Current Affairs

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The Urgent Need for Adversarial Journalism

All governments lie. When the U.S. government makes serious allegations about crimes by the Russian government, we have to demand proof.

On Sunday, September 8th, 2002, the New York Times ran the front-page headline “U.S. SAYS HUSSEIN INTENSIFIES QUEST FOR A-BOMB PARTS.” A subheadline read: “New Information Is Central To White House Argument For Urgent Action On Iraq.” The article, written by Michael R. Gordon and Judith Miller, began like this:  

More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today. In the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium. American officials said several efforts to arrange the shipment of the aluminum tubes were blocked or intercepted but declined to say, citing the sensitivity of the intelligence, where they came from or how they were stopped. The diameter, thickness and other technical specifications of the aluminum tubes had persuaded American intelligence experts that they were meant for Iraq’s nuclear program, officials said, and that the latest attempt to ship the material had taken place in recent months.

This is a curious piece of news reporting. As you can see from the words I’ve bolded, all of the claims in the article come straight from U.S. officials. The story itself, about Saddam buying aluminum tubes to make nuclear weapons, turned out to be false. In fact, “Iraq’s nuclear program had been dormant for more than a decade” and  “the aluminum tubes had been used only for artillery shells.” The New York Times itself reported in 2004 that even though the Bush administration had told the press it thought the tubes were for a nuclear weapons program, behind the scenes “the government’s foremost nuclear experts seriously doubted that the tubes were for nuclear weapons.”

The great investigative journalist I.F. Stone is known for his comment that “all governments lie.” The United States government is no exception. In 1945, after the first atom bomb was dropped, Harry Truman told the American people that the target had been “Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.” The administration knew full well Hiroshima was a city but the truth sounded an awful lot like an unspeakable war crime. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson told the public an egregious tall tale of North Vietnamese aggression to justify carrying the country into the bloody, costly, and morally indefensible Vietnam War. Much more recently, the U.S. government covered up the civilian death toll of a horrific 2019 drone strike in Syria. Last year, in Afghanistan, the U.S. wiped out an innocent family with a drone. The Biden administration lied repeatedly and said they had attacked terrorists. Only after an exhaustive New York Times investigation did the administration come clean and admit what they’d done, though nobody was punished for it. The Times showed that “almost everything senior defense officials asserted in the hours, and then days, and then weeks after the Aug. 29 drone strike turned out to be false. The explosives the military claimed were loaded in the trunk of a white Toyota sedan struck by the drone’s Hellfire missile were probably water bottles.”

Governments lie because they’re composed of people, and people often don’t tell the truth when the truth is embarrassing or will have negative consequences. People can also be sincerely self-deluded, and disregard evidence that contradicts their position, or say something confidently without having scrutinized it carefully. 

That’s why it’s so vital to have a strong adversarial press that investigates government claims and checks whether they are supported by evidence. The Biden administration could not maintain its lie about that drone strike killing ISIS terrorists because New York Times journalists did a lot of hard work to check whether the claim is true. The administration had to back off. By contrast, in 2003, when the government claimed that Saddam Hussein’s aluminum tubes were for atomic bombs, the Times failed to adequately investigate the claim, instead just printing all the nonsense that the Bush administration spewed. Of course, the reporters could defend their work by saying that technically, they were only saying that the government said it, rather than saying that it was true. But because readers sometimes unwisely trust the press to only tell them things that are true, it’s easy for the “U.S. Officials Say” part of a headline to disappear from people’s minds. It’s true that government claims like this are newsworthy, but it’s also true that journalists have a serious responsibility to make sure the public doesn’t accidentally swallow government propaganda.

The U.S. government is currently making a series of factual claims about aggression by the government of Russia, which has built up military forces along the border with Ukraine. The United States has responded by dispatching thousands of troops to Poland, Germany, and Romania. The U.S. has warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is “imminent,” though after Ukraine’s government publicly disagreed with this, the Biden administration backed off the claim a bit.  

