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Framing Michael Moore

BY Joel Bleifuss

What do Bill Clinton, John Kerry and Michael Moore have in common? They have all fallen victim to Michael Isikoff’s poison pen.

In the June 28 Newsweek, Isikoff dismissed Fahrenheit 9/11 as “a mélange of investigative journalism, partisan commentary and conspiracy theories.” He goes on to dispute three of what he calls “Moore’s most provocative allegations,” thereby leading the unsuspecting reader to wonder what else Moore has fabricated. More on that later. First some history about Isikoff’s own “mélange of investigative journalism, partisan commentary and conspiracy theories.”

In April 1989, John Kerry’s Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations released an exhaustive report that concluded that the Contras were involved in drug trafficking and that Reagan administration officials were aware of that involvement.

In an April 14, 1989, Washington Post article, Isikoff trivialized the report’s findings and asserted that claims of drug trafficking by high-level contras “could not be substantiated.” Subsequently Newsweek’s “Conventional Wisdom Watch” dubbed Kerry “a randy conspiracy buff.”

The Post had nothing more to say on the subject until the fall of 1991, when Gen. Manuel Noriega went to trial on drug-trafficking charges in Miami. Isikoff then wrote: “Allegations that the federal government worked with known drug dealers to arm the contras have been raised for years, but congressional investigations in the late 1980s found little evidence to back charges that it was an organized activity approved by high-level U.S. officials.”

That assertion was soon contradicted by the U.S. government’s own witnesses against Noriega. In October 1991, Floyd Carlton Caceres testified that his smuggling operation flew U.S. guns to the contras in Nicaragua and brought cocaine into the United States on the return flight. However, federal Judge William Hoeveler, sustaining all objections from U.S. prosecutors, refused to allow Noriega’s defense lawyer to press Caceres further on the subject. At one point, Hoeveler snapped, “Just stay away from it.”

And in November 1991, convicted Colombian drug lord and government witness Carlos Lehder told the court that an unnamed U.S. official offered to allow him to smuggle cocaine into the United States in exchange for use of a Bahamian island that he owned as part of the contra supply route. Lehder went on to testify that the Colombian cartel had donated about $ 10 million to the contras.

At this point, the Post finally took notice. “The Kerry hearings didn’t get the attention they deserved at the time,” its editorial concluded. “The Noriega trial brings this sordid aspect of the Nicaraguan engagement to fresh public attention.” The Post editorial writer, might have added, “Indeed, our own reporter Michael Isikoff let us down.”

Isikoff did a number on Bill and Hilary Clinton promoting the Whitewater Scandal. In a series of Post stories in late 1993 and early 1994, Isikoff, citing unnamed sources, offered ominous-sounding revelations about bureaucratic maneuvers (“Justice Department officials are moving forward with two separate inquiries that have been expanded”) and unsubstantiated speculation from more unnamed sources (“Bill and Hillary Clinton ‘could possibly have benefited from the alleged scheme.’ ” )The press followed suit, and a publicly funded $52 million investigation turned up nothing.

In the ’90s, Isikoff was also one of Washington’s leading smutrakers. He had been hot in search of a smoking presidential penis since 1994, when he was suspended from the Post after a dispute with his editors concerning his over-zealous flogging of Paula Jones’ dubious claims against President Clinton.

But in 1998, employed at Newsweek, he hit the mother lode, with a little help from GOP operative Linda Tripp. That year he got the chance to write seven stories for Newsweek that mentioned President Clinton’s semen.

“Fornigate” got its start on January 17, 1998, when scandal-monger Matt Drudge reported the following news item on The Drudge Report, his online ‘zine: “At the last minute, at 6 p.m. on Saturday evening, Newsweek magazine killed a story [by reporter Michael Isikoff] that was destined to shake official Washington to its foundation: A White House intern carried on a sexual affair with the President of the United States!” On the following morning, another right-wing editor, William Kristol of the Weekly Standard, brought up the matter on ABC’s This Week With Sam and Cokie. On Wednesday, newspapers reported the rumors. Talk of impeachment was in the air.

Now Isikoff has turned his sights on Moore, lying in Newsweek and on a subsequent appearance on Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor” to make the case that Moore is not to be believed.

Isikoff contends that, contrary to the facts presented in Fahrenheit 9/11, the six charted airplane flights that flew the Saudis out of the United States “didn’t begin until September 14, after airspace reopened.” The movie says this:

It turns out that the White House approved planes to pick up the bin Ladens and numerous other Saudis. At least six private jets and nearly two-dozen commercial planes carried the Saudis and the bin Ladens out of the U.S. after September 13. In all, 142 Saudis, including 24 members of the bin Laden family were allowed to leave the country.

