The crisis in Ukraine and the steadily dropping temperature in relations between Moscow and Washington made many talk about a new Cold War; and many others are worried it may turn ‘hot’. But there’s another war going on right now: the information war. US Secretary of State Kerry has already attacked RT, calling it “Putin’s propaganda machine.” But Washington itself uses dubious evidence and fake facts. What is the information war? What methods is America using? Sophie talks to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and veteran correspondent Chris Hedges.
Sophie Shevardnadze: America often appeals to its First Amendment rights and the freedom of speech, but then I can’t help but notice that the US officials are very wary of having any journalists voice an alternative point of view. I’m sure you’ve heard Secretary Kerry’s statement over RT. Why is that?
Chris Hedges: There is, as with any government, an official narrative that they seek to disseminate to the public and get the press to adopt. I was the Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times and the official narrative, which is a pro-Israeli narrative, is one that often is in variance with the truth, and those who attempt to challenge that narrative - even if you work for the New York Times – you feel the wrath, not only of systems of power, but often the media institutions themselves.
These media institutions have a vested interest in perpetuating this narrative and we saw that on the Iraq War, when the NY Times acted in essence as a mouthpiece for the Bush administration’s propaganda about the weapons of mass destruction. That’s not a new phenomenon, it’s not even particularly unique to the US, but the more intense the conflict becomes, the more you have power vested in perpetuating that narrative - and the Middle East again would be a good example, vis-à-vis Israel – the more fierce and unrelenting their attack will be and that’s precisely what’s happened here.
SS: I want to talk a little bit more about Secretary Kerry’s statement over RT, because that came after Foreign Minister Lavrov gave us an interview focusing on Ukraine. And then the State Department hasn’t really addressed Lavrov’s concerns over Ukraine. Instead, it preferred to steer the debate towards the channel Lavrov chose to give the interview to. Is this propaganda talk a way to evade a real debate?
CH: Well the last thing they are interested in is an honest debate. They will pick and select truths, facts and sometimes even incidents that are not facts to perpetuate the narrative that they seek to disseminate. I mean, as a foreign correspondent my job was often times to report on incidents and events that puncture that narrative, and that was true with every administration I covered, starting with the Reagan administration in the war in El Salvador, Nicaragua where I worked, going on to the Middle East, especially the Israel-Palestine conflict, and even going on to Bosnia. And then I covered Al-Qaeda. So I think the role of the free press is to challenge the self-serving propaganda that is put out by power, in a vigorous and free press. Unfortunately, press in the US has become very anemic, if not utterly subservient to power.
SS: But why do you think the US officials pay so much attention to RT? It is really obvious that the channel’s American affiliate isn’t reaching as many viewers as the mainstream players like Fox or CNN.
CH: Sure, but I mean, RT is presenting a narrative that Fox and CNN are not presenting, so they don’t have to go after Fox and CNN. Fox and CNN are basically toeing a line, and RT isn’t. So RT or any other media outlet that doesn’t toe the line is going to come under attack, because the purpose is to shut down competing narratives.
SS: Since Ukraine is such a huge story and so much attention is paid to which media says what, in an argument the US State Department used fake photo evidence that later gets quietly debunked, for instance the publication of alleged pictures of Russian soldiers in NY times. Now, the photos later turned out not to be genuine, although the newspaper did apologize, but it was hidden in the fine print, and public opinion is obviously influenced more by image. Is that a conscious tactic?
CH: I can’t speak to that specific incident, but that is a common tactic. Images that buttress, again, the narrative that those in power want disseminated will find currency. And images, even if they are true - and again, as I speak as a foreign correspondent that challenged that narrative - will not be disseminated. I mean, so many images, for instance, from the war in Iraq, which were widely available to viewers on stations like Al-Jazeera, never appeared on the American airwaves at all. And those images exposed the truth about the American occupation of Iraq. But it was too incendiary for the American media to pick up.
So we’re not just talking about Ukraine, we’re talking about all foreign policy issues that the US has invested themselves in, whether that’s Afghanistan, whether that’s Iraq, whether that’s Israel-Palestine, or in this case, whether it’s the Ukraine.
SS: Sure, but I’m talking about Ukraine just because it is such an acute topic right now, especially in this part of the world, because we’re literally on the border. So just talking about these photos – apologies were posted, because they were fake, but then the officials from the White House are still using that argument, and they avoid questions asked to their validity. I mean is it sort of like ‘anything goes’ here?
CH: Well, yeah, that’s how they play the game. Let’s go to the lead-up to the Iraq war, the White House would leak stuff to the NY Times, and then they would cite the NY Times as an authority. Or go back to the first Gulf War - in order to get the support for the war they created these utterly fictitious stories about Iraqi soldiers dumping infants out of incubators in hospitals, leaving them to die. This is business as usual. And Ukraine, certainly, the narrative about Ukraine is an example of it, but it’s hardly an isolated example.
