"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Over the summer reporter Eli Lake of the Washington Times wrote a series of provocative stories about U.S.-Russia relations and the alleged failure of “reset,” the Obama administration’s policy to improve ties to Moscow. The most sensational ran on Page One of the Times on July 22 and led to several follow-ups. It alleged that a bomb blast near the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, the previous September had been “traced to a plot run by a Russian military intelligence officer, according to an investigation by the Georgian Interior Ministry.” The Russia officer was identified as Yevgeny Borisov.
“If true, a Russian-sponsored attack on a U.S. Embassy would constitute the most serious crisis in U.S.-Russian relations since the Cold War and put to lie any ‘reset’ in bilateral relations,” Lake quoted GOP Sen. Mark Kirk as saying of his story. A few days later, Lake reported, Kirk and four other senators — Jon Kyl, Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman and John McCain — sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanding intelligence community briefings on the incident.
Lake’s original report on the bombing was sourced exclusively to government sources in Georgia, which fought a war in 2008 with Russia, its mortal foe. For “balance” he included a quote from the Russian embassy denying any official involvement. The story was highly favorable to the Georgian government’s interests, as are a number of other stories that Lake has written about Georgia in recent years. During that period the neoconservative lobbyists at the Washington firm of Orion Strategies, which has received more than $1 million in fees from Georgia’s government since 2004, have worked closely with Lake.
Orion is run by Randy Scheunemann, a former advisor to Donald Rumsfeld who helped set up the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq and was a leading advocate for the U.S. invasion in 2003. The committee in turn was created by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), whose other leaders included Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol, founder and editor of the Weekly Standard. Scheunemann was John McCain’s foreign policy advisor during his 2008 presidential campaign, and later worked for Sarah Palin.
In 2010, Orion hired Michael Goldfarb, a McCain presidential spokesman who previously worked for PNAC and who was a contributing editor at the Weekly Standard (and who even as a lobbyist continues to periodically write for the magazine). Lake is also an ardent conservative whose reporting championed the Iraq war.
Orion seeks to create a media echo chamber on Georgia and Russia. Essentially it works like this: Tbilisi’s lobbyists generate contacts and information that they feed to sympathetic journalists. Orion frequently arranges interviews with Georgian officials and, not infrequently, stories centering on their charges magically appear soon afterward. Orion has wined and dined some reporters on its tab or picked up their travel expenses. There’s certainly nothing illegal about that but it’s worth noting that lobbyists are barred from maintaining these sorts of relationships with members of Congress because it so clearly presents, as we say in Washington, at least the appearance of impropriety.
Orion is friendly to and works with government officials and politicians who its reporter friends regularly cite (especially McCain). Orion also works very closely with experts and organizations cited by these reporters, like the Foreign Policy Initiative, whose board of directors includes William Kristol, Robert Kagan and other neocons from the PNAC and the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.
The journalists pick up on and spread each other’s work and Goldfarb, naturally, hawks their stories at his Twitter feed. Just last week, he called a new Lake story a “must read.” The piece at the Newsweek/Daily Beast, featured an exclusive interview with Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, who alleged that the bombing at the U.S. Embassy was “ordered at the most senior levels of the Russian government.” He was quoted as saying that Putin “is crazy about planning the individual details of special operations … I cannot imagine somebody touching a topic as sensitive as Georgia is for Russia, especially for Putin, without Putin having firsthand knowledge or command of it.”
Orion helps create a collective media reality that policymakers have to respond to. Other foreign governments also play this game, as do liberal and conservative interest groups, but rarely as well or so brazenly.
Disclosure records filed by Orion show that between mid-2009 and mid-2011 it set up seven interviews with senior Georgian government officials for Lake, who quoted them prominently in stories that centered on their various allegations. Lake also attended 10 events in Washington with Georgian officials or Hill staffers and had three email or phone discussions with Goldfarb about Georgia. (Orion is more thorough than most lobby shops in recording its media outreach, but that number seems improbably low given all the other help it provided Lake.) And on seven different occasions Goldfarb billed his firm for meals or drinks with Lake, usually with other journalists along, and four times with Georgian officials as dining or drinking companions.
In May of 2011, Goldfarb paid $977.24 for a dinner at Morton’s steakhouse, attended by Georgia’s Minister for Reintegration Eka Tkeleshuili, Lake and several other journalists, including Dan Halper of the Weekly Standard. This was almost surely not the last contact between Orion and Lake before the embassy bombing story ran, but lobby disclosure records are filed biannually and Orion’s last disclosure covered the period only up through June 30.
