Frontline: Too Timid, Too Little, Too Late
by Ray McGovern
War" on PBS Monday and Tuesday evening was a nicely put-together rehash of
the top players' trickery that led to the attack on Iraq, together with the
power-grabbing, back-stabbing, and limitless incompetence of the occupation.
Except for an inside-the-Beltway tidbit here and there – for example, about
how the pitiable former Secretary of State Colin Powell had to suffer so many
indignities at the hands of other type-A hard chargers – Frontline added
little to the discussion. Notably missing was any allusion to the
unconscionable role the Fourth Estate adopted as indiscriminate cheerleader for
the home team; nor was there any mention that the invasion was a serious
violation of international law. But those omissions, I suppose, should have
come as no surprise.
Nor was it a surprise that any viewer hoping for insight into why Cheney and
Bush were so eager to attack Iraq
was left with very thin gruel. It was more infotainment, bereft of substantive
discussion of the whys and wherefores of what in my view is the most disastrous
foreign policy move in our nation's history.
Despite recent acknowledgments from the likes of Alan Greenspan, Gen. John
Abizaid, and others that oil and permanent (or, if you prefer,
"enduring") military bases were among the main objectives, Frontline
avoided any real discussion of such delicate factors. Someone not already aware
of how our media has become a tool of the Bush administration might have been
shocked at how Frontline could have missed one of President George W.
Bush's most telling "signing statements." Underneath the recent
Defense Authorization Act, he wrote that he did not feel bound by the law's
explicit prohibition against using the funding:
"(1) To establish any military installation or base for the purpose
of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq
"(2) To exercise United States
control of the oil resources of Iraq."
So the Frontline show was largely pap.
At one point, however, the garrulous former Deputy Secretary of State
Richard Armitage did allude to one of the largest elephants in the living room
– Israel's far-right Likudniks
– and their close alliance with the so-called neoconservatives running our
policy toward the Middle East. But Armitage
did so only tangentially, referring to the welcome (if totally unrealistic)
promise by Ahmed Chalabi that, upon being put in power in Baghdad,
he would recognize Israel.
Not surprisingly, the interviewer did not pick up on that comment; indeed, I'm
surprised the remark avoided the cutting room floor.
Courage No Longer a Frontline
Frontline has done no
timely reportage that might be looked upon as disparaging the George W. Bush
administration – I mean, for example, the real aims behind the war, not simply
the gross incompetence characterizing its conduct. Like so many others,
Frontline has been, let's just say it, cowardly in real time – no doubt
intimidated partly by attacks on its funding that were inspired by the White
And now? Well the retrospective criticism of incompetence comes as polling
shows two-thirds of the country against the Iraq occupation (and the number is
surely higher among PBS viewers). So Frontline is repositioning itself
as a mild ex-post-facto critic of the war, but still unwilling to go very far
out on a limb. Explaining the aims behind war crimes can, of course, be risky.
It is as though an invisible Joseph Goebbels holds sway.
On Monday evening I found
myself initially applauding Frontline's matter- of-fact, who-shot-John
chronology of how our country got lied into attacking and occupying Iraq. Then I
got to thinking – have I not seen this picture before? Many times?
It took a Hollywood producer to recognize
and act promptly on the con games that sober observers could not miss as the
war progressed. Where were the celebrated "weapons of mass
destruction" (WMD)? Robert Greenwald simply could not abide the
president's switch to "weapons of mass destruction programs," which
presumably might be easier to find than the much-ballyhooed WMD so heavily
advertised before the attack on Iraq.
You remember – those remarkable WMD about which UN chief inspector Hans Blix
quipped that the U.S. had
one hundred percent certainty of their existence in Iraq, but zero percent certainty as
to where they were.
Robert Greenwald called me in May 2003. He had read a few of the memoranda
published by Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) exposing the
various charades being acted out by the administration and wanted to know what
we thought of the president's new circumlocution on WMD.
I complimented him on smelling a rat and gave him names of my VIPS
colleagues and other experienced folks who could fill him in on the details.
Wasting no time, he arrived here in Washington
in June, armed simply with copious notes and a cameraman. Greenwald conducted
the interviews, flew back to his eager young crew in Hollywood
and, poof, the DVD Uncovered: The War on Iraq was released at the
beginning of November 2003.
So Frontline is four and a half years behind a Hollywood
producer with appropriate interest and skepticism. (Full disclosure: I appear
in Uncovered, as do many of the interviewees appearing in Frontline's
Actually, the interviewing by Frontline occurred just a few months
later. I know because I was among those interviewed for that as well, as was my
good friend and former colleague at the CIA, Mel Goodman. I was struck that Mel
looked four years younger on this week's Frontline. It only then dawned
on me that he was four years younger when interviewed.
Have a look at Uncovered
and see how you think it compares to Frontline
's "Bush's War."
