Accuracy in Media

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Transcript by J. C. Hendershot

Interview with Michael Widlanski by Roger Aronoff

The “Take AIM” show on BlogTalkRadio, March 22, 2012.

ROGER ARONOFF: Good morning, and welcome to Take AIM, Accuracy in Media’s talk show on BlogTalkRadio.  AIM is America’s original media watchdog, and every week we point out biased coverage and bring you the stories the mainstream media ignore.  I’m Roger Aronoff, the Editor of Accuracy in Media and of The AIM Report, which you can subscribe to by visiting our website at, where you can also sign up to receive our daily E-mail so you can keep track of what the media are up to.  Our guest today is Michael Widlanski, author of the book The Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat.  In his new book, one of the issues that Mr. Widlanski highlights is the media’s negligence to investigate terror organizations and their operations in the United States.  We also have some very current news and issues that we’re going to be discussing from right out of the headlines today.  We will get into all of that in a minute.  Michael Widlanski is a specialist in Arab politics and communication.  His doctorate dealt with Palestinian broadcast media.  He is a former reporter, correspondent, and editor, respectively, at The New York Times, the Cox newspaper Atlanta Constitution, and The Jerusalem Post.  He has also served as a Special Advisor to Israeli delegations to peace talks in 1991 and ’92, and as a Strategic Affairs Advisor to the Ministry of Public Security editing secret PLO archives captured in Jerusalem.  Good morning, Michael.  We’re very glad to have you as our guest today!

MICHAEL WIDLANSKI: Roger, it’s a pleasure to be with you.

ARONOFF: Thank you so much.  Before we dig into the details of your book, and today’s headlines, I want to ask you to share with our audience some information about your background, and the journey that led up to you writing this book.  Where did you grow up?

WIDLANSKI: I grew up in New York City—Manhattan, on the West Side.  I went to Columbia University.  I was my high school’s newspaper editor, and I was a reporter at the Columbia Spectator and the Editor of the Columbia-Barnard course guide, which was the number one journal of its kind in the country for evaluating teachers by students.  I was the New York Times correspondent at Columbia for two years, working in the Times’ newsroom as a reporter.  They used to use me all over town.  That’s where I basically learned the craft of journalism—from the top people at The New York Times.

ARONOFF: Talk about that experience, The New York Times.  What, exactly, was your beat?  How did you get that job?  What years were you working there?

WIDLANSKI: I was working at The New York Times between ’74 and ’76.  They’d heard about me—a couple people had recommended me—and, I think, in the history of Times reporters from Columbia, I was the most prolific in history—and that includes a few people who then went on to become Editors at The New York Times.  I think I was unusual for them because I’m a religious Jew—I try to be a religious Jew—and everybody in The New York Times who would see me from a distance knew that this was the only guy walking around the newspaper with a yarmulke on his head.  So they all knew who I was, and they were very nice to me—the reporters, in particular, were very nice to me.  I was almost like a mascot for some of them.  They enjoyed the way I took to reporting, and, basically, I was coached by many of the old-timers, who were real craftsmen and craftswomen when it came to writing about local news, national news, or the human interest stories.  So I got training from, really, the top people at The New York Times at a time when, I think, it was really the best newspaper in the world.

ARONOFF: Yes.  Back then it was a whole lot different than it is today, in many ways.  Were you there when Abe Rosenthal was editor?

WIDLANSKI: Yes.  Abe Rosenthal was the Editor-in-Chief—or, as they called him, the “Executive Editor.”  Arthur Gelb was, first, the City Editor, then the Deputy Editor.  It was very good.  I used to sit with the rewrite reporters.  These were reporters, old City reporters, some of whom would sneak out of the building and go to the race track every once in a while.  They were very funny, and they could write on one leg, in the middle of the night, in three minutes, what it might take somebody to write in five hours today.  They really were professionals who also knew how to enjoy life.

ARONOFF: Very interesting.  Let’s talk about how the culture at that paper has changed.  You write quite a bit in the book about Tom Friedman, the columnist at the Times, sort of today’s quintessential New York Times “Timesman,” as you call them.  How would you describe how the culture has changed from when you were there to now, and through the perspective of Tom Friedman?

WIDLANSKI: First of all, for the Timesmen and Timeswomen of 30, 40, and certainly 50 years ago—even twenty years ago—the ultimate Times reporter was not inside his story, or her story.  They stood outside the story, reporting about what other people were doing.  They didn’t inject themselves into the story.  They didn’t inject their views into the story.  They tried—they didn’t always succeed, but they tried—to be impartial observers, basically extensions of the public to give the public maximum information, maximum good analysis, and I think they did it pretty well.  They weren’t supposed to be inside the story.  What I see from Friedman—and I saw this from the time he was a reporter who earned half of the Pulitzer prize in 1982, 1983, in his coverage of Beirut and the Sabra and Shatila massacre—is that he was always injecting his views, and what he wanted the story to be, rather than what the story actually was.

