After three decades as a Washington journalist, one lesson stands out almost above all others: false narratives get good people killed and, perhaps even worse, could sound the death knell for the great experiment known as the American Republic.
The false narratives can establish broad themes – such as how the Cold War was “won” – or narrower questions – like whether Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and planned to share them with al-Qaeda.
Though it’s easier to sell distortions about events overseas than those closer to home, domestic false narratives can be especially effective by concentrating derision on, say, a dissenting politician who speaks up at an inopportune time or by spreading distrust of a journalist reporting an unpopular story.
Countering this threat of false narrative is, in essence, why we write, both at Consortiumnews.com since its founding in 1995 and in our books (i.e., Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege, and Neck Deep). Our goal has been to apply traditional journalistic standards to build honest narratives that can challenge false narratives.
While this point about the danger of false narratives may seem theoretical or even esoteric to some, it is actually quite practical and immediate.
There is no more effective way to short-circuit democracy than to get large segments of the population to buy into a made-up reality, while keeping other citizens so uncertain of the truth that they are politically paralyzed.
When autocrats stage a coup, one of their first actions is to grab control of the radio stations and close down independent newspapers. In an advanced society like the United States, that task is more daunting because the seizure of media control must be done more subtly and gradually.
Like the proverbial frog that would leap to safety if tossed into a pot of boiling water but would die if the water were slowly brought to a boil, the American people have been lulled into lethargy, either not detecting or not acting upon changes that were occurring in the U.S. media and were eating away at the foundations of the Republic.
Now, only at this very late stage – as the Bush administration, with the complicity of Congress and much of the Washington news establishment, keeps turning up the heat – more and more Americans are awakening to the threat but remain unclear what to do.
In my view, the first step must be to understand what’s happened over the past three decades and define who’s primarily responsible and why.
Rise of the Neocons
Over the past three decades, the most adept practitioners of spinning false narratives have been political operatives now known as the neoconservatives. By and large, the neocons were intellectuals who understood the power of information and embraced the potential for using sophisticated propaganda to influence the American people.
Some neocons came out of formerly leftist orientations, so they are familiar with the “vanguard” theories of Lenin and Trotsky. Other neocons were students of Leo Strauss, a political theorist who espoused the need for leaders to engage in the manipulation of the public for its own good.
The neocons also were both influenced and alienated by the turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s. They viewed the mass activism of the Vietnam War period – and the explosion of alternative media outlets – as a threat to elite control of U.S. foreign policy.
In the mid-1970s, the neocons allied themselves with more traditional conservatives and became, in effect, the “vanguard” for an assault on how large portions of the U.S. citizenry saw the world. The neocons were the shock troops for what became known as the “war of ideas.”
Yet, what was most striking about the neocon approach was that it reversed the traditional empirical method. Instead of studying the facts and then drawing conclusions, the neocons started with their conclusions – what they felt had to be done – and then “cherry-picked” the available evidence to guide the public to that position.
An early version of the neocon method emerged in the CIA’s “Team B” experiment authorized in 1976 by then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush. To offer a competitive assessment of the Soviet threat, he allowed into the CIA analytical division a group of right-wing activists, including a young arms-control specialist named Paul Wolfowitz.
At the time, CIA analysts were detecting deepening economic troubles and technological failures inside the Soviet Union. One senior CIA officer told me that the agency’s best assets in Moscow were describing a dysfunctional system sliding toward collapse.
The CIA’s emerging analysis of a stumbling Soviet Union opened the door for geo-political strategies aimed at reducing U.S.-Soviet tensions, especially around nuclear weapons. That policy known as “détente” was devised by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and advocated by Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
But the seemingly good news of a Soviet decline was not what many old Cold Warriors, their military-industrial financial backers and the bright young neocons wanted to hear. Their interests were better served if the American people believed the Soviet Union was a rising power surrounding the United States and preparing for a decisive first strike.
So, in defiance of the CIA’s evidence, “Team B” reached an alarmist conclusion on Soviet capabilities and intent, a view that was then popularized by the influential Committee on the Present Danger. They warned of a “window of vulnerability” through which the Soviets could launch an annihilating first strike or blackmail the United States into surrender.
To push this fearful vision further, right-wing foundations – coordinated by former Treasury Secretary Bill Simon – began investing in a conservative media infrastructure that included ideological magazines, attack groups to go after mainstream journalists, and think tanks that would generate endless position papers and talking points.
By the 1980s, after Ronald Reagan’s election, many young neocons – the likes of Elliott Abrams and Robert Kagan – were getting credentialed into the U.S. government. Meanwhile, at CIA, hard-line Cold Warrior, Director William Casey, and his deputy, Robert Gates, were purging the old analysts who kept seeing signs of Soviet decline.
The preferred narrative was that the Soviet juggernaut, which was supposedly encircling the United States, required a massive U.S. military build-up combined with support for brutal right-wing regimes and instigation of anticommunist insurgencies around the world.
