The Weekly Standard looks at what hacked data shows about the Syrians. Readers have a choice before proceeding. Do you want to laugh or to cry?
Last week, the shadowy online activist group known as Anonymous penetrated 78 email accounts from Syria’s ministry of presidential affairs and posted their contents online. The hackers found that many of the accounts, including that of the allegedly computer-savvy Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, used one of the world’s weakest passwords: 12345. So much for Syrian cybersecurity.
The hacked emails are a downscale version of the WikiLeaks cables. There is little diplomatic sophistication. In the fashion of third-world Arab nationalist bureaucracies, everyone addresses everyone else as Your Excellency. One Excellency kept a stash of porn in his email account, another Excellency seems to have sexually harassed an attractive Her Excellency. Not surprisingly, many of the Excellencies are fixated on Israel, and any story or—more often—image that reinforces their negative feelings is cc’d to a long list of similarly obsessed Excellencies.
Now here’s cry. The leaks also revealed the obsequious terms with which American journalists held these Excellencies.
American journalists flattered the regime as well, but with less luck. In November 2011, more than half a year into the uprising, Brian Williams’s producer at NBC wrote to request an interview, as did Scott Pelley’s producer at CBS’s Evening News a few weeks later. With deaths mounting by the hour, it was quite a feeding frenzy last fall. Bob Simon’s producer at 60 Minutes sought an advantage. He reminded his Syrian correspondent that “60 Minutes interviewed President Hafez al-Assad back in the 1970s.” After a few paragraphs of boilerplate PR for his show (“For the last 43 years, it has featured stories on the most important newsmakers of our time . . . ”), the producer signs off, “We would be most honored to have President al Assad on our program.” God only knows what Barbara Walters’s staff wrote to actually get her prized interview with Assad in December—those missives weren’t leaked.
In defense of journalism everywhere, however, how else would they have gotten the interviews? By addressing these Excellencies in the style actually befitting them? Those approaching the centers of power can adopt either of two attitudes. The right attitude, in which case they are treated with a facsimile of respect and civility. Or they can be shown who’s the boss.
The harsh realities of power put decent countries and decent leaders everywhere at a disadvantage. Journalists know for a fact, even if they will not admit it, that it is dangerous to cross truly evil men. If they want to run a crusading expose — and life — then they must go after softer game; those who have no desire or inclination to compel flattering — or lying — press coverage.
If you’ve ever wondered why “glitter bombs” are thrown at Romney and never at “progressive” figures, or shoes are pitched at John Howard but never at Saddam Hussein well you should stop wondering.
Eason Jordan, who was the chief news executive at CNN, explained in a New York Times article entitled “The News We Kept to Ourselves” that they had to cover up Saddam Hussein’s outrages in order to safely deploy reporters into the country and obtain coveted interviews. In April, 2003, he wrote:
Over the last dozen years I made 13 trips to Baghdad to lobby the government to keep CNN’s Baghdad bureau open and to arrange interviews with Iraqi leaders. Each time I visited, I became more distressed by what I saw and heard — awful things that could not be reported because doing so would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff. …
I felt awful having these stories bottled up inside me. Now that Saddam Hussein’s regime is gone, I suspect we will hear many, many more gut-wrenching tales from Iraqis about the decades of torment. At last, these stories can be told freely.
Eason’s article amounts to a description of how the correspondents are “doubled” by bad guys in order to transmit disinformation to the public. The correspondents are forced to “play back” what their Excellencies want the public to hear or face the consequences. To some extent the real task of the press offices of major political figures is to manage these doubles. They often get away with it, since news agencies rarely if ever, have the equivalent of a counterintelligence function, and may even cooperate with the Excellencies in forcing the reporter to adopt a line.
Without any friends, what’s a reporter to do? One service that “leaks” and “hacked documents” perform is to provide a forum for the ‘true report’. The Weekly Standard article quoted is an example of turning a regimes’ media management process into an indictment against itself. One would hope. Or are “leaks” simply another layer of disinformation? Recently the BBC reported that Julian Assange was slated to host his own TV show — on Russian state media.
There could be wheels within wheels. James Jesus Angleton was a friend of TS Eliot, who famously wrote about the looking glasses in our mind.
These with a thousand small deliberations
Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,
Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,
With pungent sauces, multiply variety
In a wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do,
Suspend its operations, will the weevil
TS Eliot, Gerontion