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GOP & KAL007: 'The Key is to Lie First'
Editor’s Note: When legendary CBS anchor Walter Cronkite retired on March 6, 1981, a new era of deception was beginning in America: Ronald Reagan and his team were exploring how far they could stretch the boundaries of the customary political spinning and lying.
Whether the news media’s tolerance of that deception would have been any different if Cronkite had remained in the anchor chair past the age of 64 is anybody’s guess. But what is clear is that the preening careerists who followed Cronkite in TV news (and in much of the print media) were no match for the endless lie.
As this 1998 article from the Consortiumnews.com’s Archive explains, the Reagan administration’s strategy of lying recognized few limits and felt justified even in deceiving the world community at the United Nations in 1983, a precursor to Colin Powell’s Iraq War deceptions about WMD two decades later:
It's not entirely clear when the Republican Party made disinformation a political weapon of choice.
Some trace the pattern back to the late 1940s when Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon used an exaggerated Red Scare to throw the Truman administration on the defensive and clear the way for the GOP's Cold War dominance of the White House.
Others argue, however, that Republican lying is nothing special; that it's just the nature of politics; that it's always been that way; that the Democrats -- or the Greens and the Libertarians, for that matter -- are no better.
But I believe there are shades of gray in politics, that a disingenuous "spin" or a defensive equivocation are not the same as an outright falsehood intended to defame an enemy or to inflame the public.
It seems to me that the modern Republican Party is unusual in that it not only steps across the line from time to time, but has relocated on the wrong side. Distortion and character assassination have become almost a political way of life.
My personal experience with this disturbing trend started in December 1980, when I worked for The Associated Press and was part of the AP's Special Assignment Team.
In my earlier reporting career -- covering state politics in Rhode Island and congressional politics in Washington -- I had seen lots of the lighter forms of lying from both parties. Indeed, most of my early investigative stories were about Democratic misdeeds and damage control.
But in covering the emerging U.S. policy toward Central America in late 1980, I encountered a systematic strategy of lying. The incoming Reagan administration apparently saw "disinformation" as just one more ideological weapon in the Cold War arsenal, with the ends justifying the means.
The victorious Republicans didn't blink, for instance, in protecting political murderers in El Salvador, even when the victims were four American churchwomen who were raped and executed by a right-wing military.
Coming as he did from movies, President Reagan seemed to have only a casual relationship with the truth anyway. But his persistent acts of deception over his eight years in the White House cannot be so glibly explained or excused. In his handling of foreign policy, in particular, Reagan routinely misled the American people.
The KAL Deception
One of the baldest -- and now admitted -- lies was the case of Korean Air Lines flight 007. On the night of Aug. 30, 1983, the KAL 747 jumbo jet strayed hundreds of miles off-course and penetrated some of the Soviet Union's most sensitive air space, by flying over military facilities in Kamchatka and Sakhalin Island.
Over Sakhalin, KAL-007 was finally intercepted by a Soviet Sukhoi-15 fighter. The Soviet pilot tried to signal the plane to land, but the KAL pilots apparently did not see the repeated warnings.
Amid confusion about the plane's identity -- a U.S. spy plane had been in the vicinity hours earlier -- Soviet ground control ordered the pilot to fire. He did, blasting the plane out of the sky and killing all 269 people on board.
The Soviets soon realized they had made a horrendous mistake. U.S. intelligence also knew from sensitive intercepts that the tragedy had resulted from a blunder, not from a willful act of murder (much as on July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes fired a missile that brought down an Iranian civilian airliner in the Persian Gulf, killing 290 people, an act which Reagan explained as an "understandable accident").
But in 1983, the truth about KAL-007 didn't fit Washington's propaganda needs. The Reagan administration wanted to portray the Soviets as wanton murderers, so it brushed aside the judgment of the intelligence analysts.
The administration then chose to release only snippets of the taped intercepts packaged in a way to suggest that the slaughter was intentional.
"The Reagan administration's spin machine began cranking up," wrote Alvin A. Snyder, then-director of the U.S. Information Agency's television and film division, in his 1995 book, Warriors of Disinformation.
USIA director Charles Z. Wick "ordered his top agency aides to form a special task force to devise ways of playing the story overseas. The objective, quite simply, was to heap as much abuse on the Soviet Union as possible," Snyder recalled.
In a boastful but frank description of the successful disinformation campaign, Snyder noted that "the American media swallowed the U.S. government line without reservation. Said the venerable Ted Koppel on the ABC News 'Nightline' program: 'This has been one of those occasions when there is very little difference between what is churned out by the U.S. government propaganda organs and by the commercial broadcasting networks.'"
Of course, if the journalists hadn't gone along, they could have expected to be flogged for disloyalty. So, most Washington reporters ran with the pack. Newsweek published a cover line: "Murder in the Sky," exactly the "theme" that the White House wanted conveyed to the public.
At the AP, I made a small contribution to questioning the official story. I felt the released intercepts were suspicious. So I took the English language translation, as well as the original Russian, to Russian language experts, including one who taught Pentagon personnel how to translate Russian military transmissions.
The Russian language experts noted one important error in the English translation released by the State Department. In the context of the Soviet pilot trying to communicate with the KAL plane, the administration translated the Russian word "zapros," or inquiry, as "IFF" for "identify: friend or foe."
