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How The Establishment Says Goodbye

by David Corn


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Alexander Cockburn: Katharine Graham Needed Fewer Friends
It's not often you get to see the Establishment live on television. But there it was during the televised funeral of Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Steve Case, Lawrence Eagleburger, Herbert Allen, Oscar de la Renta, Barbara Walters, Vernon Jordan, Barry Diller, Robert McNamara, Dick and Lynn Cheney, Rudy Giuliani (seemingly sans wife or girlfriend) were all present to bid farewell at the National Cathedral, as former Senator John Danforth delivered the homily and Yo-Yo Ma played.

Graham certainly deserved a fine send-off. After the suicide of her bipolar husband in 1963, she transformed herself from a high-society housewife into a formidable media baron, while transforming the Post from a so-so newspaper into one of mainstream journalism's most prominent sheets. And during the Watergate scandal -- as we all know -- she backed two greenhorn reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, as they produced front-page stories that helped topple a crooked president.

My beef isn't with her. It's with the Establishment- as- one- happy- family message conveyed at her farewell. Not that this was a fake and insincere message. The problem is it was all too genuine.


Hypocrisy of Kissinger eulogy
The first eulogist for Graham was Henry Kissinger. When he took his place before the power-congregants, the crowd should have either gagged in disgust or guffawed at the absurdity, for Kissinger represents the antithesis of the values for which Graham was so celebrated after her death. Throughout the media coverage of her death, Graham was lionized as an advocate of truth-seeking, no-holds-bar journalism, a media owner who recognized the press's obligation to scrutinize the powerful and hold them accountable in order to strengthen the republic. Kissinger was the opposite: a practitioner of secret government, a public official who believed that he need not inform the citizenry of his actions -- even when (that is, especially when) they resulted in the deaths of thousands -- and that he need not be held accountable by the people he supposedly served.

Kissinger's offenses could fill a book -- and have done so at least twice (Seymour Hersh's The Price of Power and, more recently Christopher Hitchens' The Trial of Henry Kissinger). Here is an abbreviated indictment. As national security adviser to President Nixon, he misled the public repeatedly about the Vietnam War and sustained a doomed-to-failure effort that led to the pointless deaths of many Americans and Vietnamese. He orchestrated the secret (and arguably illegal) bombing of Cambodia. He participated in the wiretapping of his own staffers in the White House, and he ordered the bugging of a New York Times reporter. He plotted with Nixon and the CIA to overthrow the democratically-elected Chilean President Salvador Allende and engineered the destabilization of Chile, which led to a bloody military coup and the installation of a totalitarian, murderous regime. He suggested to Nixon that White House operatives conduct  break-ins against political foes. He was aware of and somewhat involved in the creation of the White House "plumbers" unit, the band of covert agents who pulled off (and bungled) the Watergate caper. These days, Kissinger is, in a way, a wanted man. Judges and investigators in France, Chile, Italy and Argentina want to question him about US knowledge or encouragement of human rights abuses and political assassinations mounted in the 1970s by Chile's military regime. Of course, he has not offered to be of assistance.

Kissinger acknowledged at the Graham funeral that he and Kay had their policy and political differences. (After all, in 1971 her newspaper, following the lead of The New York Times,  published the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret history of the Vietnam War -- an act that drove Kissinger and Nixon up the wall.) But the continuation of their close friendship, despite such differences, Kissinger noted, was in keeping with "the permanent Washington that transmutes the partisanship of the moment into national purpose and lasting value."  Kissinger added, "The Kay of the permanent establishment never lost sight of the fact that societies thrive not by the victories of their factions, but by their ultimate reconciliations."

In other words, members of the Establishment don't hold grudges. Forget those differences over Vietnam -- and the lives lost. What counts is that Kissinger and Graham were able to spend summer weekends with one another afterward.

For Kissinger to have spoken of reconciliation was ludicrous. Where's his apology to the people of Chile, including the relatives of the thousands slaughtered during and after the coup? Where's his mea culpa on Vietnam? Where's his regret for having been part of a White House that spied on citizens and brazenly committed crimes? He's about as sorry as O.J. -- seeking reconciliation not on golf courses but at A-list dinner parties where he might share  hors d'oeuvres and bon mots with a past foe.

I'm not going to speak ill of Graham for having socialized with Kissinger. But did her family have to designate him the lead speaker at the funeral? There was Kissinger praising Graham for having "fiercely defended...freedom of expressions" and for being " a seminal figure in the battle to submit even the highest officials to ethical and judicial norms." And no one howled. I suppose being part of the Establishment means never having to say you're outraged.


