photo by Yoshinori Abe

April 24, 2000


From Miami to Mitrovica, from Ruby Ridge to Iraq, the US government propaganda machine is geared up to put the best "spin" on the violence at the core of its power. In the assault on Iraq, TV viewers in the West were entertained by the "Nintendo war" as American missiles launched from ships hundreds of miles away glided through the windows of an Iraqi ministry building. Who can forget the searing image of babies being ripped out of incubators, their heads dashed on the floor of a Kuwait hospital by the invading Iraqis – so vividly described by a young lady before a congressional committee chaired by Tom Lantos, who was later discovered to be a member of the Kuwaiti royal family and a flat-out liar ? In Kosovo, images of refugees spilling into Macedonia in a flood of anguish, the endless loop of human misery played and replayed in the Western media, was the key to generating at least enough public support to conduct what Clinton and Albright imagined would be a relatively short operation. This is the hallmark of wartime propaganda: as the populace is bombarded by images, their interpretation becomes the key factor in defining the terms and conditions of the debate. This principle applies also to the war on the home front, the American government's war on its own people, and nothing illustrates it better than the coverage of Janet Reno's Easter weekend Miami blitzkrieg.


The first image that flashed across the wires was, incredibly, the truth. The photo, taken by Alan Diaz, an Associated Press photographer, flashed across television and computer screens worldwide, including this site, showed an INS agent dressed up in a military style drag, compete with helmet, goggles, and jackboots to match, pointing a gun directly in Elian's face, the tip a few inches from the little boy's nose. The angelic Donato Dalrymple, one of the fishermen who rescued Elian from the sea, is holding the kid in his arms, eyes wide, mouth agape, as if transfixed by the demonic vision out of Hell that confronts him. Yet he is not afraid, but only looks puzzled, as if he cannot quite believe his eyes. The INS stormtrooper looks like one of Darth Vader's Imperial Commandos, snarling and red-faced, the very picture of brutal aggression. Donato's stance projects both serenity and intransigence: he is very still, one arm holding the child and other extended in a gesture that is protective and also seems like a benediction. This image is a like a painting rendered by an artist who fully understands the forces at work in the world: it is a metaphor on many levels – political and religious – for what is going on in the world of the new millennium.


Such a powerful image could not be allowed to circulate unchallenged, and so Reno and her her journalistic auxiliary rebounded from the initial shock of sudden exposure with well-trained swiftness: the Attorney General immediately held a news conference and appealed to the reporters present and to the American people not to believe the evidence of their own eyes:

"One of the beautiful things about television is it shows exactly what the facts are. As I understand it, if you look at (the picture) carefully you'll see that the gun was pointed to the side and the finger was not on the trigger."


Peering through those magnifying glass spectacles, hooting like some malevolent owl, she said it in that monotonic singsong supposed to signify a note of authority. What was communicated, instead, was her own addled near-sightedness, her moral if not literal blindness. Babbling about the "beauty" of television, Reno seems strangely unaware that we are talking about a still picture, not a movie: the television coverage of the blitz was fuzzy, herky-jerky, and disconnected. The media, camped out in front, had been taken by surprise, and TV cameras failed to capture the high drama. It was left to a lone Associated Press photographer, Alan Diaz, to freeze-frame that moment, which clearly shows the soldier's quivering finger hovering less than an inch away from the trigger: the gun is pointed in the direction of the boy and his protector, and while not aimed directly at Donato's head it seems well on its way there. But more importantly, the stormtrooper is not merely snarling but speaking: according to Marisleysis Gonzales, he yelled: " Give me the f – – -g boy, or I'll shoot !"


Reno's flacks went on the offensive in an all-out effort to discredit the photographs, and convince the American people that what was plainly visible was in reality something other than it seemed. One strategy was to attack different versions of the original, and they immediately pounced on CNN, strangely enough, which had initially run a severely cropped version of the photo with the fisherman dropped out and showing only the INS agent with the gun pointed at a screaming Elian. The New York Times reports in Sunday's edition CNN's claim that "no editorial decision" was made to crop the photo so severely, another way of saying that it was someone in the graphics department driven mad by overexposure to Photoshop. CNN dutifully showed the whole photo – but that only made matters worse. The expert spin doctors over at the White House were perplexed, and going into panic mode: how were they going to spin themselves out of this one?


The best defense is a good offense – that has been the method of the Clintonistas, and it has served them well. Don't answer the charges – just smear your accusers. If some inconvenient facts are about to come to light, just bomb an aspirin factory in the Sudan. Stonewall all requests for documents with Nixonian doggedness: Delay, divert, and destroy. The administration, working in conjunction with the father and his lawyer, went on the offensive: within a few hours of the Diaz photo's release, they were preparing their own counter-image.


