Monday, August 25, 2008

Sources Said

Where would journalists be without sources? While reporters get the bylines that win awards, their best sources often risk loss of a job. Reporters used to honor whistleblowers’ commitment by doing hard-hitting exposes. That relationship soured with the war in Iraq. Many sources these days are taking their stories straight to the public, because self-important journalists by and large ignore or belittle them.

That’s what’s happened with many whistleblowers who challenge the official version of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With Bush apologists dominating television talk shows and newspaper op-ed pages, dissenters issue books and blogs to get past a virtual news censorship of informed criticism of the War on Terrorism. The infrequent exceptions to this pattern of the US media muzzling savvy watchdogs are stunning for being so rare.

“Because of the Bush administration’s highly successful propaganda campaigns and a huge media failure in the United States, most Americans didn’t realize until recently how often the Bush administration has violated domestic and international law,” Ann Wright, a former State Department official who resigned in protest the day before the invasion of Iraq began, wrote in the preface to her recently published book, Dissent: Voices of Conscience.

Susan Dixon coauthored this collection of profiles of a number of former US diplomats and soldiers who challenged Bush’s war policies at the cost of their careers. In an interview with the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Dixon noted that “Much of what we know about the run-up to the Iraq war has come from whistleblowers. It’s also because of whistleblowers that Americans have learned about the prison abuse at Abu Ghraib, warrantless wiretapping in the U.S., etc. … The press can make the information so well-known that the administration cannot ignore it. As soon as CBS’s 60 Minutes broadcast some of the photos from Abu Ghraib, the Bush Administration was forced to deal with the scandal.”

But the usual media pattern is to present war apologists as having the only acceptable position on the war. For instance, “On March 16, the New York Times presented a discussion of the Iraq War with ‘nine experts on military and foreign affairs’--all of whom supported George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq,” Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) noted on its web site in May.

“As FAIR asked in a March 17 Action Alert, why should the debate over the war … be restricted to those who made erroneous predictions about the invasion? FAIR supporters sent many emails to the paper, but we received no response. On May 4, the Week in Review section featured the exact same line-up of ‘experts,’ this time reacting to the fifth anniversary of George W. Bush's ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech. Thus, Times readers could hear from Richard Perle of the American Enterprise Institute--who, five years ago, penned an op-ed for USA Today (5/2/03) headlined ‘Relax, Celebrate Victory.’ The Times also shared the views of AEI's Danielle Pletka, who five years ago said on CNBC (5/2/03), ‘We just won a war in Iraq.’

“Over the course of the Iraq War, many commentators have pointed out that the pundits and analysts who pushed for the Iraq invasion in the first place are still dominant figures in the media debate over the war--as if the fact that they were wrong were unimportant, or even evidence of their seriousness.”

War critics of the sort in Wright’s book were left out of The New York Times’ gallery of experts, five years into a war that the administration had touted would be a swift victory. As Daniel Ellsberg noted in the book’s forward, these were professional diplomats and soldiers who were “amazingly prescient … about the course in Iraq they were criticizing internally before they left office.”

Resigning from a diplomatic post in Mongolia, Wright, who was previously a military reserve officer, wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell that she couldn’t uphold Bush’s war policies. “Much of the world considers our statements about Iraq as arrogant, untruthful, and masking a hidden agenda. … I strongly believe the probable response of many Arabs of the region and Muslims of the world if the U.S. enters Iraq without UNSC [United Nations Security Council] agreement will result in actions extraordinarily dangerous to America and Americans.” Several other diplomats and military officers made critical statements before the war started and in its early days that got minimal press attention.

The previous Middle East zone commander, retired General Anthony Zinni, for instance, cautioned Congress not to rush to war yet had to publish a book with celebrated military author Tom Clancy (Battle Ready) to get the news media to take his critical views seriously.

This news media pattern of downplaying dissent was tightly woven before the war began. As FAIR noted in February 2003, “A FAIR study examines all 393 on-camera sources appearing in stories about Iraq on ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News and PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer beginning one week before and ending one week after Colin Powell's February 5 presentation at the U.N. The study finds that while war skeptics are rarely seen on the network newscasts, 76 percent of all sources were current or former government officials. At a time when 61 percent of respondents were telling CBS pollsters they felt the U.S. should ‘wait and give the United Nations and weapons inspectors more time,’ just 6 percent of U.S. sources were skeptics about the need for war. Just 3 of 393 sources were identified with anti-war activism.”

