The Media Today

The Pentagon Papers redux

December 10, 2019

“US officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it.” That’s how the Washington Post summarized “The Afghanistan Papers,” a slick package of stories it just published revealing the rot at the heart of America’s longest war. Craig Whitlock, a reporter with the paper, obtained more than 2,000 pages of interviews with more than 400 officials—generals, diplomats, aid workers, and more—conducted during a federal review of the “Lessons Learned” in Afghanistan. He also obtained hundreds of pages of memos filed by Donald Rumsfeld when he was George W. Bush’s defense secretary in the 2000s. (Rumsfeld called the memos “snowflakes”; how the right has changed.) Taken together, Whitlock writes, the documents “constitute a secret history of the war and an unsparing appraisal of 18 years of conflict.”

Several of the officials interviewed for the review spoke of systematic efforts to mislead the public—and the press—on the war effort. John Sopko, who leads the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, which conducted the review, admitted to the Post that the records show the American people “have constantly been lied to.” In his interview for the review, Bob Crowley, a US Army colonel, said that “every data point was altered to present the best picture possible… We became a self-licking ice cream cone.” In his main story, Whitlock cleverly juxtaposes things officials said in public with what was being said in private. There was no clear rationale and no clear enemy. Good money was thrown after bad—on warfare, aid, and nation-building—with no metric for success. Publicly, officials said they wouldn’t tolerate the corrupt use of US funds in Afghanistan; privately, they admitted they turned a blind eye to it.

ICYMI: The tragic story behind a Harper’s article shows the dirty truth about fact checking 

SIGAR’s review wasn’t entirely secret—the agency has published some reports under the Lessons Learned rubric—but, per Whitlock, its output has been hard to parse, and omitted much of the damning information that was collected. The Post first learned that there might be more to the story during the 2016 election, when a tipster told the paper that Michael Flynn—then a Trump campaign surrogate, now Trump’s disgraced former national security adviser—had given an internal interview castigating the mess in Afghanistan, where he’d served as chief of military intelligence.

The Post, Whitlock writes, requested documents related to Flynn’s interview under the Freedom of Information Act. After a long delay, SIGAR rejected the request, citing a FOIA exemption that allows the government to withhold some deliberative records. The Post appealed, then broadened its request to cover all the interviews it believed SIGAR had conducted. SIGAR went dark. In October 2017, the Post sued the agency, using the Flynn records as a test case for the whole cache. Eventually, SIGAR relented, released the Flynn interview, and agreed to release the others on a rolling basis; it insisted, however, on redacting portions of the documents, and refused to identify the vast majority of its interviewees, because it had promised them anonymity. When SIGAR started dragging its feet again, the Post sued it again. By August of this year, all the interviews had been handed over, but they were still redacted, and mostly anonymized. The Post still wants the names. Expanding on its earlier argument, the government claimed in court that some interviewees are “whistleblowers,” so must be protected. The Post’s lawyers reject this notion.

A final decision in the case is pending; still, the Post decided it had enough to publish, and did so yesterday morning. Its story was immediately and ubiquitously compared to the Pentagon Papers—the explosive internal review of US blunders in Vietnam that the New York Times was the first to reveal in 1971. The Post’s Gillian Brockell ran down the similarities: both reviews were compiled in little-known corners of the Defense Department; both were voluminous; both came to light only after court fights; both showed rampant lying. But there are key differences between the respective sets of documents. Unlike the Afghanistan Papers, the Pentagon Papers were not based on any interviews, because Robert McNamara, the defense secretary who commissioned them, was afraid of leaks. (So much for that.) Perhaps most importantly, the Post’s pursuit of the Afghanistan Papers did not set a legal precedent around the release of government information; by contrast, the Pentagon Papers case produced a landmark Supreme Court ruling annulling Richard Nixon’s efforts to bar the Times from publishing them.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Our present media landscape, too, looks very different from that of the 1970s. The key players are the same—the Times and the Post are both having a moment—but around them, much of the industry is in dire financial straits. Reporting like Whitlock’s is brilliant and essential, but it requires resources—time, money, legal heft—that are at a premium in many of the nation’s newsrooms. The fight for a sustainable press is often rendered in platitudinous, even abstract terms. The Afghanistan Papers are a shocking, concrete example of the stakes.

