Mark Perry: Inside the Palestine Papers debate

Before publishing the Palestine Papers, Al Jazeera invited a group of experts and journalists to Doha to study the documents. The group included political and military analyst, Mark Perry, who provided analysis in this week’s special report and the following background for War in Context. He is the author of eight books, including Partners In Command and the recently released Talking To Terrorists.

We Better Get Used To It
Inside The Palestine Papers Debate
By Mark Perry

Back in 1989, I was the recipient of hundreds of State Department cables dealing with nearly every aspect of American foreign policy. The material was breathtaking: cables on CIA support for the non-communist Cambodian resistance, a DIA report on a PLO political team in Central America, the theft of U.S. monies by Thai Generals in Bangkok – accounts of changes of government in half-a-dozen developing countries. The cables were marked “Top Secret” and provided me with the opportunity to write a series of articles for a number of major dailies. Until the leaker was caught.

What surprised me the most was not the subject matter of the cables, but the rumors surrounding them. The then-head of the Senate Intelligence Committee blamed “State Department officials” for the leak, the State Department blamed the Senate. Everyone was convinced – the cables were leaked by top officials for political purposes. In truth, the leaker was an overweight late-20s State Department polymath named Bill with a habit of dribbling salad dressing on his tie. His one notable tic was an uncontrollable stutter. Worried that his discovery would lead to his arrest, I felt itmy duty to warn him that his actions would mean the end of his career. “Why are you doing this, Bill?” I asked him. He blinked for a moment, hesitated, then told me: “Shhhh . . .she . . . mmm … makes fffff . . . fun of me.” There you have it: the reason he was leaking the cables was because his supervisor at the Cable Secretariat, cruelly caricatured his stutter in front of his fellow workers – to their great amusement. “I . . I . . . I’m going to gggggee . . . get her,” he said.

I was reminded of Bill when Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat requested the U.S. and U.K governments investigate Al Jazeera reporter Clayton Swisher (a U.S. citizen) and Alastair Crooke (a former British government employee – wink, wink), for leaking over 1600 documents on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to Al-Jazeera. This is complete eyewash. As a part of a group of experts and journalists invited to Doha two weeks ago by Al-Jazeera to study the documents, it was clear to me then that the leaker was probably an employee in the PLO’s Negotiations Department. Of course, I could be completely wrong: I have no idea who the leaker is and was given no hint of his (or her, or their) identity by anyone at the network. That hasn’t stopped me from speculating: the leaker could be a Palestinian employee who wants to embarrass the Palestinian Authority, a translator who sat in on the meetings, a janitor with access to offices and files, or Erekat himself – who wanted to embarrass George Mitchell.

Even so, Erekat’s demand that the U.S. and U.K. search for the leaker provides an interesting sidebar to the papers’ release: for having initially denounced the 1600 documents in Al-Jazeera possession as “fabrications,” Mr. Erekat is now willing to concede their authenticity. His response might be a model for all those caught out by the truth – a narrative reminisicent of that common to terminal patients: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. In truth, while the identity of the leaker has now become a kind of cottage industry in the Arab press, the leaker’s name is not nearly as important as the leaker’s motives.

This came through clearly during my reading of the documents, for I focused initially on on a series of six meetings in September and October of 2009 between Saeb Erekat and George Mitchell. For me those documents showed Erekat as a tough, savvy, committed and stubborn nationalist, while George Mitchell appeared and talked like “Israel’s lawyer” – abandoning prior U.S. positions on the negotiation’s terms of reference and on the Road Map. I argued to my colleagues that Al-Jazeera’s “lead” should focus on Mitchell and the U.S., as Israeli supplicants. Whoever leaked these documents, I said, wanted to show us the depravity of the American position. My colleagues disagreed, though not because they had a different agenda – they had simply read different documents. For them, Erekat was a serial compromiser, having conceded traditional Palestinian positions on Jerusalem, refugees and borders.

I did not win this argument, but on reflection it’s easy to understand why. If the Palestine Papers had been leaked to CBS, NBC, ABC or CNN (for example), there’s no doubt in my mind that Mitchell (and the Obama administration) would have been the focus of subsequent reports. If the papers had been leaked to the BBC, the focus would have been on Tony Blair and MI-6. In a sense, then, my initial discomfort with Al-Jazeera’s coverage is a reflection of America’s discomfort: we say that Al-Jazeera has an “agenda” – that their journalism is not as credible as ours. And we’re right, but only to this degree: Al-Jazeera is an Arab network with an Arab viewership that covers Arab politics and leaders. Their coverage of the world isn’t less credible – it’s different. What we’re really uncomfortable with (and what I was uncomfortable with) is that Al-Jazeera doesn’t put America at the center of the world. What we have to say is less important to them than what they have to say – their focus is on what is happening outside of their door, not ours. We better get used to it.

