Michael Schrage, a former Washington Post columnist and current MIT security studies maven recently penned a column in the Outlook section of the Washington Post about the US strategy of paying Iraqi journalists to place stories favorable to the US in the media. The strategy, originally revealed by the LA Times on December 2005, provoked condemnation from journalists as far apart as Christopher Hitchens, leftist addition to the militerati, and Alexander Cockburn. An egregious breach of journalistic ethics was the consensus view.
“Enough already,” says Schrage in his Post piece. “Securing positive coverage for our troops in Iraq can be as important to their safety as "up-armoring" vehicles and providing state-of-the-art body armor. The failure to wage the media war is a failure to command.” (1)
To the extent that Schrage is arguing that massaging the news is not a recent development for the military, he is right. Fake news is not new. It’s been part of military offensives since Neanderthal man first tricked his neighbor and clubbed him over the head. In the Indian epic, Mahabharata, the eldest of the five Pandava brothers who are the rightful heirs to the kingdom of Bharatha is legendary for always speaking the truth. Until, that is, things come to a head during the battle between the Pandavas and the usurping Kauravas, with their unstoppable warrior-guru Drona. A plan is concocted to demoralize Drona by spreading the lie that his son Ashvathama is dead. Ashvathama, it happens, is also the name of an elephant -- which actually is dead. Yudhishthira, until then so faultlessly truthful that his chariot wheels never touch the ground, succumbs and allows himself to whisper – “Ashvathama , the elephant (sottovoce), is dead.” The grief-stricken Drona believes the rumor and dies. The tide turns for the Pandavas, but Yudhishthira’s wheels start hitting the ground like everyone else’s.
Schrage seems to think that “US story-boarding” is no more than an episode in this sainted tradition. But, using disinformation to hoodwink the armed enemy on a classical battlefield -- under strict and chivalrous laws of engagement -- is one thing. Using it to deceive the civilian population in an enemy country in 21st century conditions of total war is another. And using it to bamboozle neutrals, friendlies, and worst of all, your own domestic population is something else altogether.
American chariot wheels are not just firmly on the ground. They are burrowing down into Hades. The Iraq news faking was directed not only at the population in the new “democracy” but at the population in the US and its allies. And it makes a sham of democratic participation. It denies people even the tiniest crumbs of information about the progress of a war in which they are expected to immolate their children. Volunteering for the republic under those terms is not much more than Aztec child sacrifice.
Schrage misstates a few other important things. They did it first, he says, arguing that the controversial “information ops” were launched as a defensive measure against Iraqi insurgents who were spreading lies about the coalition and attacking pro-American Iraqi media.
Really. Defensive? The Iraqi insurgents by definition did not come into existence until after the fall of Baghdad, i.e., in the summer of 2003. US disinformation in Iraq on the other hand has been percolating in the region at least since before Gulf War I -- fifteen years ago.
It was fifteen years ago that the Washington, DC PR firm Hill & Knowlton hatched the fable that is now a cliché of atrocity stories -- that Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait were tossing babies out of incubators, a psy-op directed not against Iraqis but against the American public and Congress. The Kuwaiti ambassador’s daughter Nayirah -- at the time nowhere in the vicinity -- even put in a tear-jerking I-was-there account of the baby-toss on the floor of the US Congress.
Another firm, Rendon, hired by the CIA in 1990 to help “create the conditions for the removal of Hussein from power,” went on to earn a hundred million dollars in government contracts in just the five years following. It got together anti-Saddam militants, gave them a “brand” -- the Iraqi National Congress, and advised them on PR strategy. It also handpicked Ahmad Chalabi, the ex-bank con turned peddler of pro-war propaganda, and primed a flyspecked assortment of defectors in the fine art of bluffing polygraphs. All to further neo-conservative plans for creative destruction in the Middle East.
Even bungled lie detector tests didn’t stop Rendon from planting fake stories about Saddam’s supposed stash of WMD. One channel was Paul Moran, a paid operative masquerading as a freelancer for the mammoth Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Why Australia? Because by law the Bush administration is forbidden from propagandizing the American public directly. Leave that to journalists with calloused knees like Moran or the submissive Judith Miller -- recently martyred at the New York Times -- who gave heads up to the flim-flam on the front pages of the gray lady herself. From there the faux-news spread like avian flu to chicken-hawks world-wide - making the 2003 war almost entirely a creation of the Western media. So much for the “free” press.