One important lesson we should learn from history is that we need to be especially critical and scrupulous when a government claims that another government is committing aggression that may require a military response. This is for several reasons. First, a “military response” almost inevitably means “mass killing.” Militaries exist to kill. War is the greatest horror human beings are capable of producing, and any claim that could justify a war needs to be examined with the highest possible scrutiny. The Iraq war is not the only devastating conflict to have been justified with “fake news.”

It’s also the case that in the realm of foreign policy, government lies are more difficult to detect, and thus more likely. For domestic affairs, it is easier for the public to access information about the way things really are; the primary sources are largely in English, the participants are fewer degrees of separation from us. Americans often do not know very much about the rest of the world, and when we cannot even place a country on a map it is easy to persuade us of some claim about it.

Americans have been fed a steady diet of nonsense about Russia in particular for over a century. There is a kind of “Russo-Orientalist” mindset in which Russians are treated as a dark, mysterious, deceitful people, fundamentally different from ourselves. Russia is often not considered a part of that nonsensical construct known as “Western Civilization.” Once you are consciously on the lookout for this, you’ll see it everywhere. A recent passage from the Times:

Russia often makes up its narratives, and its officials have no problem with lying outright, as they did when Mr. Putin created a pretext to annex Crimea in 2014, sent operatives to use nerve agents against Russian opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny and a former Russian spy in Britain, and launched a series of cyberattacks on the United States. 

Now, this statement is not wrong. But it implies that there is something distinctively Russian about making up narratives and lying, when this is a trait of both our government and their government. (And, as Stone notes, all governments.) When a certain group of people is seen as an Other, we notice behavior by them that confirms our stereotypes, but don’t conduct serious inquiry into whether we are holding them to a different standard than the one we hold ourselves to. The U.S. keeps nuclear weapons in Europe, an act it does not consider aggressive, but when the Soviet Union responded by trying to place nuclear weapons in Cuba, the U.S. vowed to stop them with violence if necessary. The U.S. government lies outright and interferes in elections around the world, but treats the Russian government as nefarious when it engages in the same practices. (That is not, of course, a defense of Russian crimes, nor is it so-called “whataboutism.” It is simply evidence that we do not apply a consistent standard and make demands of other countries that we are unwilling to comply with ourselves. It helps to explain why those countries don’t see us as morally credible.) 

All of this explains why, at a moment of heightened tension with Russia, the U.S. media and the U.S. public need to regard government claims with special scrutiny. A military conflict with another nuclear armed power must be avoided, and we know that in the leadup to wars, governments often say things that turn out later (once a lot of people are dead) to have been wrong. So we should keep Saddam’s aluminum tubes in the back of our minds when we see a new headline like:

US alleges Russia planning false flag operation against Ukraine using ‘graphic’ video

The United States government has claimed that the Russian government “is planning to stage a fake attack by Ukrainian military or intelligence forces against Russian sovereign territory or against Russian-speaking people” that it could use as a pretext to justify invading Ukraine. It claims that Russia plans to produce “a very graphic propaganda video which would include corpses and actors that would be depicting mourners and images of destroyed locations.” The State Department said several weeks ago that “The Russian military plans to begin these activities several weeks before a military invasion, which could begin between mid-January and mid-February.” This is a very serious accusation. Aggressive acts of war are among the most serious of international crimes, and staging a “false flag” attack to justify an invasion would be an extreme act of wrongdoing. The claim that Russia is planning something this nefarious helps make the case that the U.S. troop buildup in Europe is a “defensive” act.

This is precisely the sort of hugely consequential allegation that needs heavy journalistic scrutiny. Fortunately, unlike in 2003, at least one member of the Washington, D.C. press corps is determined to do  the job of a journalist. In an incredible CSPAN video, Matt Lee of the Associated Press relentlessly grilled State Department spokesman Ned Price over the government’s allegation that Russia is planning a “false flag” operation in which it will elaborately stage a fake attack by Ukrainian forces. Lee asks all the right questions, and doesn’t let up. The transcript is worth reading at some length, because in it we see a master class in how journalists should approach government claims: 

AP:

You made an allegation that they ‘might’ do that. Have they actually done it?

STATE DEPT:

What we know, Matt, is what I have just said. They have engaged in this activity.

