning style.  That’s  a Murdoch formula–although not unique to Murdoch.”

    “The news judgment is bizarre,” said a veteran Washington Post editor.  “They’re throwing away the franchise on sophisticated business stories.   They don’t make as much of them or devote as much space to them.  It’s become a very chatty and much more informal enterprise.”

    Another Journal veteran said, “They now have the news judgment of  The Sydney Daily Telegraph.  It’s not the judgment of The [more serious] Australian.” 

    Finally, there’s the problem of tips from Rupert.  A former Journal staffer said he had frequently heard from current Journal reporters that those tips work like this:    

    “It’s always the same thing.  Rupert has an idea, and because it comes from him, he doesn’t want people called to see if it’s true.  So you can’t confirm it, but you have to treat it as a fact because it came from him.  There are good things and bad things about that.  He’s plugged in, and  he has excellent news judgment.  But then there is this presumed god-like quality to what he says. So you’re not supposed to follow up on what amount to rumors, in a way that you would if it came from anyone else.”

    The most famous instance of a Murdoch tip being “too good to check” was John Kerry’s “choice” of Richard Gephardt as his running mate in 2004.  An unequivocal report of that nonexistent event ended up as the wood on the front page of Murdoch’s New York Post, after the owner insisted upon it.  Afterwards, “senior editors warned that those who discussed the Gephardt gaffe with other news organizations would lose their jobs,” according to The New York Times.

    So far, none of Murdoch’s tips to the Journal have led to a disaster of those proportions.

    John Bussey, the Washington bureau chief, told FCP he had forwarded all of my inquires about each of these issues to Alix Freedman in New York, who last year was given “expanded authority as a defender of the paper’s ethical and journalistic standards” by Robert Thomson.

    There was no response from Freedman.


Time Magazine Loves Glenn Beck (Again)

   Last month FCP discussed the revolting tendency of “liberal” publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker to publish gushing profiles of repellent public figures like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and, especially. Glenn Beck.   This week the trend accelerated as David von Drehle profiled Beck for the cover of Time magazine.

    Von Drehle’s piece is so humiliating on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to begin.   But at least the web version of the piece carried a headline which FCP thought posed a reasonable question: “Is Glenn Beck Bad for America?”

    Trouble is, after reading the piece, it was still impossible to know how Von Drehle might answer that query.  So FCP telephoned the Time writer to find out more. 

   “I haven’t seen the layout on the web,” Von Drehle said, “So [that question] is news to me.  I personally wouldn’t take one guy and say he’s bad for America.”

    You see, even though Von Drehle’s piece was–ostensibly–a profile of a media figure–von Drehele  is not interested in writing “media journalism,” the kind in which you actually try to evaulate the person you’re writing about.

    “I do not want to give every single person a score card,” Von Drehle told FCP.  There has obviously been no “shortage of rants against Glenn Beck,” so rather than give an intelligent appraisal of what Beck actually says each night, von Drehele wrote a story which focuses on the fact that “this is is a big business and a lot of people are making a lot of money.”

    Von Drehle’s total lack of interest in actual facts is briskly displayed in the very first paragraph of his profile, describing the tea party in Washington last weekend, which was largely the result of Beck’s six-month-long on-air organizing effort for what he called his “9/12 project.”

     “If you get your information from liberal sources, the crowd numbered about 70,000, many of them greedy racists,” Von Drehle wrote.  “If you get your information from conservative sources, the crowd was hundreds of thousands strong, perhaps as many as a million, and the tenor was peaceful and patriotic.”

    Members of the Washington, D.C., Fire Department will no doubt be delighted to be identified as a “liberal source,” since they originated the crowd estimate of  70,000 people.   As for the higher crowd estimates, the biggest one, of 1.2 million, was simply invented by Matt Kibbe, president of Freedom Works, one of the protest’s main organizers.  Kibbe announced from the stage that ABC News had reported the 1.2 million figure.   This led to an e-mail to news outlets from ABC, very shortly thereafter, pointing out that the network  had never done any such thing–but instead had relied on those “liberal” firemen who offered the lower 60,000 to 70,000 figure.  But you would never know any of that from reading Time.

    Jamison Foser of Media Matters does his own fine dissection of Von Drehle’s drivel here.   In an e-mail exchange with FCP, Foser listed some of the other lies from the organizers of the Washington protest: “they invented a Park Service spokesperson, they used a quote from an actual Parks Service employee saying it was the biggest gathering ever – a quote that was actually about the inauguration;  they made up that ABC report that never happened, and they claimed that photos of the Promise Keepers march were photos of last Saturday’s protest, in order to substantiate their claims of massive crowds.  Time, however, thinks their ‘estimates’ are just as valid as those of the ‘liberal’ DC Fire Dept.”

    Foser also highlights Von Drehle’s hideous tendency to draw utterly false equivalencies throughout his piece, like this one: “Between the liberal fantasies about Brownshirts at town halls and the conservative concoctions of brainwashed children goose-stepping to school, you’d think the Palm in Washington had been replaced with a Munich beer hall.”  Which leads Foser to ask:

    “What in the world is Time talking about?   Conservatives have been yelling about President Obama being a secret Kenyan bent on sending granny to the Death Panel, comparing him to Hitler and Mao and Stalin and who-knows-who-else – and that, apparently, is matched in intensity and paranoia by liberals pointing out this unhinged behavior? Insane.”

