Allowing the U.S. security state to shape the news converts media outlets into a form of state TV.
The most dangerous, and under-discussed, development in corporate media is the spate of ex-security state agents now employed to deliver the “news.”
Two of the television outlets on which American liberals rely most for their news — NBC News and CNN — have spent the last six years hiring a virtual army of former CIA operatives, FBI officials, NSA spies, Pentagon chiefs, and DOJ prosecutors to work in their newsrooms. The multiple ways in which journalism is fundamentally corrupted by this spectacle are all vividly illustrated by a new article from NBC News that urges the prosecution and extradition of Julian Assange, claiming that the WikiLeaks founder, once on U.S. soil, will finally provide the long-elusive proof that Donald Trump criminally conspired with Russia.
The NBC article is written by former FBI Assistant Director and current NBC News employee Frank Figliuzzi, who played a central role during the Obama years in the FBI’s attempt to investigate and criminalize Assange: a rather relevant fact concealed by NBC when publishing this. But this is how U.S. security state agents now directly control corporate news outlets.
During the Cold War and then in the decades following it, the U.S. security state constantly used clandestine measures to infiltrate U.S. corporate media outlets and shape U.S. media coverage in order to propagandize the domestic population. Indeed, intelligence agencies have a long, documented record of violating their charter by interfering in domestic politics through formal programs to manipulate U.S. media coverage.
In 1974, The New York Times’ Seymour Hersh exposed that “the [CIA], directly violating its charter, conducted a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation” which included “assembling domestic intelligence dossiers” and “recruiting informants to infiltrate some of the more militant dissident groups.” The Senate’s Church Committee report in 1976 concluded that “intelligence excesses, at home and abroad, were not the product of any single party, administration, or man,”; rather, “Intelligence agencies have undermined the constitutional rights of citizens primarily because checks and balances designed by the framers of the Constitution to assure accountability have not been applied.” A 1977 Rolling Stone exposé by Carl Bernstein — entitled “The CIA and the Media” — revealed “more than 400 American journalists who in the past twenty-five years have secretly carried out assignments for the CIA” — including the most influential news executives in the country: William Paley of CBS, Henry Luce of Time Inc., Arthur Hays Sulzberger of the New York Times. Bernstein laid out how sweeping the CIA’s commandeering of mainstream media outlets was:
Some of these journalists’ relationships with the Agency were tacit; some were explicit. There was cooperation, accommodation and overlap. Journalists provided a full range of clandestine services — from simple intelligence gathering to serving as go-betweens with spies in Communist countries. Reporters shared their notebooks with the CIA. Editors shared their staffs. Some of the journalists were Pulitzer Prize winners, distinguished reporters who considered themselves ambassadors-without-portfolio for their country.
Most were less exalted: foreign correspondents who found that their association with the Agency helped their work; stringers and freelancers who were as interested it the derring-do of the spy business as in filing articles, and, the smallest category, full-time CIA employees masquerading as journalists abroad. In many instances, CIA documents show, journalists were engaged to perform tasks for the CIA with the consent of the managements America’s leading news organizations. The history of the CIA’s involvement with the American press continues to be shrouded by an official policy of obfuscation and deception. . . . By far the most valuable of these associations, according to CIA officials, have been with The New York Times, CBS, and Time Inc.
In 1996, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a lengthy report entitled “CIA’s Use of Journalists and Clergy in Intelligence Operations” after “the House of Representatives [took] a vote on the subject as to the prohibition of use of journalists and others by the CIA.” In 2008, The New York Times’ David Barstow won a Pulitzer for exposing the Pentagon’s secret plot to disseminate Defense Department talking points by placing former officials as “analysts” at each news network who, in secret, coordinated their claims. In 2014, The Intercept obtained the CIA’s communications with journalists through a FOIA request and discovered that national security reporter Ken Dilanian routinely submitted his drafts about the CIA to agency officials before publication; his newspaper at the time, The Los Angeles Times, pronounced itself “disappointed” and said he may have violated the paper’s rules, but he was promptly hired by the Associated Press and now covers the intelligence community for . . . NBC News.
Revealingly, none of those multiple Congressional and media exposés deterred the CIA and related agencies from contaminating domestic media coverage. Over the last six years, the opposite happened: this tactic has accelerated greatly. U.S. security state services now not only shape but often control news coverage — not by clandestine tactics but right out in the open.
Many of the top security state officials over the last two decades have been hired to deliver “news” for these two major corporate networks: former CIA Director John Brennan (NBC), former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (CNN), former Assistant FBI Director Frank Figliuzzi (NBC), former Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend (CNN), disgraced former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe (CNN), former NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden (CNN), and countless others.