Below, more on the Afghanistan Papers:

  • The broader context: In September, Trump abruptly scrapped negotiations with the Taliban, right ahead of a scheduled secret summit with Taliban leaders at Camp David. Visiting Afghanistan over Thanksgiving, Trump made a surprise announcement: talks are back on. They restarted in Doha, Qatar, over the weekend.
  • Ell’s bells: CNN’s Brian Stelter called Daniel Ellsberg, the analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers in the ’70s, for his reaction to the Afghanistan Papers. Ellsberg said he planned to read every page obtained by the Post. “It affirms my warnings that the situations were the same.”
  • How it played: The Times prominently promoted the Post’s reporting yesterday, including in a breaking news alert and email newsletters. (Paul Farhi, a media reporter at the Post, called the former “rare if not unprecedented.”) Many other outlets covered the Post’s work, too, but its scope was perhaps diluted by the impeachment chaos out of Washington—especially on cable news.

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR’s print issue on disinformation, Amitava Kumar writes that the specter of fake news is haunting fiction writing, and Andrew McCormick, Akintunde Ahmad, and Kevin Zweerink map Fox News spin on the causes of mass shootings. Today, we’re holding a conference on disinformation at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism; speakers include Emily Bell, Hamilton Nolan, Jonathan Albright, and Carole Cadwalladr, who helped break open the Cambridge Analytica scandal. You can watch the event here from 9:45am Eastern.
  • It was a busy day in Washington yesterday. As anticipated, Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, released his report on the FBI’s decision to investigate the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia, in 2016. As anticipated, Horowitz found that the probe was justified, but criticized some of its steps; that propelled the right-wing mediasphere’s “Russia hoax” grievance mill, despite the central thesis having been debunked. Also yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee held its latest hearing on impeachment. Today, Democrats are expected to unveil the two articles that they’ll file against the president, alleging abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
  • In October, Shep Smith quit Fox News. Network bosses filled his 3pm Eastern daily slot on a rotation basis; yesterday, they announced that Bill Hemmer, who currently cohosts America’s Newsroom in the mornings, will be Smith’s permanent replacement. Hemmer, CNN’s Stelter writes, is “significantly less confrontational” than Smith. “His general approach is to ask questions and accept the response he receives.”
  • Last week, after the Times and ProPublica reported on McKinsey’s role in implementing Trump’s immigration agenda, pressure mounted on Pete Buttigieg to disclose his past work for the firm. Buttigieg said McKinsey would have to release him from nondisclosure obligations first; yesterday, it agreed to do so. Following pressure from Elizabeth Warren, Buttigieg will also open his fundraisers to the press, and reveal who his top bundlers are.
  • Last month, the Southern Poverty Law Center obtained old emails that Stephen Miller, now a senior aide to Trump, sent to Breitbart; the cache cast light on Miller’s influence with the site, and white-nationalist literature’s influence on him. Yesterday, 27 US senators, led by Kamala Harris and five Democratic presidential candidates, wrote the White House demanding that Miller be fired. HuffPost’s Christopher Mathias has more.
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote Warner Bros. and Clint Eastwood objecting to the portrayal of Kathy Scruggs, a reporter who died in 2001, in their new film Richard Jewell, about a man wrongly suspected of bombing the 1996 Olympics. In the film, Scruggs sleeps with an FBI agent to get information; the paper said there’s no evidence for this, and demanded that Warner Bros. note that in the film. Variety’s Brent Lang has more.
  • Three days out from British elections, a reporter tried to show Boris Johnson, the Conservative prime minister, an image of a sick child sleeping on the floor of an overcrowded hospital; Johnson took the reporter’s phone and put it in his pocket. Later, Conservative sources told reporters that an opposition activist punched an aide during a visit to the hospital. The story got out—followed by a video that showed it wasn’t true.
  • The New Yorker’s Joshua Yaffa profiles Konstantin Ernst, a “discerning auteur” who became “Putin’s unofficial minister of propaganda” as head of a top state TV network. Ernst is “one of the most powerful men in Russia, with the ability to set the visual style for the country’s political life—at least the part its rulers wish to transmit to the public.”
  • And The Outline listed the worst takes of the 2010s. David Brooks, John Derbyshire, Anna Breslaw, Megan McArdle, Matt Yglesias, Jacob Brogan, Kevin Williamson, Jonathan Chait, Virginia Heffernan, Jason Whitlock, Anthony Lane, Bret Stephens, and, erm, The Outline’s Jeremy Gordon all feature.

ICYMI: A student journalist asked her school for records of harassment complaints against teachers. She ended up uncovering a big story.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.