Who's to Blame?

I am more than a little amazed at the glaring omission in the press and pundits arguments about the Shirley Sherrod embroglio. First, it seemed to be black-on-white racism by a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee. Sherrod, the employee involved, was summarily fired (that is, resigned—jumped, fell, or was pushed as they say in Central Europe). Then, a more complete transcript revealed a story of inner doubts and hostilities that were transcended when a conflicted black woman rose to the task of helping a white family keep their farm (and which the family involved confirmed). Furthermore, the story was from a quarter century earlier.


Then, Andrew Breitbart, the blogger who had released the story, was attacked as one of many right-wing commentators attacking the left … perhaps as part of a racist campaign. It didn’t help Breitbart’s “case” that he angrily brushed aside questions about his motives and competence.

The counter battle lines were imediately drawn. The right lingered on the Obama administration’s rush to judgment, which bespoke amateurism and lashing out in fear to something barely more than a rumor. One blogger called them, “The Obama gang that couldn’t shoot straight.”

No one, except the Sherrod pawn, was blameless. In hindsight, the Obama administration should have moved at a more prudent pace when a story began building in the news. Even moreso, Andrew Breitbart should have checked a video recording that came in the mail … with no return address. As Bob Schieffer of CBS scolded, the Fox News Network should have checked the story.

Well, yes on all counts; however all of those individuals and entities were arguably doing the right thing as they saw it. One may fault their judgement, their courage to patiently wait while the story was being checked, and/or their diligence in performing their activities; but they were not obviously operating with evil intent.

Why are we trashing Obama and Breitbart? They were doing their best. Meanwhile, there would appear to be a sinister presence (a “Moriarity” in Connan Doyle’s detective stories) somewhere in the background, well thought of or even unknown but practicing evil. Obviously, a party or an organization who with malice and forethought, committed the tactical slander against Shirley Sherrod and (by extension) the entire Obama administration. Moreover, it was an easily refutable slander, so it would eventually explode in the face of Breitbart who mindlessly embraced it and sent it out into the world—with his name affixed to the slander. That was an attack on the rightwing media. Thus, as a double hit, it was an attack on both, an attack on the entire American media.

This is “black propaganda”—black as in attack stories spread in the night. Examples abound in history. Libelles in pre-revolutionary France lied about Marie Antoinette saying, “Let them eat cake.” In India of the 1840s, a story spread that the bullets of the British colonial army were coated with cow and pig tallow, which offended both Moslems and Hindus. That led to to the Sepoy Rebellion. Not to be outdone, the British spread the story of “the black hole of Calcutta” where hundreds of European prisoners in the Sepoy Rebellion were jammed so tightly together in a hot prison cell that the dead could not even fall to the floor … and all the poor blighters perished by morning … or not.

The classic black propaganda was in Black Lake, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). In 1964, divers filming a documentary in the lake stumbled across sunken chests of German Nazi documents from World War II. The documents contained extensive lists of individuals who had supposedly collaborated with the Nazis, and many of the named individuals had become prominent in European business and government. However, the chests did not really contain 1945 vintage Nazi documents; they were forgeries assembled by spy agencies throughout Eastern Europe and planted in the lake in Operation Neptune. The only stumbling was that the Soviet forgeries were so late it almost ruined the operation.

A more recent, and eerie parallel, to Breitbart-Sherrod is the aborted exposé of George W. Bush’s service records. A former Texas National Guardsman, William Burkett, claimed a medical condition had been caused by a Guard deployment, and he had faulted Texas Governor Bush for not allowing him due benefits. For yours he sought to discover and document any evidence of Bush’s malfeasance. Then in 2004 (by one account), he got a call from a woman identifying herself as Lucy Ramirez. She arranged for Burkett to meet an unnamed man who provided a packet of documents. The documents appeared to be never-released efficiency reports on George W. Bush from the closing days of the Vietnam War. Per the documents, the exasperated commanding officer appeared to have written reports as almost a private journal to himself about a young politically connected airman who regularly went away without leave because he was beyond the commander’s power to discipline.