   Von Drehle seemed to be more eager to point out to FCP all the nice things Beck says on his show: “work hard; love your country; be kind to each other; spend more time with your kids.”

    “What about comparing Obama’s non-existent death panel to Nazi eugenics?”  FCP asked.

    “That probably would classify as not productive in my book,” the Time writer replied. 

      These are some of the other lovely things Von Drehle  managed to say about his subject:

*  He is the hottest thing in the political-rant racket, left or right. A gifted entrepreneur of angst in a white-hot market.

*  A man with his ear uniquely tuned to the precise frequency at which anger, suspicion and the fear that no one’s listening all converge.

* Beck is 45, tireless, funny, self-deprecating, a recovering alcoholic, a convert to Mormonism, a libertarian and living with ADHD.

* He is a gifted storyteller with a knack for stitching seemingly unrelated data points into possible conspiracies — if he believed in conspiracies, which he doesn’t, necessarily; he’s just asking questions. He’s just sayin’.

*Beck describes his performances as ‘the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment’— and the entertainment comes first. “

* “Beck is a “radio nostalgic,” in love with the storytelling power of a man with a microphone.

    After all those glowing tributes, I guess David just didn’t have enough space left for Glenn’s most memorable sound bites–like his declaration that we “at least in this country [need to] start having the necessary discussion of, do we want communists in the United States government”–a question asked in a segment which was bolstered by actual sound bites of some of Joe McCarthy’s finest moments at the Army/McCarthy hearings.

   Von Drehle also forgot to mention that in 2005, Beck said, “you know it took me about a year to start hating the 9/11 families.  I don’t hate all of them.  I probably hate about ten of them.  But when I see a 9/11 family on television, or whatever, I’m just like, ‘Oh shut up.’  I’m so sick of them because they’re always complaining. And we did our best for them!”  (To which Stephen Colbert memorably added: “Good point! [Beck’s] 9/12 project is not for people directly affected by 9/11–just for people building their careers on it.”)

   Unfortunately, Beck’s mock poisoning of House Speaker Pelosi on air and his comparison of the Holocaust museum shooter to Thomas Jefferson also managed to escape the Time writer’s attention.   (Jamison Foser has the whole list of omissions here.)

    Von Drehle does mention in passing that Beck is currently the object of one of the most successful advertizer boycotts in history, sparked by Beck’s assertion  that Obama is a racist who harbors “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”

   Von Drehle identified the boycott as “a boon” to Beck’s ratings; but he didn’t say that it now includes more than sixty corporations, including Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and Procter & Gamble.   

    FCP asked Von Dehele if sixty wasn’t a rather large number–one perhaps worth mentioning in his piece.  “Well,” he replied.  “There are millions of companies.”

    Von Drehle also seems to think that the progressive hosts on MSNBC are really just like the right-wing crazies on Fox.  But when FCP pressed him about that, he admitted that had no basis whatsoever for making any comparison: 

   “I haven’t seen Keith Olbermann for at least a year and a half,” the Time writer said.  “And I’ve never seen Rachel Maddow.  I have four children and a wife.  I don’t sit around watching cable TV.  I don’t understand why anybody watches any of these shows.  I know what these opinions are based on: they’re based on nothing.”

    Of course, Olbermann’s and Maddow’s opinions are actually all relentlessly fact-based–the real kind, not the sort routinely invented by Limbaugh, Beck and their scores of imitators.  And Maddow is easily the most intelligent addition to television in the last five years.  But Von Drehleis too busy raising his children to have noticed any of that.

    Perhaps it would help if Time  had chosen someone who actually watches cable TV to profile such an important cable personality?

    Probably not.  The magazine’s delightfully post-modern TV critic, James Poniewozik, has already written several hard-hitting assessments of the Beck oeuvre, including this one: “Sure, he may be selling a sensationalistic message of paranoia and social breakdown. But politics, or basic responsibility, aside, he has an entertainer’s sense of play with the medium of TV that O’Reilly, or perpetual sourpuss Neil Cavuto, don’t.”

    So why do magazines like Time put glowing profiles of Beck on their covers, while newspapers like The Washington Post invite him to lead chats on their websites?  

    For the very same reason that Beck tells disgusting lies on his program so frequently: there is money to be made.  News stand sales for Time as Beck’s fans gobble up copies of the magazine, and web hits for the Washington Post.

    And that, frankly,  is the most disgusting fact of all.


   Once again, it falls to Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart to do the real journalism on this subject.  To find out what Beck actually does, see two of Colbert’s finest contributions to the Glenn Beck story,  here and here. 

   Stewart’s are here and, four days ago, describing America’s “favorite bi-polar” TV personality, here.


 Update: The indispensable Scott Horton has another vintage Beck performance here.  Horton also links to an extremely sane and sensible piece by ex-George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum.  The headline:  Gop Surrenders to Beck’s Mob Rule. Frum’s bottom line:  “Glenn Beck is not the first to make a pleasant living for himself by reckless defamation. We have seen his kind before in American journalism and American politics, and the good news is that their careers never last long. But the bad news is that while their careers do last, such people do terrible damage…We conservatives are submitting our movement to some of the most unscrupulous people in American life. This submission disgraces conservatism, discredits Republicans, and damages the country. It’s beyond time for conservatives who know better to join us at NewMajority in emancipating ourselves from leadership by the most stupid, the most cynical, and the most truthless.”  

Frum’s great piece was posted one week before Von Drehle’s; and yet, Time managed to ignore  this article of sanity as well.