A month into the war, a major news media reference to Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector who challenged the administration’s war claims that it needed to eliminate what he maintained were non-existent weapons of mass destruction, was to call him a traitor: "Do you all remember Scott Ritter, you know, the former chief U.N. weapons inspector who played chief stooge for Saddam Hussein?” MSNBC's Joe Scarborough said (4/10/03), according to FAIR. “Well, Mr. Ritter actually told a French radio network that—quote, ‘The United States is going to leave Baghdad with its tail between its legs, defeated.’ Sorry, Scott. I think you've been chasing the wrong tail, again.”

Days later, The New York Times quoted Ritter in a news article titled “A Nation at War: Outlawed Weapons; Some Skeptics Say Arms Hunt Is Fruitless” (4/18/03) by William J. Broad, and then dropped him from future coverage. (A New York Times Magazine profile of Ritter in November 2002 painted him as a vainglorious self-promoter who made contradictory statements—a description that would fit many public figures.)

More than two years later, in Oct. 2005, Amy Goodman noted a stunning juxtaposition on her Democracy Now radio program: “In a major article in The New York Times this weekend, reporter Judith Miller admitted she was wrong when she wrote several of the key articles that claimed Iraq had an extensive weapons of mass destruction program ahead of the 2003 invasion. Miller wrote, ‘W.M.D.—I got it totally wrong. The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them—we were all wrong.’

“Today we are joined by someone who was not wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq–-Scott Ritter,” Goodman continued. “He was the United Nations top weapons inspector in Iraq at UNSCOM between 1991 and 1998. Before working at the UN he served as an officer in the US marines and as a ballistic missile adviser to General Schwarzkopf in the first Gulf war. Scott Ritter has just published a new book titled Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of the Intelligence Conspiracy to Undermine the UN and Overthrow Saddam Hussein. The book details how the CIA manipulated and sabotaged the work of UN departments to achieve the foreign policy agenda of the United States in the Middle East.”

Miller’s correction statement in The New York Times included this zinger: "If your sources are wrong, you are wrong." Apparently, she and her editors had been content to stake her front page stories that turned out to be factually wrong on a limited set of war promoters and ignored knowledgeable critics.

The underlying message in such actions seems to be: If you know what’s going on at an out-of-control government program, don’t call a news reporter—write your own book.


Jan Barry is a retired newspaper reporter. His views are his own and get no more respect in the “news cycle” than anyone else’s. He got enlisted as a “reliable source” by reporters covering the 2004 election campaign once they found he could still recall protesting the Vietnam war back in the day alongside Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Support Our Peacemakers

In the face of widespread public disenchantment with the war in Iraq, “Support Our Troops” car stickers and banners defiantly proclaim a fierce sense of patriotism. So why don’t these supportive folks rally behind other national security figures? But when’s the last time you saw a “Support Our Diplomats” sticker or “Support Our Peace Corps” banner?

This is a serious disconnect in America.

Addressing the question of “what is America’s greatest moral failing,” raised by the Reverend Rick Warren at his recent church forum for presidential candidates, Senator McCain answered, "Perhaps we have not devoted ourselves to causes greater than our self-interest ... I think after 9/11, my friends, instead of telling people to go shopping or take a trip, we should have told Americans to join the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, the military, expand our volunteers, expand what you're doing."

McCain’s straight talk on that topic sure sounded inspiring. Did “Vote for McCain, Join the Peace Corps” signs pop up on Republican front lawns? Not that I noticed.

Senator Obama is said to have said something even more inspiring about the Peace Corps at a speech in Colorado last month—if you can find it, wherever it disappeared on the Internet. Here’s the closest I could find along those lines: “The Democratic Party platform … calls for a doubling in the size of the Peace Corps, and the creation of a volunteer Civilian Assistance Corps. It would be made up of engineers, agriculture specialists, doctors, city planners and other specialists to intervene in humanitarian emergencies in failed states,” Voice of America reported this week.

So have “Obama for President, Double the Peace Corps” signs popped up on Democrats’ lawns? Not that I’ve seen.

There’s a great disparity in the cheerleading for our front line foreign policy teams. Here’s the military team, fielding more than a million troops around the world, fighting two wars with multi-billion-dollar budgets and an open checkbook in Congress. Think they need the support of bumper stickers? And over here’s the Peace Corps, fielding 8,000 volunteers in dozens of countries on a paltry budget that faces a fiscal squeeze in Washington.