So, while hundreds of billions of tax dollars were poured into the Star Wars missile defense and other expensive weapons systems, the Reagan administration also backed “death squad” regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador, terrorist-style insurgencies in Nicaragua and Angola, and Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan where a Saudi named Osama bin Laden helped out by recruiting bands of Arab jihadists.
As the Soviet Union continued its decline through the 1980s, the Reagan administration kept its eyes wide shut. The housebroken CIA analytical division knew better than to continue challenging the Soviet-juggernaut narrative.
Ironically, when the Soviet empire broke apart from 1989 to 1991, the CIA analysts came in for ridicule for “missing” the Soviet collapse.
But the neocons simply adjusted the narrative: Rather than accept that the Nixon-Ford détente-ists had been right about signs of Soviet weakness in the 1970s, the narrative became that Ronald Reagan had “won” the Cold War by supporting brush-fire wars, lavishing money on the Pentagon, and telling Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down that wall.”
An accurate narrative might have suggested that Reagan and the neocons had unnecessarily extended the Cold War, enriched military contractors, inflicted needless bloodshed, and strengthened future enemies like bin Laden. But the accepted narrative essentially justified all the carnage and corruption as essential to victory.
As the U.S. media and political hierarchy accepted the neocon narrative, the neocons learned a key lesson: no one in the Washington power structure would challenge them if they used a combination of fear to herd the American people behind a position, media power to blast out their message, and ridicule to discredit the remaining critics.
George H.W. Bush – the former CIA director who rose to the presidency in 1989 – also grasped the value of propaganda to eradicate the final vestiges of the public’s Vietnam-era skepticism about government and the people’s reluctance to rush off to war.
In early 1991, as President Bush rebuffed peace negotiations for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, he made clear to his subordinates that he wanted a successful ground war against Saddam Hussein’s army to exorcise the ghosts of the “Vietnam Syndrome.”
Then, after the 100-hour U.S. ground offensive ended, Bush hailed the victory with the peculiar cheer: “We’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.”
The successful Persian Gulf War also fed into the emerging neocon narrative about the preferred means for settling international disputes – through the unilateral application of U.S. military power.
However, contrasting with the black-and-white narrative of the noble George H.W. Bush facing down the evil Saddam Hussein, a handful of journalists and scholars offered a more complex narrative that included disclosures about secret U.S. military assistance from Bush and other Reagan insiders to Hussein’s regime in the 1980s.
There was a brief opportunity in late 1992 and early 1993 also to compile a fuller history of the Reagan-Bush role in collaborating secretly with Iran’s Islamic regime, in tolerating cocaine smuggling by the Nicaraguan contra rebels, and in other human-rights crimes stemming from the era’s dirty wars.
But incoming Democratic President Bill Clinton put historical truth far down his list of priorities, trading off those investigations of past misdeeds for the dream of future Republican support for his economic and social programs.
It turned out to be a bad deal. By fighting for an honest historical narrative, Clinton could have given the American people the information they needed to understand what had really gone on in the preceding dozen years.
Instead, Clinton allowed the Republicans and neocons to build a political mythology around Ronald Reagan’s legacy and to let George H.W. Bush head off into the sunset with his family’s political legacy intact. Clinton didn't even get Republican support for his domestic agenda.
Within two years, the Republicans had claimed control of Congress and had launched devastating investigations into relatively petty issues involving Clinton, such as his White House Travel Office firings, his Whitewater real estate deal, and his womanizing.
After years of pummeling Bill Clinton, it was relatively easy for the neocons and their many press allies to construct a new false narrative about Al Gore as a serial liar and another one about George W. Bush as the man who would restore honor and dignity to the White House.
Once George W. Bush was in the White House – and especially after the 9/11 terror attacks – there were new opportunities for more false narratives: Bush as the natural leader with unfailing instincts; his critics as “deranged” America-hating losers; Saddam Hussein as a madman ready to give WMD to his al-Qaeda allies; and many more.
When American citizens tried to challenge those narratives – whether Al Gore emerging from his political seclusion to question unilateralism or the Dixie Chicks dissing Bush at a concert – they were quickly targeted with ugly attacks on their deviant behavior.
The neocons and the Right had built a kind of Doritos factory for self-serving narratives. No matter what anyone did they would simply make more.
All my books dating back to Fooling America (1992) and Trick or Treason (1993) – both now out of print – have challenged this propaganda apparatus, explaining how it was formed and how its product of false narrative was manufactured and disseminated. The books also sought to piece together truthful counter-narratives.
In 1995, that was also a founding purpose of Consortiumnews.com, to assemble hard evidence and careful analysis on important political and international events. Much of that material found its way into my last three books: Lost History (1999); Secrecy & Privilege (2004); and Neck Deep (written with two of my sons, Sam and Nat, 2007).
Some readers have suggested that our work doesn’t go far enough, that it helps in explaining what happened but doesn’t chart out a plan of action.
That criticism may be true. But it has long been my belief that establishing an honest history of the nation’s recent past is a crucial first step toward empowering citizens who can then develop their own strategies for change.
Simply put, we believe that truthful narratives can be as important in guiding citizens to wise action as concocting false narratives can be in luring a nation toward catastrophe.
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.