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For The Record
A story fizzles, but in it, a Media 101 lesson.


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Michael Rubin

On January 2, 2006, I awoke in Baghdad to a front-page New York Times story written by David Cloud and Jeff Gerth alleging that I had improperly hidden an affiliation with and funding from the Lincoln Group, a U.S. government contractor. At issue, was a December 1, 2005, New York Times story regarding the Lincoln Group’s payment of remittances to Iraqi journalists. In that article, New York Times reporters Gerth and Scott Shane quoted me as saying, “I’m not surprised this goes on. Informational operations are a part of any military campaign, especially in an atmosphere where terrorists and insurgents–replete with oil-boom cash–do the same. We need an even playing field, but cannot fight with both hands tied behind our backs.”

No Scandal, But Instructive

Cloud and Gerth’s attempt at scandal fizzled. Many journalists and commentators smelled a non-story inflated with agenda. A few shrill blogs and a Baath-party website condemned me, but there was otherwise silence. Reporters from other newspapers already knew I was familiar with Lincoln Group work; indeed, I had briefed several reporters about it when asked. I am not an employee of the Lincoln Group, though. I have never received a salary from the Lincoln Group. Nor have I received an honorarium. In the January 2 story, Cloud cites a portion of a general explanation I made in response to a barrage of e-mails from him. He quoted me as saying, “Normally, when I travel, I receive reimbursement of expenses including a per diem and/or honorarium,” and then adds “But Mr. Rubin would not comment further on how much in such payments he may have received from Lincoln.” This last statement is false. He ignored offers to show paperwork contradicting his thesis. A Lincoln Group administrator also told him it was false. Cloud rushed the story to print.

The incident is instructive. It demonstrates the “gotcha” mentality with which reporters draw narratives first, omit facts which do not fit, and drive public opinion against personalities with whom they disagree. Several investigative reporters maintain a private Internet listserv in which they discuss targets with left-wing bloggers. Many U.S. newspapers reward headlines, not truth. Muck-racking journalists become tools of policy battles.

“For example,” on the basis of anonymous sources, Washington Post reporter Robin Wright on September 4, 2004, identified Harold Rhode, Richard Perle, and David Wurmser as targets of an investigation into an alleged leak of information to Ahmad Chalabi. None were actually targets, but Wright’s source used her to good effect to soil adversaries in a policy debate. Two Knight-Ridder correspondents leveled multiple charges against Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith on the basis of an anonymous source. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigated their source’s charges and determined that the source neither was involved in the planning meetings she described nor could she give examples to back her accusations. Nevertheless, Knight-Ridder pushed her tale, whipped up bloggers, and peddled a tall tale about the Office of Special Plans that had its roots in Lyndon LaRouche’s magazine. The trend is not new. Officials have singled out Cloud’s partner Gerth for poor judgment and, on June 28, 2005, the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, held Gerth in contempt in a case stemming from a number of false and defamatory allegations he made against Wen Ho Lee, a Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratories scientist indicted in 1999 for espionage, in a case that later collapsed.

Lincoln & Me

So why Gerth and Cloud’s focus now on the Lincoln Group and myself? The issue revolves around the nature of private contractors like Lincoln involved in policy work. There is no shortage of policy formulation in Iraq. Several thousand diplomats, intelligence analysts, and contractors labor in the U.S.-secured Green Zone. Thousands more live at Camp Victory, a sprawling military base adjacent to Baghdad International Airport. While troops on patrol see the real Iraq, their interactions with Iraqis are stilted by their weapons and body armor. With such isolation, there is always a danger that those formulating policy will conduct mirror-imaging analysis which, in turn, can undercut effectiveness.

Outside ideas are important. Not every issue is handled best by government bureaucracies, where too many cooks consistently spoil the broth. This is why the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department, and the Defense Department all seek outside help. Contractors too seek outside advice, on occasion. This is why the Lincoln Group asked me to brief them. They are not the only U.S.-based group in Iraq that has. I have also spoken to a number of U.S. military units prior to their deployment or upon their return about specific Iraqi issues.

I spend my time almost exclusively outside the security bubble in Iraq. Since 2000, I have traveled in the country in a number of different roles–as university professor, Coalition Provisional Authority employee, and think-tank analyst. Each exposed me to different sets of society. In the Middle East, personal relationships trump position, especially in a situation where diplomats, military officers, and journalists rotate frequently. Personal relationships bring access and insight: Hiking partners became commission members; local politicians became ministers. Students became translators. Staying in Iraqis’ houses, I was able to describe what ordinary Iraqis discussed as they gathered around their televisions at night, watching the news. Living closer to the street, I pick up rumor intelligence. Some is true. Some is false. All is relevant, since perception shapes reality.

I do not encapsulate Iraqi public opinion. No single Iraqi let alone some outside pundit does. Too many commentators and academics offer informed comment, and bluster when contradicted. Arrogance has no place in war. There are many sources of information available about Iraqi opinion available to policymakers. Polls are important, but are essentially snapshots in time, devoid of context. Government employees try to relate ground knowledge. Many do a good job, but the bureaucracy works against them. Central Intelligence Agency and State Department reports are often so bland and over-edited as to be useless. Government employees also suffer security restrictions which many contractors do not. The Lincoln Group’s job was to influence public opinion. They asked me to look over some products. I offered suggestions. They either took my advice or did not; I don’t know.

