President Donald Trump’s self-inflicted Twitter wounds drew dangerous new blood this past week as he tripled down on his quartet of tweets March 4th, falsely accusing Barack Obama of “wiretapping” Trump Tower. With or without quotations marks, the audacity of that charge, which was utterly rejected Sunday by the chairman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, represented a White House pronouncement on a new level of untruth that threatened to de-couple America’s crucial six decade intelligence partnership with the British, the Five Eyes Alliance.
That’s because, as he dug-in his heels through WH Press Secretary Shawn Spicer Mr. Trump later insisted in front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel that GCHQ, the U.K. equivalent of the NSA, had been asked by the former President to spy on his successor.
His source was Andrew Napolitano an ex-New Jersey Superior Court Judge and FOX NEWS commentator who boldly claimed (based on “three sources”) that the operation had been freelanced to the Brits by the Obama White House so that there would be “no American fingerprints” on it.
Napolitano was quickly body-slammed by the British spy agency which called his allegations “utterly ridiculous,” and his own network was forced to renounce him with anchor Shepard Smith insisting: “Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the president of the United States was surveilled at any time in any way, full stop.”
But somehow I wasn’t surprised when the New York Times reported Friday that one of the Judge’s sources for this scurrilous GCHQ claim was none other than Larry C. Johnson, a notorious blogger and cable news quote chimp, whom the NYT described as “a former intelligence officer best known for spreading a hoax about Michelle Obama.”
That Times piece was linked to a devastating analysis of Johnson’s embarrassing trajectory from darling of The Left during his years defending CIA “leak-gate” target Valerie Plame ― who’d been outed as an Agency Non Official Cover (NOC) by Bush loyalist Richard Armitage ― to hated and rumormonger after he began attacking Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign and later spread the baseless story that there was “video dynamite (of) Michelle Obama railing against ‘whitey’ at Jeremiah Wright’s Church.”
A POSTER BOY FOR DISINFORMATION
As a journalist who has criticized Johnson in the past, only to become the focused object of his internet rage, I can personally attest that there is no better poster boy for disinformation than this empty suit who spent eight years in government service but has somehow made a career, as a self-professed “recognized expert” in “terrorism, aviation security, crisis and risk management.”
By drilling down on who Johnson is, the outrageous tales he spins and how he still manages to get airtime, we can learn more than we already know about the jerry-rigged way that policy is developed in the Trump White House. After all, in the same week that Press Secretary Spicer impeached the credibility of The Congressional Budget Office, he was pushing this GCHQ theory that had all the authority of a note written on a cocktail napkin in a dive bar.
Worse: in Johnson’s latest caper, a third-removed-from-the-source game of telephone led our most trusted intelligence partner on the world stage to deliver that stinging rebuke.
HOW HE GOT IT SO WRONG ON 9/11
In Triple Cross, my third investigative book for HarperCollins on the counterterrorism failures of the FBI and Justice Department, I cited Johnson for getting it egregiously wrong on the al Qaeda threat in the months leading up to the attacks. To quote the Russian Ambassador in “Dr. Strangelove,” my “source was The New York Times.”
On May 31st, 2001 writing in The NYT, veteran reporter Benjamin Weiser who covers the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District (SDNY) quoted Johnson in a piece:
''To listen to some of the news reports a year or two ago, you would think bin Laden was running a top Fortune 500 multinational company -- people everywhere, links everywhere,'' said Larry C. Johnson, a former deputy director of the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism. ''What the evidence at trial has correctly portrayed, is that it's really a loose amalgam of people with a shared ideology, but a very limited direction.''
That was just 102 days before bin Laden’s al Qaeda-funded attack killed nearly 3,000 people, eviscerated The World Trade Center, crashed The Pentagon and left dozens dead in a Pennsylvania field.
But Johnson was not to be outdone. He took flawed threat prediction to a whole new level on July 10th, when The Times published his Op Ed page piece entitled, “The Declining Terrorist Threat.”
“Judging from news reports and the portrayal of villains in our popular entertainment, Americans are bedeviled by fantasies about terrorism. They seem to believe that terrorism is the greatest threat to the United States and that it is becoming more widespread and lethal. They are likely to think that the United States is the most popular target of terrorists. And they almost certainly have the impression that extremist Islamic groups cause most terrorism. None of these beliefs are based in fact.”
