December 9, 2005
The Bush era has brought a robust simplicity
to the business of news management: where possible, buy journalists
to turn out favorable stories and, as far as hostiles are concerned,
if you think you can get away with it, shoot them or blow them
As with much else in the Bush
era, the novelty lies in the openness with which these strategies
have been conducted. Regarding the strategies themselves, there's
nothing fundamentally new, both in terms of paid coverage, and
murder, as the killing in 1948 of CBS reporter George Polk suggests.
Polk, found floating in the Bay of Salonika after being shot
in the head, had become a serious inconvenience to a prime concern
of US covert operations at the time, namely the onslaught on
Communists in Greece.
Today we have the comical saga
of the Pentagon turning to a Washington DC-based subcontractor,
the Lincoln Group, to write and translate for distribution to
Iraqi news outlets booster stories about the US military's successes
in Iraq. I bet the Iraqi newspaper reading public was stunned
to learn the truth at last.
More or less simultaneously
comes news of Bush's plan, mooted to Tony Blair in April of 2004,
to bomb the hq of Al Jazeera in Qatar. Blair argued against the
plan, not, it seems, on moral grounds but because the assault
might prompt revenge attacks.
Earlier assaults on Al Jazeera
came in the form of a 2001 strike on the channel's office in
Kabul. In November, 2002 the US Air Force had another crack at
the target and this time managed to blow it up. The US military
claimed that they didn't know the target was an Al Jazeera office,
merely "a terrorist site".
In April 2003 a US fighter
plane targeted and killed Tariq Ayub, an Al Jazeera reporter
on the roof of Al Jazeera's Baghdad office. The Arab network
had earlier attempted to head off any "accidental"
attack by giving the Pentagon the precise location of its Baghdad
premises. That same day in Iraq US forces killed two other journalists,
from Reuter's and a Spanish tv station, and bombed an office
of Abu Dhabi tv.
On the business of paid placement
of stories in the Iraqi press there's been some pompous huffing
and puffing in the US among the opinion-forming classes about
the dangers of "poisoning the well" and the paramount
importance of instilling in the Iraqi mind respect for the glorious
traditions of unbiased, unbought journalism as practised in the
US Homeland. Christopher Hitchens, tranquil in the face of torture,
indiscriminate bombing and kindred atrocities, yelped that the
US instigators of this "all-the-news-that's fit-to-buy"
strategy should be fired.
Actually, it's an encouraging
sign of the resourcefulness of those Iraqi editors that they
managed to get paid to print the Pentagon's handouts. Here in
the Homeland, editors pride themselves in performing the same
service, without remuneration.
Did the White House slip Judy
Miller money under the table to hype Saddam's weapons of mass
destruction? I'm quite sure it didn't and the only money Miller
took was her regular Times paycheck.
But this doesn't mean that
We The Taxpayers weren't ultimately footing the bill for Miller's
propaganda. We were, since Miller's stories mostly came from
the defectors proffered her by Ahmad Chalabi's group, the Iraqi
National Congress, which even as late as the spring of 2004 was
getting $350,000 a month from the CIA, said payments made in
part for the INC to produce "intelligence" from inside
It also doesn't mean that when
she was pouring her nonsense into the NYT's news columns Judy
Miller (or her editors) didn't know that the INC's defectors
were linked to the CIA by a money trail. This same trail was
laid out in considerable detail in Out
of the Ashes, written by my brothers, Andrew and Patrick
Cockburn, and published in 1999.
In this fine book, closely
studied (and frequently pillaged without acknowledgement) by
journalists covering Iraq the authors described how Chalabi's
group was funded by the CIA, with huge amounts of money
$23 million in the first year alone - invested in an anti-Saddam
propaganda campaign, subcontracted by the Agency to John Rendon,
a Washington pr operator with good CIA connexions.
