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Department of Malicious Falsehoods

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by Scott Horton

February 23, 12:02 AM

Department of Malicious Falsehoods

The Public Affairs Office at the Department of Defense has long figured as a redoubt for the Neoconservatives. At times, I’ve wondered about the name “Public Affairs.” Don’t they really mean something more along the lines of “Department for the Political Instruction of Cadres”? I first marveled at their brazen misconduct and proclivity for heavily ornamented deceit when Seymour Hersh came out with a major story in the New Yorker describing the “Cooper Green” program. The program operated under the authority of Stephen Cambone and with an okay from Donald Rumsfeld and it authorized the use of illegal interrogation techniques, which we subsequently learned were the hallmark of the Bush Administration. I had discovered some key aspects of this program shortly before Hersh’s article and discussed them with Hersh. After his article appeared, it was aggressively denounced by the Public Affairs Office as some sort of journalistic hysteria, and they proceeded to go after Hersh himself. I recall reading the statement and puzzling over it. They knew, and I knew, and Hersh knew that their statement was dishonest. Why would the Department of Defense issue a grossly false statement like that and then proceed several steps beyond it, assaulting the integrity of one of the nation’s premier exposé journalists?

But it soon became clear that this was a sort of art form for them. The calculus seems to be utterly Rovian: one should not just lie. One should lie aggressively and tactically. But what about the reputation of the Defense Department for truth-telling? Isn’t that an asset worth preserving? No, that counts for nothing in their view. Or perhaps they view it as something that is expendable in the interests of the current political tenants.

And a bit later, Jane Mayer was working on a story that eventually became “The Memo,” the tale of the heroic struggle of Alberto Mora, the former General Counsel of the Navy, to challenge the torture regime that was being installed in Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, largely under pressure from Vice President Cheney and his then-legal counsel (now chief of staff) David Addington. I had been working with Jane to be sure she understood some of the more technical legal points that came up and to help her track down sources for her piece. As it was all done, she went to the Public Affairs Office for comments. They delivered a lambasting, suggesting that points in her article were ridiculous speculation with no basis in fact. What they didn’t know, of course, was that Mayer had the memo itself and a slew of other documents, and that Mora had given several detailed interviews on the underlying facts. Public Affairs simply assumed, yet again, that they could lie prolifically, aggressively, and perhaps sink or curtail the story. I hoped that the New Yorker would at some point publish the totality of the comments that Public Affairs gave. It would provide good insight into the workings of the office. For whatever reason they decided not to do so.

And then a third incident occurred relating to Newsweek. Mike Isikoff ran a tiny little blurb relating to an incident recorded in a report into abuses at Guantánamo. It recorded a Qur’an being thrown in a toilet. When this appeared, Public Affairs launched a massive attack on Newsweek which was clearly coordinated with wingnut bloggers and right wing radio. They sought to vilify Newsweek and to attack Isikoff, questioning their patriotism and professional credentials and vehemently denying the reports. In fact just about everyone in the press community remembers that—for a while it was called the Newsweek factor. What few people remember is that when the report eventually leaked out, it turned out that Isikoff had it wrong. Indeed, the incident was actually worse than what he described. It involved a prison guard urinating in a way so that his urine would drop onto a Qur’an. The incident was investigated and the guard was punished. So the Public Affairs office response was once more something of which a totalitarian society could have been proud. They engaged in sweeping deceit, and it paid off beautifully.

