The Amazing Inner Lives Of Animals

This is a quite extraordinary article, a review of two recently published books that appeared in the current edition of The New York Review of Books, about the secret lives of animals, secret, that is, to most of us. It is a must-read. Enjoy.

By Tim Flannery
Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Elephant herds crossing a lake bed in the sun, Amboseli, Kenya, 2008; photograph by Nick Brandt

The free-living dolphins of the Bahamas had come to know researcher Denise Herzing and her team very well. For decades, at the start of each four-month-long field season, the dolphins would give the returning humans a joyous reception: “a reunion of friends,” as Herzing described it. But one year the creatures behaved differently. They would not approach the research vessel, refusing even invitations to bow-ride. When the boat’s captain slipped into the water to size up the situation, the dolphins remained aloof. Meanwhile on board it was discovered that an expeditioner had died while napping in his bunk. As the vessel headed to port, Herzing said, “the dolphins came to the side of our boat, not riding the bow as usual but instead flanking us fifty feet away in an aquatic escort” that paralleled the boat in an organized manner.

The remarkable incident raises questions that lie at the heart of Carl Safina’s astonishing new book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. Can dolphin sonar penetrate the steel hull of a boat—and pinpoint a stilled heart? Can dolphins empathize with human bereavement? Is dolphin society organized enough to permit the formation of a funeral cavalcade? If the answer to these questions is yes, then Beyond Words has profound implications for humans and our worldview.

Beyond Words is gloriously written. Consider this description of elephants:

Their great breaths, rushing in and out, resonant in the halls of their lungs. The skin as they moved, wrinkled with time and wear, batiked with the walk of ages, as if they lived within the creased maps of the lives they’d traveled.Not since Barry Lopez or Peter Matthiessen were at the height of their powers has the world been treated to such sumptuous descriptions of nature.

Safina would be the first to agree that anecdotes such as Herzing’s lack the rigor of scientific experiments. He tells us that he is “most skeptical of those things I’d most like to believe, precisely because I’d like to believe them. Wanting to believe something can bias one’s view.” Beyond Words is a rigorously scientific work. Yet impeccably documented anecdotes such as Herzing’s have a place in it, because they are the only means we have of comprehending the reactions of intelligent creatures like dolphins to rare and unusual circumstances. The alternative—to capture dolphins or chimpanzees and subject them to an array of human-devised tests in artificial circumstances—often results in nonsense. Take, for example, the oft-cited research demonstrating that wolves cannot follow a human pointing at something, while dogs can. It turns out that the wolves tested were caged: when outside a cage, wolves readily follow human pointing, without any training.

Safina explains how an evolutionary understanding of the emotions helps us to see even humble creatures as individuals. The chemical oxytocin creates feelings of pleasure and a craving for sociality. So widespread is it that it must have originated 700 million or more years ago. Serotonin, a chemical associated with anxiety, is probably equally ancient: crayfish subjected to mild electrical shocks have elevated serotonin levels, and act anxiously. If treated with chlordiazepoxide (a common treatment for humans suffering from anxiety) they resume normal behavior.

The basic repertory of emotions evolved so long ago that even worms exhibit great behavioral sophistication. After a lifetime studying earthworms, Charles Darwin declared that they “deserve to be called intelligent,” for when evaluating materials for plugging their burrows, they “act in nearly in the same manner as a man under similar circumstances.” Emotions are the foundation blocks of relationships and personalities. Driven by the same complex mix of emotion-inducing chemicals as ourselves, every worm, crayfish, and other invertebrate has its own unique response to its fellows and the world at large.

Worms and crayfish may have distinct personalities and emotional responses, but their brains are far simpler than ours. Humans fall within a small group of mammals with exceptionally large brains. All are highly social, and it is upon this group—and specifically the elephants, killer whales, bottlenosed dolphins, and wolves—that Safina concentrates. The last common ancestor of these creatures was a primitive, small-brained, nocturnal, shrew-sized mammal that lived around 100 million years ago. The brains, bodies, and societies of these “animal intelligentsia,” as we might call them, are each very different, making it hard to understand their lives.

Safina sees and describes the behaviors of the animals he’s interested in through the eyes of researchers who have dedicated their lives to the study of their subjects. What is it like to be an elephant? Cynthia Moss, who has lived with the elephants of Amboseli National Park in Kenya for four decades, sums them up as “intelligent, social, emotional, personable, imitative, respectful of ancestors, playful, self-aware, compassionate.” It all sounds impressively human, but elephant societies are very different from our own. Female elephants and their young live separately from males, for example, so they have no conception of romantic love or marriage (though the females can be very interested in sex, enough to fake estrus in order to attract male attention).

Much published behavioral science, incidentally, is phrased in a neutral language that distances us from animals. Safina argues that we should use a common language of grief, joy, friendship, and empathy to describe the equivalent responses of both human and other animals. To this I would add the language of ceremony: What other word but “marriage” should be used to describe the ritual bonding, followed by lifelong commitment to their partners, of creatures like the albatross?

