T Nation

Shifting Winds in Media

(from Mother Jones Magazine)
Birth of a Scandal
Let’s try to understand the nature of how political scandals develop in Washington and how the elite media cover political news. You need, as a start, an aggrieved community inside the Beltway - and finally we have one, or two, or three. The intelligence “community,” pushed and shoved by the neocons and radical nationalists in the Pentagon and the White House, sidelined, forced to support positions with which they felt uncomfortable, pressured to come up with information supporting the administration’s secret decision to invade Iraq, undoubtedly filled with personal (and political) pique, roused by a sense of injury, are now carrying their grievances to the press. I almost feel sorry for well-connected journalists. We’re not talking leaks any more; we’re talking torrents, we’re talking cascades of unnamed, angry sources.

Take a look at the latest piece by dissident conservative Toronto Sun columnist Eric Margolis on the growing weapons of mass destruction scandal, where the key line is: “This column has been contacted by a number of retired intelligence officers, both individuals and groups, backing up assertions made here two weeks ago that a cabal of neo-conservatives in President George Bush’s administration distorted or faked information that formed the basis of claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that imminently threatened the U.S. and all mankind.” (“Retired” figures in such situations invariably represent active ones.)

Or take a look, more centrally, at Nicholas Kristof’s recent New York Times columns, which have been veritable coffee klatches for unnamed intelligence officials. As his May 30 column, “Save Our Spooks” put it, “A column earlier this month on this issue drew a torrent of covert communications from indignant spooks who say that administration officials leaned on them to exaggerate the Iraqi threat and deceive the public. ‘The American people were manipulated,’ bluntly declares one person from the Defense Intelligence Agency who says he was privy to all the intelligence there on Iraq. These people are coming forward because they are fiercely proud of the deepest ethic in the intelligence world – that such work should be nonpolitical – and are disgusted at efforts to turn them into propagandists.”

Let’s remember, for a moment, that little of the shocking news pouring out on administration exaggeration or lying over WMD wasn’t known, either in general outline or in its specifics (as with the Niger forged uranium documents – after all Congressman Henry Waxman was writing the president directly on this before the war demanding an explanation for his statements, though this was completely ignored in the mainstream press). What’s new really isn’t the most recent leaked and disputed line in a Defense Intelligence Agency report (“There is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons, or whether Iraq has - or will - establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities.”). No, this isn’t --yet – a matter of what’s new, but of who’s talking and who’s transcribing. So you have insider’s leaking; you have press and TV journalists ready to report because these are the kind of leakers who also provide political cover, and you finally have Democrats in Congress and presidential hopefuls deciding they might just maybe have an issue to run with, while still staying under the “patriotic” umbrella.

Mark Z. Barabak, for instance, reports in the Los Angeles Times that various Democratic presidential candidates are tentatively picking up the issue in a piece that begins:

"As the search for weapons of mass destruction continues in Iraq, some Democratic presidential hopefuls believe the hunt has already turned up something of value: an issue to use against President Bush. Opponents of the war say the failure to find any banned weapons undercuts the reason Bush gave for invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein.
‘The standard that we went to war on was that there were weapons of mass destruction which were able to be used against the neighbors of Iraq and, potentially, against the United States of America,’ Sen. Bob Graham of Florida said Wednesday.

‘I don’t believe that two mobile vans’ – the proof Bush cited last week – ‘justifies a war to secure [Iraq’s] neighbors or the United States,’ Graham told reporters at a campaign stop in San Francisco."

What’s new here is the potentially combustible inside-the-Beltway combination of intelligence leakers, media listeners, and politicians who smell something brewing. This is a combination that could lead to real news sooner or later, even if it takes a while to penetrate public opinion polls. In the meantime, just watch for unnamed sources (“senior intelligence officials” and the like) to pile up and finally gridlock on the page.

This seems to be a developing scandal with legs. But is it a long-distance runner? This we don’t yet know, but one small signal of change was the piece Judith Miller wrote in The New York Times. Miller, rather than Jayson Blair, represents the real scandal at the Times. Yesterday, for the first time, Miller shifted like the proverbial feather in the wind and – perhaps a sign of some reining in post the reign of Howell Raines – paired with the sober science reporter William J. Broad, she wrote a piece throwing into question the only evidence our president has offered for wmd in Iraq, those two mobile trailers for producing… well, what exactly?

