April 17, 2002
At the end of every edition of The McLaughlin Group, the panelists are called upon to make their predictions. On a recent broadcast of the show, Pat Buchanan looked into his crystal ball and saw the following:
"A huge Israeli spy ring using alleged art students was broken up last year. The story will surface."
Well, it's about time. Of course, Antiwar.com has been on that story since November, followed by Carl Cameron of Fox News – and months of an unearthly silence. The story didn't die, however. I wrote a number of columns exploring the subject over the months, and eventually the story broke again – overseas, this time, where LeMonde revealed some of the documentation alluded to earlier by Fox News. In addition, the contents of government reports providing plenty of details were leaked to IntelligenceOnline, a French newsletter of some repute. The British press picked it up, as did the American and Canadian media, and the allegations were treated seriously, although the resulting news stories were generously salted with quotes from Israeli spokesmen and US government officials denying the whole thing. In the general hubbub, Alexander Cockburn, the idiosyncratic leftie columnist for The Nation, and editor of Counterpunch, remarked on the story in his regular piece for the New York Press:
"There are a number of stories sloshing around the news now that have raised discussion of Israel and of the posture of American Jews to an acrid level. The purveyor of anthrax may have been a former government scientist of Jewish ethnic extraction with a record of baiting a colleague of Arab origins, acting with the intent to blame the anthrax on Muslim terrorists. Rocketing around the Web and spilling into the press are many stories about Israeli spies in America at the time of 9/11. On various accounts of unknown reliability, they were trailing Atta and his associates, knew what was going to happen but did nothing or were simply spying on U.S. facilities. Some posing as art students have been expelled, according to the AP. Finally, there's Sharon's bloody repression of the Palestinians, and Israel's apparently powerful role in Bush's foreign policy."
This created a certain amount of ire in at least one of Cockburn's readers, who wrote in demanding that he acknowledge the Israeli spy ring story had been "discredited." Nonsense, replied Cockburn, citing not only my own reporting, but the work of reporter John Sugg of the Atlanta-based Creative Loafing alternative weekly chain, and Jane's Intelligence Digest. (He might also have mentioned Carl Cameron's four-part series on Fox News, altogether the single most comprehensive overview of Israel's secret war, and LeMonde, as well as Insight, the magazine supplement of the Washington Times.) Jane's put it well, acidly remarking in a March 15 dispatch:
"It is rather strange that the US media, with one notable exception, seems to be ignoring what may well prove to be the most explosive story since the 11 September attacks - the alleged break-up of a major Israeli espionage operation in the United States which aimed to infiltrate both the justice and defence departments and which may also have been tracking Al-Qaeda terrorists before the aircraft hijackings took place."
JUST AN ORDINARY DAY
Well, it is strange, yes, but in another sense the burying of this story is perfectly ordinary: Today the Israelis are rampaging through Ramallah – but yesterday they were breaking into US government facilities, including military bases, FBI offices, DEA offices, and other law enforcement agencies, going so far as to conduct surveillance activities on US government officials in their homes. I see a pattern here. The IDF didn't let the media into Jenin, where many witnesses claim a massacre took place, and, in that same vein, Israel's amen corner in the US is attempting a similar cover-up of the spy ring story – with much more success, at least so far.
Buchanan's prediction that the Israeli spy story would resurface in a big way has yet to be confirmed, and may just be wishful thinking. But this doesn't satisfy the amen corner: any mention of what they regard as a forbidden subject must be punished if it can't be safely ignored, and Frank Foer of The New Republic figured he was the man for the job. Cockburn, in one of his on-the-road columns, describes his interrogation by Foer:
"I head off down the road from Greenville, SC, toward Birmingham, AL, and my cellphone rings. It's a fellow from The New Republic called Frank something or other, who is eager to quiz me about some recent remarks of mine about the Internet being awash with anti-Israeli material. Amid the crackle and hiss of the ether and the roar of the interstate it's hard to hear Frank through the no-hands speaker on my dashboard, but eventually I catch his purpose, and ask him flatly, in more-or-less these words, 'Frank, is your purpose to accuse me of disseminating anti-Semitic libels, under the guise of relaying rumors on the Internet?' Frank allows jovially that this is indeed his intent. I tell him that in my opinion the stories about Israeli spies, as categorized in a DEA report [actually, an inter-agency report – ed.] discussed on Fox News, by the French site Intelligence Online and various other news sources including the British Jane's, are legitimate topics of comment, as are the stories about anthrax dissemination involving an anti-Arab researcher."
Oh, but it is not for Cockburn to decide on the legitimacy or non-legitimacy of a news story. That privilege is reserved for the self-appointed gate-keepers at The New Republic, and a very few others. Here in the Gitmo of the intellectuals, Foer is the inquisitor, and Cockburn the detainee:
"We go back and forth on such issues until the static gets too bad. Later I retrieve a magnanimous message from Frank saying that he is conferring with associates about whether to deal with me in The New Republic. So I assume that at some point Cockburn will be stigmatized yet again as the purveyor of anti-Semitic filth. It's all pretty predictable."
