Victim of Disinformation?
By Ellie Keen at Aug 24, 2008
I have been accused of relying on sources which are funded by the CIA - in particular, the reports by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) which is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and United States Institute for Peace (among about another 30 funding organisations). So the following was my justification for reading their reports, and even believing some parts of them. The particular article in question was How the Georgian War Began.
For those readers who are completely baffled as to why NED and USIP should be seen as CIA instruments, I recommend The Battle for Global Civil Society and Sourcewatch's article on the NED. My personal position on this aspect is that the NED / CIA / US government has undoubtedly poured millions into 'civil society' organisations (and civil society organisations) around the world in the pursuance of its own dirty goals. And that, in general, this strategy has been successful (in their terms). Organisations such as IWPR are almost certainly unwittingly carrying out the agenda of the US government while pursuing their own agenda; but individual journalists writing for the organisation are also carrying out their own agenda - which I would argue is still significantly different.
So should we refrain from reading the reports of organisations which are funded partly through dirty money? I think most definitely not, for the following reasons:
1. The funding of civil society by the CIA - and others - is a general strategy, which means that there is room for certain initiatives not going 'as planned'. There has to be that slack, because the strategy wouldn't work if those implementing it on the ground thought that they were (merely) carrying out the CIA's agenda. Furthermore, with the amount of money being poured in and the number of initiatives being funded, plus the fact that the chain between the piper and the CIA-calling-the-tune is pretty long it's actually very difficult - impossible - for them to make sure that every local journalist who is hired is 'on message'. Not to mention the fact that the CIA - if it is involved in a particular organisation - is just one of many other funders, all of whom have their own slightly differing agenda.
To use another analogy: the CIA poured millions into the mujahideen. That was a 'good strategy' (in the short term - in terms of defeating the Soviet Union). But even in the short term, they couldn't control every individual mujahid: the reach is simply too long. The strategy worked as a whole, but it didn't depend on having total control of the whole operation (it couldn't depend on that). In the end of course, they lost control completely - and then you get blowback. I suspect the same may happen / may have happened already with much of the funding of civil society.
2. The fact that I believe there are numerous chinks in the system - rogue organisations, rogue journalists and rogue mujahideen - plus the fact that getting information out of the region is pretty difficult, plus the fact that I strongly believe we should be reading local reports and local analyses rather than just relying on international commentators - all mean that I consult publications / journalists from the region. But as a result of the economic situation in the region as a whole, these are in the vast majority of cases funded by the US or other governments, or by international organisations.
It should be said that the quality of analysis and the range of opinions is still far higher in these 'CIA-funded organs' than what you find in state sponsored publications (which also have their own agenda!). There are numerous examples - mostly in Russian - of articles written with western funding that contradict the CIA line. Here are just two English language ones from IWPR itself, both published in the past 10 days: Abkhaz open 'second front' and Eyewitness: Carnage in Tskhinvali
3. As far as agendas go — these are surely the possession of every individual, not to mention every media owner / editor. Which is why in general I think that articles should be allowed to stand on their own merits. Of course authors have their own position and bias, and of course to a certain extent (and in most cases) this 'fits' with what the CIA or any other funder wants to hear. But as long as we take this into account; as long as we understand why the author is saying whatever he or she is saying, and we consult reports from both sides in the conflict, I would have thought that the argumentation (which comes from the heart, not the CIA) and any additional information would only be a valuable contribution. At the very least, in the case of this article, in order to hear the best case for the side that we (on the left) are accusing.
In general, it is not hard to be aware of the 'agenda' of most journalists in this region — just as it is straightforward to understand the 'agenda' of a Guardian journalist, or indeed a journalist on a left website or publication. Knowing that, we simply need to be careful, in reading any article at all, to look out for weak arguments, unfounded claims, bias, or any other limitations imposed by editors or funders.
It's also worth remembering that in this region in particular, people became expert at doing their own thing while outwardly fitting the straitjacket of the state ideology. In the same way, most journalists and ngos now funded by western organisations are well aware of the agenda of the funders, and they mostly manage to milk the organisations while getting on with whatever they think is important. So I genuinely believe that these writers are writing about what they see — and I find that interesting, even if their vision is likely to be distorted both by their own prejudices and connection with the conflict and — to a lesser extent — by what they know they are permitted to write within the IWPR framework. Find me a writer who is completely free of prejudice, even on the left.
4. The content of the article in question fits well with what I have been observing myself over the past few years and it seems to me to raise a number of points that have not been discussed on the left at all. Having spent quite a lot of time in the region / studying the region, I do admit to being frustrated by the left's failure to recognise what I see as Russia's extremely underhand and provocative role in keeping these conflicts on the boil, and using them for its own interests. That is NOT to say I excuse Georgia, nor to say that I deny the contribution of NATO / the US, which has been immense. But I see Russia as much more of a dangerous and provocative agent than has been acknowledged in left commentaries. A simple glance at the local picture would show this up.
Most of the claims made in the article in question I had already read in different publications — including before the conflict started — or heard from people in the region. I would be interested to hear about specific claims for which there is evidence of their falsehood.
5. There is barely a Georgian on this planet who would not today write an article that could happily be funded by the CIA: the nation is practically united in its hatred of Russia. But need it mean, just because the CIA is also united in its hatred of Russia, that no articles by Georgians are worth reading? Or do they become not worth reading as soon as the CIA pays for them?
This is of course not quite what my accusants are saying , but given the financial situation at the moment in Georgia, and given the fact that you cannot be a Georgian and not 'serve the CIA's agenda' — one is almost forced to that conclusion. That leaves us in the position of having almost no sources who are actually living this conflict. I don't think that is the way to understand its complex and multi-faceted nature - and I strongly believe that the majority of reporting on the left has suffered as a result.
6. Finally: we do not refuse to read a single article in the Guardian simply because the Scott Foundation has an agenda which is to make as much money as possible; and we do not stop believing every statement made on the BBC, despite the fact that this is a state institution strongly controlled by the government. Why then should we apply different standards to media organisations in other countries, where the funding is far more difficult to come by and the possibilities of finding out for ourselves are far more limited? Media organisations are not completely monolithic structures and individual journalists can have something interesting - and credible - to say even within the limiting framework of an organisation funded with a particular purpose.
The standards are not even applied universally to media channels in the region: the very few reports by non-western journalists that are quoted by the left tend to come from Russia Today, which is as much an instrument of Russian governmental propaganda as those on the other side are instruments of US propaganda. I would say a great deal more so, because the control in the case of Russia Today is hands on, top down and comprehensive. You simply would not find an article on this channel that takes any line other than the official Russian one.
So: I shall continue to read the IWPR reports for information that western commentators simply have no access to, and in order to learn about the views of people in the region.