AP:

Hold on a second. What activity?

STATE DEPT:

Obviously this is not the first time we’ve made these reports public. You’ll remember that just a few weeks ago…

AP:

I’m sorry, made what report public? 

STATE DEPT:

If you’ll let me finish I will tell you what report we made public.

AP:

Okay. 

STATE DEPT:

We told you a few weeks ago that we have information indicating Russia also has already prepositioned a group of operatives to conduct a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine. So that, Matt, to your question, is an action Russia has already taken.

AP:

It’s an action you say that they have taken. But you have shown no evidence to confirm that. […] What is the evidence? Crisis actors? Really? This is like Alex Jones territory you’re getting into now. What evidence do you have to support the idea that there is some propaganda film in the making?

STATE DEPT:

Matt, this is derived from information known to the U.S. government. Intelligence information that we have declassified.

AP:

Okay, well where is it? Where is this information? 

STATE DEPT:

It is intelligence information that we have declassified. 

AP:

Well, where is it? Where is the declassified information? 

STATE DEPT:

I just delivered it. 

AP:

No, you made a series of allegations…

STATE DEPT:

Would you like us to print out… because you will see a transcript of this briefing that you can print out for yourself. 

AP:

That’s not evidence, Ned. That’s you saying it. That’s not evidence. I’m sorry. 

STATE DEPT:

[laughs] What would you like, Matt? 

AP:

I would like to see some proof that you can show that the Russians are doing this.

STATE DEPT:

Matt, you have been… 

AP:

Ned, I’ve been doing this for a long time. 

STATE DEPT:

You have been doing this for quite a while. You know that when we declassify intelligence information, we do so in a means to protect sources and methods. 

AP:

… and I remember WMDs in Iraq. And I remember that ‘Kabul is not going to fall.’ I remember a lot of things, so where is the declassified information other than you coming out here and saying it? 

STATE DEPT:

Matt, I’m sorry you don’t like the format. 

AP:

It’s not the format! It’s the content!

STATE DEPT:

I’m sorry that you don’t like the content. 

AP:

It’s not that I ‘don’t like’ it…

STATE DEPT:

I’m sorry you are doubting the information that is in the possession of the U.S government. What I’m telling you is that this is information that is available to us. We are making it available to you for a couple of reasons. One is to attempt to deter the Russians from going ahead with this activity. Two, in the event we’re not able to do that, in the event the Russians do go ahead with this, to make it clear as day, to lay bare that this has always been an attempt on the part of the Russian Federation to fabricate a pretext.

AP:

Yeah. But you don’t have any evidence to back it up other than what you’re saying. You’re saying ‘we have information that the Russians may do this.’ But you won’t tell us what the information is, and when you’re asked…

STATE DEPT:

That is the idea behind deterrence, Matt. It is our hope that the Russians don’t go forward.

AP:

…and when you’re asked what the information is, you say ‘I just gave it to you.’ 

STATE DEPT:

You seem not to understand the idea of deterrence. […] If the Russians don’t go forward, that is not ipso facto an indication that they never had plans to do so. 

AP:

But then it’s unprovable! My God! What is the evidence that you have that suggests that the Russians are even planning this? I’m not not saying they’re not, I’m saying you come out and expect us to believe it without you showing a shred of evidence that it’s actually true. […] 

STATE DEPT:

If you doubt the credibility of the US government, of the British government, of other governments and want to find solace in the information that the Russians are putting out, that is for you to do.1


I share this at some length because it’s incredible. The State Department spokesman is saying that we, the public, should believe explosive claims that it makes about other governments without any actual evidence being presented. In fact, he seems to find the very idea of being asked for evidence to be strange and comical. (This tells you something about the usual rigor of the media’s inquiries into government claims.) What rational person could possibly believe the “false flag” story, considering that the Biden administration is unwilling to substantiate it with anything other than “saying it aloud”? 

Matt Lee did a fine job here by being relentless. Notice that he didn’t let the State Department spokesman get away with anything. When he claimed there was a “report,” Lee demanded the report. It turned out the spokesman was just using the word “report” to mean “a thing I said.” 

