For Americans who hear the name Washington Post and still think of "All the President's Men" – brave journalists and editors facing down a corrupt President – today's version of the newspaper would be a sad disappointment, a betrayal of a noble past.
Over the last three decades, the Post has evolved into a neoconservative propaganda sheet, especially its opinion section which fronted for George W. Bush's false Iraq-WMD claims, led the long-term bashing of Iraq War critics, and defends whatever actions the Israeli government takes, including the recent war in Gaza and apparently its desire to preemptively bomb Iran.
Rather than a newspaper committed to the truth and favoring a broad debate about important issues, the Washington Post has become an enforcement mechanism for a neocon-dominated Establishment, setting the parameters for permissible points of view and twisting facts for that purpose.
A recent example of this enforcement role was its March 12 lead editorial trashing former U.S. Ambassador Charles "Chas" Freeman for issuing a two-page statement pointing out that his nomination to serve as a top intelligence analyst had been torpedoed by Washington's powerful Israel Lobby.
To the Post's editors, however, there apparently is no Israel Lobby; there has been no large-scale organized effort to bend U.S. foreign policy to the interests of Israeli governments over the years. Even the suggestion that such a body exists is a sign of delusion, bigotry and a conspiratorial mindset.
The Post editorial entitled "Blame the 'Lobby'" declared that "Mr. Freeman issued a two-page screed ... in which he described himself as the victim of a shadowy and sinister 'Lobby' whose 'tactics plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency' and which is 'intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government.' Yes, Mr. Freeman was referring to Americans who support Israel – and his statement was a grotesque libel."
The Post editors then raised the irrelevant fact that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee "says that it took no formal position on Mr. Freeman's appointment and undertook no lobbying against him" as the choice to chair the National Intelligence Council, which oversees production of intelligence estimates about threats facing the United States.
The Post's sleight of hand here was to pretend that only a formal AIPAC objection and direct actions by AIPAC personnel could represent the Israel Lobby. In reality, the Israel Lobby is far more expansive than simply AIPAC and includes a wide array of think tanks, contributors to political campaigns, and media commentators, including senior Post editors and columnists.
The Post's View
In the editorial, the Post's effort to deny the existence of an Israel Lobby moves on to assert that since U.S. governments have not done everything that some Israeli leaders have demanded – for instance, giving them help in bombing Iran – then, ipso facto, there is no Israel Lobby.
Left out of this sophistry are all the actions that Washington has taken in line with Israeli desires, such as overthrowing Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq, turning a blind eye to Israel's use of high-tech U.S. weapons against Palestinian and Lebanese targets, and fending off international condemnation for such acts as the recent war on Gaza.
The Post makes its case this way:
"Let's consider the ambassador's [Freeman's] broader charge: He describes 'an inability of the American public to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for U.S. policies in the Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics.'
"That will certainly be news to Israel's 'ruling faction,' which in the past few years alone has seen the U.S. government promote a Palestinian election that it opposed; refuse it weapons it might have used for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities; and adopt a policy of direct negotiations with a regime that denies the Holocaust and that promises to wipe Israel off the map. ...
"What's striking about the charges by Mr. Freeman and like-minded conspiracy theorists is their blatant disregard for such established facts. Mr. Freeman darkly claims that 'it is not permitted for anyone in the United States' to describe Israel's nefarious influence.
"But several of his allies have made themselves famous (and advanced their careers) by making such charges -- and no doubt Mr. Freeman himself will now win plenty of admiring attention. Crackpot tirades such as his have always had an eager audience here and around the world."
Yet, what is striking about the Post's up-is-down rant is that it was made in the context of a successful neoconservative campaign to blackball Freeman from a job in the U.S. government, where he had a long and distinguished career.
In other words, the Post's editors pretend that the termination of Freeman's government career (which they helped destroy) and the smearing of his reputation (which they contributed to) were, in some way, the advancement of his career and his fame.
They also left out that they commissioned one of the most influential attacks on Freeman, a Feb. 28 op-ed by Jon Chait, an editor at The New Republic, an important neoconservative journal whose publisher Martin Peretz has been a staunch supporter of Israeli government actions for decades. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Neocons Wage War on a 'Realist.'"]
Over the weekend, the Post's opinion section delivered two more coup-de-grace shots to Freeman's reputation by publishing columns by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, and Post editorial writer Charles Lane – articles that alternatively linked Freeman to the Taliban and to the Darfur genocide – and blasted him for complaining about being subjected to "libelous" accusations.
"Freeman's charges of an elaborate conspiracy to derail his nomination are disingenuous," Wolf wrote in his op-ed, picking up the theme of no formal AIPAC action. "The 'Israel lobby' never contacted me."
However, Wolf made clear that he had read and absorbed much of the anti-Freeman propaganda that Washington's neoconservatives were spreading.
Wolf links Freeman to the Taliban's Mullah Omar (via Saudi financial support both for Islamic madrassas and for a Middle East think tank run by Freeman) and to the Darfur atrocities (via a Chinese-government-backed oil company which paid Freeman $10,000 a year for advice and which has invested in exploration for Sudanese oil).
While such Kevin-Bacon-style guilt by tenuous association might seem over the top in other circumstances, the Post's editors appeared determined to go to any lengths to ensure that former Ambassador Freeman would face permanent scarring for having mentioned the Israel Lobby – or as they would put it, the "Israel Lobby."
Using Wolf's logic, one could accuse nearly every American of supporting the Taliban (because we use Saudi oil) and of complicity in the Darfur atrocities (because we as a nation buy billions of dollars in Chinese goods each year).
Despite the Post's extraordinary devotion of editorial space to demonize a little known ex-diplomat who had been appointed to an obscure job, the Post's piling on wasn't over. The newspaper next published an op-ed by one of its own editorial writers, Charles Lane.
Lane's chief point was that President Barack Obama must join in the destroy-Freeman campaign.
"The President needs to knock Freeman's insinuations down hard -- for two reasons," Lane wrote. "The first is to stop them from gaining any more currency than they already have in the rest of the world, especially in Arab and Muslim regions. The second has to do with the United States itself and the quality of our political culture [which Obama has vowed to improve]. Letting Freeman's comments pass unchallenged would undercut it."
In other words, Lane suggests that Freeman is the one responsible for the ugly personal attacks and that the poor neocons are the victims.
"To be sure, Freeman and his supporters feel ill used," Lane acknowledged. "The criticism he faced was not 100 percent fair; some of it went over the top in labeling him a pawn of the Saudis, etc. But for the most part it wasn't 'libelous,' as Freeman claims. It was basically a strong policy reaction based on his own voluminous paper trail."
Lane then cites what he terms a "strange" speech by Freeman in 2006 in which the former ambassador labeled the Republican and Democratic parties as "xenophobic, Islamophobic, Arabophobic, and anti-immigrant" and also observed that the United States had become "the planet's most despised nation, with its most hateful policies."
However, in the real world, Freeman's observations in 2006 were largely correct. Both parties were scurrying to burnish their "anti-immigrant" credentials and were endorsing or acquiescing to President George W. Bush's extreme rhetoric about the "long war" against Islamic militants.
As Pew and other opinion research organizations discovered, there was widespread global condemnation of Bush's policies, including his invasion/occupation of Iraq and his use of torture and other barbaric practices in the "war on terror."
Lane continues: "Even if Freeman had a perfectly legitimate grievance, even if he had been maligned, he wouldn't be entitled to respond in kind -- much less to brand large numbers of his fellow citizens as fifth columnists."
Remember that just the previous day, the Washington Post had run Wolf's op-ed linking Freeman to the Taliban protectors of Osama bin Laden and to the Darfur genocide. Some of the neocon attacks on Freeman also had painted him as "an agent of influence" for Saudi Arabia and China, but Lane says Freeman doesn't have the right "to respond in kind."
As totalitarian as the Post's editorial mindset seems to have become – a citizen can be pulverized by powerful interests, including Washington's dominant newspaper, but he mustn't dare defend himself or he will invite a new round of punishments – the Post's behavior is part of a long-term pattern.
The Plame-gate Offense
The Post's war against Freeman was not an aberration. Indeed, it parallels a similar campaign against another former U.S. ambassador, Joseph Wilson, who dared step forward in the spring-summer of 2003 to challenge President Bush's "twisting" of intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.
While Wilson's complaint was directed at the Bush administration, his criticism also reflected negatively on the Post's editors whose coverage of the run-up to the Iraq invasion had all the diversity of opinion – and tolerance of dissent – that one might have expected from Izvestia and Pravda in the old Soviet Union.
The Post editors stacked their influential editorial section with notorious neocons like Charles Krauthammer and Robert Kagan, along with other Iraq War enthusiasts such as David Ignatius, Jim Hoagland, Michael Kelly and Richard Cohen.
So, in September 2002, when former Vice President Al Gore objected to the rush to war, the Post let loose their columnists to distort and mock what Gore had said.
Kelly called Gore's speech "dishonest, cheap, low" before labeling it "wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible." Krauthammer added that the speech was "a series of cheap shots strung together without logic or coherence." There was no countervailing opinion published. [For details, see our book, Neck Deep.]
After Secretary of State Colin Powell made his now-infamous presentation of the Iraq evidence to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, the Post judged Powell's WMD case as "irrefutable" and added: "it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction." That judgment was reinforced by a solid phalanx of Post columnists, all hailing Powell's speech.
The Post's own editorials treated the Bush administration's false allegations about Iraq's stockpiles of WMD as indisputable fact and trashed even long-time American allies who dared disagree.
"The [Post] editorials during December  and January  numbered nine, and all were hawkish," wrote Columbia University journalism professor Todd Gitlin. "This editorial mood continued into February, culminating in a blast at the French and Germans headlined 'Standing With Saddam.' Apparently it's not only George W. Bush who doesn't nuance." [American Prospect, April 1, 2003]
After the U.S. "preemptive" invasion of Iraq and the failure to discover the imaginary WMD stockpiles, Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt was forced to make a rare and grudging apology. Hiatt acknowledged that the Post should have been more skeptical.
"If you look at the editorials we write running up [to the war], we state as flat fact that he [Hussein] has weapons of mass destruction," Hiatt said in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review. "If that's not true, it would have been better not to say it." [CJR, March/April 2004]
Yet, at the Post and many other U.S. news organizations, there was no sense that accountability was in order when news organizations joined a neoconservative stampede, even one that contributed to the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
Instead, Hiatt and his opinion pages continued to punish anyone – a politician or a citizen – who disagreed with the wisdom of Bush's Iraq War.
One of the Post's most troubling smear campaigns was directed against former Ambassador Wilson, who stepped forward in the months after the invasion as the first Washington Establishment figure to decry Bush's exaggeration of the threat from Iraq.
The history of what happened to Wilson -- a scandal known as "Plame-gate" -- is now well documented: In 2003, an arrogant administration sought to damage a critic, Wilson, who had offended Vice President Dick Cheney by accusing the White House of having "twisted" Iraq War intelligence.
The Cheney-led counterattack against Wilson sought to portray him as a boastful liar and involved leaking to reporters that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked at the CIA. That disclosure was published (in the Washington Post) by right-wing columnist Robert Novak, destroying Plame's career as a covert intelligence officer and endangering the lives of her network of foreign agents.
Then, as the White House recognized the potential criminality – not to mention the political dangers – of its actions, a cover-up was launched, with Bush insisting that he knew nothing about the anti-Wilson campaign and his top aides lying to or dissembling in front of investigators.
One might have thought a newspaper upholding the Watergate legacy of Woodward and Bernstein would have jumped all over this disgraceful abuse of power by an imperial President and his vengeful entourage. Instead, the Washington Post went after Joe Wilson.
Hiatt and his editorial page cohorts made trashing Wilson and mocking the seriousness of Plame's exposure almost a regular feature, recycling false White House talking points, including an attempt to question whether Plame was in fact "covert."
The Post's editorial page, which had swallowed Bush's WMD lies hook, line and sinker in 2002-03, apparently couldn't countenance someone who was right while so many super-smart Post editors and executives were wrong.
Endless Wilson Bashing
Even after Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis Libby, was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for his Plame-gate role in March 2007, Hiatt and his team were still bashing Wilson, declaring in one editorial that the ex-ambassador "will be remembered as a blowhard."
In haughty tones – like the deprecating commentaries deriding former Ambassador Freeman – the Post wrote:
"Mr. Wilson was embraced by many because he was early in publicly charging that the Bush administration had 'twisted,' if not invented, facts in making the case for war against Iraq. He claimed to have debunked evidence that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger; suggested that he had been dispatched by Mr. Cheney to look into the matter; and alleged that his report had circulated at the highest levels of the administration.
"A bipartisan investigation by the Senate intelligence committee subsequently established that all of these claims were false – and that Mr. Wilson was recommended for the Niger trip by Ms. Plame, his wife. When this fact, along with Ms. Plame's name, was disclosed in a column by Robert D. Novak, Mr. Wilson advanced yet another sensational charge: that his wife was a covert CIA operative and that senior White House officials had orchestrated the leak of her name to destroy her career and thus punish Mr. Wilson. ...
"The [Libby] trial has provided convincing evidence that there was no conspiracy to punish Mr. Wilson by leaking Ms. Plame's identity – and no evidence that she was, in fact, covert." [Washington Post, March 7, 2007]
But everything in this Post attack on Wilson was either a gross distortion or a lie, often parroting long-discredited White House talking points.
Wilson did debunk suspicions that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger. He was dispatched by the CIA because of questions asked by Cheney. (Wilson never said Cheney personally sent him.) His information did reach the highest levels of the administration, explaining why the CIA kept trying to delete references to the Niger claims from Bush's speeches.
The full Senate Intelligence Committee did not conclude that "all [Wilson's] claims were false." That assertion was rejected by the full committee and then inserted into "additional views" of three right-wing Republicans – Sens. Pat Roberts, Orrin Hatch and Christopher Bond – who carried the White House's water in claiming that Wilson's statements "had no basis in fact."
As for the CIA selection of Wilson for the Niger trip, the Post editorial-page editors knew that Wilson was chosen by senior CIA officials in the office of counter-proliferation, not by Valerie Plame, who played only a minor introductory role in the agency's recruitment of her husband.
The Post also knew that Wilson was well qualified for the assignment since he had served as a diplomat in the U.S. embassies in Iraq and Niger. He also took on this task pro bono, with the CIA only paying for his expenses.
Plus, Wilson was right again when he alleged that the White House was punishing him for his Iraq War criticism. Indeed, the Washington Post's own reporters had described this reality in the news pages.
On Sept. 28, 2003, a Post news article reported that a White House official disclosed that the administration had informed at least six reporters about Plame and did so "purely and simply out of revenge" against Wilson.
"Plame-gate" special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald made the same point in a court filing in the Libby case, stating that his investigation had uncovered a "concerted" effort by the White House to "discredit, punish or seek revenge against" Wilson because of his criticism of the administration.
Hiatt and his editorial team could have looked up that fact. It was on the Post's front page. [Washington Post, April 9, 2006]
The Post's 'Covert' Lie
Regarding Plame's covert status, the Post editors were lying there, too.
In the March 7 editorial, they apparently were still hanging their hats on false statements by right-wing lawyer Victoria Toensing, who had made a small cottage industry out of her assertion that Plame failed to meet the definition of "covert" in the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, which Toensing said she had helped draft.
Toensing insisted that Plame was not "covert" because she had not been "stationed" abroad in the past five years, which Toensing claimed was the law's standard.
For instance, on Feb. 18, 2007, as jurors were about to begin deliberations in the Libby case, the Post editors gave Toensing space on the front page of the Post's influential Outlook section for a long article in which she insisted that Plame was not "covert" and published "indictments" of other figures in the scandal, including Wilson and Fitzgerald.
Toensing's claim about Plame's covert status was legalistic at best, since it obscured the larger point that Plame was working undercover in a classified CIA position and was running agents abroad whose safety would be put at risk by an unauthorized disclosure of Plame's identity.
But Toensing wasn't even right about the law. It doesn't require that a CIA officer be "stationed" abroad in the preceding five years; it simply refers to an officer who "has served within the last five years outside the United States."
That would cover someone who – while based in the United States – went abroad on official CIA business, as Plame said she had done, according to her sworn testimony at a March 16, 2007, congressional hearing.
At that hearing of the House Oversight Committee, Chairman Henry Waxman also read a statement that had been approved by CIA Director Michael Hayden. The statement described Plame's status at the CIA as "covert," "undercover" and "classified."
"Ms. Wilson worked on the most sensitive and highly secretive matters handled by the CIA," Waxman's statement said, adding that her work dealt with "prevention of development and use of WMD against the United States."
Toensing appeared as a Republican witness at the hearing and was asked about her bald assertion that "Plame was not covert."
"Not under the law," Toensing responded. "I'm giving you the legal interpretation under the law and I helped draft the law. The person is supposed to reside outside the United States."
But that's not what the law says, either. It says "served" abroad, not "reside."
When asked whether she had spoken to the CIA or to Plame about Plame's covert status, Toensing said, "I didn't talk to Ms. Plame or the CIA. I can just tell you what's required under the law. They can call anybody anything they want to do in the halls" of the CIA.
In other words, Toensing had no idea about the facts of the matter; she didn't know how often Plame might have traveled abroad in the five years before her exposure; Toensing didn't even get the language of the statute correct.
Nevertheless, Toensing was accepted as an expert by the Washington Post's editors to issue "indictments" of people – like former Ambassador Wilson and special prosecutor Fitzgerald – who had gotten in the way of Bush's imperial presidency. [For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com's "Shame on the Post's Editorial Page," "Smearing Joe Wilson Again" and "Shame on the WPost, Again."]
A Sad Truth
The sad truth appears to be that the Washington Post can no longer be counted on to be anything like an honest broker, especially when it comes to issues near and dear to the hearts of neocons. Rather the Post's role is now to set the parameters for whatever debate the neocons find acceptable.
A recent example of how the Post played this role was its decision to publish only pro-Israeli op-eds and editorials – sometimes two a day – during the first 11 days of the Gaza War, which killed more than 1,000 Palestinians including many children and other non-combatants.
On Jan. 2, for instance, neocon ideologue Krauthammer wrote: "Some geopolitical conflicts are morally complicated. The Israel-Gaza war is not. It possesses a moral clarity not only rare but excruciating."
On the same day, Bush's former speechwriter (now Post columnist) Michael Gerson added, "There is no question – none – that Israel's attack on Hamas in Gaza is justified."
So, as much of the world recoiled in horror at the ferocity of the Israeli attacks, the Post's neocon-dominated opinion section only heaped blame on Hamas for its firing of small rockets into southern Israeli territory.
It took 12 days into Israel's punishing assault on Gaza for the Washington Post to permit the first op-ed suggesting that there might be two sides to the dispute, an article by former President Jimmy Carter who presented both Israeli and Palestinian concerns.
In a column entitled "An Unnecessary War," Carter noted that Israel had failed to live up to the goals of last year's truce agreement. He also described the near-starvation of many of Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants, cut off from the outside world by an Israeli blockade.
While Carter's column fit well within the mainstream of international opinion, it represented an anomaly in the opinion circles of Washington, appearing almost like a fringe viewpoint after a steady diet of neocon propaganda, especially in the Post's editorial section.
Looking back over the Post's recent history, I'm also reminded of my experience at the Post-owned Newsweek magazine in the late 1980s. I had been hired because of my early work exposing what became known as the Iran-Contra Affair. Newsweek – like the Post – had bought into the earlier false denials of the Reagan administration.
I thought maybe Newsweek sincerely wanted to catch up on possibly the most important scandal story of the decade. But I soon encountered what I considered troubling neocon trends at the magazine, particularly an elitist view about the need to steer the public in a direction favored by the Establishment, rather than to trust in the people's well-informed democratic judgment.
When I spoke once with Washington bureau chief Evan Thomas about what I considered the importance of giving unvarnished information to the American people so they could make up their own minds, he upbraided me with an admonition that at Newsweek our purpose was less to inform the readers than to guide them to the proper conclusions.
Over the ensuing two decades, that elitist attitude, a core feature of neoconservative ideology, appears to have spread throughout the Washington Post company. It influences the tone of the news pages [see, for instance, "WPost Admits Bungling Obama Quote" or "Obama's War with the Right (& Media)"], but it pervades the editorial section.
Rather than encouraging as free and open debate as possible, the Post now sees its role as herding the American people to certain preordained conclusions – and casting out from acceptable society anyone who dares threaten the Washington consensus.
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.