The Power of False Narrative
As the House of Representatives was engaged in its reading of an abridged version of the U.S. Constitution – leaving out parts like the sections on slavery that would make the Founders look bad – I was reminded again of the power of false narrative, especially at a time when the American Right dominates the U.S. media landscape.
Indeed, for tens of millions of Americans, their only narrative is the one created by the Right’s propagandists in TV, radio, print and the Internet. And in that world, the Constitution is portrayed as an attack on the powers of the federal government by the Founders who were infallible.
To note otherwise – to say that the Constitution marked a major expansion of federal power from the Articles of Confederation (including broad new authority to tax and regulate commerce) or to observe that many Founders were either slave owners or tolerant of slavery – would somehow disrupt the pleasant (but false) historical memories of today’s Tea Party types.
So, to minimize this intrusion of reality, House Republican leaders huddled with the Congressional Research Service to delete portions of the Constitution that had been superseded by later amendments, such as the clause about counting African-American slaves as three-fifths of a human being for the purpose of representation.
Some black members of Congress, such as Rep. James Clyburn, D-South Carolina, protested this “revisionist history,” but the Republican leadership apparently felt the abridged version better bolstered their case for basing all interpretations of the Constitution on so-called “original intent.”
That theory of “originalism” lets today’s Republican politicians and right-wing judges pretend that they can divine what the Founders were thinking in 1787 or what authors of later amendments had in mind regardless of the actual wording that was adopted.
Though sounding respectful of traditions, “originalism” in practice has simply been a way for right-wing theorists to justify imposing their ideological views and partisan desires on the nation by claiming some special channel into the Founders’ thinking.
For instance, many on the Right insist that the Founders created a “Christian nation” with no “separation of church and state” despite the fact that Christianity is not mentioned in the Constitution and the First Amendment bars Congress from passing any law for “an establishment of religion.”
Recently, right-wing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia announced that the straightforward language of the 14th Amendment barring any state from denying “any person within its jurisdictions the equal protection of the laws” did not apply to women and gays because, Scalia insisted, the post-Civil War drafters of the amendment were only thinking about black males.
Though Scalia’s interpretation suited the Right’s lingering disdain for women’s rights and its fierce opposition to permitting gay marriage, Scalia’s view on the amendment’s “original intent” was more situational than ironclad.
In Election 2000, when the power to appoint Supreme Court justices was at stake, Scalia joined four other partisan Republicans on the court in citing the 14th Amendment to stop the vote count in Florida and put George W. Bush in the White House. Yet, no one has ever suggested that the 14th Amendment’s drafters intended to protect the future political fortunes of a white plutocrat.
There is also the troublesome fact that Bush, through his “war on terror,” violated many individual rights guaranteed by the Constitution. He ignored habeas corpus requirements for the government to justify imprisonments before a judge; he overrode the Fourth Amendment’s demand for “probable cause” before a search and seizure; and he made a mockery of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments.”
Yet, many of today's "Constitution lovers" on the Right and in the Tea Party movement were silent about Bush’s trampling on the document when the victims were Muslims or Muslim sympathizers. After all, I suppose, if you’ve divined that the Founders wrote the Constitution to create a “Christian nation,” it would follow that Muslims and their allies wouldn’t have rights.
Beyond the partisan hypocrisies and the historical revisionism, the political import of the Republican stunt of reading the Constitution on the House floor on Thursday could not be missed. It was an attempt to position the Republicans and the Tea Party as the true defenders of America’s founding document, implying the Democrats and liberals were its enemies.
As with the American flag, the Constitution has become the latest venerable symbol of the nation to be politicized. The Right’s implicit narrative is that “lib-rhuls” hate America -- and that the Constitution, like the flag, belongs to Republicans and their right-wing friends.
In his usual twisted way, neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer made this point in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post on Friday.
Besides co-opting the Constitution, the American Right has benefited from the creation and circulation of other false narratives. Indeed, much of the “conventional wisdom” about the past several decades is a result of the Right’s skill at fabricating and disseminating its version of the facts.
