Some Of My Best Friends Are CIA

Since 2003, journalists have only deepened their relationship and dependency on the military, intelligence, and political Establishment. The conflation of military experience as journalistic experience, the desire for “access” to the corridors of power, and the willingness to stenographically print what is fed to them by the intelligence, military, and political Establishment is now called journalism. There is a degree of reverence, trust, and reliance on powerful political, military, and intelligence perspectives that belie the very idea of a Fourth Estate.

It is the sort of relationship that led Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, to celebrate US military adventurism and pre-emptive wars as a sign of a ”return of the American discovery of their missionary spirit…[which]…manifests in everything from quiet kindness to patronizing advice to armored divisions.” [Bill Keller, “The Return of America’s Missionary Impulse,” New York Times, April 15, 2011].

Their cheerleading of America’s “missionary spirit” means that journalists place an unfounded trust in our military, intelligence, and political leaders and feel no compunction producing entire reportages based on “leaks” and insider information.

In 2009, Michael Massing analyzed an article written by Helene Cooper and Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times in which he observed something rather odd; all the sources for the report, which was effectively speaking about potential reasons for bombing Iran, were official US government, intelligence agency, or some other administrative authority [Michael Massing, “Eyes Wide Shut on Iran: Familiar Sources Sing a Tired Song,” Columbia Journalism Review, September 30, 2009].

Specifically, he counted the following sources: a senior administration official, a second senior administration official, administration officials, senior intelligence officials, the officials, the official, White House officials, American officials, a senior administration official, the officials, a senior official; American officials, the officials, a senior administration official, the administration official, a senior administration official, administration officials, one administration official, and senior administration official.

These practices have continued and are now so entrenched that few seem to notice. From the glamorous studios of our broadcast and cable news channels to the pages of our leading news publications, journalists parrot state propaganda as truth.

The unquestioned faith in our political, intelligence, and military establishment has distorted US media’s coverage of US imperial geographies and the lives of the millions it has laid waste. The US media has played a leading role in dehumanizing and demonizing Muslims, Islam, and Arabs. It has willingly colluded with intelligence agencies to spread unsubstantiated and unverified stories of “terror plots,” a scam that the US intelligence agencies have been running for decades now. So entrenched is the US media’s gullibility of any narrative about “Islamic terror” that editors and journalists are more willing to run with these stories than spend time on due diligence.

For decades, the US media had regurgitated the FBI and CIA’s claims of foiling “terror plots,” when in fact, what they had been doing all along was entrapping innocent people into terror plots the FBI and CIA had designed themselves. For years, the US media excitedly reported these “terror plots” and barely challenged the narratives that the FBI and other agencies spun around them. Stories of “Islam” as “terror” have been a lucrative and long-standing US media business model. [Wadie Said, Crimes of Terror: The Legal and Political Implications of Federal Terrorism Prosecutions, Oxford University Press, 2018. Arun Kundnani, The Muslims Are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror, Verso Books, 2015].

An unforeseen consequence of this trust in the Establishment is that when it comes to stories about fanaticism, irrationalism, and violence of Muslims, Islam, and Arabs, the standards for fact-checking are deficient. Few publications have been more enthusiastic about this approach than the New York Times. There are many examples, but perhaps one of the most egregious was the New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi’s work for the highly popular podcast series Caliphate.

In September 2020, the Canadian police announced that they had arrested a man called Abu Huzayfah, whose real name was Shehroze Chaudhry, and who had been passing himself off as an ISIS operative. Shehroze Chaudhry was the principal source of the New York Times award-winning podcast series Caliphate, and the newspaper had relied on Chaudhry’s stories to produce it. Hosted by star reporter Rukmini Callimachi, it claimed to tell the story of the rise and fall of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. It became one of the most popular podcasts the newspaper had ever produced, attracting millions of listeners. But it was entirely based on a fabrication.

Chaudhry had lied to Callimachi, and she had not bothered to confirm his claims. Shehroze Chaudhry claimed that he had traveled to Syria in 2014 and joined ISIS, where he claimed to have killed people in public executions. He later traveled, or so he said, to Turkey and Pakistan before returning to Canada. He was prominent on social media, spreading pro-ISIS propaganda and claiming to recruit new fighters for the outfit. But it was all a lie.

In one episode, the New York Times’ national security correspondent Eric Schmitt confirmed Shehroze Chaudhry’s identity as an ISIS operative, claiming that “two different officials in the US government at different agencies have told me is that this individual, this Canadian, was a member of ISIS.” [Ben Norton, “Fake News Hoax Exposed: NY Times Podcast Star Lied About Joining ISIS,” The Gray Zone, September 27, 2020]. Callimachi herself learned about Shehroze Chaudhry’s identity as an ISIS operative through anonymous national security officials who said that they believed he was affiliated with ISIS. [Jacob Silverman, “How Was Rukmini Callimachi Fooled by a Fake Terrorist?” The New Republic, October 1, 2020].

There were always concerns about Callimachi’s claims, and some inside the newspaper raised questions. But editors brushed aside these concerns. When it came to reporting on America’s “Islamic demons,” the standards were very, very low. And they have been for decades. Callimachi has a long record of publishing sensationalist pieces about ISIS and terrorism based entirely on the claims and statements of US intelligence, military, and government officials.

A story in 2014 about a Syrian captive of ISIS by the name of Louai Abo Aljoud, who claimed to have seen US hostages at a prison camp in Aleppo and tried to report them to an “indifferent” US government. [Rukmini Callimachi, “The Cost of the US Ban on Paying for Hostages,” New York Times, December 27, 2014]. Serious concerns about her methods and reliance on questionable sources were raised back then but largely ignored. [Lachlan Cartwright and Maxwell Tani, “American Hostage’s Family Blasts Star NY Times Reporter’s ‘Lies,’” The Daily Beast, October 1, 2020].

In 2016, Callimachi penned a piece for the New York Times based on a jailhouse interview with a man named Mr. Sarfo, who also claimed to have been a member of ISIS. [Rukmini Callimachi, “How a Secretive Branch of ISIS Built a Global Network of Killers,” New York Times, August 3, 2016]. The entire piece relied on official sources and was arranged with the collaboration of the US and German authorities. “The group has sent ‘hundreds of operatives’ back to the European Union,” she wrote, “with ‘hundreds more in Turkey alone’ according to a senior United States intelligence official and a senior US defense official (emphasis mine), both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence.” [Ibid.]

Unable to verify any of the man’s claims, she attempted to cover her tracks by saying: “While some details of Mr Sarfo’s account cannot be verified, his statements track with what other recruits related in their interrogations. Both prison officials and the German intelligence agents who debriefed Mr. Sarfo after his arrest said they found him credible. (emphasis mine)” [Ibid]. No further verification was needed. If the intelligence agencies said so, it was good enough. She wrote the piece, and the editors at the newspaper ran it.

“Chaudhry’s case is not about an ignorant or irresponsible reporter telling a poorly fact-checked story.” Fahad Ahmed and Tarek Younis, researchers at Carleton University in Canada, point out that “It is about the complicity of media and governments in vilifying Muslims to the point that it is reasonable to paint Muslims as terrorists before they ever stand trial.” [Fahad Ahmed and Tarek Younis, “‘Caliphate’ podcast and its fallout reveal the extent of Islamophobia,” The Conversation, October 14, 2020].

“The terror beat lends itself particularly well to the seductions of narrative journalism.” The New York Times’ Ben Smith admitted in a piece he wrote after this scandal. “Reporters looking for a terrifying yarn will find terrorist sources eager to help terrify. Journalists often find themselves relying on murderous and untrustworthy sources in situations where the facts are ambiguous.” [Ben Smith, “An Arrest in Canada Casts a Shadow on a New York Times Star, and The Times,” New York Times, October 11, 2020].

After 9/11, it became standard practice to take intelligence, government, military spokespersons, and “murderous and untrustworthy” sources at their word for as long as they revealed the murderous, deranged, fanatical, irrational, and ahistorical lust for violence and death of things “Islam.” Today, the pages of American newspapers are filled with “breaking news” and sensational exposé that rely exclusively on official sources and talking points. It is particularly evident when writing pieces about nations we have decided are our “enemies”–Iran, Pakistan, China, Russia, and Venezuela being the select recent ones.

US journalists can dispense with facts, critical distance, and scrutiny of official claims. They can speak about these countries, their fanaticism, fundamentalism, and threat to the US by relying purely on official sources and accepting them as dogma. And, as we see from Callimachi’s case, they can equally make stuff up because no one is too bothered to verify it. Claiming “expertise” on “Islamic radicalism” has become a career, and no justification or questioning of the essentialist frames used to “explain” Muslim violence or irrational “hate” of all things liberal, modern, civilized, democratic, equal, free, and beautiful is required. [Arun Kundnani, The Muslims Are Coming, Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror, Verso Book 2014].

The reliance on official sources is how the world can be turned upside down so that common sense and logic no longer have a role. The US government can unilaterally tear up a hard-won nuclear pact with Iran, but Iran is found “in violation” of the same agreement the US tore up. The Israelis can violate international law, ignore UN resolutions, and continue to attack and kill Palestinians, but the Palestinians are blamed for “provoking” Israel. The US can place Venezuela under economic sanctions, affecting civilian life and suffering, but the blame falls on the Venezuelan government’s “incompetent” policies for growing social misery and economic inequality.

The US can financially, diplomatically, and militarily support Saudi Arabia’s crackdown against dissidents, its repression of the Shi’a, and its bombardment of Yemen, but our media gets excited about the few women allowed to drive a car. The US can maintain an illegal occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq, but Iraqi and Afghan resistance groups become “insurgents” and “foreign fighters.”

And we can believe that aliens are about to invade the USA and prepare for a space battle. The latter is not a metaphor or a joke but a fact. The media have become addicted to gullibly publishing information hand-fed to them by intelligence and military spokespersons that they have, with gravity and concern, “revealed” that we are under attack by space invaders. UFO stories began circulating in The Washington Post, The Guardian, NPR, and even the New York Times. [There are many examples, but some examples: Megan McArdle, “Why aren’t we talking more about UFOs?” The Washington Post, June 5, 2021; Bill Chappell, “How UFO Sightings Went From Conspiracy Theory To A Serious Government Inquiry,” NPR, June 4, 2021; Adam Gabbatt, “‘From hearsay to hard evidence’: are UFOs about to go mainstream?” The Guardian, May 29, 2021; Julian E. Barnes and Helene Cooper, “U.S. Finds No Evidence of Alien Technology in Flying Objects, but Can’t Rule It Out, Either,” New York Times, June 2, 2021].

The media started babbling about UFOs because the military told them to, and no one realized the sheer idiocy of it all, but instead put on a poker face, constructed elaborate sentences, and wrote about the potential threat from outer space and our need to prepare more weapons to combat it. CNN, BBC, and Fox News all got in on the comedy. Sometime later, they ran with great earnestness and seriousness a story about a Russian “death ray” that they were blasting US diplomats and embassy staff with. “US Diplomats in Cuba Were Injured by a ‘Sonic Weapon,’” ran Time magazine’s hysterical story. [Kate Samuelson and Justin Worland “U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Were Injured by a ‘Sonic Weapon.’ What Is That?” August 10, 2017]. There are just too many examples of the nonsense US media has been peddling since they installed direct telephone lines to the CIA, the FBI, and other Establishment institutions whose main objective is to spread lies and misinformation. The credibility, respect, and obsequiousness with which US media professionals engage and treat these institutions defies belief and the fundamental ethics of any practice claiming to be journalism. But not for the US media.

What is that, indeed? The examples are legend, leading the publication Jacobin to mock the entire years of writing some years later.[Branko Marcetic, “Havana Syndrome Is Fake. But Mainstream Media Couldn’t Get Enough of It for Years,” Jacobin, March 2, 2023]. Fed misinformation and lies directly by the intelligence agencies, seemingly professional journalists vomited it out onto the leading pages of America’s newspapers and mainstream TV news outlets.

History repeats itself as farce, and farce repeats itself as US news media. (Aside: The original quote is by Jean Baudrillard; “History reproducing itself becomes a farce. Farce reproducing itself becomes history,” Jean Baudrillard, Screened Out, Verso Books, 2002)