The Nixonian henchmen of today: at the NYT

In the wake of horrific Iraq War revelations, the media's key question: What's Julian Assange really like?

Published October 24, 2010 3:25PM (EDT)

(updated below)

After Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, exposing the lies, brutality and inhumanity that drove America's role in the Vietnam War, President Nixon and Henry Kissinger infamously plotted to smear his reputation and destroy his credibility.  As History Commons puts it in its richly documented summary of those events:  

President Nixon authorizes the creation of a "special investigations unit," later nicknamed the "Plumbers," to root out and seal media leaks. The first target is Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press (see June 13, 1971); the team will burglarize the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding, in hopes of securing information that the White House can use to smear Ellsberg's character and undermine his credibility . . . .

Nixon aide John Ehrlichman passes on the president’s recommendations to the heads of the "Plumbers," Egil Krogh and David Young (see July 20, 1971), regarding "Pentagon Papers" leaker Daniel Ellsberg (see Late June-July 1971). . . . Within days, Keogh and Young will give Ehrlichman a memo detailing the results of investigations into Ellsberg and a dozen of Ellsberg's friends, family members, and colleagues. . . .

This weekend, WikiLeaks released over 400,000 classified documents of the Iraq War detailing genuinely horrific facts about massive civilian death, U.S. complicity in widespread Iraqi torture, systematic government deceit over body counts, and the slaughter of civilians by American forces about which Daniel Ellsberg himself said, as the New York Times put it: "many of the civilian deaths there could be counted as murder."

Predictably, just as happened with Ellsberg, there is now a major, coordinated effort underway to smear WikiLeaks' founder, Julian Assange, and to malign his mental health -- all as a means of distracting attention away from these highly disturbing revelations and to impede the ability of WikiLeaks to further expose government secrets and wrongdoing with its leaks.  But now, the smear campaign is led not by Executive Branch officials, but by members of the establishment media.  As the intelligence community reporter Tim Shorrock wrote today on Twitter:  "When Dan Ellsberg leaked [the] Pentagon Papers, Nixon's henchmen tried to destroy his reputation. Today w/Wikileaks & Assange, media does the job."

Yesterday, Assange walked out of an interview with CNN, which he thought had been arranged to discuss the significance of the Iraq War revelations, because the CNN "reporter" seemed interested in asking only about petty, vapid rumors about Assange himself, not the substance of the leaks.  The Nation's Greg Mitchell summarized that interview this way:  "Assange to CNN: 'Do you want to talk about deaths of 104,000 people or my personal life?'"  CNN's answer could not have been clearer:  the latter, definitely.

But the low point of this smear campaign was led by The New York Times' John Burns, who authored a sleazy hit piece on Assange -- filled with every tawdry, scurrilous tabloid rumor about him -- that was (and still is) prominently featured in the NYT, competing for attention with the stories about the leaked documents themselves, and often receiving more attention.  Here's the current iteration of the front page of the NYT website, with the Assange story receiving top billing:

It shouldn't be surprising that Burns is filling the role played in 1971 by Henry Kissinger and John Ehrichman.  His courageous and high-quality war reporting from Iraq notwithstanding, it's long been clear from his U.S.-glorifying accounts that Burns was one of the media's most enthusiastic supporters of the occupation of Iraq.  That's why even the NYT-hating necons regularly lavished him (along with Judy Miller's partner, Michael Gordon) with uncharacteristic praise (National Review's Michael Ledeen:  "Rich [Lowry, Editor of National Review] and I share an admiration for Michael Gordon, one of three (along with Burns and Filkens) NYT reporters who really work hard to get the Iraqi story right").  To justify and excuse his and his media colleagues' gullibility about Iraq, Burns wrote two months ago -- falsely -- that "there were few, if any, who foresaw the extent of the violence that would follow or the political convulsion it would cause in Iraq, America and elsewhere" and that "[w]e could not know then, though if we had been wiser we might have guessed, the scale of the toll the invasion would unleash."

The Iraq War is John Burns' war, and for the crime of making that war look bad, Julian Assange must have his character smeared and his psychiatric health maligned.  Burns -- along with his co-writer Ravi Somaiya -- is happy to viciously perform that function:

Julian Assange moves like a hunted man. . . . He demands that his dwindling number of loyalists use expensive encrypted cellphones and swaps his own as other men change shirts. He checks into hotels under false names, dyes his hair, sleeps on sofas and floors, and uses cash instead of credit cards, often borrowed from friends. . . .

Now it is not just governments that denounce him: some of his own comrades are abandoning him for what they see as erratic and imperious behavior, and a nearly delusional grandeur unmatched by an awareness that the digital secrets he reveals can have a price in flesh and blood. . . .

Effectively, as Mr. Assange pursues his fugitive's life, his leadership is enforced over the Internet. Even remotely, his style is imperious. . . .

When Herbert Snorrason, a 25-year-old political activist in Iceland, questioned Mr. Assange's judgment over a number of issues in an online exchange last month, Mr. Assange was uncompromising. "I don’t like your tone," he said, according to a transcript. "If it continues, you're out." . . . In an interview about the exchange, Mr. Snorrason’s conclusion was stark. "He is not in his right mind," he said.

Mr. Assange's detractors also accuse him of pursuing a vendetta against the United States.  In London, Mr. Assange said America was an increasingly militarized society and a threat to democracy. Moreover, he said, "we have been attacked by the United States, so we are forced into a position where we must defend ourselves."

Richard Nixon and his plumbers could have only dreamed about being able to dispatch journalists to dutifully smear whistle-blowers in this manner.  And all of that is totally independent of the lengthy discussion which Burns predictably includes of the unproven rape and harassment allegations against Assange.  Apparently, faced with hundreds of thousands of documents vividly highlighting stomach-turning war crimes and abuses -- death squads and widespread torture and civilian slaughter all as part of a war he admired for years and which his newspaper did more than any other single media outlet to enable -- John Burns and his NYT editors decided that the most pressing question from this leak is this:  what's Julian Assange really like?  

"Erratic and imperious behavior."  "Delusional grandeur. "Imperious." "A vendetta against the United States." "Not in his right mind."   Burns didn't even bother to break into Assange's psychiatrist's office to smear the whistle-blower as a psychologically ill, America-hating subversive and paranoid narcissist.  He just passed on snide rumors and accusations from disgruntled associates and -- presto -- the Nixonian smear job is complete.  Of course, even for a borderline-sociopath, the guilt that one must experience for having enabled and cheered on a War that led to the amount of human suffering evident in these documents must be immense.  The temptation to smear the messenger is undoubtedly a strong one.  But no matter how much distracting sleaze Burns and his newspaper wallow in and spew at Assange, that damn spot won't come out.

What makes Burns' role here all the more ironic is that he was one of the media ring-leaders who attacked and condemned Michael Hastings for revealing, in Rolling Stone, the truth about the mindset of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was running America's war in Afghanistan.  In the wake of the McChrystal article and resignation, Burns went on right-wing talk radio with Hugh Hewitt and blasted Hastings for violating some unspoken code -- that seems to exist only in Burns' head -- that calls for people like Gen. McChrystal to be protected by journalists from truths that may harm them.  Said Burns of Hastings' article:

I think it's very unfortunate that it has impacted, and will impact so adversely, on what had been pretty good military/media relations. I think, you know, well, this will be debated down the years, the whole issue as to how it came about that Rolling Stone had that kind of access. My unease, if I can be completely frank about this, is that from my experience of traveling and talking to generals, McChrystal, Petraeus and many, many others over the past few years, is that the old on-the-record/off-the-record standard doesn't really meet the case, which is to say that by the very nature of the time you spend with the generals, the same could be said to be true of the time that a reporter spends with anybody in the public eye. There are moments which just don't fit that formula. There are long, informal periods traveling on helicopters over hostile territory with the generals chatting over their headset, bunking down for the night side by side on a piece of rough-hewn concrete. You build up a kind of trust. It's not explicit, it's just there. And my feeling is that it's the responsibility of the reporter to judge in those circumstances what is fairly reportable, and what is not, and to go beyond that, what it is necessary to report.

So when it comes to top Generals running a war, it's the duty of reporters to conceal from the public statements made by the General, even when they're not off-the-record and even when they're clearly relevantbased on the so-called "trust" that a reporter and military officials "build up" together.  But when it comes to people like Julian Assange -- who are not prosecuting American wars but exposing the truth about them (which is supposed to be a journalist's job) -- no such discretion is warranted.  There, everything is fair game, including posing as an amateur psychiatrist issuing diagnoses of mental illness and passing on the most scurrilous accusations about personality, character and psyche.

None of this is to say that WikiLeaks and Assange shouldn't be subject to scrutiny.  Anyone playing a significant role in political life should be, including them.  But Julian Assange's personality traits have absolutely nothing to do with the infinitely more significant revelations of this leak.  They shed zero light on these documents, the authenticity of which is not in question.  Focusing on the tabloid aspects of Assange's personal life can have no effect -- and no purpose -- other than to distract public attention away from the heinous revelations about this war and America's role in it, and to cripple WikiLeaks' ability to secure and disseminate future leaks. 

It's not hard to see why The New York Times, CNN and so many other establishment media outlets are eager to do that.  Serving the Government's interests, siding with government and military officials, and attacking government critics is what they do.  That's their role.  That's what makes them the "establishment media."  Beyond that, the last thing they want is renewed recognition of what an evil travesty the attack on Iraq was, given the vital role they know they played in helping to bring it about and sustain it for all those years (that's the same reason establishment journalists, almost by consensus, opposed any investigations into the Bush crimes they ignored, when they weren't cheering them on).  And by serving as the 2010 version of the White House Plumbers -- acting as attack dogs against the Pentagon's enemies -- they undoubtedly buy themselves large amounts of good will with those in power, always their overarching goal.  It is indeed quite significant and revealing that the John Ehrlichmans and Henry Kissingers of today are found at America's largest media outlets.  Thanks to them, the White House doesn't even need to employ its own smear artists.

* * * * *

The week of November 1, I'll be appearing at several colleges for speaking events.  On Monday, November 1, I'll be in Olympia, Washington, speaking at South Puget Sound Community College on civil liberties and Terrorism in the age of Obama.  On Wednesday, November 3, I'll be at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, speaking on the same topic.  And on Friday, November 5, I'll be at NYU Law School, speaking about Terrorism and the First Amendment.  I'll post details as the events approach, but they're all free and open to the public, so anyone in those areas is encouraged to attend.


UPDATE:  Greg Mitchell reports on CNN's Reliable Sources, starring Howard Kurtz, this morning: 

You will never, ever hear people like Kurtz, or John Burns, using these kinds of disparaging insults for any American political or military official with actual power -- not even (especially not) the ones whose "delusions" about Saddam's nuclear clouds and team of mad chemical scientists and alliances with Al Qaeda caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings, the displacement of millions more, and human suffering and misery on an unimaginable scale.  As Burns explained, with those people:  "You build up a kind of trust. It's not explicit, it's just there. And my feeling is that it’s the responsibility of the reporter to judge in those circumstances what is fairly reportable, and what is not, and to go beyond that, what it is necessary to report."

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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