Dirty Tricks Revisited

In chronicling the crimes of the War Party, surely the worst, from a libertarian point of view – excluding large-scale war crimes committed on the ground in Iraq – are those that are even now inflicting fatal wounds on our political system here at home. War, as the 19th century American liberal Randolph Bourne famously put it, is the health of the State. Wartime militarizes and regiments every aspect of life, from the political culture to the economic and purely personal. War expands that which ought to remain constricted, and unleashes that which is properly chained by custom and constitution. It corrupts the old republican virtues of modesty and austerity, and replaces them with the crude and often cruel vices of Imperial Rome: extreme violence, extravagance, and arrogance bordering on hubris. The law, once rigid and unbending, becomes elastic in the hands of wartime bureaucrats, who reinterpret it – or ignore it – in the name of the “national emergency.” While noble men once debated in the Senate and set the course of the republican ship of state, in wartime, debate is minimized if not entirely ended, and the public square is given over to gaggles of conspirators. Parties meet in secret conclave, where intrigues are the only item on the agenda and all live in the shadow of assassins – including character assassins.

In a “democratic” empire, as opposed to the later Roman version, it isn’t very often necessary to round up one’s political opponents and simply slap them in jail or throw them into the arena with a couple of hungry lions. There are more efficient, and ultimately more effective, ways to crush anyone who gets in the way of the powers that be, and this is where the fine art of character assassination comes in. I discussed this to some extent in my last column, but as it happens, a far clearer and much more important case has come up since that illustrates the corrosive effects of Empire on American liberty.

I thought I’d seen everything when it came to smearing and otherwise attempting to discredit journalists and others perceived as “unpatriotic” opponents of American foreign policy – the entrapment of Scott Ritter, the libeling of George Galloway, and the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame all come immediately to mind, all of them underhanded in their own special way. But a March 17 Washington Post story by Howard Kurtz had even me gasping with incredulity:

“Someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to produce a document accusing journalist and activist William Arkin of serving as a spy for Saddam Hussein.

“The Pentagon says the supposed Defense Intelligence Agency cable is a forgery. Arkin says it’s ‘chilling’ and is demanding an investigation. The NBC News military analyst says he became aware of the bogus document when a Washington Times reporter called about the spying allegation and sent him a copy.”

According to Kurtz, the document is decked out with the “classified” insignia and contains all the right military jargon. He cites an excerpt of what purports to be a cable from an intelligence operative in the field:

“‘Preliminary reporting … indicates possible U.S. citizen William Arkin received monthly stipend for period 1994-1998 to report on quote United Nations Special Commission activities unquote. Entry in SSO [special security organization] ledger captured in Baghdad, no additional information.'”

Arkin did investigate UNSCOM at that time, working as a consultant to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan – when he discovered the Clinton administration had used UNSCOM as a cover for eavesdropping on Iraqi communications. Clearly, Arkin was not a favorite of the U.S. intelligence community at this point, and the seriousness of the effort to “get” him is revealed in another cable excerpt quoted by Kurtz:

“‘CIA exploitation of Source 8230 from Office of President SH confirms Arkin traveled to Baghdad February 1998 and November 1998 to provide information about UNSCOM plans and to discuss Desert Fox targeting.'”

The careful effort to make the charges seem plausible – after all, Arkin was in Iraq circa 1994-1998 – is thrown out the window: Arkin did not enter Iraq in 1998, and this is easily checkable. Other errors, as in military addresses and abbreviations, are also present, along with one fascinating clue that could only be a joke, albeit one authored by a comedian with a very dark sense of humor: there is “a reference to ‘proctor canular procedures,'” reports Kurtz. “Canular, [Arkin] discovered through a Google translation service, means hoax in French.”

Isn’t it a funny coincidence how much the forgery of supposedly “classified” documents has played a key role in the propaganda war over Iraq?

First, you’ll remember, there were the Niger uranium forgeries: a series of documents that purported to show how Saddam Hussein had actively tried to procure weapons-grade uranium from the African nation of Niger, which President Bush indirectly cited in his 2003 State of the Union speech. It wasn’t until after the speech was delivered, however, and the president’s announcement had been allowed to have its full effect, that the International Atomic Energy Agency revealed the documents to be completely bogus – crude forgeries that contained so many internal mistakes that it took only a few hours with the Google search engine to debunk them.

Then there was that allegedly “classified” memo, cited by administration plant/male escort Jeff Gannon, supposedly describing a meeting of a CIA task force at which covert agent Valerie Plame had gotten her husband assigned to travel to Niger to look into Saddam’s alleged uranium-procurement efforts. In an interview with Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, Gannon asked:

An internal government memo prepared by U.S. intelligence personnel details a meeting in early 2002 where your wife, a member of the agency for clandestine service working on Iraqi weapons issues, suggested that you could be sent to investigate the reports. Do you dispute that?”