Sometimes it is the small things that best reveal shared life experience. When baby elephants are weaned they throw tantrums that rival those of the wildest two-year-old humans. One youngster became so upset with his mother that he screamed and trumpeted as he poked her with his tiny tusks. Finally, in frustration, he stuck his trunk into her anus, then turned around and kicked her. “You little horror!” thought Cynthia Moss as she watched the tantrum unfold.

Clans of female elephants, led by matriarchs, periodically associate in larger groups. As a result, elephants have excellent memories, and are able to recognize up to one thousand individuals. So strong is elephant empathy that they sometimes bury their dead, and will return repeatedly to the skeleton of a deceased matriarch to fondle her tusks and bones. Indeed, an elephant’s response to death has been called “probably the strangest thing about them.” When the Amboseli matriarch Eleanor was dying, the matriarch Grace approached her, her facial glands streaming with emotion, and tried to lift her to her feet. Grace stayed with the stricken Eleanor through the night of her death, and on the third day Eleanor’s family and closest friend Maya visited the corpse. A week after the death the family returned again to express what can only be called their grief. A researcher once played the recording of a deceased elephant’s voice to its family. The creatures went wild searching for their lost relative, and the dead elephant’s daughter called for days after.

Elephants have been known to extract spears from wounded friends, and to stay with infants born with disabilities. In 1990, the Amboseli female Echo gave birth to a baby who could not straighten his forelegs, and so could hardly nurse. For three days Echo and her eight-year-old daughter Enid stayed with him as he hobbled along on his wrists. On the third day he finally managed to straighten his forelegs and, despite several falls, he was soon walking well. As Safina says, “His family’s persistence—which in humans facing a similar situation we might call faith—had saved him.”

Most of us will never see a wild elephant, much less spend the time observing them that is required to understand them as individuals. But there are animals that share our lives, and whose societies, emotional depth, and intelligence are readily accessible. Dogs are often family to us. And it is astonishing how much of a dog’s behavior is pure wolf.

The Canidae—the family to which wolves and dogs belong—is a uniquely American production, originating and evolving over tens of millions of years in North America before spreading to other continents around five million years ago. The American origins of the wolf family did not save them from frontier violence. By the 1920s they had been all but exterminated from the contiguous forty-eight states of the US. Their reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park in January 1995 offered a unique opportunity to follow the fortunes of wolf families as they made their way in a new world. Yellowstone’s wolf research leader Doug Smith says that wolves do three things: “They travel, they kill, and they are social—very social.” But wolves are also astonishingly like us. They can be ruthless in their pursuit of power, to the extent that some will kill their sister’s cubs if it serves their ends. But they will also at times adopt the litters of rivals.

The best wolves are brilliant leaders that pursue lifelong strategies in order to lead their families to success. According to wolf watchers, the greatest wolf Yellowstone has ever known was Twenty-one (wolf researchers use numbers rather than names for individuals). He was big and brave, once taking on six attacking wolves and routing them all. He never lost a fight, but he was also magnanimous, for he never killed a vanquished enemy. And that made him as unusual among wolves as did his size and strength. He was born into the first litter of Yellowstone pups following the reintroduction of wolves in the park. Twenty-one’s big break came at age two and a half when he left his family and joined a pack whose alpha male had been shot just two days earlier. He adopted the dead wolf’s pups and helped to feed them.

A telling characteristic of Twenty-one was the way he loved to wrestle with the little ones and pretend to lose. The wolf expert Rick McIntyre said, “He’d just fall on his back with his paws in the air. And the triumphant-looking little one would be standing over him with his tail wagging.” “The ability to pretend,” McIntyre said, “shows that you understand how your actions are perceived by others. It indicates high intelligence.” That many humans recognize this in dogs, but have failed to see it in wolves, speaks strongly of the need for Safina’s book. For dogs are wolves that came to live with us.

The similarities between wolves and humans are arguably more extensive than those between humans and any other animal. Tough, flexible in social structure, capable of forming pair bonds and fitting into ever-shifting hierarchies, we were made for each other. And when we out-of-Africa apes met up with the arch-typical American canids a few tens of thousands of years ago, a bond was created that has endured ever since. Just who initiated the interspecies relationship is hotly debated. The traditional view is that humans domesticated dogs, but Safina makes a convincing case that the process was driven as much by the wolves as by the humans. The wolves that were better able to read human tendencies and reactions, and were less skittish of human contact, would have gotten access to more food scraps from human camps. And human clans willing to tolerate the wolves would have obtained valuable warnings of the presence of danger from other animals (and other humans). Eventually, Safina says, “we became like each other.” The partnership, however, has had some puzzling effects. The brains of dogs, as well as humans, have shrunk since we began living together, perhaps because we came to rely on each other rather than solely on our own wits.

