May 1 2003

When Journalism Becomes ‘Terrorism’

Perle goes on offensive against investigative reporting

Senior Pentagon adviser Richard Perle abruptly announced his resignation on March 27 as chair of the Defense Policy Board, an influential Pentagon advisory panel. Not coincidentally, Perle had shortly before his resignation described the respected journalist Seymour Hersh as a “terrorist,” and threatened to sue Hersh for libel in Britain.

Pulitzer-winner Hersh’s report in the New Yorker (dated 3/17/03) on Perle’s messy finances became the first of a series of embarrassing stories that threatened Perle’s considerable access to power. It now looks as though Perle, frequently described as the chief architect of the war in Iraq, launched his counter-attack on Hersh as part of a “hide-in-plain-sight” strategy–dodging scrutiny, not the spotlight–in a calculated spin campaign.

Notwithstanding his resignation as the board’s chair, Perle’s strategy may have worked. Despite first-rate investigative reporting by both Hersh and the New York Times, Perle is as well-connected to Washington’s power elite as ever. If Perle makes it through his current difficulties, it will largely due to the general compliance of the mainstream media with his attempts to squelch investigation of his business dealings.

Hersh’s story detailed a meeting that Perle admits he had with notorious Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, and another Saudi businessman, in January 2003. Khashoggi and other sources suggest in the story that Perle’s goal was raising money for Trireme, his venture capital firm that backs military-related enterprises. Hersh’s sources insisted that Perle and his colleagues in Trireme left the clear impression that, in return for Saudi financial backing, Perle would use his official Pentagon connections to influence DOD policy in the Saudis’ favor.

As the chair of the Defense Policy Board, Perle was indeed well-placed to broker influence in the military establishment. The board, which consists primarily of well-connected former government officials like Newt Gingrich and Dan Quayle (Perle was himself an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration), exists in that twilight realm that allows ex-bureaucrats to continue to exert influence on their former colleagues. Though not officially part of the civil service, members of the Defense Policy Board are expected to abide by the same code of ethical conduct that governs all federal employees, which prohibits using official positions for personal gain.

Media rampage

The New Yorker article noted Perle’s vehement denial of any impropriety, but Hersh’s dry and meticulous reporting didn’t stop Perle from going on a media rampage. On March 9, Perle appeared on CNN‘s Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer, where, after an extended discussion of the impending Iraq war, he was asked about the magazine article. Perle responded by calling Hersh “the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist.” When Blitzer asked Perle to justify his attack, Perle replied: “Because he’s wildly irresponsible…. The suggestion that my views are somehow related to the potential for investments in homeland defense is complete nonsense.”

Perle upped the ante on MSNBC’s Hardball With Chris Matthews (3/10/03), announcing that “if any reasonable lawyer tells me there’s a prospect of winning a case, I would be delighted to sue Sy Hersh.” Matthews, like Blitzer, had held his questions about the Hersh article until the very end of the segment with Perle; also like Blitzer, he failed to ask his combative guest to specify any of Hersh’s falsehoods, even after Perle insisted that the New Yorker article was “full of inaccuracies.”

Perle then told the conservative New York Sun (3/12/03) that he was planning to sue Hersh in Britain, where the libel laws are more favorable to plaintiffs. The Sun story also noted in passing that Perle sits on the board of Hollinger International, a media holding company that owns and invests in a number of newspapers around the world–including the New York Sun.

When Perle appeared on CNBC‘s Kudlow & Cramer on March 13, he couldn’t have gotten friendlier treatment if Hollinger owned CNBC as well. After telling Perle that the program was “honored” to have him back, Lawrence Kudlow, economics editor of the National Review, asked why the U.S. didn’t simply ignore the U.N. and “do the right thing”–meaning invade Iraq. Before Perle could offer much of a reply, however, Kudlow and co-host James Cramer proceeded to take turns articulating the argument for U.S. unilateral action in Iraq, while Perle happily agreed.