SS: I don’t know how it went down when you were reporter in the Middle East and in Balkans, but right now I’m thinking it’s not even overestimation to say that we are definitely witnessing a media war, information war. It’s probably the new type of war in the 21st century. Could there be any winners in this? What do you think?
CH: There are no winners when people don’t know the truth. There’s only disasters, and I think that the US policy in the Middle East is an example of that. The extremely short-sighted – to be kind to them – decision on the part of this administration, past administration, to expand NATO and to fail to understand Russia’s legitimate security interests. We would hardly react differently if Mexico or Canada was on our border and Russia was treating Mexico or Canada the way we’re treating Ukraine and the Baltic states.
So I think you can’t make astute foreign policy and you can’t prevent disaster if you operate on myth, because you’re not actually having a dialog. One side is seeking to speak a truth or a concern, and the other side essentially fills their ears with wax and creates their own narrative, which is not grounded in reality. And that’s, again, not an uncommon phenomenon, but it’s extremely dangerous because then you make judgments based on this mendacious narrative.
So if we create a kind of false narrative about Ukraine, and act upon it, you’re fuelling a crisis, in the way that we’ve acted upon supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, when there weren’t any.
SS: But also, having that 15 years of experience as a foreign correspondent, more than anyone else you know how the story information gets on the way from the ground to notebook, to your editor’s table, to the newsstand in New York, or vice versa to Moscow. Also, you know how hard it is for a foreigner who comes to a strange country to grasp the complexity of the situation. Is there such a thing as ‘one truth’, really?
CH In this sense there is. The truth for, let’s say, an ethnic Russian living in Ukraine is a truth. A truth for an ethnic Ukrainian living in Crimea is a truth. There are multiplicities of experiences, but I do think, fundamentally, there are things that are true and things that are not true. In a kind of absolute sense, no, but in terms of a journalistic sense - and you just cited this picture which turned out to be fraudulent - there are lies, there are things, and that’s the role of the press. And I think the most vital role of the press is to give voice to dissenting viewpoints, to the people whose experiences do not conform to the particular narrative that is being peddled by those in power, so that their voices can be heard.
The closer you get to any situation – and I speak as a foreign correspondent – the kind of murkier and [more] opaque it becomes. But the job of a good journalist is to expose that opaqueness to show all the multi-faceted sides of it. You know, the varying experiences people have to reality. And I think the failure to do that, the creation of a stereotype, or the creation of a narrative where facts and images are confined to this very narrow vision that is peddled, then we’re talking about a lie. And oftentimes – and I speak again as a reporter – the lie of omission is still a lie, and oftentimes in these conflicts it’s what you don’t say and what you don’t tell that is as pernicious as the lies that you echo by those in power.
SS: If we steer away from Ukraine for a moment, and just talk about Russia, why do you think Russia keeps coming under informational attack from the West? Take, for example, the Olympics in Sochi. If all I read was the Western press, I would definitely think it was a disaster. But I was there and all of my peers were there, all of my foreign correspondent friends were there, and it looked quite the opposite once you actually saw what they had built in Sochi. I’m just wondering, is it just journalistic laziness – too much work to stray from clichés that actually sell - or is it a conscious decision to follow them to sell more, maybe?
CH: It’s careerism. Unfortunately, probably the majority of journalists are careerists and they know what is good for their career and what kind of stereotypes and what kind of narratives are going to get them ahead, both in the newsroom and in terms of the power structure itself. So I would really put it down to careerism.
I think a lot of journalists at the beginning of the war in Iraq, whatever doubts they had, they put them aside because they realized that challenging that Bush narrative was a career killer. And I speak as somebody who denounced the war in Iraq, while I was in NY Times and lost my job because of it…
SS: What? You got fired?
CH: Well, I was given a formal written reprimand for denouncing the cause to invade the Iraq, predicting exactly what was going to happen - I’ve spent seven years in the Middle East, I’m an Arabic speaker. And a formal written reprimand under the rules means that after you’re given this reprimand, the next time I spoke about the war they would have grounds to fire me. But I quit before [they could], because I wasn’t going to stop speaking out.
SS: I want to talk about other phenomena, which is whistleblowing and Snowden. Former UK Defense Secretary Liam Fox recently claimed that Snowden’s leaks enabled Russia to act in Crimea and blamed him for Crimean secession, even, and called him coward. What do you think? Aren’t those claims a bit far-fetched for someone who just leaked government’s secret information?
CH: I did a debate at Oxford Union over Snowden, and we won the debate. It was whether that House would call Snowden ‘hero’ and the way that they attacked Snowden was to try and link him to Philby and Burgess – British spies who fled to the then-Soviet Union. I mean, it was just insane. What they are doing to Snowden is a quite concerted and orchestrated effort at character assassination, because the fact is that he has exposed a clear violation, crimes against the Constitution. That’s a statement made by the former Vice-President Al Gore. And so, rather than deal with what he has exposed, which is the wholesale surveillance in direct violation of our constitutional rights, they go after him personally. That is the tactic, that has been the tactic, and that will be the tactic. That’s absurd, of course.