This fake reality will be in the spotlight over the next several weeks as the nation engages in the apotheosis of President Ronald Reagan whose 100th birthday will be extravagantly celebrated next month. (Countering this particular false narrative has been a long-term goal of Consortiumnews.com. See, for instance, “Ronald Reagan: Worst President Ever?”)
Just the other day I was reminded of how insidious false narrative can be. A critic lashed out a story that I had written about Republican plans to use congressional hearings to undermine the Obama administration.
I noted parallels with the Republican strategy in the 1990s to hype mini-scandals swirling around President Bill Clinton in a kind of information war to undermine the Democrats and improve the chances of a Republican retaking the White House.
The critic took to me to task for citing the relatively “trivial Democratic misdeeds” that had been the focus of Republican investigations. The commenter then stated:
“Can anyone seriously believe selling highly classified American missle [sic] technology to the Chinese Communists in return for campaign contributions is a ‘trivial misdeed’? Am I the only one with a memory like an elephant?”
But the problem with the commenter’s elephant-like memory was that he was remembering a false narrative, one that had been created by congressional Republicans in 1999 and exploited during Campaign 2000 to undermine Al Gore’s campaign.
The reality was that the principal breach of U.S. nuclear secrets regarding China appears to have occurred under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, not during the Clinton-Gore administration. It is true that the loss of these secrets was discovered while Clinton and Gore were in office but the actual security breach dated back to the 1980s.
In my response to the critic, I wrote:
“You're remembering a false narrative that was sold to a gullible American public in 1999 and 2000 as part of the propaganda campaign to put George W. Bush in office. It was a lie created by Republicans, particularly [Rep.] Christopher Cox working with Scooter Libby,” then a congressional aide.
“The truth was that the real breach of nuclear secrets regarding China occurred during Reagan-Bush, as we have recounted.”
A Bogus Narrative
Though I’ve addressed this topic several times, I included a link to one Consortiumnews.com story from 2005 which noted that a player in the Republican disinformation campaign about the Chinese nuclear case had been Lewis Libby, who subsequently moved on to become Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff and a figure in a 2002-03 disinformation campaign about Iraq’s non-existent WMD.
In 2005, after Libby was indicted for perjury over his attempt to cover up the Bush-Cheney role in exposing a CIA officer in order to discredit her husband’s criticism of the WMD falsehoods – the Plame-gate affair – I revisited Libby’s role as a legal adviser to Cox’s investigation.
As an example of how a false narrative can be spun through a dishonest re-ordering of the facts, I wrote then:
In 1999, Libby, a China expert, served on a special Republican-controlled House committee that laid the blame for the compromise of U.S. secrets [to China] almost exclusively on Democrats, despite evidence that the worst rupture of nuclear secrets actually occurred during the Reagan-Bush administration in the mid-1980s.
The committee’s findings served as an important backdrop for Election 2000 when George W. Bush’s backers juxtaposed images of Democrat Al Gore attending a political event at a Buddhist temple with references to the so-called “Chinagate” scandal.
The American public was led to believe that $30,000 in illegal “soft-money” donations from Chinese operatives to Democrats in 1996 were somehow linked to China’s access to U.S. nuclear secrets. Millions of Americans may have been influenced to vote against Gore and for Bush because they wanted to rid the U.S. government of people who had failed to protect national security secrets.
But the reality was that the principal [loss] of U.S. nuclear secrets to China appears to have occurred when Beijing obtained U.S. blueprints for the W-88 miniaturized hydrogen bomb, a Chinese intelligence coup in the mid-1980s on the watch of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
The intelligence loss came at a time when the Reagan-Bush administration was secretly collaborating with communist China on arms shipments to the Nicaraguan contra rebels, an operation so sensitive that Congress and the American people were kept in the dark, even as White House aide Oliver North colluded with Chinese agents.
The House report – with Libby as a top adviser – obscured this central fact by setting up a timeline that placed nearly all entries about compromised intelligence in the years of Jimmy Carter’s or Bill Clinton’s presidencies. Only a close reading of the report’s text would clue someone in on the actual timing of the W-88 leak to China. …
In 1999, Libby had learned in the “Chinagate” case how politically useful national security accusations can be in scaring large segments of the U.S. population and swaying the Washington press corps.
