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Pravda on the Potomac

September 9, 2004
By Ernest Partridge, The Crisis Papers

"Our press's penchant for reporting lies as truth about one president, and then suppressing truths about another, demonstrates a sort of cognitive disorder actually more worrying than any simple 'bias,' liberal or 'conservative." What this grand disorder has produced, in these United States, is a press system as irrational as those in power. Never fearing that the press might act on our behalf, they simply use it to define reality for us, so that it has worked here as it has worked in closed societies, where truth remains negotiable - things meaning always, and only, what Bush/Cheney's GOP interprets them to mean." - Mark Crispin Miller, Cruel and Unusual

On Monday, August 2, a federal crime was committed in plain view of millions of Americans and millions more abroad. A Pakistani intelligence mole, crucial in the war against al Qaeda, was outed by an individual in the Bush Administration.

We know that this was a federal crime from the preceding (and still unsolved) Valerie Plame case. While the culprit is still unindicted, the fact that the outing of a covert intelligence asset is a crime, is now known to all.

Today, more than a month later, the individual who blew the cover of the Pakistani double-agent has not been identified, much less arrested and indicted. And the story has disappeared from the media – which is, arguably, the greatest outrage of all.

For those who have forgotten, here is a recapitulation of the crime.

On Sunday, August 1, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced that due to "new and unusually specific information," he was raising the terrorist threat level from yellow ("elevated") to orange ("high"), thus bumping news of the just-completed Democratic convention off the front pages.

The targets of the terrorists, we were told, were five specifically identified financial institutions in Washington and New York.

In retrospect, several intriguing questions arise: (1) If five specific buildings in two cities were targeted, why a nationwide alert? (2) Why any alert at all? Would it not have been better to warn only the occupants of the buildings, keeping the confidential tip-off a secret, so as to entrap the terrorists?

As more information about the plot emerged, the official version began to unravel. It turned out that the intelligence was three to four years old, and that it had been gathered from the internet and other publicly available sources. In addition, there was no evidence of recent al Qaeda planning.

So we were asked to believe that all this old material was part of a three-year old plot scheduled precisely for early August, 2004, and directed to five specific buildings.

With official credibility hemorrhaging, emergency intervention was necessary. It arrived the very next day, on Monday, with the fresh information that the data wasn't all that old, after all. As Reuters reported:

The New York Times published a story on Monday saying U.S. officials had disclosed that a man arrested secretly in Pakistan was the source of the bulk of information leading to the security alerts. The newspaper named him as Khan, although it did not say how it had learned his name. U.S. officials subsequently confirmed the name to other news organizations on Monday morning. None of the reports mentioned that Khan was working under cover at the time, helping to catch al Qaeda suspects." (Juan Cole)

Oops!

So there was the crime, as plain as the smirk on Dubya's face: the outing of an intelligence asset.

This is serious stuff. How serious? Peter Graff of Reuters explains:

The revelation that a mole within al Qaeda was exposed after Washington launched its "orange alert" this month has shocked security experts, who say the outing of the source may have set back the war on terror....

Reuters learned from Pakistani intelligence sources on Friday that computer expert Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, arrested secretly in July, was working under cover to help the authorities track down al Qaeda militants in Britain and the United States when his name appeared in U.S. newspapers.

"The whole thing smacks of either incompetence or worse," said Tim Ripley, a security expert who writes for Jane's Defense publications. "You have to ask: what are they doing compromising a deep mole within al Qaeda, when it's so difficult to get these guys in there in the first place?"

"It goes against all the rules of counter-espionage, counter-terrorism, running agents and so forth.... Running agents within a terrorist organization is the Holy Grail of intelligence agencies. And to have it blown is a major setback which negates months and years of work, which may be difficult to recover."

So it comes to this: in order to escape from a public relations embarrassment, the Busheviks willingly exposed a mole – a source of information from inside the operations and planning center of al Qaeda.

Similarly, Valerie Plame's crucially important operation was shut down, in order to punish her husband, Joe Wilson, for committing the crime of premeditated truth-telling.

Once again, the Busheviks burned down the barn to roast the pig.

And what was the political price they paid for these catastrophic blunders? Essentially zilch. True, "Plame-gate" is still under investigation, though with only two months to go, the damaging denouement will likely be postponed until after the election. Maybe a minor White House apparatchik will be sacrificed. No further damage – until the nuclear device that Plame's operation might have intercepted falls into the hands of al Qaeda.

As for "Pak-gate," after a month, it has totally disappeared from the media radar, presumably never to surface again. No investigation, no indictment, no political cost – no cost at all, except perhaps the lives of a few thousand of our fellow citizens, when the shipping container containing the WMD package from al Qaeda, about which double-agent Khan might have alerted us, enters one of our harbors.

This is the stuff of major scandal. Had this happened during the administration of a Democratic president, Congress would even now be drawing up articles of impeachment. In an election year, that president, like LBJ, would choose not to run for re-election, and for good reason: he would be unelectable.

