David Corn

David Corn

Washington Bureau Chief

Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.

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Bloggingheads.tv: Corn Goes Soft on Tax Cuts Deal

| Thu Dec. 9, 2010 10:37 AM EST

The headline is true—sort of. After talking to senior administration officials, I gained a better perspective on how President Barack Obama came to decide in favor of the tax cuts deal that will temporarily extend the Bush breaks for the wealthy. And I note that I'm somewhat sympathetic to how he confronted that dilemma (spin works!), though I still believe his miscalculations led him (and us) to this difficult point. I explain that in my latest Bloggingheads.tv exchange with conservative Jim Pinkerton, who tries to persuade me that Republicans don't just care about tax cuts for the rich. They also want to "starve the beast," he says.) We also discuss WikiLeaks and its implications for journalism and governance.


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John Lennon's Murder 30 Years Later: A Remembrance

| Wed Dec. 8, 2010 2:27 PM EST

Five years ago, on the 25th anniversary of the fatal shooting of John Lennon, I wrote this remembrance. Unfortunately, it is just as relevant today.

Twenty-five years ago today, John Lennon was shot dead outside the Dakota apartment building in New York City. He died about 11:00 pm. In those days, news was not so instantaneous. It wasn't until the next morning that many people—myself included—learned of this horrific event. At that time, I was working at the Center for the Study of Responsive Law in Washington, DC—otherwise known as the office of Ralph Nader. I was taking a year off from college.

The news that morning hit me—and millions of others—hard. After stumbling into the office—a rabbit warren of offices, some separated by walls made of cartons containing remaindered books produced by the Nader operation—I was asked to deliver a letter from Nader to President Carter. We didn't fax back then. I don't recall what the letter was about, but Nader was probably again blasting Carter, who at this point was a lame duck preparing to vacate the White House after losing to Ronald Reagan the previous month, for failing the public interest on some regulatory matter. I didn't mind the assignment. I didn't feel much like working or talking to anyone. It was a cold morning and about half a mile walk. I could stretch this mundane delivery task into an hour of solitude.

I walked down 16th Street NW, and within a few blocks I passed the headquarters of the National Rifle Association, an entire building next to one of Washington's lovely traffic circles. I stared at the building. My sadness and numbness slid into anger. I didn't know yet that Lennon's killer, Mark David Chapman, had purchased the .38-caliber handgun with which he shot Lennon, at a Hawaii gun store despite having a record of mental illness. But I did know that the NRA and its allies in the gun industry were one of the most powerful lobbies in town and that their primary concern was easy access to weapons. I started talking to the imposing building. "No," I said, "no, you're not going to get off scott-free here, no, no way." And an idea struck.

After dropping off the letter to Carter at one of the entrances to the White House, I hurried back to the office. I told Russell Mokhiber, one of the staffers and a veteran agitator, that I had decided to mount a protest rally outside the NRA's office. Here was a chance, I thought, to spur a debate on gun control. I wanted time off to organize the event. Mokhiber approached Nader, who said that would be fine, but that I should do it as a private citizen, not as an associate of the Center. That was fine by me. I immediately formed Citizens against Gun Violence, an "ad hoc citizens group."

CAGV—that is, me—quickly picked a date a few days hence for the event and designed a flyer advertising the rally. In recent weeks, there had been other examples of handgun violence in Washington. The brother of author David Halberstam, a local doctor, had been shot and killed by an intruder whom he had chased out of his home. And a popular community activist, a young African-American woman, had been shot dead, too. The flyer featured both of them and Lennon. And I asked a copy shop—no Kinko's back then—to print hundreds of copies on a super-rush basis. It could in those days take a day or two to get such a job done. The person at the counter looked at the material and said, "Come back in an hour."

CAGV grew in numbers, by which I mean that several interns at the Center and some friends of mine volunteered to put up flyers around town. Mokhiber went out and bought a bullhorn. I filed a permit application minutes before it was due. A local radio station announced that Lennon fans would be gathering at the end of the day on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And as soon as the copies of the flyer were ready, I picked them up and headed toward the Lincoln Memorial.