ARONOFF: So, today, he writes quite a bit about the peace process, and usually seems to blame Israel for being the intransigent force from keeping something from happening there.

WIDLANSKI: That’s right.

ARONOFF: That seems to be a common view at the Times.

WIDLANSKI: Right.  Now, today, he’s a columnist.  He’s obviously entitled to inject his opinions into his columns.  But even a column by a newspaper columnist should have some factual basis.  If it’s totally divorced from fact, and totally based on what you would like things to be—your own wishful thinking, rather than fact-based analysis—it’s not good for you or for the newspaper readers who are reading you.

ARONOFF: Okay.  We’ll jump to a couple of the stories that are in the news today.  One, this morning—we all followed this for 24 hours—the terrorist who was holed up in his home, or in an apartment, in Toulouse, France.  He had, by his own admission, killed at least seven people that we know of—three servicemen from north Africa, and then this incident with a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school.


ARONOFF: He, apparently, told the police, during negotiations, that he had been with al-Qaeda.  He considers himself part of that—he had gone to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and trained.  He died in a hail of bullets, coming out with a machine gun and all that.  The Times story that appeared online before his death seemed to be trying to make this distinction that, well, he’s sort of this “lone wolf” type that, basically—


ARONOFF: —they’re influenced by the Internet and these different websites, but they’re not really part of al-Qaeda.  I recall, in a documentary I did a few years ago, Jim Woolsey, a former CIA director, talked about al-Qaeda as both an organization and a movement.

WIDLANSKI: Absolutely!

ARONOFF: Talk about this idea—

WIDLANSKI: Let me talk about three aspects here.


WIDLANSKI: I’ll try and do it almost in a Talmudic way: I’ll answer first things first and second things second.


WIDLANSKI: First things first: Before coming on today with you, Roger, I reviewed the Times articles on this terror case in [Toulouse] France over the last four days.  When you look at all the articles, the thing that stood out to me immediately was, they never referred to this guy as a “terrorist,” and they almost never referred to the incident itself—or what he’d done earlier—as “terror.”  They referred to him as a “suspect,” as a “militant”—both in the headlines and in the bodies of the articles.  They also spared the readers some of the tough details.  I mean, this was a man who deliberately murdered a rabbi and three children.  What he did was, he shot the rabbi and two children, and one eight-year-old girl ran away.  He ran after her, grabbed her by the hair, held her down to the ground, and shot her while he was holding her down by the hair.  Now, this is not a “militant.”  This is not a “suspect.”  This is something that is flat-out there.  This kind of coverage—this exact kind of coverage—is what you got from The New York Times when they were covering Fort Hood, when they were covering Major Nidal Malik Hasan.  They treated him as a “suspect,”  “allegedly”—I mean, the whole world saw the mass murder in public!  They also never mention that the person is a Muslim.  The lede in the Times story today is “A 23 Year Old Frenchman.”  Oh, yes!  The French are killing themselves!  This is what’s going on!  The other thing is, for the last two or three days, the Times, the French media, and French officials have been pumping everybody with this story about how it’s a neo-Nazi.  He’s a neo-Nazi.  Well, that kind of coverage has been coming out of France for the last decade.  There’s been a large sweep upwards in anti-French and anti-Jewish behavior by the largely Algerian Muslim immigrant groups who live in the banlieues in the suburbs of Paris and some of the other places.  They have, inside France, what are known as Zones urbaines sensibles, special no-go zones, sensitive zones that the police are not supposed to go into because they’re too tough.  They have about 750 of these places.

The Times has not reported on this, and the French media don’t like to talk about it.  In these neighborhoods, you had riots in 2005, for example, where they burned 9,000 – 10,000 stores, 9,000 vehicles—tremendous destruction!  There was a large undercurrent of anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish behavior, where Jewish stores were singled out.  You’ve had cases where people have been run down, tortured to death, and their bodies left burned or half-burned on the street.  And then the French media and French officials pretend it’s just a criminal act, or a personal vendetta between somebody and somebody else.  They don’t want to get to the whole Islamic angle here.  Now I’m not saying that all French Muslims are troublemakers or terrorists, or anything like that.  But I am saying that there’s a whole phenomenon here which is being swept under the rug.  It’s being done by the French, and The New York Times has copied it.  The New York Times copies it, also, inside the United States.  In fact, when the first World Trade Center attack took place in 1993, The New York Times called them “Jerseymen.”  The “Jersey Boys” came across and attacked the World Trade Center!  The whole Muslim angle was not covered.  Now, this kind of see-no-evil-hear-no-evil approach to Arab-Islamic terror is part of the cause of being unready on 9/11, and it’s part of the cause of being unready even today.  There’s a Senate report which very few in the media want to cover—I think it’s 61 pages—which shows that the Fort Hood massacre could have been avoided altogether if people who had followed the way Major Hasan had behaved, had intervened.  Well, this guy in France, Mohamed Merah, had not been totally off the charts.  He’d been under surveillance.  He’d gone to Pakistan and Afghanistan.  They had information on him.  How is it that this guy had two or three pistols, two or three automatic weapons, and what the hell are they giving him a curtain call of 32 hours alone in a hail of bullets, nipping around the edges of his apartment?  This kind of thing is going to inspire copycats.  And, of course, you’re right—and James Woolsey is correct: Al-Qaeda is not just an organization.  In fact, [Osama] bin Laden knew that he was going to die, but he wanted to inspire whole generations.  9/11 was inspiring people.  Al-Qaeda’s online magazine is called Inspire.  That’s what they’re after.  So for the Western media to take this attitude of “We don’t see ‘Muslims,’ we don’t see ‘Arabs,’ we don’t see ‘Islamists,’ we see ‘suspects,’ we see ‘militants,’” and then for The Washington Post and The New York Times to write all these articles about “What seems to be the cause of this is that somebody spoke to him badly a few years ago,” or “There aren’t enough jobs for French Algerian workers,” or “There seems to be a housing problem in certain suburbs of Paris”—come on!  Get off it!  It’s not that way at all!

