Thursday, a trailer for Jon Stewart's much-anticipated story of filmmaker and journalist Maziar Bahari's six month long arrest and torture at the hands of the Iranian government went online, along with a handful of glowing interviews.
It may seem silly to provide context for a movie trailer but, considering the loaded nature of the subject and the depressing fact that, in our ADD media culture, only 4 in 10 people read past the headline (no reason to assume the same logic doesn't apply to political film trailers), I figured now is as good as time as any.
First things first just so there's no confusion: I don’t think Bahari, based on interviews I’ve seen and the writing of his I’ve read, is or was ever an American spy but I do think it’s important to note that Iran being hyper-paranoid about American spies posing as filmmakers and journalists is not, despite our cartoon view of them, at all irrational.
5 POINTS OF CONTEXT:
1) The U.S. has a long history of using filmmakers and other traditionally neutral occupations as spies
Remember that one time in 2011 when the “international community” was outraged Iran accused six British filmmakers of being spies - mocking the very notion as absurd - even though just months later we would give an Oscar to Ben Affleck for dramatizing the harrowing tale of an American agent literally doing just that.
Or that one time, that very same award season, we also showered praise on another film that documented, in a throwaway scene, the CIA’s exploitation of international aid organizations in Pakistan by handing out fake polio vaccines as a cover for trawling Abbottabad for bin Laden-linked DNA samples. A move roundly criticized by international health experts for all-but destroying anti-polio efforts in the tribal regions and likely resulting in the deaths of 10,000s over the next decade. (note: none of the DNA samples were ever used)
Whether or not you remember, one can be positive Iran's secret service does.
2) The U.S. has a long history of using journalists as spies
The publication Bahari worked for, Newsweek - along with The Washington Post, CBS News, and The New York Times, was from the late-40's to the mid-70's heavily involved in Operation Mockingbird - a secret CIA program designed to leverage ostensibly neutral journalists and media organizations to spread pro-American propaganda overseas.
Unearthed by a number of revelations in the late 70s, namely by the Church Committee and ex-Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein of Woodward and Bernstein fame, Operation Mockingbird routinely used establisment media as pro-American mouthpieces, often times paying them for overseas operations in briefcases full of cash. As Bernstein makes clear in his 1977 Rolling Stone expose:
The use of journalists has been among the most productive means of intelligence‑gathering employed by the CIA.
This included, for example, Bahari's future employer, Newsweek:
According to CIA and Senate sources, Agency files contain written agreements with former foreign correspondents and stringers for both [Time and Newsweek].
“But that was ancient history!” you say. Probably so. But my point is only to show that Iranian paranoia about American media spies is not without basis, not that it’s 100% justified 100% of the time.
3) The 2009 Twitter "revolution” in Iran the trailer alludes to, while sexy in theory, is probably not exactly what it appears to be on its surface
As I've mentioned previously in regards to ISIS "social media" stories, it's important to note that there exists a deliberate and open effort by the American military to influence social media in the Muslim world.
In 2011, the Guardian revealed that the US military spends over $200 million a year managing what’s called “persona management” or sockpuppetting software, an elaborate network of fake social media accounts expressly designed to sway public opinion overseas in subtle and surreptitious ways. As the Guardian’s Jeff Jarvis makes clear :
[E]ach fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations "without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries".
Upon fears that the program could be used for domestic (read: only thing that matters) purposes, Centcom assured Congress, in a rare moment of candidness, it was primarily being used against Evil Muslims™. Indeed, given that the only country for which Farsi is an official language is Iran and the DoD’s use of the present-tense verb “are” in its public statements, we know, for almost certain, such tools are presently being used on Iranian social media:
The languages in which the interventions are conducted include Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto.
(It's) part of a programme called Operation Earnest Voice (OEV), which was first developed in Iraq as a psychological warfare weapon against the online presence of al-Qaida supporters and others ranged against coalition forces. Since then, OEV is reported to have expanded into a $200m programme and is thought to have been used against jihadists across Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
4) Indeed, as the AP revealed last year, The US Government not only manipulates social media to "stir unrest", they even sometimes create entire fake social media companies and platforms
What made this program even more disturbing was that it was funded, coordinated, and carried out entirely by heretofore non-clandestine departments like State and USAID.
Given these hidden mechanisms and the fact that regime change in Iran has been unofficial US policy for decades, we should all take “social media” revolution stories with a healthy dose of skepticism.
5) Role Reversal: If Iran invaded and occupied Mexico and Canada, surrounded us with military bases on all sides, leveled sanctions against our economy, and threatened to overthrow our government- ask yourself, how kind would we be to their journalists?
Our establishment media often apologizes for CIA torture post-9/11 by painting American officials as earnest bureaucrats who were just scared and overreacted to an unknown threat. Fair enough, now imagine a country (as opposed to a few hundred jihadis) with the largest military and GDP in the history of world had, as their implicit forgein policy, the overthrow of your government, bombed and destroyed your two biggest neighboring countries and surrounded you on all sides with military bases while the leader of one of its major political parties casually joked about bombing you.
By American pundit’s own logic - and considering al Qaeda, unlike the US, was never an existential threat - Iran’s use of torture and stifling of the free press isn’t just understandable, it widely understated relative to the risk at hand.
And as for the sanctity of press freedom? Six weeks before Bahari's arrest in Iran the United States gave a Staten Island man 6 years in prison for simply including Al Manar, a Hezbollah TV station, in a cable package he offered to his customers (the FBI considered this act alone "aiding terrorism"). It's probably safe to assume the movie rights to this man's story are not exactly a hot item in Hollywood.
What happened to Bahari, granting his purpose in Iran in 2009 was entirely journalistic in nature, is terrible and a threat to free speech and human decency, but it bears mentioning before Hollywood primes up for another Oscar season of giddy Iran-bashing: the quickest and most effective way for the US to secure the safety of its journalists is to stop invading and bombing other countries and exploiting traditionally civilian occupations (aid worker, journalist, filmmaker, diplomat) for overseas clandestine operations. The entirely decontextualized hand wringing and moral smugness over Iran’s handling of Bahari is exactly what the late Gore Vidal meant when he referred to us as the "United States of Amnesia". All things being equal, the mantra espoused by Jon Stewart and our establishment left that “imprisoning journalists is bad” is absolutely correct. The only problem, as the US government keeps reinforcing, is that all things are not even close to being equal - a reality thinking persons should keep in mind when parsing the discourse of pop politics.