But wait, perhaps this fandango was being performed beyond the decorous sight of the military? Think again. Rendon is authorized “to research and analyze information classified up to Top Secret/SCI/SI/TK/G/HCS” -- acronyms that indicate access to the most secret information available from all three types of intelligence collection: electronic eavesdropping, satellite imagery and spies on the ground -- a level of clearance given to only a handful of defense contractors.
“We've worked in ninety-one countries,” boasts firm boss, John Rendon. “Going all the way back to Panama, we've been involved in every war, with the exception of Somalia.” (2) And in the mid-nineties, when the CIA lost faith with Chalabi and Rendon, the pair just rolled over to the Pentagon, reporting to the J-3, at the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Legitimate Pentagon public relations -- to the alarm of many military men -- has been wallowing neck-deep in psy-ops in Iraq for years now. So, to argue as Schrage does, that the military was slow-footed about the media war, is nothing short of ludicrous.
Rendon didn’t work alone, either. It coordinated its work with a whole bevy of wholesalers of disinformation. In 2001, just after 9-11, the Pentagon also created the Office of Strategic Information (OSI) as an express line for junk news -- an office whose briefings even the military reportedly found “scary.” Rendon may not have worked directly for the OSI, which soon shut down under public pressure, but it certainly did for the OSI’s successor, the Information Operations Task Force, nestled one layer deeper in the labyrinth of Pentagon bureaucracy.
And Rendon was also tuned into the Office of Global Communications, run right out of the White House “Information War Room.” The OGC monitored and counter-attacked breaking news reports all over the globe, snatching them up as soon as they tapped out of journalists’ keyboards with the help of “Livewire”, Rendon’s cutting-edge wire collection system. The scope of the monitoring was staggering: English and Arabic internet chatrooms, web sites in at least four more languages, e-mail lists. The Pentagon also ran a massive “media mapping” campaign against news organizations like Al Jazeera, analyzing individual journalists, twisting the arms of those who were critical, and planting false stories abroad. OGC was tasked with punishing journalists who broke ranks in Jakarta, Islamabad, Riyadh, Cairo, Ankara, and Tashkent, venues deeply implicated in the Global War on Terror. (3) Propaganda, psy-ops, espionage. An inseparable and intricately plotted whole in the Empire today, not some dazed afterthought, as Schrage wants us to us believe.
And Schrage simply ignores the crucial fact that private contractors like Rendon -- who now perform half of the CIA’s work -- are completely unaccountable to Congress. Think about it. Private contractors run half the nation’s most secret military operations and they don’t have to say a word about what they do to the people who foot the bill and face the fire. Yet, in spite of this, Schrage talks about the media war as it if it were somehow gingerly choreographed by a crew of abstemious social workers who wouldn’t know a financial incentive or a private agenda if it was served up with arugala on a platter.
His other claims are just as incredible. Unfair, he says, to hold the “nascent Iraqi media” to “American ethical standards.” The nascent -- in fact, stillborn -- Iraqi media is, of course, run by America; presumably, it should have no trouble at all reaching “American ethical standards”. But some might reasonably ask where those standards have been for at least a decade. First, there were the blatant distortions in the run-up to both Gulf Wars. Then, there was the media blackout of the interim in which Iraq was strangled in slow motion by sanctions. Where were mainstream journalists then? Struck dumb by an excess of ethics, it seems. Embeds, video news-releases, whole-sale news scripting, vetting from on high, self-censorship, selective coverage, outright propaganda . . . journalists may have to remove a log or two from their own eyes before squinting after motes abroad.
But, according to Schrage, the military is only faking the news because otherwise Iraq would be dominated by the “one-sided thuggery and threat” issuing from Iraqi insurgents. He cites a report of the Committee to Protect Journalists that more than 40 Iraqi journalists have been killed since the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Indeed they have. A huge number of them by American forces.