Ironically, that essay by Johnson, was published the same day the infamous “Phoenix Memo” was sent by Special Agent Kenneth Williams to FBI Headquarters warning that bin Laden’s followers might be training at U.S. flight schools. Apparently, as The NYT later reported the top dogs at Justice and the Bureau literally didn’t get the memo until days after the Twin Towers went down.
But when I cited Johnson in my book for his lack of foresight, he came at me with both barrels. Triple Cross, which had been under embargo was officially published on November 21st, 2006. But four days earlier it was the subject of a news story on page one of The HuffPost.
The next day, the ink in cyberspace wasn’t even dry when Johnson fired off with a critique on his site accusing me of jumping “to conclusions not supported by actual evidence.”
Written on Nov. 18th, three days before he could have read the book, Johnson’s screed was republished on TPMcafe: “...Peter does a slick job of intermixing facts and conjecture to create the impression that he has a special truth,” he opined.
In his own review of Triple Cross, which focused on al Qaeda master spy Ali Mohamed, Kasper cited a classic Johnson device: accusing me of writing something that I didn’t write and then trying to shoot me down for it.
This is what Johnson had to say in his first attack on the book:
Peter Lance, Crisscrossed by Larry C. Johnson Nov. 18th, 2006. “Consider the following from Peter:
“'Using evidence from the SDNY court cases, interviews with current and retired Special Agents and documents from the FBI’s own files, I prove in Triple Cross that Patrick Fitzgerald and Squad I-49 in the NYO could have prevented (the African Embassy) bombings - not just by getting the truth from FBI informant Ali Mohamed, but by connecting him to Wadih El-Hage, one of the Kenya cell leaders.'
"Here’s the truth—there is not one document, piece of court evidence, or retired FBI agent that supports the claim that in the year prior to the bombing of the US Embassies in East Africa Ali Mohamed was recorded stating his intent to attack those embassies. Not one.”
But as Mike Kasper pointed out:
“Lance never said Mohamed stated his intention to attack the embassies beforehand! He said the FBI should have been able to stop the bombings by connecting him to Wadih El Hage.”
El-Hage was one of the principal Embassy bombing cell members with links back to the original WTC bombing cell which Ali Mohamed had trained. In fact, Mohamed set up El-Hage to run the Nairobi cell after the death of its former leader Abu Ubaidah. Mohamed even stayed in El-Hage’s house in Kenya and the FBI’s elite squad I-49 had a wire tap on the place from 1996 on.
That’s what I reported in Triple Cross, but Johnson invented lines from the book that never existed, then sought to rebut them.
TAKING HIS ATTACKS TO ANOTHER LEVEL
Undaunted about being called out for that lie, Johnson they upped the ante, going so far as to accuse me of lying about the number of Emmy Awards I’d won.
More Truthiness on Peter Lanceby Larry C. Johnson Nov. 21st, 2006
“If Peter Lance is exaggerating about his Emmy awards, what else is he embellishing? According to Peter’s bio posted at www.peterlance.com: “Peter Lance is a five-time Emmy-winning investigative reporter now working as a screenwriter and novelist. With a Masters Degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a J.D. from Fordham University School of Law, Lance spent the first 15 years of his career as a print reporter and network correspondent.
“Nope. Peter has not won five Emmy’s. That folks, is another typical exaggeration of Peter Lance. He has had five nominations but only two wins. The last nomination was 24 years ago when he was working with network news. All of his Emmy’s came when he worked with ABC’s 20/20. Here’s what I received today from Mike Grigaliunas at the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in New York City.”
Johnson then offered a pdf download (since removed) from the National Academy of a record listing two of my Emmys and the five nominations earned for my work on 20/20.