“The Peace Corps, the popular service program that President Bush once promised to double in size, is preparing to cut back on new volunteers and consolidate recruiting offices as it pares other costs amid an increasingly tight budget, according to agency officials,” The Washington Post reported today. “In part, the program is caught in the political standoff between lawmakers and the president over the federal budget. If, as seems likely, Democrats delay final passage of the spending bills that fund the government until after Bush leaves office next year, programs such as the Peace Corps could be forced to operate at current funding levels indefinitely, administration officials said.”

And what’s the big budget crisis at the Peace Corps? “The program, which has a budget of $330.8 million, is facing an anticipated shortfall of about $18 million this fiscal year and next,” The Washington Post reported. That’s a pittance, of course, in comparison to the $18 billion the Pentagon earmarked four years ago for reconstruction projects in Iraq that never seem to get completed.

The Peace Corps budget shortfall could easily be covered by recovering reported billing overcharges in the Pentagon budget. But when’s the last time you saw a banner on a fiscally proud American’s home that said “Support Our Pentagon Auditors”?

As for our embattled diplomats, consider this lament from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, as channeled in The New York Times: “The United States has more musicians in its military bands than it has diplomats. This year alone, the United States Army will add about 7,000 soldiers to its total; that’s more people than in the entire American Foreign Service. More than 1,000 American diplomatic positions are vacant because the Foreign Service is so short-staffed, but a myopic Congress is refusing to finance even modest new hiring. Some 1,100 could be hired for the cost of a single C-17 military cargo plane,” New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote recently.

The source of Kristof’s stunning comparisons, he write, was the Secretary of Defense: “’One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win,’ Mr. Gates said [in a recent speech]. He noted that the entire American diplomatic corps—about 6,500 people—is less than the staffing of a single aircraft carrier group, yet Congress isn’t interested in paying for a larger Foreign Service. ’It simply doesn’t have the built-in, domestic constituency of defense programs,’ Mr. Gates said. ‘As an example, the F-22 aircraft is produced by companies in 44 states; that’s 88 senators.’”

Given the sobering military stand-off the US is now engaged in with nuclear-armed Russia over hot button issues in the Republic of Georgia, maybe it’s high time to unfurl a new set of patriotic banners, large enough so they can see them all the way to Washington: “Get Serious—Support Our Peacemakers.”

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Attention Shoppers

There’s a man on television trying to get your attention. But he’s not trying to sell you a great new gadget or a snazzy new car. He’s trying to tell you something important about your buying habits. He’s saying people are hurting, people are dying, because our passion for amassing great collections of stuff is fueling the fires of war.

“We refuse to live within our means. We continue to think that the problems that beset the country are out there beyond our borders. And that if we deploy sufficient amount of American power we can fix those problems, and therefore things back here will continue as they have for decades,” this very distinguished-looking guy on TV said to Bill Moyers.

“The big problem … with the current crisis in American foreign policy, is that unless we do change our ways, the likelihood that our children, our grandchildren, the next generation is going to enjoy the opportunities that we've had, is very slight, because we're squandering our power. We are squandering our wealth.”

That’s Andrew J. Bacevich talking, summarizing the main point of his new book, The Limits of Power. That point, in a nutshell, is that our American way of life, which so much of humanity has been attracted or urged to emulate, is the engine of impending disaster.

“The United States today finds itself threatened by three interlocking crises. The first of these crises is economic and cultural, the second political, and the third military. All three share this characteristic: They are of our own making,” writes Bacevich, a retired army colonel who teaches international relations at Boston University. “The collective capacity of our domestic political economy to satisfy [America’s] appetites has not kept pace with demand. As a result, sustaining our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness at home requires increasingly that Americans look beyond our borders. Whether the issue at hand is oil, credit, or the availability of cheap consumer goods, we expect the world to accommodate the American way of life….

“With Americans, even in war time, refusing to curb their appetites,” he adds, “the Long War [in Iraq and Afghanistan] aggravates the economic contradictions that continue to produce debt and dependency…. The Iraq War deserves our attention as the clearest manifestation of these three crises, demonstrating the extent to which they are inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing. That war was always unnecessary. ... Of perhaps even greater significance, it is both counterproductive and unsustainable,” writes Bacevich, whose 27-year-old son died in a military operation in Iraq last year.