This career path from the Deep State to NBC/CNN is now so common that those who are fired in disgrace or resign immediately show up on their payroll. As but one illustrative example: on February 2, 2018, FBI official Josh Campbell wrote a self-serving op-ed in The New York Times flamboyantly announcing his resignation over alleged interference by Trump officials; two days later, CNN announced it had hired Campbell as a “law enforcement analyst,” where he continues to “report the news.” In 2018, the DOJ’s Inspector General concluded that McCabe, while serving as former FBI Deputy Director, had lied to the Bureau about his role in the leaks; CNN then hired him.
The reasons this is so dangerous are self-evident. Allowing the U.S. security state to shape the news converts media outlets into a form of state TV. As Politico‘s Jack Shafer wrote in 2018 under the headline “The Spies Who Came Into the TV Studio”:
Standard journalistic contributors—reporters, anchors, editors, producers—pursue the news wherever it goes without fear or favor, as the famous motto puts it. But almost to a one, the TV spooks still identify with their former employers at the CIA, FBI, DEA, DHS, or other security agencies and remain protective of their institutions. This makes nearly every word that comes out of their mouths suspect.
These security state agencies were created to lie and spread disinformation; allowing them to place their top operatives at news outlets obliterates even the pretense that there is any separation between them and corporate journalism. Worse, it requires these media outlets to pretend they are adversarially reporting on agencies which their own colleagues recently helped run. And, worst of all, it creates a massive conflict of interest whereby news “analysts” are commenting on stories in which they played central roles in their prior, often-very-recent life as a security state operative — as happened repeatedly during Russiagate when people like John Brennan were “analyzing” investigations for NBC News which they helped launch or of which they are targets.
To call all of this a conflict of interest is to gravely understate the case. It is an all-but-explicit merger between the security state and the corporate media.
This latest NBC News article on Assange by former FBI Assistant Director Figliuzzi features all of these corrupt dynamics. MSNBC has been repeatedly promoting it. That is remarkable on its own: a so-called “news outlet” is cheering — indeed, salivating over — the Biden administration’s attempt to criminalize Assange under “espionage” laws for the sin of reporting genuine documents showing all sorts of improper conduct by the agencies whose former operatives now staff that network. Given that press freedom groups in the West have uniformly condemned the prosecution of Assange as a grave threat to a free press, it is stunning to watch a corporation that claims to be in the news business cheering rather than denouncing it.
But for the U.S. media, that is just ordinary corruption and subservience to the CIA: it is hardly rare to find “journalists” giddy over the prospect of Assange’s ongoing imprisonment. What makes this new article particularly notable is that the FBI — when Figliuzzi was a senior official there — was directly involved in the attempt to investigate, frame and prosecute Assange. Yet the article, while identifying its analyst as “the assistant director for counterintelligence at the FBI, where he served 25 years as a special agent and directed all espionage investigations across the government,” makes no mention of his direct personal interest in the Assange prosecution.
The primary claim of this article is an unhinged conspiracy theory. Figliuzzi asserts that extraditing Assange onto U.S. soil could endanger Donald Trump. The former FBI official barely conceals his glee over the prospect that Assange could somehow offer up dirt on Trump in exchange for a promise of leniency from prosecutors:
If the Department of Justice plays its cards right, it can make the case precisely about those Russian government hacks and WikiLeaks’ dissemination of the content of those hacks by offering a deal to Assange in return for what he knows.
That’s what should worry Trump and his allies. . . . Assange may be able to close the gap between collusion and criminal conspiracy. Assange got the Democratic National Committee data dump from an entity long suspected to be a front for the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service. . . Assange may be able to help the U.S. government in exchange for more lenient charges or a plea deal. Prosecutions can make for strange bedfellows. A trade that offers a deal to a thief who steals data, in return for him flipping on someone who tried to steal democracy sounds like a deal worth doing.
So, DOJ, if you’re listening…
That Assange “stole data” is an absolute lie — not even the U.S. Government claims this — but NBC News has previously shown that it has no qualms about disseminating that particular lie. As for Figliuzzi’s belief that Assange possesses secret information about Trump’s collusion with Russia over the 2016 election: that is nothing short of madness. Robert Mueller did not even attempt to interview Assange, precisely because the Special Counsel (Figliuzzi’s former boss) obviously recognized that Assange had no information that would assist Mueller’s investigation to determine whether Trump or his associates criminally conspired with Russia. If Assange really has information showing Trump criminally worked with the Kremlin, how can Figliuzzi justify that Mueller, during eighteen months of investigating that question, never even sought to speak to Assange?
