How the U.S. government uses its media servants to attack real journalism

A vital investigative report by Jeremy Scahill is first ignored, and then maligned, by subservient media outlets

Published July 15, 2011 11:16AM (EDT)

(updated below)

"The US has stopped running its global network of secret prisons, CIA director Leon Panetta has announced. 'CIA no longer operates detention facilities or black sites,' Mr Panetta said in a letter to staff" - BBC, April 9, 2009


Earlier this week, the truly intrepid investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill published in The Nation one of the most significant political exposés of the year.  Entitled "the CIA's Secret Sites in Somalia," the article documented that the CIA uses and effectively controls a secret prison in Mogadishu, where foreign nationals who are rendered off the streets of their countries (at the direction of the U.S.) are taken (along with Somali nationals) to be imprisoned with no due process and interrogated (by U.S. agents).  Although Somali government agents technically operate the facility, that is an obvious ruse: "US intelligence personnel pay the salaries of intelligence agents and also directly interrogate prisoners" and are "there full-time," Scahill reported.  On Democracy Now on Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed it has no knowledge of this secret prison.  

This arrangement, as Scahill told me yesterday, is consistent with standard Obama administration practice: "they continue even the most controversial Bush terrorism policies by having some other government technically operate it so they can keep their fingerprints off it."  Indeed, the administration has even resorted to this playbook by using "torture by proxy" -- as we saw when the Kuwait government, with at least the complicity if not direction of the U.S., detained and beat American teenager Gulet Mohamed during interrogation sessions.  Just yesterday, a federal judge "reacted skeptically" to the Obama DOJ's demands for dismissal of a lawsuit (on secrecy grounds) brought by an American citizen imprisoned for four months in Africa, where "U.S. officials threatened him with torture, forced disappearance and other serious harm unless he confessed to ties with al-Qaida in Somalia." 

Scahill's discovery of this secret prison in Mogadishu -- this black site -- calls into serious doubt the Obama administration's claims to have ended such practices and establishes a serious human rights violation on its own.  As Harper's Scott Horton put it, the Nation article underscores how the CIA is "maintaining a series of 'special relationships' under which cooperating governments maintain[] proxy prisons for the CIA," and "raises important questions" about "whether the CIA is using a proxy regime there to skirt Obama's executive order" banning black sites and torture.

Despite the significance of this revelation -- or, more accurately, because of it -- the U.S. establishment media has almost entirely ignored this story.  Scahill thus far has given a grand total of two television interviews: on Democracy Now and Al Jazeera.  No major television news network -- including MSNBC -- has even mentioned his story.  Generally speaking, Republicans don't care that the worst abuses of the Bush era are continuing, and Democrats (who widely celebrated Dana Priest's 2006 Pulitzer Prize winning story about Bush's CIA black cites) don't want to hear that it's true. 

Meanwhile, the CIA has been insisting that discussion of this Mogadishu site could jeopardize its operations in Somalia, and while that typical, manipulative tactic didn't stop Scahill from informing the citizenry about this illicit behavior, it has (as usual) led government-subservient American media stars to refrain from discussing it.  Indeed, Scahill said that this site is such common knowledge in Mogadishu (where even ordinary residents call it "that CIA building") that he'd be "very surprised" if international reporters who cover Somalia were unaware of it; he has confirmed with certainty that at least one correspondent covering East Africa for one of the world's leading media outlets was aware of, but never reported, the CIA's role at this secret prison.

While the establishment media has been largely ignoring Scahill's revelations, a few particularly government-pleasing journalists have been dutifully following the CIA's script in order to undermine the credibility of Scahill's story.  CNN's long-time Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr -- one of the most reliable DoD stenographers in the nation (she actually announced that the real Abu Ghraib scandal was the unauthorized release of the photographs, not the abuse they depicted) -- has been predictably tapped by the CIA to take the lead in this effort.  Earlier this week, Starr filed a truly incredible report -- based exclusively on a "U.S. official" to whom she naturally granted anonymity -- that had no purpose other than to refute Scahill's report even though Starr never once mentioned that report:

CIA operatives have secretly traveled to Mogadishu, Somalia, to help interrogate terrorism suspects about operations in East Africa and Yemen, a senior U.S. official told CNN Tuesday.

The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, stressed any suspects were under the control of Somali forces and the CIA was present only in "support" of interrogations in recent months. He described the number of times the CIA was present as "very small," adding that he would only say it was "one or two times."

"Only on very rare occasion does the CIA support debriefings of suspected terrorists who are in TFG (Transitional Federal Government) custody," the official told CNN.

