Graham E. Fuller worked for the CIA—I interview him about the media and the world.
“Empathy doesn’t mean that you agree with what a hostile country is doing or that you sympathize with what a hostile country is doing—it simply means that you understand the psychology and worldview and culture and historical experience of countries and leaders you don’t agree with.”
“The bias is extraordinary—I never saw anything like this when I was involved in Russian affairs during the Cold War.”
“There’s some degree of rhetoric about saving ourselves from environmental destruction, but the actions on the ground are all moving in the other direction—I don’t know what it will take for people to get serious about saving ourselves from what’s happening, but we’re very far from that moment.”
Graham E. Fuller is an author and political analyst—he’s a specialist on Islamic political movements. Fuller served as the National Intelligence Council’s vice-chair—he also served as the CIA’s Station Chief in Kabul. I was honored and thrilled to interview Fuller—see below my interview with him that I edited for flow and added hyperlinks to.
I should note that there are ways to fix our dangerously narrow and biased and emaciated media system—things don’t have to be this way regarding the media. So Fuller describes—in the below interview—how problematic our media system is, but it’s not a law of nature that the media has to be this way.
1) What was it like to work in intelligence and what did you learn from that experience?
I actually expected to become an academic.
But I ended up getting drafted into the military in the middle of graduate school. I was promptly put into military intelligence—probably on the basis of my language interests—even though I didn’t even know what intelligence was all about. I got drafted into the CIA and never returned to academia.
In the CIA I got a chance to study foreign cultures and languages up close. I found intelligence immensely rewarding and instructive—I think that understanding foreign countries’ political and social cultures is crucial if you want to have a decent understanding of how other countries work.
I’d studied Turkish and was able to use that during my three years in Turkey—I’ve always been interested in Turkey and still feel quite close to that country.
I went to Arabic-language school in Beirut. I was able to use Arabic when I was posted to three different countries—in the Arab world—of which I found Yemen to be the most interesting.
I studied Dari and used that language when I served in Afghanistan—that was just before the 1979 Soviet invasion, so it was an important and even peaceful time to be there. My whole family was able to travel all over the country—I found Afghanistan fascinating.
I’d studied Mandarin and was able to use that during my four years in Hong Kong. I’ve always been interested in the Chinese language and culture—I still today keep up with my Chinese studies on my own. I enjoyed my time there immensely.
And I’d studied Russian—I was able to use that language in numerous countries when assessing Soviet diplomats for potential defection, but I never actually went to the USSR, although I visited post-USSR Russia after retiring.
As interesting as intelligence work is, every fledgling intelligence officer goes through the shocking realization where they discover that Washington barely reads what you send them even if you consider it really good intelligence. The CIA is of course interested in reports, but the foreign policy that you get out of the foreign-policy establishment—out of the State Department and the White House—is essentially domestically driven.
2) What happened regarding the “intelligence failure” regarding the Iraq War? Colin Powell played a shocking role in that whole thing—Powell put a face of legitimacy on the administration’s story.
No intelligence organization is immune from political pressure from senior policymakers who want to block or distort particular reports or analyses.
Powell was enraged when he found out that the WMD intelligence was false and that he’d been taken in.
Dick Cheney personally put considerable pressure on the CIA’s Iraq analysts even at the working level. And George Tenet bears the ultimate responsibility for the corruption of intelligence—Tenet was the most significant figure among the intelligence officers who caved to the political pressure.
3) What are your general thoughts about the media?
Newspapers have their own ideological prejudices and agendas. There tends to be an aversion to stories that cast the US in a bad light—another issue is that newspapers like the New York Times rarely offer what I would consider objective coverage of countries like Ukraine, Russia, China, Iran, and Israel.
Regarding global politics in general, the media tells a story in which America is basically engaged in some kind of protean struggle for democracy and freedom and human rights around the world. I think that most of what the United States does in the world has very little to do with democracy, freedom, and human rights—US actions have everything to do with geopolitics and international power politics.
Regarding the countries that are on America’s sanctions list, there’s nothing but a constant barrage of negative information and there’s a general lack of in-depth and balanced reporting. I’d like to see neutral and interesting coverage about how Russia works and about how Iran works—I’d like to see a serious and balanced look at how China works. But even the New York Times tends to work as a propaganda mill when it comes to these countries.
Every good intelligence officer learns that empathy is a vital analytic tool when it comes to acquiring intelligence about countries that the US views as hostile. Empathy doesn’t mean that you agree with what a hostile country is doing or that you sympathize with what a hostile country is doing—it simply means that you understand the psychology and worldview and culture and historical experience of countries and leaders you don’t agree with.
