"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 10 August 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Back Storytelling


[Acetone - so slow:
it's getting later every day 
i'm not sure what i'm still waiting for
does make much difference anymore
things you used to  say to me]

The general view of cause and

effect is that the two relate in

some way; first there's one,

then the other. Of course, we

don't all have government jobs,

so the nuances of causality can

sometimes escape us. If we

accept a revelation contained in

the new issue of the Columbia

Journalism Review - a revelation

based on the helpful explanation

of an unnamed "senior

administration official" - cause

can sometimes come after more

than two decades of effect.

Which suggests that there may

one day be a reason for the

current popularity of Leonardo

DiCaprio movies, but never mind.


In outline form, the story -

absent the new understanding of

cause - is roughly this: In

April 1975, a guerilla army

overran Cambodia's capital city, Phnom

Penh. The Khmer Rouge was a group of

communist insurgents in the way

that climbing Mount Everest is

kind of a tough hike; during the

four years that it

unambiguously held power in

Cambodia, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge

tried to take its country

back to "Year Zero," a time and

a place wholly uninfected by the

wrongheaded influences of

modernity, technology, and

the West. It did this mostly by

killing people: the affluent,

the marginally affluent,

city-dwellers who'd dropped the

agrarian thread, those trained

in professions, the literate -

and more than a few of its

own, after the Khmer Rouge's revolutionary

purity came into question. The

number of dead can only be

guessed at; the consensus guess

these days seems to be 1.5

million, the mean of the usual

estimates. Although even this

guess is frequently couched in

the language of the department

store sale, "up to ... or more."


After Pol Pot was chased from

power in 1979, three successive

US administrations worked to

support the Khmer Rouge covertly

and overtly. In the United

Nations, the Carter

administration maintained that

Pol Pot and his lieutenants

still comprised Cambodia's

legitimate government-in-exile.

Pol Pot and his followers were,

after all, Chinese loyalists in

what had become a Soviet client

state. And the Soviets were very

bad; under Stalin, for example,

they had killed millions of

their own citizens, and they

were even known - gasp! - to

have attempted to influence the

ideological posture of foreign



[and i used to believe everyone of them
doesn't mean that much can't you see
the same thing happens all the time 
but i know i really shouldn't mind

Writer Philip Gourevitch sums

all of this up nicely in the 10

August issue of The New Yorker.

"Among the alliances that formed

around the dirty proxy wars of

yesteryear," Gourevitch writes,

"none was more perverse, or more

enduringly injurious to the host

country, than the West's rescue

of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge after

1979. But such was the

geopolitical calculus by which

the Cold War was won."


Pol Pot died in April

of this year. His death brought a

burst of strangely sudden tough

talk from the Clinton

administration, by then well

into its second iteration. On a

visit to Thailand, Bill

Richardson - the chief US

delegate to the United Nations

at the time - talked about the

American resolve to track

down Pol Pot's surviving

lieutenants. "We're all going to

make major efforts to find these

individuals and bring them to

justice," he promised. Some

observers thought this sounded

kind of silly in light of 20

years of explicit US support for

the Khmer Rouge - and the

absence of the same fierce

public resolve during Clinton's

first term as president - and it

was silly. Incidentally, four months

after Richardson's statement of

unwavering resolve, no Khmer

Rouge leaders are known to be in

US custody.


Now for the conveniently

revisionist back story.


The July and August issue of the

Columbia Journalism Review -

sort of a Brill's Content

without the carefully marketed

'tude - puts the spin into play

under the blazing headline

"Losing Pol Pot." A flow chart

at the top of the print-edition

story starts with a picture of a

living Pol Pot, ends with a

picture of his funeral pyre, and

shows two New York Times editors

in between, the whole set of

cause and effect connected with

arrows to help make the point

clear: The newspaper caused the

death of one of the 20th

century's worst war criminals,

"losing" the world its chance to

deliver official justice to the

architect of Cambodia's killing

fields. More simply, and in its

more familiar general form: The

government was trying to do the

right thing, and would have

gotten to it, but the news media

screwed it up.


Except that the story doesn't

stand up to the headline -

really, doesn't stand up at all.