Almost from its founding in
1947, the CIA had journalists on its payroll, a fact acknowledged
in ringing tones by the Agency in its announcement in 1976 when
G.H.W. Bush took over from William Colby that "Effective
immediately, the CIA will not enter into any paid or contract
relationship with any full-time or part-time news correspondent
accredited by any US news service, newspaper, periodical, radio
or television network or station."
Though the announcement also
stressed that the text the CIA would continue to "welcome"
the voluntary, unpaid cooperation of journalists, there's no
reason to believe that the Agency actually stopped covert payoffs
to the Fourth Estate.
Its practices in this regard
before 1976 have been documented to a certain degree. In 1977
Carl Bernstein attacked the subject in Rolling Stone,
concluding that more than 400 journalists had maintained some
sort of alliance with the Agency between 1956 and 1972.
In 1997 the son of a well known
CIA senior man in the Agency's earlier years said emphatically,
though off the record, to a CounterPuncher that "of course"
the powerful and malevolent columnist Joseph Alsop "was
on the payroll".
Press manipulation was always
a paramount concern of the CIA, as with the Pentagon. In his
History of the CIA, published in 2001, Joe Trento described
how in 1948 CIA man Frank Wisner was appointed director of the
Office of Special Projects, soon renamed the Office of Policy
Coordination (OPC). This became the espionage and counter-intelligence
branch of the Central Intelligence Agency, the very first in
its list of designated functions was "propaganda".
Later that year Wisner set
an operation codenamed "Mockingbird", to influence
the domestic American press. He recruited Philip Graham of the
Washington Post to run the project within the industry.
Trento writes that
"One of the most important
journalists under the control of Operation Mockingbird was Joseph
Alsop, whose articles appeared in over 300 different newspapers."
Other journalists willing to promote the views of the CIA, included
Stewart Alsop (New York Herald Tribune), Ben Bradlee (Newsweek),
James Reston (New York Times), Charles Douglas Jackson
(Time Magazine), Walter Pincus (Washington Post),
William C. Baggs (Miami News), Herb Gold (Miami News)
and Charles Bartlett (Chattanooga Times).
By 1953 Operation Mockingbird
had a major influence over 25 newspapers and wire agencies, including
the New York Times, Time, CBS, Time. Wisner's operations were
funded by siphoning of funds intended for the Marshall Plan.
Some of this money was used to bribe journalists and publishers."
In his book Mockingbird:
The Subversion Of The Free Press By The CIA, Alex Constantine
writes that in the 1950s, "some 3,000 salaried and contract
CIA employees were eventually engaged in propaganda efforts".
Senate Armed Services Chairman
John Warner said recently, apropos the stories put into the Iraqi
press by the Lincoln Group, that it wasn't clear whether traditionally-accepted
journalistic practices were violated. Warner can relax. The Pentagon,
and the Lincoln Group, were working in a rich tradition, and
their only mistake was to get caught.
Great Speech and How the CIA May Have Silenced Paul Robeson
Harold Pinter is by no means
the first eloquent enemy of the American Empire to have got the
Nobel Prize for literature. In 1967 for example, when revulsion
was rising across the world at the U.S.inflicted bloodbath
in Vietnam, the committee picked the Guatemalan writer, Miguel
Asturias, whose work was notable for its savage depictions of
the US-backed destruction of democracy in Guetemala in 1954,
at the instigation of the United Fruit Company. (Asked for its
reaction to Asturias' selection, United Fruit's high command
said stiffly that it had never heard of Asturias and would have
I can't find the text of Asturias'
acceptance speech, but I would guess that it didn't rival the
intensity and fury of Pinter's depictions of the ravages of the
American Empire since 1945. It was as though the works of Noam
Chomsky had been compacted into one searing rhetorical lightening
bolt. It will go into the history books, alongside such imperishable
excoriations of empire as the speeches Thucidides put into the
mouths of the Melians, and Tacitus into the mouth of Calgacus.
