Hide a Little Lie

Enigmas abound in Joseph Biden’s America. Within a month of his victory over Trump, the president-elect suffered an odd injury; as he later clarified, he had broken his foot attempting to pull a dog’s tail while exiting the shower. Before long the First Family abandoned Major, their German Shepard, after FOIA requests by the conservative advocacy group Judicial Watch uncovered a spree of biting attacks and concomitant White House ‘cover up’. Subsequent events have proved no friendlier to the octogenarian incumbent’s promise to ‘bring transparency and truth back to government’. He is currently under investigation for mishandling classified documents (conveniently disclosed after the November mid-terms) found at a Wilmington home let out to his crackhead son, himself the target of a separate DOJ enquiry (revealed to the public on the morrow of the 2020 election) into nebulous business dealings in China and Ukraine.  

Puzzlement is not confined to the garages and bank vaults of Delaware. Early in 2023, NORAD made known the existence of unidentified vessels flying over the continental US. Four were shot out of the sky by Air Force pilots in the first weeks of February, at an estimated total cost of $8 million (the AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles used go for $400,000 a piece). The identity of the dirigibles remains unclear: the headmost, downed over the coast of South Carolina, was a weather blimp – authorities warned of Chinese spycraft – and one at least seems to have been a party-style ‘pico-balloon’ loosed by hobbyists in Illinois. The government has acknowledged that the other two likely had a ‘benign purpose’. ‘Make no mistake’, declared the commander in chief, ‘if any object presents a threat to the safety and security of the American people, I will take it down’.

Days after a F-22 Raptor Top Gun felled his first inflatable foe, news broke concerning another conundrum, the explosion of the Nord Stream natural gas pipelines in September 2022. This was, the New York Times had reported at the end of the year, a genuine ‘wartime mystery’. How, in one of the most closely surveilled waterways on earth, did the perpetrators manage to execute their attentats and escape without a trace? What might have been the motive? Initial statements from NATO politicians insinuated that Moscow was to blame, yet no evidence emerged to substantiate the charge, and the idea that Russia would destroy its own critical infrastructure – and potential source of leverage over Western Europe – vexed even trusting souls. Bruits in December that the majority Russian-owned Nord Stream AG was soliciting estimates to repair the damaged pipes only added to the confusion. Amidst such perplexity, a 5,000-word story by the legendary reporter Seymour Hersh, contending that the sabotage was a CIA operation executed on orders from the US president, might have been thought a bombshell. Yet response to the piece, self-published as a Substack post on 8 February, was muted. In the week after it appeared, the New York Post was the sole US daily to treat Hersh’s story as a news item, while a representative squib on the Springer-owned website Business Insider ran under the headline ‘The Claim by a Discredited Journalist That the US Secretly Blew up the Nord Stream Pipeline is Proving a Gift to Putin’.

In mid-February, New York Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat broke the prevailing silence. Titled ‘U.F.O.s and Other Unsolved Mysteries of Our Time’, Douthat’s column identified a host of phenomena – from the recent balloon scare and putative sightings of extra-terrestrial life to the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus – with ‘one of the patterns of our era, which is what you might call the incomplete reveal’. ‘Sometimes’, Douthat wrote, ‘a phenomenon goes from being the subject of crank theories and sub rosa conversations to being more mainstream, but without actually being fully explained or figured out’. Other times, he added, ‘a controversy takes centre stage for a little while, a great deal seems to hang upon the answer, and then it isn’t resolved and seems to get forgotten’. The activities and expiry of the late Jeffrey Epstein were one example, the Nord Stream attacks another.

Hersh’s story, with its anonymous source and ‘various factual and plausibility issues’, strained the imagination. Yet who did blow up the pipelines? No serious argument implicating Russia could be adduced, Douthat allowed. But if the US clearly possessed a motive, the White House had not only denied involvement, ‘it would have been quite the act of recklessness for an administration that’s been very cautious about direct engagement with the Russians’. For Douthat, frequently trenchant and capable of scepticism concerning America’s role in the Ukraine conflict, this foray signalled conspicuous equivocation. A devout Christian, the columnist admits to ‘cautious interest in outré spiritualities’. But ideology, not occultism, is at issue here. (Curiously, Douthat – whose latest book discusses his own struggle with ‘chronic Lyme disease’, an ailment unrecognized by modern medicine – found no room in his volvelle for ‘Havana syndrome’, recondite complaint of US intelligence officers abroad, since determined after a years-long CIA inquiry to be psychogenic in nature). 