Lisa Denning/Ocean Eyes Photography

An Atlantic spotted dolphin mother and calf, Bimini, Bahamas, 2007

Sperm whales have the largest brains on earth—around six times larger on average than our own—while bottlenosed dolphins have the largest brains relative to body size, with the exception of humans. Along with killer whales, these species have a place beside the elephants, dogs, and great apes in the animal intelligentsia. The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins is a comprehensive academic work by researchers who have devoted their careers to studying sperm and killer whales. Ocean-going and deep diving, sperm whales are difficult to study, and researchers can as yet offer only a bare sketch of their societies. But it’s already clear that their social organization has remarkable parallels with that of elephants. Like elephants, sperm whale females and young often live in “clans” of up to thirty individuals, while adult males, except when mating, live separate lives.

Sperm whale clans possess distinctive “dialects” of sonar clicks. These are passed on by learning, and act as markers of clan identity. They are an important part of the whale’s communication system, which enables the creatures to synchronize their diving, feeding, and other activities. So social are sperm whales that females share the care of the young of their clan, for example by staying at the surface with a young whale while its mother dives for food. Clan members are so closely bonded that they spend extended periods at the surface, nuzzling one another or staying in close body contact. As with elephants, clans can gather in large congregations, so it seems reasonable to assume that sperm whales have the capacity to memorize large social networks.

Killer whales (otherwise known as orcas) have a very different social organization. Without doubt their most unusual characteristic is that all male killer whales are deeply involved with their mother. They never leave their mother’s clan, and despite their enormous size (growing to twice the weight of females), their fates remain deeply intertwined with those of their mothers. If their mothers should die, even fully adult males over thirty years old (they can live to over sixty) face an eight-fold increase in their risk of death. Just how and why the orphaned adult males die remains unclear.

Another striking feature of killer whales and near relatives is the extraordinary length of lactation. Short-finned pilot whales lactate for at least fifteen years after birth, even though puberty occurs at between eight and seventeen years. Sperm whales reach sexual maturity at nine to ten years of age, but traces of milk have been found in the stomachs of thirteen-year-olds. Killer whales and humans are unique in that they experience menopause (for the whales typically at around age forty). Because female killer whales can live up to eighty years, around a quarter of females in any group are postreproductive. Yet they remain sexually active. Grandmothers are evidently very important in killer whale societies, almost certainly because of the wisdom they have gathered over a lifetime.

An equally odd aspect of killer whale culture concerns food taboos and ways that whales observe them. In this they offer an extraordinary parallel with some human cultures. One clan of killer whales eats only a single species of salmon. Another kills only one species of seal. When members of a mammal-eating clan were captured for the aquarium trade in the 1970s, they starved themselves for seventy-eight days before eating the salmon being proffered, and then they ate the fish only after they had performed a strange ceremony. The two whales held gently onto either end of a dead salmon, and swam a single lap around their pool with it in their mouths, before dividing the fish between themselves and consuming it.

Killer whales are strongly xenophobic. Clans of salmon eaters never mix with mammal eaters, for example. Genetic studies show that clans with different food taboos don’t interbreed, leading to slightly different appearances and genetic makeup. Each clan has a distinctive dialect of vocalizations (perhaps we should call them languages), which facilitates coordination of their work, division of their labor, and care of one another.

At times, killer whales have developed special relationships with people. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at Twofold Bay south of Sydney, Australia, killer whales and humans set up a mutually profitable whaling enterprise. The killer whales would notify the whalers of the presence of humpback whales by performing a ritual in the waters of the bay fronting the whaler’s cottagers. The men would harpoon the humpbacks, and the killer whales would hold on to the harpoon ropes to tire the prey.

After a humpback was lanced and killed by the men, they observed the “law of the tongue.” The whalers would leave the humpback body for twenty-four hours so that the killers could feast on the lips and tongue. Remarkable proof of this partnership persists, in the form of the skeleton of “Old Tom”—a killer whale whose teeth were worn flat on one side while holding onto harpoon ropes—which can be seen in the killer whale museum in the town of Eden, Australia.

With the exception of our species, killer whales are earth’s most capable predators. When they evolved ten million years ago, half of earth’s whales, seals, and dugong species became extinct. Because they specialize in a particular food type and are so intelligent, killer whales continue to have a huge impact on their prey. As a result of global warming, killer whales have appeared in Arctic waters. Horrified Inuit describe them as voracious and wasteful killers that have reduced populations of some Arctic mammals by a third.

Safina comes to an unfamiliar but empirically based conclusion: prior to the domestication of plants and the invention of writing, the differences between human societies and those of elephants, dogs, killer whales, and dolphins was a matter of degree, not kind. Why, he asks, has it taken us so long to understand this? Are our egos “threatened by the thought that other animals think and feel? Is it because acknowledging the mind of another makes it harder to abuse them?”