Safety in Retrospectives
It also struck me that
producing a Frontline-style retrospective going back several years is a
much less risky genre to work with. Chalk it up to my perspective as an intelligence
analyst, but ducking the incredibly important issues at stake over the next
several months is, in my opinion, unconscionable. The troop "surge"
Only toward the very end of the program does Frontline allow a bit of
relevant candor on a point that has been self-evident since Cheney and Bush,
against strong opposition from Generals Abizaid and Casey (and apparently even
Rumsfeld), decided to double down by sending 30,000 more troops into Iraq. A
malleable new secretary of defense would deal with the recalcitrant generals
and pick a Petraeus ex Machina of equal malleability and political astuteness
to implement this stopgap plan.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist/author Steve Coll, with typical candor,
put the "surge" into perspective:
"The decision at a minimum guaranteed that his [Bush's] presidency
would not end with a defeat in history's eyes; that by committing to the surge,
he was certain to at least achieve a stalemate."
Given this week's fresh surge of violence as the U.S. surge is scheduled to wind
down, even a stalemate may be in some doubt. But, okay, small kudos to
Frontline for including that bit of truth – however obvious – and for
adding the grim background music to its final comment: "Soon Bush's war
will be handed to someone else."
Rather Not, Thank You
Intimidation of the media is
what has happened all around, including with Frontline, which not so
many years ago was able to do some gutsy reporting. Let me give you another
example about which few are aware.
Do you remember when Dan Rather made his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, admitting
that the American media, including him, was failing to reveal the truth about
things like Iraq?
Speaking to the BBC on May 16, 2002, Rather compared the situation to the fear
of "necklacing" in South
"'It's an obscene comparison,' Rather said, 'but there was a time in
South Africa when people would put flaming tires around peoples' necks if they
dissented. In some ways, the fear is that you will be neck-laced here, you will
have a flaming tire of lack of patriotism put around your neck.'
"Talking to another reporter, Dan told it straight about the
careerism that keeps U.S.
journalists in line. 'It's that fear that keeps [American] journalists from
asking the toughest of the tough questions and to continue to bore-in on the
tough questions so often.'"
The comparison to "necklacing" may be "obscene" but,
sadly, it is not far off the mark. So what happened to the newly outspoken Dan
Rather with the newly found courage, when he ran afoul of Vice President Dick
Cheney and the immense pressure he exerts on the corporate media?
We know about the lies and the cheerleading for attacking Iraq. But there
is much more most of us do not know and remain unable to learn if Rather and
other one-time journalists keep acting like Bert Lahr's cowardly lion in The
Wizard of Oz before he gets "the nerve" and courage.
For Dan Rather, the fear would simply not go away… even after leaving CBS
for HDNet and promising that, on his new Dan Rather Reports show, viewers
would see hard-hitting and courageous reporting that he said he couldn't do at
Will it surprise you that Dan Rather cannot shake the necklace? I refer
specifically to a program for Dan Rather Reports, meticulously prepared
by award-winning producer Kristina Borjesson. The special included interviews
with an impressive string of firsthand witnesses to neocon machinations prior
to the U.S. attack on Iraq, and
provides real insights into motivations – the kind of insights Frontline
did not even attempt.
Nipped in the Bud by the "Dark
Last year Borjesson's taping
was finished and the editing had begun. Borjesson's requests to interview
people working for the vice president had been denied. But, following standard
journalistic practice (not to mention common courtesy), she sent an e-mail to
John Hannah in Cheney's office in order to give Hannah a chance to react to
what others – including several of the same senior folks on Frontline
last evening – had said about him for her forthcoming report.
At that point all hell broke loose. Borjesson was abruptly told by Rather's
executive producer that by sending the e-mail, Borjesson could have
"brought down the whole (Dan Rather Reports) operation."
The show was killed and Borjesson sacked. For good measure, she was also
accused of "coaching" interview subjects and taking their words out
of context. Since neither Rather nor his executive producer would provide proof
to substantiate that allegation, Borjesson took the unprecedented step of sending
her script and transcripts to all her interview subjects, asking them to
confirm or deny that she had coached them or taken their words out of context.
Not one of them found her script inaccurate or said they were coached. She has
the e-mails to prove this.
This sorry episode and Frontline's careful avoidance of basic issues
like the strategic aims of the Bush administration in invading and occupying Iraq are proof,
if further proof were needed, that the White House, and especially Cheney's
swollen office, exert enormous pressure over what we are allowed to see and
hear. The fear they instill in the corporate press, and in what once was
serious investigative reporting of programs like Frontline, translates
into programs getting neutered or killed outright – and massive public
Some consolation is to be found in the good news that, in this particular
case, Kristina Borjesson is made of stronger stuff; she has not given up, and
was greatly encouraged by how many of the very senior officials and former
officials she had already interviewed consented to be re-interviewed (since the
tapes belonged to the "Rather Not" folks).
Now who looks forward to being re-interviewed?
Borjesson's original interviewees took into account her problems with the
cowards and the censors – and her atypical, gutsy refusal to self-censor – and
went the extra mile. A tribute to them as well, and their interest in getting
the truth out.
Borjesson is now completing the program on her own. Look for an announcement
in the coming months, if you're interested in real sustenance rather than the
pabulum served up, no doubt under duress, by Frontline.