Editorial Column: The Government, the Media, and Afghanistan


September 11, 2008 – On the night of August 22, the U.S. committed what Chris Floyd, in a richly detailed and amply documented piece, calls an “atrocity” in the Afghan village of Azizabad, near the western city of Herat. The U.S. conducted a massive midnight airstrike on the village, killing scores of unarmed civilians, including large numbers of women and children. That was preceded just weeks earlier by another U.S. airstrike in Eastern Afghanistan which “killed 27 people in a wedding party — most of them women and children, including the bride.”

What makes the Azizabad attack particularly notable is the blatant and now clearly demonstrated lying engaged in by the U.S. Government regarding this incident, with the eager propagandistic assistance of what we are constantly told is the “legitimate news arm” of Fox News — namely, Brit Hume’s show and his stable of “legitimate news reporters.” Working in unison, Fox and the Pentagon continuously denied claims that large numbers of civilians had been killed in the airstrike, accusing the villagers of lying and U.N. investigators of having been “duped.” But a mountain of documentary evidence and independent investigations have now conclusively confirmed that it was the U.S. Government that was lying and the villagers’ claims which were true all along, forcing the military to “reinvestigate” its own conclusions.

While local villagers, the Afghan government, U.N. investigators, and independent journalists all insisted that the U.S. air attack resulted in the slaughter of 95 civilians, including 50 children, and killed no Taliban fighters, the U.S. military repeatedly issued vehement denials of those claims, insisting for weeks “that only 5 to 7 civilians, and 30 to 35 militants, were killed in what it [said] was a successful operation against the Taliban.” The Bush administration even “accused the villagers of spreading Taliban propaganda” and claimed “that the villagers fabricated such evidence as grave sites,” even though those “villagers have connections to the Afghan police, NATO or the Americans through reconstruction projects, and they say they oppose the Taliban.”

But a gruesome video has now surfaced clearly documenting the huge number of civilians that were killed. A very thorough, independent, on-the-scene investigation by the New York Times’ Carlotta Gall — who Floyd, a former colleague of Gall at The Moscow Times, rightly hailed as a truly intrepid war reporter — resulted in the discovery of mountains of new documentary evidence and highly credible and pro-U.S. witnesses confirming not only that at least 90 civilians were killed, but also casting serious doubt on the U.S.’s claim that there were even any Taliban in the village at all.

There are numerous vital issues raised by this episode relating both to the bombing and particularly how the U.S. Government so frequently issues false claims, but in light of all the recent uproar over what is and is not “appropriate journalism,” I want to focus for the moment on Fox News’ role in this. When the U.S. military originally was denying the villagers’ claim, the Pentagon claimed it had had conducted an investigation and that an unnamed “independent journalist” who happened to be with them confirmed their account that large numbers of Taliban were among the dead and only very few unarmed civilians were. But then this was revealed:

    The US military said that its findings were corroborated by an independent journalist embedded with the US force. He was named as the Fox News correspondent Oliver North, who came to prominence in the 1980s Iran-Contra affair, when he was a[ Marine] colonel.

That “independent journalist” is the same person who, in 1986, proudly went before Congress and boasted: “I will tell you right now, counsel, and to all the members here gathered, that I misled the Congress,” and then justified that lying — and to this day still justifies it — on the ground that it was for a greater good. That behavior — which led to multiple felony convictions that were ultimately overturned because he had received immunity in connection with his testimony — hasn’t prevented North from being employed as a “reporter” by the serious, legitimate news arm of Fox News, nor from appearing regularly on Brit Hume’s Serious News Show as a journalist, nor being cited as an “independent journalist” by the U.S. military to confirm its claims and accuse Afghan villagers of lying about the number of their dead.

That it was Oliver North who turned out to be the U.S. military’s vaunted “independent journalist” verifying its claims about the Azizabad raids was revealed by Fox on the September 8 edition of “Special Report with Brit Hume,” which was guest-anchored by “journalist” Jim Angle. At the top of the show, this is what Angle “reported”:

    In Afghanistan, FOX has exclusive pictures of what happened in a U.S. raid which some locals claim killed civilians. A FOX crew tells a different story.