The discovery of nonhuman societies composed of highly intelligent, social, empathetic individuals possessing sophisticated communication systems will force us to reformulate many questions. We have long asked whether we are alone in the universe. But clearly we are not alone on earth. The evolution of intelligence, of empathy and complex societies, is surely more likely than we have hitherto considered. And what is it, exactly, that sets our species apart? We clearly are different, but in light of Beyond Words we need to reevaluate how, and why.

Beyond Words will have a deep impact on many readers, for it elevates our relationships with animals to a higher plane. When your dog looks at you adoringly, even though he or she cannot say it, you can be as sure that love is being expressed as you can when hearing any human declaration of eternal devotion. Most of us already knew that, but have withheld ourselves from a full surrender to its implications. Along with Darwin’s Origin and Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene, Beyond Words marks a major milestone in our evolving understanding of our place in nature. Indeed it has the potential to change our relationship with the natural world.

Rupert Murdoch and Ronald Reagan – Propaganda Pals

A fascinating story of Cold War skulduggery and the fashioning of a secret alliance between Ronald Reagan and News International supremo, Rupert Murdoch unearthed by Robert Parry, on the always interesting website.

Murdoch had already forged a relationship with the Thatcher government in Britain, which had paid handsome business dividends for his media group, and the partnership he established with Reagan came on the eve of his move into the US media scene and the creation of the Fox News franchise which would establish Murdoch as the champion of the American Right.

Special Report: Journalistic objectivity was never high on Rupert Murdoch’s ethics list, but “secret” records from the 1980s show how far the media magnate went to ingratiate himself with President Reagan by collaborating with U.S. propaganda operations, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

In February 1983, global media magnate Rupert Murdoch volunteered to help the Reagan administration’s propaganda strategy for deploying U.S. mid-range nuclear missiles in Europe by using his newspapers to exacerbate public fears about the Soviet Union, according to a recently declassified “secret” letter.

Murdoch, then an Australian citizen with major newspaper holdings in Great Britain and some in the United States, had already established close political ties with British Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and was developing them with President Ronald Reagan, partly through one of Murdoch’s lawyers, the infamous Red-baiter Roy Cohn, who had served as counsel to Sen. Joe McCarthy’s investigations in the 1950s.

President Reagan meets with publisher Rupert Murdoch, U.S. Information Agency Director Charles Wick, lawyers Roy Cohn and Thomas Bolan in the Oval Office on Jan. 18, 1983. (Photo credit: Reagan presidential library)

By February 1983, Cohn had already arranged a face-to-face meeting between Reagan and Murdoch (on Jan. 18, 1983) and had brokered a collaborative relationship between Murdoch and Charles Z. Wick, director of the U.S. Information Agency who oversaw U.S. propaganda operations worldwide.

On Feb. 14, 1983, in a “secret” letter to Reagan’s National Security Advisor William P. Clark, USIA Director Wick described a phone call from Murdoch in which they discussed ways to heighten European and American fears about Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range missiles and thus undermine activists pushing for nuclear disarmament. Murdoch said his comments reflected the views of high-ranking British officials with whom Murdoch had talked.

In the letter, Wick told Clark that CIA Director William J. Casey was eager to help Murdoch’s efforts by releasing classified satellite photos of the Soviet missiles in eastern Europe but was confronting resistance from the spy agency’s professional analysts.

“Rupert Murdoch … called me on February 9 [1983],” Wick told Clark. “Senior British officials have been telling him of their increasing concern with the rapid progress being made by the unilateralists,” a reference to the anti-nuclear activists who were rallying millions of Europeans to the cause of nuclear disarmament.

“According to Murdoch, the majority of the people just do not understand the SS-20 threat. He asked if we could release satellite photographs of Soviet SS-20s to dramatically stem the rising opposition to GLCM [U.S. ground-launched cruise missiles] and Pershing II deployment. He felt that the delineation of the SS-20 threat graphically could be very persuasive. It would give the press – the friendly press in particular – an opportunity to counter the growing wave of unilateralism.

“I pointed out to Murdoch that I had seen these photographs and they are not comprehensible to the lay person. Murdoch responded that he would commission credible analysts to be briefed here. They could make the photographs understandable to the average individual with circles, arrows, and other enhancements.” The next section of Wick’s letter remains classified – more than three decades later – on national security grounds.

On the letter’s second page, Wick describes his contact with CIA Director Casey regarding Murdoch’s phone call to seek the CIA’s cooperation in releasing the satellite photographs and making other public relations moves to influence domestic and international public opinion, including “a presidential press conference similar to President Kennedy’s during the Cuban missile crisis.”

Wick said President Reagan “could present large blow-ups while experts would be on hand to provide explanations in greater detail. Bill Casey agreed to re-check the objections raised by his people when we initially discussed release of the photographs last year. Bill’s people still oppose release of the photographs for ‘legal and security considerations.’ However, Bill said we do not want to be too rigid and protective, given Murdoch’s observations and with so much hanging in the balance on the upcoming German elections.”