The “Chinagate” investigation, headed by Republican congressmen Christopher Cox and Porter Goss, released an 872-page report in three glossy volumes on May 25, 1999. Its unmistakable message was that the Clinton administration had failed to protect the nation against China’s theft of top-secret nuclear designs and other sensitive data. …
Cox and Goss [later] joined the [Bush] administration, with Cox as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and Goss as CIA director.
[Both Cox and Goss proved disastrous in their Bush jobs. Goss washed out as CIA director amid internal complaints about his politicizing the spy agency, and Cox brought to the SEC his laissez-faire ideology about regulating Wall Street, a see-no-evil approach that contributed to the financial collapse in 2008.]
One sleight of hand used in the “Chinagate” report was to leave out dates of alleged Chinese spying in the 1980s to obscure the fact that the floodgates of U.S. nuclear secrets to China – including how to build a miniaturized W-88 nuclear warhead – appeared to have opened during the Reagan-Bush years. …
In a two-page chronology – pages 74-75 – the report puts all the boxes about Chinese espionage suspicions into the Carter and Clinton years. Nothing sinister is attributed specifically to the Reagan-Bush era, other than a 1988 test of a neutron bomb built from secrets that the report says were believed stolen in the “late 1970s,” the Carter years.
Only a careful reading of the text inside the chronology’s boxes makes clear that many of the worst national security breaches came on the Reagan-Bush watch.
For instance, a box for 1995 states that a purported Chinese defector walked into a U.S. government office in Taiwan that year and handed over incriminating Chinese documents. While that would seem to apply to a Clinton year, the documents actually showed that Chinese intelligence may have stolen the W-88 secrets “sometime between 1984 and 1992,” Reagan-Bush years.
The Chinese tested their miniaturized warhead in 1992 while George H.W. Bush was president. In other words, it was impossible that the Clinton-Gore administration, which started in 1993, could have been responsible for this security breach.
Left out of the chronology also was the fact that suspicious meetings with Chinese scientists – that made Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee an espionage suspect – took place from 1985 to 1988, while Reagan was president.
When released in May 1999, in the wake of Clinton’s impeachment and Senate trial, the “Chinagate” report was greeted by conservative groups and the national news media as another indictment of the Clinton administration. By then, the Washington press corps was obsessed with “Clinton scandals” and viewed virtually all allegations through that prism. …
Though the report fed the post-impeachment Clinton scandal fever, cooler heads began to prevail in June 1999. A study was issued by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board – chaired by former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-New Hampshire – concluding that Chinese spying was less than had been “widely publicized.”
Still, the fallout from the spy hysteria continued. The 60-year-old Wen Ho Lee was imprisoned on a 59-count indictment for mishandling classified material. The Taiwanese-born naturalized U.S. citizen was put in solitary confinement with his cell light on at all times. He was allowed out only one hour a day, when he shuffled around a prison courtyard in leg shackles.
Nine months later, the case against Wen Ho Lee began to collapse and the government accepted a plea bargain on Sept. 13, 2000. The scientist pleaded guilty to a single count of mishandling classified material.
New evidence also pointed to the fact that the hemorrhage of secrets to China traced back to the Reagan-Bush years. After translating more documents from the Chinese defector who had approached U.S. officials in 1995, federal investigators found that the exposure of nuclear secrets in the 1980s had been worse than previously thought.
“The documents provided by the defector show that during the 1980s, Beijing had gathered a large amount of classified information about U.S. ballistic missiles and reentry vehicles,” according to an article in the Washington Post on Oct. 19, 2000.
Still, the “Chinagate” report’s suspicions about Clinton-Gore treachery lingered. During Campaign 2000, a pro-Bush conservative group aired an ad modeled after Lyndon Johnson’s infamous 1964 commercial that showed a girl picking a daisy before the screen dissolved into a nuclear explosion.
The ad remake accused the Clinton-Gore administration of selling vital nuclear secrets to communist China, in exchange for campaign donations in 1996. These nuclear secrets, the ad stated, gave communist China “the ability to threaten our homes with long-range nuclear warheads.”
“Chinagate” – and the repetitive use of video of Gore among saffron-robed monks – proved important in enabling Bush to keep Election 2000 close enough so the intervention by five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court, stopping a Florida recount, could hand him the victory.
