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Propaganda — Overt and Covert


The Los Angeles Times reported last Wednesday that the “U.S. military is secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops in an effort to burnish the image of the U.S. mission in Iraq.”

Other media reports have advanced this initial report by the LA Times. No one was—at least no one should have been—surprised.

In the same vein, recall also that as far back as last January, researchers at USA Today first discovered that, in an effort “to build support among black families” for its No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, the U.S. Department of Education had paid the “conservative” black commentator Armstrong Williams “$240,000 to promote the law on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same.” The contract required Williams “to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts,” according to the contract’s own terms, and “to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004,” USA Today added.

A subsequent investigation by the U.S. Government Accountbility Office determined that “materials produced by or at the direction of the government that fail to identify the government as the source of the materials constitute covert propaganda” (emphasis added), and very well may have violated the federal “publicity or propaganda prohibition.”

Again: Very few people were—at least very few people should have been—surprised.

(Quick aside: In an earlier report dating from May, 2004, the GAO had concluded that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ “use of [Government] appropriated funds for production and distribution of the story packages and suggested scripts violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition of the Consolidated Appropriation Resolution of 2003, Pub. L. No. 108-7, Div. J, Tit. VI, § 626, 117 Stat. 11, 470 (2003).” So covert propaganda, in the sense of the state producing and supplying the media with material that the media, in turn, present to the public as their own independently produced packages, very much has been a part of the Bush regime’s mode of operations. A mode for which it requires media institutions and personnel willing to go along.)

Of course, each these local little cases of covert propaganda pale in comparison to the kind of super-overt propaganda in which the establishment institutions of American Power have engaged over the years. Most notably, if by no means solely—after all, we are into yet another Christmas Shopping Season in the States—the wholly overt crock about why the world had no choice but to allow the Americans to militarily seize sovereign Iraqi territory—along with the establishment media’s pre-war repetition of the regime’s scare tactics, which no amount of post-war handwringing or mea culpas can undo.

Unfortunately, a large industry has developed in the States lamenting the fact that oh-so-many were. Save for children and the cognitively impaired, none fo them have the right to be.

So: Why do I bother reciting all of this?

In Sunday’s Chicago Tribune, regular columnist Clarence Page recounted a discussion he had with his “friend,” the former Tribune Media Services columnist and former covert propagandist for the U.S. Department of Education and right-wing causes more generally, Armstrong Williams. Titled “When press is paid to lie, the truth always comes out” (Dec. 4), Page adopted the perfectly honorable line that each of us has been instructed to observe by our grandmothers (or by some grandmotherly figure) at some point in our lives: Honesty is the best policy.

“As a former Army public information specialist in my youth,” Page explained, “I am hardly naive about the strategic uses of propaganda. But your propaganda is severely neutralized if people don’t even believe you when you’re telling the truth.”

You can say that again.

Page continued:

That’s what we learned during an earlier war when I was a young draftee in the Pentagon’s Defense Information School, then in Indianapolis. Believe it or not, we were well instructed in the highest ethics. The best response to a lie, we were told, is the truth, not spin. Otherwise, when the truth inevitably comes out, people inevitably will wonder why you went to so much trouble to hide it.

Those were great lessons.

I’ll bet they were. But then how on god’s earth did Page expect to square these brief reflections on the virtues of honesty with what followed?

Trouble is, once you’re assigned to a unit, your commander often will have other ideas that sometimes will lead to a public relations disaster. That’s what the cash-for-journalists scheme looks like now. It’s not only embarrassing but dangerous to our democracy-spreading mission.

Let me repeat that last sentence, in case you missed it: The problem with the Bush regime’s resort to what the GAO has called covert propaganda, and what Page himself calls its “cash-for-journalists scheme,” is

not only embarrassing but dangerous to our democracy-spreading mission.

Reading material such as this in the Chicago Tribune, and given the fact that the Trib itself currently is in the middle of a nine-part series in defense of the pre-war lies marshalled by the Bush regime along its “road to war,” the only question that we should be asking ourselves at this point is whether Clarence Page’s affirmation that his favorite state has undertaken a democracy-spreading mission anywhere at all on this planet counts as a case of overt or covert propaganda?