Here some of Pinter's most
savage paragraphs (the full speech
ran on CounterPunch on Wednesday):
But my contention here is that
the US crimes in the [postwar] period have only been superficially
recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone
recognised as crimes at all. I believe this must be addressed
and that the truth has considerable bearing on where the world
stands now. Although constrained, to a certain extent, by the
existence of the Soviet Union, the United States' actions throughout
the world made it clear that it had concluded it had carte blanche
to do what it liked.
Direct invasion of a sovereign
state has never in fact been America's favoured method. In the
main, it has preferred what it has described as 'low intensity
conflict'. Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people
die but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell
swoop. It means that you infect the heart of the country, that
you establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom.
When the populace has been subdued - or beaten to death - the
same thing - and your own friends, the military and the great
corporations, sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera
and say that democracy has prevailed. This was a commonplace
in US foreign policy in the years to which I refer. The United
States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing
military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second
World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay,
Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and,
of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon
Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.
Hundreds of thousands of deaths
took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And
are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The
answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to
American foreign policy. But you wouldn't know it.
It never happened. Nothing
ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn't happening.
It didn't matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United
States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless,
but very few people have actually talked about them. You have
to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation
of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal
good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of
I put to you that the United
States is without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal,
indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very
clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most saleable
commodity is self love. It's a winner. Listen to all American
presidents on television say the words, 'the American people',
as in the sentence, 'I say to the American people it is time
to pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I
ask the American people to trust their president in the action
he is about to take on behalf of the American people.'
It's a scintillating stratagem.
Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words
'the American people' provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance.
You don't need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion
may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties
but it's very comfortable. This does not apply of course to the
40 million people living below the poverty line and the 2 million
men and women imprisoned in the vast gulag of prisons, which
extends across the US.
The United States no longer
bothers about low intensity conflict. It no longer sees any point
in being reticent or even devious. It puts its cards on the table
without fear or favour. It quite simply doesn't give a damn about
the United Nations, international law or critical dissent, which
it regards as impotent and irrelevant. It also has its own bleating
little lamb tagging behind it on a lead, the pathetic and supine
Pinter recorded the speech
sitting in a wheel chair. He's just fought off an onslaught cancer
of the esophagus and was suffering new pains in his legs. Michael
Billlington, the drama critic of The Guardian, gave a good account
of Pinter's delivery.
Pinter deployed a variety of
tactics: the charged pause, the tug at the glasses, the unremitting
stare at the camera. I am told by Michael Kustow, who co-produced
the lecture, that after a time he stopped giving Pinter any instructions.
He simply allowed him to rely on his actor's instinct for knowing
how to reinforce a line or heighten suspense.
Although the content of the
speech was highly political, especially in its clinical dissection
of post-war US foreign policy, it relied on Pinter's theatrical
sense, in particular his ability to use irony, rhetoric and humour,
to make its point. This was the speech of a man who knows what
he wants to say but who also realises that the message is more
effective if rabbinical fervour is combined with oratorical panache.At
one point, for instance, Pinter argued that "the United
States supported and in many cases engendered every rightwing
military dictatorship in the world after the end of the second
world war". He then proceeded to reel off examples. But
the clincher came when Pinter, with deadpan irony, said: "It
never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening,
it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest."
In a few sharp sentences, Pinter pinned down the willed indifference
of the media to publicly recorded events. He also showed how
language is devalued by the constant appeal of US presidents
to "the American people". This was argument by devastating
example. As Pinter repeated the lulling mantra, he proved his
point that "The words "the American people" provide
a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance." Thus Pinter
brilliantly used a rhetorical device to demolish political rhetoric.
But it was the black humour
of the speech I liked best. At one point, Pinter offered himself
as a speechwriter to President Bush - an offer unlikely, on this
basis of this speech, to be quickly accepted. And Pinter proceeded
to give us a parody of the Bush antithetical technique in which
the good guys and the bad guys are thrown into stark contrast:
"My God is good. Bin Laden's God is bad. His is a bad God.