Wick added that he and Casey wanted NSC Advisor Clark to take this “major public diplomacy question” to the Senior Policy Group (SPG) to consider overriding the CIA staff’s objections. (Wick’s letter was declassified last month by the National Archives in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that I filed in 2013.)

Dangerous Tensions

In 1983, the escalating tensions with the Soviet Union over the SS-20s and the deployment of U.S. cruise missiles in Europe led to what became known as “the New Cold War,” with Reagan rapidly expanding the U.S. military budget and engaging in extreme anti-Soviet rhetoric.

In a March 23, 1983 speech to the nation about the supposed Soviet threat, Reagan did release a few satellite images but they were of facilities in Cuba and Central America, not eastern Europe and the SS-20s. “I wish I could show you more without compromising our most sensitive intelligence sources and methods,” Reagan said.

A CIA historical review in 2007 revealed that the Reagan administration in the early 1980s was intentionally raising tensions with the Soviet Union, in part, by mounting provocative military exercises near its borders. In response, Moscow raised its nuclear alert levels fearing a possible U.S. first strike, a hair-trigger risk for an accidental nuclear conflict that was not well understood in Washington at the time.

The CIA study reported: “New information suggests that Moscow … was reacting to US-led naval and air operations, including psychological warfare missions conducted close to the Soviet Union. These operations employed sophisticated concealment and deception measures to thwart Soviet early warning systems and to offset the Soviets’ ability … to read US naval communications.”

The Soviets were also spooked by Reagan’s harsh “evil empire” rhetoric and weapons build-up, prompting “Soviet officials and much of the populace to voice concern over the prospect of a US nuclear attack,” the CIA study said. “Moscow’s threat perceptions and Operation RYAN [a special intelligence operation to collect data on the U.S. threat] were influenced by memories of Hitler’s 1941 surprise attack on the USSR (Operation BARBAROSSA).”

As a major global publisher with close ties to Thatcher’s government, Murdoch saw himself as part of this ideological struggle and volunteered his news outlets to support hard-line Thatcher-Reagan policies against the Soviets. Documents previously released by Reagan’s presidential library in Simi Valley, California, revealed the key role played by Cohn in connecting Murdoch with the top echelon of the Reagan administration.

Both Roy Cohn and Ronald Reagan got their starts in politics during the anti-communist purges in the 1950s, Cohn as Sen. Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel and Reagan as a witness against alleged communists in Hollywood. Cohn, a hardball political player, built his reputation as both an anti-communist and anti-gay crusader who aggressively interrogated witnesses during the Red Scare and the Lavender Scare, claiming that the U.S. government was infiltrated by communists and homosexuals who threatened the nation’s security.

Cohn’s high-profile role in the McCarthy hearings ultimately ended when he was forced to resign over charges that he targeted the U.S. Army for an anti-communist purge because it had refused to give preferential treatment to one of his close associates, G. David Shine. Though Cohn denied he was romantically involved with Shine – and a homosexual relationship was never proven – Cohn’s own homosexuality became publicly known after he underwent treatment for AIDS in the 1980s, leading to his death in 1986.

However, in Cohn’s final years, he enjoyed close personal ties to the Reagan administration and exchanged warm notes with Reagan himself. But, more significantly, Cohn, as one of Murdoch’s lawyers, brought the influential publisher into the Oval Office on Jan. 18, 1983, to meet with Reagan and Wick. A photograph of that meeting – also released by the Reagan library – shows Cohn leaning forward, speaking to Reagan who is seated next to Murdoch.

“I had one interest when Tom [Bolan, Cohn’s law partner] and I first brought Rupert Murdoch and Governor Reagan together – and that was that at least one major publisher in this country … would become and remain pro-Reagan,” Cohn wrote in a Jan. 27, 1983 letter to senior White House aides Edwin Meese, James Baker and Michael Deaver. “Mr. Murdoch has performed to the limit up through and including today.”

The letter noted that Murdoch then owned the “New York Post – over one million, third largest and largest afternoon; New York Magazine; Village Voice; San Antonio Express; Houston Ring papers; and now the Boston Herald; and internationally influential London Times, etc.” [For more details on Cohn’s role, see’s “How Roy Cohn Helped Rupert Murdoch.”]

Financing Propaganda

Following the Jan. 18, 1983 meeting, Murdoch became involved in a privately funded propaganda project to help sell Reagan’s hard-line Central American policies, according to other documents. That PR operation was overseen by senior CIA propaganda specialist Walter Raymond Jr. and CIA Director Casey.

By late 1982, the Reagan administration was gearing up for an expanded propaganda push in support of the President’s aggressive policies in Central America, including support for the Salvadoran and Guatemalan militaries – both notorious for their human rights violations – and for the Nicaraguan Contra rebels who also were gaining an unsavory reputation for acts of terrorism and brutality.

