I learned firsthand about the realities of executive branch power 40 years ago, when I discovered that a handful of U.S. executive leaders from both political parties, liberals and conservatives, had secretly destroyed the 700-year-old Plain of Jars civilization in northern Laos without congressional or public knowledge, let alone consent.
The Executive and Congress: Craven Fear
I learned then that one key to executive power is its secrecy and deception. As described in an earlier piece, executive officials did not inform Congress it was bombing Laos, as Senator J. William Fulbright stated in the fall of 1969. Even after the refugees from U.S. bombing had been brought to the capital city of Vientiane in September 1969 (each said their villages had been partially or completely destroyed, and I had photographed dozens who had been blinded, burned by napalm, and lost arms and legs), U.S. Executive Branch officials still lied to legislators by denying they had bombed civilian targets.
Back in D.C. on April 22, 1971, I saw an executive branch representative, former U.S. Ambassador William Sullivan, look directly into the eyes of a legislator, Senator Edward Kennedy, and lie to his face, saying, “It was the policy not to bomb civilian targets in Laos.”
I knew Kennedy knew he was being lied to. He had issued a report six months earlier saying that, “the United States has undertaken a large-scale air war over Laos to destroy the physical and social infrastructure in Pathet Lao-held areas. The bombing has taken and is taking a heavy toll among civilians.”
In the fictional democracy many pundits think we still live in, Kennedy would have sworn Sullivan in and indicted him for perjury for lying to Congress.
But even 40 years ago, one of the Senate’s most powerful legislators did not dare seriously challenge what he knew was unaccountable executive mass murder. The killing of civilians in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam continued for two more years until it was finally halted.
This craven congressional fear of the Executive is another key to its power. I first observed this in 1967, when I accompanied my congressman, Lester Woolf, along with Congressman Rex McCarthy, on a visit to Sam Thong. It was portrayed in the press as a center for refugees fleeing communism, but actually was a camp for dependents of Hmong soldiers fighting in the CIA’s secret army.
We flew up in a large C130 plane carrying rice. But as we approached Sam Thong we were told the runway was too muddy for the heavy plane, and that we would be landing at an “auxiliary landing strip” to Sam Thong. After we arrived, I followed an embassy official who had flown up with us over to a dour Pop Buell, the USAID official in charge of Sam Thong, who stood stockstill with his arms crossed. When we reached him he said to the embassy man out of the corner of his mouth, “Do they know anything?” The official replied, “Don’t worry, Pop. [Deputy Chief of Mission] Hurwich gave them a beautiful snow job, complete with maps. They were very impressed.”
I wondered about this exchange, but soon found myself in a meeting where the Hmong General Vang Pao delivered an impassioned speech about how his people were fighting for freedom against the communists and requested more military aid from Congress. My liberal Democratic congressman earnestly pledged he would do his best to see he got it.
That night I found myself sharing a trailer with Congressman Wolff in the nearby town of Vang Vieng. I was new to Laos at that point, but had already heard the stories about how Vang Pao was a savage warlord who carelessly shot prisoners in public or threw them into pits where they slowly starved to death; a dictator entirely opposed to the democracy he claimed to be fighting for. As I began to tell Wolff what I had heard, he nervously interrupted me and burst out, with genuine fear in his voice, that I needed to understand that he had been elected on Lyndon Johnson’s coattails in 1964 and that nobody crossed Lyndon Johnson! He was not interested in learning anything more about Laos.
It was only some months later I learned the true significance of our trip. The “auxiliary landing strip” we had landed at was actually part of the giant Long Cheng airbase, the center of CIA military operations for northern Laos. The U.S. executive branch had been waging a full-scale war on the ground as well as from the air, including building this giant military base, while keeping it secret even from a congressman who had landed there.
Four years later I visited Congressman Wolff at his office in Washington, D.C. as I was lobbying members to try to stop the ongoing bombing. After a few minutes, Wolff interrupted me, and to my amazement, sat down beside me and began whispering in my ear that I had to understand there was a real danger of a military coup and that there was nothing Congress could or should do about the bombing. I had no idea what to make of this, including whether he was sane. But of one thing I was sure: there was genuine fear in his voice, just as there was that night in Vang Vieng four years earlier.
The Executive and the Media: Careerism
I also learned firsthand of the overall collusion between the executive and mass media when working as a translator and fixer for top journalists visiting Laos for a week or so. I worked closely with journalists from CBS, ABC, NBC, the New York Times, Time magazine, the Jack Anderson column and others.
My most revealing experiences were with ABC’s Ted Koppel and CBS’ Bernie Kalb. I took both out to the refugee camps, and was even interviewed about the bombing by Kalb on camera for a CBS documentary. I particularly liked Koppel, a decent, caring guy who choked up when hearing from the refugees what they had suffered from Henry Kissinger’s bombing. Both men saw closeup the crimes against humanity that Kissinger had committed against these innocent people.
Some years later I had lunch with Ted Koppel at the State Department, where he was the ABC correspondent covering Mr. Kissinger. A fawning biography of Kissinger had just been published by Bernie Kalb and his brother Marvin that did not even mention the bombing of Laos. Everyone I knew was disgusted by them. As Ted and I had lunch, I said something like “Can you believe that garbage by the Kalb brothers?” To my surprise, Ted immediately stiffened, and said “I’ll have you know that Marvin Kalb is a close personal friend of mine. And so is Dr. Kissinger, for that matter!”
Shocked, I tried to remind him of Kissinger’s war crimes he had personally witnessed just a few years earlier. He refused to discuss it.
On October 22, 2004, the New York Times published an article titled, “In Calls To Kissinger, Reporters Show That Even They Fell Under Super-K’s Spell,” about 3,200 transcripts of phone conversations between journalists and Kissinger. Ted Koppel was one of those expressing what the Times called his “chumminess” with Mr. Kissinger. “It has been an extraordinary three years for me, and I have enjoyed it immensely. You are an intriguing man, and if I had a teacher like you earlier I might not have been so cynical,” Koppel said. “You have been a good friend,” Kissinger replied. Koppel ended by saying, “We are lucky to have had you.”
When interviewed for the story, Koppel told it like it was. “Am I shocked by the notion that people were sucking up to a very powerful official they relied on for information? Frankly, no.” David Binder, a reporter for 43 years with the New York Times, was even more to the point: “The negative is that if you become too close to a guy you’re covering, you become his spokesman.”
As I wrote at the time, “It is not difficult to understand why reporters ‘suck up’ to powerful officials. Reporters and officials are not merely flattering each other for the fun of it. They are trading information, the oil of Washington, a commodity which brings careers, money, Pulitzers, influence and fame to reporters, and political support to government officials to exercise the power they so enjoy. Information is literally power: the power to kill, the power to heal, the power to become rich. For all of the surface camaraderie and talk of ‘friendship.’ it is a deadly serious business.”
I recently saw an interview where Ted Koppel mentioned discussing he wiretapped conversations with his daughter Andrea Koppel, a CNN correspondent. I perked up my ears. Would Ted or his daughter be embarrassed that he had been caught sucking up to Kissinger? He chuckled as he explained that Andrea had been terribly impressed that he had had such access to Kissinger, apparently far more than she had to Secretary Clinton.
In Laos, I learned firsthand how big-time journalism works in America. The heart of the journalists’ reporting was invariably based on interviews with U.S. embassy, CIA, USAID and USIS officials. And the basic story line was invariably the same: the U.S. was in Laos to protect it from a North Vietnamese invasion; the U.S. was generously supporting Hmong refugees fleeing from communism; the U.S. was only bombing North Vietnamese soldiers who were trying to “take over” Laos.
It was never reported that the U.S. was using northern Laos as a base to attack North Vietnam, that the North Vietnamese had no interest in conquering Laos because they were focused on Vietnam, and that at least until February 1971 when I left Laos, there were no more than a few thousand North Vietnamese troops in northern Laos. I thought this critical since it was a fictional “North Vietnamese invasion” of northern Laos that was being used to justify the savage bombing of civilian targets there that so upset me.
At one point in 1970 I set up an interview between Time magazine’s David Greenway and the U.S. military attaché, who let slip that there were no more than a few thousand North Vienamese troops fighting in northern Laos. David found other confirming evidence for this figure, and told me he had filed a story with his home office reporting this. But when I went to buy a copy of Time some weeks later, I read that 50,000 North Vietnamese troops had launched a massive invasion of Laos, complete with large red arrows.