Here’s a coda: after feting my own leaker through six months of dinners and discussions, I showed up at his apartment to find him gone. There was simply no trace of him, and all of my attempts to reach him by other means led to nothing. But one day, in 1994, I received a call from him from his mother’s home in Nevada. He confirmed that the State Department had identified him as my leaker and he’d been summarily fired. He told me he was lucky he hadn’t been prosecuted – but he seemed happy and was starting his life over again. “So,” I asked. “Did you ever get her? You know, your supervisor – the woman who made fun of you.” There was a moment’s hesitation: “Oh yeah,” he said. “I got her good. She got a bad evaluation and left her job.” It was only after I hung up that I realized: his stutter was gone.

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4 thoughts on “Mark Perry: Inside the Palestine Papers debate

  1. Norman

    Lucky fellow. I wonder, did he get a good restart to this day? This should be a lesson to all the people who push others buttons. It doesn’t matter who you are or what position you hold. It’s almost impossible to not bruise another persons mind set, especially when one deals with many many people. Perceived or otherwise, it generally happens out os spite, whether real or imagined. As far as it goes, well, when one is dealing from the bottom of the deck, one should be prepared to be exposed.

  2. rick

    Thanks to Mark Perry for the reality check — i.e, that
    human biases in perception and interpretation color
    both the “production” and the “consumption” of information.

    I’d like to emphasize some of Mark Perry’s insights —
    and note (below) that Julian Assange has a similar viewpoint.

    Perry writes:
    “For me those documents showed Erekat as a tough, savvy,
    committed and stubborn nationalist … My colleagues disagreed …
    because they had simply read different documents. For them,
    Erekat was a serial compromiser …”

    Info Overload: The more data you have,
    the more different ways you can interpret that data.
    More Dots means more ways — both correct and incorrect
    to connect those Dots into Patterns, into interpretations.

    When you approach Data with a predetermined Pattern,
    to see whether the Data fit the Pattern,
    (or whether you can “torture the facts” until they scream
    whatever Interpretation you want them to say), there is
    always a risk of “false positives” and “false negatives”.

    play a much larger interpretive role in these kinds of situations.
    And whoever edits and publishes selected excerpts,
    necessarily imposes their own SELECTION BIAS on the data dump.

    Perry writes:
    “If the Palestine Papers had been leaked to CBS, NBC, ABC or CNN …
    there’s no doubt in my mind that Mitchell (and the Obama administration)
    would have been the focus of subsequent reports. If the papers had
    been leaked to the BBC, the focus would have been on Tony Blair and MI-6.”

    Yes. Selection Bias means an editor tends to publish things
    they believe will interest their particular audience.
    And to compete for the scarce resource of people’s ATTENTION,
    media outlets have an incentive to selectively interpret data
    (or just make it up, like Fox) so as to inflame, arouse, outrage,
    titillate, … and otherwise emotionally impact an audience.

    “If it bleeds, it leads,” was an oft-cited maxim for both TV
    and newspapers.

    In a 1/25/11 interview with AP, Julian Assange makes a similar point:

    WikiLeaks hopes to enlist as many as 60 news organizations …
    to help speed the publication of its massive trove of
    secret U.S. diplomatic memos …

    “We’re striving for maximum impact for the material,” Assange said
    in a telephone interview, in which he laid out his media strategy.

    WikiLeaks has been accused … of reckless disregard in the way
    it publishes documents, but Assange said — with a few exceptions —
    he was so far satisfied with the process.

    Assange has previously expressed frustration with the slow pace
    of the release of the secret diplomatic cables, and said
    releasing country-specific files to selected local media
    would serve to push them out faster.

    Sometimes, that could mean doing what Assange called
    “triangulating the politics of a country” —
    giving documents to a left-wing paper in a country
    with a right-wing government, or offering cables to
    conservative titles in countries with a left-leaning administration.

  3. scott

    as to the Coda, the supervisor could be sued for creating a hostile working environment, otherwise, this leaker might be under the jail. As it, the supervisor is lucky she wasn’t prosecuted.

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