But this “internal government memo” turned out to have more than a few internal inconsistencies, not the least of which was that it purported to show attendees at the meeting who could not have possibly been present. Another forgery…

Now we have another phony set of documents, this time masquerading as a “raw” intelligence report, designed to accomplish pretty much what the Gannon “memo” was created for: to discredit a political opponent and knock an obstacle out of the War Party’s path. Arkin, who insists he’s an activist and not a journalist, has nonetheless uncovered some of the biggest war stories of recent years, including the Bush administration’s “contingency plans” for using nukes against seven countries and a secret Pentagon report detailing the real problems that would accompany an American invasion of Iraq. He works for Human Rights Watch and also does consultancy work for the Air Force: he’s a former Army intelligence analyst who has worked with Greenpeace, and Kurtz describes him as “an academic, an author, a newspaper columnist, and a talking head.” He is, in short, a formidable obstacle in the path of the War Party, one that would have to be blown out of the water by nothing less than a charge of high treason – spying for Saddam.

What seems clear enough is that a group inside the U.S. government was bent on war and engaged in activities that were not quite legal – and certainly not ethical – is an effort to drag us in, by hook or by crook. That they were prepared to lie, to cheat, to smear their enemies in any way possible – all of this is beyond dispute, and is currently being investigated by U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who is looking in to the Plame case as well as the forged Niger uranium documents. Gannon, the discredited “reporter” who tried to ambush Ambassador Wilson with yet another forged “classified” report, was reportedly questioned by Fitzgerald’s investigators, or at least he is listed as being among those subpoenaed. This latest attempt to hit someone over the head with a similarly “classified” bludgeon fits a by now all-too-familiar pattern, and a sinister one at that.

Perhaps the clearest indication that there’s a lot more fire where all this smoke is concerned is the blasé attitude of U.S. government spokesmen, who openly admit the documents leaked to Kurtz are fake. DoD’s Larry DiRita:

“We certainly appreciated the fact that the journalist who had it in his possession took the time to seek a better understanding of it before filing a story on it.”

Oh, I’ll just bet they appreciate it. But they probably don’t appreciate the pall of suspicion that rightly falls on their own operation or on the integrity of their own internal processes and procedures, of which the forgers showed such a unique understanding.

Yes, but when are they going to start the investigation? Uh, it looks like … never, according to Kurtz:

“DiRita said an investigation is ‘not likely. It is probably not possible to determine the source of such a matter, and I am unaware of any involvement in it by someone inside the department that would warrant a further look.'”

To begin with, an investigation is required precisely due to the unawareness of DiRita and his bosses. While they look the other way, someone is manufacturing “classified” Pentagon internal documents and feeding them to the media – an activity that surely endangers the national interest, if not the Constitution and the rule of law, in several ways. After all, if we encourage the market in faked “classified documents,” then their quality will only improve – and surely that won’t be good news for the Pentagon.

Secondly, listening to DiRita claim he just doesn’t know where to look, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He might start with the entire sub rosa apparatus set up by the neoconservative faction, a series of parallel policy and intelligence-gathering networks the existence of which is well-documented and rather extensive. As per their usual practice – remember “Team B,” which wildly overestimated Soviet economic and military strength? – the neocons set up their own bureaucratic fiefdom inside the government: the Office of Special Plans, the Iraq Survey Group, the army of contract consultants who were assigned to write up “talking points” for administration officials hard-pressed to reconcile the case for war with the facts.

Taken together, this propaganda operation constituted an open conspiracy to embroil us in a war with Iraq by any means necessary – including a campaign of “dirty tricks” to discredit and even legally endanger the antiwar movement.

The Arkin case is nothing new. During the Vietnam War, the government ran a program called “Cointelpro” to set up and entrap opponents of intervention into illegal activities, using provocateurs and other disruptive tactics. That the same neocon creeps are carrying out the same kind of dirty work in the same vicious cause is far from shocking. What’s surprising is that the dirty tricks get dirtier – but no trickier. I mean, why in heck did someone insert a dead giveaway phrase that gives the whole game away – like a clever naughty child who wants to be caught?

In reading excerpts of these various forgeries, from the famed Niger uranium papers to the latest smear against Arkin, I always wonder: who writes this stuff? A neocon Jayson Blair, or perhaps some smartass young ideologue acting out his fantasies on the government’s dime?

“There are a lot of reasons, I guess, why people would want to do me harm,” Arkin has said, and that is surely an understatement.

In an era when legions of ostensibly “conservative” commentators are being paid by the U.S. government to spout the official Washington party line – and even this is possible – the idea of a government-subsidized journalistic “dirty tricks” operation is all too plausible.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].