ARONOFF: In this case, he also threw in the Palestinians and Gaza, and the French soldiers in Afghanistan as part of his reason for—

WIDLANSKI: Of course!  And then the French media and The New York Times parrot this stuff as if “Sure, he said it, it’s got to be that!  Let’s quote him at length about this!”  Unbelievable stuff.  Unbelievable!  Why are you giving this guy a platform for his propaganda?

ARONOFF: Characterize what is the ideology of terrorism, radical Islam, jihadism.  How far has this gone in Europe, the Islamization?  Why are people being so silent about it?

WIDLANSKI: You know, to face a problem is often very hard.  If, God forbid, one of us gets sick, if we have an infection or, God forbid, a cancer, there’s always a tendency on our part to say, “It’ll be all right,” or “I’ll deal with it tomorrow.”  The best way to deal with it is to deal with the hard truth now, to say, “I’ve got something.  I’ve got to face it.  It may take something severe to deal with this.”  When you take, let’s say, an antibiotic against infection, what usually happens to the body is, your temperature goes up at the beginning, because the infection fights back against the medicine.  So your temperature will seem to go up.  It’ll get worse, first, before it gets better.  Or, if you have an operation, you’re going to go through pain.  You’re going to go through something tough before you get to a good outcome, what you hope is a good outcome.  But if you don’t face the pain, if you don’t face the fever, you’re never going to vanquish the disease—and that’s what you have to do.  We have a problem that is, first of all, Islamic, Arab, and Islamist—three different factors.  The Arabs, and the Muslims in general—I think this is generally true—a large portion of them want to recapture a feeling of old glory and greatness that existed centuries ago.  If you look at the Arab-Islamic communities today—let’s say from Morocco to Persia, the heart of the Arab-Islamic world—you see a community that is more backward than any other place on the planet except for maybe parts of Africa—and sometimes worse than most of Africa.  The amount of exports from this neighborhood—Professor Bernard Lewis once told me, when you take away oil exports, they produce less than Finland.  You have a community of several hundred million people producing less than Finland.  You look at how many books they translate into Arabic from other languages—it’s less than what the Greeks read in Greece.  It’s incredible.  It’s absolutely incredible.  So they feel that they’re not going anywhere, and they look at their past, when they were the Arabian Empire, the Islamic Empire, the Caliphate, various different empires, and they feel incredibly inadequate.  Now when you take somebody like bin Laden, or [Ayman al-] Zawahiri, they are what is normally called “jihadis,” or Salafi Muslims.  They want to go back to the conditions at the time that Muhammad began to lead the Muslim community.  Mohammed, according to Muslims, was both a prophet and a general—and because he was a successful general, his prophecy was believed to be legitimate.  He was a man who participated in scores, even hundreds, of battles.  This is not the same kind of background as Jesus or Moses, as Isaiah.  First of all, somebody whose whole career is devoted to forcible conquest and conversion—that is their ideal.  They want to go back to that ideal.  Now, I don’t know if it’s only 5%, 10%, or 25% of the world’s Muslims who believe this, but many believe this, and they want to follow that model.

