I said a few weeks ago that the January 6 incident between U.S. and Iranian naval forces in the Strait of Hormuz might tell us more about the nature of today's news reporting than about the prospects for war and peace in the Middle East. It's now apparent that the affair was emblematic of America's post-modern Orwellian (Rovewellian) information environment.
Initial media reports of the encounter were enough to make you wish you'd salted away an extra month's worth of beef jerky in the backyard fallout shelter.
A senior military correspondent with the Associated Press said that "an Iranian fleet of boats" had "charged at and threatened to blow up a three-ship U.S. Navy convoy" transiting the Strait of Hormuz. According to the senior correspondent, Fifth Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff said in a January 7 press teleconference that the Iranian fleet "fled as American commanders were preparing to open fire."
A Rupert Murdoch newspaper reported that an unnamed "Pentagon official said that US forces were 'literally' on the verge of firing on the Iranian boats," and that another Pentagon official (or maybe the same one) said "It is the most serious provocation of this sort that we’ve seen yet."
An echo chamberlain with the Big Brother News Network squalled, "Was this a mistake not to blow these other Iranian speedboats out of the water? […] Why did we not destroy these speedboats? [...] We had an opportunity to send a message to a nation that has been needling us for 20 years."
Subsequent saner accounts revealed that the "Iranian fleet" consisted of five speedboats of the size that haul sunburned water skiers across American lakes in the summer. The official transcript of the Cosgriff press conference showed that the admiral had not said that American commanders were preparing to open fire, but that he had heard that story reported "on the news."
We discovered that the threats to blow up the U.S. ships broadcast over a VHF bridge-to-bridge radio circuit had almost certainly been part of the standard heckling from untraceable sources that American combatant vessels have heard in the Persian Gulf for more than two decades. The skipper of one of the U.S. ships involved said, “We gave them the opportunity to break off, so that we didn’t have to go the ultimate, which would have been deadly force.” That's a far cry from "preparing to open fire."
Something worth noticing happened between our Navy and the Iranians in the Gulf, all right, but it was merely an upsmanship shenanigan of the kind that has occurred in those waters many times since the Tanker War ended in 1988, and was hardly "the most serious provocation of this sort that we’ve seen yet."
So where did all the alarmist disinformation come from?
Minister of Truth
On January 15, investigative historian Gareth Porter blew the lid off the mystery of who had "disassembled" about the Hormuz incident. Bryan Whitman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, had held a separate briefing for the Pentagon press corps. Most of what he said was off the record, meaning he could not be directly quoted (when you read quotes from an "unnamed official" in a news story, it's generally propaganda that the initiators don't want traced back to their bosses). In an apparent slip up, a reporter for one major outlet revealed Whitman as the source of the "about to fire" rhetoric.
That the story of the Hormuz incident got "cooked" at the Pentagon reminds one of the Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) established under then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shortly after September 11 in order to support the war on terror through information operations, including disinformation and other forms of black propaganda. Officially, Rumsfeld shut down the OSI amid outrage over the news that it would feed false stories to the foreign press, but in a November 2002 media briefing, he made it clear that it would live on in function if not form, saying " if you want to savage this thing fine I'll give you the corpse. There's the name. You can have the name, but I'm gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done and I have."
War Is Sell
The Pentagon and the right wing media weren't the only ones who spun the Hormuz incident all across the information highway.
The military affairs fictioneer with the big online magazine generated a Chariot-of-the-Gods argument to explain why the U.S. and Iranian videotapes of the encounter were so different—they were tapes of two separate events! (The term "Chariot-of-the-Gods argument" derives from the book by Erich von Daniken that says since we can't easily explain who made all those weird giant patterns out in the desert, it must have been ancient astronauts.)
The fictioneer credited his counterpart with the blog of the newspaper that once actually guarded the Constitution from unitary executives like Richard Nixon for inspiring the "two tapes" theory. The counterpart accused the Iranians of "mendacity" without making any attempt to prove that they were actually lying about anything.
The old gray mare (she ain't what she used to be) that gave us Judith Miller and the Niger yellowcake hoax ran an article that compared the Hormuz affair to an incident that happened during a fictional 2002 war game that was mainly conducted by imaginary forces on battlefields in cyberspace in which Iranian small boats notionally sank an entire U.S. naval task force in the Persian Gulf. To make the analogy even more preposterous, in the game, the U.S. and Iran were in a state of declared conflict, which they are not in the real world despite the best efforts of Dick Cheney and his Iranian Directorate.
The same big eastern paper ran an unsolicited editorial by a Marine Corps reservist and Pentagon employee who suggested that a proper step to take against Iranian to deter small boat harassment might be to bomb two Iranian islands in the Gulf. The author is not part of a larger propaganda machine; he was simply relating his own experiences and opinions. But the fact that an opinion piece from an obscure government employee ran in the paper of record as well as other national and international news outlets gives you an idea how willing the major media are to whip Pavlov's Dogs of War into a slathering bloodlust.
The neoconservative mind control program has evolved far beyond anything the old Office of Strategic Influence could have achieved. It is as ubiquitous and dispersed as al Qaeda. It has spread past its original base of truth ministries like the ISO and the Iranian Directorate, think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, private propaganda contractors like Lincoln Group and the Rendon Group, media savvy American Caesars like General David Petraeus and unabashed media proponents of American military hegemony like William Kristol's Weekly Standard.
The neocons have successfully recruited the able services of mainstream media publishers and producers who have pillaged the truth for the sake of ever increasing plunder margins, journalists who gleefully trade their integrity for access to the halls of power, dime store strategists who write pro-war letters to editors who are eager to print them, and full time Pentagon correspondents who would more gainfully be employed as gossip columnists.
Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books) will be available April 1, 2008.