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.