As if in an act of contrition for their earlier faux pas, CNN kept it up on the screen for what seemed like hours: not a video, as one might expect, but yet another still picture, an iconic portrait of a beaming father holding Elian in his arms. Both have the beatific look of happy workers and peasants painted by artists of the "socialist realist" school, whose highly idealized works masked the reality of the Soviet Gulag with a thick coat of lacquered blandness. Juan Miguel's wife is holding their six-month-old infant off to the side, but seems strangely disconnected from the scene, a somewhat distracted onlooker staring off into the distance.


This photo, meant to reassure the public and show that Elian is where he belongs, is instead strangely disturbing on several levels. To begin with, its release – followed shortly afterward by others – was preceded by a letter from Gregory Craig, Juan Miguel's lawyer, asking the media not to transmit images of the raid, a request that was unanimously ignored. More ominously, there is the Hair Question, a seeming anomaly in the hastily-thrown together image served up for our delectation. For it seems that Elian – only recently given one of those "fade" haircuts that make growing numbers of American male teenagers resemble a race of humanoid mushrooms – has miraculously acquired a full head of hair in only a few hours.


It was the eagle-eyed Lucianne Goldberg, of , who first spotted this odd little discrepancy, and Matt Drudge picked it up , asking in a banner headline : "How Did Elian's Hair Grow So Fast?" The competing images, run side-by-side, are startling in their discontinuity. Of course, the boy's paleness and fragility, next to the tanned and vigorous Elian we have grown used to seeing, could be due to camera angles, indoor lighting, and the camera itself: a disposable one we are alternatively told was bought by an INS agent, and/or bought and used by the father, to record the Reunion. But what about the Hair Question? This is the most vexing aspect of the Craig photos: not only is Elian's hair longer, especially on the sides, but it is curlier and darker. A gaunter Elian than we are accustomed to seeing beams in his father's embrace. "That hair is not Elian's because I had myself cut his hair," said a weeping Marisleysis at a Washington news conference. "Look how short his hair is here... And look how long that hair is in the picture that they show today. That hair is not Elian's... I cut hair. It's my hobby..Three days before, I had given him a haircut!" In the Craig photos, the evidence of his fresh haircut seems to have completely vanished – and what, I ask you, is up with that?


The falsification of photographs is the oldest trick in the modern propagandist's book, and if you think that such methods are too crude then you underestimate the brazenness of this gang in the White House. It is all too believable that between the intelligence services of two countries, and the Clintonista-Fidelista propaganda machine, someone came up with a creative solution to the Justice Department's problem of how to counteract the Diaz image and deflect its impact on public opinion. At any rate, it looks suspicious to me, and given the record of this administration the suspicion turns into something much closer to certainty. The crudeness of the deception, however, is not because a photo of a screaming bawling Elian was radically reconstructed by the manipulation of pixels. It could well be that someone is trying to pass off an old photo as one that was taken only hours after Saturday's dawn raid. It is, at any rate, a possibility – and that is what makes this such a depressing time to be living in.


From " the picture that fooled the world ," the British Independent Television Network's forgery of photos allegedly depicting a Serbian "concentration camp" in Bosnia, to the Craig photos, to the lies put out by the Kuwaiti lobby about babies being ripped out of incubators – the manipulation of images, in sound and pictures, in the service of politics is nothing new, and in the West has achieved the status of a high art. Its practitioners, the generals in the media war of battling images, inhabit the nation's newsrooms as well as the corporate suites and halls of government: but all the public relations firms in the world, all the inherent pro-government bias of the American media, all the spinning and complex explanations of government officials and their kept pundits, cannot erase the searing images of the Diaz photos. How the administration must wish that we lived in the fictional world of George Orwell's classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which inconvenient photographs and other evidence could always be stuffed down into the Memory Hole and instantly vaporized. Such power, for the moment, eludes them – and thank God for that.


In my last column, I gave my theory as to why the Clintonistas have gone to such lengths to pursue a six-year-old boy and make sure he is never granted political asylum in the US. As an addendum to this "legacy" theory, and complementary to it, is Orlando Sentinel columnist Charlie Reese's theory of the Archer-Daniels Midland connection. Reese's piece is today's "Spotlight," and he tells a fascinating tale in which little Elian is not a pawn of cold war politics but "a pawn in an international business deal" involving the politically-connected ADM, the Clinton administration, and others with business interests in Cuba, as well as the ideologically-driven National Council of Churches. Follow the money: this is always excellent advice – particularly when we are talking about the most ravenously corrupt administration since the days of Ulysses S. Grant.

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