There were several hundred people on the steps. One scrawny-looking fellow was in the middle of the crowd, holding up a cheap cassette player—no iPods, either—that was blaring out various Beatles and Lennon tunes. I politely pushed my way toward him. I handed him one of the flyers and asked if at an appropriate time he would let the people around him know about the rally. He looked at the flyer. The cassette player was playing "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." He said, "No, you tell them." The song ended. He turned off the machine and said, "This guy has something he wants to say to you."

On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I made my first and only political speech. "We've just heard this song that says, 'After all this time, we must surely be learning," I began. "But are we? There are 10,000 handgun deaths a year. Are we learning how we can prevent that?" I noted that not only Lennon but other important members of our community had been killed by guns recently and that efforts to restrict guns routinely fail. "Why?" I asked. "Because people who work there"—I pointed across the Reflecting Pool toward the Capitol—"listen too much to the people over there"—I pointed in the direction of the NRA building. But, I added, now was an appropriate time to show that other Americans had different views. I asked the people there to come to the rally. And I'm afraid I said something corny like, "Imagine if everyone who feels as you do today showed up." When I was done, the scrawny fellow gave me a hug; the people applauded. I darted off to start putting up the flyers.

Besides working the grassroots, CAGV had a media strategy. I had fellow workers at the Center call up various media outlets—particularly radio stations that played rock music. They asked for the news or program director and then said something like, "I hear there's going to be a large protest outside the NRA headquarters in three days to commemorate the death of John Lennon and to call for sensible handgun control, and I want to go. Do you have any information on this?" Of course, they did not. But invariably the person on the other end of the phone said, "No, but if you find out anything please let me know."

Hours later, I would call these media people and say, "I'm David Corn of Citizens Against Gun Violence, an ad hoc citizens group. I understand you're looking for information on the rally we're holding." Everyone was quite keen on listening to me. Several radio stations asked me to come into their studios to talk about the event. "Was I exploiting this tragedy to make a political point?" some asked. "Yes," I said. The aim was to use this awful killing to advance policies that might prevent such another tragedy from occurring. "Do you think," I countered, "that John Lennon, the antiwar, antiviolence activist, would mind?"

Word got out. People started calling from all over the region. Some students at a college—I believe it was in Pennsylvania—were renting a bus. I contacted the leading gun control advocates in Washington, convinced them this event was actually going to happen, and got them to commit to attending and speaking. Within a day or two, the office had unofficially become the headquarters of CAGV. Nader asked what was going on, but he didn't seem to mind. Nor did his chief of staff, John Richard.

The rally went off as planned. About one or two thousand people, I believe, showed up. There were camera crews, reporters from various newspapers. I put the professional handgun control advocates in front of the journalists; they gave the interviews. So too did relatives of Halberstam's brother and the community activist. All these people used the new bullhorn and spoke of the need for restraints on guns. I gave no speech. One woman approached me and said she had come because she had heard me on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The bus from Pennsylvania (or wherever) arrived. Cars driving by honked.

The event—as far as such events go—was a success. There was media coverage. Those who had come felt they had done something with their grief and anger. And as almost always happens when a prominent act of gun violence occurs, the topic of handgun was again on the radar screen. Not because of our effort, but we had done our part. However, that moment—like all moments—quickly faded. It is now 25 years later. John Lennon is still dead. (And so is George Harrison.) The NRA years ago moved to a bigger and better headquarters in suburban Virginia. The gun lobby has had its ups and downs, but it's been mostly ups of late (such as the expiration of the ban on assault weapons). Lennon's death, it turns out, was no catalyst for action. And we have still—after all this time—not learned how to stem the tide of gun violence. Which is one of several reasons why this anniversary of Lennon's death is a sad day.

Washington Post: Still Spinning the CIA Leak Case

| Tue Dec. 7, 2010 7:00 AM EST

The Washington Post's editorial page suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The cause: the newspaper's inability to come to terms with its cheerleading for the Iraq war. The symptoms were most recently manifested in an editorial that slammed the movie, Fair Game, which is a Hollywood treatment of the Valerie Plame/CIA leak case that culminated with the 2007 conviction of Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. The Post huffed that the movie is "full of distortions—if not outright inventions." But the paper's editorialists protest too much—and reveal their own biases.