Nobody — other than Brit Hume’s news show — ever denied that civilians were killed in this airstrike. The only “debate” — prior to the emergence of documentary evidence — was over how many were killed. Yet Fox began by telling its pitifully misled viewers that while “some locals claim [the airstrike] killed civilians,” “a Fox crew” had a “different story.”

Later in the show, Angle introduced the segment this way:

    The U.S. military is reopening an investigation into an operation led by American forces that some now say resulted in the deaths of dozens of Afghan civilians. Video allegedly taken at the scene appears to show images of dead children, but a FOX crew went along on that mission and has exclusive pictures that tell a different story.

Angle then introduced Fox News “national security correspondent” Jennifer Griffin, and this is what Fox viewers heard:

    GRIFFIN: So what did happen during the 2:00 a.m. raid into Azizabad? The Special Forces teams involved have been muzzled pending the new investigation, but FOX News cameramen Chris Jackson and Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North happened to be embedded with the Marine Special Forces Unit involved in the raid. This is their video exclusive to FOX News. They witnessed the entire operation firsthand.

    CHRIS JACKSON, FOX NEWS CAMERAMAN: I had the freedom to rein all over the objective, go to anywhere I wanted to go, and I saw the dead combatants. And they were wearing bandoleers and holding AK-47s.

    GRIFFIN: Special military investigators showed the FOX team satellite photos of the graveyards near Azizabad taken before and after the raid. Quote, “Though only about 15 new graves were evident in nearby cemeteries and no local civilians had sought medical treatment for wounds,” North wrote in his blog on August 29th, “the number of noncombatant casualties allegedly inflicted in the raid continued to rise.”

    JACKSON: I’ve worked in war zones and disaster areas for a long time, so I’m used to seeing large numbers of dead people. I did not see this in Azizabad. I went through the rubble, I went through the buildings, the main objectives. And what I saw was primarily enemy combatants. What I saw matched is the number of the U.S. Army figure of how many people were killed.

    GRIFFIN: A press release from the original military investigation concluded, “Investigators discovered firm evidence that the militants planned to attack a nearby coalition forces base. Other evidence collected included weapons, explosives, intelligence materials, and an access badge to a nearby base as well as photographs from inside and outside of the base.


Fox’s news show — not Bill O’Reilly, but Brit Hume’s “legitimate news program” — continued to insist, based upon the “reporting” of “journalist” Oliver North and his cameraman, that the U.S. military’s original claims were true, and the villagers and the U.N. were lying, even as the U.S. military itself was, in light of the ample evidence, severely backtracking on its story:

    The U.S. decision to again probe the Aug. 21 attack in Azizabad, near the western city of Herat, came at the urging of Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan. McKiernan said he was prompted by “emerging evidence” that threw into question the finding of a U.S. investigation that five to seven civilians died. McKiernan had earlier said he concurred with that finding. . . .

    “The footage that is there on this shows horrendous pictures of these bodies and clearly identifies women and children. In some cases, the bodies are not in one piece,” a U.N. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Whether you say it was 76 or 82 or even 92 — it was clearly not seven who were killed there.”

    Said a senior U.S. military official: “Whatever information McKiernan got that was shared by Afghan and U.N. representatives led him to believe there was good cause to want to look at all of this more deeply.”

It is hardly uncommon for claims by the U.S. Government regarding the multiple countries in which our “War on Terror” is being waged to be vehemently disputed by a whole array of people. The only difference here is that video, other documentary evidence, and independent investigations have all emerged confirming the falsity of the U.S. Government’s claims.

This is what I found so deeply bothersome and inane about this week’s hand-wringing over the oh-so-“undignified” spats between various MSNBC personalities during the Convention and the Threat to the Integrity of American Journalism posed by such squabbling, or by the oh-so-inappropriate placement of “blatant liberals” in the sacred anchor chair. There is an entire cable “news” outlet, the highest-rated one in the country, which exists for little reason other than to amplify and certify false government claims — it’s literally nothing more than an outlet for state-issued propaganda — and our leading news critics and even other “journalists” praise and treat its “news” anchors as legitimate and credible sources of news (and for those who want to claim that Brit Hume is something other than a nakedly partisan right-wing propagandist, see here, here, and here, just for starters).

