Let’s just get this out of the way: The CIA doesn’t hire working journalists. Not American ones, anyway. It stopped in 1976 after an embarrassing investigation by Sen. Frank Church (D-ID) revealed that infiltrating news teams was just one of several bad habits dating to the 1950s. But we can’t help imagining the clinking of glasses at a certain Langley, VA, office suite over last week’s provocative Time cover story, the one treating NATO’s Afghanistan war as synonymous with standing up for maimed 18-year-old beauty Bibi Aisha.
A “straightforward reported piece,” Time’s spokesman protested after an Observer investigation explored whether the shocking cover story constituted a questionable strain of advocacy journalism, compromised by bureau chief Aryn Baker’s likely profits from NATO-enabled war contracts and ties to an Afghan minister’s $100 million investment project. Last week Time‘s defense of its work as cooly objective seemed at odds with editor Richard Stengel’s concession, in an Aug. 2 interview with CBS’s Katie Couric, that the no-nose piece carried a “strong point of view.”
One team whose point of view will remain unshaken by the Bibi Aisha report are analysts for the CIA’s “Red Cell,” an office created after 9/11 by the Director of Intelligence and charged with finding “outside-the-box” solutions to problems. The group’s brainstorming sessions to shore up war support were exposed in last month’s dump of 76,000 files by WikiLeaks hacker Julian Assange.
Aryn Baker, like a number of others in the embedded press corps, shrugged off the material in the leak. Writing in Time, she contrasted the WikiLeaks files with real war reporting, calling the secret memos unreliable. “The data are raw, unfiltered and unqualified,” she wrote in a Time piece exploring reports that the Pakistan intelligence service is working against NATO, and said that on this issue, “[t]aken as a whole, they are about as useful as Googling…”
Okay. But one item that Time has left you to Google for yourself — perhaps owing to its rawness — is the March 11, 2010 memorandum from the Red Cell problem-solving group. This time the issue at hand was faltering public support of the war and the solution was promoting women’s horror stories. Subtitling their memo “Why Counting On Apathy Might Not Be Enough,” the agents warned that sending more soldiers to Afghanistan threatened to outrage the French and German publics. “Indifference might turn into active hostility,” they wrote, especially if soldiers and civilians die. The fix? Instead of using generals in desert camo as the face of the NATO mission, use oppressed Afghan women. These victims could make “ideal messengers,” the analysts wrote, “in humanizing the ISAF [NATO International Security Assistance Force] role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory.” The report also urged that these stories be pitched to TV shows with large female audiences.
After the WikiLeaks dump, the Red Cell’s phone numbers given in the memo no longer worked and the Red Cell could not be reached for comment.
The CIA’s past work with Time and other periodicals figured heavily in a 1977 Rolling Stone cover story by Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. During the Cold War, he reported, more than 400 journalists, including Time founder Henry Luce, had worked with the CIA. One senior CIA official, William B. Bader, had told senators visiting Langley in March 1976 that “there is quite an incredible spread of relationships…You don’t need to manipulate Time magazine, for example, because there are Agency people at the management level.”
“From the Agency’s perspective,” Bernstein noted, “there is nothing untoward in such relationships, and any ethical questions are a matter for the journalistic profession to resolve, not the intelligence community.” Times have changed, of course (as has Time). But as Bernstein pointed out, when incoming CIA director George H.W. Bush pulled the plug on paid relationships with journalists, Bush noted that nothing was stopping reporters from volunteering free favors to the government — and that such aid would even be “welcome.”
Attention from Time helped Aisha win a trip from a Kabul women’s shelter last Thursday to Los Angeles, where she will undergo reconstructive surgery with help from the Grossman Burn Foundation. But Time’s “point of view” story, while perhaps the most strident in connecting her mutilation to NATO’s military enemies, was no scoop. Months earlier, Aisha had told her appalling story to The Daily Beast and ABC’s Diane Sawyer. While Taliban have refused credit for the young woman’s mutilation, it turns out the group’s spokesmen freely admit that their justice system includes other human rights abuses. Mullah Dahoud, a commander, made himself available to the U.K. Times to say of one woman, convicted of adultery, that the Taliban “whipped her in front of all the local people to show them an example. Then we shot her.”