Meanwhile, in September of 2010 alone Goldfarb billed Orion $300 for a dinner at Buck’s Fishing and Camping with Lake and another reporter; $172.62 for a tab at Heritage of India for Lake, Georgia’s deputy national security advisor, and Svante Cornell of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program; and another $460 bill for “refreshments” for the latter group that same night, at Morton’s. (The previous month Lake had quoted Cornell to buttress one of his anti-Russian pieces.)
Lake’s stories have had impact, especially the report on Russia’s alleged bombing of the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi, and they have been widely circulated in the mainstream media, and even more in the conservative media. Daniel Halper of the Weekly Standard called the story a “big scoop.” Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post complained afterward that Moscow’s “human rights atrocities, campaign of intimidation and even violence haven’t caused the administration to rethink its policy of appeasement, dressed up as ‘reset’.”
Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project, concluded that while evidence for “Russian culpability in the incidents was compelling,” it was unlikely that President Dmitry Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin “would be so stupid as to order these small, nasty and counterproductive operations. These acts caused mercifully little damage in Georgia and a lot of political damage to Russia in Washington.”
Indeed, Lake, seeking to bolster his story, reported a few days later that “U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in a classified report late last year that Russia’s military intelligence was responsible for the bomb at the U.S. embassy.” He quoted an unnamed U.S. official on this classified report as saying, “It is written without hedges, and it confirms the Georgian account.”
Yet he soon filed another story that quoted an administration official as saying there was “no consensus” on responsibility for the Tbilisi blast. And then on Aug. 4 he filed yet one more dispatch saying that the CIA concluded that Borisov, the Russian officer who allegedly coordinated the attack, was “acting on orders from Russian military intelligence headquarters” but that the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research “assessed that Mr. Borisov was acting as a rogue agent.”
In other words, Lake softened his big story, and while it might be true it was perhaps too thin to have initially run on the basis of Georgian government sources. A New York Times story that followed Lake’s reporting said the “intelligence community has apparently been unable to reach a clear consensus about who is responsible for the bombings, which has revived old differences in Washington about what the United States relationship with Russia should be.”
In an email, Lake said his reporting “speaks for itself.” He acknowledged dining and drinking with Goldfarb on the seven occasions cited but said he had paid for his share of the bills.
Lake is now the national security correspondent for Daily Beast/Newsweek. Goldfarb declined to comment
In addition to Georgia, Orion Strategies has represented Macedonia and Taiwan, and a few domestic clients. Scheunemann is by all accounts an effective lobbyist. “He understands Washington well,” one of his competitors told me. “He’s good at persuading people and [his firm is] especially good with the media.” The latter is primarily due to Goldfarb, who has many reporter friends and regularly drinks with them, and a circle of conservative policy types, at Morton’s steakhouse.
Georgia and Russia fought a war in 2008 that was generally portrayed in the American media as a David vs. Goliath tale, with spunky little Georgia in the role of the former and longtime boogeyman Russia serving as the latter. Suffice it to say that the truth is more complicated than that. The fact that Georgia is strongly pro-U.S. and has sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan has no doubt helped Tbilisi sell this fairy tale to the American media.
Georgia and its lobbyists, led by Orion, have also peddled stories supporting the need for American arms sales to Tbilisi and the utter failure of “reset.” Once again, the truth is messier. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is certainly corrupt and oppressive and anti-democratic, but Mikhail Saakashvili’s Georgia exhibits the same problems, if to a lesser degree. The State Department’s human rights report has “widespread allegations of intimidation and pressure, flawed vote-counting and tabulation processes,” and says that Georgia is “dominated by a single party.” It noted a “lack of due process, government pressure on the judiciary, and that individuals remained in prison politically motivated reasons.” Even the neocon-leaning Washington Post editorial page has said “that the Russian government’s repression and corruption “does not preclude cooperation” and that the Obama reset has “achieved gains.”
Jennifer Rubin, a writer for Commentary until late 2010, is another friend of Orion. She is one of a number of right-wing versifiers whose flimsy reporting — in her case little more than eager repetition of GOP talking points and unsubstantiated terror porn — have landed them jobs at the Washington Post. Orion’s lobbyists have briefed her and set up interviews for her, and she has attended their Washington events for Georgian officials. In February of 2010, when Rubin was still at Commentary, Goldfarb billed Orion $321.88 for drinks at the posh Ten Penh restuarant, for her and several other journalists.