Cramer, who nominally represents the liberal viewpoint on the show (and whose own background as a prominent investment manager has frequently made him the target of conflict-of-interest charges in the business press) at one point asked Perle about France’s financial stake in the Iraqi national oil industry. A logical follow-up, especially on a business news program, would have been a question about Perle’s own personal financial stake in an Iraq war. But no question on this or on any aspect of the Hersh story was forthcoming from either host; instead, Perle advanced his views on how a war in Iraq would be a triumph for personal freedom in the Middle East, to acclaim from both Kudlow (“Great stuff!”) and Cramer (“I love it!”). The interview ended with Kudlow thanking Perle for his “wisdom.”

Howard Kurtz, in a March 14 article in the Washington Post, treated the escalating scandal as a media story, and suggested that Hersh’s article was motivated by personal antagonism for Perle: “This is, at bottom, a clash between two old Washington warriors who have tangled over the years.” Continuing his inflammatory personal attacks, Perle told Kurtz that Hersh “ignites bombs and I don’t think he cares whether the victims are innocent civilians.”

Undiminished access

Unfortunately for Perle and his supporters, all his time spent with non-confrontational hosts on compliant network news shows was not deflecting the attention of the New York Times. On March 21, a Times story by Stephen Labaton detailed a $750,000 payment that Perle received from bankrupt telecommunications company Global Crossing, specifically for purposes of lobbying the Pentagon, which for reasons of national security has the final say over any sale of the company to overseas investors. The article also mentioned Perle’s participation in a Goldman Sachs conference call on “investment opportunities” arising from the Iraq war. And on March 28, Labaton again reported that Perle had used discussions with the State Department to represent a military company accused of leaking classified missile technology to the Chinese.

After the first story, Times commentator Maureen Dowd (3/23/03) took Perle to task for his venal behavior. Surprisingly, however, neither her column (which read like an extended plug for her newspaper’s investigative reporting) nor the two Labaton articles mentioned the New Yorker piece or Perle’s subsequent attacks on Hersh.

By this point, momentum was beginning to gather for a real investigation into Perle’s wheeling and dealing. On March 24, the Times reported that senior congressional Democrat John Conyers had requested that the Pentagon’s inspector general open a formal inquiry into Perle’s business affairs. Clearly sensing more extensive damage control was in order, Perle announced his resignation as board chair, and further stated that he would donate any past fee he “might” have received from Global Crossing to the families of service personnel killed in the Iraq. Published reports did not reveal why Perle was uncertain whether or not he had already received money from Global Crossing.

Will Perle’s efforts to protect his exclusive inside track to the highest levels of government succeed? Although Perle’s resignation as chair was well-publicized, he more quietly remained a member of the board itself. Since he will have undiminished access to senior Pentagon officials, it’s unclear how his reassignment removes Perle’s apparent conflicts of interest, a paradox that went unremarked in, for instance, the March 27 Associated Press report of his resignation (which also neglected to mention the Hersh story or Perle’s January meeting with the Saudis).

After having uncharacteristically disappeared from the media in the weeks following his resignation, Perle began to pop up again to bask in the glow of the U.S. military victory in Iraq. The mainstream press was once again citing Perle’s influence and authority within the Defense Department, without making mention of his possibly illegal business dealings or his campaign of abuse against Hersh.

Perle’s appearance on CBS‘s Face the Nation on April 20 is likely to set the tone for the news establishment’s rehabilitation of one of their favorite talking heads. When introducing Perle, host Bob Schieffer delicately noted that Perle had recently resigned as Defense Policy Board chair “after some criticism that [Perle] had interest in companies that do business with the Pentagon.” He and Perle proceeded to chat amiably for several minutes about the situation in post-war Iraq, with no questions raised about Perle’s possibly illegal business arrangements or his threats against one of America’s leading reporters. “Mr. Perle, thank you very much,” concluded Schieffer. “It’s always interesting to get your side of the story and your point of view.”

As for Hersh and the New Yorker, they don’t exactly seem to be quaking over Perle’s threatened lawsuit. New Yorker sources told Extra! that Perle cooperated with the magazine’s notoriously thorough fact-checking team; the magazine is happy to let the story stand as is. And Hersh himself sounds amused by the whole episode: “I think the comments speak for themselves,” Hersh snorted when asked what he thought about Perle’s attacks on him. “I don’t know what he’s so afraid of; he must think I’ve got something on him I don’t. But it little behooves me to say more about it.” Neither Hersh nor the New Yorker are currently planning a follow-up.