Starr pretended that this was a headline-making scoop for CNN -- that a CIA official had bravely revealed some sort of unauthorized secret to her: that the CIA "helps" interrogate a "very small" number of Terrorism suspects in Somalia in a "support" role -- when it was plainly nothing more than an effort to undermine Scahill's report by claiming that the CIA's role was extremely limited (nothing more than a little help given to the Somalis) and that it was Somalia that controlled, ran and maintained responsibility for the prison.  Not only did Starr never mention the key facts -- that this prison is kept secret from the ICRC and imprisons detainees without due process who are rendered from other nations at the behest of the U.S. and that the CIA pays the agents there -- but she also helpfully wrote down that "the CIA gets assurances from the [Somali government] that detainees will not be mistreated," and then added that the real significance of the story is that it "underscores the growing U.S. concern about the rise of terrorist networks in the region."

In sum, Starr was handed a CIA press release that falsely denied the key elements of Scahill's story, which she then disguised as an anonymous unauthorized leak that she uncovered.  She slothfully and obediently disseminated CIA claims designed to minimize its role in this prison without lifting a finger to resolve the differences between those denials and the numerous facts Scahill uncovered which proved how extensive the CIA's control of the prison (and the rendition program that fills it) actually is.  

It's not just lazy but deceitful: uncritically printing anonymous government denials while dressing it up as her own discovery (once Nation representatives complained to CNN, she tacked on this sentence at the end: "Parts of the story initially appeared in the magazine The Nation on Tuesday").  Whether it was Starr who contacted the CIA to obtain this "story" (unlikely) or the CIA which tapped Starr on the head and directed her to print this and she then dutifully complied (far more likely), this was a joint effort by the U.S. Government and its CNN servant to undermine Scahill and his story while appearing not to do so.

Serving the same purpose was this ABC News report by Luis Martinez, which at least has the virtue of being more honest than Starr's report:  ABC doesn't pretend to do anything other than serve as obedient stenographer to the CIA by uncritically writing down and passing on the statements of an anonymous Government official in denying Scahill's report.  Leaving aside the slovenly practice of granting anonymity to government officials to do nothing other than issue official government claims -- so common a tactic of journalistic malpractice as to not merit comment at this point -- the article does nothing other than print the same CIA claims without expending a molecule of energy to determine if the claims are true. 

Worse, ABC allows the CIA to depict Scahill's report as false by uncritically printing the blatant strawmen against which the CIA rails ("CIA Doesn’t Run Secret Prison in Somalia" . . . CIA "refutes a report that the agency runs a secret prison in that unstable country" . . . "A story published in The Nation said that the CIA was running a secret prison to house and interrogate terror suspects").  The whole point of Scahill's article is that while the Somalis exercise nominal control over the prison, that's merely a "plausible deniability" ruse to allow the U.S. to use it at will, as evidenced by the fact that the CIA pays those agents and is continuously present.  The "denials" uncritically printed by ABC confirm and bolster Scahill's story, not "refute" it.  

Worse still, the ABC report justifies the CIA program by quoting the anonymous CIA official as describing the program as "the logical and prudent thing to do."  ABC then helpfully adds that "senior U.S. officials have expressed concern that al Shabab may be trying to expand its terror operations beyond Somalia" and that " U.S. government officials worry that those lawless regions might become a safe haven for al Shabab and other terror groups."  There is no discussion -- zero -- of the illegal aspects of maintaining a secret prison, the dangers of allowing unchecked renditions of prisoners to Somalia hidden from international human rights monitoring, or the likely violations of Obama's highly-touted Executive Orders.  Like Starr's CNN report, this article is nothing more than a CIA Press Release masquerading as an ABC News "news article," the by-product of a joint effort by the CIA and another establishment news outlet to make Scahill's report look erroneous, sloppy and irrelevant.

Just consider what happened here.  Scahill uncovered this secret prison because he went to Mogadishu -- dangerously unembedded, as very few journalists are willing to do -- and spent 9 days there aggressively digging around.  By contrast, Starr published her report by being handed a CIA script which she blindly read from without any other work, and ABC's Martinez then did the same.  But it's CNN and ABC that are considered -- by themselves and establishment D.C. mavens -- to be the Serious Journalists, while Scahill's report is heard only on Democracy Now and Al Jazeera.  That's because "Serious Journalism" in Washington means writing down what government officials tell you to say, and granting them anonymity to ensure they have no accountability.  

Through this method, the U.S. Government need not directly attack real journalists.  They simply activate their journalistic servants to do it for them, and those servants then dutifully comply, this ensuring that they will continue to be chosen as vessels for future official messages. 


UPDATE:  Last night, Scahill also appeared on RT's The Alyona Show to discuss his report, bringing his total number of TV interviews to 3 (like Democracy Now and Al Jazeera, RT also covers vital stories that the establishment media steadfastly ignores, which is why it's despised and mocked by DC media stars).

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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