First as tragedy … then as more tragedy

I’m reading Fred Kaplan by way of Josh Marshall on the Bush administration’s encouraging Georgia to stick its finger in Russia’s eye in recent years, only to find itself powerless to help now that Vladimir Putin has decided he’s had enough. (Not that that’s stopped the bellicose rhetoric emanating from the White House and the McCain campaign.)

It reminds me of President Bush’s father, who encouraged the Shiites in the southern part of Iraq to rise up against Saddam Hussein in 1991, only to stand by as they were slaughtered.

What’s happening now is a tragedy, but at least Russia isn’t Iraq. And Putin isn’t Saddam. This isn’t our fight, and it’s a shame we led the Georgians to think we would do more than we could. It’s a mistake we’ve made over and over again. (Hungary in 1956, anyone?)

As always, the first casualty

In my latest for the Guardian, I consider the plight of Zoriah Miller, a freelance photographer who’s been banned from covering U.S. Marines in Iraq because his images are too graphic. And I argue that the Bush administration’s ongoing censorship of the war’s photographic record is giving John McCain an unfair advantage.

Brian Williams protects his friends

That’s not an accusation. NBC News anchor Brian Williams actually comes right out and says it in response to complaints that he’s been silent about a recent New York Times article regarding retired generals and other military officers who analyze the war in Iraq for NBC and other news organizations.

To recap briefly — these officers are working as well-compensated executives for military contractors, which are, in turn, highly dependent on the good graces of the White House and the Defense Department. And Bush administration officials have not been not shy about telling the officers what to say.

Here’s a chunk of what Williams writes on his blog:

I read the article with great interest. I’ve worked with two men since I’ve had this job — both retired, heavily-decorated U.S. Army four-star Generals — Wayne Downing and Barry McCaffrey. As I’m sure is obvious to even a casual viewer, I quickly entered into a close friendship with both men. I wish Wayne were alive today to respond to the article himself.

The “picking on the dead” motif is a nice touch, don’t you think? Anyway, Williams goes on to say that he’s seen no need to comment on the Times article because, in his view, the officers were “tough, honest critics of the U.S. military effort in Iraq.”

And you know what? Perhaps they were, at least sometimes. But the thing about conflicts of interest is that viewers have a right to know what associations commentators have regardless of what comes tumbling out of their mouths. What Williams seems to be saying is that there was no need for such disclosure in these two cases because, in his personal opinion, neither man was susceptible to being spun. Is that the standard at NBC News?

In Salon, Glenn Greenwald notes that both Downing and McCaffrey were founding members of something called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, headed by a slew of pro-war neocons such as Bill Kristol, Newt Gingrich and Richard Perle. According to Greenwald, this fact was never disclosed in Downing’s and McCaffrey’s numerous appearances on NBC. Here is a choice tidbit from the committee’s stated purpose:

The Committee for the Liberation of Iraq will engage in educational and advocacy efforts to mobilize domestic and international support for policies aimed at ending the aggression of Saddam Hussein and freeing the Iraqi people from tyranny.

You can call this idealism. But it makes laughable Williams’ assertion that his “friends” were independent. To make matters worse, Greenwald also documents the two officers’ ties to the military industry, making it clear that they could have lost a lot of money both for themselves and their employers if they had gone too far in their “tough, honest” analysis.

Recently I called the Times’ revelations “as sickening a media scandal as we have seen in our lifetime.” I was wrong. The larger scandal is that folks like Brian Williams, whom I’ve always considered to be a straight shooter, have been allowed to sweep this story under the rug.

Thanks to Media Nation reader M.T.S. for calling my attention to Greenwald’s piece.

Williams photo by David Shankbone, and republished here under a GNU Free Documentation License.

The military-industrial complex

Retired generals and other high-ranking military officers get hired as defense contractors. Television networks pay them to offer analysis on the war in Iraq, both during the run-up and in the long aftermath. The Pentagon, which holds the power of life or death over said contractors, tells the generals what to say. And they do, despite secretly harboring doubts about the truth of what they’re being told about the success of the war. Eisenhower was more right than he ever knew.