You tell me.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell Addresses the U.N. Security Council,” White House Office of the Press Secretary, February 5, 2003

The Times and Iraq,” The Editors, New York Times, May 26, 2004
The Times and Iraq: A Sample of the Coverage,” The Editors, New York Times, May, 2004

The Road To War, Chicago Tribune (occasional series), 2005 –
When press is paid to lie, the truth always comes out,” Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune, December 4, 2005

Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services–Video News Releases” (B-302710), U.S. Government Accountability Office, May 19, 2004
Department of Education–No Child Left Behind Newspaper Article” (B-306349), U.S. Government Accountability Office, September 30, 2005

White House paid journalist to promote law,” Greg Toppo, January 7, 2005 (as posted to CommonDreams.org)
All the President’s Newsmen,” Frank Rich, New York Times, January 16, 2005 (as posted to CommonDreams.org)
GAO Issues Mixed Ruling on Payments to Columnists,” Christopher Lee, Washington Post, October 1, 2005

U.S. Military Covertly Pays to Run Stories in Iraqi Press,” Mark Mazzetti and Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2005 (as posted to CommonDreams.org)
Military Admits Planting News in Iraq,” Eric Schmitt, New York Times, December 3, 2005
All the President’s Flacks,” Frank Rich, New York Times, December 4, 2005 (as posted to Truthout)
Probe into Iraq coverage widens,” Rick Jervis and Zaid Sabah, USA Today, December 9, 2005
All the News That’s Fit to Buy,” Alexander Cockburn, CounterPunch, December 10/11, 2005
Military’s Information War Is Vast and Often Secretive,” Jeff Gerth, New York Times, December 11, 2005 (as posted to Truthout)
Pentagon Rolls Out Stealth PR,” Matt Kelley, USA Today, December 14, 2005 (as posted to Truthout)
Military Knew of Contractor’s Pay-to-Play Media in Iraq,” Mark Mazzetti and Kevin Sack, Los Angeles Times, December 18, 2005 (as posted to Truthout)

‘Intelligence’ and the Invasion of Iraq,” ZNet, April 1, 2005
Iraq and the Chicago Tribune,” ZNet, November 20, 2005
War and the Warrior Classes,” ZNet, December 1, 2005
Propaganda — Overt and Covert,” ZNet, December 5, 2005

Postscript (December 6): “There’s a role for propaganda in a time of war,” the editorial voice of the Chicago Tribune intoned today. How fitting, given the source! But—propaganda by whom, exactly? For an object lesson in how seriously the Trib takes its own advice, see The Road To War, the Trib‘s serial exercise in propaganda on behalf of the American aggression over Iraq.

As I asked above, the only question is whether we should count exercises such as these as cases of overt or covert propaganda?

You tell me.

Letters to the Chicago Tribune: [email protected]

Ann Marie Lipinski, Editor
R. Bruce Dold, Editorial Pages Editor
Don Wycliff, Public Editor

* http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chi-0512060225dec06,1,6364832.story

Chicago Tribune, Editorial
December 6, 2005
The Pentagon’s papers

In the early days after Saddam Hussein was toppled, some American military commanders suddenly found themselves cast as emissaries of democracy. They appeared at nascent town hall meetings. They explained the tenets of free elections. They extolled the wonders of free speech and a free press.

Iraq is building its fledgling democracy while battling a vicious insurgency. The fight is raging not only in the streets, but in efforts to sway Iraqi public opinion.

Last week, the Los Angeles Times revealed that as part of a U.S. “information offensive,” the military has been secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish positive stories written by U.S. soldiers. The articles were decidedly one-sided: They highlighted the successes of U.S. and Iraqi troops, denounced the insurgents and touted U.S.-led efforts to rebuild the country. The Pentagon hired a Washington strategic communications firm named the Lincoln Group to translate the articles into Arabic and planted them in Baghdad newspapers, without revealing the source of the stories.

The military has defended the practice as an effort to “get the truth out there” and answer the lies of the enemy. But Pentagon officials are taking a second look after criticism from some leaders, including Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

There’s a role for propaganda in a time of war. America is spending millions on public diplomacy to get its message of democracy and tolerance out in the Middle East in the midst of the war on terror.

But this is also a crucial time for democracy-building in Iraq. One tenet of democracies: They survive because the people consent to be governed. We give that consent when we have enough confidence that government is transparent; we know what it’s doing. One key to that confidence is a free and independent press.

The Pentagon apparently understands the value of the Iraqi press–it has been paying to plant stories in it. But in doing so, it will undermine confidence in Iraqi institutions and … the Iraqi press.

