The role of media manipulation: The case of Leonard Peltier
It has been suggested that the mainstream media doesn't care about the case of Leonard Peltier. Perhaps that's true of many journalists, but to say that the media as a whole doesn't care is perhaps an oversimplification of the situation.
Unbiased reporting has gradually become a thing of the past in the United States. The media is too often influenced by powerful interests, among them the U.S. government. One has only to recall the role of the media in disseminating the lies of the Bush Administration to know this is so. Hand in hand with Bush officials, the media built the case for going to war against Iraq. Too many reporters abandoned journalistic ethics, failed to provide objective reports, were negligent by not seeking the facts, and abandoned their role as the watch dog over government. Even when reporters suspected the truth, many were cowardly in not challenging the Bush Administration. And while certain media outlets apologized to the American public for their dereliction of duty, not very much has changed.
This cozy relationship between the government and the media isn't a recent phenomenon, however - in particular as regards the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and its component agency, the Federal Bureau of Invesigation (FBI).
Beginning in January 1975, the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, known as the "Church Committee" (named after its chairman Frank Church), took public and private testimony from hundreds of people, collected huge volumes of files from the FBI and many other federal agencies, and issued 14 reports.
Since the passage of the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act in 1992, over 50,000 pages of Church Committee records have been declassified and made available to the public. These files contain testimony and information on the FBI’s counter-intelligence programs and related topics.
As discovered by the Church Committee and reported in 1976, the goals of the COounterINTELligence PROgrams of the period from 1956 to the mid-1970s were to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" those persons or organizations that the FBI decided were "enemies of the State."
The COINTELPROs were designed to "disrupt" groups and "neutralize" individuals deemed to be threats to domestic security. The law – in particular, the U.S. Constitution – was simply ignored. There was a general attitude that intelligence needs were responsive to a higher law. According to the Church Committee: "Whatever opinion one holds about the policies of the targeted groups, many of the tactics employed by the FBI were indisputably degrading to a free society."
One of the most effective tactics used, as documented by the Church Committee, was the use by the Bureau of the media to not only impact on the public image of the FBI, but also to disrupt the public communication channels of targeted individuals and dissident groups, as well as spread mis-information about them so as to adversely affect public perceptions and attitudes.
+ Planting a series of derogatory articles about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Poor People's Campaign. In anticipation of the 1968 "Poor People's March on Washington, DC," Bureau Headquarters granted authority to furnish "cooperative news media sources" an article "designed to curtail success of Martin Luther King's fund raising." Another memorandum illustrated how "photographs of demonstrators" could be used in discrediting the civil rights movement. Six photographs of participants in the poor people's campaign in Cleveland accompanied the memorandum with the following note attached: "These [photographs] show the militant aggressive appearance of the participants and might be of interest to a cooperative news source." Information on the Poor People's Campaign was provided by the FBI to friendly reporters on the condition that "the Bureau must not be revealed as the source."
+ Soliciting information from Field Offices "on a continuing basis" for "prompt… dissemination to the news media… to discredit the New Left movement and its adherents." The Headquarters directive requested, among other things, that specific data should be furnished depicting "the scurrilous and depraved nature, of many of the characters, activities, habits, and living conditions representative of New Left adherents… Every avenue of possible embarrassment must be vigorously and enthusiastically explored."
+ Ordering Field Offices to gather information which would disprove allegations by the "liberal press, the bleeding hearts, and the forces on the left" that the Chicago police used undue force in dealing with demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Convention.
+ Taking advantage of a close relationship with the Chairman of the Board – described in an FBI memorandum as "our good friend" – of a magazine with national circulation to influence articles that related to the FBI. For example, through this relationship, the Bureau: "squelched" an "unfavorable article against the Bureau" written by a freelance writer about an FBI investigation; "postponed publication" of an article on another FBI case; "forestalled publication" of an article by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and received information about proposed editing of King's articles.
As these instances demonstrate, the FBI has covertly influenced the public's perception of persons and organizations by disseminating derogatory information to the press, either anonymously or through "friendly" news contacts. Beginning immediately after the shoot-out at Oglala, in force during his trial, and continuing today, this is particularly true in the case of Leonard Peltier.