The linguists consulted by the AP, however, said "zapros" could mean any kind of inquiry, including open radio transmissions or physical warnings.
The significance of the mistranslation was central to the administration's case. U.S. officials had extrapolated from "IFF" to advance the "murder in the sky" argument. Since an IFF transmission can only be received by Soviet military aircraft, that would have been further proof that the Russians made no attempt to warn the civilian airliner.
Still, the mistranslation was only one of the ways the tapes were doctored, as Snyder discovered when the intercepts were delivered to his office for transfer into a video presentation that was to be made at the United Nations.
"The tape was supposed to run 50 minutes," Snyder observed. "But the tape segment we had [at USIA] ran only eight minutes and 32 seconds. ... 'Do I detect the fine hand of [Nixon's secretary] Rosemary Woods here?' I asked sarcastically.'"
But Snyder had a job to do: producing the video that his superiors wanted. "The perception we wanted to convey was that the Soviet Union had cold-bloodedly carried out a barbaric act," Snyder noted.
Only a decade later, when Snyder saw the complete transcripts -- including the portions that the Reagan administration had hidden -- would he fully realize how many of the central elements of the U.S. presentation were false.
The Soviet pilot apparently did believe he was pursuing a U.S. spy plane, according to the intercepts, and he was having trouble in the dark identifying the plane. At the instructions of Soviet ground controllers, the pilot had circled the KAL airliner and tilted his wings to force the aircraft down. The pilot said he fired warning shots, too.
"This comment was also not on the tape we were provided," Snyder stated.
It was clear to Snyder that in the pursuit of its Cold War aims, the Reagan administration had presented false accusations to the United Nations, as well as to the people of the United States and the world. To these Republicans, the ends of smearing the Soviets had justified the means of falsifying the historical record.
In his book, Snyder acknowledged his role in the deception and drew an ironic lesson from the incident. The senior USIA official wrote, "The moral of the story is that all governments, including our own, lie when it suits their purposes. The key is to lie first."
Another key to the propagandists' success has been to soften up the Washington news media, to ensure that journalists were ready to accept whatever lies were told.
To that end, Reagan assigned aggressive "public diplomacy" teams to intimidate and discredit the few Washington journalists who asked pointed questions and tried to get at the truth. [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History.]
In this regard, another interesting disclosure in Snyder's book is the quasi-official USIA role played by Accuracy in Media's Reed Irvine. Irvine is commonly described as a "media watchdog" and was addressed personably as "Reed" when he appears on Koppel's "Nightline."
According to Snyder, however, Irvine also was an adviser to the Reagan administration's propaganda apparatus.
During Reagan's second term, Irvine -- along with conservative fund-raiser Richard Viguerie and Joe McCarthy's legendary counsel Roy Cohn -- vetted the selection of a new Voice of America director, Snyder reported.
When the leading candidate, former ABC News president William Sheehan, refused to answer the group's questions about his personal vote in the presidential election, Sheehan was blackballed from getting the job.
Irvine's unpublicized collaboration with Reagan's propaganda machinery also surfaced during the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987. A White House document, dated May 20, 1983, described how USIA director Wick held a private White House fund-raiser which generated $400,000 for Irvine's organization and other conservative groups.
While working behind the scenes with USIA and receiving secret subsidies arranged by the government, Irvine carried out vituperative attacks on skeptical journalists. I was one of the reporters who was a frequent target of AIM.
Bringing It Home
But the end of the Cold War did not end the Republicans' reliance on propaganda. They seem to have just taken the lessons domestic.
Many of the same individuals who thrived during the Reagan-Bush years, such as Irvine, employed similar disinformation tactics against the Clinton administration. It was as if President Clinton replaced the former Soviet Union as the target for the Right's "ends-justify-the-means" deceptions.
Instead of lies about KAL-007 -- or "yellow rain" chemical warfare or the KGB role in the pope's shooting or Nicaraguan Sandinista "anti-Semitism" or a host of other propaganda "themes" -- the disinformationists linked Clinton to a variety of crimes: Vincent Foster's "murder," drug trafficking out of the Mena, Ark., "death squad" operations in Arkansas, etc.
Indeed, in early May 1998, congressional Republicans mounted one remarkable disinformation operation that echoed the KAL-007 story from 15 years earlier. Rep. Dan Burton, R-Indiana, released selective excerpts from private prison conversations that Clinton pal Webster Hubbell had with family, friends and lawyers.
The handpicked snippets suggested that Hubbell was under White House pressure to lie and was covering up for criminal over-billing by Hillary Clinton when she worked at the Rose Law Firm. The Washington media had a field day, with front-page stories that accepted Burton's spin on the tapes.
But, just as the Reagan administration had done in the KAL-007 case, Burton had withheld exculpatory statements from the released excerpts. For instance, Burton chose to leave out Hubbell's declaration in the same conversation that Mrs. Clinton had "no idea" about illegal over-billing schemes and that he was not receiving hush money.
A red-faced news media ran clarifications. But the Washington press corps still was unwilling to draw lessons from the past.
Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and other Republicans might have insisted that their interest was a principled pursuit of "the whole truth" about the "Clinton scandals." But the party's 50-year record -- from Nixon and McCarthy to Reagan and Bush – left many with an understandable sense of skepticism.
In the situational ethics of GOP politics, Snyder's advice still rang loudly: "The key is to lie first."
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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