Rubin is a reliable mouthpiece for Georgia’s anti-Russian themes. During the week of Dec. 13, 2010, Goldfarb contacted Rubin to discuss Georgia. Eight days later, Rubin wrote an item saying that in regard to the Russia reset, “We need to examine what are we giving up and what are we getting.” She proposed the U.S. government consider “robust assistance to Georgia.” On Jan. 4 she published another item on Russia, citing a story by Lake and quoting Jamie Fly of the Foreign Policy Initiative (hear the echo?), who told her that, “Despite U.S. efforts to placate Russia in return for support on Iran, Russia has done little more than it did during the Bush administration to halt Tehran’s march toward a nuclear weapon.”
During the week of May 29 of this year, Goldfarb logged a conversation with Rubin about “Georgian security.” On June 3, she wrote a story for Washingtonpost.com that suggested it “might be an excellent time to explore” whether Russian reset was “all give and no get for the United States and the West.” Rubin’s story cited Senators Echo and Echo (McCain and Lieberman) complaining that a ‘reset’ consists “largely of acceding to Russian demands with no corresponding progress in Russian human rights or conduct toward its neighbors.”
In an email reply Rubin wrote: “My views on Russia, human rights, Eastern Europe, Georgia, etc. are long standing and well known. I invariably take the side of democracies against tyrannies.”
(Incidentally, Rubin is one of many media junketeers who have trekked off to the Middle East on the tab of pro-Israeli organizations, the true masters at spinning and pampering journalists. Earlier this year she and a group of media colleagues attended the Herzliya Conference “With the region experiencing great upheaval and Israel facing a variety of domestic and international challenges, this is a particularly opportune time to hear from Israelis and listen to Israeli officials,” she wrote at the time. Airline and travel expenses, she disclosed, were picked up by the Emergency Committee for Israel whose board includes Kristol and whose chief advisers include Goldfarb.)
Goldfarb also logged multiple contacts with Matthew Continetti, an associate editor at the Weekly Standard, including five meals or drinks he paid for from his Orion expense account. In March of 2010, the Orion lobbyist had a “lunch discussion” on Georgia at the Blue Duck Tavern with Continetti and two others from the Weekly Standard. The same month he and Continetti dined –on Goldfarb’s tab, according to disclosure filings, for $209.68 –at Shelley’s Backroom.
Two months later, Orion paid for Continetti and several other journalists and John Noonan of the FPI to travel to Tbilisi and for their lodging there. Goldfarb accompanied them (as did Scheunemann) and reported spending $1,125.06 on drinks and meals for Continetti and other members of his posse. The following month Continetti wrote an embarrassing story (even by the promiscuous standards of the Weekly Standard) titled “In Russia’s Shadow: The surprising resilience of Georgian democracy.” It praised Saakashvili’s government for its policies on everything from electrification to economics.
“Right now the big domestic initiative is an economic freedom bill. If it passes, referendums will be required for all tax increases, and Georgia’s debt-to-GDP ratio will be capped at 60 percent. Mention these reforms to American libertarians, and their mouths water.”
Continenti’s byline acknowledged that he “visited Georgia on a trip sponsored by its government,” which doesn’t change the fact that this was more an exercise in public relations than journalism. Essentially, his story was a piece of propaganda bought and paid for by lobbyists for the Georgian government.
Continetti has written a number of other stories on Georgia that didn’t mention his ties to Orion, including an August 2010 story that cited Lake’s reporting and carried the headline of “Time to Reset ‘Reset’; Russian intransigence on every front.”
Continetti did not reply to a request for comment.
In February of 2009, James Kirchick, an assistant editor at the New Republic, wrote an article called “Pravda on the Potomac; Russian propaganda descends on Washington,” which criticized Moscow’s use of P.R. firms to manipulate the American media. In order to “whitewash its increasing authoritarianism,” Kirchick wrote, Russia’s public relations flunkies had spent “a lot of time trying to soften up the press” and sought to “wine, dine, and flatter” journalists and VIPs “into a certain sympathy for the Russian perspective.” Moscow’s handlers, especially Ketchum Inc., had scored “press coups” by setting up interviews with Russian government officials and had even capitalized on their personal relationships by reaching out to politicians they knew.