Burkett forwarded a copy to CBS jounalist Dan Rather, a jounalist carrying the mantle of Edwart R. Murrow and Walter Cronkhite. With the presidential election fast approaching, Rather’s staff made cursory checks … and took the bait. In stentorian tones Rather pronounced doom on George Bush’s career … but instead ended his own. (Apparently, Bob Schieffer was indisposed and not available to warn poor Dan.)

Within hours, the new breed of blogger jounalists and amateurs began pointing out fallacies in the documents. The most crucial issue was that the documents had proportional spacing and smaller superscripted letters for dates such as the 3rd or 21st. Such features were not generated by the manual and electric typewriters of the early 1970s. Theywere limited to professional documentation areas and only entered general availability in the laser printers and dot matrix printers of the 1980s. At best, the documents could only be transcriptions of earlier real documents, and why would someone want to retype unless they were being edited for more potent comments? More likely, they were entirely faked.

Dan Rather had much more prestige than Andrew Breitbart, so he didn’t “retire” until the following spring, but everyone knew that his retirement stemmed from what many called “memogate” or “Rathergate.”

In a mirror image of Breitbart, the right attacked the liberal media for the lie while the left attacked George Bush because they claimed that the lying documents described an historical truth.

Few wanted to even consider Bill Burkett. Most concluded that Burkett fabricated Lucy Ramirez and her confederate, as well as an alterate story that another Texas Air National Guardsman, was the source.

But, what if Lucy Ramirez were real, although undoubtedly with a with a false name? What if Lucy and friends fabricated documents and researched venues for propagating their lies? If there were such a person or persons unknown, Rathergate and the Breitbart follies have major similarities in method of operation: instead of dropping chests of documents into a lake, documents are sent to a passion-adled dupes.

The first thought is a documentation Unabomber assembling materials and researching patsies to disseminate their stories. Republicans suggested several democrat operatives; democrats suggested that Karl Rove put the black documents out with the certainty that Dan Rather would be stupid enough to believe them but others would then tear the story apart.

However, unlike a unabomb who struck almost randomly at people involved in science and government, it would be crucial to gauge just when a Dan Rather or an Andrew Breitbart would be sufficiently desparate and/or arrogant to to bite. Moreover, the target rubes would need to be at a high point of standing. Thus,both these black propaganda attacks bespeak a great deal of research time and technical sophistication.

Such a research effort would be difficult to keep in one place. Spouses quarrel and divorce, leading to reports to police or to Jerry Springer. Amateur co-conspirators quit and write tell-all memoirs. Yet, there have been no such breaches. That all suggests a government spy agency that could maintain discipline for many years.

That’s also where the mirror image applies again. The supposed targets were on opposite sides of the American political aisle. Only a hostile government could benefit from an attack on the American body politic. A scandal that worked would harm one side; a failing scandal would rebound against the other.

But, what government would it be? The Europeans are often partners with America. Russia was still recovering from major security breaches caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union (especially the so-called Varona papers). Furthermore, in the early 2000s, George Bush had looked into the eyes of Vladimir Putin and seen a good man. The Russian state would probably have considered that a potential or actual resource.

EastAsian and Islamic intelligence agencies have the hostility, but they lack understanding in detail and nuance of the American political scene. Driving airplanes into buildings is easy; finding key focal points of an alien culture is difficult. And, the details must be correct. In the 1970s a Soviet black operation in Africa that had bogus American memos talking about “wetting” people; the slang was derived from an East European official term of liquidating class enemies. The Africans were skeptical. Even moreso, Americans would catch errors in American parlance.

There is only one major government spy agency with similar culture, strong hostility, and long-term focus on the United States—Cuba. The United States conducted black operations them and even mounted an assassination attempt against their president. Turnabout might be considered fair play.

Ah, but this is a detective story. One should expect there to be twists, turns, false leads, dead ends. Worse, it is a detective story in real life, with many times the complexity dealt with by Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes.

Now, will Americans hunt for the truth … or will they merely lash out at each other while the real enemy, Moriarity, laughs at their foolishness?

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