Now you’ve had other ideologies in the Arab world—pan-Arabism, local Arabism—but you also have an ideology of tribalism which exists underneath the surface.  That’s where you see people murdering their daughters or their wives, or their fiancés, if they think they’re dressing too sexily, or they’ve looked at another man—that kind of thing.  That’s not an Islamic thing.  That’s a tribal thing.  Or if you see the tremendous vendettas and vengeance.  These kinds of things exist even in the organization of al-Qaeda, and in Hamas and Hezbollah.  They are tribal conventions which govern many of the Arab terror organizations, the Islamic terror organizations.  They’re not part of the Qur’an, they’re not part of any pre-set ideology, but they are part of a mindset, and this mindset says, “We’re not where we have to be.  We have to be someplace else.  What is stopping us?”  Instead of looking at themselves and saying, “You know, we should be educating our people better, reading more books, and working on that,” they say, “Our leaders are corrupt, one of the things that’s corrupted them is the Western world, so we have to send a message: We have to destroy the corruption.”  So they reach out for a popular topic that will gather everyone together under their umbrella, such as striking the symbols of Western finance—the World Trade Center—or the symbols of Western power—the Pentagon and the White House.  You have a symbolic attack on the United States.  It doesn’t matter if you kill 3,000 people or 50,000—or if you kill 100,000.  The important thing is that you’ve made a symbolic attack: You’ve weakened America, you’ve weakened the “Great Satan.”  By the way, this is something that’s shared by the terrorists of the Sunni world, the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, and the people they’ve sent out around the world—and, of course, they’ve sent their preachers everywhere, to London, New York, Brooklyn, Jersey City, St. Louis, Los Angeles—and also the people who are coming out of the Iranian Revolution, the Shi’ite community, which has been radicalized by the late Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini and the people who followed in his footsteps.  They both believe—both the Sunni crazies and the Shi’ite crazies—in jihad.  And it’s not jihad the way it’s interpreted by some people at Georgetown University and Columbia University, a “spiritual journey”—it’s jihad, real holy war!  That’s what they mean, and we have to be aware of it.  If we’re not willing to call it by its name, if we’re not willing to say it and face it, we won’t be able to fight it and defeat it.

ARONOFF: Many of these journalists in the West who seem to be sympathetic—or sort of, to cover for them in incidences like what’s happening in Toulouse, France today—obviously wouldn’t want to live under this system.  How do you explain their seeming sympathy, or protection, of this viewpoint, this ideology, and the actions that it generates?

WIDLANSKI: I think one of the keys to this is to understand that there is a kind of an anti-colonialist, anti-hegemonist point of view which grew in American universities in the 1960s, and especially afterwards, in the 1970s and ’80s, which swept through academia.  The two biggest proponents of this point of view, what is sometimes called “anti-hegemonic theory” or “post-colonial theory” are, or were, Noam Chomsky and Edward Said.  They were the two people who were cited most on all course syllabi in universities from Columbia to UCLA.  Said was an English professor.  He’s now dead.  Chomsky was a linguistics professor.  They were both very radical, very activist.  Said was a spokesman of the kind, and a writer, for the PLO, although he wasn’t really very much of a Palestinian, didn’t know almost any Arabic.  Chomsky, an all-purpose anti-Western propagandist.  So you had generations of people who were educated at Columbia, Georgetown—look at who the people were!  George Tenet, former head of the CIA, did his bachelor’s at Georgetown, his masters’s at Columbia’s School of International Affairs—which is where I did my master’s, I did three degrees at Columbia.  Barack Obama went to Occidental College, then transferred to Columbia, then to Harvard Law School.  He apparently studied and socialized with Edward Said and with his friend Rashid Khalidi.  This anti-colonialist point of view, this view that America’s thrown its weight around too much, especially in the Third World, was the hallmark of Said’s writing his book Orientalism.  This point of view is very much at home right now in a large part of academia, and, I daresay, in a large part of American officialdom, people who have been in the State Department, the CIA, and, today, in the White House.  They feel very comfortable with this point of view.  They think that America should be apologizing for what it’s done in the world.  I’m not saying America didn’t make mistakes, I’m not saying America’s always been right, but to say that every place America has gone in the Middle East—when it’s usually done acts of service for other people—that America was only interested in invasion and oil, and in exploiting people, I think this is wrong.  Unfortunately, that point of view in academia is very, very strong, so, after 9/11, you had a lot of people at American universities who had conferences about how people were persecuting poor Muslims, about how America was suffering from “Islamophobia.”  Leading up to 9/11, you had people who were writing about the “myths of Arab terror” or the “myths of Islamic terror.”  What a myth!  Then, when the buildings actually fall down on us, they say we’re imagining things.  I think that’s pretty amazing.

ARONOFF: You brought up President Obama’s relationship with Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi.  How do you see it?  Obama recently spoke to AIPAC, he talks about his devotion to Israel, that there’s “no daylight” between us.  So, his policies towards Israel: Obviously, there are plenty of people who don’t believe that he’s as committed to Israel’s security as he—particularly in this election year—claims to be.  How do you see that?