This, folks, is as sickening a media scandal as we have seen in our lifetime. At least Judith Miller believed the lies Ahmed Chalabi was telling her about weapons and terrorism. At least Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher were harming nothing but their own reputations when they took money to promote administration policy in their columns or, as Gallagher has tried to argue, on the side.

The New York Times’ David Barstow lays it all out today in horrifying detail. Nor was the Times itself immune, having run nine op-ed pieces by these bought-and-paid-for opinion-mongers.

Take a look at this excerpt about Robert Bevelacqua, a retired Green Berets and former analyst for Fox News:

Mr. Bevelacqua, then a Fox analyst, was among those invited to a briefing in early 2003 about Iraq’s purported stockpiles of illicit weapons. He recalled asking the briefer whether the United States had “smoking gun” proof.

” ‘We don’t have any hard evidence,’ ” Mr. Bevelacqua recalled the briefer replying. He said he and other analysts were alarmed by this concession. “We are looking at ourselves saying, ‘What are we doing?’ “

Another analyst, Robert L. Maginnis, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who works in the Pentagon for a military contractor, attended the same briefing and recalled feeling “very disappointed” after being shown satellite photographs purporting to show bunkers associated with a hidden weapons program. Mr. Maginnis said he concluded that the analysts were being “manipulated” to convey a false sense of certainty about the evidence of the weapons. Yet he and Mr. Bevelacqua and the other analysts who attended the briefing did not share any misgivings with the American public.

Mr. Bevelacqua and another Fox analyst, Mr. [William] Cowan [another Fox analyst and a retired Marine colonel], had formed the wvc3 Group, and hoped to win military and national security contracts.

“There’s no way I was going to go down that road and get completely torn apart,” Mr. Bevelacqua said. “You’re talking about fighting a huge machine.”

What can you possibly say about the moral sensibility that informs Bevelacqua’s remarks?

The first major media figure who’ll be popping up today is Tim Russert, who’s pictured in the Times piece (above) surrounded by retired military officers on the set of “Meet the Press.” He ought to open by apologizing and promising a thorough investigation of NBC News’ use of this corrupt punditry. Next week’s show should be devoted to an hour-long self-examination. And every other network should do the same.

What’s so repellant about this is that it robs us of our ability to govern ourselves. Longtime Media Nation readers know that I’ve always been conflicted about the war — against it ahead of time, but, once we were in, hoping for a decent outcome.

I still haven’t abandoned that hope. But this morning I find myself wondering how much of that hope is based on paid-for lies that I mistook for honest analysis.

Cheap laugh, false charge

On tonight’s Fox News debate, Fred Thompson just said the reason you can tell the war in Iraq is going well is that you read so little about it in the New York Times.

Here you go, Senator. And if you can find another news organization doing this much coverage, let me know.

Beyond sweets and flowers

Listen in as Dick Cheney tries, in September 2002, to persuade Dick Armey that going to war against Iraq is a good idea:

We have great information. They’re going to welcome us. It’ll be like the American Army going through the streets of Paris. They’re sitting there ready to form a new government. The people will be so happy with their freedoms that we’ll probably back ourselves out of there within a month or two.

I happen to think Cheney and President Bush actually believed this stuff. I’m not sure whether that’s better or worse than the alternative explanation.

What Patrick meant

Gov. Deval Patrick did a decent job yesterday of deflecting criticism over his 9/11 remarks. “Let me be clear: I don’t think America bears any fault for the attack on us in 9/11, and I don’t think that any of the family members with whom I spoke that day heard it or saw it that way,” he said on the “Eagan & Braude” show on WTKK Radio (96.9 FM). The Boston Globe covers the story here; the Associated Press here.

Lest you forget, here is the section of Patrick’s speech that brought him to grief:

Because among many other things, 9/11 was a failure of human understanding. It was mean and nasty and bitter attack on the United States. But it was also about the failure of human beings to understand each other, and to learn to love each other.

