Former CIA Officer Defends ‘Wash Post’ Op-Ed in Online Chat

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By: E&P Staff

In what is sure to be a controversial Op-Ed in The Washington Post, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, today defended the Pentagon’s payola program involving Iraqi journalists, declaring, “The Bush administration shouldn’t flinch from increasing its covert ‘propaganda’ efforts in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. The history in the last great war of ideas is firmly on its side.”

He then defended his defense in an online chat at the Post this afternoon.

In the Op-Ed, Gerecht wrote, “Once again we are confronted with stories about how the Pentagon and its ubiquitous private contractors are undermining free inquiry in Iraq. … Journalists, intellectuals or clerics taking money from Uncle Sam or, in this case, a Washington-based public relations company, is seen as morally troubling and counterproductive. Sensible Muslims obviously would not want to listen to the advice of an American-paid consultant; anti-insurgent Sunni clerics can now all be slurred as corrupt stooges.

“There is one big problem with this baleful version of events. Historically, it doesn’t make much sense. The United States ran enormous covert and not-so-covert operations known as ‘CA’ activities throughout the Cold War. With the CIA usually in the lead, Washington spent hundreds of millions of dollars on book publishing, magazines, newspapers, radios, union organizing, women’s and youth groups, scholarships, academic foundations, intellectual salons and societies, and direct cash payments to individuals (usually scholars, public intellectuals and journalists) who believed in ideas that America thought worthy of support.”

The online chat got off to hot start and some of exchanges are worth excerpting at length

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Studio City, Calif.: Your op-ed conflates several issues, thus obfuscating and dodging the real ethical questions raised by the Pentagon’s use of propaganda in Iraq….Parse the specifics if you wish, but for instance, when I hear Robert Novak speak, I expect a particular political slant but I do not expect to hear that he was paid money by an outside entity to espouse a specific view, as was the case this for Armstrong Williams, several thinktank writers (for Abramoff), and apparently, those that wrote for the Pentagon. Advocacy is far different than propaganda? but I’m sure you know this. You touch on this briefly when you state that in past programs the CIA had not “manipulated the final product.” This cannot realistically be said of the Pentagon.

While I (and other readers, I’m sure) appreciate a thoughtful, contrarian piece, as of yet you’ve only provided an interesting sidebar to the real issues. The use of propaganda raises profound ethical issues, especially given our stated goal of spreading democracy in Iraq. The other key issue is, is it effective? You write that one can’t gauge the full effective of covert operations, but you suggest they have been highly useful in the past. Have you read any independent source in Iraq in the Middle East that has praised or defended this use of propaganda? It makes us look, very, very bad, and further undercuts our credibility. Your chief objection to the current operation is that it was botched. Do you really think an Iraqi family still without steady electricity, clean water, or income is going to be swayed by reading an upbeat newspaper article? Do you really think, even before the propaganda revelation, such articles were not suspect to Iraqis, who are accustomed to state-controlled news? If we really want to win “hearts and minds,” our energy would be better served focussed on performance, not PR.

GERECHT: You bring up several questions. I’ll just answer a few. First, I don’t think it is ethically or professionally wise for U.S. officials to masquerade as journalists, if that is in fact what happened. I have no problem at all with the US government paying Iraqis, overtly or covertly, to start newspapers that promote democracy. I have no problem with the U.S. government paying Iraqi intellectuals and scholars to write about post-Saddam Iraq and the merits of an open society. I don’t see US covert sponsorship as necessarily corrupting—if so, then you have damned an amazing number of the best Western minds of the twentieth century.

An examination of Cold War history I think leads one to the opposite conclusion: that covert US aid helped Europeans to establish a free and vigorous civil society. Is this work effective? This is an excellent question….

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From Wichita Falls, Tex.: I don’t think you addressed the main criticism of the Lincoln Group program: that its anti-free press nature damages our efforts to create a democratic society. When we don’t practice what we preach, we look like hypocrites with ulterior motives. All of the CIA programs you mention were rooted in the idea of and worked to spread free speech. Covert or not, they were honest. The Lincoln Group program, however, puts a false name on our own content. It tells Iraqis that we’re willing to lie to them to win them over. Doesn’t this run counter to our goals to establish democracy in Iraq?

GERECHT: The vast majority of CIA programs during the Cold War were covert and in that sense falsely labelled. The historical case for these programs aiding the growth of free speech and free inquiry in post-war Europe is pretty strong. I don’t ethically or professionally see why the case should be different in Iraq. I would, however, stop using the Lincoln Group and force Langlety to again develop the expertise necessary to conduct covert operations in Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East.



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