No doubt in the spirit of the season, somebody bestowed an audio sweetmeat upon Bob Woodward -- 13-plus minutes of an off-the-record conversation that took place in the spring of 2011 between Gen. David Petreaus, then ISAF commander in Afghanistan, and Fox News analyst KT McFarland, then visiting Petraeus' Kabul HQ. The exchange under consideration comes at the end of an interview when McFarland announces she has a personal message for Petraeus from Fox News President Roger Ailes, part of which is: If Petraeus isn't appointed joint chiefs chairman, he should resign from the Army in six months and run for president. Obviously, he Petraeus didn't do. it And that's the Washington Post headline -- "Fox news chief failed attempt to enlist Petraeus as presidential candidate." But there is more to the message than that.
The segment starts thus:
KT: I have something to to say to you, by the way, directly from Roger Ailes, OK? …
P: ... I'm not running (laughs) ...
KT: OK! ... Roger Ailes, I told him I was coming.
P: I love Roger.
KT: I know and he loves you and everybody at Fox loves you. I’m supposed to say directly from him to you, through me, is, first of all: Is there anything Fox is doing right or wrong that you want to tell us to do differently?
This question is devastating to the Fox News brand. And it opens the door on the kid gloves and soft-lenses with which Fox has consistently handled demonstrably disastrous Petraeus counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. This remains true no matter how much both Ailes and McFarland now brush off the Ailes' message to Petraeus as a gag McFarland took too seriously. “It was more of a joke, a wiseass way I have,” Ailes told the Post. “I thought the Republican field [in the primaries] needed to be shaken up and Petraeus might be a good candidate.” Ailes now considers McFarland to have been "way out of line." But what about Ailes himself? Wasn't he "way out of line" by putting her up to this -- or are we to believe McFarland was making the whole thing up?
As if to amplify this notion, McFarland penned a half-defensive, half-confessional response yesterday that carries the headline, "My Petraeus interview firestorm silly, off-base." In a piece recasting audio we can all of us listen to for ourselves, she respins Woodward's piece and media reaction to it as so much baseless hyperbole -- a credulity-straining exercise. She writes:
A conversation that began in jest and that led to a passing comment at the end of my interview with General David Petraeus has turned into a firestorm of speculation and an attempt to denigrate Fox.
In jest? Passing comment? Later, McFarland writes:
As we were finishing the interview I told General Petraeus my boss, Roger Ailes, was a great admirer. General Petraeus, who knows Roger, interrupted to say, basically, Roger is a brilliant guy. He knows I’m not running for anything.
In a nutshell (as if hoping no one actually listens to the audio). She continues:
My comment was prompted by a conversation I had had with Roger before leaving for Afghanistan. We discussed many topics, most involving national security. On my way out, I casually told him, I’ll give the general your regards, shall I? Roger smiled and replied something to the effect of, tell him if they don’t make him chairman of the joint chiefs, he ought to jump into the presidential race to stir things up. I know now that Roger was joking, but at the time, I wasn’t sure.
Problem is, the audio just doesn't make it sound quite so casual. The tone of the conversation is light, to be sure, but Ailes' message is conveyed nonetheless as a serious proposition.
But don't just take my word for it: I transcribe, you decide.
Back to Ailes' first question for Petraeus, via McFarland, about whether there is anything Fox could be doing differently:
P: You know, actually, ask Brett Baier about this because I actually did say that I thought that -- I actually thought, in a sense, certainly the editorial policy of Fox had shifted. Now, that --
K: On the online or on the news channel?
P: Well, I only watch the, you know, the -- but, I mean, it's your stories that are online here. But it just struck me that it was almost as if because they’re going after Obama they had to go after Obama’s war as well actually, and I told that to Brett when he was out there, uh, that again, some of it was headlines, but --
K: Well, Headlines is easy to fix 'cause the lady who does that is, has the desk next to mine. ...