At the time, those words struck me as odd, and he obviously opened himself up to accusations that he was being insensitive to the victims of 9/11. But it’s an exercise in intellectual dishonesty to suggest that he really, actually meant to say that Al Qaeda wouldn’t have attacked us if only we had demonstrated love and understanding toward the terrorists. Naturally, the Massachusetts Republican Party and the usual suspects on talk radio nearly injured themselves from the speed with which they leapt to that conclusion.

The Phoenix’s David Bernstein digs deeply, and shows not just the context in which Patrick made his remarks on Tuesday, but on other occasions as well. Here, most tellingly, is a long excerpt from the commencement address Patrick gave this past May at Mount Wachusett Community College:

The events of September 11, 2001 were horrific, you know that. They disrupted individual families and our collective sense of security and well-being. It was a “wake-up” call to our own vulnerability. And it represents a catastrophic failure of human understanding. In its wake, I believe we have been governed by fear.

Fear is what drove us to round up people of Arab descent, many of them American citizens, and to hold hundreds without cause or charge.

Fear led us to lose focus on a known enemy in Afghanistan and invade Iraq instead.

Fear justified what I believe to be the greatest assault on personal freedoms (in the Patriot Act) and the greatest aggregation of Presidential power in much of our history.

Fear created the Guantánamo detention center, where the very rule of law that has made our democracy an envy of the world has been set aside.

Just a few months ago in a radio interview, a senior Pentagon official, Charles “Cully” Stimson, named some of the law firms providing free representation to the Guantánamo detainees and suggested that corporate America make those law firms — and I quote — “choose between representing terrorists and representing reputable firms.” He attempted to mark these lawyers as enemies of society. There was no subtlety in his message.

Speaking about this post-9/11 phenomenon, former Vice President Gore observed that, “Fear drives out reason. Fear suppresses the politics of discourse and opens the door to the politics of destruction.” He quoted former Justice Brandeis, who said that, “Men feared witches and burnt women.”

The Vice President, I think, captured the spirit of the active citizen in the heat of danger when he said, “The founders of our country faced dire threats. If they failed in their endeavors, they would have been hanged as traitors. The very existence of our country was at risk. Yet, in the teeth of those dangers, they insisted on establishing the Bill of Rights.”

Like me, he wonders: “Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol?”

Fear is treacherous.

Now, I’m sure there are some conservatives who would disagree with those remarks, but they pretty much reflect what most liberals believe has happened during the post-9/11 era. Certainly no one would consider them to be particularly controversial. (Indeed, they’re now four months old and no one has said a thing.) Too bad Patrick didn’t express himself as clearly on Tuesday as he did in May.

Finally, have a look at Jay Fitzgerald’s post in which he links criticism of Patrick’s remarks to the idiotic brouhaha over’s “General Betray Us” ad in the New York Times. Jay — a conservative, or at least someone who passes for one in Massachusetts — correctly notes that President Bush’s defenders are going berserk over these two issues because they can’t offer substantive arguments over everything that’s gone wrong in Iraq.

Personally, I thought Patrick’s remarks — or at least that one excerpt — were tone-deaf, and that MoveOn’s ad was silly and misdirected. But offensive? What’s offensive is the right’s knee-jerk response in attempting to turn everything into a attack on the other side’s patriotism.

If Patrick is guilty of anything, it’s failing to understand how the game is played. Too bad it’s a game, isn’t it?

Photo of Patrick (cc) by DoubleSpeakShow. Some rights reserved.

The “Surge Twins”

There’s a lot about Maureen Dowd’s column (sub. req.) in today’s New York Times that I don’t like, but never mind. I love her description of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, whom she has dubbed the “Surge Twins”:

The Surge Twins seemed competent and more realistic than some of their misbegotten predecessors, but just too late to do any good. They’re like two veteran pilots trying to crash land the plane.


How false becomes true

Dan Gillmor blasts the media for a recent New York Times/CBS News poll finding that one-third of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. He writes:

The continuing scandal is that media organizations are doing so little to correct the record. Because it is not enough to run an occasional story debunking the lie.

