July 8, 2013

NSA Leak: Former Producer Says MSNBC Won’t Tell You When Obama Is Lying

A former MSNBC producer says the news network is just about as reliable in covering President Obama as Fox News was in covering President Bush.

Jeff Cohen was an MSNBC pundit and senior producer in the early 2000s, and he’s written a President Obama / MSNBC takedown piece for The Huffington Post. In it he says, “Like Nixon, our current president is prolonging an endless, borderless and counter-productive war (“on terror”) and waging a parallel war against “national security” leakers that makes the plumbers’ burglary of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office look almost quaint.” That’s sounds just a tad hyperbolic if you ask me, but Cohen does proceed to make several points about MSNBC coverage of President Obama, in particular during the NSA / Edward Snowden story, that I fully agree with.

The Huffington Post — The World War I vintage Espionage Act, originally used to imprison socialists for making antiwar speeches, has been used by the administration against whistleblowers with a vengeance unprecedented in history: eight leakers have been charged with Espionage under Obama, compared to three under all previous presidents. The Obama administration has prosecuted not a single CIA torturer, but has imprisoned a CIA officer who talked about torture with a journalist. National Security Agency official Thomas Drake, who was unable to get abuses fixed internally, now has a criminal record for communicating with a reporter years ago about sweeping domestic surveillance.

This is indisputable. Obama has pretty much behaved like a tyrant — apparently the hyperbole is catching — when it comes to whistleblowers. And I have a theory about why, and if true, is far from satisfying. Is it possible that the Republican Party and conservatives have gone so far to the right, and have embraced a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality on national security, that Democrats like President Obama lost whatever spine they did have to stand up right what’s right? In place of actual courage to speak the truth or behave in a congenial manner, many Democrats, Obama included, have reduced themselves to acting and talking tough on all issues of national security, consequences be damned.

I’m not saying whistleblowers should never face any kind of legal ramifications. We do need the rule of law. But Obama has charged more whistleblowers for espionage than all previous presidents combined. Is there really a serious uptick in the number of people willing to test the law to leak information, or is it that this administration has adopted a zero tolerance policy in order to look tough and maybe win one or two conservative converts? I know that sounds incredibly contrived, but I’ve yet to hear an alternative plausible explanation.

When Cohen turns his focus to MSNBC, he doesn’t hold back, saying, “When it comes to issues of U.S. militarism and spying, the allegedly ‘progressive’ MSNBC often seems closer to the ‘official network of the Obama White House’ than anything resembling an independent channel.” And to that charge I both agree and disagree. I think Rachel Maddow has done extensive coverage of the military industrial complex. Hell, she even wrote a book about it titled (“Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power“). So when Cohen says “Rachel Maddow has also disappointed,” I have to say I disagree.

But when Cohen talks about commentary by Ed Shultz and the usually spot-on Melissa Harris-Perry, I completely agree.

As Snowden arrived in Russia from Hong Kong, MSNBC host Ed Schultz blustered onabout Snowden as a “punk” and “coward.” Railing about the “security of the country” in tones Hannity would approve of, Schultz questioned Snowden’s patriotism and credibility, asking: “If the United States of America is doing something so egregiously wrong in its surveillance program, how come he’s the only one speaking up?

In O’Reilly-like blissful ignorance, Schultz seemed unaware of the three NSA whistleblowers who’d loudly spoken up way earlier than Snowden — and gathered for an illuminating group interview with USA Today a week before his tirade.

You can say what Edward Snowden did is wrong, but what you cannot say is that he is a coward. He is the exact opposite. A coward would not have leaked the NSA information in the first place. And while staying anonymous does not necessarily make one a coward, revealing your identity certainly is in conflict with any argument of cowardice.

MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry has been condemning Snowden by contrasting him with civil disobedients who “love their country” and submit to arrest — while Snowden just wants to “save his own skin.” She proclaimed: “This is different. This is dangerous to our nation.” Should we similarly dismiss Dan Ellsberg, who leaked the top secret Pentagon Papers to a dozen newspapers in 1971 by going on the lam from the FBI. Or Watergate’s “Deep Throat,” who saved his own skin by hiding his identity for 30 years after leaking secrets that helped crash the Nixon presidency?

I’m not sure how people come up with these litmus tests for how you are supposed to properly leak information and/or commit civil disobedience. In an era of zero tolerance for information leaks (well, except for internal Obama administration leaks intended for political gain), what is a whistleblower to do? Does Harris-Perry possess a playbook for future whistlebowers to follow?

In a bizarre monologue attacking Snowden (who’s risked plenty, in my view), Harris-Perry hailed those who engage in civil disobedience for being willing “to risk your own freedom, your own body in order to bring attention to something that needs to be known. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested, attacked, smeared. Nelson Mandela went to prison for 27 years.” (My emphasis.)

Nelson Mandela? He wasn’t a civil disobedient who gave himself up. He was a fugitive, fleeing the apartheid police. He was on the lam domestically, like Snowden is now internationally. And some reports indicate that South African authorities were able to nab Mandela thanks to the U.S. CIA (one of the agencies now on the hunt for Snowden).

Not only is this bizarre, as Cohen noted, it’s uncharacteristic for Harris-Perry. It seems a whitewashing of history is required to comport to whatever narrative Harris-Perry was driving at.

I’ve said this before — Edward Snowden should not be the story. His motives could be used to indict him, but it doesn’t change the information he leaked. That is what we should be talking about. Instead, as usual, the media is fixated on whack-a-mole style coverage. The news media, and maybe much of the American public, isn’t ready to talk about the mundain, the dull, but nonetheless very important issues of democracy and freedom. Instead, it’s easier to speculate on what Snowden’s motives are and what country might offer him asylum, then proceed to obligatory character assassination.

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