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Richard Cohen Criticizes WikiLeaks, Lies About Michael Hastings

First Posted: 12/07/10 04:45 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:15 PM ET

Richard Cohen

The Washington Post's most inexplicable contributor, Richard Cohen, today attempts to grapple with the phenomenon that is WikiLeaks. It's a mess! He begins by bizarrely comparing it to Michael Isikoff's Monica Lewinsky scoop, calling it the precursor to Julian Assange's disclosure machine, and quickly gets bogged down in a thoroughly elitist argument that only the High-Toned Gatekeepers of the Traditional Media are allowed to Guard The Mysteries and determine what you should know about the world. Hamilton Nolan has already buried Cohen's piece six feet in the ground, but this section really made my eyes pop out of my head, and deserves some special mention:

The challenge is to keep the cure from doing less damage than the disease. Sure, some world leaders have been discomforted by what has been reported - Saudi King Abdullah should use Yiddish when he wants to speak candidly - but so far as we know no bodies have hit the floor with a sickening plop. In fact, it could be argued that the leaks in any Bob Woodward book are of greater consequence and importance than those served up by WikiLeaks. And when it comes to sheer nihilistic journalism, I refer you to the Rolling Stone story that cost Gen. Stanley McChrystal his command and his career. The article contained nothing of real value concerning policy or a disagreement with President Obama. Yet McChrystal, who survived many a brush with the enemy, was brought down by a clear shot in the back.

A thousand times "Gah!" Bob Woodward's anodyne account of his misadventures inside the Imperial Palace's cocktail hours are "of great consequence and importance," but Michael Hastings is just like Julian Assange: a "nihilist" whose story "contained nothing of real value concerning policy." Richard Cohen either did not read Hastings' story and is lying about having done so, or he is vastly stupid and can't be trusted to evaluate the work of journalists.

Here's some of the stuff from Hastings' piece that Richard Cohen entirely glosses over:

[McChrystal is] in France to sell his new war strategy to our NATO allies -- to keep up the fiction, in essence, that we actually have allies. Since McChrystal took over a year ago, the Afghan war has become the exclusive property of the United States. Opposition to the war has already toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of Germany's president and sparked both Canada and the Netherlands to announce the withdrawal of their 4,500 troops. McChrystal is in Paris to keep the French, who have lost more than 40 soldiers in Afghanistan, from going all wobbly on him.

THAT IS FROM THE FIRST PARAGRAPH OF MICHAEL HASTINGS' STORY.

You want rifts and disagreements?

The general prides himself on being sharper and ballsier than anyone else, but his brashness comes with a price: Although McChrystal has been in charge of the war for only a year, in that short time he has managed to piss off almost everyone with a stake in the conflict. Last fall, during the question-and-answer session following a speech he gave in London, McChrystal dismissed the counterterrorism strategy being advocated by Vice President Joe Biden as "shortsighted," saying it would lead to a state of "Chaos-istan." The remarks earned him a smackdown from the president himself, who summoned the general to a terse private meeting aboard Air Force One. The message to McChrystal seemed clear: Shut the fuck up, and keep a lower profile.

You want policy?

From the start, McChrystal was determined to place his personal stamp on Afghanistan, to use it as a laboratory for a controversial military strategy known as counterinsurgency. COIN, as the theory is known, is the new gospel of the Pentagon brass, a doctrine that attempts to square the military's preference for high-tech violence with the demands of fighting protracted wars in failed states. COIN calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation's government - a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve. The theory essentially rebrands the military, expanding its authority (and its funding) to encompass the diplomatic and political sides of warfare: Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps. In 2006, after Gen. David Petraeus beta-tested the theory during his "surge" in Iraq, it quickly gained a hardcore following of think-tankers, journalists, military officers and civilian officials. Nicknamed "COINdinistas" for their cultish zeal, this influential cadre believed the doctrine would be the perfect solution for Afghanistan. All they needed was a general with enough charisma and political savvy to implement it.

You want further rifts and disagreements that stem from the aforementioned policy?

But however strategic they may be, McChrystal's new marching orders have caused an intense backlash among his own troops. Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. "Bottom line?" says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers' lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing."

How about some "brushes" that maybe McChrystal should not have survived?

After Cpl. Pat Tillman, the former-NFL-star-turned-Ranger, was accidentally killed by his own troops in Afghanistan in April 2004, McChrystal took an active role in creating the impression that Tillman had died at the hands of Taliban fighters. He signed off on a falsified recommendation for a Silver Star that suggested Tillman had been killed by enemy fire. (McChrystal would later claim he didn't read the recommendation closely enough - a strange excuse for a commander known for his laserlike attention to minute details.) A week later, McChrystal sent a memo up the chain of command, specifically warning that President Bush should avoid mentioning the cause of Tillman's death. "If the circumstances of Corporal Tillman's death become public," he wrote, it could cause "public embarrassment" for the president.

"The false narrative, which McChrystal clearly helped construct, diminished Pat's true actions," wrote Tillman's mother, Mary, in her book Boots on the Ground by Dusk. McChrystal got away with it, she added, because he was the "golden boy" of Rumsfeld and Bush, who loved his willingness to get things done, even if it included bending the rules or skipping the chain of command. Nine days after Tillman's death, McChrystal was promoted to major general.

I guess it's just "nihilistic" to report on these matters!

By the way, Richard Cohen, is this a WikiLeak-style scoop that should be decried, or a Michael Isikoff-esque bit of brilliant and important reportage? I bring it up because this was originally reported in The New York Times, and only mentioned by Hastings:

The relationship [between McChrystal and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry] was further strained in January, when a classified cable that Eikenberry wrote was leaked to The New York Times. The cable was as scathing as it was prescient. The ambassador offered a brutal critique of McChrystal's strategy, dismissed President Hamid Karzai as "not an adequate strategic partner," and cast doubt on whether the counterinsurgency plan would be "sufficient" to deal with Al Qaeda. "We will become more deeply engaged here with no way to extricate ourselves," Eikenberry warned, "short of allowing the country to descend again into lawlessness and chaos."

If Richard Cohen wants "to pop Assange in some way," then he'll be clearly standing in a long line of people. And there's nothing novel about his stance that only he and his hifalutin friends in the media should be extended the special privilege of breaking the news: in Washington, DC, that's sacred liturgy. But looping in Michael Hastings in this instance, and straight up lying about his McChrystal story, takes this way past arrogance and well into fraudulence. And he'd weigh in on journalistic purity? The man is a goddamned shonde.

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