WIDLANSKI: I feel a little bit uncomfortable talking about it—


WIDLANSKI: —because I don’t want to be seen as a partisan for or against President Obama in a year of an election campaign, but I’ll tell you this: I listened to President Obama’s entire speech at AIPAC, and I think it was a very self-serving and distorted account of what his actual policies have been towards the Middle East.  I think he did more to hurt Israel than almost any other President in modern history.  I think that his actions upon taking office, demanding that Israel freeze settlements everywhere—his term—including all building projects inside Jerusalem—this is a standard that even the Palestinians hadn’t demanded, and it basically led to the failure of all Israeli-Palestinian talks.  It led to the radicalization, the further radicalization, of the Palestinian community.  It, basically, was three, three-and-a-half lost years of bargaining, and I think that this is a terrible, terrible failure which will be seen, after the fact, as something horrible, because, basically, Obama’s policies set back Israeli-Palestinian talks more than twenty years.  After all, Yasser Arafat, certainly no hero to peace, certainly no moderate, was negotiating directly with Israel—but his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, who was one of those negotiators, today is not willing even to go into indirect talks with Israel unless and until he gets permission and legitimization from all kinds of Arab leaders.  In other words, what Obama has done is to set back direct Arab-Israeli talks more than twenty years.  That’s an amazing achievement for somebody who said he would bring Hope and Change.  President Obama speaks about the Muslim community in the world and the Muslim community in the United States as if the United States is one of the largest Muslim countries, and Muslims had a really important share in building the United States.  He mentions them in his inaugural address before he mentions Jews.  I think that’s actually quite insulting to the Jewish community.  Now, when President Obama speaks to AIPAC, and says these kinds of things, I don’t expect the AIPAC audience to boo him.  You don’t boo an American President.  You don’t do that kind of thing.  But I don’t think a lot of people in the audience were very happy with what Obama was saying, and I think it was cynical on his part—and it is cynical on his part, and the part of some of his aides, David Axelrod and others—to say that he’s been the most strongly pro-Israeli President ever.  I think that’s not true.  If I had to think of pro-Israeli Presidents, I think of Harry Truman, I think of George W. Bush, I think of Ronald Reagan, who set up a strategic dialogue with Israel.  I think of people like those.  Even Richard Nixon, about whom I have much to criticize, much, much to criticize—the way he handled the intelligence agencies of the United States, and other things he did—I think helped Israel out in the 1973 war after [Henry] Kissinger first pushed Israel not to preempt.  I think that Nixon, and people in his administration, guarded arms shipments to Israel in the course of the war that helped Israel.  So I don’t want to say that there haven’t been people who have helped Israel before, like President Obama—when has President Obama really stood at the breach and protected Israel from terrorist attacks, from radicalization in the region?  By his support of the Islamist regime in Turkey?  I just don’t see his analysis.  I think it’s not founded.

ARONOFF: Let me touch on—as you point out, the so-called “peace process” is on the back burner—what’s on the front burner, the situation with Iran.


ARONOFF: I want to ask two or three questions on this that you can kind of combine.  Part of it is, just within a day or two of his speech at AIPAC, [President Obama] then talked about how we would “restart talks with Iran,” which, presumably, going to take a couple of months, to figure out a venue and such—it will obviously go on past the election, and would mean whatever window of opportunity to do something to the Iranian nuclear weapons plans and program before this election would be closing.  So there’s that, and I want to tie this in because then 60 Minutes had the former head of Mossad, [Meir] Dagan, on—talking with Leslie Stahl.  He was coming out, saying he thinks it would be a mistake to do anything at this time.  That seemed to be, sort of, “Here: We’re showing you that even the head of the Israeli Mossad is sort of on Obama’s side, not [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s side, on this!” One final thing I want to bring into this, the missiles coming from Gaza—which is Hamas, supported by Iran, as is Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Recently, I was reading a piece that I found quite interesting.  It pointed to this “Iron Dome,” sort of their missile shield, leading Israel to put their offensive capabilities to go in and destroy these missiles, and the threat surrounding them, on the back burner.  They’re depending on this missile defense, and as a result there’s tens of thousands of missiles all around them, and when they go in, they don’t really go into the terrorists’ structures, they just go for certain small groups of terrorists that are there.  So there are a lot of questions there.  Try to tie them together with what the situation is with Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas—how you view this situation.

WIDLANSKI: Okay.  There are, basically, two or three major terror centers in the world today.  The terror ideology, a lot of it originally came out of Arabia, what today we call Saudi Arabia—the Wahhabi doctrines that became the Muslim Brotherhood.  The Muslim Brotherhood has moved around to various parts of the Middle East.  It is the spiritual godfather of al-Qaeda.  It is also the spiritual godfather of Hamas.  The second major terror center, Arab-Islamic terror center, is in Tehran.  The regime of the Ayatollahs came to power to spread jihad throughout the world, and they’ve been very successful.  They have centers as far away as South America.  They’ve had terror attacks in South America, many terror attacks in Europe—and not just on Jews and Israelis, but on Iranian dissidents, former Iranian officials, Iranian student leaders, and just within the last month or two they’ve had attacks on Israeli diplomats and, apparently, plans to attack Israeli and Saudi diplomats in the United States.  They attacked in Thailand, Kazakhstan—they’ve been very, very active.