Way beyond Fox, this is the same thing that our media generally (and with some important exceptions) has been doing for years, at least — mindlessly repeating and confirming false Government claims. That’s what makes Carlotta Gall’s on-scene actual investigation of the Pentagon’s Afghanistan claims so notable — it’s so unusual. From Jessica Lynch’s heroic Rambo-like firefight to Pat Tillman’s murder by Al Qaeda monsters to pre-war claims of the Iraqi menace to post-war claims of Glorious Progress to current claims of the Grave Russian and Iranian Threats to the concealment and then justification of virtually every act of government radicalism over the last eight years, our media has, by and large, done what Fox News did in the Azizabad case — offer itself up as an uncritical conduit for state propaganda.

And that’s to say nothing of their more overt propagandistic activities — the still-extraordinary fact that for the last seven years, virtually every American news program has employed as “independent analysts” people who were part of a formal, coordinated and likely illegal U.S. Government propaganda program run out of the Pentagon, a program which resulted in countless false stories broadcast by these networks to boost Government lies. And even after all of that was revealed and documented on the front page of the NYT, these media outlets — all 3 networks, plus CNN and others — continue to employ the propagandists, and worse, refuse even to tell their viewers about what happened, or even to disclose to their viewers the existence of the story, and then — at best — actually defend it all when forced on their obscure blogs to mention it.

Keith Olbermann may be more overtly opinionated and devoted to a particular presidential candidate than a classical Brokawian “anchor” should be, and it’s certainly reasonable to say that he, Chris Matthews, Joe Scarborough and David Schuster have acted like adolescent clowns on television, but spending time focusing on that as some sort of grave threat to American journalism is like taking a patient whose vital organs are drowning in Stage 4 cancer and obsessing about his hangnail.

* * * * *

Independent of the Government lying and Fox News propaganda, the massacre of Azizabad civilians highlights the massive yet largely ignored questions about what we are doing in Afghanistan and whether — regardless of one’s views of the original invasion — we are achieving any good at all. As Floyd wrote yesterday:

    The mass death visited upon the sleeping, defenseless citizens of Azizabad encapsulates many of the essential elements of this global campaign of “unipolar domination” and war profiteering: the callous application of high-tech weaponry against unarmed civilians; the witless attack that alienates local supporters and empowers an ever-more violent and radical insurgency; and perhaps the most quintessential element of all — the knowing lies and deliberate deceits that Washington employs to hide the obscene reality of its Terror War.

Over at Nieman Watchdog, The Washington Post’s Dan Froomkin interviewed experts in the region who cite numerous questions that ought to be asked about the wisdom of our continuing occupation of Afghanistan, including “Are we bombing our way to disaster in Afghanistan?” And as Froomkin himself put it yesterday in his Post chat:

    Civilian deaths — which the civilians may well consider murder — tend to turn people against us.

    I was kind of amazed that Bush raised the issue at all in yesterday’s speech, but he did. I was really amazed, however, at how cavalier he sounded: “Regrettably, there will be times when our pursuit of the enemy will result in accidental civilian deaths. This has been the case throughout the history of warfare. Our nation mourns the loss of every innocent life. Every grieving family has the sympathy of the American people.”

    I mean, c’mon. It’s a bit hard to convince people that our nation mourns the loss of every innocent life when we don’t even acknowledge them.

Most striking of all is that the “issues” of least significance, of zero import, are the ones which receive the most attention in the “political debates” conducted by our media — pigs and lipstick and bowling scores and lapel pins and windsurfing tights — while the ones of greatest significance are virtually ignored. And that is highly unlikely to change between now and November. To know why, just compare these two statements — first, from McCain campaign manager Rick Davis (“This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates”) and this one from MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough (media will talk about “[w]hatever the McCain campaign wants us to talk about”). When Tom Brokaw expresses concern about any of that, then his profound concerns over undignified journalism can be taken seriously.

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