But he was quickly rebuked by Cheryl Daly of NATAS in this e-mail:
From: CHERYL DALY Nov. 22, 2006 To: firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: Peter Lance’s Emmy Awards
Mr. Johnson: The information my co-worker Mike Grigaliunas gave you is only a partial listing of Peter Lance’s Emmy Awards, and you have used this information in an incorrect way. Peter Lance does indeed have 5 Emmy Awards. He was awarded 3 National Emmy Awards — the 2 our database indicated, plus an additional 1 for Community and Public Service for a campaign on WABC. The database lists just the sponsor of the campaign WABC; but the Emmy Award goes to the producer, who in this case was Peter Lance.
“In addition, Peter Lance has won two Emmys from the New York Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which I have verified with them. We would appreciate your correcting this information on your website immediately.
After that, Johnson published a “Clarification” that he used for another attack:
Peter Lance Clarification by Larry C Johnson WEDNESDAY, 22 NOVEMBER 2006
“Yesterday I called the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences asking them to confirm that Peter Lance in fact, had five Emmy Awards. My initial skepticism was prompted because of some glaring factual errors and misrepresentations about me that appear in Peter’s latest book.”
At that point he cited the two references to the Times piece and his Op Ed from 2001 which underscored just how clueless he was about the lethal reach of bin Laden and al Qaeda.
THROWING OUT BOMBS
Johnson had already become a laughing stock among the cognoscenti of the intel community. This was from a piece by Byron York in National Review online:
“Larry Johnson became known, at least in the eyes of some of his former colleagues, as the author of perhaps the most embarrassing op-ed ever published…
“Why does Johnson receive such attention? Compared with some of the CIA’s other critics, like Bob Baer, who spent 21 years as a case officer, or Milt Bearden, who spent 30 years at the agency and left as a high-ranking official, Johnson’s credentials are a little thin. He worked there as an analyst, not as a top manager or a covert agent, for all of four years, 1985 to 1989, which means it has been 17 years since he was employed by the CIA. And his specialty wasn’t the Middle East or terrorism; instead, he dealt with issues related to Central America, a subject he’s rarely called on to comment about today... So why the demand for Johnson’s opinions?
“’He’s willing to say very bold things,’ says a former intelligence official. ‘If you say things that are balanced and reasoned and calm, they’re less likely to ask you back than if you throw some bombs.’”
CONTINUING TO GET AIRTIME
With a Rasputin-like ability to resurface after yet another disgrace, Johnson showed up Sunday on CNN’s Reliable Sources where he told host Brian Stelter that RT (Russia Today) where he appeared on March 5th, was “not a Kremlin propaganda network.”
For the record, RT was identified as “The Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet” in the U.S. Intelligence Community’s official report blaming Russia for hacking the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump.
THE “BIG LIE” STRATEGY
By now you should see some parallels between Johnson’s M.O. and Donald Trump’s. First, in their shoot-from-the-lip phony representations of fact and second in their vitriolic attacks on critics.
On the one month anniversary of investigatingtrump.com, the new website I set up to curate the best enterprise reporting on the campaign, transition and presidency of “45,” I filed this HuffPost on how those same tactics were taken straight from the playbook of Adolf Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels:
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
FROM A JACKED-UP RUMOR TO AN INTERNATIONAL INCIDENT
You now have some sense of the price a reporter can pay for throwing down the bullshit flag on Larry Johnson, but what does this latest episode in truth erosion tell us?
So far, Donald J. Trump’s assaults on reality via Twitter have been pretty much contained in their damage to the U.S. Homeland. He spent days lying about the crowd size at his inauguration and the fraudulent voting of 3-5 million that never happened, but at worst, apart from the further destruction of his credibility, he cost reporters, White House staffers and congressional investigators a lot of wasted time.
This GCHQ lie, however, was on another level of damage in that it threatened to decouple one of the most stable intelligence partnerships this country has had with what John LeCarré called “the cousins.”
That put America’s security at risk.
So what can you do? As reporters and citizens and immigrants of all standing: first, you can stand up to bullies. You can organize. You can protest. You can make sure your Member of Congress is on speed dial and that they get a piece of your mind on every issue from slashing the entitlements for social services and environmental protection to the GOP’s mission to gut the Affordable Care Act to congressional and DOJ investigations into the Russian election hack.
There’s only one choice when confronted by an internet troll like Larry C. Johnson. You call him out for who he is and fight for truth to power wherever you can find it. The same can be said for the man at the top.