On Feb. 4-5, 2001, two weeks after Bush took office, the New York Times published a retrospective on the Wen Ho Lee case. A detailed chronology demonstrated that the suspected loss of nuclear secrets dated back to the Reagan-Bush administration.
The Times reported that limited exchanges between nuclear scientists from the United States and China began after President Carter officially recognized China in 1978, but those meetings grew far more expansive and less controlled during the 1980s.
“With the Reagan administration eager to isolate the Soviet Union, hundreds of scientists traveled between the United States and China, and the cooperation expanded to the development of torpedoes, artillery shells and jet fighters,” the Times wrote. “The exchanges were spying opportunities as well.”
But the full story of the Republican-Chinese collaboration was even darker than the Times described.
By 1984, Ronald Reagan’s White House had decided to share sensitive national security secrets with the Chinese communists as it drew Beijing into the inner circle of illicit arms shipments to the Nicaraguan contra rebels.
Reagan’s White House turned to the Chinese for surface-to-air missiles for the contras because the U.S. Congress had banned military assistance to the rebel force and the contras were suffering heavy losses from attack helicopters deployed by Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government.
Some of the private U.S. operatives working with White House aide Oliver North settled on China as a source for SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles. In testimony at his 1989 Iran-Contra trial, North called the securing of these weapons a “very sensitive delivery.”
For the Chinese missile deal in 1984, North said he received help from the CIA in arranging false end-user certificates from the right-wing government of Guatemala. North testified that he “had made arrangements with the Guatemalan government, using the people [CIA] Director [William] Casey had given me.”
But China balked at selling missiles to the Guatemalan military, which was then engaged in a scorched-earth war against its own leftist guerrillas. To resolve this problem, North was dispatched to a clandestine meeting with a Chinese military official.
The idea was to bring the Chinese communists in on what was then one of the most sensitive secrets of the U.S. government: the missiles were not going to Guatemala, but rather into a clandestine pipeline arranged by the White House to funnel military supplies to the contras in defiance of U.S. law.
This was a secret so sensitive that not even the U.S. Congress could be informed, but it was to be shared with communist China.
In fall 1984, North enlisted Gaston J. Sigur, the NSC’s expert on East Asia, to make the arrangements for a meeting with a communist Chinese representative, according to Sigur’s testimony at North’s 1989 trial. “I arranged a luncheon and brought together Colonel North and this individual from the Chinese embassy” responsible for military affairs, Sigur testified.
“At lunch, they sat and they discussed the situation in Central America,” Sigur said. “Colonel North raised the issue of the need for weaponry by the contras, and the possibility of a Chinese sale of weapons, either to the contras or, as I recall, I think it was more to countries in the region but clear for the use of the contras.”
North described the same meeting in his autobiography, Under Fire. To avoid coming under suspicion of being a Chinese spy, North said he first told the FBI that the meeting had been sanctioned by national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane.
“Back in Washington, I met with a Chinese military officer assigned to their embassy to encourage their cooperation,” North wrote. “We enjoyed a fine lunch at the exclusive Cosmos Club in downtown Washington.”
North said the Chinese communists saw the collaboration as a way to develop “better relations with the United States.” Knowing about the illicit shipments to the contras also put Beijing in position to leverage U.S. policy in the future.
It was in this climate of cooperation that other secrets, including how to make miniaturized hydrogen bombs, allegedly reached communist China.
Though the evidence of North’s secret contacts with Chinese intelligence had been public knowledge since the late 1980s, the “Chinagate” report in 1999 made no reference to this secret collaboration between Reagan’s White House and China.
Enter Wen Ho Lee
Wen Ho Lee came to the FBI’s attention in 1982 when he called another scientist who was under investigation for espionage, according to the New York Times chronology.
But Lee’s contacts with China – along with trips there by other U.S. nuclear scientists – increased in the mid-1980s as the Reagan-Bush administration turned to China for help getting weapons to the contras.
In March 1985, Lee was seen talking with Chinese scientists during a scientific conference in Hilton Head, South Carolina. The next year, with approval of Los Alamos lab officials, Lee and another scientist attended a conference in Beijing. In 1988, Wen Ho Lee attended another conference in Beijing.