WIDLANSKI: The Iranians are also working on a nuclear bomb.  That’s been apparent for more than twenty years.  Robert Gates was head of the CIA in 1992 and said as much then.  You didn’t have to be a strategic genius to figure this out, because there were two things: First, the Iranians were not working on any peaceful uses of atomic energy.  They weren’t setting up anything for electricity, they weren’t setting up grids to be run with nuclear power, and they were doing everything secretly underground.  You don’t do that if you’re going to have a civilian program.  So it was just common sense that that’s what they were doing.  Then, afterward, you had statements by some of the top Iranian leaders—including [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani and others—about how they had duped U.N. officials and U.S. officials into giving them more and more time.  So we know that the Iranians are involved in terror.  We know that they’re working on a bomb.  And yet, people who produce the National Intelligence Estimate at the CIA—particularly at the CIA—have been consistently wrong on Iran.  They have on-again-off-again assessments of Iran’s nuclear programs.  One of the guys who handled this is a fellow by the name of Paul Pillar.  He’s one of the heroes of my book.  I describe how he’s been wrong about just about everything he’s written in the last twenty years.  He was the CIA’s top Middle East Desk officer.  He was an assistant to George Tenet.  He’s a very important writer at various journals in the United States.  A couple of months before 9/11 he wrote a book about the importance of negotiating with terrorists—very important!  The United States has been wrong on Iran so many times that we should really look at ourselves and say, “Why have we always been so wrong?”  In 1978 the CIA produced a National Intelligence Estimate that said that the Shah of Iran was going to stay for a while: His regime was stable, and he’d be sitting solidly on the throne for a long time.  Three months later, he fell.  Then the same geniuses at the CIA—and the State Department—said that Ayatollah Khomeini was a moderate!  Apparently Jimmy Carter believed a little of this—at least a little of it—and his U.N. Ambassador, Andy Young, referred to Ayatollah Khomeini as “Some kind of saint.”  You see this kind of stuff being retread over and over again by these same officials, who periodically say that [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is more moderate than this, or that [Ali] Khamenei is more moderate than that—and they continue, unabated, towards their ultimate goal—which is spreading terror, and building a nuclear bomb—for a few reasons.  They want a nuclear bomb for its blackmail effect.  That’s clear.  They also want a nuclear bomb, perhaps, to use.

We know that Ahmadinejad and Ali Khamenei are “Twelver” Shi’ites.  They believe in the miraculous return of the Twelfth Imam, who died more than a thousand years ago.  They believe he will return amid fire—his return will be accompanied by his coming out of some well in Iran at a time of great fire—and they’re not exactly worried about the idea that half of Iran will be burned down in the process.  As long as Israel is burned down, [along with] parts of the United States and other places where the heathens live, where the people who don’t accept Islam live, they’re willing to accept it, if the Twelfth Imam comes back.  He will be the Madhi—he will be the Islamic Messiah, and he will bring peace to the world, sitting atop a white horse.  Now you’ve actually had these people say this in public.  You’ve had Ahmadinejad say that he spoke about this at the U.N. to Iranian leaders, and he felt a halo build up around him as he was speaking.  These guys may be, in our books, irrational, but in their book they are rational by what they believe.

Now, the Mossad Director, the former Mossad Director, Meir Dagan, did something that I think was quite foolish.  First of all, 60 Minutes, and Leslie Stahl in particular, are not exactly experts on foreign affairs, they have their own agenda, and they carefully edited what he had to say.  When she asked Meir Dagan whether he thought that the Iranians were rational, he said, “Yes—but their ‘rational’ is different from our ‘rational.’”  That should have been the cue for her to say, “What do you mean, Mr. Dagan, when you say that their ‘rational’ is different from our ‘rational’?”  Then he would have explained what I just said, which is, they are carefully going to a plan for Iranian hegemony, first in the Middle East, then further, and they’re willing to accept tremendous casualties because they believe this will lead to the time of the Messiah.  Now, if you explain that, you’ve explained both the rational and the irrational.  But that doesn’t interest Leslie Stahl.  She was only interested in showing that he says that Israel might have more time, or that the U.S. needs a little more time to get its plans intact if it wants to attack Iran.  Now, Meir Dagan also—I don’t know if [Leslie Stahl] said this, I don’t believe she said it—has some personal motives.  This happens to people all the time.  He was head of the Mossad for eight years.  He was an excellent head of the Mossad.  But after you’re head of the Mossad for eight years, you’re supposed to leave.  Few people have held that job for that long—very few people.  It’s a little bit like having J. Edgar Hoover as head of the FBI for 40 or 50 years.  It’s not supposed to happen.  The reason is, it’s not a good idea for somebody to be the head of such a sensitive intelligence organization for so long.  It’s not considered wise in a democratic society.  But Dagan wanted to continue, and Netanyahu said, “Enough is enough.”  He didn’t fire him, but he said, “Your time really is up.”  So [Dagan]’s angry at Netanyahu, and he’s also considering running for office in Israel—so to take him as the ultimate objective proof that Netanyahu is wrong is incorrect.

ARONOFF: Okay.  Let’s finish with Iran, if you care to make a prediction, a suggestion, people are very concerned about what’s going to happen . . .

