Freedom of speech and of the press we have a Americans is an important luxury at our disposal. It is a constitutional opportunity to express our opinions while trying to inform ourselves about our world. But what happens when the government that gives us these privileges are as honest as a press secretary trying to misdirect questions from the controversial truths of the official they work for?
When this country was founded, the forefathers had to know even they could never be fully trusted. They encountered the difficulties that came from questionable governance in their homelands. John Dalberg-Acton once said “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Being in a position of power, along with compliance from the individuals who believe in that authority, often leads to a need to maintain said power.
Unfortunately, in American history our government has undertaken many projects that would put their ethics in an unflattering light and would make citizens call for great change. To avoid an all-out revolution, our government has become very skilled at framing and molding a story into one that seems plausible to Americans—despite facts contradicting them. In the end, misinforming the media, and letting them do the work of gaining trust with the public, is one of the best weapons a government has the ability to employ.
After the attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the eventual invasion of Afghanistan, our government told us that Iraq had become and even deadlier threat than the terrorist group Al Qaeda; masterminds of the 9/11 attacks and cause of the Afghan invasion. Former Vice President Dick Cheney was quoted as saying, “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein (President of Iraq) now has weapons of mass destruction.” Yet that was never truly the case.
In 2012 Jeremy R. Hammond wrote an essay for the Foreign Policy Journal analyzing the release of a CIA document titled “Misreading Intentions: Iraq’s Reaction to Inspection Created Picture of Deception”. He explained that the document tried to convey a message of poor intelligence being the force behind armed forces heading into Iraq. However, “there was no such ‘intelligence failure’. On the contrary, there was an extremely successful disinformation campaign coordinated by the CIA in furtherance of the government’s policy of seeking regime change in Iraq.” And for a country that can get the intelligence to land a scud missile on a house 1,000 miles away, it is hard to believe the regime would blindly believe poor intelligence that would lead many enlisted men and women’s lives to being put in danger. The media was sold a great story, and they did their job and passed it on to the public.
The events of a second war in Iraq are part of a long history the U.S. government has with misleading its citizens. Another example is in 1996 when the San Jose Mercury News released their article “Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion”. The piece by Gary Webb detailed the alliance between the Nicaraguan Contras; a revolutionary group trying to overthrow the Sandinista Junta National Reconstruction government; and the CIA. Through this relationship the CIA turned a blind-eye to representatives of the Contras selling drugs to dealers in the U.S., which helped to fund their campaign. The belief was that the CIA and the Contras shared a common goal of regime change.
Soon after the release of the article counter-pieces came out from the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times questioning the allegations and integrity of Webb. This push to discredit him, along with veiled threats from the government are depicted in the motion picture Kill the Messenger. Unfortunately for Webb, this vigorous backlash may have led to his eventual suicide. The eventual release of Department of Justice documents admitting to the CIA’s backing of the contras drug trafficking posthumously makes the tale all the more tragic.
Sometimes suspicious motives are undertaken by the holder of the highest office in the country. They too do not take kindly to the threat of losing their status. And they are willing to use all of the power designated to them to hold that position.
In 1972 the Washington Post discovered the deplorable events that took place at the Watergate Hotel. Offices working for the Democratic National Committee were burgled by officials operating on the orders of then President Richard M. Nixon. It has never been discovered what the motive of the break in was, but it was another instance of the government (in this case the President) taking part in actions that were done to maintain their hold on power.
Of course despite the explosive information revealed through the work of the authors of the story, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the White House still denied the connections alleged in the article. In a couple of speeches after the new broke, Nixon denied any truth in the piece and tried to persuade the public to believe in his credibility. This led to his heavily quoted line “I am not a crook”, a quote that is heavily played over and over in any video documenting his career in office. Despite the push to mislead the country, these unethical actions helped to eventually force Nixon to resign from his position as President.
In some scenarios, it takes brave citizens working for the government to take it upon themselves and risk their long-term freedom to inform their fellow Americans about dubious undertakings by their administration.
This leads me to the next episode on this hit list of governmental suppression, the infamous “Pentagon Papers”. This moment in June of 1971 is one of the most well-known instances of a whistleblower coming forward to release classified documents to the press. Daniel Ellsberg, while working for an independent contractor for the government, became disillusioned with the project he had long been working on. In a moment of determined patriotism, he handed over a great deal of files to the New York Times and Washington Post. The papers showed a long history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and a grand campaign to undermine the country’s regime. This anti-communist crusade stretched over multiple presidential regimes, including those of Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon.
With the release of the first set of documents the government sought to get the distribution of more documents stopped, on the grounds that it would cause “immediate and irreparable harm” to U.S. national interests. After two weeks of litigation, the courts upheld the publications’ rights to continue publishing the papers. Though that did not stop the Nixon administration from doing their best to tarnish the credibility of Ellsberg as the story became global news. He was also put on trial for treason via the Espionage Act of 1917. Fortunately he was found innocent of treason and later that year the papers were put into book form and released in totality to the world.
Daniel Ellsberg was far from the last whistleblower to blow the doors off of the governments secret deeds. In June of 2013, National Security Agency contracted employee, Edward Snowden leaked information pertaining to the departments program for spying on everyday American citizens. Through a surveillance program known as Prism, the NSA was tapping the servers of companies like Facebook, Google and Yahoo. Along with that they also forced Verizon to hand over telecommunications data daily. The story went from national to international news when it was also revealed that Great Brittan’s version of the NSA, the GCHQ (Government Communications Head Quarters), were also using intelligence gathered from the Prism program.
It was an unprecedented moment in the disillusion of the relationship between citizens and the defense departments supposedly protecting them and their interests. Now it seemed that the NSA was as much aware of many harmless Americans daily lives as they were.
Snowden entrusted the files to Guardian writer Glen Greenwald. The paper disseminated the information and unleashed a firestorm of controversy throughout the NSA and the communication industry. Of course, the government took steps against Snowden that were similar to the ones they used against Daniel Ellsberg. To discredit him and defend the purposes of these secret programs that appeared to seriously violate the privacies of many Americans. Snowden too was a target in the crosshairs of the legal weapon that is the Espionage Act. However, knowing the government would reign down on him with all of its power, Snowden fled the country well before the documents were ever released. The documentary film Citizen Four actually follows the historic moments as they unfold. Filming Snowden as he, the filmmaker and Greenwald meet covertly in a Chinese hotel. Snowden goes as far as putting a blanket over him while using his laptop, because he is so fearful that the government has eyes always watching, even in the most unlikely of places.
Whistleblowers like Ellsberg and Snowden’s actions while technically illegal, did a service for the American media and the public it informs. It was the rare instances when the government couldn’t misinform news companies with contrasting facts, because the media already had undeniable facts in hand.
One of the most grotesque examples of misinformation by the government happened during the Central Intelligence Agencies utilization of the Mockingbird Program. During this initiative, which stretched out during the 1950s to the 70s, the CIA purchased the public standing of many journalists working for media outlets globally. Through these secret relationships, the agency had these writers spread propaganda and their news companies suppress the reporting of news events, to manipulate public opinion. Unlike the previously mentioned events where the government took a stance of damage-control to salvage credibility after information was released, this was an unseemly strategy to control the media and lie to the public via the publications of respected media companies.
Without a doubt we live in a country that is more advantageous towards free speech and privacy. We are not citizens of a government that runs news stations that serves the federal agenda. Unfortunately, that does not mean our government won’t try and subvert those privileges to serve its goals. Thankfully our constitution does allow for the public to pull the curtain back on these secret plots and be the watchdog not only amongst ourselves, but for our own authority figures. Or is that what the government wants you to think?