Too cozy with agents of power
It's not that I always mind the Establishment. Someone has to run the show. But  the self-congratulatory, ain't-we-swell smugness often found in the gang can be damn irritating. Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor of the Post, wore just  such a suit when he eulogized Graham. He hailed her as a newspaper owner "who committed herself with passion and the highest standards on principles to a simple search for the truth. With fervor, not favor, with fairness and courage, great owners help reporters and editors shine a bright light on the darkest corners of society." To illustrate the point, he recalled the time, in the mid-1980s, when the Post was "battling the CIA, the NSA and the White House about a story called 'Ivy Bells.'"

As Bradlee told it, the Post had come upon a sensational story: "The Russians had learned from an American spy about a super top-secret diving bell which we had invented to clamp onto underwater Soviet cables." The Soviets had found the mechanism and taken it back to Moscow, and the Reagan Administration was fighting to keep this years-old tale hush-hush. As part of its campaign, Reagan phoned Graham at home, while the grand dame was in the shower. She jumped out, threw on a towel, and took notes as Reagan recited reasons why the Post should not publish this piece. What a pro she was.

But Bradlee did not finish the story. As Bob Woodward recounted this episode in his 1987 book, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987, US intelligence in the 1970s had developed the most advanced, sophisticated, miniaturized waterproof eavesdropping device in existence -- and it was attached to underwater Soviet cables and intercepted Soviet military communications. But in 1981, a Soviet spy in the National Security Agency named Ronald Pelton spilled the secrets of the Ivy Bells operation to his handlers.

Woodward and the Post first learned of this project in 1985, but they decided not to publish a story on Ivy Bells, for they were not sure the operation had been compromised. After Pelton was arrested in November of that year, the Post determined that he had blabbed about Ivy Bells to the Soviets and that the Soviets had captured the eavesdropping device. Now, the Post editors thought it would be appropriate to run a story. But before doing so, Bradlee and managing editor Leonard Downie Jr. met with NSA director WIlliam Odom. Not surprisingly, Odom vehemently objected to publication of the story, citing national security concerns.

For the next six months, the Post dilly-dallied about running the story. They showed a draft of the piece to Odom, who maintained his opposition. Woodward handed a subsequent draft to the White House and asked "a well-placed official" for guidance on whether it should run. The Posties fretted as national security officials told them publishing the story could compromise other operations and rile the Soviets -- even though Moscow already had uncovered the Ivy Bells operation. At one point, Woodward writes, "Bradlee made it clear that, for the moment, he was unhappy we were still pursuing the story."

When Bradlee was finally convinced that the story -- having gone through several rewrites -- would not tell the Soviets anything they did not know, he greenlighted the piece. Still, he had Woodward call the White House and provide a heads-up that the article would run in two days. After further conversations with Odom and CIA director William Casey, who threatened the Post with criminal prosecution under a rarely-used 1950 law, Bradlee again placed a hold on the article. Several days later, Reagan called Graham's house, and the publisher dashed out of the shower.

Reagan implied to Graham that intelligence somehow connected to Ivy Bells had prevented 125 terrorist incidents in the past year. Graham did not press him; she took the assertion at face value. After the call, according to Woodward, she "told Bradlee that she was impressed with the President's argument. She wondered why we had to write this story. If intelligence agencies we're trying to overthrow governments, we probably should publish, but how could the United States gather too much intelligence? Listen too much? The Soviets did it to us....She hoped Bradlee would be extra careful."

Would the Post publish? On May 19, 1986, the issue became moot, when NBC broke the Ivy Bells story. Two days later, the newspaper ran a truncated, catch-up version of its piece. The Post  had pussyfooted and lost a scoop.

How odd that this was the one journalism-related anecdote that Bradlee shared at the funeral. This episode shows that the legendary crusading journalists of Graham's Post sometimes weighed factors other than the pursuit of the truth. For months, the paper deferentially consulted with the secret-keepers of the Reagan Administration and was reluctant to defy their wishes. Perhaps the Posties were right to be concerned about the repercussions of running the Ivy Bell story -- though I would argue that the Reaganites could not be trusted on this front. Nevertheless, the image of Bradlee and Woodward sharing drafts of articles with the national security community certainly does not jibe with the Post's reputation as a mecca of kick-ass, show-'em-no-favors investigative reporting. Life within the Establishment is a bit more nuanced.

And this is how the Establishment works. The executive editor of the Post has drinks with the CIA director at the University Club to discuss whether the public should be informed about a touchy matter. The President calls the publisher. She gives him the benefit of the doubt. Kissinger wages a corrupt war, Graham opposes it, and they go to the movies together. The operating assumption: we may be on different sides, but we're still on the same team -- and never more so than on those occasions when we send a member of the "permanent establishment," as our dear friend Henry calls it, to that place of true and complete permanence.



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Albion Monitor July 30, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)

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