WIDLANSKI: You can’t talk to this Iranian regime about stopping its nuclear weapons.  They will use talk to gain more time.  You have to act against them, and you can’t talk about having “tougher sanctions” in three months or six months, you have to act against them.  Israel has more abilities than people understand.  Israel has a lot of abilities.  It may not have enough abilities and enough warplanes and enough other means to stop the Iranian program in its tracks for ten years, to get everything that Iran has, but it can do a lot of damage to Iran, and it should get the help of the United States, of Britain, France, Germany, and others.  Instead, you have the Europeans often playing this kind of middle game, because they get their oil from Iran.  Eventually . . . Israel will have to act by itself, if these other countries don’t act.  Israel will have to act, and Israel will get support from some of the Sunni countries, such as Saudi Arabia and maybe some of the other Gulf Emirates, who are very worried about Iran.  They won’t get public support, probably, but they’ll get private support, and the Israelis will do a better job than most people think.  It could be that President Obama wants to leave this as an option for himself in October, if he needs some kind of October Surprise.  I don’t know, I don’t want to be cynical, but I would leave that as a possibility.  What else do you want to ask?

ARONOFF: Arab Spring.

WIDLANSKI: I call it “Arabist Spring.”  It’s more the product of people who are from the Arab lobby who have been trying to come up with terms in Arabic which they don’t understand, like intifada, which they don’t understand.  Then they have no—they can’t cover what they say.  There’s no backing for what they say.  The fact is that tumult in the Arab world.  Is that going to lead to democracy any time soon?  I wouldn’t bet on it.

ARONOFF: Well, the way it’s sort of happening is, the Muslim Brotherhood—which you spoke of before, as spawning Hamas and others—is coming in through these elections, after the top—

WIDLANSKI: Bernard Lewis put it pretty well once.  He said, “We in the West believe in ‘One man, one vote.’  They believe in ‘One man, one vote, one time only.’  Once they get into power, it’s all over.  They’re not going to have any more elections.  We see that all over the place.  We shouldn’t be surprised.  In fact, the whole idea of the nation-state in the Arab-Islamic world is a very new concept.  The tribalism is still very dominant.  So everywhere you look, from Tunisia to Yemen, from Syria to Libya, you see that there are all kinds of forces taking place, and we shouldn’t imagine that, just because we send in a few people with NGOs—I have a nephew who’s a soldier in Afghanistan right now, he was sent there to teach them about democracy.  I think that’s a noble idea.  I also think it was a noble idea to build democracy in Iraq.  But I think we should have a more realistic attitude—what the capacities are now for learning among some of these people—and we should understand what the costs might be.  That’s all I would say.

ARONOFF: The current issue, where it applies, is resuming aid to Egypt, which Congress cut off and is waiting to see how this government was going to react and behave towards certain democratic institutions.  After they held these people from the NGOs and all that, now, even though Congress still has this ban on sending the money there, it appears that President Obama is trying to figure out how he can go ahead and resume this aid.  Does this mean the U.S., as a matter of policy, has accepted the Muslim Brotherhood as the legitimate governing force in many Arab countries?

WIDLANSKI: It’s clear that that was the direction of the Obama administration was taking from the beginning.  When Obama appeared in Cairo, he invited the Muslim Brotherhood to his talk at Cairo University.  You’ve had comments like this from Hillary Clinton and from Lieutenant General James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence.  They’re not that worried about the Muslim Brotherhood.  Well, frankly, they have to try to believe in what they believed before, because it’s been a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: They had problems with Mubarak, now they don’t have Mubarak—and they probably wish they did.  For all of his faults—and Mubarak had plenty of faults—he was still the limited autocrat that we knew, rather than the more bloody autocrat that we may get to know.  That’s the same problem that Jimmy Carter discovered with the Shah of Iran.  The Shah of Iran was no hero.  He had plenty of problems.  But for Jimmy Carter and some of these other people to believe that Ayatollah Khomeini was going to be a saint, and it was going to lead to relations with the United States—well, they came to a very bitter awakening.  It could be, as people spoke of Carter losing Iran, people will speak about how Obama lost Egypt.  It’s a terrible, terrible loss, because Egypt is the most centrally located and most populous of all the Arab states.  It has connections with Israel.  It has a strong effect on the rest of the Arab world.  It’s terribly, terribly important, geo-strategically: It’s always been the place where European powers try to grab—Napoleon tried to grab Egypt; the Russians, when they tried to leapfrog CENTO and the Northern Tier in the 1940s and ’50s, jumped to Egypt, where they tried to get the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and they succeeded.  So we should be very worried about what happens in Egypt.  I think that the big speech that Obama gave at Cairo University has turned into a very bitter legacy.

ARONOFF: Al-Jazeera: There’s the English, which they’re gently trying to push to the West, to Americans, with people like David Frost—they had Dave Marash before—but the Arabic version, with [Yusuf al-] Qaradawi, who you wrote about in your book, what he preaches in a regular show on there—what do you want to tell Americans about—?

