by Alexander Cockburn
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 up.
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 U.S. 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, D.C.-based subcontractor, the Lincoln Group, to write and translate for distribution to Iraqi news outlets booster stories about the U.S. military's successes in Iraq.
More or less simultaneously comes news of Bush's plan, mooted to Tony Blair in April 2004, to bomb Al Jazeera headquarters 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 U.S. Air Force had another crack at the target, and this time managed to blow it up. The U.S. military claimed that they didn't know the target was an Al Jazeera office, merely "a terrorist site."
In April 2003, a U.S. 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, U.S. forces killed two other journalists from Reuters 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 United States 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 practiced in the U.S. homeland.
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 Iraq.
It also doesn't mean that when Judy Miller was pouring her nonsense into the New York Times's news columns she (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 connections.
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 U.S. news service, newspaper, periodical, radio or television network or station."
Though the announcement also stressed that 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, 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 "Secret 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 CIA, 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 and CBS. 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.
December 7, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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