Moreover, if — as Figliuzzi fantasizes — Assange were in possession of some sort of smoking gun that Mueller never found but which would finally prove Trump’s guilt on various crimes, why did Trump not pardon Assange? After all, if this twisted fantasy that NBC News is promoting had any validity — namely, Trump will be in big trouble once the U.S. succeeds in extraditing Assange to the U.S. to stand trial — why was it the Trump administration that brought these charges against Assange in the first place, and why would Trump not have pardoned Assange in order to prevent such a deal from taking place? None of what Figliuzzi is claiming has any evidence to support it or even makes any minimal sense.
But as usual, that is no bar to NBC News and MSNBC publishing and aggressively promoting it. As I will never tire of pointing out, it is the corporate media outlets that most vocally denounce disinformation which are the ones guilty of spreading it most frequently and destructively.
What makes this NBC article by Figliuzzi worse than standard media disinformation is that the former FBI official is writing about events in which he had direct personal involvement, without any disclosure of this fact. In 2011, Iceland’s Minister of the Interior, Ogmundur Jonasson, discovered that FBI agents had been deployed to his country under false pretenses. The FBI’s counterintelligence unit, led by Figliuzzi, had claimed they were there because they wanted to help the Icelandic government stop an “imminent attack” by hackers into Iceland’s government databases.
That was a lie. As The New York Times reported two years later, the FBI went to Iceland in order to dig up dirt on Assange and WikiLeaks that would enable their prosecution. At the time, Assange was spending significant time in Iceland; he concluded that the country’s broad press freedom and privacy protections, as well as support from several politicians, enabled him to work there safely.
The FBI unit under Figliuzzi focused its counterintelligence efforts in Iceland on recruiting a very young WikiLeaks insider with a history of criminality and mental illness, Sigurdur Ingi Thordarson, in order to provide incriminating information about Assange. When Jonasson, the Interior Minister, discovered the truth, he expelled the FBI from his country, as The Times recounted:
But when “eight or nine” F.B.I. agents arrived in August, Mr. Jonasson said, he found that they were not investigating an imminent attack, but gathering material on WikiLeaks, the activist group that has been responsible for publishing millions of confidential documents over the past three years, and that has many operatives in Iceland. . . .
The F.B.I.’s activities in Iceland provide perhaps the clearest view of the government’s interest in Mr. Assange. A young online activist, Sigurdur Ingi Thordarson (known as Siggi), told a closed session of Iceland’s Parliament this year that he had been cooperating with United States agents investigating WikiLeaks at the time of the F.B.I.’s visit in 2011. . . The F.B.I. efforts left WikiLeaks supporters in Iceland shaken. “The paranoia,” [Parliament member Birgitta] Jonsdottir said, “is going to kill us all.”
The FBI’s counterintelligence efforts under Figliuzzi in Iceland succeeded. Thordarson became a key witness for the FBI in its efforts to prosecute Assange. Indeed, the pending indictment against the WikiLeaks founder — which is the basis for the Biden DOJ’s demand that he be extradited from the U.K. — heavily relies on accusations from Thordarson (the indictment refers to him as “Teenager” and to Iceland as “NATO Country-1”). Even a cursory review of the indictment shows how central to the case against Assange are the allegations which the FBI induced Thordarson to make: “In September 2010, ASSANGE directed Teenager to hack into the computer of an individual formerly associated with WikiLeaks and delete chat logs containing statements of ASSANGE.”
But in June of this year, Thordarson recanted his allegations against Assange. Speaking to the Icelandic newspaper Stundin, Thordarson confessed how he had been caught stealing money from WikiLeaks by forging an email in Assange’s name and directing WikiLeaks’ funds to be sent to his personal account. He “saw a way out” of the pending criminal problem by helping the FBI in its hunt against Assange. Thus, “on August 23d, [Thordarson] sent an email to the US Embassy in Iceland offering information in relation to a criminal investigation,” and he then became the FBI’s star witness.
Providing the FBI with false allegations against Assange helped the FBI but did not help Thordarson much: he was shortly thereafter convicted on charges of “massive fraud, forgeries and theft on the one hand and for sexual violations against underage boys he had tricked or forced into sexual acts on the other.” Yet “Thordarson was sentenced in 2013 and 2014 and received relatively lenient sentences” as the judge reviewed his cooperation activities as well as his formal psychiatric diagnosis that he is a sociopath.