On another occasion I was working with the New York Times’ Sydney Schanberg and we went with 15 other journalists on a press junket to the Sam Thong refugee center. Around 5pm, as we were waiting for the plane to take us back to Vientiane, it was discovered that three of our number – T.D. Allman of Time, Max Coiffait of Agence France Presse, and John Saar of Life – had taken an unauthorized stroll over to the top-secret Long Cheng airbase which no outsider had yet seen. All of a sudden, Pop Buell came running our way, furious, cursing a blue streak at the “bastards” who had broken the rules.
I was friendly with Allman, concerned for his safety (it was later reported that Vang Pao had wanted to shoot them) and delighted that these courageous journalists had defied executive branch secrecy and scored a major scoop. But the 10 or so journalists waiting at the airstrip had a very different reaction. They were furious at their journalistic colleagues! The ABC News correspondent was in a rage, looking at his watch and complaining this “stunt” would delay his much more important film getting to Hong Kong.
All gathered around Pop Buell, trying to placate him. And then one had a brilliant idea. We would all sign a petition to go to the American embassy denouncing the errant three! I strongly objected, and had a bruiser from a British newspaper shaking a fist in my face threatening to punch my lights out.
The Real Key to Understanding Executive-Media Collusion
But even this information trading for mutual career-building is not the key to understanding how the mass media has become a conduit for executive branch power.
My deepest understanding of how executive branch power affects even decent human beings and journalists has come from observing the career of Time magazine columnist Joe Klein. I first met Joe in 1975 when he came to California to write a long story for Rolling Stone on the primary race between John Tunney and Tom Hayden, with whom I was working as director of research. Joe and I were on the same wavelength. I found him smart, decent and fun, and we agreed on everything from the Vietnam war, to the phoniness of liberals like Tunney, to the evils of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. We spent hours together, enjoying each other’s company, and I was not surprised to learn he was an admirer of Woody Guthrie, about whom he later wrote a biography. We kept in touch off and on after that, a kind of “Washington friendship,” always hitting it off whenever we met.
And then Joe Klein wrote Primary Colors. After America spent months guessing who its “Anonymous” author was, he became famous, prosperous and a columnist for Time magazine. Although he remained mildly liberal on domestic issues, I was struck by how he suddenly began reflecting executive branch views on foreign policy. He bragged of his close friendship with the State Department’s Richard Holbrooke, reporting that Holbrooke had given Joe’s son his first job at the U.N., and then mentored his son’s career at the State Department. Joe, the journalist, was proud of his friendship with executive branch official Holbrooke, “an extraordinary mentor and an even better friend,” and praised him to the sky in his columns.
And then there was Joe’s reporting on David Petraeus, a government artiste on a par with Kissinger who became not only a valued source but a “friend” to the major journalists who covered him. As I was writing about how Petraeus had savagely and pointlessly escalated the war in Afghanistan, I came across a Joe Klein column titled “David Petraeus’ Brilliant Career,” in which his readers learned that “the general’s most important legacy may lie in the role he has played in transforming the Army from a blunt instrument into a ‘learning institution.'”
But of all the columns Joe Klein wrote, the one that struck me the most occurred after the Wikileaks revelations. “Greetings from Afghanistan. I am tremendously concerned about the puerile eruptions of Julian Assange,” Joe wrote. “If a single foreign national is rounded up and put in jail because of a leaked cable, this entire, anarchic exercise in ‘freedom’ stands as a human disaster. Assange is a criminal. He’s the one who should be in jail.”
Not a word of concern about the “Collateral Damage” video, the revelations that U.S. soldiers had been knowingly turning over captured suspects to be tortured and killed by the Iraqi police, no interest in or concern about the revelations of war crimes. Thousands of actual U.S.-caused deaths ignored, outrage at one imagined death of a U.S. ally.
Knowing Joe as I did, I felt it was clear what had happened. His writings for the Boston Phoenix and Rolling Stone and book on Woody Guthrie grew out of his originally decent value system and concern for the non-powerful. But then he became famous and rich, got a commentator gig on CNN, was invited to fancy conferences, became an ornament of the dinner tables of the famous and powerful. And slowly, bit by bit, without even fully realizing it, he began to see things as they did, just as in Animal Farm. The Joe Klein I knew in 1975 would have automatically identified with Julian Assange. The Joe Klein of today calls for his arrest.
This story is for me the key to understanding how executive branch power has corrupted the mass media, which overall suppresses more than promotes democracy. The executive does not have to tell mass media journalists what to write. It just absorbs them.
Fred Branfman‘s writing has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Harper’s, and many other publications. He is the author of Voices From the Plain of Jars, and can be reached at email@example.com.