Bill Clinton, CJR explains, had

ordered the departments of

Defense, Justice, and State to

"devise plans" for the capture

of the 73-year-old Pol Pot. Two

reporters at the Times got wind

of Clinton's orders and did what

reporters do: They prepared a

story detailing what they had

learned. The night before the

story was set to run on the

newspaper's front page, National

Security Adviser Sandy Berger

called the Times and asked it

to kill the story. The request

ran through a series of editors

before reaching Bill Keller, the

managing editor. With no

operation in the works - no

soldiers waiting to parachute

into the jungle, no concrete

action actually scheduled -

Keller decided to run the story.


The story ran on 9 April. Six

days later, Pol Pot died; three

days after that, with a Times

reporter and an Associated Press

photographer looking on, a

handful of Khmer Rouge soldiers

piled garbage around his body -

a chair, a mattress, some old

tires, random scraps of cloth, a

few loose sticks picked up off

the ground - and burned it.


CJR uses some amusingly nebulous

language to explain what really

happened, maybe. Kind of. The

Times story, writer Konstantin

Richter explains, "was

publicized in Cambodia,

doubtless reaching the

mountainous hinterland where Pol

Pot and the remaining Khmer

Rouge fighters were hiding." The

Khmer Rouge leader was dead soon

after, and Richter notes that

his body was cremated without an

autopsy - in Cambodia's "mountainous

hinterland," where autopsies

are standard practice; where

some of the world's best

forensic pathologists maintain

state-of-the-art facilities -

"adding to the speculation" that

the Khmer Rouge killed him to

keep its longtime leader from

turning on the group in a war-crimes

trial to win mercy for himself.

Richter notes that the "mere

possibility" that the story

might have led to Pol Pot's

death makes it worth a closer

look, then quotes a war-crimes

researcher who "says she is not

in a position to assess the

Times story." ("But, she adds,

'Let's suppose ...'")


Tie all of that fudged language

together, all of those hazy

modifiers that reveal just how

many provable facts underlie the

narrative, and the thread of the

story frays ever so slightly.

Speculation doubtless raises the

mere possibility that people who

aren't in a position

to assess the situation

suppose that The New York Times

- by recklessly refusing to

comply with the government, as

all good newspapers do -

prevented the world from

bringing Pol Pot to trial. Where

he could have been found guilty

and, you know, properly



[i would like to impress you
i would like to be so much more 
than i know that i am today
but changes go so slow, ]

To pick just one statement at

random for closer examination,

go back and see if you can find

the factual support for that

statement that a New York Times

report "doubtless" reached the

radically antitechnology,

anti-West jungle fighters of a

Third World guerilla army in the

"mountainous hinterland" where

they were camped. Think they

picked the paper up with their

morning cappuccino or plugged

into an ISDN line, accessing it

from the Times Web site? And

would people desperate to

destroy the body of a murder

victim, in order to hide the

evidence, wait three days before

burning the body - which they

allowed reporters to view? And

if the Khmer Rouge was so

anxious to hide Pol Pot from the

West, would it really have let

an American reporter, Nate

Thayer (a Boston native working

for the Far East Economic

Review), sit down with

the arrested leader for a

detailed interview

just six months

before his death?


But CJR takes all of this

fact-free chin stroking a step

further, quoting an unnamed

"senior administration

official," who expressed the

government's fury at the Times.

"Imagine that these were the

1940s," the official says, "and

the US government was trying to

get its hands on Hitler."


It's not every day you open a

magazine to read that someone

has committed a wrong that

achieves the moral equivalency

of helping Hitler escape justice

- and for good reason; it's hard

to imagine a more serious

accusation, except maybe the one

you'd level at the

Hitler-equivalent himself. And

so the government -

unofficially, of course, and

anonymously - hangs signs

around the necks of a group of

journalists, identifying them as

accessories-after-the-fact in

the cover-up of 1.5 million



[i just don't know, i just don't know
the same thing happens all the time 
i know i shouldn't mind at all

Except that the analogy misses

the point in an awfully obvious

way. To make it accurate,

imagine it was the 1960s, and

the US government was trying to

get its hands on Hitler - after

20-plus years of telling the UN

that the Nazis were Germany's

legitimate government-in-exile.


And then, to complete the

picture, imagine they were

trying to pass the blame.

courtesy of Ambrose Beers