As if the Biden administration was lacking in pretexts to start a new war with Russia, Donald Trump’s former Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller has stepped up to lead a campaign more reminiscent of a tale from the “Twilight Zone” than the USA’s strategic rivalry with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. In the space of a week, CNN has published two lengthy articles on the topic. Politico picked it up with this provocative headline: “‘It’s an act of war’: Trump’s acting Pentagon chief urges Biden to tackle directed-energy attacks.” Miller’s new casus belli has a name: a “directed-energy attack,” sometimes referred to as “the Havana syndrome.”
Reading through the variety of testimony from all sides concerning this act of war, the one thing that appears to be missing in the various accounts is an inkling of the substance known as “facts.” There appear to be crimes, though even that isn’t clear, and there are suspects, which is even less clear. Suspicion reigns while facts remain hidden. Politico invokes “suspected directed-energy attacks on U.S. government personnel worldwide.” CNN begins one article with this sentence: “A briefing on suspected energy attacks on US intelligence officers turned contentious last week.”
For the moment, there are no energy attacks, merely “suspected” attacks. This is a news story hoping that facts will emerge to substantiate it. In such cases, it may be wise for the reader to begin by suspecting those who are telling the story. Who doesn’t remember the Bush administration’s suspicion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction? The government, dutifully seconded by The New York Times and other respectable outlets, dared to present that suspicion as a fact. The Bush administration even put Colin Powell to stage at the United Nations General Assembly with a tawdry dog-and-pony show. Alas, the world soon learned there were no facts.
For a Few Billion Dollars More
This time around, to its credit, The Times has ignored CNN’s scoop. That alone makes the story not only sound suspicious but suspect. The Times has, after all, been known to deliberately ignore real news items it doesn’t want the public to know or simply think about. Politico seems to believe that former Trump appointee Christopher Miller knows what he’s talking about. Their reporters, Lara Seligman and Andrew Desiderio, appear impressed by the fact that Miller only had to listen to one witness to penetrate the mystery: “As soon as the official described his symptoms, Miller knew right away that they had been caused by a directed-energy weapon.”
Before his appointment in the waning months of the Trump administration, Miller had occupied the post of director of the National Counterterrorism Center and was a longtime stalwart of the Defense Department as well as a defense contractor. He’s no softy. He began his career as a Green Beret. As a soldier, government official and private contractor, he understands the interest of playing the bureaucracy for strategic advantage. That knowledge helps to explain his goal with the media, which Politico describes as the wish “to create a bureaucratic momentum to get the interagency to take this more seriously.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
The conserved force or energy of an otherwise inert body that, if it manages to move, its impetus will in most cases propel it in anything but the right direction
It should be noted that in the lead-up to the notorious January 6 storming of the Capitol, Miller has been blamed for “placing some extremely unusual limits on National Guard forces for that event.” Why would CNN, after spending the last four years vehemently denouncing everything to do with Donald Trump, suddenly take such an interest in a Trump loyalist who shows obvious signs of being a self-interested member of the military-industrial complex? Could it be simply the fact that he “suspects” Russia? Or could it be CNN’s own loyalty to the military-industrial complex?
The “Havana syndrome” has been making headlines since 2016, even though it was scientifically debunked once in early 2019. Whether that debunking truly accounts for the various reported cases remains an open question. There is enough ambiguity stemming from the various reports to incite a discerning reporter to remain attentive to developments. But developments generally require facts.
A closer look at the language they use reveals just how vapid and baseless CNN’s and Politico’s narrative appear to be. CNN begins its April 29 article by evoking “mysterious, invisible attacks that have led to debilitating symptoms.” Fear is clearly in the air, but not much else. Beyond the fact that suspicions abound, we learn from CNN’s May 4 article that “senators demanded more information about the mysterious incidents from the CIA and accountability for how the agency has handled them.”
In other words, nobody knows much, and whatever knowledge exists has probably been mishandled or manipulated. This might appear to be the perfect occasion for the journalists to dig deeper into the bureaucratic processes. It could helpfully reveal how dysfunctional the system is. Instead, they have chosen to skim the surface and paint the story as an intriguing mystery.
What Shakespeare’s Prospero once called “the baseless fabric of this vision” continues as we learn that “the Pentagon and other agencies probing the matter have reached no clear conclusions.” We are immediately invited to believe that an attack that “might have taken place so close to the White House is particularly alarming.” What “might have taken place” is far more interesting than facts, as borne out in the following sentence: “Rumors have long swirled around Washington about similar incidents within the United States.” What would CNN do without rumors? CNN then reminds us that we know nothing since “investigators have not determined whether the puzzling incidents at home are connected to those that have occurred abroad or who may be behind them.”
The logic continues with the enlightening piece of information that “it was possible Russia was behind the attacks, but they did not have enough information to say for sure.” As Sherlock Holmes once said, “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Russia’s agency is not impossible, so it must be the truth.
The article continues with more non-knowledge, such as this: “Intelligence and defense officials have been reluctant to speak publicly about the strange incidents.” In the May 4 article, this vital uncertainty is revealed: “The briefers — who were members of the CIA task force looking into the attacks — did not provide a clear timeline of when certain information had been discovered and why it was only being shared with the senators then.”
At least Politico believes that certainty will inevitably emerge. It notes Miller’s concern for the fate of American personnel overseas: “If this plays out and somebody is attacking Americans [even] with a nonlethal weapon … we owe it to our folks that are out there. We owe it to them to get to the bottom of this.” As far as journalism goes, we have hit rock bottom.
This reporting tells us much more about the recent evolution of the news media in the US than it does about the events it purports to describe. Why in the space of a week did CNN’s Kylie Atwood and Jeremy Herb dedicate two extensive stories to a tale of paranoia that even The New York Times — certainly as committed to Russiagate as CNN — chose to ignore?
Many commentators have held forth recently on the slow but apparently accelerating degradation of the news business in the US in recent decades. Matt Taibbi, who worked for over a decade as an investigative journalist has been among the most outspoken on the still-unfolding disaster at the core of US journalism. He points to the obvious root of the evil, stating that “the financial incentives encourage it.”
CNN’s and Politico’s coverage of this pseudo-event demonstrates one of the corollaries of Taibbi’s axiom concerning financial incentive. Fear and mystery — whether focused on direct-energy weapons or UFOs — are far more compelling for readers and viewers than facts and lucid analysis. Such stories also encourage serial reporting, recycling the same content over and over again. At least there’s less and less mystery concerning that basic truth about how the media operates.
*[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.