This PR campaign was spearheaded by CIA Director Casey and Raymond, one of the CIA’s top covert operation specialists who was transferred to the National Security Council staff to minimize legal concerns about the CIA violating its charter which bars influencing the American public. To further shield the CIA from possible fallout from this domestic propaganda operation, Casey and Raymond sought to arrange private financing to pay for some activities.

On Jan. 13, 1983, NSC Advisor Clark noted in a memo to Reagan the need for non-governmental money to advance the PR project. “We will develop a scenario for obtaining private funding,” Clark wrote, as cited in an unpublished draft chapter of the congressional Iran-Contra investigation. Clark then told the President that “Charlie Wick has offered to take the lead. We may have to call on you to meet with a group of potential donors.”

Five days later, on Jan. 18, 1983, Roy Cohn accompanied Rupert Murdoch into the Oval Office for a face-to-face meeting with President Reagan and USIA Director Wick. Nine days later, in the Jan. 27, 1983 letter to Meese, Baker and Deaver – written on the letterhead of the Saxe, Bacon & Bolan law firm – Cohn hailed the success of Murdoch’s “warm meeting with the President and the goodwill created by Charlie Wick’s dinner.”

But Murdoch was also thin-skinned. Cohn complained about what Murdoch saw as a presidential snub when Reagan bypassed the Boston Herald during a late January 1983 trip to Boston. Michael McManus, the deputy assistant to the President, offered an effusive apology to Cohn: “we were all sorry about the confusion surrounding a possible Presidential visit to the Boston Herald. …

“I also called Mr. Murdoch as you suggested, explained the situation to him and apologized for any confusion. I am sure you are aware of our continued high regard for Mr. Murdoch personally and our appreciation of the importance of what he is doing.”

Despite Cohn’s complaint about the slight to Murdoch, the Australian media magnate appears to have pitched in to help the CIA-organized outreach program for Reagan’s Central American policies. Now declassified documents indicate that Murdoch was soon viewed as a source for the private funding.

On May 20, 1983, longtime CIA propagandist Raymond, who was overseeing the “perception management” project aimed at both domestic and foreign audiences, wrote that $400,000 had been raised from private donors brought to the White House by USIA Director Wick.

Raymond said the funds were divided among several organizations including Accuracy in Media, a right-wing group that attacked reporters who deviated from Reagan’s propaganda themes, and the neoconservative Freedom House (which later denied receiving White House money, though it made little sense that Raymond would lie in an internal memo).

As the White House continued to cultivate its ties to Murdoch, Reagan held a second Oval Office meeting with the publisher — on July 7, 1983 — who was accompanied by Charles Douglas-Home, the editor of Murdoch’s flagship UK newspaper, the London Times.

President Ronald Reagan meets with Charles Douglas Home, editor of London Times, and its publisher Rupert Murdoch in the Oval Office on July 7, 1983. (Photo credit: Reagan presidential library)

In an Aug. 9, 1983 memo summing up the results of a Casey-organized meeting with five leading ad executives regarding how to “sell” Reagan’s policies in Central America, Raymond referred to Murdoch as if he were one of the benefactors helping out.

In a memo to Clark, Raymond said the project would involve a comprehensive approach aimed at persuading a majority of Americans to back Reagan’s Central American policies. “We must move out into the middle sector of the American public and draw them into the ‘support’ column,” Raymond wrote. “A second package of proposals deal with means to market the issue, largely considering steps utilizing public relations specialists – or similar professionals – to help transmit the message.”

To improve the project’s chances for success, Raymond wrote, “we recommended funding via Freedom House or some other structure that has credibility in the political center. Wick, via Murdoch, may be able to draw down added funds for this effort.” Raymond included similar information in a separate memo to Wick in which Raymond noted that “via Murdock [sic] may be able to draw down added funds” to support the initiative. (Raymond later told me that he was referring to Rupert Murdoch.)

In a March 7, 1984 memo about the “‘Private Funders’ Project,” Raymond referred to Murdoch again in discussing a request for money from longtime CIA-connected journalist Brian Crozier, who was “looking for private sector funding to work on the question of ‘anti-Americanism’ overseas.”

Raymond wrote: “I am pursuaded [sic] it is a significant long term problem. It is also the kind of thing that Ruppert [sic] and Jimmy might respond positively to. Please look over the stack [of papers from Crozier] and lets [sic] discuss if and when there might be further discussion with our friends.”

Murdoch’s News Corp. has not responded to several requests for comment about the Reagan-era documents.

Murdoch’s Rise

With these close ties to Reagan’s White House and Thatcher’s 10 Downing Street, Murdoch’s media empire continued to grow. To meet a regulatory requirement that U.S. TV stations must be owned by Americans, Murdoch became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1985. Murdoch also benefited from the Reagan administration’s relaxation of media ownership rules which enabled him to buy more TV stations, which he then molded into the Fox Broadcasting Company, which was founded on Oct. 9, 1986.

