Barrett Brown 2007.jpg

Journalist Barrett Brown

The following is an excerpt from Barrett Brown’s book “Keep Rootin’ for Putin: Establishment Pundits and the Twilight of American Competence.” The book is available on the official Free Barrett Brown website.

Certain things are obvious, or at least seemingly obvious after having been pointed out. The implications of these obvious things, though, tend towards obscurity.

In April of 2009, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen expressed some concern over America’s ongoing debate on the subject of torture, a discussion he worried had been “infected with silly arguments about utility: whether it works or not.” Those silly-billies who believe that it does not work, we are told, are simply being gloomy gusses. “Of course it works—sometimes or rarely, but if a proverbial bomb is ticking, that may just be the one time it works,” he hypothesized, or something.

Fair enough; there are quite a few commentators who believe likewise, and Cohen is certainly entitled to his opinion. In fact, he is apparently entitled to two of them. In another column written just a couple of weeks later and in which Cohen again talks torture on the occasion of Cheney’s latest declarations in defense of such things, our latest chapter subject suddenly goes from confirmed Jesuit to open-minded agnostic. “I have to wonder whether what he is saying now is the truth—i.e., torture works,” he wonders, allegedly. Perhaps his earlier certainty that torture does indeed work had simply slipped his mind at this point; two weeks is, after all, a long time in which to maintain a very strong opinion, or even to remember what that opinion might be. More likely, he was hoping to suddenly cast himself as undecided on the issue in order that he might portray his end-of-column contention that torture may indeed work as something he’s come to suspect just recently, and only after having given due consideration to some new and very convincing insight that should presumably convince the reader as well.

Looking back to 2007, we find Cohen proposing that the real concern everyone should have had about Hillary Clinton “is not whether she’s smart or experienced but whether she has—how do we say this—the character to be president . . . In a hatless society, she is always wearing a question mark.” Throughout 2007 and 2008, in fact, Cohen had plenty else to say about Clinton. She “would, it seems, rather be president than be right.” More damningly, “She is forever saying things I either don’t believe or believe that even she doesn’t believe.” All in all, he tells us, “She is the personification of artifice.” Fair enough, and we may even agree with Cohen on this—but if we do, we’re in for a rhetorical beating from Cohen himself, who has more recently decided that those who said in 2008 that “Clinton had no integrity, no character,” and “lied about almost everything and could be trusted about almost nothing” are guilty of having perpetrated “a calumny, a libel and a ferocious mugging of memory itself. But it was believed.” By, uh, Cohen, who in this case is very much akin to a narc who hands you a joint and then arrests you for having it, except that the narc is doing his job.

In July of 2005, Richard Cohen alerted his readers to the perils inherent to our age:

I am forever coming across columns I’ve totally forgotten writing and I now, routinely, have to check to see if I have already staked out a position on some matter of importance—and what, exactly, it may be . . .

I yearn for the freedom to be what I want to be. I don’t want to lie, but I want to be comforted by my own version of the truth. I want to own my life, all of it, and not have it banked at Google or some such thing. The trove of letters that some biographer is always discovering, the one that unmasks our hero and all his pretensions, has been moved from the musty attic to sleek cyberspace. I am imprisoned by the truth, a record of what I wrote and the public’s silly insistence on consistency—a life sentence without hope of parole. For me, the future is the present. It’s not that I cannot die. It’s rather that I cannot lie.

In the months running up to the arrival of the year 2000, a number of feature articles appeared in various American news publications in which the technological innovations of the last century were summarized and put into context. Many of these began with an anecdote involving a U.S. Patent Office employee who had resigned at the end of the 19th century, complaining that there was nothing left to be invented. There is no evidence that any such amusing incident actually occurred, and in fact The Skeptical Inquirer had investigated and debunked the story in 1989. The freelancers in question surely meant no harm; neither the Inquirer article in question nor any summary thereof was easily accessible at that early point in mankind’s collective effort to organize its cultural products into a searchable database, a project that would have been virtually impossible just a half-century ago but which was foreseen by some and which is now quite famously coming into fruition. A decade after the myth was ubiquitously touted as fact—just a few days before the onset of 2010, that being the time of this writing—it took me less than 30 seconds to check on the veracity of that claim and find it lacking.