The media usually fails badly when it comes to the empathy that would provide the deepest insight into “the enemy’s” thinking and actions.
And the journalism crisis has reduced the number of foreign correspondents around the world—there’s very limited coverage when it comes to India, Latin America, and Africa. Many journalists seem to be ready to simply pick up Washington’s official line on events as a substitute for in-depth analysis.
4) You see things like that incredible 4 June 2022 WaPo coverage about US involvement in war crimes. But there’s just not enough of that kind of coverage. And that coverage always seems to come way too late in the game after a vast number of people have been killed.
Journalists have a deep reluctance to blow the whistle on policymakers when those policymakers are still in power. As you suggest, it’s much safer—and far less useful—when the whistleblowing comes many years after the fact.
The mainstream media can be useful, but you also have to go outside the mainstream media if you really want to gain deeper understanding and insight.
The problem is that the vast majority of people who read the mainstream media don’t have the background—regarding the war in Ukraine or other complicated issues—to be able to (A) read the stories with a critical eye and (B) identify the ideological biases in the mainstream media and (C) identify when the mainstream media is uncritically repeating disinformation from a US-allied government like the Ukrainian government or the Israeli government.
And the mainstream media will leave out important information that can change your perspective, so you have to venture outside the mainstream media or else you won’t know about those important pieces of information.
I don’t think that I’ve ever seen—in my entire life—such a dominant American media blitz as what we’re seeing regarding Ukraine today. The US isn’t only pressing its interpretation of events—the US is also engaging in full-scale demonization of Russia as a state, as a society, and as a culture. The bias is extraordinary—I never saw anything like this when I was involved in Russian affairs during the Cold War.
There are—interestingly—some outstanding Indian reporters and journalists and analysts when it comes to the war in Ukraine. But it’s remarkable that you have to turn to a country like India in order to find some decently objective coverage of what’s going on.
5) Hasn’t the media product changed regarding Israel? Take a look at the 25 September 2020 WaPo piece about Israel—stories like that weren’t as likely to appear in the past.
Yes, it has changed a good bit in more recent years.
But Haaretz runs stories about Israel that the American media wouldn’t touch in a million years—you just won’t find these stories in the American media, so a good journalist has to seek these things out.
6) What sources should people read in addition to the mainstream media?
First, I can’t recommend enough that people subscribe to the mailing list that Chas Freeman curates—it’s free, but you have to subscribe to it. Freeman curates important materials that the press neglects and ignores—the articles are mostly about foreign countries and foreign policy, but not exclusively. The mailing list happens to be called “Salon”, but it has nothing to do with the website Salon—Freeman’s mailing list probably includes some of the most important people in D.C. and beyond.
Second, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft is a huge breath of fresh air in Washington—it’s an excellent think tank that does a very good job at fulfilling its objective of providing a fresh outlook that doesn’t simply echo the Washington line.
7) What are the most crucial things that the media is failing to tell people when it comes to the Middle East?
The pro-Israel bias affects how the entire region is covered.
But there’s also just a lack of knowledgeable and meaningful coverage—there aren’t any serious correspondents anymore in Cairo or Saudi Arabia or in Algiers or Tehran.
8) And when it comes to Russia?
The media does very little to help people understand the events and history that Russians have endured since the USSR’s collapse in 1991—there was a reckless and rapid and brutal shift to a predatory form of capitalism. There were shortages, hardships, and difficulties—there was massive unemployment and incredible suffering.
The overnight transition took a grim toll that helps explain (1) Russians’ crushing sense of defeat and humiliation and (2) what a figure like Putin means to the average Russian. So I’m obviously not defending the Kremlin, but we can’t develop effective policies if we don’t understand the background for Putin’s broad support.
Washington neoconservatives hoped to bring Ukraine into NATO. That would’ve meant—among other things—bringing Russia’s sole warm-water port under NATO control, which is roughly comparable to the US’s Naval Station Norfolk falling into Chinese hands.
And regarding the war in Ukraine, there’s a deep economic and geopolitical logic that will work toward pulling Europe toward China and Russia. So in the longer run, it’s illogical for Europe to go along with Washington’s policy of punishing Russia and refusing to reach a diplomatic settlement.
9) And when it comes to China? China is rising in a way that threatens US domination.
We’re moving toward a multipolar world in which the US will no longer be the undisputed hegemon—we don’t have any choice in the matter.