Orion does precisely the same sort of work with journalists that Ketchum does, yet Kirchik has worked closely with its lobbyists on behalf of Georgia. He joined the Goldfarb-financed gatherings at Ten Penh and Buck’s Fishing and Camping mentioned above. Orion has arranged interviews for him with Georgian officials. Apparently the press is being educated by lobbyists who work for the side you’re on, but is being “softened up” when they work for the other side.
Kirchick also was one of the journalists along with Goldfarb and Continetti on the Georgia junket — which took place little more than a year after his “Pravda on the Potomac” article ran. His “Letter From Tbilisi: Russia on their Mind” hailed “the young and exuberantly pro-Western” Saakashvili. He described Georgia as “a small, embattled democracy in a tough neighborhood.” The piece said “government ministries in Tbilisi feel like the offices of McKinsey & Company.” (Which apparently is a good thing.)
Kirchick, who noted in the story that his trip was sponsored by Georgia, said in a phone conversation from Prague, where he is based:
Most governments lobby in Washington; the question it comes down to is how you view that government. I don’t think it’s hypocritical to write about Russian lobbying, which was new at the time, and then go on the trip to Georgia as long as I disclosed that it was sponsored by their government. I’m an opinion journalist and I’m obviously more partial to Georgia than to Russia. The suggestion that I wrote anything more supportive of Georgia because I went on the trip or Goldfarb bought me a drink doesn’t hold up.
Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy has had frequent contacts with Orion on Georgia as well; Goldfarb logged 12 discussions by phone or email, as well as three interviews with Georgian government officials, including the president and the prime minister. In March of 2010, according to disclosure filings, Goldfarb spent $884.95 on hockey tickets for a game at the Verizon Center that Rogin attended.
More than other reporters discussed here, Rogin has been fair-minded in his items on Georgia and he reaches out to all sides. Yet on balance his stories are broadly sympathetic to Tbilisi. These include one titled “Russia threatens to wreck the reset” and another in March of last year that was based on an “exclusive interview” with Saakashvili arranged by Orion. It was, predictably, a softball affair.
“I meet with a wide variety of officials and consultants as part of my regular reporting duties in a variety of settings, and I’m confident my stories reflect my commitment to objectivity and include the widest range of views available,” Rogin said in a reply by email. He said that the Georgian ambassador to the U.S. was supposed to attend the hockey game but didn’t turn up.
Hacks and reporters
In the end, I found it unpleasant to write this story. When I first heard the broad details about it — from a source that is pro-Russian but not a lobbyist and no one I knew previously — it sounded like a fast, simple slam dunk. It didn’t turn out that way and when I examined Orion’s disclosure records I discovered that I knew and liked a number of the journalists that Goldfarb worked with, especially Eli Lake, whose politics and journalistic conclusions I generally disagree with but who is a tireless reporter who breaks important stories. One of the magazines in question has commissioned my work. When Howard Kurtz attacked me for an undercover piece that exposed sleazy Washington lobbyists, Kirchick defended me. Orion also represents an organization affiliated with George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, which funds some of my current research (though not this article).
Which, in part, is exactly why working in Washington is so difficult. It’s a small town where politicians and lobbyists and P.R. specialists and journalists know each other and socialize together, and especially when they share a given political point of view. It frequently leads to groupthink and can be ethically challenging.
I’m not proposing here that journalists working with Orion are writing anything they don’t believe or that Goldfarb bought them off with a meal (or sometimes a few). But I also can’t buy Kirchick’s position that it all comes down to who’s doing the lobbying and how that jibes with your personal opinion. That may be true for hacks like Rubin. But those reporting on and analyzing complex foreign policy issues for the public consumption should be more critical, not less, of points of view they are sympathetic to.
Essentially, the argument is that it’s OK to keep this sort of company with lobbyists because everyone else does. That doesn’t seem adequate, even if true. Other explanations I heard (often on a not-for-attribution basis and sometimes from journalists not cited here but familiar with Orion’s work) also seemed unconvincing: They said they were friends of Goldfarb, sometimes pre-dating their Georgia reporting, and so they alternated picking up the check or thought it was OK for him to pay their bill.
The point here that it isn’t that Russia is the good guy and Georgia is the bad guy. It’s that the situation is more complicated than it often appears in the American media, which stems in part from the outsize influence of Orion. The government of Georgia is well served by that relationship, the American public not so much.
Ken Silverstein is a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine and an Open Society fellow. Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.More Ken Silverstein.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)