In 1987, the “Fairness Doctrine,” which required political balance in broadcasting, was eliminated, which let Murdoch pioneer a more aggressive conservatism on his TV network. In the mid-1990s, Murdoch expanded his political reach by founding the neoconservative Weekly Standard in 1995 and Fox News on cable in 1996. At Fox News, Murdoch hired scores of prominent politicians, mostly Republicans, putting them on his payroll as commentators.

Last decade, Murdoch continued to expand his reach into U.S. mass media, acquiring DirecTV and the financial news giant Dow Jones, which included The Wall Street Journal, America’s leading business news journal.

As his empire grew, Murdoch parlayed his extraordinary media power into the ability to make or break political leaders, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom. In December 2014, the UK’s Independent reported that Ed Richards, the retiring head of the British media regulatory agency Ofcom, accused British government representatives of showing favoritism to Murdoch’s companies.

Richards said he was “surprised” by the informality, closeness and frequency of contact between executives and ministers during the failed bid by Murdoch’s News Corp. for the satellite network BSkyB in 2011. The deal was abandoned when it was discovered that journalists at Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid had hacked the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and others.

“What surprised everyone about it – not just me – was quite how close it was and the informality of it,” Richards said, confirming what had been widely reported regarding Murdoch’s access to powerful British politicians dating back at least to the reign of Prime Minister Thatcher in the 1980s. The Reagan documents suggest that Murdoch built similarly close ties to leading U.S. politicians in the same era.

These glimpses behind the curtain also reveal how these symbiotic – or some might say incestuous – relationships have developed between media magnates and likeminded politicians. Though Murdoch might argue that he was simply following his ideological beliefs – and putting his news outlets behind his political goals – it’s also clear that his commitment to right-wing causes proved very profitable as well.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.


The End Of American Empire…..And Other Scary Stories

Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson is one of the most fascinating people in and around the US system of government. He was chief of staff to Colin Powell when he was Secretary of State in the Bush White House, and in the years since has become not just an cutting critic of the neocon lunacy that began with the invasion of Iraq but a farsighted and prescient observer of the much larger picture, i.e. where America and the rest of the world is going.

This talk ranges far and wide to include some really scary inside stuff about climate change and what the NSA is up to out of even Edward Snowden’s sight, but deals primarily with the end of the American empire, or rather how all the disasters that have over come America, and the world in the last decade or so, from the invasion of Iraq to the financial collapse of 2008 are all classic tell-tale signs of imperial decline.

His talk lasts about forty minutes but I assure you is well worth listening to. That’s followed by fifty minutes or so of Q&A’s, which are also worth it. Enjoy:

Boston College Case: PSNI Detectives Offered ‘Bribe’ To McConville Family Member To Enable Invasion Of Archive

Statement By Ed Moloney, Former Director of the Boston College Oral History Archive, aka ‘The Belfast Project’.

In the wake of yesterday’s announcement by the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service that no charges are to be laid against seven individuals arrested and questioned by PSNI detectives on foot of subpoenas served on Boston College by the US Department of Justice seeking material concerning the disappearance of Jean McConville, I wish to make the following statement:

Tonight I began the process of lodging a complaint with the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman’s office (OPONI) alleging that PSNI detectives launched their bid to invade the archives of Boston College by offering a member of the McConville family, a person who was in a particularly vulnerable financial position at the time, what amounted to a financial incentive to assist their investigation, or to put it crudely ‘a bribe’.

The detectives told the family member that if he agreed to make a formal complaint, outlining his belief that the Boston College archive held material relevant to the murder and disappearance of his mother, then the detectives would ensure that at the conclusion of their criminal investigation, the material would be made available to him and other members of his family to do with as they wished.

In other words the family would be able to launch a civil claim against individuals they believed responsible for their mother’s death, using the interviews obtained from the Boston College archive. Without that complaint, the PSNI investigation would have been stillborn.

Since the aim of a civil action invariably includes the demand for financial compensation the detectives were clearly offering a monetary incentive to the family member to begin the proceedings that led to the invasion of the Boston College archive. That is why I say the PSNI detectives made an offer that amounted to bribery.

Article 7 (2) of the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty between the USA and the UK states: “The requesting party shall not use or disclose any information or evidence obtained under the Treaty for any purposes other than for the proceedings stated in the request without the prior consent of the requested party.”

At the time that the offer was made by PSNI detectives the disposition of the US government was a complete unknown and so they were in no position to make an offer to hand over any material to the McConville family. In effect, they misled, and even tricked the family member.

I understand that this transaction is already the subject of a separate complaint to the Ombudsman’s office lodged some time ago.

Following the serving of the subpoenas, the then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez sought and, I am led to believe, secured a commitment from the US authorities that the Boston College material would not be used in civil proceedings.

Gerry Adams Dines At Bobby Van’s On Park Avenue

The peace process has its benefits.

A spy tells me that Gerry Adams was spotted last night dining – with ‘three Irish looking blokes’ – at the exclusive Bobby Van’s Steakhouse on Park Avenue and 46th Street.

