The Good News on Forgery
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, June 21, 1999 "The decade begun in Kuwait ends in the skies over Serbia. No American government will, in the near future at least, simply assume that it has the military power needed to impose its will...."
Thus retired Gen. John M. Shalikashvili grumbles about the "difference between being the greatest ... power in the world and omnipotence" and warns of the emergence of a "passive" and "isolationist" America as a result of the war in Yugoslavia.
"The United States will be withdrawing from its aggressive leadership position not solely because it wishes to," says the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "It will be withdrawing because it has seriously lost the trust of many of its NATO allies."
Why? Besides committing insufficient military power in Yugoslavia, the air war, he says, is "not going to force a Serbian capitulation."
The Shalikashvili essay, "The World After Kosovo," began circulating via e-mail about three weeks before Belgrade's withdrawal from Kosovo.
It is a forgery.
"Someone has stolen my name," Shalikashvili told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which revealed the fabrication on the final day of Operation Allied Force.
Stolen, and Forwarded
"This has been a major embarrassment to me," says a West Point graduate, after he circulated the Shalikashvili essay to his classmates. Like many other military observers, he received the commentary via e-mail. "I innocently passed along the article that had been forwarded to me clearly marked as being written by Gen. Shali from a network of senior retired military officers a normally credible source!"
As compliments and complaints alike poured in from friends and former aides, General Shalikashvili, who retired in October 1997, discussed with Defense Department spokesman Ken Bacon whether the electronic screed should be denounced from the Pentagon podium. They decided not to bring attention to the fake.
Shalikashvili decided to go public: "I was hoping that it would go away, but this thing doesn't seem to be dying," he says.
Floss, Dance, Don't be Fooled
I know what you're thinking: The Internet has struck again. Faster than a speeding bullet an individual's identity has been stolen. An irresponsible and unregulated medium has perpetrated fraud and deceit.
We've seen this time and again with the Web: Disgraces like Pierre Salinger's flogging of "intelligence" documents dealing with the TWA Flight 800 accident that turn out to be nothing more than conspiratorial drivel plucked from the Web. The "Floss, Dance, Don't Be Fooled" MIT commencement address that wasn't delivered by Kurt Vonnegut. The Internet does indeed have the capacity to amplify and duplicate what is real, as well as what is not.
On the Web, there is only a single posting: on the FreeRepublic site ("The Web's premier conservative news discussion forum!"). Even here, where the retired military officer who distributed the essay described it as "the story of the current JCS members who have been silenced by the White House intimidation machine," the piece was quickly rejected. The same day it was posted, May 28, three participants identified the work as fraudulent.
The system works!
A Good Day for Bombing
"The World After Kosovo" is a very good forgery. There is no obvious inflammatory language; it is a plausible viewpoint that someone could associate with a retired high-ranking officer.
The news media, like the Web, proved less promiscuous than its popular reputation in running with the supposed dissent. When Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour Hersh received the e-mail from a recently retired two-star general, he was also warned that it may or may not be authentic. Hersh read the words with interest, but he says he would never have done anything with the file, including forwarding it, without contacting Shalikashvili first.
Tom Ricks, the Pentagon correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, also received the Shalikashvili piece, in spades. "About 50 military officers credulously forwarded the 'Shali piece' to me," Ricks says.
Ricks's newspaper made itself famous in January when it quoted from the e-mail of an Air Force general bragging about the bombing of Iraq. "It's a good day for bombing," the officer wrote. But after his utterances proved fair game for the mainstream media, the general, tail fin between his legs, told the Journal that he probably should have chosen his words better.
E-mail has since proven a nettlesome medium for the closed world of retired and active duty officers. But before the Internet gets the blame, it should be made clear that the Shalikashvili episode is an embarrassment for a network of otherwise worldly military specialists who were fooled by the prose and perhaps even blinded by their own anti-Clinton animus.
Though many questioned the authenticity of the retired general's words, they copied and forwarded the essay, Drudge-style. It was hardly a precision military formation.
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