James Clapper's message for Trump

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reacts to news of a suspicious package being addressed to him at CNN in New York.

Posted: Oct 28, 2018 2:38 PM
Updated: Oct 28, 2018 2:50 PM

At the UK's Observer newspaper, there was a picture on the wall that I revered and feared, when I worked there as a young gopher in London in the late 1990s.

It was of a journalist, Farzad Bazoft, executed by Saddam Hussein in 1990 when he worked for the paper as a stringer in Iraq. He was falsely accused of being a spy for Israel.

His picture hung near the elevator, a reminder of the ultimate cost the profession could impose on you.

Since then, the climate in which we work has changed. What got you killed was where you were, and what you were doing there. Now it can be what you say or write. Partly to blame is the slow weaponization of the news.

That was something jarring in the world's war zones, but slowly something you had to acclimatize to. What's most troubling, in recent years, is to see it impact the supposed sanctuaries of free speech -- the West.

It is no longer much of a given that a journalist, like an aid worker, can be granted an immunity from the conflict around them in order that they can provide a useful social function.

There has always been a risk. Reporters in the Second World War were censored heavily, and those in Vietnam, who had more freedom to circulate around the battlefield than we have today, died in great number. But filing stories took days or even weeks: the people alongside them could not read what they were reporting on their smartphones minutes after they had filed.

Perhaps there was a role played by the second Iraq war in 2003, with the concept of embedded media -- the ability to travel with and enjoy the protection of US forces on the battlefield.

This offered improved access, often to places the media could otherwise not have gone. But it meant we were traveling with, and often sharing the perspective of, one of the combatants. There were certain things we could not see, and we had to, and did, remind viewers and readers of that. Reporters had covered wars from one side before, but this regimen was new.

As the War on Terror dragged on, journalists were less and less afforded the presumption of objectivity. In Afghanistan, slowly, the Taliban -- never huge fans of the press -- began to see embedded reporters as targets.

For a while, at the height of the Obama troop surge, some of us wore badges reading "Khabayar" -- Pashto for journalist -- on our flak jackets, hoping that would make a discerning and literate sniper realize we were not a contractor or "other government agent," and shoot elsewhere. Eventually we took them off, as we feared they were actually making us targets.

Yet as the internet sped up, so did the dangers. Most acutely, in the wars in Ukraine, the Russians began to master the use of the reporter as a weapon. RT and First Channel, were, in English and Russian respectively, powerful tools to the Kremlin.

They weaponized information. They gave Russians and Kremlin sympathizers a source of often incorrect and purposefully misleading alternative facts. They bolstered Moscow's claim that Crimea hadn't been invaded by the hordes of little green men we were all seeing, and was simply rising up. In Donetsk, nonsense on Twitter swirled around us as we saw an organized and outsider takeover of government buildings.

We rarely enjoyed a presumption of objectivity, as most of those on the separatist side of the line judged us by the Russian standard. Russian reporters were often -- with some brave exceptions -- functionaries in a state propaganda system.

It was presumed that we were the same: surprise was expressed when we reported on civilian casualties from the conflict on the separatist side. It didn't fit the "narrative" we were supposed, in their eyes, to be espousing.

Still, I was once ordered out of a van at a checkpoint outside the separatist town of Slovyansk and made to kneel at gunpoint. It was only the recent decision by the town's mayor that he recognized me and liked me that meant, when the gunman rang him, he gave us a favorable review. We had been presumed unsympathetic Americans to be detained.

The civil war in Syria sped up the delivery process under which atrocities could gain global currency. The West gave rebel activists satellite internet. Minutes after a bomb landed, videos of the dead bodies were uploaded to Youtube. The footage became part of the resistance effort.

Later, ISIS would create its own media outlets to show ghastly atrocities to galvanize support and boost recruitment, and also show that it didn't take a state apparatus to fire up propaganda like this. Anyone with a cellphone could do it.

I am not naively suggesting that media -- albeit unintentionally -- has never taken sides in wars. Or that access hasn't at times depended on what the media outlet is likely to say. Or that reporters in the past haven't been violently kicked out of countries for upsetting officials. (I was deported at gunpoint in Sri Lanka in 2009 for upsetting the defense minister.) It happens, and always will.

What is so jarring is that the weaponization of media in the conflict zones around the world has become part of the US political scene.

Not because of the actions of right-wing extremists peddling lies on the internet. But because of the speed and ubiquity of social media. And partially because of the direct words of the President -- and his communications staff.

I'm not an American, and in Britain freedom of speech or religion is not enshrined in a constitution. But it is painful to see the First Amendment being used to attack the profession that aims to uphold the basic need for veracity that underpins it.

Freedom to report what you want, but also to be believed because you are known to be saying things that are usually true, is often something magical outside of the United States.

In Aleppo, Syria, in the earlier days of the rebellion in 2012, there were young, naive activists appointed as media handlers by the rebels, but reporters were rarely constrained. Allowing us freedom to tell the truth of what was happening was the ultimate form of rebellion against the Assad regime. An absurd new luxury.

Now we face something quite different. The sort of random vitriol I could expect at a Slovyansk checkpoint is thrown casually at US colleagues every day on Twitter. I've left Facebook partly because it's leaky nonsense, but also because I don't need to hear from "Deborah" who thinks I need to be careful as ISIS wants to kill me. I know this already.

The litany of falsehoods perhaps knowingly recited by the White House and its chief resemble the dark abuse of information and its power honed in some of the most autocratic places in the world, fueling its most savage wars. It is meant to inflame tensions and supporters, to advance an agenda.

There really is no good reason to hate a political reporter enough that you threaten to kill them. The fact that we in the West can choose to read what they have to say, or what another reporter from another part of the political spectrum has to say, is a privilege.

Yet much of the world has convinced itself that, because attention spans are now so short, rhetoric must be amplified to be noticed. And that truth is a gray space to be fought over, not an absolute to be revered. As a reporter, it is a time when you can find yourself anxious -- at home in the West, not overseas -- for all the wrong reasons.

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