Apparently somebody in the Pentagon understands that. “Here we are trying to create the principles of democracy in Iraq. Every speech we give in that country is about democracy. And we’re breaking all the first principles of democracy when we’re doing it,” one defense official told the Times.

Government is not exactly at a loss for ways to get out its message. It has plenty of above-board venues for that, and the message can be extremely powerful when it is one of freedom. Think of the Voice of America broadcasts behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.

There was no subterfuge. Those broadcasts were the voice of America.

The Iraqi government needs help to establish its credibility with the people of the world’s newest democracy. The Pentagon’s press ploy only hurts.

Postscript (December 6):

Under the category of neither overt nor covert, but bathetic propaganda, I hereby file the following factoid:

You’ve all heard of Oprah Winfrey—a figure so heavily fetishized that at this stage, there is virtually no way of differentiating between the celebrity icon and any real flesh and blood human person who may or who may not share certain features with the icon (i.e., name, body, financial portfolio, and the like). (For a tiny bit more on the American phenomenon, see “Oprah shouldn’t expect Letterman-like moment here,” Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 6.)

Anyway. I’ve taken a quick look (i.e., maybe five or ten minutes worth of effort) at the publishing history of O Magazine, since its first issue appeared back in May/June, 2000.

Presumably, some of you already know what I’m about to tell you. But I believe it bears repeating.

Okay then.—

Since the May/June 2000 issue, O Magazine has published a total of 66 different issues (i.e., through the December, 2005 issue, which is just on the newstands now).

Of these 66 issues of O Magazine, Oprah Winfrey placed herself on the cover of all 66 of them!

Yes. You’ve read me right. The image of Oprah Winfrey has appeared on no less than 100 percent of the issues of O Magazine ever to have been published. (Or 66 covers out of the 66 issues of O Magazine to have been published to date.)

Here. See for yourselves:

O Magazine: 2000
O Magazine: 2001
O Magazine: 2002
O Magazine: 2003
O Magazine: 2004
O Magazine: 2005

Now. I’ve often joked with friends about where else in human history we might turn to find a comparable case of (self-) idolatry and totalitarian (self-) promotion of the Deity.

For example, did Caligula or Nero publish a monthly magazine named in their honor?

Genghis Khan? Ivan The Terrible? Louis the XIV? Josef Stalin?

Perhaps some other potentate?

Still. You catch my drift, I think.

These Americans!

Postscript (December 19): So: The Bush regime has committed a few “missteps” while waging the so-called “War on Terror”! To even suggest this as an explanation of recent history of the United States of America is an exercise in propaganda. Both deliberate and malevolent. No missteps on the Trib‘s part, either. The only question being (and for the umpteenth time) whether this counts as an instance of the overt or the covert variety?

You tell me.

* http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chi-0512190111dec19,0,6699370.story?coll=chi-newsopinion-hed

Chicago Tribune, Editorial
December 19, 2005
Missteps in the war on terror

History makes clear that when this nation goes to war, there is a serious danger that the government will respond by going to extremes, trampling important legal protections for its citizens. Recent events confirm that the war on terror is no exception. But there is another danger when an emergency arises: Vigilance can weaken, leaving Americans exposed.

In some ways, our leaders overreacted to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But even today, they are also underreacting to tomorrow’s threats.

The Bush administration was forced to abandon one mistake last week when it endorsed Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s legislation banning “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of detainees abroad. Vice President Dick Cheney had lobbied senators to modify the bill, arguing that harsh methods were sometimes needed to extract information from terrorists.

But the administration’s endorsement of such tactics created serious conflicts–with the obligations America accepted in 1994 by ratifying the international convention against torture; with the public’s sense of right and wrong; and with the demands of European allies whose cooperation is needed in the war on terror. Thursday, the president invited McCain to the White House and agreed to nearly everything the former POW demanded.

That change of policy coincided with a disturbing revelation in Friday’s New York Times. The newspaper reported that shortly after Sept. 11, the president gave the National Security Agency secret permission to monitor the international communications of people inside the United States without court approval. That is a drastic departure for the NSA, which normally conducts such surveillance only overseas.

This may also be a violation of American law, which requires that a special court issue warrants for wiretaps on communications originating in the United States. Some officials familiar with the program said it is illegal. But a Justice Department memo took the radical position that the congressional resolution authorizing the president to act against Al Qaeda enabled him to use methods that were previously forbidden.