Bacevich, a West Pointer who fought in Vietnam, rejects the Bush administration’s claim that the war in Iraq is defending freedom and saving the world. "The pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit. The chief desire of the American people," Bacevich writes, "is that nothing should disrupt their access to these goods, that oil, and that credit. The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part of through the distribution of largesse here at home, and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad….

“Rather than insisting that the world accommodate the United States, Americans need to reassert control over their own destiny, ending their condition of dependency and abandoning their imperial delusions,” Bacevich states. “Of perhaps even greater difficulty, the combination of economic, political, and military crisis summons Americans to reexamine exactly what freedom entails. Soldiers cannot accomplish these tasks, nor should we expect politicians to do so. The onus of responsibility falls squarely on citizens.”

In his recent PBS interview with Bill Moyers, Bacevich added: “We look to the President, to the next President. You know, we know that the current President's a failure and a disappoint—we look to the next President to fix things. And, of course, as long as we have this expectation that the next President is going to fix things then, of course, that lifts all responsibility from me to fix things.”

But, having lost his son in a war to feed gas-guzzling American appetites, Bacevich is not letting the public wriggle off the hook. “We're going to have a long argument about the Iraq War. We, Americans. Not unlike the way we had a very long argument about the Vietnam War. In fact, maybe the argument about the Vietnam War continues to the present day. And that argument is going to … cause us, I hope, to ask serious questions about where this war came from.

“How did we come to be a nation in which we really thought that we could transform the greater Middle East with our army? What have been the costs that have been imposed on this country? Hundreds of billions of dollars. Some projections, two to three trillion dollars. Where is that money coming from? How else could it have been spent? For what? Who bears the burden?”

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Peace Correspondent

War correspondents have been all the rage in America for generations. News organizations love war coverage, even if what’s reported isn’t actually entirely true. “You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war," William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal, telegraphed one of his soon-to-be famous correspondents in Cuba in 1898. We are again in a gilded age for war reports, with Russia invading the republic of Georgia—or was it Georgia attacked first?—just as the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were going stale as old news.

But when’s the last time you read or heard anything by a peace correspondent? They sure don’t make the front page of the newspapers or get on national TV. Here’s a big reason why: “The newspapers get behind these wars,” Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist who teaches peace education courses, said on C-SPAN recently. “The [Washington] Post endorsed Vietnam. They endorsed Iraq. The New York Times endorsed going to Afghanistan.”

Here’s the difference war-supporting stances make in newsrooms. Shortly after the US invasion of Iraq, McCarthy wrote a column in the Washington Post (4/19/03) pointing out that “the news divisions of NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, and Fox” had turned their news programs into platforms for gung-ho generals to tell the public we had to go to war and how to view the media pool images and reports by embedded journalists who could only report what military commanders approved. “Viewers are not told of possible conflicts of interest—that this general or that one is on the payroll of this or that military contractor,” McCarthy wrote.

Five years later, The New York Times informed its readers that the retired military commanders presented as news analysts on TV were working from a Pentagon script and also working for military contractors, in many cases. “Records and interviews show how the Bush administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse — an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks,” The New York Times noted in its belated expose, “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand.” (4/20/08).

So what would a peace correspondent do differently? Colman McCarthy is a good model. He poses pointed questions to newsroom gatekeepers. He writes about issues from a perspective that suggests there’s a lot more to the story than the Pentagon’s version. “Why were pacifists from such groups as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pax Christi USA, Peace Action, and the American Friends Service Committee not given airtime to counter the generals,” he wrote in the Washington Post in 2003. “Why were leaders from Veterans for Common Sense or Veterans Against the War in Iraq not brought in to offer their analysis and view: that what the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Powell-Wolfowitz war machine has been doing to the people of Iraq is brutal and criminal and that political, legal, and moral alternatives to violence exist?”

McCarthy also noted that covering “dissenting voices” can provide a vital window on what’s going on in our nation: “It was on C-SPAN, not the networks, that a three-hour antiwar forum aired on March 22 [2003] in which the director of Veterans for Peace said that hours after Congress endorsed a resolution to support the troops in Iraq it proposed cutting $25 billion from health, education, and disability programs for veterans.”

Colman McCarthy is not a household name on TV talk shows. But what he has to say about public education in America tells a lot about where the news media’s priorities are formed. Holding up a $100 bill on C-SPAN, he said no one has yet to win the history quiz he’s presented at schools around the country.