I don’t disagree, but it’s also more complicated than that. Last Friday, NPR’s “On the Media” ran a fascinating interview with the Washington Post’s Shankar Vedantam, whose reporting suggests that the harder you try to debunk a falsehood, the more people are likely to believe it. Here’s Vedantam, talking about what happened after the subjects of a University of Michigan study read a flier produced by the Centers for Disease Control debunking myths about vaccines:

[A]bout 30 minutes later, older people started to remember some of the false statements as true, and three days later, very large numbers of older people and significant numbers of younger people also started remembering increasing numbers of myths as true.

The true statements did not suffer the same kind of deterioration with time. In other words, over time we tend to remember false things as true but not true things as false.

This doesn’t mean the media shouldn’t at least try to educate the public in an ongoing way. But it does mean that it’s likely a significant minority of Americans will continue to believe whatever they like, whether it’s about 9/11 or the (non)-existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

After all, as Vedantam points out, majorities in Arab and Muslim countries continue to believe the United States and/or Israel were responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center. You can only do so much to set the record straight.

Vedantam’s original Post story is online here.

McCarthyism and

Conservative supporters of the war in Iraq are spreading a bizarre meme — that’s New York Times ad attacking Gen. David Petraeus as “General Betray Us” is the moral equivalent of McCarthyism. A few examples:

  • “We may be about to witness a McCarthy-Army-Welch moment in the debate over Iraq. This time, the role of McCarthy is played by, a liberal political group that launched its own attack on a respected US Army figure.” — Peter Feaver, former National Security Council staff member, writing in the Boston Globe.
  • has thrown down an unprecedented attack on an American general’s character and honesty. It is a disgusting overreach, one that brings to mind Joe McCarthy’s attacks on the Army half a century ago.” — Hugh Hewitt, radio talk-show host and blogger, in the Los Angeles Times.
  • Blogger Dean Barnett posts of a photo on of Sen. Joseph McCarthy being confronted by lawyer Joseph Welch at the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, at which Welch memorably spoke up on behalf of an officer who’d been targeted by McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
  • Sen. John McCain called the MoveOn ad “a McCarthyite attack,” according to this report in the Boston Globe by Lisa Wangsness.

OK, enough. You do see what the problem is, don’t you? McCarthy was smearing government officials by accusing them of being communists. MoveOn is smearing Petraeus by accusing him of being a known associate of (gasp!) George W. Bush.

And though it may have been wrongheaded for MoveOn to suggest that Petraeus would shade the truth on Bush’s behalf, it would be a stretch to call that offensive, let alone “McCarthyite.” Shading the truth about the war — its causes and its prosecution — is, after all, the modus operandi of the Bush White House. Pete Hegseth, writing in the Weekly Standard, accuses MoveOn of calling Petraeus a “traitor.” Hegseth needs to think through the implications of what he’s saying.

I have no love for MoveOn, and I fail to see how blowing its members’ money on a full-page ad in the Times advances its cause. There are not too many Times readers, I suspect, who continue to support (or who ever supported) the war.

I also think that Petraeus stands as one of the few honorable leaders in this terrible folly. His analysis — that U.S. and Iraqi troops are making progress on the ground — seems eminently reasonable. Too bad Iraq’s leadership continues to rip the country apart. (And yes, I understand that Petraeus wrote an overly optimistic op-ed piece for the Washington Post just before the last presidential election, an act that could be seen as political.)

This past Sunday’s “Meet the Press” was valuable, both for the downbeat assessment offered by retired Marine Gen. James Jones and former Washington police commissioner Charles Ramsey, members of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq, and for Sen. Joseph Biden’s take on the MoveOn ad: “I don’t buy into that. This is an honorable guy. He’s telling the truth.”

Petraeus‘ truth, unfortunately, is just a small part of the picture. But unless President Bush is suddenly the new Nikita Krushchev, then MoveOn’s ad can’t possibly be compared the tactics of the late, unlamented Joseph McCarthy.