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Adams is in town to attend the annual Clinton Foundation fest, at which the champion of Wall Street, deregulation and the overwhelmingly successful effort to mass incarcerate America’s African-American population, entertains his enormously wealthy and influential buddies to a weekend of revelry, over-consumption and lobbying for spouse Hillary, who is bidding for the White House herself.

It is a measure of how far the boul’ Gerry has come from the backstreets of Ballymuck, that starters at Bobby Van’s begin at $14.95 and rise to $21.95; a salad can set you back $18.95; entrees start at $39.95 and rise to $53.95; side dishes, spuds to you and me, are $7.95. And that’s before you figure in a dessert and drinks.

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God, ain’t this peace process just wunnerful!

Oh Dear! Oh Dear! Oh Dear! Someone Has Been Telling Porkies Up At Stormont Castle

At last, The Irish Times has a real story! Amazing! Read and enjoy, but bear in mind that anyone who suggests or insinuates that Marty has been telling lies is clearly an enemy of the peace process and should be exposed and denounced as such.

Noonan discussed ‘Project Eagle’ deal with Robinson, McGuinness

SF politician told Stormont inquiry into Nama sale he had been ‘kept in the dark’

Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and DUP leader and former first minister Peter Robinson took part in a conference call with Minister for Finance Michael Noonan to discuss the sale of Nama’s Northern Ireland portfolio. Photograph: Michael Cooper/PA Wire. Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and DUP leader and former first minister Peter Robinson took part in a conference call with Minister for Finance Michael Noonan to discuss the sale of Nama’s Northern Ireland portfolio. Photograph: Michael Cooper/PA Wire.

Wed, Sep 30, 2015, 21:34

In records released by the Department of Finance on Wednesday night, a telephone log from January 2014 lists the three as participants in a conference call that took place at the request of then Northern First Minister Mr Robinson and Deputy First Minister Mr McGuinness.

Last week, Mr McGuinness told the Stormont inquiry investigating the sale of the Project Eagle portfolio he had been “kept in the dark” over the transaction.

Mr McGuinness said it was “totally and absolutely wrong” to say he was fully briefed about the Nama sale process from start to finish.

The controversial sale of the £1.2 billion (€1.6 billion) Project Eagle portfolio to US firm Cerberus is the subject of both criminal and parliamentary investigations in the North.

The inquiries arose after TD Mick Wallace claimed during the summer that £7 million transferred from a Belfast law firm involved in the transaction to an Isle of Man bank account was destined for a number of Northern political figures.

Mr McGuinness said last week he was not aware of a January 2014 letter to Nama from Mr Robinson’s principal private secretary, which was a copy of a “letter of intent” on the proposed management of the Northern Ireland portfolio.

The letter, according to Nama, appeared to summarise an agreement between Pimco, a company then interested in acquiring the portfolio, and the Northern Ireland Executive, which outlined details of a proposed memorandum of understanding.

The call log released by the Department of Finance said that, during the January 2014 conversation, Mr Robinson “reiterated the comfort provided by the commitments Pimco had made”.

The call log does not record any comments made by Mr McGuinness. The Deputy First Minister has said he was not privy to a litany of phonecalls and contacts in relation to the sale of the portfolio, some of which included Mr Noonan.

Both Nama and the chair of the Northern Ireland finance committee, Sinn Féin’s Daithí McKay, will on Thursday address the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee on the sale controversy.

Sometimes I Just So Detest The Media That I Occasionally Work For….

Late last night I was surfing the early editions of the UK and Irish print media, ranging from The Irish Times to The Independent, and I came across this headline in The Guardian: ‘Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina endorses torture’.

So I clicked on the link and found the article which had been written by one Ben Jacobs, only to read the following opening sentence: “Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina has endorsed waterboarding, the controversial interrogation method that has been called torture….”

The heart sank, not just because of the rank chickenheartedness that leaped out of that sentence but of all the woeful memories it re-awoke of covering the Troubles in Ireland when fellow reporters would take refuge in similarly shifty wording.

Like: “Last night British soldiers responded to Catholic rioters in Ballymurphy with what some locals described as barbaric levels of violence”.

The qualifying adverb “some” is there to indicate that not all the people of Ballymurphy felt that way (begging the obvious questions: how does the reporter know?) while the absence of a first-hand account is indicative either of an unwillingness to report what the reporter actually saw or to disguise the fact that while the riot was underway he/she was relaxing in the first floor bar of the Europa hotel.

Invariably it was the former.

And so with Ben Jacobs, the insertion of the phrase “….that has been called torture….” is there to indicate that Mr Jacobs has no opinion on waterboarding, one way or the other.

Some call it torture, others do not.

But not Mr Jacobs.

He belongs to the school of journalism which reports the insistence of flat-earthers that the world is not round but flat thus: “Opinions on shape of earth differ.”

Now, that’s what I call responsible, balanced journalism!