Convicted in 1977 in connection with the shooting deaths of two FBI agents, American Indian Movement (AIM) member Leonard Peltier has always maintained his innocence. Unable to obtain relief from the courts, Leonard Peltier requested Executive Clemency from then President Clinton in 1993. Peltier’s petition was not seriously investigated or considered until the year 2000.
In 1999-2000, an intensive campaign was launched – supported by Native and human rights organizations, members of Congress, community and church groups, labor organizations, luminaries, and celebrities. The Peltier case became a national issue.
On November 8, 2000, during a live radio interview, Clinton stated that he would seriously consider Peltier's request for clemency and make a decision before leaving office on January 20, 2001.
In response, the FBI launched a major "disinformation" campaign in the media, and among key government officials and members of Congress.
Many citizens were highly disturbed by a number of public statements and actions by various FBI officers in 1999-2000. These officials, by the way, publicly announced that their one and only goal was to block the release of Leonard Peltier, whether through parole or clemency.
At the outset, the propriety of members of the DOJ engaging in such a public campaign was questionable. Parole and clemency decisions are largely determined at various branches of the Justice Department and neutrality and fairness in the handling of such matters must be above reproach. Having members of one branch of the Department engaged in vigorous lobbying on these matters (to Congress and the American people) certainly raised serious questions.
Many of the statements made by DOJ officials during the Peltier clemency campaign (and since) were false, intentionally misleading, or omitted highly relevant information with the intent of deceiving the public. Still other statements were highly emotional and dramatic, if not near hysterical, in nature. These constant declarations were clearly intended to misinform the public and create an atmosphere of fear and confusion, all with the goal of depriving Leonard Peltier of a fair and reasoned consideration of his legal requests for parole and clemency.
Most notable, in November 1999, during efforts by a number of Leonard Peltier's supporters to disseminate information and increase public awareness about his case, the Federal Bureau of Investigation Agents Association placed a large paid advertisement in the Washington Post. This ad intended to mislead the public and obstruct full and fair consideration of Peltier’s parole and clemency requests with statements that were inappropriate, inaccurate, deceptive, and inflammatory.
Similar public statements were made by individual FBI agents, as well as the agent-organizer of a Web site, still in existence today, solely dedicated to denying a fair consideration of Leonard Peltier’s requests for parole.
But nothing was more bizarre than the event of December 15, 2000. In an unprecedented event, over 500 FBI agents marched in front of the White House to oppose clemency for Leonard Peltier. The agents claimed to be exercising their First Amendment rights and argued they were acting as private citizens on their own time despite the fact that this march took place during standard business hours. FBI agents are law enforcement officers, it should be remembered. As such, they are generally considered to be always on duty.
The marchers risked disciplinary action (which never materialized, despite the concerns of then Attorney General Janet Reno) for one purpose, we believe, i.e., to garner media attention. Indeed, the media paid special attention to the staged event, with segments airing on evening news programs of all the major television networks. There appeared to have been a news blackout, however, with regard to the event five days earlier when THOUSANDS of people marched in support of Leonard Peltier in front of the United Nations building in New York City.
All of the above tactics proved successful. Despite indications from the White House that clemency was imminent, on January 20, 2001, the list of clemencies granted by Clinton was released to the media. Without explanation, Peltier's name had been excluded.
Continuing Media Manipulation
In early February 2004, a trial was held in Rapid City, South Dakota. Arlo Looking Cloud was charged in the 1976 death of fellow AIM member Anna Mae Pictou Aquash. The majority of the testimony presented by the U.S. prosecutor during the four-day trial concerned Leonard Peltier and had no relevance to the government’s case.
Reporters observing the trial were treated to a barrage of prejudicial information that served to sensationalize the proceedings. This clearly had an effect on jurors, but we believe the real target audience was the media and, by extension, the American public. The style and content of the articles published by the media during the trial of Arlo Looking Cloud were alarmingly similar to those published by the media at the request of particular FBI agents during Peltier supporters’ campaign for Executive Clemency in 1999-2001.