When the movie opened, two veteran Post reporters who covered the CIA leak case—Walter Pincus and Richard Leiby—wrote an extensive article detailing what portions of the movie were fact and what were the product of dramatic license. The pair noted that the film exaggerates Valerie Plame Wilson's role in a specific intelligence operation aimed at gathering intelligence on WMD activity within Iraq. (In the book I co-wrote with Michael Isikoff, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, we revealed that she was the operations chief of the CIA’s clandestine Joint Task Force on Iraq.) And the movie, the pair report, may stretch the truth in the scenes in which Iraqi scientists who cooperated with the CIA are stranded in Iraq when Valerie Wilson's CIA identity is revealed in a newspaper column by conservative Bob Novak. But Pincus and Leiby concluded, "the movie holds up as a thoroughly researched and essentially accurate account."

Not so, huffs the editorial page, which has long been edited by Fred Hiatt, a fervent supporter of the Iraq war. The editorial takes issue with the movie's depiction of Valerie Wilson's husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, "as a whistle-blower who debunked a Bush administration claim that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from the African country of Niger." Joe Wilson, in case you've forgotten, was dispatched by the CIA to Niger in 2002 to check out the allegation that Iraq had obtained yellowcake from Niger that could be used to produce nuclear weapons. The CIA's decision to send Wilson to Niger had been sparked by a request from Cheney for more information on the unconfirmed and sketchy Niger allegation.

When Wilson returned from Niger, he told the CIA that based on his conversations with former Nigerien officials, he had concluded that such an Iraq-Niger uranium deal was highly unlikely. And in July 2003—months after President Bush launched the Iraq war with the claim that Saddam Hussein posed a serious WMD threat—Wilson wrote a New York Times op-ed maintaining that the Bush-Cheney administration had "twisted" some of the pre-war "intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program." He wrote that he was basing this conclusion on the administration's public use of the Niger charge—which President George W. Bush had cited in that year's State of the Union speech—despite what Wilson had told the CIA. This is the somewhat mild way Wilson put it in the op-ed:

The vice president's office asked a serious question. I was asked to help formulate the answer. I did so, and I have every confidence that the answer I provided was circulated to the appropriate officials within our government. The question now is how that answer was or was not used by our political leadership. If my information was deemed inaccurate, I understand (though I would be very interested to know why). If, however, the information was ignored because it did not fit certain preconceptions about Iraq, then a legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses.

 Now, the Post editorial belittles Wilson's whistleblowing:

In fact, an investigation by the Senate intelligence committee found that Mr. Wilson's reporting did not affect the intelligence community's view on the matter, and an official British investigation found that President George W. Bush's statement in a State of the Union address that Britain believed that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger was well-founded.

WikiLeaks: Don't Sweat Pakistan's Corruption, US Tells Saudis

| Fri Dec. 3, 2010 7:00 AM EST

During a May 16, 2009, meeting in Riyadh with a senior Saudi official, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke—the Obama administration's special adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan—said that corruption in Pakistan was a problem but indicated that Washington had decided not to focus on it, according to a confidential cable sent from the US embassy in Riyadh to the State Department that was released by WikiLeaks.

Holbrooke was meeting with Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia's assistant interior minister, and much of the conversation concerned Pakistan. Holbrooke emphasized that to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan, the US and Saudi governments need to work together regarding Pakistan. Yet the meeting showed there were differences. MbN—as the cable called him—said that the Saudi government "viewed the Pakistan army as the strongest element for stability in the country." In reply, Holbrooke noted the US supported Pakistan's democracy.

Holbrooke was in Saudi Arabia to brief officials on the Obama administration's policy on Afghanistan—which emphasized achieving stability in Pakistan. According to the cable, he told the prince, "The U.S. might be able to live with some degree of instability in Afghanistan, but not with an unstable Pakistan, because of Pakistan's nuclear arms, fragile politics, and relationship with India." MbN said the Saudis "absolutely" shared this perspective. (The cable noted that King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the same thing in subsequent meetings with Holbrooke.)

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