On Saturday, President Bush strongly defended the program, saying it has “helped detect and prevent possible terrorist attacks” here and abroad. Had the administration really believed it had congressional consent for spying on Americans at home, it could have asked for legislation to affirm that. It didn’t, for the obvious reason that Congress would not have agreed.

This disclosure had the regrettable effect of helping to at least temporarily derail reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act, which for the most part represented a careful and prudent response to the new challenges posed by Al Qaeda. On Friday, Senate opponents managed to prevent a vote on the bill, leaving in limbo some provisions scheduled to expire Dec. 31.

While fear produced some abuses, it has not prevented the onset of complacency in the face of an ongoing threat. Earlier this month, former members of the Sept. 11 commission issued a dismal “report card” giving Congress and the president 5 F’s and 12 D’s in their handling of such matters as airline cargo screening, communications among first responders and allocation of homeland security funds.

Excesses of enforcement violate civil liberties. Lapses of vigilance can lead to mass carnage. Our leaders have an urgent duty to correct both mistakes, without delay.

Postscript (December 20): Overt or covert? You tell me. Though I should add that in recent years (or, let’s just say throughout the duration of its Road To War series), the Chicago Tribune has established an unequivocal track record where American Power is concerned. As Nixon’s old White Counsel from the early Watergate period, John Dean, noted this past Sunday, December 18, George Bush is the “first President to admit to an impeachable offense.” Only not as far as the Chicago Tribune is concerned.

* http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chi-0512200277dec20,1,6823583.story

Chicago Tribune
December 20, 2005
Surveillance vs. the law

In the best of times, there is a natural tension between safeguarding national security and respecting the liberties of Americans. In times of war, that tension becomes even stronger. In many ways, the Bush administration has been restrained in its handling of the war on terror, avoiding the gross abuses that occurred during past conflicts. But by launching a secret program that involves spying on Americans, it has overreached badly, and unnecessarily.

President Bush not only defends what he’s done but vows to keep doing it, never mind the evidence that he is acting in violation of the law. If he persists in pressing beyond the bounds of presidential war-making authority, it will be up to Congress to press back and restore a sensible balance of powers.

The New York Times first reported that the National Security Agency, which monitors overseas electronic communications of people living abroad, has extended its reach to include phone calls and e-mail messages between people in the U.S. and others abroad who are believed to be connected to Al Qaeda. Under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, such wiretaps are illegal without a court-approved warrant.

In his Saturday radio address, the president defended the policy, saying it has “helped detect and prevent possible terrorist attacks in the United States and abroad.” He said he had renewed it more than 30 times and will continue to do so as long as he sees fit.

Even though this program did not comply with FISA, the administration insists its actions are permissible under the law and the Constitution. Neither claim is persuasive.

Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales contends the statute says its rules may be waived by an act of Congress–and that Congress granted a waiver by authorizing the president to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

But there is no language in that measure to suggest that Congress meant any such thing. Gonzales implicitly admitted as much when he was asked why the president didn’t ask Congress to amend FISA: “We were advised that that would be difficult, if not impossible.”

The attorney general has a fallback argument–that Congress can’t stop this program because the president has the inviolable power as commander in chief to carry out such surveillance. This claim rests on a drastic reinterpretation of executive powers. “I think the Supreme Court would rule that Congress has the power to regulate in this area,” says Northwestern University law professor Ronald Allen, a constitutional scholar. “I don’t think many legal experts would disagree.”

In an emergency, no one would deny the president the right to move swiftly and forcefully to save American lives. But FISA has emergency provisions allowing the government to order such wiretaps first and seek permission later–which was not done here.

If Bush thinks FISA is inadequate to the demands of this new war, he should go to Congress and the country and make the case for changing it. So far, the only case the administration has made is that it thinks it can scorn the law.

Postscript (December 28): Overt or covert? For a copy of the final installment in the Chicago Tribune‘s The Road To War series, its defense of the American aggression over Iraq, see “Judging the Case for War,” December 28, 2005.

Incredibly, as late as today, some 33 months after the Americans launched their war of aggression over Iraq, the editorial voice of this major American newspaper can still argue that, “After reassessing the administration’s nine arguments for war, we do not see the conspiracy to mislead that many critics allege”!

