(Fox News/Photo montage by Salon)

Fox News' bogus CIA terror analyst fed off a nation hooked on lies: Wayne Simmons is a symptom of a much deeper disease

Simmons' crime wasn't lying about Islam but getting caught — and lifting the veil on the media propaganda machine

Andrew O'Hehir
October 21, 2015 2:58AM (UTC)

So a Fox News “terrorism expert” who claimed to be a former CIA operative has turned out to be neither of those things, but rather a con man with an apparent criminal record who bamboozled the network, the United States government and millions of viewers for many years. Here’s my question: Why is anyone surprised? Our entire media discussion of terrorism and Islam and national security and war and foreign policy in general is driven (to paraphrase Mark Twain) by lies, damned lies, made-up or distorted statistics and rampant paranoia. Virtually everything the American people think they know about the world is the product of a sophisticated but nearly invisible propaganda-recirculation machine that would make Joseph Goebbels bow his head in awe and humility. Wayne Simmons is just the guy who took it a little too far and got caught.

No doubt the sheer brazenness of Simmons’ scam is newsworthy, and so is its alleged scope: According to the murky news stories we have seen so far, Simmons leveraged his entirely fictional CIA career into some kind of shadowy contract work for the Pentagon, and was perhaps stationed overseas “as an intelligence adviser to senior military officers,” in the words of a Reuters story. Simmons evidently applied for a high-level national security clearance, which is one of the reasons he was arrested on fraud charges last week. Some reports have suggested that he actually received such a clearance, but the facts have yet to come into focus. Fox host Neil Cavuto deserves credit for offering viewers a straight-up apology for relying on this sinister huckster, especially since no one else on the network has yet done so. But in attempting to spread the blame, Cavuto added that Simmons “might have fooled many others, including no less than former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.”


That would be funny if it weren’t horrible, and I guess it’s both. See, Neil, it’s like this: When you try to defend yourself against an egregious lapse in judgment by saying, well, maybe I behaved like a gullible and credulous ass who just wanted to believe all kinds of crap that wasn’t true -- but at least I’m no worse than Mr. Stuff Happens, Mr. Known Unknowns, Mr. Evidence of Absence? At least I’m right there alongside the Jedi Master of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit who presided over the ultimate Bad Idea Gone Wrong, the worst foreign-policy disaster of the 21st century to date and the most grievous self-inflicted injury since Vietnam? Other people in town – the really crazy ones -- said that old lady was a witch too! It’s just not that good of a defense.

Is it startling and depressing that some bozo can allegedly get a Defense Department contract for God only knows how many taxpayer dollars, just by putting up a website claiming that he spent 27 years in the CIA as part of an “Outside Paramilitary Special Operations Group” who “spearheaded Deep Cover Intel Ops against some of the world’s most dangerous Drug Cartels”? And that Don Rumsfeld and his underlings in the Pentagon were so turned on by Simmons’ tough talk and virile mustache that they never bothered to check whether he was making up the whole story about having worked for a closely allied branch of the United States government, or felt alarmed by his sustained assault of Proper Nouns? Well, sure it is. But I ask again: What else is new?

In former New York Times reporter James Risen’s 2014 book “Pay Any Price,” an important investigative work that brought great discomfort to both Risen’s former employer and the U.S. government, you get the strong sense that cases like Wayne Simmons are less uncommon than we’d like to believe. We don’t know the whole Simmons story yet, but it doesn’t sound like he scammed the government anywhere near as spectacularly as Dennis Montgomery did.


As Risen explains, Montgomery was a compulsive gambler and con man who had previously tried to sell casino operators in Reno, Nevada, a software package that could supposedly catch cheaters. They didn’t want it, because it didn’t work. So Montgomery moved on from the canny sophisticates of Reno to the hopeless rubes of the Rumsfeld-era Pentagon, who paid him millions of dollars for a sexed-up version of the same software, on the premise that it could detect coded al-Qaida messages concealed within Al Jazeera TV broadcasts. There were no such messages, of course, but Montgomery’s hoax could have led to tragedy and disaster: At one point his phony software sent up an alarm that led the Bush White House to consider shooting down a passenger plane over the Atlantic Ocean.