WIDLANSKI: Al-Jazeera is no friend of America, no friend of peace.  Al-Jazeera’s controlled, to a large extent, by the regime in Qatar, which basically uses al-Jazeera as a stalking horse for pan-Arab nationalism and pan-Islamic nationalism.  They aim it at people they don’t like.  It’s a very dangerous station.  They became the mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden for a while, and we were very worried about them—as we should be.  There were people in the United States, such as Tom Friedman, who believed that they were the wave of the democratic future.  Boy, oh, boy, was their prediction off the mark!  Way off the mark!  And just because Dave Marash needed a job doesn’t mean we have to believe that al-Jazeera was going to do great things for the world.  It hasn’t done great things for the world.  Democracy evolves over time.  It doesn’t come to you just because you have an antenna and a satellite dish.

ARONOFF: Just to give Dave Marash a bit of credit, he did quit there and publicly state that he found them more biased than he was comfortable with!  The other thing—

WIDLANSKI: All right, so he quit!


WIDLANSKI: He quit after he gave them legitimacy.  It’s a little bit like Obama taking credit for killing Osama bin Laden after he used the information that came out of Guantanamo, which George Bush helped set up!

ARONOFF: The other area that we haven’t touched on—the PLO archives that you got to go through.  One of the stories—so few people are aware of the situation, about Arafat ordering the—

WIDLANSKI: The murder?

ARONOFF: —the assassination of Cleo Noel, the American Ambassador to Sudan back in ’73, I believe it was.


ARONOFF: Just give us a taste of going through those archives.

WIDLANSKI: You know, it’s—two different things.  The Orient House was, basically, the forward base of the PLO in Jerusalem.  The archives that we discovered, we didn’t get a chance to go through all of them, but we went through a lot of them, there were 500,000 documents.  We discovered that Arafat continued to fund terror, to plan terror—even after signing agreements with Israel.  This was incredible material.  This was material not just signed by Arafat, but he’d actually make notations alongside names of people that said, “Give him an extra $200.  No, no, give him $300 less.”  It’s an amazing document.  I went to The New York Times with these documents—I was then the Strategic Affairs Advisor—and I said, “I have a Pulitzer Prize waiting for you.”  They didn’t want to see me!  I mean, you have the internal archives of a terror organization, and they just didn’t want it!  I had a friend of mine at The New York Times contact Howell Raines, the then-Executive Editor, who called the New York Times bureau chief in Jerusalem, James Bennett, and said, “You have to meet with him.”  So he met with me against his will—now, he’s now the head of the Atlantic magazine—and he didn’t write anything about what I gave him.  He wasn’t interested in it.  Now, there are other things that are in the archives.  The business about Arafat and Cleo Noel: The National Security Agency captured, on tape, a phone call from Arafat to the organization known as Black September—it was really just part of the Fatah organization of Arafat’s, a special unit—where he ordered the murder of Noel and—I forget the name of the other American diplomat—and a Belgian diplomat.  The U.S. had this information for more than twenty years.  Under the orders, I believe, of Henry Kissinger and some other people, this material was kept highly classified because Kissinger, and people at the CIA, believed that Arafat might actually be giving the U.S. information.  Of course, this was nonsense.  It was a terrible joke.  But they covered up for Arafat for more than twenty years.  This man was a terrible murderer from his youth to the day he died.  He should never be lamented.  The U.S., unfortunately, and some of the top intelligence agencies in the world, have picked the wrong people to be their so-called “sources”—and often they get bogus material.  We should learn from our mistakes.

ARONOFF: Okay.  So to wrap it up, do you have anything positive to say to the American people about bracing themselves for the next few years, with Arab terrorism and radical Islam?

WIDLANSKI: First of all, the most important thing to know is, we can win.  We can win.  The United States, Israel, the other democratic countries can defeat terrorism.  We have to develop people in our intelligence agencies, our media, our academia, who are willing to look at the Middle East the way we used to look at the Middle East—without ideological blinders.  They have to know language—they have to know Arabic, they have to know Farsi—and they have to know history.  History is the most important thing.  If you know history, you don’t get surprised.  Then, when we know with whom we are dealing, we can deal much better, because terror is fundamentally a battle of the mind.  You have to know your enemy.  A few men with box-cutters can do extraordinary damage.  A few men with a moving van parked at the World Trade Center could have killed 50,000 people if they’d put the bomb a little closer to the pillar—far worse than 9/11.

ARONOFF: The name of the book is Battle for Our Minds.  Michael Widlanski—You can find it on Amazon.  Where else can they find your work, Michael?

WIDLANSKI: Let me give the full title of the book first: Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat.  It’s available at Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, and at every place where books are sold.  Today, as I think you know, I have a piece in the New York Post.  I write periodically, I blog a little bit—not a lot, but every once in a while—and I’m an avid reader of AIM.

ARONOFF: Thank you very much!  That’s great!  Listen, the hour went too fast, but I urge everyone to get this book and read it—Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat by Michael Widlanski.  This will be posted on our website next week some time, with a full transcript.  Michael, it’s been great having you on.  Thank you so much for your work—

WIDLANSKI: Roger, it’s a pleasure.

ARONOFF: Okay!  We’ll be in touch!


ARONOFF: Take care, thank you—and that’s it for this week’s Take AIM!

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