Because of this Cloud sought to construct an affiliation. He suggested that, because the Lincoln Group had covered my travel, I was an affiliate and had a conflict of interest. First, if this logic holds true, then I confess I am also affiliated with the State Department, Defense Department, various military units, and Harvard, Yale, and Princeton universities. I have at various times received travel reimbursement from each and honorarium from all but Harvard. When I travel overseas, I usually receive a per diem–as I told Cloud, it was in the neighborhood of $200. I have received travel reimbursement and per diem expenses for lectures and consultations in Germany, Belgium, Bosnia, the Czech Republic, Turkey, and Slovakia. Various civil groups have also covered my expenses to lecture in Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. Cloud’s logic and front page accusations of ethical lapse falls flat. Had it not been for a scheduling difficulty, Cloud could also accuse me of affiliation with the United Nations.

Second, I had no inside knowledge either of the Lincoln Group’s newspaper program or, for that matter, of its program rewarding anti-incitement activists, the main subject of the January 2 New York Times’s story. I have knowledge of other activities by the Lincoln Group and others. But discretion is important. Analysts are not bloggers or journalists. Their job is to understand what is going on and suggest ways to refine policy; it is not to expose proprietary or confidential information. I did not discuss the Lincoln Group with Shane. I felt the New York Times was fishing. Gerth had been after the Lincoln Group for months and was bitter at being scooped by the Los Angeles Times, something upon which his colleagues have commented.

Shane asked me by e-mail about the idea of influencing newspapers and I offered my opinion. Had I not had an informed opinion, I would decline to comment, as many reporters know I often do. Speaking to reporters for its own sake is like pursuing optional root canal. There was firm basis for my policy opinion. While it’s easy to live in utopia back in Washington, reality does not often jive with idealism. On January 11, 2005, the Financial Times reported that Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi repeatedly bribed journalists. While I remain suspicious about where Allawi received such cash, I recognize he is not the only one to engage in such a practice. On April 4, 2004, I wrote a Los Angeles Times op-ed arguing that idealistic pursuit of an even playing field ignored the fact that many other players existed in Iraq beyond Iraqis and American. Iranian, Syrian, Jordanian, and Saudi money runs rampant. Money matters. Nice guys finish last. In Iraq, the stakes are huge, and the neighbors willing to fight dirty. The late Fern Holland and Steve Vincent, both dedicated to Iraq and murdered by anti-democratic militias, are cases in point.

Avoiding Competition

There is a larger issue, though. It goes far beyond tendentious journalism and the politics of the Iraq war. Weak ideas suffer from competition. University of Michigan professor Juan Cole and Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi have both complained that policymakers do not listen to their opinions. “The silence of the experts is part of a larger problem,” Khalidi laments in the introduction to Resurrecting Empire his critique of U.S. policy in the Middle East. He takes policymakers to task for listening to “ill-informed pundits rather than people who are actually knowledgeable about the rest of the world.” Antagonism toward think tanks is a common refrain. Again, bitterness masks weak ideas. Neither Cole nor Khalidi have visited Iraq. They can control the classroom debate. They can inculcate dependency theory, Edward Said, or Michel Foucault. But their arguments suffer for lack of field work. Let them debate. Let the better argument win. University professors object to websites like www.campus-watch.org, precisely because they expose their unvarnished writings and commentary to a wider audience which may discover that the emperors have no clothes. Fieldwork conducted in 1986 may not be relevant in 2006.

Journalists likewise do not like competition. Numerous websites chronicle reporters’ inane analysis. A whole website is dedicated to the foibles of the New York Times. Cloud asked me why I went to Camp Victory. I understood his implementation to be that only reporters can cultivate sources and investigate what policy is being made. Journalists like being the gatekeepers of information. They do not like their judgments second-guessed.

Nor does the U.S. government. One of the great ironies of the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion is that many commentators on the left suggest that Central Intelligence Agency analysis should go unchallenged. Forget past errors involving the Soviet Union, India, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, and Iran. The media likes to equate questioning of analysis with politicization. It is not. Analysts, be they CIA, Pentagon, or State Department, should be asked to demonstrate how they drew conclusions from certain evidence. They should likewise explain why they ignored or omitted other evidence. Next to plagiarism, deliberate omission is the greatest sin of writers, academics, and analysts. The government is especially susceptible to lazy analysis. While in theory, classification protects sources and methods, all too often bureaucrats use it to prevent second-guessing. Hence, the U.S. intelligence community continues to classify Iraqi documents seized during Iraq’s liberation.

Information monopoly breeds laziness and dishonesty. Theses should fit the evidence, not vice versa. The temptation to do otherwise has undercut the quality of reporting and the relevancy of debate. Personal destruction is easier than open debate. In the blogosphere and, even in mainstream commentary, labels like “neocon” or “paleocon,” “Jacobin” and “Straussian” suggest straw-man constructions and lack of substance in arguments. Losing an information monopoly is uncomfortable, but issues resolve themselves through debate, and mistakes compound with a failure to engage.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the recently published Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos.



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