A New York Times story pinning an assassination on Ukraine was a blockbuster, but why was it made public? How news in the "Information Warfare" age has become incomprehensible
By Matt Taibbi
On Wednesday, October 5, the New York Times published a blockbuster story, “U.S. Believes Ukrainians Were Behind an Assassination in Russia.” Citing “American officials” in claiming “United States intelligence agencies” now believe “parts of the Ukrainian government” were responsible for the car-bomb assassination of Russian nationalist Daria Dugina* on August 19th, the paper wrote:
The United States took no part in the attack, either by providing intelligence or other assistance, officials said. American officials also said they were not aware of the operation ahead of time and would have opposed the killing had they been consulted. Afterward, American officials admonished Ukrainian officials over the assassination, they said.
The article is a Rubik’s cube whose stickers have been switched all over, leaving no possible solution. Turn it over as much as you like, you won’t figure out what you’re reading.
The key news is clearly the fact the article was even published. Someone in the U.S. government took an extraordinary step of outing our intelligence agencies’ supposed belief that Ukraine was involved in the bombing. Writers Julian E. Barnes, Adam Goldman, Adam Entous and Michael Schwirtz do at one point address this, saying “Countries traditionally do not discuss other nations’ covert actions,” but in this case, “some American officials believe it is crucial” to “curb what they see as dangerous adventurism, particularly political assassinations.”
All this info was ascribed to a “closely held assessment of Ukrainian complicity,” also referred to throughout as an “American intelligence assessment,” which was “shared within the U.S. government last week.” Who wrote the assessment? What office? The piece doesn’t say, but does add toward the bottom that “officials from the State Department, National Security Council, Pentagon and C.I.A. declined to comment on the intelligence assessment.”
Reading the news since the invasion has become a kaleidoscopic guessing game. There are just too many factors warping the informational landscape now to make sense of anything.
Aggressive content moderation and self-censorship mean you won’t see a skeptical point of view in many if not most news reports. The blurring of lines between private press and officialdom — more on that in a moment — means you almost never know if you’re reading something leaked intentionally, or accidentally. Finally, the U.S. has been boasting for seven months now about its use of media as a war weapon, deploying special “tiger teams” of National Security Officials who leak intelligence for strategic reasons. In those cases, leaders in Russia or China or Syria or wherever rather than the ostensible readership might be a newspaper’s real target audience.
“It’s what we used to call, when the Russians did it, information warfare,” former CIA officer John Sipher clucked proudly in The Guardian before the invasion.
In the extant New York Times piece, you don’t know if you’re reading a piece of news leaked by someone in the White House in defiance of the intelligence officials who wrote the assessment, or if it was leaked by someone in the intelligence services in defiance of the White House. It also could be a unified front of officials who brought the story to the Times to send a message to Ukraine, Russia, or both. It could be the U.S. government expressing general displeasure, both with whichever of the “competing power centers within the Ukrainian government” was responsible for the assassination, and with whatever “parts of the Ukrainian government…may not have been aware of the plot.”
Along with the strings of phrases about how that the U.S. wasn’t happy about “Ukraine’s aggressive covert operations” (“took no part,” “would have opposed… had they been consulted,” “admonished,” etc) came a passage promising that despite this, there have been no “known changes” in the “provision of intelligence, military and diplomatic support to Mr. Zelensky’s government.” Taken altogether, you can read this as a thinly veiled hint, as in: “Hey, stop whacking people outside Ukraine, or we’ll cut off all the Javelins.”
That makes some sense, but then you’re right back to the first and most glaring fact of the article. You can threaten Zelensky with the yanking of weapons shipments all you want, in private. Why do so publicly, while also announcing to the world that Ukraine engaged in cross-border assassination? The State Department just last year sanctioned Russia for its “operation to assassinate or surveil” Alexey Navalny. We also expelled 60 Russian diplomats in 2018 after an ostensible poisoning involving ex-spy Sergei Skripal in England. Obviously this is not the same situation, but you’re exposing Ukraine to a variety of accusations by declaring them guilty of the Dugina blast.
Is the point here to let the Russians know that anyone can be reached? I’m pretty sure they already know that — I guarantee the top Kremlin military brass have all seen Godfather Part II along with all the important hood movies — but are we just making double-sure they got the message? Is this one of those stories that is, as Sipher put it, “meant for one consumer: Vladimir Putin”? It sounds like it, here:
Since the beginning of the war, Ukraine’s security services have demonstrated their ability to reach into Russia to conduct sabotage operations. The killing of Ms. Dugina, however, would be one of the boldest operations to date — showing Ukraine can get very close to prominent Russians.