America is suffering from various self-inflicted wounds—there’s huge political corruption due to all the money in politics, there’s extreme inequality, and there’s all sorts of social decay.
Meanwhile other powers have been rising—the BRICS members, but also Turkey and many others.
We can ask the question—as most Americans do—whether the world is better off with a single country running the world or with a multipolar system. A multipolar world might be more chaotic, but I think that it’s now fairly clear that a lot of the world isn’t necessarily at all comfortable with American domination.
And it’s clear that a new world order is coming. It’s necessary to sit down with Russia, China, India, Brazil, and Japan—among others—in order to determine what a new world order should look like.
The world won’t necessarily prosper if there’s chaos and anarchy, but I don’t think that that’s the only alternative. For example, Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to break out of the old Cold War system and create a new European security order from the Urals to Portugal—Washington wanted none of that, which is partly why we are where we are now.
It’s true that the Communist Party of China controls China, but China is a heavily state capitalist country that isn’t at all involved in some ideological struggle against capitalism on the world scene.
Today China talks about major powers not interfering in weaker countries’ affairs—this ideology is attractive for great parts of the world and is allowing China to win over the BRICS members and other countries like Turkey and Iran.
China might violate that principle—God knows that the US routinely violates its own supposed beliefs in democracy and human rights when it’s convenient to do so. But we don’t have any choice in the matter when it comes to where the world is headed.
The Chinese-inspired Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) system is the biggest geopolitical and economic and social project in world history—essentially the goal is to unite all of Eurasia, which includes Europe. It’s not like China will take over all of Eurasia, but there will be serious interactions and large-scale cooperation and massive Chinese investment—China will of course profit, though most other countries will too.
The Chinese use the term “win-win” a lot regarding foreign policy—the idea is that countries can negotiate win-win relationships. I don’t take China at its word of course, but I don’t think that it’s necessary to buy into the strong “zero-sum” ideology that Washington pushed during the Cold War—every Soviet gain was our loss and vice versa, which is also the current US policy toward China.
There’s no perfection in this world, but it makes sense to pursue a win-win world order. But I fear that it’ll take a lot of rethinking before Washington will stop trying to block Russia and China and will instead pursue constructive and creative goals.
10) Europe exploited and harmed Africa, whereas China seems to be pursuing a win-win relationship with Africa, but we wouldn’t say that China is pursuing this win-win relationship out of the goodness of their hearts—China has its own reasons for pursuing this win-win relationship.
Of course China isn’t doing all of this out of the goodness of their hearts—what country does?
But what could be a better justification for constructive policies than self-interest? I mean, one might worry about a potential Chinese change of heart if they were simply doing it out of the goodness of their hearts.
11) Regarding China’s rise, how much wealth and power will Beijing pull toward itself?
Much wealth will likely flow to Beijing through the BRI system, but a lot of wealth could also flow to the US and to Western Europe—this project will bring huge economic benefits to nearly all participants, so Washington may wish to reconsider its rejection of participation in the BRI system.
The BRI system doesn’t mean exclusive Chinese control but instead means shared control for all the countries that it passes through.
The BRI concept even includes a striking and very feasible project that would link Canada—and the US—to Siberia, which is close to Beijing and Tokyo and Seoul and close to that area’s whole economic powerhouse. That linkage would mean enhanced interaction at all levels.
So who in their right mind would object to that concept of extending the BRI system to North America?
12) How can Russian planners and Chinese planners and American planners discuss various exciting benefits and opportunities when global heating is about to wipe us all out? World planners are supposed to be intelligent people who are looking out for elite interests—how exactly will elites be able to enjoy various exciting benefits and opportunities when elites are dead due to global heating? Are these planners insane or stupid or what’s the deal?
Of course you’re right—economic benefits and opportunities are a moot point when environmental destruction is going on around us.
And that’s one of the insanities regarding the war in Ukraine—the war and its sanctions are pushing Europe back to high-carbon energy in a way that further imperils the environment.
Sadly there’s no intelligent and self-reflective environmental planning that I can see in the world today—anywhere. There’s some degree of rhetoric about saving ourselves from environmental destruction, but the actions on the ground are all moving in the other direction—I don’t know what it will take for people to get serious about saving ourselves from what’s happening, but we’re very far from that moment.
Good insights for the most part. But why no mention of the Uygur genocide going on in China? Is it not concerning that a country is killing and enslaving over a million people because of their ethnicity?
Great interview! Very insightful on many fronts.