When President Barack Obama reversed himself on releasing photos of U.S. soldiers abusing detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq, he offered the usual “patriotic” excuse, that the images might fuel anti-Americanism and cost the lives of U.S. soldiers.
That argument has a powerful emotional appeal – especially when juxtaposed against the abstract counterargument regarding “the public’s right to know” – but the truth is much more complex than Obama and other advocates for this secrecy acknowledge.
Indeed, one could argue that the sanitizing of war by both U.S. politicians and the press over the last couple of decades – supposedly for “the good of the country” – has contributed to the deaths of many more U.S. soldiers and foreign civilians than any disclosure might have.
For instance, during the first Gulf War in 1991, grim photos of charred victims of U.S. aerial bombardments appeared in Europe and elsewhere but not in the United States. The U.S. news media chose to withhold the most gruesome images out of a concern that the pictures might dampen the happy national celebration as war again began to seem like fun.
By self-censoring the photos – and downplaying civilian casualties in and around Baghdad – the U.S. news media also repositioned itself as “patriotic,” thus deflecting the Right’s longstanding criticism of the U.S. press corps for supposedly undermining American resolve to win the Vietnam War.
The “feel-good” editorial decisions in the first Persian Gulf War surely made career sense for the well-paid talking heads. They could sit around with retired military officers and analyze the war as if it were a bloodless video game.
Though helpful for these stay-at-the-rear TV personalities and likeminded newspaper columnists, the flag-waving coverage of the first Persian Gulf War laid the groundwork for a political consensus a decade later for President George W. Bush to “finish the job” and overthrow Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
In 2003, many of the same U.S. news media stars reprised their cheerleading roles from 1991, again sitting around with ex-military men, sometimes using the first-person plural to discuss the looming “shock and awe” invasion, and making war seem grand and glorious.
As NBC’s anchor Tom Brokaw proclaimed on March 19, 2003, in the first hours of the U.S.-led invasion, “In a few days, we’re going to own that country.”
However, since those heady days, more than 4,200 American soldiers have died in Iraq along with estimated hundreds of thousands of Iraqis; the U.S. image around the world has been badly damaged; and the war’s price tag may ultimately run into the trillions of dollars.
So, did the “patriotic” decision of news executives in 1991 to sanitize the image of war help “save” American lives or “cost” American lives? If Americans had had a more realistic sense of the barbarity of modern warfare, might more of them have resisted Bush’s desire to invade Iraq in 2003?
In my three decades-plus in Washington journalism, I have witnessed the creeping opportunism behind this claim of doing “what’s good for the country,” which usually translates into keeping unpleasant truths from the American people and spares politicians and journalists from the difficult task of having to speak ill of some U.S. government actions.
This tendency extends beyond the battlefield, too. For instance, in early November 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson felt he was on the verge of negotiating an end to the Vietnam War, he learned that Richard Nixon’s political operatives were trying to sabotage the peace talks as a means of ensuring Nixon’s electoral victory.
When Johnson considered exposing Nixon’s “treason,” the President was dissuaded by then-Defense Secretary Clark Clifford who feared that the disclosure might undermine Nixon’s legitimacy if he won the election anyway.
“Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected,” Clifford said in a Nov. 4, 1968, conference call, which was released by Johnson’s presidential library four decades later.
Johnson acceded to Clifford’s “good for the country” advice. Nixon’s “treason” remained secret; he narrowly won the presidential election against then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey; Johnson went quietly into retirement; the war dragged on another four years claiming the lives of 20,763 more U.S. soldiers and about a million more Vietnamese. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Significance of Nixon’s Treason.”]
With this ugly Nixon reality kept from the American people, the Right was able to formulate a case blaming almost everyone but Nixon for the eventual U.S. defeat in Vietnam.
Indeed, by the late 1970s, a resurgent right-wing movement had composed a revisionist history of the Vietnam War – accusing liberal Democrats, anti-war youth and skeptical war correspondents of betraying the nation at a time of war, of serving as a veritable fifth column for the enemy.
During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, that version of history grew dominant as the Right’s media infrastructure expanded exponentially and the American Left largely ignored the need to build media or otherwise engage in what the Right called “the war of ideas.”
As a result of this shifting power dynamic – the Right’s ascendancy and the Left’s decline – mainstream U.S. journalists sought self-protection by soft-peddling critical information about the Reagan administration, thus enabling national security scandals to remain secret or go severely under-reported deep into the 1980s.
In that climate, the Washington news media had little stomach for exposing the Iran-Contra affair, Nicaraguan contra cocaine trafficking, political murders and even genocide by U.S. allies in Central America, and the dangers of arming Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Islamic extremists in Afghanistan.
I encountered this new media reality while pressing ahead on some of those scandal stories for the Associated Press and later Newsweek. I came face-to-face with the “good for the country” argument during my early days at Newsweek, at a March 10, 1987, dinner at the home of Washington bureau chief Evan Thomas.