Here’s the death toll according to the CPJ web site: 14 dead journalists in 2003, 24 in 2004 and 22 in 2005, 60 in all, making Iraq the world’s bloodiest spot today for the profession. Only two of these dead journalists were American. Well over two-thirds were Iraqis or other Arabs. And the American military killed 13 of them. 13 confirmed killings. Most of them initially denied and later admitted under pressure from reporters and eyewitnesses. Of the other deaths, 36 are attributed to “insurgents, suicide bombers and cross-fire.” Crossfire episodes can half be laid at the door of the US. So we can assume that that’s at least another six journalists who were killed by the US. Then, there were also 18 “unrecognized” killings. Since most of the killings that were clearly identified were identified to have been committed by the US, we can fairly assume that at least half of those that were not identified, should also have been committed by the US. Conservatively, then, around 29 journalists -- almost ten a year -- appear to have been knocked off by American firepower in three years. And most of the victims were Iraqi journalists working in their own country. (4) Ripe numbers these. Worthy of goose-stepping dictators, not the world’s most influential republic and de facto leader of the West.
What is fairly damning in all this, also, is that it is pretty well documented that U.S. forces routinely detained Iraqi newsmen for weeks or months without charges or evidence because of what they filmed or photographed. That makes accusations that the US actually targeted journalists for killing seem entirely plausible.
No question there was a one-sided threat in Iraq. It was the US military.
Schrage even goes on to argue that media restraints in occupied Japan and Germany “make Iraq's information environment look as unregulated as the blogosphere,” when in fact, the “unregulated” blogosphere is quite heavily monitored by US intelligence. How could it not be? It’s a creature of the addictive culture of advertising. When it’s not mainlining on PR masquerading as news, it’s overdosing on planted stories and sites.
Hardly the Athenian agora that Schrage makes it out to be.
Schrage cites the “Information Control Division” which oversaw the denazification of West Germany media. By 1946, he says, the US controlled “37 newspapers, 6 radio stations, 314 theatres, 642 movies, 101 magazines, 237 book publishers, 7,384 book dealers and printers.” It also published a newspaper with 1.5 million in circulation and 3 magazines, ran the Associated Press of Germany, and operated 20 library centers. This, he claims, has not been equaled since. No? In fact, Iraq’s old radio and TV networks, now called al-Iraqiya, the national newspaper, and several related papers are all run by the US and by US proxies; Iraqi opposition journalists are coached and coerced by the US; Iraqi media is flooded with bogus stories; and all this in a global environment suffocating in a unprecedented miasma of doublespeak issuing from the major TV networks.
At least John Rendon -- who should know -- does not seem to suffer from any illusion that the US vise on world media has loosened. This is how he describes the scene just after 9-11:
We were doing 195 newspapers and 43 countries in fourteen or fifteen languages. If you do this correctly, I can tell you what's on the evening news tonight in a country before it happens. I can give you, as a policymaker, a six-hour break on how you can affect what's going to be on the news. They'll take that in a heartbeat.
But Schrage leaves his best laugh for the end. “The more stable, open and prosperous a society Iraq becomes, the more the need for a military role in local media will evaporate,” he says. Warming to this theme of a Jeffersonian Iraq a-borning, he claims that in ten years, the Iraqis will be complaining about their “fair and balanced” media like Westerners.
The patronizing tone might be unintended. But that a sophisticated journalist and political scientist should really believe that popular disgust with the corporate media is a merit-badge for an “open and prosperous” society; that Iraqis will, with luck, be able to wear that badge in another ten years (how convenient that the figure should match US military goals in the region); and that US propaganda is “a positive contribution to their [Iraqi] civil society,” because it makes them skeptical of what they hear (Saddam somehow couldn’t quite manage that) -- all without the slightest blush or twinge of irony, does say one thing, however. It tells us exactly how successful the US media war has been. Not over there in Iraq. But out here in the US.
is a freelance
writer in Baltimore, and the author of the must-read book
The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the US
(Monthly Review Press,
2005) She can be reached at:
Copyright (c) 2006 by Lila Rajiva
(1) “Use Every
Article In the Arsenal,” Michael Schrage, Washington Post, January
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