Damage Control


Sometimes the smallest word repetition can create mischief, as with the following back-to-back sentences from the front page of Friday’s New York Times, early editions:

“Mr. Clinton returned to the White House this afternoon from his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, where he was trying to repair family relations damaged by his admission on Monday of an intimate relationship with a White House intern.

Pentagon officials said they had no immediate estimate of damage or casualties.”

Soon, however, the Times came to share Clinton’s presumed position, i.e., it’s none of the Pentagon’s goddamned business what he’s done to his family. The second sentence did not appear in the paper’s later editions.

Goodbye to Mutawakil

Even without the embarrassing juxtapositions, the Times seemed baffled by the newsmorph from intern bombshell to international bombings. Alone among major U.S. dailies last Thursday, the Times tried to convince readers that the fundamentalist Taliban leadership of Afghanistan was about to negotiate with the Clinton administration for the extradition of Osama bin Laden, the man the U.S. blames for the embassy bombings in Africa.

“In Afghanistan, a high-ranking official of the Taliban opened the door today to such discussions,” read the second sentence of the front-page story by Timesmen Steven Erlanger, James Risen, and Tim Weiner. The official in question was Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil, whom the Times described as “the spokesman for the Taliban and the second-highest ranking official of their Supreme Council.”

Mutawakil, who had never been quoted in the Times before, told the paper: “If you call someone a terrorist, you must have proof. If there is proof, we will certainly sit down and talk to the U.S.”

Every other major American paper that day published a diametrically opposed account. The Washington Post, for example, wrote: “[L]eaders of the Taliban movement said today that the Taliban is satisfied bin Laden was not behind the embassy bombings — and that it would not hand him over to another country even if he were involved.”

Times editors were so pleased with their Taliban “scoop” that they made Mutawakil’s pronouncement the “Quotation of the Day” and sent the story out to be picked up on wire services.

The problem, of course, is that before most readers got to this give-negotiations-a-chance story, the U.S. government had already made the decision to send cruise missiles into territory controlled by the Taliban — thus making any attempt at negotiating extradition a surefire bomb. Not surprisingly, Mutawakil has disappeared from the pages of the Times.

Does this mean that the administration tricked the Times into believing that serious extradition talks, rather than force, were its uppermost strategy? After all, the paper had enough confidence to make the A1 headline: “U.S. Seeks a Way to Draw Suspect From Afghanistan.” The interview with Mutawakil was conducted by Risen; he did not return a message left at the Times‘s Washington bureau.

Sleeping With The Enemy

Did bin Laden, our newest Enemy Number One, once polish his terror resume with the aid of the U.S. taxpayer? Were the Afghanistan camps hit last week actually built by the CIA?

You could find as many answers to these thorny questions as you wanted last week, depending on whom you listened to and when you asked. Not only did the media accounts contradict one another, but in some cases — notably, again, the Times — media outfits contradicted themselves.

The most prominent journalist making the charge that bin Laden is to a large extent “one of ours” is Robert Fisk of London’s Independent. Fisk is assumed to have some authority on the topic because he interviewed bin Laden at one of his camps in Afghanistan in 1997.

In a Friday morning National Public Radio interview, Fisk charged: “Most of the big camps — and they were all, in that area, built by the CIA with British assistance — would have been set up in 1982, ’83, with the specific purpose of training the very same guerrillas they are now firing at to [shoot and attack] Soviet forces.”

Morning Edition host Bob Edwards asked: “So if the U.S. built them, it wouldn’t have too much trouble finding where they are to target them?” Fisk replied: “No, they were shooting last night at what they had themselves constructed. They set the camps up, they were firing missiles at the camps that they set up, that’s correct.”

An inquisitive U.S. media would presumably want to explore that notion. But the American press steps very gingerly around the question of CIA culpability. Every detail of the Agency’s potential involvement is scrutinized much more rigorously than, say, the evidence of bin Laden’s hand in a dozen bombings over the last decade, routinely printed as though it is demonstrated fact.