Predictable – but surprisingly incompetent.
CHARACTER ASSASSINATION A LOST ART
Foer's article, "The Devil You Know" (a witless play on Cockburn's "Beat the Devil" column for The Nation) is incredibly – shockingly – shoddy, as hit pieces go. He starts out by noting that "Alexander Cockburn isn't a big fan of Israel" – and it's downhill from there, since that's about the only fact he gets right (and the only one that means anything to Foer). He casually characterizes Cockburn's views on Israel as comparable to those found in the pages of the Final Call, the Black Muslim newspaper, or nameless "Arabic language newspapers." Huh? The connection Foer makes between Cockburn and Louis Farrakhan is inexplicably murky – unless one believes that anyone who quotes Jude Wanniski is, by some mysterious process of transference, a Black Muslim sympathizer. Talk about "conspiracy theories" – this one is a doozy!
Foer also makes the astonishing claim that one would have to search far and wide to "find writers who can match Cockburn's level of virulence" on the question of Israel – although no examples of Cockburn's vitriol are cited. It is clear, from the start, that we are dealing here with an intellectual hooligan: this is not an argument, but the literary equivalent of a whack across the head with a steel bar. Such methods disdain the rules of evidence, and ordinary fair play: they are the methods of fanatics and professional character assassins.
Foer admits that Cockburn has denounced expressions of anti-Semitism in the past, but that doesn't matter to someone who equates strong criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews. He largely ignores most of the content of the column in question: Cockburn's remarks on the Richard Nixon-Billy Graham tapes, recently released, wherein the two were confiding a mutual belief in a "Jewish stranglehold" over the media. These moguls, Nixon and Graham agreed, were lefty peaceniks who, the President added, were "an irreligious, atheistic, immoral bunch of bastards." It is clear, from the context, where the sympathies of the lefty peacenik Cockburn lie, but Foer is suspicious: after all, why does Cockburn mention that
"Three of the prime founders of Hollywood, were Polish Jews who grew up within fifty miles of each other in Galicia"?
GETTING OUT THE KNIVES
Foer doesn't bother with whether or not this statement is true. It is enough that Cockburn mentions it: more than ample provocation for Foer to whip out his switchblade and go for the jugular. Citing the paragraph quoted above, wherein Cockburn brings up the Israeli spy story and the anthrax conundrum, he writes:
"To be fair, Cockburn doesn't exactly endorse these theories. … Indeed, when I reached Cockburn to ask him about these conspiracies, he insisted he was just reporting what was already in circulation. 'I don't think I said they are true. I don't know there's enough exterior evidence to determine whether they are true or not.'"
So here is poor Cockburn being hectored, trying to get this guy off the phone – he's on vacation, fer chrissake, and here he is being pursued down the highway by this disembodied bore. Cockburn is not even signing on to any of the particular stories he cites, he is merely averring that they merit further inquiry. But this first principle of reason is precisely what enrages his fanatic interlocutor:
"But, of course, that last sentence is the giveaway. There most certainly is enough exterior evidence to determine whether the stories are true or not. The answer is that they are not. They are wild rumors circulating, if at all, in some of the least credible corners of the Internet. No respectable media outlet has given these stories credence. Merely by stating that these ideas are in circulation, merely by saying it's impossible to judge their veracity, Cockburn confers these ideas with legitimacy."
"Some of the least credible corners of the Internet" – well, he can't mean Fox News, or LeMonde, and writers for TNR have been known to cite the Jane's Intelligence outfit as a credible source. Gee, let's see, who else covered this story?
Since Cockburn cited Antiwar.com, and this column specifically, in his reply to prior criticism, perhaps we can boast of having been indirectly attacked by The New Republic – a magazine with an unbroken record of warmongering that extends all the way back to World War I. If so, then I can only say I'm humbled – really in awe. This is truly a badge of honor, to be worn only on special occasions.
If not, we can always hope that, some day, we'll undergo what is the equivalent, in the antiwar movement, of being knighted. If we are ever so lucky as to have baseless slurs flung at us in the pages of TNR, however, I can only hope they are more competently executed than those directed at Cockburn.
Foer's problem is that he can't seem to get the knack of making a decent slime-ball, so that when he flings it, it decomposes in mid-air. "The giveaway," as Foer would put it, is when we examine his laughably shoddy research methods. He writes:
"Consider, for example, the story about the mad Jew scientists out to ruin the Muslims. I searched for it on the Lexis-Nexis news database but came up with nothing--not one single mention of the story in a mainstream news outlet."
Lexis-Nexis my a**! Someone ought to ask Marty Peretz why he's paying hundreds of dollars per month for a database Foer doesn't know how to use properly anyway. Besides, all Foer had to do was go over to Google.com – for free! – type in the names of the principals, and – voila!
