In this installment of our special series, “9/11 at 20: A week of reflection,” we take a look at the mainstream media's hive-like mentality in the wake of the attacks and how this made them willing tools for the Bush Administration and the military in the run-up to the Iraq War and beyond.
In December 2011, a decade after the 9/11 attacks, elite journalists David Ignatius and Diane Rehm had an extremely brief, on-air mea culpa moment. President Obama had just announced the official end of combat operations in Iraq (that wouldn’t last), and the two seemed to be acknowledging their own role in supporting the invasion nearly nine years before:
REHM: David, I’m going to ask you an unpleasant question. Do you think that journalists were complicit in promoting the idea that war in Iraq was inevitable?
IGNATIUS: Let me speak about my own work rather than talk about the profession as a whole. As I look back, there are no columns I’ve ever written that I’d more like to revise in light of what I know now than the ones I wrote then… And I think everybody in our profession looks back and I hope learned lessons from that, to ask more questions, just to insist on getting the evidence for things that are so consequential for the country.
REHM: I, for one, feel very disappointed in our profession that we did not ask the questions that should have been asked.
Believing it was the entire profession that got it wrong must be a comfort to them. In one way they're right. After 9/11 much of the ecosystem we consider the mainstream news media was on the same sheet of music. They followed, in step, powerful interests in Washington. Editors and corporate sponsors didn’t want to look out of place — it was important for ratings, status, and access to be patriotic, team players. They moved the Overton window around, and built consensus. All of this trumped the skepticism that Rehm and Ignatius were now wishing they had more of when it counted.
Now 20 years later, a different president has announced another end to combat operations — this time in Afghanistan. Again, the media hive scrambles to rewrite their role, deflect, or worse, continue to serve as handmaidens to the same powerful ringleaders who wanted to keep the U.S. military in Afghanistan indefinitely. This is a powerful reminder that the country could not have sustained a protracted war there for a generation without the complicity of the press after 9/11.
Mushroom clouds and candies in the streets
For many critics, the very low point of the media’s pusillanimity came with the firing of talk show host Phil Donahue just one month before the first bombing of Baghdad in March 2003.
The longtime talk icon has always insisted he was sacked because of his vocal opposition to the coming invasion (ironically his slot was temporarily filled by an extended “Countdown: Iraq'' show hosted by Lester Holt). “They were terrified by the anti-war voice,” he told Democracy Now 10-years later. “We weren’t good for business.”
According to former Minnesota Governor and Navy Seal Jesse Ventura, his own show on MSNBC was also canceled after a three-month run in 2003 because the network found out he had been publicly opposed to invading Iraq. Ashleigh Banfield, then at NBC, was literally reporting on the 9/11 attacks in New York when one of the towers collapsed behind her. She says her clock started ticking after she gave a controversial speech at Kansas State University criticizing war coverage in 2003 and sending a memo to her colleagues urging them “not to wave the banner and cover warfare in a jingoistic way. It didn’t sit well with my employers at NBC...I think they overacted. I was banished.”
This was hardly an NBC problem. Corporate media conformity after 9/11 was so powerful that the Bush administration was not only able to push through some of the most constitutionally questionable federal law enforcement powers in modern times, but launch two wars within a year and half of each other.
After supporting the Afghanistan operation in 2001, the establishment of Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, and passively reporting the first signs of detainee torture by American forces, the media then gave the Bushies and their neoconservative surrogates a soapbox to promote the Iraq invasion in 2003. In the lead up to Iraq, according to one study, 75 percent of the guests and panels on the major networks were current or retired government officials toeing the administration line. “Major newspapers and magazines gave them prime space to make their case, including the possibility that 9/11 had been ‘sponsored, supported and perhaps even ordered by Saddam Hussein,’” said Bill Moyers in a 2007 documentary called “Selling the War.”
By September 2002 Bush’s national security adviser Condi Rice was warning that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” with little pushback. An effective Republican Wall of Sound (radio, blogs, press, and of course Fox News) created an echochamber in favor of the president’s plans, and pressured everyone else to conform.
Dissenters were dismissed as fringe and cringe. However, editors of The American Conservative — a heterodox magazine co-founded by Patrick Buchanan in part to oppose the invasion — drew special fire (full disclosure, I’ve been a TAC contributor since 2007). Aside from being “unpatriotic conservatives,” wrote David “Axis of Evil” Frum in the National Review on March 25, 2003, “they deny and excuse terror. They espouse a potentially self-fulfilling defeatism. They publicize wild conspiracy theories. And some of them explicitly yearn for the victory of their nation’s enemies.”