Asked on Friday about the extent of CIA involvement, Times reporter Tim Weiner said Fisk is simply wrong. Weiner, who traveled with bands of mujahideen in Afghanistan in the ’80s, insisted in a Voice interview that the CIA did not physically set up the camps. “CIA officers very, very rarely entered into Afghanistan,” preferring instead, Weiner said, to conduct their covert operation from inside Pakistan.

“The CIA paid for the camps, and trained the people who trained the troops in the camps, but they did not set them up,” Weiner told the Voice, insisting that this was a distinction worth maintaining. (Fisk did not answer at the number provided by the Independent’s foreign desk.)

Weiner had been even more cautious in his vague Friday Times story, saying only, “A decade ago the United States saw Mr. bin Laden as an ally in a noble cause. He was involved with the American-backed Afghan rebels who fought off Soviet invaders in the 1980s.” Nowhere did Friday’s Times make any connection between the U.S. government and the camps it now labels “terror universities.”

By Sunday, however, the Times let the notion of U.S. responsibility for the camps slip into its coverage, albeit through the mouth of a source, rather than a reporter. Sunday’s Times quoted Fazal ur-Rehman Khalil, a representative of one of the camps that had been bombed, who argued that “his camp and others go back to the war fought in the 1980s against Soviet troops in Afghanistan and the Afghan Government they backed. ‘Americans themselves built the camps for the purpose of war, and now we use the buildings as education and welfare centers,’ Mr. Khalil said.” The Times story quoted no one to cast doubt on this minihistory.

Meanwhile, a massive Sunday Washington Post story pulled in the opposite direction. Yes, the Post said on Sunday, “the CIA knew of bin Laden during the [Afghan] war but had no relationship with him.” In the Post account of how the camps now associated with bin Laden came into being, there is no mention of the U.S. or the CIA.

By Monday, Weiner’s Times work reflected a near-complete conversion to Fisk’s position. The sixth paragraph of Weiner’s front-page story said: “The C.I.A.’s military and financial support for the Afghan rebels indirectly helped build the camps that the United States attacked. And some of the same warriors who fought the Soviets with the C.I.A.’s help are now fighting under Mr. bin Laden’s banner.”

If anything, Weiner now appears more certain about the U.S. role in building the so-called terror camps than he does about bin Laden’s. His final paragraph reads: “It is unclear whether Mr. bin Laden… personally helped build the Khost camps during the war against the Soviets, or has substantially upgraded them since returning to the mountains of Afghanistan.”

Leaving Your Mother

The editor of Mother Jones has announced his resignation, following several disputes with the board of directors over the magazine’s content. In mid August, Jeffrey Klein told the board that he would not be renewing his contract when it comes up for renewal in February 1999. His surprise declaration comes just days after a favorable New York Times item gave Klein credit for revamping the magazine and winning back at least some readers the magazine lost in the mid ’90s. (Disclosure: the current issue of MoJo contains a question-and-answer session I conducted with Stephen Brill.)

“It’s been a terrific run,” Klein told the Voice. “I am proud of the work that everyone did, and I wish my successor well.”

Behind this friendly facade, however, MoJo sources told the Voice that the magazine’s board frequently criticized Klein’s choices, especially during the last year. Klein, a MoJo founding editor who rejoined the magazine in ’92, enjoyed using his position to challenge or tweak conventional left positions. One recent piece, for example, suggested that the left should favor limits on immigration in order to boost wages. Several sources say the board — and especially longtime MoJo underwriter Adam Hochschild — preferred staying within traditional confines of left-wing advocacy.

Last year, for example, when Mother Jones ran a cover package on American spirituality, several board members expressed “really intense and prolonged” objections, according to a person who attended the board meeting. Board member and former labor leader Victor Gotbaum, for example, is said to have pounded the table and said: “My mother buried several of her children and said ‘Fuck You’ to God.”

Gotbaum did not return messages seeking comment left at his Manhattan residence.

No Klein successor has yet been named. A MoJo source says, “We’re not even at the rumor stage yet.”