By the way, the following italicized and separate paragraph (on an inside page) accompanied the Miller-Broad article somewhat in the manner of an author’s bio:

“The reporting for this article was carried out by Judith Miller in Iraq and Kuwait and by William Broad in New York. Her agreement with the Pentagon, for an ‘embedded’ assignment, allowed the military to review her copy to prevent breaches of troop protection and security. No changes were made in the review.”
Robert Byrd has given another of his stirring speeches, this time on WMD and lies. He said in part:

"Meanwhile, the President seems oblivious to the controversy swirling about the justification for the invasion of Iraq. Our nation’s credibility before the world is at stake. While his Administration digs in to defend the status quo, Members of Congress are questioning the credibility of the intelligence and the public case made by this Administration on which the war with Iraq was based. Members of the media are openly challenging whether America’s intelligence agencies were simply wrong or were callously manipulated. Vice President Cheney’s numerous visits to the CIA are being portrayed by some intelligence professionals as “pressure.” And the American people are wondering, once again, what is going on in the dark shadows of Washington.

Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction remain a mystery and a conundrum. What are they, where are they, how dangerous are they? Or were they a manufactured excuse by an Administration eager to seize a country? It is time to answer these questions. It is time- past time - for the Administration to level with the American people, and it is time for the President to demand an accounting from his own Administration as to exactly how our nation was led down such a twisted path to war."

But Byrd, like Rep. Waxman (who recently finally made it onto the prime time news with his accusations about White House lying), has been largely dismissed. The important thing may be that truly cautious Democrats like Senator Joseph Biden are actually starting to say a thing or two – and public hearings are to come.

Of course, in England, where the coverage is heavy and far more damaging, things are also moving far faster. The Independent has been offering striking coverage there of the onrushing scandal and its effects on Tony Blair. Only today, its reporters Kim Sengupta and Andy McSmith suggested that – no surprise when it comes to covering-your-butt bureaucracies – careful and damaging “minutes” of meetings involving Blair’s staff and various intelligence officials had been kept. Blackmail anyone?

“Intelligence officers are holding a ‘smoking gun’ which proves that they were subjected to a series of demands by Tony Blair’s staff in the run-up to the Iraq war. The officers are furious about the accusation leveled by the Leader of the Commons, John Reid, that ‘rogue elements’ are at work in the security services. They fear they are being lined up to take the blame for faulty intelligence used to justify the Iraq war.
The intelligence services were so concerned about demands made by Downing Street for evidence to use against Iraq that extensive files have been built up detailing communications with Mr. Blair’s staff. Stung by Dr Reid’s accusations about misinformation over Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, intelligence officials have given veiled warnings about what may emerge in the two official inquiries into the affair.”

If you want to see the incendiary directions this sort of thing can lead – even here someday, check out another Independent piece that begins:

"The widow of a British commando killed in the Iraq war has accused Tony Blair of ‘deceiving’ her husband with misleading claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Lianne Seymour lost her husband Ian, 27, a Royal Navy communications mechanic, in a helicopter crash in Kuwait hours after the war began. She has been left to raise their son Beck, three, on her own.
Now, following the growing controversy over Iraq’s ‘missing’ arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, Mrs Seymour has become convinced that the war was unjustified. Thousands of servicemen and women will share her growing sense of personal betrayal, she claimed – and feel doubly suspicious about the next call to go to war.

The ‘contradictions and deceiving’ by Mr Blair ‘disables our servicemen and women, and it must make them uneasy for future possible conflicts’, she said."

And then, who should come out of the woodwork but John Dean, a central figure in the now three decades old Watergate scandal, now writing columns for the legal website FindLaw. He sums up the controversy over what the president said and when he said it, reminding us that scandals like this, if they get a certain momentum, can lead in unknown directions as Watergate showed. His key line, “It’s important to recall that when Richard Nixon resigned, he was about to be impeached by the House of Representatives for misusing the CIA and FBI.”

– Tom Engelhardt

any which way the wind blows…