We come up with no less than four rather lengthy and detailed stories in the "mainstream" media on the systematic harassment of one Dr. Ayaad Assaad, a former Fort Detrick scientist, who was driven out of his job by people whose hatred of Arabs seemed to verge on the psychotic. The Hartford Courant ran two long stories: one frightening report on how many samples of deadly anthrax and other bio-terror toxins had gone missing from the Army's Ft. Detrick facility, and another on the horrific and vicious campaign against Dr. Assaad – the connecting tissue being another Ft. Detrick scientist, Dr. Philip Zack, who was videotaped going into the lab at night after hours, and was at the center of the anti-Assaad clique. To give you the flavor of the atmosphere at the Ft. Detrick lab, here is a snippet of the story:"Assaad said he was working on the Saturday before Easter 1991, just after the Persian Gulf War had ended, when he discovered an eight-page poem in his mailbox. The poem, which became a court exhibit, is 47 stanzas – 235 lines in all, many of them lewd, mocking Assaad. The poem also refers to another creation of the scientists who wrote it – a rubber camel outfitted with all manner of sexually explicit appendages.
"The poem reads: 'In [Assaad's] honor we created this beast; it represents life lower than yeast.' The camel, it notes, each week will be given 'to who did the least.'
"The poem also doubles as an ode to each of the participants who adorned the camel, who number at least six and referred to themselves as 'the camel club.' Two – Dr. Philip M. Zack and Dr. Marian K. Rippy – voluntarily left Fort Detrick soon after Assaad brought the poem to the attention of supervisors."
Gee, sounds like some of those people at the Israel First rally the other day in Washington, who booed Paul Wolfowitz when he referred to "the suffering of the Palestinians."
At any rate, the shocking story of Dr. Assaad's ordeal was published in the Seattle Times [December 19, 2001], as well as the Courant – is that "mainstream" enough for Foer?
IS NOTHING SACRED?
I will not , here, go into the details of the anthrax investigation, and connect it to Dr. Assaad's ordeal, having done that on several occasions already. I will only ask how Foer also missed the complete account posted on Salon.com, in a story dated January 26, 2002. Not to mention the Philadelphia Inquirer story, dated February 28, 2002, with a headline that perfectly sums up where we are on the question of the anthrax killer's true identity: "Anthrax Tip May Yet Help: A letter blamed a scientist. Now a theory is an anonymous accuser is to blame." *Sigh* Aren't there any standards left – not even for hit pieces?
Foer also blithely ignores major media coverage of the Israeli spy story: Fox News, after all, is hardly one of "the least credible corners of the Internet." Don't they have researchers at a big outfit like The New Republic? It's pathetic, really, and a bit embarrassing for this upstart internet journalist – whose corner of the Internet hardly measures up to Foer's lofty professional standards – to have to point out an elementary lesson from Journalism 101: try doing some research!
As Matt Welch, or Ken Layne, or perhaps another of those smart-ass blogger-kids once put it: "This is the internet, and we can fact-check your ass!"
WHO GIVES A SH*T?
Okay, so who gives a sh*t what Frankie Foer thinks, insofar as he thinks at all? I mean, why bother refuting this proven liar who can't even get his facts straight? There is, after all, something comical, almost endearing in Foer's amateurish smear-job: he is like a lazy schoolboy who hasn't quite done his homework and yet is trying to brazen it out, confident that he can bamboozle his teacher – and, still, he winds up with a failing grade.
But to write him off as a naughty schoolboy, and not a very bright one at that, is to miss the point, which is, in Foer's words:
"Cockburn's column goes way beyond legitimate criticism of Israel. It's akin to the rantings of pitchfork Pat Buchanan, whose anti-Semitism The Nation has condemned. So you would expect the magazine to take a tough stance on the anti-Semitism in its own backyard. But when I asked The Nation's editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, about Cockburn, she could only lamely distance herself from the piece: 'This didn't appear in The Nation. I don't read CounterPunch.... It's been our experience that we've had differences with our writers. It's a strength of the magazine that it accommodates a range of perspectives.' True enough. But there are some perspectives that shouldn't be accommodated."
What Foer is after is that Cockburn should be shunned, ostracized from polite society, and relegated to a kind of ideological and literary Coventry. The Nation, he hopes, will fire Cockburn and deprive him of a platform: why, how dare he agree with Buchanan on anything! "There are some perspectives that shouldn't be accommodated" – especially any view suggesting that Israel takes billions in "foreign aid" with one hand, and stabs us in the back with the other. And please don't bother Foer with the facts: there are some truths that shouldn't be accommodated. That is really the task of our self-appointed Thought Police: to make sure inconvenient truths don't get out.
But such policing is really impossible, especially in the age of the internet. The idea that Cockburn, or Antiwar.com, can be stopped or discredited by such an obvious ploy – particularly one authored by such a self-interested and careless would-be debunker – is soooo old media, and so over. Foer winds up looking like a pretentious fool rather than a serious threat either to Cockburn or the spirit of free inquiry.
However, Foer and his editors aren't complete idiots: they know that one little slime-ball isn't going to make a whole lot of mess. But many slime-balls, volleys of them launched in unison at selected targets, are bound to smear a lot of dirt around – and some of it is bound to stick. What Foer and his careless editors are counting on is the power of intimidation. The only effective defense is to respond immediately – and fact-check them within an inch of their lives.
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