The invited guests of honor were retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who had been one of three members of the Tower Board which had just completed an initial investigation of the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal, and Rep. Dick Cheney, who was the ranking Republican on the House Iran-Contra panel which was just beginning its work. Also in attendance were top Newsweek executives down from New York and a few other lowly correspondents, like me.
At that time, a key question in the Iran-Contra scandal was whether Reagan’s national security adviser, Admiral John Poindexter, had informed the President about the diversion of profits from arms sales to Iran to Reagan’s beloved contras fighting along the Nicaraguan border.
As the catered dinner progressed, Scowcroft piped up: "I probably shouldn't say this, but if I were advising Admiral Poindexter and he had told the President about the diversion, I would advise him to say that he hadn't."
I was startled. Here was a Tower Board member acknowledging that he really wasn't interested in the truth after all, but rather political expediency. Not familiar with the etiquette of these Newsweek affairs, I stopped eating and asked Scowcroft if he understood the implication of his remark.
"General," I said, "you're not suggesting that the admiral should commit perjury, are you?"
There was an awkward silence around the table as if I had committed some social faux pas. Then, Newsweek executive editor Maynard Parker, who was sitting next to me, boomed out: "Sometimes, you have to do what's good for the country."
Parker's riposte was greeted with some manly guffaws; Scowcroft never answered my question; and the uncomfortable moment soon passed.
In the following months, it also became clear that Parker wasn't joking. The opportunity inside Newsweek to pursue the truth about the Iran-Contra scandal disappeared. The deceptive testimony of senior officials, such as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz, was accepted with a near total lack of skepticism.
There was a sense that getting to the bottom of the Iran-Contra scandal – and facing up to the roles of President Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush in violating the Arms Export Control Act, engaging in criminal money-laundering and defying Congress on its prohibition of military aid to the contras – would not be “good for the country.”
When I pressed ahead anyway, Parker complained to Thomas that I must be out “to get” Reagan and Bush. I realized that my days at Newsweek were numbered and agreed to leave in 1990.
Ironically, however, Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh was coming to the same conclusion that I had reached, that we were witnessing a well-coordinated high-level cover-up -- and the reemergence of Nixon’s theories about the imperial presidency.
The “good for the country” arguments were most prevalent when the wrongdoing was committed by Republicans. After all, the emergence of a generously funded and quite nasty right-wing news media in the 1980s and 1990s had reshaped the political dynamics of Washington.
So, for instance, in December 2000, when George W. Bush muscled his way toward the presidency by getting political allies to disrupt and then shut down a recount in Florida, the prevailing mood in the U.S. news media was that it was important for national unity to let Bush have his way.
That sentiment grew even stronger after 9/11. And it proved decisive when an unofficial Florida recount conducted by major news organizations discovered that if all legally cast votes had been counted, Al Gore would have carried the state and become President.
However, amid the super-patriotic mood after 9/11, the news executives again bent to what was supposedly “good for the country.” They fashioned their story leads to focus on various hypothetical partial recounts that still would have favored Bush, while burying deep in the articles the startling fact that the wrong man was in the White House.
While framing those recount stories may have reflected the political reality of fall 2001 – one could only imagine the complaints a news organization would have received if it had simply laid out the truth – the decision to contort those stories had a lasting political effect, creating the impression for many Americans that Bush was the legitimate winner in Election 2000.
That, in turn, encouraged Bush to move ahead with his increasingly grandiose view of his own righteous destiny, including his gut instinct about invading Iraq.
The miswritten election stories also gave Bush more credibility when he ran again in 2004. Some voters may have viewed him differently if they understood that he had stolen the election in 2000.
As the Bush administration ground on, there were other examples of the U.S. news media covering up presidential wrongdoing for “the good of the country.”
For instance, Bush convinced New York Times executives to spike a story about warrantless wiretaps of Americans, an article that was ready before Election 2004 but which was held for more than a year and was only published then because the reporter, James Risen, was including the disclosure in a book that was about to be released.
Looking back at America's destructive trajectory of the past several decades, the lesson appears to be clear. Hiding or spinning the truth – even for supposedly “patriotic” reasons – often can end up causing grave damage to a democratic Republic and simultaneously getting people killed for no particularly good reason.
Whether a government official or a news executive, the responsible act is almost always to disclose the truth. The moments when the truth legitimately should be hidden should be few and specific, such as the identity of an undercover intelligence officer or tactical details about a military project.
When those exceptions start expanding – when politicians and journalists see the career upside of concealing facts and appearing “patriotic” – the impact, especially in the long-term, can be extremely detrimental to a democratic Republic and very dangerous for its soldiers.
Doing what’s deemed “good for the country” often can turn out to be very bad for the country.
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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This story was published on May 17, 2009.