Isikoff also disputes the movie’s claim that the Carlyle Group—a private investment firm in which both George H.W. Bush and members of the bin Laden family were involved—profited “from September 11 because it owned United Defense, a military contractor.” Isikoff points out, “United Defense’s $11 billion Crusader artillery rocket system developed for the U.S. army is one of the only weapons systems canceled by the Bush administration.”

Again, Isikoff is twisting the truth. The Crusader contract was canceled after the Carlyle Group sold United Defense. Fahrenheit 9/11 says this:

September 11th guaranteed that United Defense was going to have a very good year. Just 6 weeks after 9/11 Carlyle filed to take United Defense public and in December made a one day profit of $237 million dollars.”

To wit, on January 10, 2002, the Los Angeles Times’ Mark Fineman, wrote:

On a single day last month, Carlyle earned $237 million selling shares in United Defense Industries, the Army’s fifth-largest contractor. The stock offering was well timed: Carlyle officials say they decided to take the company public only after the September 11 attacks. … On September 26 [2001], the Army signed a $655-million modified contract with United Defense through April 2003 to complete the Crusader’s development phase. In October, the company listed the Crusader, and the attacks themselves, as selling points for its stock offering.

Of course, Isikoff doesn’t even mention one of the most revealing facts presented in Fahrenheit 9/11. In 2004, when the White House released Bush’s military records, it blacked out the name of the president’s good friend James Bath. (In an original copy obtained by Moore, Bath’s name had not been redacted.) The two met in the Texas Air National Guard, and both were suspended in 1972 for failing to take their medical examination. (In Fahrenheit 9/11 the camera scans the military records as Eric Clapton’s song “Cocaine” plays in the background.) In 1976, Bath was hired by the bin Laden family to manage their money in Texas. Three years later, Bath gave Bush $50,000 for a 5 percent stake in his first business, Arbusto Energy. It has long been suspected, but never proven, that the Arbusto money came directly from Salem bin Laden, head of the family and a brother of Osama bin Laden. (See “Questionable Ties: Tracking bin Laden’s money flow leads back to Midland, Texas,” by Wayne Madsen, November 12, 2001.)

Fahrenheit 9/11 is an amazingly powerful documentary. Moore collects skeins of archival footage—a young George W. driving across country, Paul Wolfowitz slicking his hair back with spit as he readies for the cameras, Bush addressing a fundraising dinner: “This is an impressive crowd, the haves and the have mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.”

Moore weaves historic documents together with his signature vignettes—two Air Force recruiters bamboozling youth into the military, the mourning mother whose soldier son was killed in Iraq, and members of Congress running away as he asks them to sign up and enlist their children in the war.

Through these, Moore constructs a penitential sackcloth for a president who has no clothes, and who, come November, will, electorate willing, be out of office. Thanks, significantly, to Michael Moore.

Yes, Fahrenheit 9/11 is propaganda, in the same way the nightly news is, or the front page of your daily paper. It’s just that Moore is more upfront with the point he is trying to make. Critics contend that Moore is framing the president. Not quite. He builds his case with the president’s own words, numerous damning facts and the testimony of those most affected by the war.

What the critics of the film are really outraged about is that Fahrenheit 9/11 could have an effect on the presidential election. After breaking records in New York, the movie opens Friday, June 25, and on Monday, June 28, MoveOn will host an evening of nationwide house parties. The parties, more than 1000 of them, will culminate in a national online town meeting with Moore.

To fight back, some unknown person or organization hired the PR firm Russo, Marsh & Rogers of Sacramento, California. The company, which has strong ties to the Republican Party set up a Web site, MoveAmericaForward.org, to attack Fahrenheit 9/11. The PR flacks who managed the site encouraged:

Americans who found in Moore’s movie Fahrenheit 9/11 an attempt to undermine the war on terror, to let movie theater operators know about their objections. Think about it… If you walked into a Wal-Mart store and saw they were selling merchandise that attacked the military, our troops and America’s battle against Islamic terrorism, wouldn’t you complain to the store manager or write a letter and ask that they not sell that product because it was undermining our national effort?

Others on the right aim to counter Moore with a movie of their own making, Michael Moore Hates America: A Documentary That Tells the Truth about a Great Nation.

That will be a hard sell to anyone who sees Fahrenheit 9/11, which makes clear that Michael Moore loves America. It’s the Bush administration he can’t stand.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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