To circle back to my original point, these are only the guys who have been exposed and cast into disrepute. Montgomery’s embarrassing saga was thoroughly hushed up until Risen got hold of it, and Wayne Simmons is about to become the scapegoat for the entire industry of bogus terrorism expertise. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve it, but exclaiming self-righteously over Simmons' misdeeds and sending him to prison amounts to whitewashing such self-appointed experts as Steven Emerson, David Horowitz, Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney, who represent exactly the same ideology of paranoia and Islamophobia and spread precisely the same falsehoods, but without falsifying their credentials quite so egregiously.

The only good thing you can say about Emerson, who has been a cable-news staple since the 1990s and runs a shady nonprofit called the Investigative Project on Terrorism that attracts millions in right-wing foundation funding, is that he has no academic or governmental credentials beyond his media celebrity, and does not claim any. (IPT channels most of the money it raises to a for-profit “research” business whose sole employee is, you guessed it, Steven Emerson.) Yet this guy keeps on showing up on TV, year after year, saying stuff that is flat-out untrue: In 1995 he told us that the Oklahoma City bombing was the work of Islamic militants. In 2013 he told us that the Boston Marathon bombing had been carried out by a “Saudi national” who was then spirited out of the country.


In between those episodes, Emerson has led crusades against Arab or Muslim intellectuals who are critical of Israel, has demonized virtually every American Muslim activist or civil-rights organization as supporters of terrorism, and has suggested that there is a “quasi-alliance” between radical Islamists and radical leftists. (It’s true, both groups share a sinister agenda: They think Emerson is an ass, and they find his orange, ferret-like, sub-Trumpian hairdo increasingly disturbing.) He has claimed that President Obama is shielding former ISIS fighters in the United States from FBI surveillance, and has repeatedly said that his own truth-telling has made him an assassination target for Islamic fundamentalists. (When asked by a reporter some years ago whether there was any truth to that, an unwary FBI agent responded: “No, none at all.”)

Emerson was the guy who infamously informed Fox viewers last January that the city of Birmingham, in the English Midlands, was “a Muslim-only city” where infidels dared not venture. This led British Prime Minister David Cameron, a Tory aristocrat and in no sense a lefty Islam-coddler, to describe Emerson as “a complete idiot.” Emerson was forced to apologize, saying he had “relied on sources he had used in the past” who had proven faulty. Those sources being what, and where – deep in his butt? In about 14 seconds on Wikipedia, I determined that the population of Birmingham is currently estimated at 58 percent white, about 46 percent Christian and less than 22 percent Muslim. But those would be facts, and the entire basis of the right-wing media propaganda recirculation machine established since 9/11 is that facts don’t matter. Only fear matters.


In terms of their fact-free claims and inflammatory paranoid rhetoric, there is almost no difference between the now-discredited Simmons, the utterly uncredentialed and ubiquitously incorrect Emerson and the others I have mentioned (which is not by any means a complete list). How many Americans now believe that Paris and many other European cities have “no-go zones” ruled by Sharia law, or that there are “at least 19 paramilitary Muslim training facilities” in the U.S. (as Simmons once told Cavuto), false and outrageous claims that were put forward with no evidence and have now been repeated numerous times by more or less mainstream media outlets and more or less legitimate politicians?

On a larger scale, most of our media and political cycle consists of mainlining fear into the collective American mind, stripped of any context or logic or evidence. Most of it is delivered more subtly than what we get from Emerson and Simmons and Geller and Horowitz, who are extremely useful to the Republican Party and the national-security establishment but need to be kept at arm’s length (unless you’re openly going for crazy or stupid, e.g., Donald Trump or Bobby Jindal).

Hell, how many Americans believe that Obama has raised taxes to record highs, or that illegal immigrants are flooding across the border in record numbers? How many people believe that wasteful social programs are to blame for our national debt, that free-market capitalism is guaranteed to bring prosperity to all and that Americans lead longer, healthier and happier lives than Europeans (ruled as they are by Sharia and socialism and other forms of unfreedom)? Those things are not remotely true or approximately true or halfway true. They’re just lies, brilliantly woven into a suffocating ideological fabric that smothers democracy and snuffs out the possibility of social change. We are a nation hooked on lies, and Wayne Simmons’ only mistake was that his lies weren’t good enough.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'HehirFOLLOW andohehirLIKE Andrew O'Hehir

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •