Discredited Russian Bounty Story Exposes Media’s Role in Status Quo

Originally appeared at ScheerPost

It is an old journalistic trope: no one reads the correction … or the retraction. No matter how serious the error or profound the implications of the misreporting. Like, let’s say the entire range of mainstream media took the word of unnamed intelligence sources as gospel and reported that the only other nuclear superpower – which supposedly rigged our last election, and runs our current president as an “asset” – had been offering Afghan militants bounties for the scalps of dead American soldiers. Then, for the sake of argument, imagine that just two months later, the top U.S. commander for the Greater Mideast announced that his sizable intelligence staff hadn’t found a single shred of proof “that satisfies [him].” And that the general’s comments reflected a consensus view among military leaders. One might expect an immediate, and front-page corrective-retraction, right?

Wrong. Well, maybe in a country with an actually free and oppositional press that might be the case; but this is America in 2020 folks – a place and time whence the media is basically a mouthpiece for the CIA, military-industrial-complex, and broader corporate interests. What we have is the illusion of an independent media. It operates more like a 24-hour macro version of Us Weekly or People Magazine – a celebrity soap opera offering only the veneer of political sophistication.

The boundaries of permissible debate are quite narrow, and partisan. In both print and television mediums, hiring and invitations practices act as disciplines unto themselves. Color within the acceptable and polite lines, and producers or editors are happy to let one droll on. Question a sacred cow or touch a political “third-rail” – American exceptionalism, US empire, Israeli apartheid, or, yes, the Trump-Russia nexus – and one won’t be asked back (or invited in the first place).

The thing is, that whole Russian bounty saga actually happened – every detail, and that ain’t the half of it. The entire prevailing narrative of a looming and growing threat from the Russian Bear – and Papa Putin’s scheme to undermine American democracy through his Trumpian puppet – is the biggest bamboozle since the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. In fact, it’s potentially more dangerous. Saddam Hussein didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction. Vladimir Putin (and The Donald) have enough thermonuclear warheads to end planetary life as we know it in an afternoon. Furthermore, in its ubiquity, its unending utility, the “blame Russia” game is a far longer and more domestically detrimental con.

Big Lies and Long Cons

The ginned-up, unnecessary, yet wildly risky New Cold War with Russia is, according to Scott Horton, “the single most important matter facing humanity.” In the short term, and in its immediate potential for omnicide, that’s certainly true. Beyond the obvious apocalyptic possibilities of a misread, mistake, or miscalculation in one of the areas that the US military has chosen to butt-up against Russian troops or interests – Syria, Ukraine, the Baltic, the Arctic, Central Asia, et. al. – the overhyped Moscow alarmism is both a big lie and long con.

The big lie (scaring the heck out of everybody since “Red October” 1917) requires a two-part debunking: 1) The Russians aren’t coming and never really were; 2) Even if they were, they haven’t half as much to bring with them (besides bountiful, but practically unusable, nukes) as they did in Soviet times. The long con assumes the veracity of the big lie, and plays out like this: since the Russian threat is palpable and perennial, it requires a permanent war-footing, pervasive forward-deployments, and the policing of proper patriotism back home.

Thus, even modest defense budget cuts or reallocations, marginal troop reductions in war zones or overseas bases, and dissenting “free” speech, all threaten US security. In fact, they’re sort of un-American. The outcome is a bipartisan hawkish brand of outrage culture. Those who dare question the big lie and/or the long con – even a serving army officer and combat vet-cum-congresswoman, like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard – are breezily branded Putin-puppets (or in Tulsi’s case, “Russian assets”).


When does one’s personal hatred for even the most monstrous of monsters become a blind-spot, a veritable delusion? Perhaps when it shuts down most rational brain functions – notably critical thinking, and all sense of proportion or perspective. Another way to spot delusion is when public figures continue to promote the Russian bounty yarn even after the generals of the military they fawn over and fetishize deflate it. Doing so has real, and often dangerously hawkish, political effect.

Consider just a few bipartisan samples. On the very day that NBC News quoted the top US general in the Mideast’s disavowal (September 14), Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) tweeted:

Plain & simple: Donald Trump has gone 80 days without condemning Putin for putting reported bounties on our troops.

This is unforgivable.

That same day, former senior Obama-adviser and MSNBC analyst Ben Rhodes was also still hammering it home, tweeting “This might seem more credible if Trump did a single thing about US intelligence reports about Russian bounties to kill US troops that were acted upon.”