And it can still conclude that:

Seventeen days before the war, this page reluctantly urged the president to launch it. We said that every earnest tool of diplomacy with Iraq had failed to improve the world’s security, stop the butchery–or rationalize years of UN inaction. We contended that Saddam Hussein, not George W. Bush, had demanded this conflict….[T]he totality of what we know now…affirms for us our verdict of March 2, 2003.

Well. At least in denying that its investigation uncovered any evidence of a conspiracy to mislead on the part of the regime that launched the war in March, 2003, the Chicago Tribune was honest enough not to assert that the principals behind this late 2005 exercise in defense of the American aggression were free of any similar conspiracy.

Now that really would have been too much to stomach.

For those of you with some concern about the real world, I strongly urge you to take a look at the report from the ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Conyers:

The Constitution in Crisis: The Downing Street Minutes and Deception, Manipulation, Torture, Retribution, and Coverups in the Iraq War, December 20, 2005. (For the PDF version of the complete report.)

It provides a powerful counterpoint to all of this bunk shoveled at us in recent weeks by the Chicago Tribune.

‘Intelligence’ and the Invasion of Iraq,” ZNet, April 1, 2005
‘Scrutinizing Bush’s Record’?” ZNet, July 14, 2005
Iraq and the Chicago Tribune,” ZNet, November 20, 2005
War and the Warrior Classes,” ZNet, December 1, 2005
Propaganda — Overt and Covert,” ZNet, December 5, 2005

Postscript (January 13, 2006): Overt or covert? In the editorial reproduced below from today’s Chicago Tribune, the Trib bids us to “remember how Iran has challenged the world, again and again, and the world has blinked, again and again.”

But—do you suppose that the Chicago Tribune has ever appeased American Power? Or, worse, how about engaged in sheer apologetics on behalf of one or more of the Americans’ wars of aggression?

Letters to the Editor: [email protected]

Chicago Tribune, Editorial
January 13, 2006
Iran and the art of appeasement

The British, French and German foreign ministers acknowledged Thursday what has been obvious for months, if not years: Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear ambitions have reached a “dead end.” The ministers called for Tehran to be referred to the UN Security Council, which could impose sanctions.

Yes, this sounds familiar. For two years, Iran has broken its agreements and defiantly batted away deal after deal to blunt its nuclear programs. It has proven the Europeans were utterly foolish in their faith that they could reason with the radical regime.

Iran is betting that the Europeans can be made to look even more foolish. After the foreign ministers spoke on Thursday, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said Iran’s top nuclear negotiator told him in a phone call that Tehran wants to resume negotiations with the Europeans, this time with a deadline.

Iran is back in the bomb-making business. It was probably never out of business. On Tuesday, with international inspectors watching, Iranian officials ripped the seals off equipment and began work on enriching uranium, the key to building a bomb. Such a move, International Atomic Energy Agency director Mohamed ElBaradei has said, is a “red line for the international community.”

So in reference to Iran, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has moved from “failed to meet its obligations” (ElBaradei, 2003) to “confidence deficit” (ElBaradei, 2004) to “losing patience” (ElBaradei, 2005) to the crossing of a red line. Yes, the mullahs are having peaceful nights.

The rest of the world should be having fitful nights. Once Iranian scientists master the intricacies of enriching uranium on a large scale, there will be nothing to stop them from making material for bombs. Iran probably already has nuclear warhead designs. There are reports that Iran is scouring Europe for nuclear weapons components and is seeking to extend the range of its missiles, which already threaten Israel.

One U.S. official described the move to refer Iran for sanctions as “do-or-die diplomacy. If we fail to get broad support on this, there will be few options left for the international community to curb Iran’s program.”

The U.S. and the Europeans are lobbying Russia and China to accede to a referral of Iran to the Security Council. That move is likely to happen, possibly at a meeting in early February.

Only a unified Security Council ready to isolate Iran economically from the rest of the world has any chance of stopping the Iranian bomb program. But the chances that the council will vote tough sanctions remain bleak. The Russians are loath to lose lucrative trade with Tehran, as are many European states. The Chinese depend on Iran for 13 percent of their oil imports.

There are reports that Israel is planning a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear sites. (Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”)

If it happens, if Israel or some other nation launches a military response, the condemnation from some quarters will be expressed in harsher terms than “losing patience.” But if it happens, remember this week. And remember how Iran has challenged the world, again and again, and the world has blinked, again and again.

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