A million years ago, when working part-time for a newspaper in New Bedford, Massachusetts, I covered an abandoned house fire. As I watched flames lick up the side of the house, three teenagers walked up. They told me they heard that “three hoodlums” set the fire, and they were “real bold, too” because the fire was started in broad daylight. They went into deadpan detail about the “rumors” of how the crime was committed before walking off. I thought of them with a laugh when I read the “one of the boldest operations to date” line above. Is that what this is about? Credit? On the life-imitating-art front, have we really reached the Wag the Dog stage?
On a more serious note, how are we to interpret passages like this?
The United States has tried carefully to avoid unnecessary escalation with Moscow throughout the conflict — in part by telling Kyiv not to use American equipment or intelligence to conduct attacks inside of Russia…
You can see the last traces of editorial discretion on the part of the New York Times in the use of the word “unnecessary.” Not even the most hardcore Ukrainian-flag-emoji-bearing reader could have swallowed a line that the U.S. has “tried to avoid escalation” with Russia, with near-weekly reports of new billions in arms shipments and places like The Intercept telling us that the U.S. now has a “much larger presence of both CIA and U.S. special operations personnel and resources” in theater (I fear the godlike wrath of the Brookings Institute too much to bring up the Nord Stream blasts). “Unnecessary escalation” must be a phrase both the paper and the paper’s sources can live with, but it’s frustrating that so many passages in so many stories now exist in gray areas between official statement and editorial comment.
Not long ago, a newspaper would have wrapped the whole of the above pull quote in a clear attribution, as in, “The officials the Times spoke with insist the U.S. has tried to avoid unnecessary escalation…” The biggest gift you can give an official source is to put his or her statement in the newspaper’s own “objective” voice, which once carried the imprimatur of apolitical fact. This is why companies paid premiums for “native advertising,” i.e. ads disguised as newspaper articles (or other typical content). It’s why the Internet melted down in 2013 when The Atlantic ran an “article” that was actually a Church of Scientology ad, and why the Columbia Journalism Review once wrote, “Editorial will forever be the cat, and native advertising, Pepe Le Pew.” Smart newspapers eschewed native advertising because it killed the proverbial cat.
No knock against the four writers in this piece, but it’s become almost impossible for ordinary readers to discern what’s cat and what’s skunk in a lot of news copy, particularly national security coverage, and particularly war coverage. Former CIA chief Michael Hayden in Playing to the Edge boasted about calling the Times and the Washington Post to “scotch” certain stories, saying he “did talk a lot to the Times’s Washington bureau chief, Phil Taubman,” whom he complimented for being able to balance “the needs of transparency and security.” The Times even then was known for killing or delaying certain stories at the request of government, and the phenomenon seems to have accelerated a great deal since, with stories involving Trump, Russia, and Ukraine in particular giving off whiffs of intense press-government cooperation.
Lastly, there’s this passage:
The American officials who spoke about the intelligence did not disclose which elements of the Ukrainian government were believed to have authorized the mission… United States officials briefed on the Ukrainian action and the American response spoke on the condition of anonymity, in order to discuss secret information and matters of sensitive diplomacy.
How are we to make sense of this fretting over secrecy and tradecraft, in the context of a front page New York Times story? Though possible, it doesn’t feel believable that these sources fear internal retribution for leaking. The story more has the character of an official, approved enterprise, making the Times ululations about sensitivity feel not quite believable. If this info is so sensitive, why are sources handing it to a gang of reporters? From an intelligence official’s perspective, that’s like giving a monkey a hand grenade, unless of course you control the monkey (I realize we’ve had a surfeit of animal metaphors by now). There are just too many blurred lines, and newspapers have given up trying to un-blur them for us, even though they used to consider it a primary responsibility. They have more important clients now.
Is this story ass-covering ahead of a revelation of U.S. involvement in the Dugina affair, even just on the level of providing intelligence? Is it the White House pissed at the Pentagon that it happened, the Pentagon pissed at the White House that it happened, both pissed at Ukraine, neither? Who the hell knows? Maybe they’re just “sowing discord,” not even between groups, but within our own heads? One of the few former intelligence sources I know chuckled over the story. “The CIA used to do this kind of thing to influence foreign public opinion,” he said. “Now they do it to misinform, distract, and confuse the American public.” That’s just great, isn’t it?
*I did not know Daria Dugina, and am pretty sure I never met her father, who was a friend of former eXile columnist Eduard Limonov.
Source: Information Clearing House