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, in terms of paid coverage or 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 US 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-based subcontractor, the Lincoln Group, to write and translate, for distribution to Iraqi news outlets, booster stories about the US military’s successes in Iraq. Simultaneously comes news of Bush’s plan, mooted to Tony Blair in April 2004, to bomb the HQ of Al Jazeera in Qatar. Earlier assaults on Al Jazeera came in the form of a 2001 strike on the network’s office in Kabul. In November 2002 the US Air Force had another crack at the target and this time managed to blow it up. In April 2003 a US fighter plane targeted and killed Al Jazeera reporter Tariq Ayoub on the roof of the network’s Baghdad office. On the same day US forces also killed Taras Protsyuk of Reuters and José Couso of the Spanish television network Telecinco. Nearby, US artillery blasted the Baghdad office of an Abu Dhabi television station.
On the business of paid placement of stories in the Iraqi press there’s been some pompous huffing and puffing among the US 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 American 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 on 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.
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 spring 2004 was getting $350,000 a month from the Central Intelligence Agency, payments made in part for the INC to produce “intelligence” from inside Iraq.
It also doesn’t mean that when Miller was pouring her nonsense into the Times 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 acknowledgment) by journalists covering Iraq, the authors described how the INC 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.
Almost from its inception, the CIA had journalists on its payroll, a fact acknowledged in ringing tones by the agency in its announcement in 1976, when George 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 US 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.
In his Secret History of the CIA, published in 2001, Joe Trento describes 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 counterintelligence branch of the CIA, the very first in its list of designated functions being “propaganda.” Later that year Wisner set an operation code-named 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), 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 twenty-five newspapers and wire agencies, including the Times, Time and CBS. Wisner’s operations “were funded by siphoning off 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.