Even after that lenient punishment, Thordarson continued to commit crimes, piling up numerous other criminal charges. That was when the FBI, eager to indict Assange, again saw an opportunity in Thordarson:
In May 2019 Thordarson was offered an immunity deal, signed by [U.S. Deputy Attorney General Kellen S.] Dwyer, that granted him immunity from prosecution based on any information on wrongdoing they had on him. The deal, seen in writing by Stundin, also guarantees that the DOJ would not share any such information to other prosecutorial or law enforcement agencies. That would include Icelandic ones, meaning that the Americans will not share information on crimes he might have committed threatening Icelandic security interests – and the Americans apparently had plenty of those but had over the years failed to share them with their Icelandic counterparts.
With Assange now behind bars based on the indictment he helped the FBI secure, Thordarson decided to come clean. He had lied to the FBI and fed them false incriminating information against Assange because he knew that would help shield him from accountability for his own crimes. In other words, at the heart of the FBI’s case against Assange — one compiled by the FBI’s counterintelligence operations under Figliuzzi before he went to NBC News — is a chronic criminal with a history of fraud, sexual assault against minors, and serious psychiatric illness. And he has now recanted his claims.
If NBC News were a legitimate news operation, it would obviously bar Figliuzzi from “reporting on” or “analyzing” a major press freedom case in which the FBI was so intricately involved, and implicated, during his tenure there. But the opposite is true. Figliuzzi is obsessed with Assange’s prosecution and extradition, talking about it often both on his social media account and on NBC and MSNBC platforms.
Beyond the issue of journalistic ethics — which nobody should expect of NBC and MSNBC at this point — something more sinister is going on here. The Biden administration’s aggressive pursuit of Assange’s extradition, along with its demand that he be kept imprisoned while the judicial process is pending, has been denounced with increasing fervor by press freedom and civil liberties groups that are usually allies of the Democrats. That even includes the ACLU. Leaders from around the world, including on the left, have been strongly condemning the Biden administration. Other countries are now frequently holding up Biden’s assault on press freedom, along with the British government, as a reason why those two countries lack credibility to sermonize about press freedom.
This new argument pushed by NBC News and its former FBI operative Frank Figliuzzi — liberals should cheer Assange’s prosecution because we can squeeze him once he is here to turn on and implicate Trump — seems like a barely disguised political ploy to protect the Biden White House from criticism. NBC News knows that liberals crave Trump’s prosecution above all, so trying to convince them that Assange’s extradition could advance that — as false as that obviously is — would likely benefit the White House which NBC serves, by fortifying support among Trump-obsessed liberals or at least diluting opposition.
But taken on its own terms, the argument now being promoted by NBC to justify Assange’s extradition is deeply disturbing. What they are essentially arguing is that the entire prosecution is a pretext. Though justified based on Assange’s alleged lawbreaking in connection with the 2010 publication by WikiLeaks of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, the real benefit, according to NBC, is the opportunity to pressure Assange to turn on Trump in connection with the 2016 election.
In other words, they are keeping Assange imprisoned for years, and working to bring him to the U.S., because they believe they can force him with promises of leniency to offer up information they can use against Trump — just as the FBI manipulated the young, mentally unwell Icelandic teenager to offer false accusations against Assange. And that would also create the added incentive to treat Assange as abusively as possible to turn the pressure as high up as possible for him to implicate Trump. Indeed, on the day Assange was arrested in London, a smiling Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) all but proclaimed this to be the real purpose of the extradition (“he’ll be our property and we can get the truth and the facts from him”):
That the U.S.’s corporate newsrooms are now filled with former agents of the U.S. security state on their payrolls is one of the most significant and disturbing media developments in recent years. It means that dirty, scheming operatives like Frank Figliuzzi can now do their dirty work not in the shadows or in agencies known to be guilty for decades of this sort of treachery and lies, but under the cover of “respectable” media outlets.
When Figliuzzi speaks — or when John Brennan or James Clapper or Andrew McCabe do — the lips of these media outlets are moving but the CIA and the FBI and the DOJ are the ones actually speaking. That has been true for decades, but at least they had the decency to maintain the pretense. That security state agencies have now dispensed with the formalities and control these news outlets so directly reveals the utter impunity with which they now operate, particularly in establishment liberal circles. That an FBI official who played a key role in concocting false accusations against Assange now “reports” or “analyzes” that very same case under the logo of NBC News says more about the institutional corruption of these news outlets than thousands of articles could ever get close to.
Correction, Jan. 2, 2021, 4:23 pm ET: This article was edited to reflect James Clapper’s correct title: former Director of National Intelligence.
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