The Democratic presidential candidate even used the unproven, uncorroborated, and seemingly unreal bounty story to help make the case for his election during the convention, pronouncing that “Under President Biden, America will not turn a blind eye to Russian bounties on the heads of American soldiers.” Sure, that was a couple of months back, but a day after the NBC News story cut the legs out from under the whole narrative, Biden was still rolling out Russia’s alleged Afghan gambit. At a campaign roundtable, he noted: “And by the way, the president’s met and talked with Putin six times and still hasn’t mentioned the bounty on the heads of Americans in Afghanistan.”

On the other side of the proverbial aisle, we’re treated to the musings of H.R. “Madman” McMaster, a retired lieutenant general and Trump’s ex-national security adviser – never one to mince words in my (sometimes personal) experience. He recently diagnosed the president’s position on peace talks as “partnering with the Taliban against, in many ways, the Afghan government.” In his new aptly-titled book Battlegrounds, McMaster even argues that Trump “cheapened” the lives of US troops who died in Afghanistan by giving in too much to the Taliban. That’s right, see, we’ve got to stay in every conflict forever, lest we dishonor our dead by pulling out. This is the forever war formula that men like H.R. build careers, pensions, and book deals on!

More grotesquely, the Never-Trump Republicans over at the Lincoln Project are placing ads critical of the president in military newspapers, including one video titled – you guessed it – “Bounty.” Its tag line: “Putin paid a bounty to kill American soldiers. Donald Trump knew about it but did nothing. How can Trump lead America when he can’t even defend it?” Something tells me the Lincoln boys haven’t, and don’t plan to, take it down just because General McKenzie admits his team of intel analysts can’t find a shred of genuine evidence that their accusations are, you know, true.

Sometimes the Trump-derangement syndrome even prompts a rapid policy volte face on purportedly deep-seated principles. Take Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy – a once commendable critic of US complicity in the Saudi war on the Yemenis – who, after the bounty story, attacked Trump’s “failure to hold Russia accountable for bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan.” Notably, this was a war Murphy himself wanted to end – that is until it was Mr. Trump negotiating the ending. His fellow US Senator from Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, tweeted as recently as September 10 that:

Intelligence powerfully shows that the Kremlin offered the Taliban bounties for killing Americans in Afghanistan, but the Trump admin prefers catering to Putin rather than protecting our servicemen & women.

What intelligence, senator? The bit that even the senior regional commander of US troops hasn’t been able to confirm, corroborate, or even “seen?” It’s enough to make John Ford’s classic Western film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance view as nonfiction. When Jimmy Stewart’s character asks, “You’re not going to use the [real] story, Mr. Scott?,” the reporter quickly quips: “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Always remember to keep an eye on history and context too. After all, not-buying the party line on such patriotic drivel typically incurs real costs. Without exception, every major progressive reform movement – many of which today’s leaders now laud – was, in its day, demonized as some sort of un-American fifth column out to undermine national security. Since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, their favored supposed handlers have been Russian.

Women’s, labor, and civil rights activists – plus the entire peace movement – and even progressive celebrities: they were all secret Reds, you see. Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Helen Keller, Burgess Meredith, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, Jr. – each were smeared as communists at one time or another, obviously loyal to their Moscow masters. Given that tortured, but hardly past past, it’s easy to see why today’s journalists and politicians toe the Russia-bounty line.

After all, wasn’t it a black woman who served at the highest levels in the first black president’s administration who said that the (comparably modest) “violence” at the nationwide protests after the police murder of George Floyd was “right out of the Russian playbook?” So this phenomenon runs pretty deep.

Fishy From the First

Nevertheless, even a mildly objective and informed observer – or, dare I say, a professional journalist – would’ve seen bounty story-holes wide enough to run an old Soviet armor division through.

First, there was the lack of necessity. The Taliban has been rather deftly killing the best-armed, tech-savvy, and air-supported soldiers in world history for nearly two-decades now. The US military is occupying their country, providing all the motive and cause for killing these troops that they’ll ever need. The Taliban have also already won – America’s Operation Freedom’s Sentinel has been a dead man walking through a zombie war since at least 2013, when it became clear Obama’s surge didn’t work (I was there for it) any better than Bush’s had in Iraq (I caught that one too). The Taliban didn’t need Russia, nor Russia the Taliban, in order for American troopers to needlessly perish 10,000 miles from home.