But while these few independent forums on the left and the right struggled for attention, liberal moderates dominated the networks, top newspapers, and magazines, and were absolutely critical in swaying elite opinion in favor of Bush’s second war. That included voices like Fareed Zakaria, New Yorker editor David Remnick, and the New York Times’ Bill Keller, who penned a column entitled “The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk-Club.” Michael Kelly wrote an essay for the Washington Post supporting the impending invasion as a liberation of the Iraqi people from under the “boot” of Saddam Hussein. Tragically, he was the first American journalist killed in Iraq two months later at the age of 46.
After Baghdad was taken and Saddam tossed out, Washington decided to stay. Condi’s “mushroom cloud” had turned out to be a collapsed souffle, so the military moved on to giving out sweets to grateful, liberated Iraqis. The shift from WMD to democratization was easy for the now sheepish but still unrepentant media. Boosters like Tom Friedman at the New York Times started pushing the notion that Afghnistan wasn’t enough — that we had “smash” the “terrorism bubble” in the Islamic world, and that it was imperative that we “put Iraq onto a progressive path.”
“The failure of the Bush team to produce any weapons of mass destruction (W.M.D.'s) in Iraq is becoming a big, big story,” he wrote in June 2003. “But is it the real story we should be concerned with? No. It was the wrong issue before the war, and it's the wrong issue now.”
To embed or not to embed?
WMDs now forgotten, hundreds of reporters from major newspapers and networks started “embedding” with the military to cover the war. The military had learned its lesson in Vietnam. Instead of having reporters and photogs running around independently getting their own stories and broadcasting unfiltered images back home, the military would guarantee direct access to the military and safe passage in the war zone. In return, the message would be carefully managed. It was the mastermind of commanders like David Petraeus, who played the press like a fiddle.
“The overall effect (was) to prevent reporting that shows war from the perspective of anyone but the American military,” pointed out media critic Matt Taibbi, who was an embed himself.
“What definitely happened to me is that I became too close to the soldiers with whom I was embedded. I got along very well with a unit of men and women who mostly came from Oklahoma, and I found it hard to look at the war through any eyes but theirs,” he told Responsible Statecraft in an interview. “Looking back, this probably prevented me from being more critical.”
In 2014, ex-soldier Chelsea Manning published an op-ed in the New York Times, which among other insights confirmed what many sensed already, that the Pentagon hand selected embeds with an elaborate rating system “used to screen out those judged likely to produce critical coverage.”
Those who broke the military’s elaborate stated rules were blacklisted, Manning said, like Michael Hastings, whose unvarnished reporting eventually got Gen. Stanley McChrystal fired in 2010. The way the mainstream circled the wagons around the disgraced general was epic. “Michael Hastings has never served his country the way Gen. McChrystal has,” charged CBS reporter and embed Lara Logan, who had taken to delivering the military’s own talking points all over major media by 2009, and was personally affronted by Hasting’s lack of respect.
“It didn’t seem to make a difference that I hadn’t violated any agreement with McChrystal,” Hastings later wrote in his 2012 book, The Operators. “The unwritten rule I’d broken was a simple one: You really weren’t supposed to write honestly about people in power.”
The networks were even more obsequious, and easily manipulated into having retired generals cooperating with the Pentagon on each night as “experts.” Known as the “message force multipliers,” these generals brought the war into Americans’ homes each night, but unlike the Walter Cronkites of a previous generation they had a hidden agenda — and still do.
Unfortunately, while there’s plenty of evidence that the major media was snookered, fell down on the job, and in some cases learned from their mistakes (the New York Times and Washington Post have delivered some of the best investigative journalism on both Afghanistan and Iraq in the last decade), the easy genuflection to power continues to this day.
“I think that problem has gotten worse, as the new trend is to simply hire talking heads from the Pentagon or the CIA or NSA or DIA directly and make them paid news readers/contributors like John Brennan and James Clapper,” notes Taibbi. “The lines between military and intelligence propaganda and news have blurred to the point where it's not really possible to distinguish one from another.” Multiple stories on these pages point out the undisclosed ties between the defense industry, major media influencers, and government.
This doesn’t bode well for the run up to the next war. One can only hope that enough of us are around every anniversary to remind the world how easy the slippery slope to complicity can be.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.