Such a relationship is called an “agent of influence” in the intelligence world, a former CIA official said.
Absent from the pages of the Washington Post’s print and online editions is a disclaimer that the newspaper’s owner not only works with, but profits from the Central Intelligence Agency, prompting media critics to cry foul.
This past March, the Washington Post’s new owner Jeff Bezos, who is also the founder and CEO of Amazon, “won” a $600 million contract with the CIA to create and maintain a cloud service for the agency for the next 10 years. Media watchdogs argue that failure to include this detail in any Post coverage of the CIA means there may be an intentional omission of critical and crucial details of the agency’s work in Post stories.
Although $600 million doesn’t sound like much more than pocket change for a multi-billionaire, Norman Solomon, a writer, activist, and media critic, says that’s more than twice as much as Bezos paid to buy the Washington Post.
Since the paper often reports on the activities of the CIA, there is now a petition and encouragement from media watchdog groups for the paper to disclose to its readers that its owner is in business with the CIA.
More than 15,000 people signed the petition this past week and expressed their concerns in the comments section, since the “Post functions as a powerhouse media outlet in the nation’s Capital, it’s also a national and global entity — read every day by millions of people who never hold its newsprint edition in their hands,” according to Solomon, and “Hundreds of daily papers reprint the Post’s news articles and opinion pieces, while online readership spans the world.”
Still, the paper has done little or nothing to disclose just how connected it is to the federal agency, which according to journalism scholar Robert W. McChesney is concerning since the Post is “unquestionably the political paper of record in the United States, and how it covers governance sets the agenda for the balance of the news media.”
He went on to say that “If some official enemy of the United States had a comparable situation — say the owner of the dominant newspaper in Caracas was getting $600 million in secretive contracts from the Maduro government — the Post itself would lead the howling chorus impaling that newspaper and that government for making a mockery of a free press. It is time for the Post to take a dose of its own medicine.”
Even former CIA official Ray McGovern has expressed concerns about the Post’s failure to disclose its relationship with the agency, saying that in the intelligence world, such a relationship is called an “agent of influence.” McGovern went on to say that Bezos’s ownership of the Post and “huge financial interest in playing nice with the CIA” could affect the national security state.
The CIA connection
News of the Amazon-CIA deal was confirmed this past October when International Business Machines Corp. filed a formal protest over the CIA’s decision to work with Amazon instead of IBM to build its cloud network.
The Government Accountability Office — the agency that makes recommendations on contested contracts — sided with IBM, saying that the CIA “failed to properly evaluate prices and had waived a contract requirement only for Amazon,” but in the end the U.S. Court of Federal Claims sided with Amazon.
Aware of Amazon’s CIA affiliation, Post reporter Andrea Petersen, who covers technology policy, penned a blog post this past September — a month after it was announced Bezos had purchased the paper — describing what happened when she asked the new owner about the CIA cloud computing contracts.
Petersen reported she asked Bezos to comment on Amazon’s pursuit of CIA cloud contracts, since there are reports that Amazon has 100-plus postings for engineers and technical positions requiring top secret clearance.
In response, Bezos reportedly chuckled a bit and then went on to praise Amazon’s cloud computing arm — Amazon Web Services — calling it “the leader in infrastructure cloud computing.” He also “explained to my less technically inclined colleagues that it basically sells ‘computing time by the hour to other companies.’”
Bezos reportedly continued on to say that the real story about the deal is that Amazon defeated IBM to win a contract with the CIA, and according to Petersen, discussed specifics of the CIA contract that she neglected to include in her post.
Although the public, including Post readers, has the ability to connect the dots between the paper’s in-direct relationship with the CIA, since the information is publicly available, media watchdog groups point out that “a basic principle of journalism is to acknowledge when the owner of a media outlet has a major financial relationship with the subject of coverage.”
They argue that every Post article about the CIA should include full disclosure that the paper’s owner is also the main owner of Amazon, which is receiving huge profits directly from the CIA.
For Solomon, the fact that the CIA opted to go with Amazon to build and run its “cloud” infrastructure despite the fact that Amazon didn’t have the lowest bid — IBM did — is concerning.
Although Amazon is only working with the CIA now, Solomon says Bezos may encourage Post reporters to cover fewer pieces criticizing the CIA in the hope that Amazon has an easier time obtaining business from other government agencies.
Plus, Solomon pointed out that last month Amazon said publicly it was looking forward to “a successful relationship with the CIA,” which Solomon says will likely only happen “if [Bezos’s] newspaper does less ruffling and more soothing of CIA feathers.”
NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik agrees the Post should be doing more to disclose its relationship with the CIA since “there is an ‘enormous constellation of issues’ that affect Amazon’s bottom line in Washington – which should raise some concerns about conflicts of interest on issues like internet sales taxes and copyright/intellectual property.”
And added that since Amazon is becoming a “major vendor” to the U.S. government, especially when it comes to web storage technology, it remains unknown how the paper may censor any negative stories about the intelligence agency.
History of censorship
Although Folkenflik says he suspects Bezos doesn’t intend to interfere in the paper’s reporting, he said no one really knows whether Bezos would censor information, since he has never operated a paper before.
While it’s true Bezos has never owned and operated a newspaper before — especially one with as large of a readership as the Washington Post — Amazon’s AWS webhosting service — the same group that is working with the CIA and hosts Mint Press News’ website — stopped hosting WikiLeaks content in 2010 after the organization published State Department cables.
Amazon released a statement after pulling the plug on its relationship with WikiLeaks, saying that the decision to no longer host WikiLeaks content was based solely on the organization’s violation of the terms of service agreement. But not everyone was convinced it wasn’t a political decision, since the timing of Amazon’s decision since followed a call from politicians such as Sen. Joe Lieberman to actively retaliate against WikiLeaks.
However, even if Bezos did not press Post reporters to cover the CIA in a more favorable manner, former Washington Post reporter John Hanrahan said “Post reporters and editors are aware that Bezos, as majority owner of Amazon, has a financial stake in maintaining good relations with the CIA — and this sends a clear message to even the hardest-nosed journalist that making the CIA look bad might not be a good career move.”
Though disclosing the relationship that exists between the paper’s owner and the CIA may not ease the Post reporters worries about calling out the CIA, or ease the readers minds that what they are reading is accurate, Solomon says propaganda largely depends on patterns of omission and repetition.
“If in its coverage of the CIA, the Washington Post were willing to fully disclose the financial ties that bind its owner to the CIA, such candor would shed some light on how top-down power actually works in our society.”