In writing and researching this book, I have read hundreds of op-ed columns and nearly as many articles on the subjects discussed therein. I have studied eschatology, the politics of modern Russia, the history of false flag attacks on the part of nation states, the U.S. elections of 2006 and 2008, New Age mysticism, the chronology of a half-dozen military conflicts, federal documents relating to crime rates before, during, and after Prohibition, the interlocking structure of American Evangelical political action committees, trends in wheat production and consumption in China from the turn of the century to the present day, and early French pulp fiction, among other subjects—a regimen of research that would have been prohibitively time-consuming were it not for the nature of our nascent century. I have also run comparisons of various keywords by columnist—“Krauthammer,” “Arab,” and “democracy,” for instance—in order to discover any hypocrisy or even simple confusion on the part our subjects on such occasions as I have had reason to suspect such things. Such a book as this could not have been written just 15 years ago, at least not in any way that would have accomplished its purpose.

Any individual who decries the arrival of the communications age on the grounds that the truth has become more accessible is an enemy of truth and of man’s ability to discover it. Still, anyone whose assertions are confused, whose facts are false, and whose opinions are occasionally composed in service to the expedience of the moment rather than some steady guiding principle is correct to despise the dynamics of our rising era, just as the lion would have been correct to despise the spear.

There is an exception to this, as there are dangers inherent to the universal accessibility of certain sorts of information, particularly the sort that informs us in the methodology of killing as many people as possible. The second part of the 20th century was in some part defined by this exception; our own age will likely be defined by it to an even greater extent.

When top Cheney aide Lewis Libby was indicted on half a dozen counts of wholesale malfeasance, Richard Cohen knew this to be simply a manifestation of the left-wing id. “An unpopular war produced the popular cry for scalps and, in Libby’s case, the additional demand that he express contrition—a vestigial Stalinist-era yearning for abasement.” Indeed, Stalinism reigned supreme in the dark days of 2005, when federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald stalked the land in search of new victims with which to fill his minimum-security gulags. “At the urging of the liberal press (especially The New York Times), he was appointed to look into a run-of-the-mill leak,” summarized Cohen, who occasionally gets “the liberal press” mixed up with “the CIA,” that being the entity which actually requested the investigation in the first place. After the dust had settled, Cohen wrote, Libby was “convicted in the end of lying.” Actually, Libby was convicted on one count of obstruction of justice, two counts of perjury, and another count of making false statements to investigators, but then Cohen was probably just trying to save space.

Still, Cohen wrote, “This is not an entirely trivial matter since government officials should not lie to grand juries, but neither should they be called to account for practicing the dark art of politics.” The problem, one may suppose, is that both Fitzgerald and the jury were unaware of the little-known “dark art of politics” clause whereby anything that can be characterized as such by a notable columnist is perfectly legal. If only Richard Nixon had been reanimated as some sort of zombie, the defense could have brought him in to explain all of this on an amicus curiae basis. Of course, someone would have to explain to him how it came to be that a liberal columnist for The Washington Post has necessarily excused Watergate by way of the accidental implications of what he’d stupidly written; that Zombie Nixon would already be drunk would only add to the confusion.