Saddam's God was bad except he didn't have one. He was a barbarian.
We are not barbarians." Pinter's poker face as he delivered
this only reinforced its satirical power.
One columnist predicted, before
the event, that we were due for a Pinter rant. But this was not
a rant in the sense of a bombastic declaration. This was a man
delivering an attack on American foreign policy, and Britain's
subscription to it, with a controlled anger and a deadly irony.
And, paradoxically, it reminded us why Pinter is such a formidable
dramatist. He used every weapon in his theatrical technique to
reinforce his message. And, by the end, it was as if Pinter himself
had been physically recharged by the moral duty to express his
I remarked after reading Pinter's
text that it's a sign of the debility of the American Empire
that its agents didn't manage to kill off his nomination, or--having
failed at that--to kill Pinter before he was able to record his
remarks. Hyperbole, but only up to a point.
Consider the CIA's probable
poisoning, at a fraught political moment, of Paul Robeson, the
black actor, singer, and political radical. As Jeffrey St Clair
and I wrote a few years ago in our book Serpents
in the Garden, in the spring of 1961, Robeson planned to
visit Havana, Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
The trip never came off because Robeson fell ill in Moscow, where
he had gone to give several lectures and concerts. At the time,
it was reported that Robeson had suffered a heart attack. But
in fact Robeson had slashed his wrists in a suicide attempt after
suffering hallucinations and severe depression. The symptoms
came on following a surprise party thrown for him at his Moscow
Robeson's son, Paul Robeson,
Jr., investigated his father's illness for more than 30 years.
He believes that his father was slipped a synthetic hallucinogen
called BZ by U.S. intelligence operatives at the party in Moscow.
The party was hosted by anti-Soviet dissidents funded by the
Robeson Jr. visited his father
in the hospital the day after the suicide attempt. Robeson told
his son that he felt extreme paranoia and thought that the walls
of the room were moving. He said he had locked himself in his
bedroom and was overcome by a powerful sense of emptiness and
depression before he tried to take his own life.
Robeson left Moscow for London,
where he was admitted to Priory Hospital. There he was turned
over to psychiatrists who forced him to endure 54 electro-shock
treatments. At the time, electro-shock, in combination with psycho-active
drugs, was a favored technique of CIA behavior modification.
It turned out that the doctors treating Robeson in London and,
later, in New York were CIA contractors. The timing of Robeson's
trip to Cuba was certainly a crucial factor. Three weeks after
the Moscow party, the CIA launched its disastrous invasion of
Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. It's impossible to underestimate Robeson's
threat, as he was perceived by the U.S. government as the most
famous black radical in the world. Through the 1950s Robeson
commanded worldwide attention and esteem. He was the Nelson Mandela
and Mohammed Ali of his time. He spoke more than twenty languages,
including Russian, Chinese, and several African languages. Robeson
was also on close terms with Nehru, Jomo Kenyatta, and other
Third World leaders. His embrace of Castro in Havana would have
seriously undermined U.S. efforts to overthrow the new Cuban
Another pressing concern for
the U.S. government at the time was Robeson's announced intentions
to return to the United States and assume a leading role in the
emerging civil rights movement. Like the family of Martin Luther
King, Robeson had been under official surveillance for decades.
As early as 1935, British intelligence had been looking at Robeson's
activities. In 1943, the Office of Strategic Services, World
War II predecessor to the CIA, opened a file on him. In 1947,
Robeson was nearly killed in a car crash. It later turned out
that the left wheel of the car had been monkey-wrenched. In the
1950s, Robeson was targeted by Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist
hearings. The campaign effectively sabotaged his acting and singing
career in the states.
Robeson never recovered from
the drugging and the follow-up treatments from CIA-linked doctors
and shrinks. He died in 1977.
Footnote: an earlier version
of the first item appeared in the print edition of The Nation
that went to press last Wednesday