Whilst critics queried details of Hersh’s account, which describes how US Navy frogmen exploited the June 2022 BALTOPS exercise to lay charges later detonated remotely off the coast of Sweden, it drew plausibility from an embarrassment of circumstantial evidence. Energy politics along the Baltic littoral have been a crucible of tension between Russia and the so-called West for decades. After Moscow briefly suspended the gas flow through Ukraine at the turn of 2006, Senator Richard Lugar proposed in the lead-up to NATO’s Riga summit that disruptions of this type should trigger the alliance’s Article 5 provision for collective defence. The rise of the American fracking industry gave fresh momentum to initiatives aimed at substituting LNG for Russian pipeline gas, further encouraged by the Ukraine crisis in 2014, which saw US sanctions torpedo another pipeline project (South Stream, which would have run through the Black Sea) and Congress move to hasten exports in the name of Europe’s ‘energy security’. Trump’s hectoring of European leaders to end their reliance on Russian fossil fuel prompted sniggers from the German UN delegation in 2018. Who is laughing now?

The next year, after Washington levied sanctions on Nord Stream 2, Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced that America’s export capacity was expected to double by 2020. Seventy-five years after the Normandy landings, Perry remarked, ‘the United States is again delivering a form of freedom to the European continent. And rather than in the form of young American soldiers, it’s in the form of liquefied natural gas.’ Poland has manoeuvred with particular brio to position itself as the re-export hub for American ‘freedom gas’. Prior to the construction of Nord Stream 1, then Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski likened the pipeline to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. When reports began to circulate of its destruction, Sikorski posted a photograph of the resulting methane plume – the most catastrophic such leak in history – on his Twitter account, accompanied by the legend, ‘Thank you, USA’.

As Hersh observes, American officials repeatedly threatened to destroy the pipelines. In January 2022, Victoria Nuland – architect of the post-Maidan government in Kiev and Zelig-like fixture of bipartisan warhawkery – pledged in a State Department briefing that ‘If Russia invades Ukraine, one way or another Nord Stream 2 will not move forward’. At a press conference alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in early February 2022, an unusually cogent Biden reiterated the threat. Post-explosion comments have been scarcely more edulcorant: Secretary of State Antony Blinken hymned the sabotage as a ‘tremendous opportunity’ to ‘wean’ Europe off its sinister dependency on Russian hydrocarbons, while in congressional testimony earlier this year the irrepressible Nuland expressed contentment, on behalf of the whole administration, that Nord Stream 2 was now but ‘a hunk of metal at the bottom of the sea’.

Spies, as the ‘intelligence community’ used to be called, have their own term of art for Douthat’s ‘incomplete reveal’: a limited hangout. As long as clandestine operations go to plan, they are protected by a cover story. When this cover is blown, however, alternative strategies may be deployed – the release of partial information, for example, to confound or misdirect. Alternatively, entirely fictitious events or scandals can be confected to distract unwelcome scrutiny. In the words of a GCHQ manual on ‘designing deceptive action’, leaked by Edward Snowden, ‘the big move covers the little move’.

The New York Times’s alt-history of the pipeline affair, ventilated earlier this month, invites speculation on similar lines. Recall that at first US authorities denied any knowledge of or involvement in the Nord Stream sabotage. It now transpires that American officials believe a ‘pro-Ukrainian group’ carried out the demolition. Evidence to this effect has been concealed, we are told, for fear that ‘Any suggestion of Ukrainian involvement, whether direct or indirect, could upset the delicate relationship between Ukraine and Germany, souring support among a German public that has swallowed high energy prices in the name of solidarity’. Whatever the plausibility of the Times version, supplemented by German coverage – divers are said to have been conveyed aboard a chartered yacht smaller than Tony Soprano’s Stugots – its timing raised eyebrows. Why now? And what of potential discord between Berlin and Kiev? Hersh, for his part, has delivered a rejoinder: the Times version, according to an informed source, is itself a fabrication by the CIA (in conjunction with the Bundesnachrichtendienst) devised to ‘pulse the system’ and redirect attention from Hersh’s findings.

In Germany, the Times ‘scoop’, buttressed locally by the combined efforts of Die Zeit and public broadcasters ARD and Südwestrundfunk, elicited more discomfort than relief. ‘It may just as well have been a false flag option staged to blame Ukraine’, ventured Defence Minister Boris Pistorius, while Annalena Baerbock, the bellicose foreign minister, likewise affirmed that the government would not ‘jump to conclusions’. Hersh’s reporting itself, ignored in the US, had raised greater alarm in the Bundesrepublik. Die Linke, the CDU and the AfD all submitted formal requests for information concerning the pipeline explosions, including the location of US and NATO air and naval forces in theatre at the time. These were, as Wolfgang Streeck has noted, dismissed on grounds of raison d’État. Ralf Stegner, a MP for the SPD and chair of the parliamentary intelligence oversight committee, voiced his incredulity that ‘a terrorist attack like this, in international waters, in a sea that is observed by many different surveillance systems … could happen without anybody taking notice’. ‘That’s hard to believe’, Stegner observed. ‘It wasn’t an attack on Mars, it was in the Baltic Sea.’

Alexander Cockburn once remarked that the purpose of newspaper corrections is to persuade the reader that the rest of the contents are true. Rescued from insolvency by the election of Trump, the New York Times promptly abolished the position of ombudsman and sacked half the copy editors just as it embarked on a jihad against ‘fake news’. The results cannot have surprised. When Hersh first made a name as the finest American investigative journalist of his generation, reporting on US crimes in Indochina and CIA meddling in domestic affairs, psychological operations still obeyed a classical logic, consent manufactured through the despatch of propaganda to discrete ends. Eye-wash was coordinated centrally and deployed along clear axes. Today, ataxia disorganizes a scene cleft by duelling fractions of state apparatuses. Simulation begets ‘messaging’, ‘narrative’ vies with ‘conversation’, platoons of ‘explainers’ call in airstrikes on company HQ. Deceit commands a mobile army of its own. Counter-disinformation, as operating principle and moral warrant, requires neither pretence to neutrality nor the charade of disclosure. While the phobia of foreign ‘meddling’ promotes politicization of the intelligence services and inter-penetration of Außen- and Innenpolitik, information warfare enlists the media as willing foot soldiers on the militarized frontier of falsehood.

The brief career of the US Department of Homeland Security’s Disinformation Governance Board, introduced last spring by the Biden regime and abandoned weeks later under a volley of criticism, is symptomatic. Per its remit, this organ was to counteract both Russian influence and inducement to refractory migrants on the southern border. Its head, Nina Jankowicz (former communications adviser to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry and veteran of American ‘democracy assistance’ to Russia and Belarus) issued a more adventuresome prospectus in a TikTok ditty, to the tune of ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, hit single off the 1964 Disney musical Mary Poppins:

Information laundering is really quite ferocious

It’s when a huckster takes some lies and makes them sound precocious

By saying them in Congress or a mainstream outlet

So disinformation’s origins are slightly less atrocious

It’s how you hide a little lie, little lie

It’s how you hide a little lie, little lie

It’s how you hide a little lie, little lie

When Rudy Giuliani shared bad intel from Ukraine

Or when TikTok influencers say Covid can’t cause pain

They’re laundering disinfo and we really should take note

And not support their lies with our wallet, voice or vote – oh!

Bruised by controversy stateside, Jankowicz decamped for the UK Foreign Office-funded Centre for Information Resilience, where she stewards something called the ‘Hypatia Project’ – named after the spätantike Platonist and astrologer murdered by Christians as a sorceress – that seeks to ‘document the relationship between gendered disinformation and coordinated hostile state activity online’. In an interview with CNN, Jankowicz explained that the ill-fated DHS Board had fallen prey, Pharmakon-like, to the menace it was conjured to dispel. ‘Unfortunately and ironically’, she lamented, ‘we were undone exactly by a disinformation campaign coming from folks who apparently want to put our national security behind their own personal political ambitions’. Failure could be seen to vindicate the urgency of the mission. Skim the news and you might wonder whether it was not surplus to requirements.

Read on: Seymour Hersh and Alexander Zevin, ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’, NLR–Sidecar.