Better yet, they could have brought in Richard Cohen himself, who has the uncanny ability to determine the guilt or innocence of a given party simply by virtue of being Richard Cohen. Amidst the 2007 investigation into whether or not Justice Department officials had been practicing the dark art of politics in conjunction with the suspicious firings of several U.S. attorneys, among other things, Cohen explained to his readership that Alberto Gonzalez, Karl Rove, and George W. Bush had “unforgivably politicized the hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys—and Congress is not only right in looking into this but also has an absolute obligation to do so.” But “looking into this” is where the “absolute obligation” should end, explained Cohen, who worried that anything more substantial than peeking could result in something unthinkable, like actual jail time for someone working in the Beltway. Justice Department Deputy Director Monica Goodling, for instance, was in danger of having to answer to Congress for crimes that she may have either witnessed or conducted herself and just then opted to plead the Fifth lest she potentially incriminate herself. At the time, Cohen noted that “some thought has to be given to why Monica Goodling feels obligated to take the Fifth rather than merely telling Congress what happened in the AG’s office.” Many of those less astute than Cohen had assumed that Goodling had pled thusly in order to avoid any real accountability for the crimes she had committed, in the same sense that one might bring an umbrella outside on a rainy day. But Cohen knew better; Goodling, as he explained with the same degree of certainty he’d felt about Clinton’s dishonesty (before later concluding that she was honest) and about the obvious utility of torture (before later pretending that it wasn’t obvious after all), was completely innocent, but still at risk of having her life destroyed in some Stalinist purge of the sort that had already brought down the likes of Lewis Libby and . . . well, he was the only one. As Cohen concluded, “She’s no criminal—but what could happen to her surely is.”

Contrary to the conclusions of Cohen’s non-investigation, Goodling did indeed turn out to be a criminal (and I should note for clarity that I use the term “criminal” to denote someone who has committed crimes, in contrast to Cohen’s usage as a term denoting someone who has committed crimes while also not being important enough that Cohen himself might run into such a person at some cocktail party). After Congress agreed to grant her immunity in exchange for information, Goodling herself told the nation that she “may have gone too far in asking political questions of applicants for career positions, and I may have taken inappropriate political considerations into account on some occasions,” adding that she had “crossed the line” in these and other respects. And so by her own admission, she had violated the Hatch Act, which makes it a federal crime for civil servants to take political affiliations into consideration when making hiring decisions; this was also the conclusion reached after a later investigation conducted by the Department of Justice, the officials of which seem not to have realized that Cohen had already declared her to be innocent.

But Cohen’s concern never seemed to hinge on whether or not any crime had been committed. Rather, he worried aloud about the chilling effect that would result from the possibility that Very Important People could be punished for violating something as irrelevant as federal law. “Now,” he wrote, “only a fool would accept a juicy federal appointment and not keep the home number of a criminal lawyer on speed dial,” particularly if that person intends to violate federal laws barring partisan cronyism while serving with a government entity that concerns itself with federal crimes. Worse still, “ordinary politics—leaking, sniping, lying, cheating, exaggerating and other forms of PG entertainment—have been so thoroughly criminalized that only a fool would appear before Congress without attempting to bargain for immunity by first invoking the Fifth Amendment.”

Cohen knows foolishness, having studied the subject since at least 2003, when he proclaimed that Colin Powell had recently proven “that Iraq not only hasn’t accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them” and putting the issue to rest thusly: “Only a fool—or possibly a Frenchman—could conclude otherwise.”

Conveniently enough, this brings us back to where we began, with Cohen ruminating on the possibility that Cheney is right about torture’s utility. Being a left-of-center columnist, though, Cohen feels obligated to attack the former vice president a bit first, recognizing that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. “Cheney is a one-man credibility gap,” Cohen wrote. “In the past, he has said, ‘We know they [the Iraqis] have biological and chemical weapons,’ when it turned out we knew nothing of the sort.” By “we,” Cohen is presumably referring here to fools and Frenchmen, and not to Cohen himself, who knew all of this just as well as Cheney did and who gleefully mocked the vice president’s opponents for not knowing this as well.

But Cohen has as much contempt for Cheney as he does for those who once deemed Clinton to be untrustworthy. “As a used car dealer,” he quips, “he would have no return customers.” It’s hard to see why not; The Washington Post still has subscribers.