But not this administration and not this president. Instead, the media hasn't touched this scandal, much less investigated it. "Pak-gate" (for which I must invent a name, because the media has not), is gone and forgotten: unexamined by Congressional oversight, and uninvestigated by journalists.

Where's the outrage?

Meanwhile, the totally baseless and transparently mendacious Swift Boat smear resounds. The media presents "both sides" of the controversy, pretending that the accusers even have a side A responsible press would have looked to the merits of the accusations and, finding none, would have exposed the scam sufficiently to have disgraced the slanderers, and made an example of them that might discourage subsequent attempts to besmirch honorable political candidates.

But we've seen so much of this two-faced, double-standard so-called journalism that we should be used to it by now. Accustomed, but not tolerant.

Eight years and $70 million of persistent probing of the public and private lives of Bill and Hillary Clinton, resulted in nothing more than the discovery of an illicit but consensual sex act.

Comparable behavior by the accusers, Gingrich, Hyde, Livingston, etc., was deemed irrelevant.

Groundless smears against Al Gore – that he had claimed to have "invented the Internet" (false), had claimed to have "discovered Love Canal" (false), and so on. But no mention of George W. Bush's business failures, his possibly illegal investment deals, his escape from his National Guard obligations, his record as the Governor of Texas.

The evidence of the media's bias in the 2000 election is clear and incontrovertible, as Paul Begala demonstrated in a November, 2002 Nexis-Lexis search:

There were exactly 704 stories in the campaign about this flap of Gore inventing the Internet. There were only 13 stories about Bush failing to show up for his National Guard duty for a year. There were well over 1,000 stories - Nexis stopped at 1,000 - about Gore and the Buddhist temple. Only 12 about Bush being accused of insider trading at Harken Energy. There were 347 about Al Gore wearing earth tones, but only 10 about the fact that Dick Cheney did business with Iran and Iraq and Libya…

And now, George W. Bush's administration, arguably the most incompetent and corrupt in US history, is given a free pass by the media.

Had the current management of the Washington Post been in charge during the Watergate burglary, Woodward and Bernstein would no doubt have been ordered to get back to covering freeway smash-ups, and Richard Nixon would have finished his term, unexposed and unpunished.

There are precious few indicators of change in this dismal situation. The New York Times and the Washington Post, flagships of American journalism, have both published tepid apologies for their failure to serve as responsible watch-dogs of the government, in the run-up to the Iraq war. But now, having apologized for their misbehavior, they are repeating it. There is an abundance of opportunity for critical, objective and balanced reporting of the current election campaign. Once again, it is an opportunity not taken.

In the face of all this evidence, it is difficult to understand how anyone with more than a casual acquaintance with the corporate media persist in the belief that the media have a liberal bias.

The examples of the corporate media's double-dealing could fill a book, as indeed they have, many times over. And I expect to continue this elaboration in subsequent essays. But it is time, now, to bring this to a close.

When I was a youngster half a century ago, the US press delighted in relating the fantasies of Pravda and Izvestia, and we all wondered, "how could they get away with printing such outright lies?" and "what kind of effect does all this have on the Soviet People?" Today, there is not all that much difference between Pravda c.1960s and the US media. With FOX, right-wing talk radio and the NY Post there is no difference. As an October, 2003 study demonstrated, the more one watches FOX News, the less informed one is. Shaun Waterman of UPI reports:

It's official - watching Fox News makes you ignorant. To be precise, researchers from the Program on International Policy at the University of Maryland found that those who relied on Fox for their news were more likely than those who relied on any other news source to have what the study called "significant misperceptions" about the war in Iraq...

After decades of this kind of "journalism," discerning Russians came to appreciate that they were being systematically lied to by their media – a realization that has not yet come to most Americans.

For the Soviet citizens seeking to escape the fog of "official" news, their reality check was the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, the BBC, illegally smuggled-in publications and "Samizdat" – unauthorized personal publications (by handscript or typewriter).

For us, it is the Internet – while it lasts. After the Internet is privatized and then closed to dissenters, we will have to devise our own "Samizdat," perhaps of audiotapes and computer disks.

Or perhaps, just perhaps, we might, as an aroused public, demand the return of a free and diverse commercial media.

For the campaign immediately ahead, we do not ask that the media join "our side." It will quite suffice if the media renounce their allegiance to the Bush regime, and instead direct that allegiance to the truth – to facts, evidence, clarity and logic. That is their legitimate function and their duty to the public. We demand that the media present the facts in an even-handed manner, investigate indications of corruption and mendacity, and spare us the trivia.

Then John Kerry and John Edwards will win.

Because Rove and the Bushistas can't handle the truth. And we the people can.

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He publishes the website, The Online Gadfly and co-edits the progressive website, The Crisis Papers.

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