“Top Secret” Co-Author under Fire, for Some Reason

Politico fans the flames of lackluster Arkin "controversy"

Earlier this week, Politico took a look at “Top Secret America,” the three-part series running in The Washington Post this week on the vast growth of the intelligence and national security communities in the United States since 9/11.

The article, by media writer Keach Hagey, is apparently Politico’s only direct reaction thus far to the series. But rather than make any direct or substantive appraisal of the series, Politico instead homes in on criticism of the supposedly checkered background of one of its authors, William Arkin. Titled “Dana Priest’s controversial co-author,” the piece demonstrates a pronounced lack of substance in supporting its provocative headline, and a playfully vapid interest in sowing controversy that doesn’t actually seem to exist.

Hagey starts off by conceding that the articles are a “bombshell series.” Following this perfunctory concession, the author sets the desired tone:

But from a media perspective, Arkin’s role as co-author of the series might be more important. It marks the first time one of the Post’s bloggers — lately the cause of controversy because they sometimes blur opinion and reporting — has had a byline in one of the paper’s big, investigative pieces of Pulitzer bait.

It’s not clear why Arkin’s role would matter more than the series’ critical substance—that the massive intelligence industry can no longer be reined in and its effectiveness can no longer be measured—even from a media perspective. Yes, the fact that someone primarily employed as a blogger gets a big byline in the print paper is interesting. But Arkin also has substantial experience with national security matters: He’s published books, written regular columns for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the Los Angeles Times, and served as a fellow at SAIS and elsewhere. But I guess “WaPo author is qualified” doesn’t make for much of a headline.

The article then moves on to the purportedly controversial elements of Arkin’s professional background:

A former Army intelligence analyst in West Berlin in the 1970s, Arkin, according to his Post biography, later did stints at Greenpeace International and Human Rights Watch — activist associations that might not pass the classic standard of journalistic objectivity that has been much debated in the wake of Post blogger David Weigel’s resignation from the Post.

But “the classic standard of journalistic objectivity” shouldn’t preclude reporters from having had other jobs or holding political opinions. Politico intimates that because Arkin once worked for Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch, this will undermine his work and views on intelligence or homeland security policy. Given his professional reputation, publishing record, and veteran status, this is a stretch.

The comparison with former Post blogger David Weigel is also a stretch. Weigel, a twenty-something libertarian blogger writing on Republican issues, resigned in the wake of scandal surrounding intemperate comments he made on a private e-mail list; whereas Arkin, a fifty-something veteran writer whose blog is focused entirely on national security issues, has faced no such scandal. The article mixes apples and lugnuts.

At this point, the piece delves into its evidence for Arkin’s controversial nature:

Arkin’s background was almost immediately cited by right-leaning blogs Monday as undermining the credibility of the series.

“Without question an ‘activist’ can still perform journalism, even top-notch journalism,” Frank Ross wrote in Big Journalism, “but when the supposedly unbiased Washington Post trumpets a two-years-in-the-making exposé by a man their own paper regards as a left-wing activist as a straight news piece, the integrity of the ideas in the series and the paper that chose to publish them in such a clandestine way suffers.”

The basis of questioning Arkin, therefore, is an item on a Web site run by right-leaning provocateur Andrew Breitbart, who is getting publicity this week for propagating a faux controversy involving a Department of Agriculture employee he falsely claimed was racist by means of a tightly edited video clip—not a particularly credible source. Yet at no other point does Hagey attempt to substantiate the piece’s headline based on Arkin’s current work. The entire article stands on a blog post by Breitbart, whose own penchant for creating false controversies is not mentioned.

Later, after noting that Priest had been subject to past criticism for “jeopardizing national security”—but not substantiating that bold characterization, either—the piece notes that Arkin has “been a source of controversy, such as the time he called the U.S.’s volunteer Army “mercenary” in a column, drawing the ire of Bill O’Reilly….” But Hagey provides no further context to Arkin’s views, which are more complex than what her piece makes them out to be. And the “controversy” seems only to exist among right-leaning pundits known for taking things out of context.

The Post’s series is a serious and substantial piece of political journalism. That William Arkin has worked as a blogger for the newspaper does not, in itself, call into question the quality or veracity of his most current work. More importantly, criticisms lobbed at him by a single partisan Web site which has a reputation for skirting the truth are far too thin to form the basis of serious criticisms of “Top Secret America.”

Unfortunately, Hagey’s piece seems geared to manufacture controversy rather than actually report on it.

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Mark Greenbaum is an attorney and writer in Washington, D.C.