Current FBI officials and agents, and former agents, would have the public believe there's been no manipulation of the media as regards the Peltier cass. However, in 2004, proof of FBI media manipulation was discovered by the Peltier attorneys. How many man hours (time and materials of the FBI, i.e., taxpayer dollars) have been expended in this endeavor over the years? When combined with the work to oppose Peltier's appeals and to keep over 100,000 case documents from Peltier's attorneys and the public, the FBI and U.S. Attorneys have expended literally millions of dollars and all to keep one man in prison.
2009 Parole Hearing
In July of this year, by all appearances, U.S. Attorney for North Dakota Drew Wrigley was a man on a mission, that is, to prevent Peltier's parole. Using his official position and "friendly" press contacts in North Dakota (i.e., conservative - and racist, some might say... at minimum, a member of a press pool that collectively has never reported anything but the government's version of the Peltier case), Wrigley continued the tradition of misinformation as regards Peltier.
Before Peltier's hearing on July 28 and after the denial of parole on August 21, Wrigley circulated statements that were inappropriate, inaccurate, deceptive, and inflammatory. Simply put, Wrigley presented half-truths and often bold face lied. We would argue that Wrigley also released information protected by the Privacy Act... information that can't even be released to the White House or Members of Congress without Peltier's written consent.
Before Peltier had even been informed that his application for parole had been denied, Wrigley disseminated outrageous claims via the Associated Press, the very same claims he made to the U.S. Parole Commission. Following in the footsteps of U.S. Attorney Lynn Crooks (Ret.) - who once stated on camera that it didn't bother him one bit if false evidence was used to convict Peltier and who routinely made scurrilous claims in court, to the media, and before the U.S. Parole Commission on the Peltier case - Wrigley made claims about the Peltier case that are not at all supported by the court record.
Not content to confine himself to the charges on which Peltier was convicted, however, Wrigley provided a litany of Peltier's other "crimes," neglecting to mention that Peltier was either never charged with such alleged offenses much less convicted (and therefore must be presumed innocent), or was acquitted of said charges. Wrigley appointed himself not only prosecutor but judge... jury... and executioner, in fact, and was safe in doing this because he knew the parole examiner and Commissioners wouldn't consult the court record (they never do) and would instead take on faith any false claim he cared to make. Wrigley knew the majority of Americans would do the same.
The FBI's image was carefully crafted by J. Edgar Hoover from its inception. From the beginning of his reign over the FBI, history now shows, Hoover politicized the FBI and used the media to influence public attidudes, affect elections, attack his enemies, manipulate Congress and presidents, and to crush dissent. It is a very naive public indeed that would suppose that such behaviors ended with the death of Hoover. As Senator Joe McCarthy once wrote to Hoover: "No one need erect a monument to you. You have built your own monument in the form of the FBI--for the FBI is J. Edgar Hoover, and I think we can rest assured that it always will be."
Clearly, U.S. Attorneys also have taken a trick or two from Hoover's play book when it comes to using the media to advance certain false claims.
Thirty-four years after the shootout at Oglala, the FBI and government prosecutors still persist in providing false information to a media that fails to question what it is told. Closing its ears to alternative viewpoints, the media in turn spreads the government propaganda and collaborates with the government in its attempts to rewrite history with regard to Leonard Peltier's case.
But let's not forget that the public plays a role here.
One can't find truth if one never looks for it... or if we simply wait for the truth to be delivered to our radios, TVs, in boxes, etc. Because the government and the media cannot be counted upon for the truth, well... the only thing left to count on is ourselves. WE must find the truth. With all the available resources at hand - on the Internet, in particular - there's absolutely no excuse for our not finding the truth of what's happened to Leonard Peltier.
The fight for freedom didn't begin or end with the establishment of these United States. Ultimately, freedom isn't a legal right established by nation states at all. It is a human right. The fight for freedom began with the dawn of creation and, like the circle of life, is continuous. We cannot afford to be complacent for the simple reason that freedom is never truly won. The fight for freedom must be carried out by each and every one of us, each and every day - to do less is to surrender freedom bit by bit. The fight for freedom must also be carried forward, from one generation to the next. The fight is not just for personal freedom, however, but for the freedom of every member of the human family. Leonard Peltier is a part of that human family and, as such, his fate is our fate. His freedom is our freedom.
Friends of Peltier