In fact, the CNN story on the “false flag” allegation suggests the underlying undisclosed evidence may be flimsy. When asked if the U.S. had seen this Russian propaganda video with its fake corpses, Price had replied “the fact that we are able to go into such great detail, obviously I’m not going to spell out what is in our possession, but I will leave it to you, I will leave that to your judgment.” But CNN quotes a familiar source saying that “the US does not have the video nor does it have evidence that it has actually been made.” Deputy national security adviser Jon Finer said on MSNBC: “We’re not saying definitively this is what they’re going to do. We are saying that this is an option under consideration, and that they have used these sorts of pretext in the past to justify military action.” U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julie Smith also cited past Russian behavior to substantiate the charge, saying “we’ve seen other efforts for them to use these types of tactics over the last 10 years. … And so what you heard today is just another piece of information where Russia is clearly laying the groundwork to destabilize Ukraine from within and find a pretext to take action using the military forces that it’s built up around the border.” 

But the fact that Russia might conceivably stage a “false flag” propaganda stunt is different from the claim that it is planning one. The claim the government has made is that Russia is planning this. CNN a couple of weeks ago ran the headline “US intelligence indicates Russia preparing operation to justify invasion of Ukraine.” The U.S. officials who talk about this, though, are imprecise on what exactly the Russians are alleged to have done. Recruited “crisis actors”? Mentioned this in a meeting? One reason allegations of “false flag” operations are associated with Alex Jones is that in real life, such plots are almost impossible to pull off. Finding a group of actors who can be counted on not to spill the beans, and faking the identities of victims (and finding them fake families to fake-cry) is difficult even for a sophisticated and deceitful government, and it’s highly risky. Everything has to go absolutely perfectly, and when you think about what would be involved, you realize how difficult that would be. Think about what it would take to successfully produce a video that nobody could tell was fake that contained, as the Russian video was supposed to, “graphic images of the staged, corpse-strewn aftermath of an explosion and footage of destroyed locations … the video was also set to include faked Ukrainian military equipment, Turkish-made drones and actors playing Russian-speaking mourners.” Nobody was going to find out that the people in the video weren’t dead? Or that the place that had supposedly exploded hadn’t exploded? 

Yet the U.S. government’s claim, unbacked by any evidence, is being used as proof that Russia is an aggressor. CNN quotes the UK Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, saying “that the US disclosure about the alleged Russian false flag plans ‘is clear and shocking evidence of Russia’s unprovoked aggression and underhand activity to destabilize Ukraine.’” But as Lee asked: what evidence? What was disclosed? 

Now, the State Department has insisted that it only discloses information when it is “confident” in it. (Confident like George W. Bush.) “Why would they lie?” you might ask. But here’s a possible explanation: some U.S. intelligence agents drew up a list of scenarios of ways in which Russia might invade Ukraine. They cite the possibility of a “false flag” operation as a particular danger, because it would give Russia a seemingly justified reason for an invasion. U.S. government officials realize that the best way to ensure this does not happen is to accuse Russia of planning such a pretext, because then nobody will believe them if they do make a claim of Ukrainian aggression. So they say Russia is planning such a thing, although when pressed, some officials seem to waffle and make statements more like it seems like the kind of thing the Russians would do. Now, you may think the United States government would never be so unethical as to make a false accusation. But all you need to assume is that government officials sometimes believe the ends justify the means, and that preventing Russian “aggression” is worth a bit of slippery language. There are plenty of rationalizations that might be offered for telling a lie that is thought to be in the interests of preserving peace.

So: when tensions with Russia run high, that’s when we need journalists to be at their most aggressively adversarial toward our own government. We have been lied into wars before, and many people have suffered excruciating deaths as a result. We must not get fooled again, and if all of the media were like AP reporter Matt Lee, we would have a far better chance of finding out important truths that U.S. officials would prefer not to discuss. 


  1. I have labeled the speakers “AP” and “State Department” because I think it helps illuminate what the relationship between these two institutions, the press and the state, should be, more clearly than labeling them Matt and Ned. 

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