Second, the suspicious timing. Strange, isn’t it – as Lee Camp sequentially and comprehensively chronicled in early July – that every single time President Trump even considered de-escalating tensions with, or pulling troops from, Syria, North Korea, Germany, or Afghanistan, reports quickly surfaced of some scandal fit to scuttle the whole thing. Whether it’s another Bashar al-Assad regime chemical attack in Syria (these more dubious than oft-assumed), unfounded allegations that North Korea executed and purged their top nuclear negotiators, or bombshell reporting (now looking like a dud) that Putin put bounties on US service members in Afghanistan, the endgame is the same. The troops stay in Syria, Germany (some, and for a while at least), or Afghanistan, and the tense status quo holds on the Korean Peninsula. Bit too convenient, that.

One other minor temporal matter: In 2010, there were also reports that the Russians were paying the Taliban bounties to kill US troops. Bet you don’t remember that Obama-era story – it was barely a blip on the media radar, and hardly any of these same figures raised a peep.

In each case, many, most, or all, of such stories’ sources were anonymous Intel officers. Which brings us to the final problem: source credibility. The initial New York Times headline reporting bounty-gate read: “Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill US Troops, Intelligence Says.” Talk about packing a remarkably unreliable punch behind a comma! Someone still needs to explain why, in the wake of scandals with now infamous touchstone titles – “WMDs,” “Libya,” “collusion,” “[Pentagon or Afghanistan] Papers,” “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs),” etc. – these spooks haven’t been totally discredited.

Frankly, I wouldn’t trust the word of “Intelligence Says” as far as I could throw it. That’s just sensible skepticism for anyone paying even cursory attention over these last two decades. Yet reporters, analysts, and TV hosts – 90 percent of them working for the same six corporate media conglomerates – buy the uncorroborated CIA snake oil and then peddle it to the people as a matter of course.

By the way, I scrolled to the bottom of that initial breaking New York Times bounty story from June 26, 2020. It hasn’t been updated since July 29, and wouldn’t you know there isn’t an iota of correction or retraction to be found.

Delusion Run Amok

According to Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO) – a former US Army infantry officer and Iraq/Afghan vet – “Vladimir Putin wakes up every morning and goes to bed every night trying to figure out how to destroy American democracy.” It’s hard to imagine a more self-centered, exceptionalist-narcissistic statement. Nor is it true. Yet the real story is how uncritically such hyperbolic rhetoric is accepted in most media circles, think tanks, legislatures, and living rooms alike. This is delusion run amok, a collective Stockholm Syndrome so severe that no one even expects a correction, retraction, or apology anymore. It also fuels forever war.

Not coincidentally, Mr. Crow – king of congressional combat veteran quislings – was the shared namesake (along with the former vice president’s daughter, Rep. Lynn Cheney (R-WY)) of the June 2020 amendment that cut-off funds for Trump’s latest planned withdrawal from America’s longest war in Afghanistan. It’s hard to imagine something more obscene than post-9/11 veteran congressmen (most backed Crow’s bill) blocking the end of a long-lost war that some 73 percent of their fellow Afghan-alumni now oppose continuing. Yet doing so on behalf of corporate defense industry interests that truly own their legislative seats, in order to score partisan points against a president they disingenuously dub a full-on traitor, seems somehow worse.

See, the worst thing about this Russia thing is it can be used to endlessly grease the endless war machine. So long as the military-industrial-complex “merchants of death” (as they were regularly labeled by senators in the 1930s) can count on CIA spooks to leak Russian bad boy stories, and pressure their bought-and-sold politicians and pundits to buy them, then they can scuttle even talk of bringing the troops home.

Russia is largely a trumped-up threat to stymie Trump. And The Donald is an unprincipled policy ignoramus without the faintest idea what to do about it. If and when he’s gone, though, a generation of successors will have learned his lessons and take heed – knowing they too could be the target of Russia- (or rising China-) baiting. So they’ll play nice, pretend to prioritize the Russian challenge, and funnel the American people’s beloved troops and tax dollars through Pentagon and on to Lockheed, Raytheon, and all the rest. Thus laundered, the money – and resultant blood – will find its way into the campaign coffers of congressmen who supposedly speak for a duped citizenry.

Should pandemic, police brutality, poverty-wages, or climate catastrophe raise the public ire enough that people hit the streets or demand and end to wars – and redirection of war-funds – well, expect a timely Russia-related reprise. Patriotism will be questioned, critics’ support for the troops become suspect, and on and on the stand quo will go. That is, unless a blundering nuclear cataclysm or the warmed and rising seas makes it all moot. But, of course, an unwillingness to take the world as it is and de-escalate or work with Russia only increases the chances of both catastrophes.

Powerful as it is, systemic American militarism isn’t quite a perpetual motion machine. Even vicious cycles have their off-ramps.

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), and director of the soon-to-launch Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, ScheerPost and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen