Jul 30 2010

Daniel Ellsberg on WikiLeaks, A.C. Thompson on New Orlean police shootings

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This week on CounterSpin: The release of tens of thousands of Afghan War documents by the organization WikiLeaks has met with some confusion in the media, who seem to want to downplay its importance but who also insist that WikiLeaks and its founder are dangerous and irresponsible. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked The Pentagon Papers to the press 40 years ago, will join us with his thoughts on the WikiLeaks revelations.

Also on the show: If tens of thousands of displaced people have been unable to convince journalists that hurricane Katrina is not a finished story, the recent indictments of New Orleans police officers for the murder of unarmed civilians in the hurricane’s wake may show that there are many stories about that time that remain to be told. We’ll hear from one of the few reporters still telling them, A.C. Thompson of ProPublica.

All that’s coming up but first, as usual, we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

—A July 27 USA Today story by Susan Page, about the impact of the WikiLeaks revelations, reports that despite some erosion, “Most Americans continue to support the war in Afghanistan.” The paper cites Gallup poll findings that 58 percent of Americans think it was “not a mistake” for the U.S. to have sent troops to Afghanistan in 2001. Why Page thinks America’s views of the 2001 decision equates to continued support for the war in 2010, is not explained.

Much more to the point was a June ABC/Washington Post poll that found that just 44 percent of respondents thought the Afghan War was, in the present tense, “worth fighting”—with a majority, 53 percent, saying they did not think it was. Or CNN‘s May poll that asked respondents if they favored or opposed the war, and found 56 percent opposed. In fact, public opinion, as measured by polls that stick to the point, have found a majority of the American public opposing the Afghan War for most of the last two years.

Why did USA Today‘s Page neglect to cite the most appropriate polling on the subject. Is it laziness, or an attempt to discount the war’s unpopularity at a time when its rationale is coming under new assaults from the WikiLeaks revelations?

—Speaking of the impact of the WikiLeaks story, on July 26, CBS Evening News reporter Lara Logan weighed in on how the documents concerning Afghan civilian deaths might affect the war effort:

Well, the issue of civilian casualties is a major one. And the U.S. has taken a lot of criticism because of this. However, what’s interesting to note is that according to the documents, 195 Afghan civilians have been killed. But also according to the documents, 2,000 Afghan civilians have been killed by the Taliban, which is more than 10 times the number said to be killed by U.S. and NATO forces. And very little is being made of that. The coverage would indicate that it’s more of an issue for the U.S. to kill Afghan civilians than it is for the Taliban to do so.

Of course, it’s absurd to suggest that only 195 Afghan civilians have been killed by coalition forces. That tally from the WikiLeaks data is obviously incomplete, with many well-known incidents missing. A summary of estimates provided by Wikipedia suggests that the number is actually between five and eight thousand.

As for who bears more responsibility for civilian killings, it’s hard to come up with solid numbers, but a 2008 U.N. report put U.S./NATO responsibility at 41 percent, and the Wikipedia data suggest an even higher percentage. On a CBS Evening News broadcast in early 2009, however, a segment relying entirely on U.S. military sources told viewers that 80 percent of the dead were killed by the Taliban. That would seem to be the type of journalism Logan would like to see more of.

That July 26 broadcast also included CBS reporter Chip Reid, who was worried that “if we’re now going to be bombarded for days on end with a long series of specific examples, that’s going to make it more difficult for both the Afghan people and the American people to support this war.” Presumably he means support it even less than they already do.

—There is a lot of talk in Washington about the Bush tax cuts, which expire this year. While some of the debate concerns confusing legislative details, the most basic aspects of this story are being mangled in some media accounts. “Geithner urges ending tax cuts for the wealthy” declares a July 26 L.A. Times headline, a reference to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. This is misleading, since the tax cuts end on their own, according to the law. This is politically important, since the Beltway debate is sure to feature Republicans denouncing Democrats for killing tax cuts—which will be a much easier case to make when media coverage is sending the same false message.

Or consider an Associated Press story from July 22, which began “Many Americans could be hit with a big tax increase in the next two or three years.” One newspaper website headlined that AP piece, “Massive tax hike looming.” Since the White House has repeatedly stressed that taxes will increase only on families making $250,000 or more, it would be hard for most readers to understand why they’re being warned about a massive tax increase. Also unhelpful was AP reporting that the Bush tax cuts “provided help for rich and poor alike.”

As some might remember, the main criticism of the Bush tax cuts was that they were overwhelmingly tilted towards the wealthy. One analysis from 2004 found the top one percent of earners enjoyed almost 25 percent of the total share of tax cuts. To say that everyone got something is technically correct, but misleading. With tax cuts returning to the media spotlight, one can expect more of this kind of muddled coverage.

—One of the latest right-wing non-stories involves something called JournoList, a now-defunct private email list started by liberal blogger Ezra Klein. It came to include about 400 members, many of whom were other liberal bloggers, academics and pundits. The conservative Daily Caller Website got access to the list’s emails and ran several stories alleging it was proof of a liberal media plot to coordinate news coverage in support of Barack Obama. One of the exposés showed listserv members discussing an open letter complaining about the way ABC handled a primary debate, for instance.

Well, despite the thinness of the evidence, some media figures took the story very seriously. Politico columnist Roger Simon wrote a lengthy piece about how journalism, once “a holy calling,” had been degraded by the JournoList “Frankenstein monster.” Simon quoted NBC‘s Chuck Todd calling JournoList “pretty offensive.” and saying the “mainstream journalists got mixed in with journalists with an agenda,” thus “destroying the credibility of journalism.” Todd declared, “This has kept me up nights. I try to be fair. It’s very depressing.”

Well, Chuck Todd later tried to clarify that he was upset that JournoList created the “perception” of a “liberal media conspiracy,” not that it was one. But gee, if a manufactured scandal like that keeps him up at night I guess we shouldn’t expect him to risk thinking about corporate media’s actual failures.

—Finally, CounterSpin notes the death of Mary Reed Shepard, one of FAIR’s longest-serving and most effective local activists. FAIR founder Jeff Cohen cites Mary Shepard as a huge inspiration. A moving force in Women Against Military Madness in Minneapolis/St. Paul and an energetic and unflinching media critic, Shepard never held back from telling local outlets where they were wrong, on issues from nuclear weapons to Central America; yet she maintained many journalist friends, who respected her integrity. Cohen recalls thinking, on meeting Mary Shepard, who was then about 70, “If we had a Mary Shepard in every city, we’d be on the verge of (nonviolent) revolution.” Mary Shepard was 91.


CounterSpin: The release of tens of thousands of Afghan war documents by the whistle-blowing group WikiLeaks has caused confusion in official and media circles. The White House says there is no new information in the leaked documents, but that they endanger U.S. troops. For its part, the media have been largely echoing the “nothing to see here” view—at the same time as many commentators disparage WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange as dangerous and irresponsible. A related media meme finds many commentators insisting that the WikiLeaks documents “are not the Pentagon Papers”—the Vietnam War documents which revealed official lying and disregard for human life at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

The Pentagon Papers, published in 1971, had been leaked to the press by then-RAND corporation military analyst Daniel Ellsberg. With us on the phone from Mexico to talk about the meaning of the new documents is the very same Daniel Ellsberg.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Daniel Ellsberg!

Daniel Ellsberg: Glad to be here.

CS: Let’s begin with your impression of the Wikileaks documents: How they are different from or similar to the Pentagon Papers, in your view?

DE: Well, they are quite different at first. They’re not the Pentagon Papers of Afghanistan, which remain yet to be released, and I hope that does happen. Remember, even the Pentagon Papers of Vietnam 40 years ago were not the right story. We didn’t have the White House Papers of Vietnam for 40 years or more, and those added a great deal to the story. So, none of this is the last word. In this case, what invites the analogies, inevitably, is the enormous scale of the leak. There’s been no unauthorized disclosure on this scale for 40 years, since the Pentagon Papers. And of course, in total volume this actually goes far beyond what was possible to Xerox 40 years ago. I couldn’t have done that 10 years earlier without Xerox, but I certainly couldn’t have put out anything on this scale. And this shows the possibility for much more transparency in the government than we’ve ever seen. What they do reveal was not the high-level, top-secret decision papers of the Pentagon Papers but field-grade estimates on the secret level. On the other hand, they are more current than the Pentagon Papers were. In that case the latest papers were three years old when they finally came out. And in this case it goes up to just six months ago. Granted, the administration has inevitably said oh, things have changed since then, and they can point to the president’s new strategy, which went into process just in December about the time that these reports end. So they can say, well this is all old stuff, and we’ve changed all that now. That’s a very old story for the administration. They said the same thing about the Pentagon Papers. But in this case you had a six-year history at the field level, which offers no basis for expecting that sending 30,000 more troops or 80,000 more troops, or even more, would make any real change in this stalemate that is clearly documented in this comprehensive set of papers. I remember back in 1967, when I was first working on the drafts of the Pentagon Papers, the word stalemate was literally, explicitly a taboo word in the Execute Branch. There were orders that went out that said it was the S word. Stalemate was not to mentioned in any way, even speculatively, or even to refute it—it just doesn’t exist—because of course it was the only real description of what we had. And in fact, the turning point in public opinion of the war after the Tet Offensive, six months later, was when Walter Cronkite actually uttered the word stalemate and said that was the best description of what we were facing—not an imminent defeat and no prospect of victory, but the fact that we were mired in a dreadful stalemate. And when Lyndon Johnson heard that on the evening news from Walter Cronkite, he said if I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America. Well, actually that didn’t mean the war ended. The war had seven years to go. So, bearing on the question of does a change of public opinion translate into a change of Executive Branch policy? The experience is no, and that would be the way to bet here. There’s one other very great similarity: the person who put out this huge volume of reports did so knowing that he would be likely identified simply because it was such a huge volume, and they would be able to narrow down the possible sources of that. I say that because the person who’s under charges, Bradley Manning, did say to the person who informed on him later that he was ready to go to prison for life and even be executed, he said, in order to get this information out—information that had sickened him on the war he was involved in and which he thought would inevitably change opinions of people who read it in toto. And when I read that quote from the informer I recognized someone who is in the same state of mind I was in personally 40 years earlier, and I’ve been waiting to hear that from somebody for a long time, somebody who’s ready to risk his own freedom, and his own career, and his freedom to inform the American public. That’s where I was, and I think that turned out to be useful. And I believe this will turn out to have been very useful, even if Bradley Manning, if he is the source, pays a very heavy personal price for it.

CS: I’d like to talk about the way the press in general has been playing down these new revelations. The New York Times has really avoided talking about what the WikiLeaks revelations say about civilian casualties, and the Washington Post has treated the WikiLeaks story as a big yawn. You need look no further than the papers’ headlines to get the picture. One Post editorial headline read “WikiLeaks’ Release of Classified Field Reports on Afghan War Reveals Not Much,” while the headlines on one news story read, “WikiLeaks Documents Cause Little Concern Over Public Perception of War,” and, another, perhaps the most telling, read, “WikiLeaks Disclosures Unlikely to Change Course of Afghanistan War.” What do you make of this downplaying of the WikiLeaks story by the media? What is their stake here?

DE: Well, Steve, I have to say that although I’m hearing from you and I’m learning from you more about the reaction—my impression from the Internet, now, I’m reading this on the internet from Mexico, so I’m not immersed in it. I came here for a company showing of The Most Dangerous Man in America, the film festival here in San Miguel, and so I was here when the story broke, and I haven’t seen the actual hard copy. But my initial reading gave me a different impression, frankly. I was actually impressed at the Washington Post‘s first discussion of this, knowing that from long past past history, that when the Times has a scoop or the Post, the rival, tends to ignore it or play it down in a competitive spirit. And I was impressed that they did address the substance rather seriously of it instead of simply dismissing it right away—I’m talking about the Post here. The Times I think redeemed themselves a little bit from their terrible decision to withhold the NSA warrantless wiretapping story, which they had before the election of 2004, and to withhold that for a year. I thought that treating this material as seriously as the Times did and drawing what conclusions were to be drawn about the Pakistan involvement, for example, was pretty good. So I was favorably impressed to the point of thinking as one contributor to the Huffington Post put it, this might be a Cronkite moment, where the media itself was deciding to recognize and admit the reality over there of a stalemated war in which the president’s new policy did not offer promise. Now the picture you just presented is, you know, to the contrary, and maybe you’re right, and it could well be a backlash.

CS: Well, I hope you’re right. We’re running out of time, but I wanted to quickly get your take. WikiLeaks has come under some pretty harsh fire. What’s your view of WikiLeaks, and the attacks on it?

DE: Well, that’s to be expected. Remember that this administration has, to put it briefly, indicted as many people for leaks as all previous presidents put together: three, of which I was the first, and there were two others before Obama. And Obama has indicted three cases, two of which, Thomas Drake and Shamai Leibowitz were indicted for acts undertaken under Bush that Bush had refrained from indicting. So Obama has shown himself willing to violate his pledge about not looking backwards when it comes to indicting people in the Bush Administration for telling the truth about policies there, about waste and deception, whereas he’s—unfortunately one of the promises he’s kept is to increase in Afghanistan his forces there. And essentially to give amnesty to all the officials of the Bush Administration for enormous crimes they committed over the years.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked The Pentagon Papers, the author of Secrets: a Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers; and the subject of Rick Goldsmith’s and Judith Erlich’s 2009 documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America.

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Daniel Ellsberg!

DE: Thanks for the opportunity.


CounterSpin: It’s a story of journalistic success: it’s not too much to say that were it not for tenacious reporting, preeminently that of our next guest, the current federal investigation of killings of unarmed civilians by New Orleans police officers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina would likely not have come about. The murders, and other violent incidents, had been largely overlooked for years before A.C. Thompson’s late 2008 report for ProPublica and the Nation magazine. But it comes against a backdrop of a bigger failure on the part of most media to make good on promises made when Katrina’s floodwaters were still high—promises to seriously investigate the systemic conditions the disaster and the response to it threw into relief, including problems in the criminal justice system.

Joining us now to talk about the ongoing investigations is ProPublica reporter A.C. Thompson.

A.C. Thompson, welcome back to CounterSpin!

