By Robert Parry
(Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.')
If you've ever wondered how agit-propaganda works, you might take a look at the latest case study from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's media empire - a bogus story about Barack Obama attending a Muslim "madrassah" when he was six years old, a smear that was then attributed to operatives of Hillary Clinton.
The shrewdness of Moon's Insight magazine story is that it hit two enemies with one anonymously sourced stone, a strategy of slime and divide straight from the textbooks of a spy agency like the CIA.
Only in this case, it is not the CIA planting black propaganda in a foreign publication to undermine some U.S. enemy. It is Moon using his media outlets subsidized by his mysterious foreign money to manipulate and distort the U.S. political process, again.
The Insight "madrassah" story also turned out to be false. As CNN reported on Jan. 22, the Indonesian school that Obama attended as a child was not a "madrassah" where sometimes extreme forms of Islam are taught, but rather a well-kept public school in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Jakarta.
The boys and girls wear school uniforms and are taught a typical school curriculum today as they were 39 years ago when Obama was a student there, while living with his mother in Indonesia, reported CNN correspondent John Vause, who has had prior experience covering real "madrassahs."
While most of the school's students are Muslim - Indonesia is a Muslim country, after all - Vause reported that the religious views of other students are respected and that Christian children at the school are taught that Jesus is the Son of God.
Nevertheless, the nasty Insight story is sure to hurt Obama by pushing anti-Islamic hot buttons of many Americans. By citing Clinton operatives as the supposed source of the story, Moon's publication also played to the negative image of the New York senator as a ruthless politician who would sling mud at an opponent.
Moon's media empire has planted similar stories in other U.S. presidential campaigns, publishing false or exaggerated stories that disparaged Democratic candidates and helped Moon's political favorites - particularly in the Bush family.
In Election 1988, Moon's Washington Times floated a story that Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis had psychiatric treatment, harming George H.W. Bush's Democratic opponent; in Election 1992, it bannered an accusation that Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton had worked for the KGB, again aiding the senior George Bush; in Election 2000, when George W. Bush was seeking the White House, the Times pushed allegations that Vice President Al Gore was "delusional"; in Election 2004, to boost the younger George Bush again, it trumpeted attacks on Sen. John Kerry's patriotism.
The Right's Echo Chamber
Once Moon's media empire surfaced these accusations, they would reverberate through the right-wing echo chamber and often into the mainstream press. Usually, the charges spotlighted a purported flaw so severe - such as mental instability or treason - that the Democrat would be disqualified in the eyes of many voters.
Also, since it's difficult to prove a negative, mainstream news outlets often would treat the charges as a point of legitimate dispute, forcing the Democrat to issue a denial or refuse to comment. Sometimes, TV pundits would add insult to the injury by critiquing how poorly the smeared Democrat countered the attack.
Moon's long record of engaging in this agit-propaganda helps explain his value to the Right and particularly to the Bush family. In turn, the Republicans have protected Moon from government investigations into his questionable sources of money, which finance both his media empire and his allied right-wing political organizations.
The Korean cult leader spends more than $100 million a year just to subsidize his flagship newspaper, the Washington Times, according to former Moon insiders. Longtime Washington Times reporter George Archibald recently put Moon's total investment in the newspaper at over $3 billion since its founding in 1982.
Though Moon's finances remain murky, the evidence is overwhelming that he engages in international money-laundering and has been closely tied to major crime syndicates in Asia and South America. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "The GOP's $3 Billion Propaganda Organ."] and run earlier in True North.
The latest attack on Obama is framed as a heartfelt desire to test out the credibility of the 45-year-old Illinois senator who identifies himself as a Christian and belongs to a church in Chicago.
But Insight magazine - citing supposed opposition research from the Clinton camp - contended that Obama actually was raised as a Muslim and is trying to keep that secret from the American people.
"He was a Muslim, but he concealed it," a source supposedly close to the background investigation told Insight. "The idea is to show Obama as deceptive."
Insight uses no named sources in the article, nor did the magazine check out the facts about the school as CNN did. The article simply relies on its unnamed sources to claim that Obama was indoctrinated at a "madrassa," a school for religious studies where boys are sometimes taught Islamic extremism such as Saudi-based Wahhabism.
"Although the background check has not confirmed that the specific Madrassa Mr. Obama attended was espousing Wahhabism, the sources said his Democratic opponents believe this to be the case - and are seeking to prove it," Insight magazine claimed.
Insight then stated: "The sources said the opponents are searching for evidence that Mr. Obama is still a Muslim or has ties to Islam. Mr. Obama attends services at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago's South Side. However, he is not known to be a regular parishioner." [Insight, Jan. 17, 2007]
The Fox Effect
After Moon's magazine published the "madrassa" story, it quickly spread to the wider audiences of Rupert Murdoch's right-wing media outlets. Fox News and the New York Post - both owned by Murdoch - picked up and further disseminated the ugly stories that portrayed Obama as a secret Islamic militant and Clinton as a smear artist.
To further the subliminal link between Obama and Islamic terrorism, the New York Post ran its story under the headline "'Osama' Mud Flies at Obama," much as talk show host Rush Limbaugh has reveled in repeating the names "Osama, Obama" again and again - all the better for his weak-minded listeners to connect Obama with Osama bin Laden.
Many right-wing pundits also have insisted on using Obama's middle name, "Hussein" apparently to disqualify Obama by associating him with Saddam Hussein though there is no connection. Hussein is a common and respected name in the Muslim world.
Obama received his middle name from his father who came from Kenya as a student. Obama's mother was the daughter of a Kansas farmer.
As the Obama-madrassa article spread through the right-wing media world, Fox News made sure the story was put in the harshest possible light.
"Hillary Clinton reported to be already digging up the dirt on Barack Obama," said John Gibson, anchor of Fox's "The Big Story." "The New York senator has reportedly outed Obama's madrassah past. That's right, the Clinton team reported to have pulled out all the stops to reveal something Obama would rather you didn't know - that he was educated in a Muslim madrassah."
For Obama's part, he wrote in his autobiography that after he had attended a Catholic school for two years, his Indonesian stepfather sent him to a "predominantly Muslim school" in Jakarta when he was six. This inconsequential fact apparently became the basis for Insight's claim that Obama was indoctrinated at a "madrassa."
"The allegations are completely false," Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs told the Washington Post. "To publish this sort of trash without any documentation is surprising, but for Fox to repeat something so false, not once, but many times is appallingly irresponsible."
Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson termed the Insight article "an obvious right-wing hit job by a Moonie publication that was designed to attack Senator Clinton and Senator Obama at the same time." [Washington Post, January 22, 2007]
But the troubling back story to this latest smear is the long history of Moon's publications injecting damaging propaganda against Democratic politicians in ways meant to confuse American voters.
Viewed over the past quarter century, Moon's media empire has the distinct appearance of a well-designed covert operation that uses foreign money, possibly from illicit
sources, to influence the U.S. political process in ways beneficial to Moon's political and financial goals.