On Monday November 9, 2009, I interviewed journalist Russ Baker, author of “Family of Secrets,” reviewed in Truthout on November 11, 2009, over the phone:
Please contextualize how “Family of Secrets” fits in with the rest of your work.
Since the outset of my career, I have always sought more profound answers to the question of what it is that ails us. My nature is to question everything, including the conventional wisdom because that can be a dangerous thing. I have always sought platforms from which to do this kind of work. Years ago, I thought about starting an investigative-reporting, nonprofit web site. And I interrupted that project in 2004 to try to come to grips with how it was possible that someone such as George W. Bush – who was already controversial and was careening to a second term although the evidence was already accumulating that the Iraq war had been sold to us on false pretenses – could ever have been elected president in the first place.
I always approach my work from a position of not knowing what the answers are – or even if there will be answers. I think this approach is necessary for serious investigative reporting. A problem with some journalists described as progressive or progressive-minded is that all their stories go the same way. I never know which way my stories are going to go or sometimes even whether inquiry will lead to a story.
I spent five years on “Family of Secrets” and, as I was gathering material, for the longest time there just wasn’t anything new until – as I began to notice discrepancies – certain aspects of the story that didn’t check out led me to drop down into a rabbit hole of a whole different level of American history I didn’t know anything about. Some of these things have been reported on partially in other books, but also I discovered completely new stuff as well as facts that, when put together with other information from elsewhere, paint a wholly different picture of what actually happened.
So, “Family of Secrets” is definitely part of a larger mission to convince the American public, journalists and potential funders that we need to get the larger picture here; we need journalism that takes into account those actual events that are shaping our destiny, but that we don’t know anything about. If we don’t confront institutional roadblocks we can’t get anywhere. Many people are doing positive things, meaningful work, but we need to get someone to unclog the central drainpipe of American life. The act of addressing these roadblocks is the first step in the road to fixing things.
While you convincingly delineate a nexus of intelligence, finance, military-industrial and foreign interests that have exercised a largely subterranean, malign and disproportionate influence on American history – and continue to be active – they are clearly not monolithic, as, for example, the CIA complaint when Valerie Plame’s identity was revealed would suggest. Have you found evidence of push-back within the same secret power structures you describe?
There’s tremendous push-back and turf battles going on in some of these places all the time, but we generally never hear about them. It all happens under the cover of darkness, which is pretty much the norm for institutions. I’m not saying that the military or the intelligence community is not full of intelligent well-meaning patriots, but unfortunately they don’t seem to have the upper hand. People who are really principled often end up leaving those organizations in order to be able to criticize them, but then their reputations get smeared; they get no platform and their voices have no traction.
Why, in your opinion, have the revelations of these whistleblowers and the backstory to the last presidency – and the 40 years that preceded it – gotten so little play in the mainstream media?
It is only human nature for people to want to protect themselves, to choose not to risk their own security, their financial security, the well-being of their family and their own circles by challenging powerful and apparently dangerous forces. Constantly weighing what is “doable” is the norm in all societal institutions, in the media, in academia, in government etc. People pick their battles and mainstream journalism picks very small battles. It chooses controversy over personalities (think Glenn Beck) rather than to cover who benefits from what Glenn Beck says and who has helped him to obtain the size and dynamic of audience he enjoys.
In “Family of Secrets,” you mention that editors have been highly resistant to publishing some of your material, especially in view of what happened to Dan Rather and CBS. How have you persuaded them to take the risk? Was it difficult to find publishers for “Family of Secrets?”
My literary agent gets credit for finding a good home for the book with Bloomsbury. To be sure, as it was being written, there were some issues and questions that arose, but I was extremely happy they did not ask for any substantive changes, given how explosive some of the revelations are. I think that’s in part because the book is based on a set of documented facts.
Have you or your publisher been threatened in any way?
Efforts to suppress dialogue don’t happen that way. In general, when you run the show, you don’t have to do that: you just make sure the information you’d like to suppress doesn’t take off like wild fire. You make it difficult to get the attention of the people who would be interested.
The book is selling respectably well, but the reality is that as I travel, more than 95 percent of the people I meet – including people who are very interested in the topic it covers – have not heard of “Family of Secrets” The struggle is to get attention for it.
There is so much new information coming out all the time, such sensory overload with things that don’t matter at all. I enjoy the World Series or the latest bit of celebrity gossip too, but I see this as very insidious: The drumbeat, the din of the trivial has a profoundly subversive effect on the body politic. With only so much time to devote to being informed, it puts a real burden on us to sift through to what makes a difference in our lives. This is why I really hope people will support WHOWHATWHY so it will become a destination where people can come and effectively use their time to find out about some of these bigger and more profound matters.
In both your book and articles published on the net, you have written about how the “dark arts” of the intelligence world have “jumped the wall,” become a feature of American daily life in the last eight years especially. Would you provide some examples of that phenomenon?
The orchestration of Astroturf groups, for example, is right out of the disinformation playbook of the cold war, creating groups that are not really what they appear to be. The efforts to leak stories and to destroy candidates, such as John Kerry with Swift Boat veterans group. All these things are textbook pysops. Karl Rove getting his first significant job as the assistant to George H.W. Bush (the elder), who himself had a secret history as part of the covert propaganda and action apparatus.
When I was reviewing “The World According to Monsanto” I learned about front groups that create fake Internet identities and then post comments to discredit scientists critical of GMOS …
I would not be surprised if there were a whole cottage industry of people pretending to be individuals posting comments on the web on behalf of various corporate and other interests. My experience with my own web site is that some comments are so inane and off point they either reflect very poorly on the populace at large or suggest an effort to discredit the site. There is a history of this type of thing – writing letters to print publications in the old days – that has been going on for a very long time. The shame of such activity is that it obscures what we do want to see: genuine thoughtful engagement. No authentic dialogue can be engaged when such voices predominate.
You write that “Family of Secrets” is a work in progress: How are you continuing the work begun in the book, and do you have another book-sized project in the pipeline?
I’ve set up WhoWhatWhy.com. I continue to gather information, to develop new sources, to read and to think. I hope to continue the types of inquiries you see in “Family of Secrets” in book form, at WHOWHATWHY and in other formats.
You have wholly convinced me that in-depth investigative reporting of what actually happens is the first step in combating the complex of interests that serves only an exceedingly narrow segment of Americans. How do you suggest ordinary citizens take back democratic power?
The Internet has truly empowered all of us, and very simple acts of spreading the word are tremendously empowering. If all you do is read a book that changes your thinking and you decide to let others know about it, you are already multiplying your own force. There’s a small group of people who have decided it is important to blog about, mention, post comments about and engage with other people about the material in “Family of Secrets.” They have become a homebrewed, miniature version of the journalists and commentators they turn to. Truthout readers – simply by forwarding something about this book or my Truthout article “What Obama Is Up Against” (several hundred people put that up on Facebook) – become force multipliers. It is always empowering to participate in groups seeking change, but it is also good to know that in five or ten minutes a day, sitting in your bathrobe, you can fight the good fight.
Leslie Thatcher is Truthout’s French Language Editor and sometime book reviewer. Bloomsbury Press provided a reviewer copy of “Family of Secrets.”