The United States State Department has the responsibility of communicating U.S. foreign policy objectives to the American public, but under the Trump administration, briefings by the State Department have been rare. While the briefings have been reinstated recently, they’ve been used to communicate disinformation rather than firm objective foreign policy plans. A May 29 briefing with U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus promoted the administration’s unfounded claims about Iran, calling them “the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism,” and misrepresenting Hezbollah and the Iran Revolutionary Guard’s financial state.
The Real News Network’s Sharmini Peries spoke to Larry Wilkerson about the significance of State Department briefings and how the Trump administration has began using these briefings as vehicle for “outright lies” about Iran.
“Most Americans would be surprised, given what she just said, given what Mike Pompeo says, given what Donald Trump says, [that] Hezbollah has not conducted a terrorist attack against a U.S. or a U.S.-allied asset in the entirety of 2018 and 2019,” Wilkerson said. “This is this formidable terrorist group that Iran sponsors. Of course, the group is sponsored because Israel has the most sophisticated army, air force, navy in the region. Not only that. Israel is backed by the United States of America, whom we keep hearing has the greatest armed forces on the face of the earth. So, what do the people who are opposed to Israel in any way, fashion, or form have to do?”
Peries mentioned that recent reporting showed that the State Department has been giving money to an organization called the Iran Disinformation Project, and only after it was revealed did the State Department suspend funding.
“They were using this campaign to attack Americans who supported the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement with Iran, and to attack those Americans who now and tomorrow, too, will be against war with Iran. So, they’ve had to apologize, egg all over their face,” Wilkerson said. “On top of all that, it looks like one of the instrumentalities in doing this and making this happen was the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, FDD. So this is really a nefarious bunch of people, and it is another earmark. It is another flag of the Donald Trump way of doing business. This administration will do anything, with anybody’s money, with anybody’s assets, to achieve the nefarious purposes it is set upon to do.”
The Trump administration’s recent briefing diminishes one of the most crucial ways the public learns about foreign policy plans for propaganda, Wilkerson stressed.
“Generally speaking, in the past, State Department briefings have been the least full of lies or obfuscation, or other manner of hiding the truth. Generally speaking, the diplomatic briefings are fairly accurate in terms of what U.S. foreign policy is,” Wilkerson said. “Of late, however, I would say the government is of a single mind in that, and this 29th of May briefing by Ortagus substantiates this: It’s of the mind of delivering either pablum–or even from the State Department briefers—either pablum or information that just makes your mind boggle when it’s delivered.”
SHARMINI PERIES It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The US State Department has the very responsibility of communicating US foreign policy objectives to the American public. Now, under the Trump administration, briefings by the State Department has been occasional, therefore, reneging on that responsibility to keep us informed. But this month, it appears that they have somehow resumed some of these briefings and these briefings are important to have so that we as journalists have an opportunity to question the policy that they’re engaged in. Now, with me to address some of what comes out of these briefings is Lawrence Wilkerson. He’s the former Chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell under the Bush administration, and now a Distinguished Adjunct Professor at the College of William and Mary, who was very involved in the State Department briefings when he was at the service of Colin Powell. Larry, good to have you here.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON Good to be with you, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES Why are these State Department briefings so important for us?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON I’m sure that they’re important for the wide array of Americans who are apathetic, ignorant, [laughs] whatever, all across this country that I have contact with all the time as I travel throughout the country. But they are important for what I call the national security elite and that group of people who report on the national security elite— journalists, reporters, media personnel, and so forth— and in that respect, they are important because they get the information out with regard to American foreign policy. They should be conducted on a routine basis and they should probably be conducted in conjunction with events, whether it’s the Secretary of State traveling to a particular series of foreign countries, or whether it’s a policy announcement, or whether it’s just a general information briefing with the journalist table. Usually, these journalists are not just—And this is hard to say in today’s world because journalists are about an inch deep today. There are no Ernie Pyles, Hanson Baldwin, Drew Peterson, Walter Lippmanns, or anyone like that today. They all pretty much just go from subject to subject and don’t really know their brief very well, which is a shame.
But usually, the diplomatic reporters, if you will, are a cut above some of the others, and they know how to interpret diplomatic talk. They know how to interpret the information coming out of the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, or the official spokesperson, or even the Secretary of State, or the Deputy Secretary of State. They’re important because they give the national security elite some idea of just what American foreign policy is supposed to consist of. And I would say this too—Generally speaking, in the past, State Department briefings have been the least full of lies or obfuscation, or other manner of hiding the truth. Generally speaking, the diplomatic briefings are fairly accurate in terms of what US foreign policy is. I’d even say that in comparison to DOD public affairs briefings, which I have a lot of experience with too. Of late, however, I would say the government is of a single mind in that and this 29th of May briefing by Ortagus substantiates this. It’s of the mind of delivering either pablum, or even from the State Department briefers, either pablum or information that just makes your mind boggle when it’s delivered, and this latest briefing was no exception.
SHARMINI PERIES Occasionally, there are some very interesting nuggets that are let out. Let’s listen to one of these by Morgan Ortagus, who is a spokesperson for the State Department. This is a briefing she conducted on May 29th when she was asked about Iran. Here’s what she said.
MORGAN ORTAGUS Our maximum pressure campaign on Iran is designed to deny the Iranian regime, the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, the means to conduct its destructive foreign policy. Our campaign is working. The campaign is starving Iran’s proxies of the funds they rely on to operate on behalf of the regime. For the first time ever, Hezbollah, Iran’s top beneficiary, has been forced to publicly appeal for financial support. The Washington Post reported this month that our sanctions have forced Hezbollah to make draconian spending cuts.
SHARMINI PERIES All right. Now, this may have seemed routine at the time, but this has actually set off a series of other questions, incurred inquiries and coverage about their plan for Iran. Larry, tell us more about that.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON I was listening to that as she was speaking. I’d read it in transcript form, but as she was speaking, it’s a little easier to interpret just how intimate she is with the details of what she’s saying. She’s reading, either reading it in her mind because she’s virtually memorized it, or she’s actually reading it from a script. Richard Boucher, our spokesperson for most of the time when Powell and I were in the State, was quite a different sort of individual. He put a lot of human emphasis into things and was very convincing. That’s about as convincing as anybody else— from Pompeo to Trump, to whomever— saying those lies. Those are lies. They’re outright lies. When you look at, for example, Hezbollah. Hezbollah raises money all the time. If you look at what Hezbollah has done and chronicled by someone like Ali Soufan and his new group, the Soufan Group—Ali, having been the FBI’s probably most talented counterterrorism officer, broke the case in Yemen against the Al-Qaeda people who attacked the USS Cole in Port Aden, Yemen; broke the case against the first World Trade Center bombers. Ali is probably the best and Ali published a report recently that showed what the so-called terrorists that Iran sponsors— prominent amongst them Hezbollah— have done in the last few years and you might be surprised.
Most Americans would be surprised, given what she just said, given what Mike Pompeo says, given what Donald Trump says. Hezbollah has not conducted a terrorist attack against a US or a US-allied asset in the entirety of 2018 and 2019. This is this formidable terrorist group that Iran sponsors. Of course, the group is sponsored because Israel has the most sophisticated army, air force, navy in the region. Not only that. Israel is backed by the United States of America, whom we keep hearing has the greatest armed forces on the face of the earth. So, what do the people who are opposed to Israel in any way, fashion, or form have to do? They have to go to other means. They have to go to asymmetric means. In this case, we choose to call those means terrorism, and Iran happens to sponsor Hezbollah and, oh yes, they sponsor Hamas too.
If you’ll take a look at what Hamas has been doing in the last 18 to 24 months, it’s not been too formidable either. On the other hand, and here’s where Ortagus and Pompeo and Trump and all the rest of them, lie through their teeth. On the other hand, those Sunni groups sponsored by Saudi Arabia and other people of means in the Middle East, have wreaked havoc— from the Philippines to Indonesia, to the very volatile region around Kashmir between India and Pakistan, to Pakistan itself, to Afghanistan, to inside Syria. I mean, these are groups like Al-Qaeda. These are groups that get money from Saudi Arabians and other Sunnis who are sponsoring them, and we are allied with these groups. This is just—You listen to these people, and you just, you despair of ever hearing the truth again from any official government agency.
SHARMINI PERIES Larry, just recently, a story broke at a number of different news outlets about the money that the State Department has been giving this organization called the Iran Disinformation [Project]. Tell us about that and how this story broke, and what you’ve learned about it so far.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON As I understand it, and I think it’s pretty firm right now because the State has actually, at least informally, made its apologies and said they’re going to correct the situation. Back up just a minute. The law, essentially, dictates that no tax dollars, no US tax dollars, no appropriated dollars, can be used by the State Department or for that matter, any other public information agency within the US government, to propagandize or to attack the US taxpayer, the American people. That makes sense, I think, that you don’t want your government using taxpayer dollars to actually try to influence its own people. You know, that happens through politics and PACs and everything else, but you don’t want taxpayer dollars going through the appropriated process, being disseminated to a government agency, and then having that government agency use those taxpayer dollars back on Americans. Well, that’s what they were doing.
They were using this campaign, and they were funding it from State Department public diplomacy monies, as I understand it. They were using this campaign to attack Americans who supported the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement with Iran, and to attack those Americans who now and tomorrow too, will be against war with Iran. So, they’ve had to apologize, egg all over their face. On top of all that, it looks like one of the instrumentalities in doing this and making this happen, was the Foundation for Defense of Israel. Oh, I’m sorry—The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, FTD. So this is really a nefarious bunch of people, and it is another earmark. It is another flag of the Donald Trump way of doing business. This administration will do anything, with anybody’s money, with anybody’s assets, to achieve the nefarious purposes it is set upon to do. And anyone who thinks that there aren’t high crimes and misdemeanors in this presidency already, it’s just, they’re smoking some really low-grade stuff.
SHARMINI PERIES The State actually came out and apologized, saying they didn’t know that this is how the money was being used. How honest is that?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON I don’t doubt that there were people in Public Diplomacy, in ECA, in wherever it was in the State Department, that channeled these monies down to these sources. I don’t doubt that there weren’t people in there who believed that they were handing the money over to legitimate causes. For example, they were handing it over to people who were going to bring a, sort of, black campaign or disinformation campaign against Iran, or against some other entity aiding Iran like Hezbollah or whatever, but it turned out to be that they were not just using it for that. They were also using it to propagandize Americans, to make Americans look bad who weren’t supporting their policy positions. There were people who probably didn’t know that, but I dare say there were two or three, or maybe a few more than that, people in this process who might have even been working directly for Mike Pompeo or some of his minions, and who knew all about it because it didn’t just happen.
SHARMINI PERIES So, we’ll leave it there for today, but I look forward to having you back. This is a wonderful conversation from once an insider. I thank you for joining us today.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON Take care, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.