A.C. Thompson: Thanks for having me on.

CS: Well, let’s start with the stories themselves. We can’t do them any kind of individual justice, but remind listeners of the nature of the cases you at ProPublica—along with your partners at the Times-Picayune and PBS‘s Frontline—the stories you’ve been tracking.

AT: We looked at the people who were shot in the week immediately after Hurricane Katrina by New Orleans police officers, and there were at least eleven civilians who were shot by police officers. One of those cases, the Danziger Bridge case, had gotten a lot of media attention, and both state and federal authorities had been investigating it when we started doing our reporting. The other shootings had been largely overlooked. In some cases, we weren’t even sure that they were police shootings. We just knew that there was somebody who died in police custody, and it looked suspicious. And so we began really, really digging into those incidents, and what we found was the normal things that happen—when a police officer uses deadly force and kills a civilian—didn’t happen. So typically, if an officer opens fire and shoots somebody to death in any department across the country, there will be a pretty thorough questioning and investigation of that officer. We’re talking like interviews that go for an hour or more. The evidence is collected; witness statements are collected; the shell casings at the scene are collected; the gun that the officer uses is checked into evidence. And what we found was none of that stuff happened in New Orleans, so the interviews with the officers would be like 7-12 minutes long, and they wouldn’t be very probing. They wouldn’t be very thorough. In one case a man was shot fatally in the back, and the homicide detective who did the investigation to make sure that this was an appropriate shooting by an officer didn’t even bother to read the autopsy report and didn’t know that he’d been shot in the back, didn’t know the basic facts of the case. So this is the detective who’s supposed to find out the basic facts? She doesn’t even know that this is a shooting from behind. The worrisome things about these shootings are that in a lot of cases, people were shot in the back, and experts will tell you: look there may be a good explanation for that or it may mean that the person who was fleeing the officer wasn’t a threat and that this wasn’t a proper use of force. These kind of things didn’t come up in the NOPD’s investigations, so we put them out there on Front Street and said look, people need to look at these cases.

CS: Well, clearly the story is still evolving. And the case that you spoke of as the one that had received the most serious attention—the Danziger Bridge case—that’s the one that has now led to these indictments, is that correct?

AT: You know, actually 16 officers have been criminally charged by the federal government in two different cases. One of those cases is the case that I helped expose and have been following since 2008, and that’s the death of Henry Glover. Henry Glover was, according to prosecutors, shot by a New Orleans police officer. His body was then burned up by fellow New Orleans police officers and left in a burnt-up car behind a police station right on the Mississippi River, and just left there like trash. That story we have been following since then. Five officers have been criminally indicted in that case for charges ranging from murder to lying to federal investigators—a key allegation there is the cover-up, that it’s not just an unlawful shooting and a civil rights violation but there was also a cover-up of the shooting. In the Danziger Bridge matter, where six civilians were shot—two of them were killed—the federal government has brought charges against another bunch of officers. There’s been six criminally indicted, five more have already pled guilty. So that case is still evolving, and there may still be more charges in that case as well. As reporters, we’ve also looked at a bunch of other cases that are under investigation by the federal government from that time period. In one of those cases, the man who was shot fatally in the back, his family was never told that he had been killed by a police officer—and they were totally surprised to learn that he had been killed by a police officer, and they didn’t know that until I called them. They had no idea.

CS: Well, clearly there are plenty of stories from 2005 that journalists aren’t following up. We come back to this one because of the importance of it: more than 1,800 people killed in the hurricane, tens of thousands losing homes, communities erased, but also because of that rare acknowledgment that we had at the time by media that it wasn’t just natural disaster—that there was something wrong that especially affected poor black people’s lives. There were questions. But today your project seems virtually alone in being dedicated to reporting some of these things out. Do you feel reporters just can’t see something that happened five years ago as a source of today’s news? Or is it just the system that forces them to see things that way?

AT: I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I actually think that New Orleans gets disproportionate media coverage from the national media. On the other hand, I think that the media has perhaps not focused on some of the lingering effects and the lingering fallout from the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe that were stories that were out there waiting to be done. My colleague Sheri Fink did one of those stories about the deaths at Memorial Hospital and the doctors who said that they were actually involved in euthanizing patients. The other kind of systemic stories that have come out of the Katrina time period, a lot of those have been kind of missed by the national media. But again, I think in part that’s because what I hear from some editors and some people in the media business is they’ll say you know, it’s New Orleans—it’s Louisiana, we expect there to be problems there. The public is tired of hearing about the outrageous behavior of public officials and government staffers in places like Louisiana because it’s not surprising to folks. And I think that there’s some Louisiana fatigue on the part of editors.

CS: We’ve been speaking with A.C. Thompson. He’s staff reporter at ProPublica. You can find them and their work on the web at ProPublica.org.

Thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

AT: Thanks a lot for having me on.