Then we come to a case I was directly involved with. A CBS cameraman named Abdul Amir Younis Hussein was seized in Mosul, Iraq, where he had shot footage of an attack on a Stryker. In fact Congress was that week going to hold a hearing looking at whether the Stryker performed to specifications, and CBS had been very eager to get footage of the attack on the Stryker. But the CBS cameraman was shot, his camera was taken, and he was held—ultimately for a year. Suddenly out of the Pentagon arose a story, reported in hushed and worried tones by Barbara Starr of CNN and others. A Public Affairs spokesman speaking not for attribution said the Pentagon was extremely disturbed about this CBS cameraman. He had been seized with a camera which had footage of four attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq in a manner that showed he had prior knowledge. This flared in the news, and served as a pretext for the U.S. forces to hold Abdul Amir in prison for a year. He was then charged, and I handled his defense. I pressed the Pentagon and the Iraq Command immediately for the return of the camera and tapes from it. They refused, and refused even to allow me to examine these materials until several hours before his trial. When I finally secured them, I discovered—and the court discovered—that the statements by the anonymous Public Affairs spokesman were a complete fabrication. There was only 20 seconds of material on the camera, and it fully corroborated the cameraman’s account. He was fully acquitted, with the judge stating that not a scintilla of evidence against him had been offered. I asked local military authorities where the report about the tape footage with the four incidents had come from. “Not here,” they insisted. “That was all out of the Pentagon Public Affairs office.” So who was the Public Affairs spokesman who fabricated and spread this outrageous lie that put a journalist in prison for one year for no reason? I suspect I know who he is.

And then we come to the Democratic debate in Austin, Texas. It had a curious passage:

SEN. OBAMA: I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think I was prepared to be commander in chief. (Cheers, applause.) And my — my number one job as president will be to keep the American people safe. And I will do whatever is required to accomplish that, and I will not hesitate to act against those that would do America harm.

Now, that involves maintaining the strongest military on earth, which means that we are training our troops properly and equipping them properly and putting them on proper rotations. And there are an awful lot of families, here in Texas, who have been burdened under two and three and four tours, because of the poor planning of the current commander in chief. And that will end when I’m president.


But it also means using our military wisely. And on what I believe was the single most important foreign policy decision of this generation — whether or not to go to war in Iraq — I believe I showed the judgment of a commander in chief. I think that Senator Clinton was wrong in her judgments on that. (Applause.)

Now, that has consequences. That has significant consequences because it has diverted attention from Afghanistan, where al Qaeda, that killed 3,000 Americans, are stronger now than at any time since 2001.

I heard from an Army captain, who was the head of a rifle platoon, supposed to have 39 men in a rifle platoon. Ended up being sent to Afghanistan with 24, because 15 of those soldiers had been sent to Iraq. And as a consequence, they didn’t have enough ammunition; they didn’t have enough humvees. They were actually capturing Taliban weapons because it was easier to get Taliban weapons than it was for them to get properly equipped by our current commander in chief. Now that’s a consequence of bad judgment, and you know, the question is on the critical issues that we face right now who’s going to show the judgment to lead. And I think that on every critical issue that we’ve seen in foreign policy over the last several years — going into Iraq originally, I didn’t just oppose it for the sake of opposing it. I said this is going to distract us from Afghanistan; this is going to fan the flames of anti- American sentiment; this is going to cost us billions of dollars and thousands of lives and overstretch our military, and I was right.

And today Talking Points Memo reports that Bryan Whitman, a man suspiciously close to each of the incidents I described above, is busy behind the scenes telling reporters that he doesn’t think it’s true. But you’d have to understand just what Mr. Whitman means by “truth” to fully appreciate the meaning of his comments. My understanding of the way the phrase works is pretty simple, and widespread in the world. Truth serves the interests of the party. Truth is what we make it. And since the interests of the party are served by implying that Barack Obama is a liar, even though Mr. Whitman has no basis to say that, of course he’ll charge right ahead and do it. Brian Roehrkasse has his Doppelgänger.

So is Obama’s statement true? Well, unfortunately for Mr. Whitman, it is true. ABC News’s Jake Tapper tracked down the Army captain and interviewed him, and he confirmed Obama’s account. And NBC News then also identified and spoke with the Army captain and also got his confirmation.

And here’s what Phil Carter, who served as a captain in Diyala Province in 2006, had to say about the claim:

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Scott Horton is a contributor to Harper's Magazine and writes No Comment for this website, www.harpers.org. A New York attorney known for his work in emerging markets and international law, especially human rights law and the law of armed conflict, (more...)
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