“I’ve done the quiz over a—hundreds of times, at teacher conferences, high school audiences. I always ask, ‘Who was Robert E. Lee?’ All hands go up. ‘Who was Ulysses S. Grant?’ All hands go up. ‘Who’s Paul Revere?’ They all get three for three. Then I say, ‘OK, all right. A hundred dollars. Here it is. Who was Emily Balch?’ Rarely does a hand go up.

“Emily Balch was a Nobel Peace Prize winner, taught at Wellesley College, founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Rarely does anybody know her. Then I ask who is Jeanette Rankin. I’m sure you know Jeanette Rankin. Only member of Congress to vote against First and Second World War. Then I say, ‘Who is Dorothy Day’—founder of the Catholic Worker. Very few know Dorothy.

“Every once in a while, someone will get five out of six, but no one has ever gotten all six. We know all about the men who break the peace, but not the women who make the peace.”

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

So Where's Henry Kissinger?

Like many famous public figures, Henry Kissinger says preventing nuclear war is a top priority. So why’s it left to local activists to do the heavy lifting?

This past weekend, about 75 people spent Saturday afternoon in a church in Dover, NJ to mark the anniversary of the atomic bombing that destroyed Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945 and discuss how to organize grassroots action to help get traction for a long-standing campaign to dismantle the nuclear arsenals that could destroy life as we know it. I’ve attended similar meetings, in big cities and in small towns, since the 1960s. In the 1980s, I went to the Soviet Union as part of a grassroots-organized citizen diplomacy campaign that helped to end the Cold War. Now we’re in another dangerous era of waging war in the backyard of riled up nations with nuclear weapons.

So where was Henry Kissinger on Saturday? According to news reports, the former secretary of state was at the Olympic games in Beijing with President Bush. Did they discuss nuclear disarmament with the leaders of China, Russia and other nuclear-armed nations whose star athletes were gathered there to participate in peaceful competition? Nothing of the sort appeared in the news. Instead, the news was full of reports of nuclear-armed Russia invading neighboring Georgia, US and coalition troops battling in Afghanistan along the border of nuclear-armed Pakistan, while Russian and US officials rebuked each other.

And where was George Schultz, another former secretary of state, and other dignitaries who signed a letter with Kissinger in the Wall Street Journal calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons? Whatever Schultz was doing Saturday, which did not make the news, he’s weighed in on this issue from time to time.

In and out of office, these former high ranking officials have had the ear of presidents who could have ordered a stand down of the deployment of nuclear missiles, bombers and submarines. I doubt that Kissinger needs the moral support of 75 people at a church in Dover, NJ to advise Bush to order the Pentagon to get serious about honoring agreements hammered out nearly two decades ago, when Bush’s father was president, to end the Cold War and wind down the threat of nuclear war.

Is it possible that Kissinger doesn’t get listened to when he speaks to this President Bush on the topic of nuclear weapons? Maybe that’s why Kissinger signed that letter in the Wall Street Journal, to send a message to the military-industrial complex chieftains who have both ears of presidents. But that letter, which ran in January—like a previous joint statement the same group issued in January 2007—apparently didn’t light a fire under anyone in Washington. Whatever it takes to communicate with this White House, Kissinger’s expertise is needed on this topic. Kissinger previously advised a president (Nixon) who wanted to nuke Vietnam but instead settled for a political bombshell and reached out to China and the Soviet Union to reduce tensions that could have triggered a nuclear war. Kissinger can speak from direct experience on the dangers nuclear weapons pose to America and how to negotiate with adversaries to lessen those dangers.

So if Kissinger is getting nowhere talking to Bush about abolishing nuclear weapons, why isn’t he out speaking in churches and temples to drum up public support in places like Dover, NJ? (The largest employer in the heavily Republican area is Picatinny Arsenal, where nuclear missile warheads were developed, among other weapons.) Why aren’t Kissinger and his fellow heavy hitters out speaking at Rotary and Chamber of Commerce lunches in other places where the nuclear weapons industry is big business? If abolishing the threat of nuclear war is so vital to the future of America and the rest of the world, why aren’t they out there with local activists making their case to the public?

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Jan Barry is the author of The Great Challenge: How You Can Help Prevent Nuclear War (1986), A Citizen’s Guide to Grassroots Campaigns (2000), and other works on civic activism.