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France has charged that U.S. media are publishing misinformation received from anonymous Bush administration officials who are orchestrating a “disinformation campaign aimed at sullying France’s image and misleading the public.”
If the charges are true — and, based on the documentation provided by the French government, they appear to be — the White House is engaged in a domestic covert operation to pervert American public opinion. Such campaigns are illegal under the laws governing U.S. intelligence agencies.
In a May 15 letter to members of Congress, the Bush administration and the U.S. media, French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte draws attention to eight reports that appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, MSNBC and Newsweek (www.info-france-usa.org). The stories range from France’s harboring secret supplies of smallpox, to France’s providing false passports to help Iraqi leaders escape capture by U.S. forces, to France’s selling Iraq switches that could be used to detonate a nuclear bomb.
As if to confirm such suspicions, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, when asked about the ambassador’s letter, said ominously, “France has historically had a very close relationship with Iraq. My understanding is that it continued right up until the outbreak of the war. What took place thereafter, we’ll find out.” (Just like we’ll find out about those weapons of mass destruction.)
An explanation of the thinking that led the administration to target France can be found in the May 5 New Yorker. Seymour Hersh writes that operating out of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans is a group of eight or nine policy advisers and analysts who call themselves “the Cabal.” (Webster’s defines cabal as “a small group of secret plotters, as against a government or person in authority.”) According to Hersh, the Office of Special Plans, an intelligence unit that was the post‑9/11 brainchild of Paul Wolfowitz, has beaten out its rivals (the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency) and captured the president’s ear.
In an interview with the London Observer, Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA chief of counter terrorism, was disdainful of the Cabal’s tactics: “Their methods are vicious. The politicisation of intelligence is pandemic, and deliberate disinformation is being promoted.” Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, was more diplomatic: “Rumsfeld set up his own intelligence agency because he didn’t like the intelligence he was getting.”
And Hersh reported that a former Bush administration intelligence official who resigned had this to say about the Cabal: “They didn’t like the intelligence they were getting, so they brought in people to write the stuff. They were so crazed and so far out and so difficult to reason with — to the point of being bizarre. Dogmatic, as if they were on a mission from God.”
Cabal members are bound together in their worship of Leo Strauss, a University of Chicago political science professor who served as the dissertation advisor of Paul Wolfowitz and Abram Shulsky, director of the Office of Special Plans. As Hersh puts it, Strauss believed “that the works of ancient philosophers contain deliberately concealed esoteric meanings whose truths can be comprehended only by a very few.” Indeed, Shulsky once wrote that the Straussian idea of concealed meanings “alerts one to the possibility that political life may be closely linked to deception, and the hope, to say nothing of the expectation, of establishing a politics that can dispense with it is an exception.”
But in a constitutional democracy, where does government deception end and criminality begin? The Cabal has crossed that line. Administration officials knowingly circulated false information in pursuit of their hidden policy objectives. No democracy can function if citizens are lied to and denied basic information about the public issues that will affect their lives and those of their children.
The Cabal’s campaign is reminiscent of Reagan administration efforts to manipulate the national media (with the help of psychological operations officers on loan from the Army) to garner public support for the wars in Central America. But this time, the gambit appears to have been successful, at least judging from the absurdly lopsided media coverage.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the media watch group, studied the coverage of six major nightly newscasts: ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS’s Evening News, NBC’s Nightly News, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Reports, Fox’s Special Report with Brit Hume and PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. FAIR examined 1,617 on-camera sources appearing on Iraq-related stories during the height of the war, from March 20 to April 9. Who were these sources?
- 63 percent were current or former government employees.
- 52 percent were Bush administration officials.
- 64 percent were pro-war.
- 10 percent were anti-war, and the majority of these were man-on-the street soundbites.
- 3 percent of all U.S. sources were anti-war.
- 0 percent of all sources who were invited to have a sit-down on camera interview were identified as being against the war.
According to polls, 27 percent of Americans figured out they were being snookered and came out against the war. And, no doubt, many Americans who supported the war did so not because they had been persuaded it was right, but because they perceived it as a fait accompli.
Overall, that is good news. All of us wanting — and working — to protect America’s constitutional democracy from a Cabal that would toy with it should be encouraged that millions of our fellow citizens were media savvy enough not to be bamboozled by the administration’s disinformation campaign.
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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.