SS: But also, I’m thinking, the revelations about surveillance are pouring in all the time, and knowing about surveillance hasn’t really changed the fact that we’re still all being surveilled and it is all still happening. Do you think it makes Edward Snowden affair lose its point?
CH: Well, that’s what those of us in the States are worried about, that there’ll be some kind of cosmetic reforms, review panels, they’ll play around with who holds the meta-data for how long, which is what White House is doing. But the actual structure of mass surveillance they do not intend to touch, and unfortunately although Snowden has exposed some very disturbing truths about our security and surveillance state, there’s certainly no movement within the structures of power, there’s no mass movement on the street, and yeah, that’s my fear, that they’ll keep doing what they are doing.
SS: But do you think the current chill between Russia and the US has much to do with Snowden, or that’s already has been forgotten?
CH: I don’t think this has anything to do with Snowden. I mean, they can’t be happy that Snowden is there, of course, but I think that chill is… I don’t think Snowden is anyway incremental or important to that, to the kind of - maybe ‘antagonism’ is too strong - but the tension between the US and Russia.
SS: You know that the Pulitzer Prize for the Washington Post and the Guardian was assigned for publishing those revelations, and that’s a pretty big deal, that’s a huge honor, right? But does that signal a wider acknowledgement of Snowden’s revelations of wrongdoings of NSA surveillance?
CH: It’s important in that it gives a kind of legitimacy to those revelations. You know, the Pulitzer would have been a laughing stock if it didn’t do that. This is a classic case of leaking of documents for the common good, for the public good, and I applaud their decision, but I don’t think they actually had any choice if they were going to have any credibility within the journalistic establishment as a whole.
So it’s important in that it gives a kind of protection to those journalists like Glen Greenwald and Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman and others who wrote this, which I support. But I don’t know how much - to go back to the point we made before - I don’t know how much…I mean, I’m worried that the system itself will continue without any kind of restraint, any kind of oversight, any kind of control. That, unfortunately, as the weeks go by, seems to be where we’re heading.
SS: There is an investigation going on in Germany over NSA and GCHQ spying in that country, and even President Obama came out after those scandals broke out, and actually said “Yeah, this whole surveillance thing may be over the top, we going to try to sort of cut down there…” But do you think London and Washington will agree to be part of that investigation in Germany?
CH: Merkel has asked the White House for guarantees that German citizens will not be spied upon, and the US government won’t give those guarantees. They have no intention of giving those guarantees. If you really want to boil that down to what Snowden leaked, the message is that the US will do anything it wants anywhere in the world and there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s really the core of it, and that certainly has been true in the case of Germany. We just had the most vigorous popular protest around the wholesale surveillance and I wish we could replicate some of that here in the US.
SS: Some are really calling to Snowden to testify in that case. Is that an idea that Germany could pick up you think, or it wouldn’t risk angering the US too much?
CH: I can’t answer that question because I don’t cover Germany, so I don’t know the inner workings of Merkel government to be able to give you an answer to that.
SS: Right now I want to talk to you a little bit about America’s interests versus America’s principles. Do you think Washington’s stated foreign policy goals and its interests always coincide? Because sometimes it does seem like the US is hostage of its principles.
CH: You know, that kind of rhetoric is for domestic and international consumption. I’ve spent my life on the outer reaches of empire, whether that was the Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans, and I know the dirty work of empire. All the things about liberating Iraq and bringing democracy to people in the Middle East – that is to give a kind of moral veneer to war crimes. I mean, preemptive war under post-Nuremberg laws is a war crime. So I don’t think any of us - and I’ve spent 20 years overseas - take any of that rhetoric seriously at all.
The last thing the US wants in countries like Afghanistan or anywhere else is democracy. They want control, and we have a long history, whether it’s Mosaddegh in Iran or Arbenz in Guatemala, of overthrowing democratic systems when they do things we don’t like.
SS: We’re seeing kind of same thing in Ukraine, there’s a lot of very tough talk over the country and there’s been a gunboat diplomacy as well, with NATO ships in the Baltic and the Black Sea, troop surge in the eastern area etc., but we’ve already seen how cautious Americans get when there’s talk of war, and I mean, the American public, polls, show no support for a strike on Syria. And President Obama didn’t even go to the Congress for approval. That means nobody really wants to fight, right?
CH: That’s my impression. And I don’t think the Administration wants to fight either. I mean they’ve sent 600 troops to Poland or something - is this really… Yeah, I’m worried about it, and I’m worried about it because, to go back to the beginning of the interview, I think the American public is utterly misinformed about what has been happening in Ukraine, and the provocation that is being carried out by the US and NATO on Russia’s border, which we should not be doing. And Russia reacts as we would react in the similar situation.
I think it’s just a very short-sighted and foolish foreign policy, the whole idea of trying to incorporate the Baltic States - and there were even overtures made to Ukraine - into NATO is insane. And that makes it dangerous. I don’t think there’s any stomach here, certainly not on streets, but I think even at official levels for any kind of a real war. I certainly pray that’s the case.