The New York Times editorial board cannot be accused of a failure of will, a lack of consistency or the cardinal political sin of flip-flopping. Many of The Times critics supposed that, over the past five years, the newspaper’s obsession with any random complaint against Russia — cast in the role of America’s archenemy — could simply be explained by the editorial board’s visceral hatred of President Donald Trump. Knowing their readers were 91% Democrat, they willingly fed their audience’s wish to view Trump as Vladimir Putin’s closest collaborator.
With Trump gone, things should have changed. His election victory in 2016 now appears to have been merely the catalyst rather than the cause of an obsession that has had the effect of renewing the Cold War animus formerly directed toward what was then a much more powerful adversary, the Soviet Union. A week doesn’t go by without one or more The Times articles either reminding readers of Russia’s multiple attempts at skulduggery. These include cyberterrorism, industrial espionage and even the tendentious use of American social media.
Anyone vaguely familiar with what we call “the modern world” should understand that every government of a self-respecting nation-state has by now learned to emulate the institutions, methods and techniques elaborated in the West for the purpose of “gathering intelligence.” But just as departments of “defense” (considered good and moral) are configured to wage aggressive war (considered bad and potentially immoral), intelligence agencies are also hard at work producing and disseminating bad information. Some of these institutions have even been known to engage in “covert activities.”
The New York Times Has Feelings for China
This permanent competition poses a slight problem for many Americans with a keen sense of morality, who don’t know how to deal with the idea of US skulduggery. Rather than denying it, they consider that even its obviously immoral actions — assassination, the overthrow of democratically elected governments, etc. — it is only employed as “a force for good.” Russian skulduggery, on the other, is a force for evil. It’s a lesson every baby boomer learned at school. The baby boomers appear to have passed on the information to the next generation. Curiously, Chinese skulduggery has now begun to worry Americans, but they tend to consider it annoying rather than evil (unless it includes creating and deliberately spreading a global pandemic).
In the rubric Good Reasons to Hate Russia and Maybe Even Envision Going to War With It, The Times offers two major pieces this week. A new article on directed-energy attacks evokes suspicion of Russia before admitting that “the intelligence agencies have not concluded any cause or whether a foreign power is involved.” Another article with the title “Russian Spy Team Left Traces That Bolstered C.I.A.’s Bounty Judgment” revives the recently discredited story that the Russians offered a bounty for the killing of American military personnel in Afghanistan. The three journalists do their damnedest to persuade readers that this potential pretext for a new cold (or hot) war confirms Ronald Reagan’s famous identification of Russia (formerly the Soviet Union) as the “evil empire.”
The authors inform us that the evil action of offering bounty is the work of “Russian operatives, known as Unit 29155 of the G.R.U.,” Russia’s military intelligence service. To bolster their case, the authors cite Czechia’s prime minister’s claim that there is “’clear evidence,’” assembled by intelligence and security services there, establishing ‘reasonable suspicion’ that Unit 29155 was involved in two explosions at ammunition depots that killed two Czechs in 2014.” The same people must be involved in the bounty story.
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Either a purely rational hypothesis emitted by an objective observer with no interest in particular outcomes or a self-interested innuendo corresponding to a hidden agenda
“Clear evidence” to support a “reasonable suspicion” is all Times journalists need to justify publishing an article designed to create certainty where none exists. Who needs facts on the ground when you have suspicions to excite your readers?
The journalists laboriously develop a tendentious explanation of the notion of “confidence levels,” at one point even suggesting that “low” really means “high.” Discerning readers might have their own reasonable suspicion of this attempt to conflate supposition with the truth. What emerges from this and many of the Russia-based narratives promoted by The Times and other media, is an earnest effort to persuade the public to take at face value the stories intelligence sources share with their journalists. Behind it lies the idea that intelligence agencies know more than they’re willing to release to the public.
The authors actually propose an explanation of why the public should have high confidence in information the agencies have branded as worthy of low to moderate confidence: “When analysts assess something with low confidence … that does not mean they think the conclusion is wrong. Rather, they are expressing greater concerns about the sourcing limitations, while still judging that the assessment is the best explanation of the available facts.”
Anyone who has studied the human brain knows that thought is a powerful tool. The Times authors see a direct correlation between thinking and truth. “The National Security Council statement,” they write, “identified other ‘nefarious operations’ around the world that the government thought the squad had carried out.” They see as solid evidence the fact that “some military officials based in Afghanistan, as well as some other senior Pentagon and State Department officials, thought the C.I.A. was right.”
Playing with our sense of both logic and justice, the authors offer a new line of reasoning when they write that “the intelligence community also had ‘high confidence’ — meaning the judgment is based on high-quality information from multiple sources — in the key circumstantial evidence.” With no real evidence, circumstantial evidence must suffice.
In the legal tradition of the United States, circumstantial evidence alone may lead to conviction, but only after testimony and full contradictory debate before a judge and jury. Attribution of guilt requires the unqualified respect of due process, including the accused’s right to a formal defense. As one legal argument puts it, “In order to sustain a conviction based solely on circumstantial evidence, the circumstances must be consistent with his innocence, and incapable of explanation on any other reasonable hypothesis than that of guilt.”
Intelligence assessments, conducted in secrecy, cannot be compared to a fair trial. But the policy outcomes they provoke may be as extreme as invasion and war. This happened in 2003 when the George W. Bush administration used circumstantial — and in some cases fabricated or manipulated — evidence to justify the invasion of Iraq.
In this highly controversial question, the intelligence agencies are given the role of the prosecutor, called upon to align circumstantial evidence to convince the jury that the accused is guilty. The public is the jury. What then should the role of the press be? If intelligence agencies can be compared to prosecutors and the nation’s executive compared to that of the judge, in the absence of the accused, who is left to play the role of defense? Without professional counsel there cannot be a fair trial.
US Media Still Has Russia on Its Mind
Political theorists have traditionally attributed that role, which consists of raising possible objections to foregone conclusions proposed by the government, to the fourth estate — in other words, the press and the media. They alone make it possible to present and weigh the evidence on either side. The contradictory light they throw on a subject makes it possible for the public to understand what is behind the government’s decisions and policies.
That effort of the fourth estate should be focused on challenging power, casting light on murky issues, reducing their ambiguity and tempering the abuses of the powerful. That was formerly advertised as the badge of honor of a free press. The New York Times is not alone not just in echoing the messages of the national security state, but in actively promoting them as unqualified truth. The corporate media have become the obedient stenographers of the most secret and aggressive governmental initiatives. Some see this as a betrayal of their mission in a democracy.
Russia is certainly up to all sorts of dirty tricks aimed at the US, just as the US is up to tricks against most other nations, including allies. But obsessively blaming Russia alone for both verified and unverified crimes should not be the business of a serious newspaper.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.