It was sometime during this period of physicist-to-physicist contacts when China is believed to have gleaned the secret of the miniaturized W-88 nuclear warhead.
“On Sept. 25, 1992, a nuclear blast shook China’s western desert,” the Times wrote. “From spies and electronic surveillance, American intelligence officials determined that the test was a breakthrough in China’s long quest to match American technology for smaller, more sophisticated hydrogen bombs.”
In September 1992, George H.W. Bush was still president.
In the early years of the Clinton administration, U.S. intelligence experts began to suspect that the Chinese nuclear breakthrough most likely came from purloined U.S. secrets.
“It’s like they were driving a Model T and went around the corner and suddenly had a Corvette,” said Robert M. Hanson, a Los Alamos intelligence analyst, in early 1995, the Times reported.
Looking for possible espionage, investigators began examining the years of the mid-1980s when the Reagan-Bush administration had authorized U.S. nuclear scientists to hold a number of meetings with their Chinese counterparts.
Though the American scientists were under restrictions about what information could be shared with the Chinese, it was never clear exactly why these meetings were held in the first place – given the risk that a U.S. scientist might willfully or accidentally divulge nuclear secrets.
But the Chinese-espionage story didn’t gain national attention until March 1999 when the New York Times published several imprecise front-page stories fingering Wen Ho Lee as an espionage suspect. This “Chinagate” story broke just weeks after Clinton’s impeachment and Senate trial for lying about sex with Monica Lewinsky.
With Clinton acquitted by the Senate, the Republicans and the news media were eager for another “Clinton scandal.” To get this fix, they brushed aside the timing of the lost secrets – the 1980s – and mixed together the suspicions about Chinese spying and allegations of Chinese campaign donations in 1996.
During those chaotic first weeks of “Chinagate,” pundits ignored the logical impossibility of Democrats selling secrets to China in 1996 when China apparently obtained those secrets a decade earlier during a Republican administration.
The House investigative report, with China expert Lewis Libby as a senior staff aide, added powerful fuel to the anti-Clinton fire. Conservative groups immediately grasped the political and fund-raising potential.
Larry Klayman’s right-wing Judicial Watch sent out a solicitation letter seeking $5.2 million for a special “Chinagate Task Force” that would “hold Bill Clinton, Al Gore and the Democratic Party Leadership fully accountable for election fraud, bribery and possibly treason in connection with the ’Chinagate’ scandal.”
“Chinagate involves actions by President Clinton and Vice President Gore which have put all Americans at risk from China’s nuclear arsenal in exchange for millions of dollars in illegal campaign contributions from the Communist Chinese,” Klayman’s letter said.
But the ultimate payoff to Republicans for this twisting of history came in November 2000, when possibly millions of Americans went to the polls determined to throw out the Clinton-Gore crowd for selling nuclear secrets to communist China.
That impression was anchored in the public mind by the House committee’s three-volume report, which had selectively presented the case and steered away from evidence that implicated the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
The irony was that these American voters, eager to expel the Democrats for compromising nuclear secrets to China, actually let back in the Republicans who were much more deeply implicated in the offense.
But Lewis Libby had learned an important lesson – fears of foreign dangers could move the American people in a desired direction, as long as the information was carefully tailored and controlled. [In 2007, Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in the "Plame-gate" case, but his 30-month prison sentence was commuted by President Bush to eliminate all jail time.]
Today, In 2011, it remains clear that the intentionally muddled history that Libby helped create is still rattling around in the brains of many Americans, including the fellow who boasts of “a memory like an elephant.”
However, like many Americans, he is remembering a “history” that never existed, just as today’s Tea Partiers are recalling a mythical and sanitized Constitution, not the complex and compromised document that was actually hammered out by imperfect men in 1787.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege, which are now available with Neck Deep, in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]
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.
To comment at Consortiumblog, click here. (To make a blog comment about this or other stories, you can use your normal e-mail address and password. Ignore the prompt for a Google account.) To comment to us by e-mail, click here. To donate so we can continue reporting and publishing stories like the one you just read, click here.
to Home Page