Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen is increasingly alarmed that, as Washington and Moscow drift toward military conflict, the US political-media establishment remains obsessed with “Russiagate”—allegations that Russian President Putin ordered the hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 to abet Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and that Trump’s associates, possibly the new president himself, “colluded” in this “hijacking of American democracy.” No actual evidence has ever been made public regarding either the purported hacking or the collusion.
Indeed, the entire “Russiagate” saga and its ongoing “investigations” have from the outset rested on one foundational allegation: that “all 17 US intelligence agencies agreed” that Putin had directed the theft and public dissemination of DNC e-mails in order to benefit Trump. But in recent weeks the former heads of the CIA and Office of National Intelligence have themselves stated publicly that that foundational allegation is untrue: Only three agencies (the CIA, FBI, and NSA) prepared the report, and not even those agencies themselves but “hand-picked analysts.” Still more, the former director of the FBI, James Comey, has admitted that the FBI itself never examined the DNC computers in question.
Nonetheless, the most influential US media outlets continue to report what is now an established falsehood. Considering the outlets, the most indicative example may be Maggie Haberman, a lead New York Times reporter on “Russiagate” and regular CNN panelist, who wrote, on June 26, that President Trump “still refuses to acknowledge a basic fact agreed upon by 17 American intelligence agencies…Russia orchestrated the attacks and did it to help get him elected.” It is Haberman and the Times that refuse “to acknowledge a basic fact.” And they are far from alone. On June 26, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen repeated the same falsehood, which issues almost daily from CNN and MSNBC hosts and carefully selected guests.
Indeed, on June 25, the Post made things worse for itself and for the nation, publishing an interminable “investigative” article claiming to prove Putin’s “crime of the century.” Most of it rested on familiar unverified allegations made by the Post and other mainstream media outlets, as well as by many members of Congress, for nearly a year, including those involving “17 American intelligence agencies,” but it added what was meant to be a bombshell revelation: The Obama White House knew about Putin’s role, and his intent to benefit Trump, from a mole—either human or technical—in Putin’s inner circle. No actual evidence was provided by the Post except a vague reference to a “sealed parcel,” but logic alone discredits the story. If US intel had acquired a listening source in Putin’s closed circle, it would be one of the great espionage feats in history—but a present and future asset so precious no one would dare leak it to The Washington Post. (Cohen recalls the misrepresentation of Trump’s meeting with the Russian foreign minister in the Oval Office, when Trump was alleged to have betrayed secret intelligence about an Israeli secret agent inside ISIS, surely a far lesser commission, even had it occurred.)
Still worse, Cohen emphasizes, anyone who publicly doubts Russiagate allegations continues to be promptly dismissed (or defamed) as a “defender” of Putin or Trump, or both. Anyone who proposes that the unrelentingly demonized Putin be heard by Americans, without the mainstream media filter, is simply slurred, a recent example being the ubiquitous Masha Gessen’s slurring of Oliver Stone, in The New York Times (June 26), for his Showtime interviews with Putin. (Her op-ed article included enough factual misrepresentations about Putin to suggest that the Times no longer fact-checks anything orthodox written about Russia, no matter how much it conflicts with the public record.)
One day, all of this reckless media malpractice may be critically exposed by media historians or journalism schools, though they scarcely do so today. But in real time, it is exceedingly dangerous—distracting, distorting, or paralyzing a sitting American president as the new Cold War with Russia slouches toward hot war. Cohen gives two recent examples:
§ Reacting to the US shoot-down of a Syrian war plane, Moscow has declared that any US aircraft in areas where Russia or its ally Syria are conducting military operations will be “targeted”—that is, warned to leave immediately and if not, shot down. At first, the US Department of Defense backed down, but now the Trump administration has suddenly threatened to attack Syria if its President Assad “again” uses chemical weapons. The potential for a “false flag” operation in this regard is enormous, particularly since independent investigators (notably Seymour Hersh and Theodore Postol) have raised serious doubts as to whether Assad actually used chemical weapons previously, in 2013 or this April, as alleged.
§ Meanwhile, a NATO warplane above the Baltic Sea came perilously close to a Russian aircraft carrying Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Soygu, perhaps the second-most-popular Russian political figure after Putin. Had something worse resulted, it too might well have led to war between the two nuclear superpowers.
We are, Cohen thinks, now treading along a razor’s edge from Syria and the Baltic region to possibly Ukraine, where the deepening crisis of the US-backed government is leading to growing political extremism in Kiev (and in Washington).
Cohen ends with some relative “good news.” Political dissent against the escalating new Cold War seems to be breaking out at high levels in Washington and in Europe. Emmanuel Macron, the new French president, has publicly strayed significantly from Cold War Washington on relations with Russia and Putin personally, as well as on Syria and the need for a coalition against international terrorism. And several other European NATO governments, including Germany, are loudly protesting the US Senate’s new sanctions against Russia. Such policy disputes are evident even inside the Trump administration. Some of his top national-security advisers are urging that the primary American mission in Syria must be destroying President Assad and his forces, which can only lead to even more direct conflict with Russia. Others are urging instead that it be first and foremost the defeat of terrorist forces in Syria, which suggests an alliance with Russia, as Trump himself has periodically advocated. In addition, his advisers are sharply divided between those who want him to meet with Putin at the Hamburg G-20 in early July, and those who do not.
Politics without mainstream dissent got America into this new and more perilous Cold War with Russia, Cohen points out, and only real politics, which means struggle over policy, can diminish it. The mainstream American media still banishes real dissent, but politics often takes on a life of its own. Faint hope perhaps, but hope nonetheless—hope in our democracy, which only we ourselves can hijack.