P: My honest sense was that, you know, I mean, papers and news outlets have editorial policies, they know sort of how their bosses feel about things, and it causes a certaing shading. And, you know with respect, for example -- I mean, you know, again off the record, I mean, the NYT is never going to give Bush or Iraq a break. I don't care what happened. ... [Goes on about a NYT story by Thom Shanker in which something "odd" and "unfounded" was inserted by editors] …
(The Post got a response from Shanker who said " he did not remember saying anything resembling what Petraeus asserted. `I don’t blame the editors for what appears under my byline,' he said. `It undermines your own credibility.' " )
P: [to someone else who apparently has entered the room] She asked if there's something that Fox can do better.
KT: This is a direct from my boss to --
P: We discussed this actually with Brett. And you may want to spend a little time on it with her.
K: [Goes on about political split between national security/economy interests ... ] You're certainly seeing that with Bill O'Reilly; and you're seeing that with some of the other anchors, where they're becoming very skeptical [such as Shepherd Smith]. ... But I don't think it's an editorial policy. And it's very pro-military -- it remains --
P: ... But you know, again, I do sense, there is a little, it is -- you can sense a skepticism but the skepticism is informing the reporting to a slight degree, or the way it's being reported. And I guess that's the concern that I have; that it could sort of unduly undermine, um -- Brett got it right, I think, when he was out here certainly. But, and you know, again, you know, judge for yourself. You’re gonna get out and see stuff for yourself, and you'll see how it's different from two years ago. ...
(The Post got a response from Baier, who said "he recalled no such conversation with Petraeus. `That’s B.S.,' he said. `We cover the war the same way no matter what administration is in power.' ")
KT: ... Now the other thing -- I know you've only got a minute left -- the other which is directly advice to you from Roger Ailes is:
Deferential male voice: Do you want us to leave sir?
P: (Laughs, as does KT.) I'm not running
KT: That's not the question at this point. He says that if you're offered chairman, take it. If you're offered anything else, don't take it. Resign in six months and run for president. OK? And I know you're not running for president but at some point when you go to NY next you may want to just chat with Roger and, and Rupert Murdoch for that matter.
P: Well, Rupert’s after me as well.
P: Look, what I have told people is that, you know, I truly want to continues to serve my country if it is in a, you know, a quite significantly meaningful position and there’s all of about two only of those in the world. You all have really got to shut your mouths ...
KT: And I'm only reporting this back to Roger; that's my deal.
P: And, you know, obviously the chairman [of the joint chiefs] might be one of them and there might be one other. But that's about it. I don’t want to go to NATO meetings for the rest of my life or, you know, fight service budget battles, or anything like that, so --
KT: Can I give you the gossip that I've picked up about all that?
P: What's that?
KT. ... The White House is particularly nervous.
P: Of course they are.
KT: Well, and here's the thinking. ... They feel that Obama had this mandate, OK? In his own mind. Obama wanted to do Obamacare (which is fix up the economy), he wanted to do environment (which is basically controlling all aspects of the economy), and education (which is the future). So he pushed for Obamacare and got that done. They didn't anticipate 2010 results. But he now is going to lie low and be very centrist so they can win in '12 and get the other two. Now, what they need ... to cement it. so it doesn’t get reversed, is a third term. And that means 2016 they need to win, the Democrats need to win .. with their knd of guy. Then you have this stuff locked in for a generation … And that’s their plan. You are their problem.
KT: And so, OK, you can laugh all you want. Here's the rationale … They think that if you’re chairman they can’t overrule you, they can’t go against whatever your advice is going to be militarily, plus they have a Colin Powell problem, where Colin Powell, very successful chairman, is everybody's sort of rallying point to run …
P: Of course, he didn’t run.
KT: But he could have.
P: And he wouldn’t have, no.
KT: Politically, he could have. So they look at you and they think how can we keep him quiet? We don't want him out on the loose to potentially run in '12. And we sure don't want him in '16. We’ll put him at the CIA where he can speak publicly twice a year before an open session of Congress, no backgrounders to the press, no Sunday talk shows, no speeches, no nothing. Now, I’m throwing that out as gossip, whether it's true or not, you know … but I've heard that from ... some pretty significant and senior people.
Here, KT has a moment of clairvoyance or some choice sources because, as I recall, the CIA Directorship for Petraeus seemed to come out of the blue a few weeks later. Petraeus goes on to reveal his desire to direct the CIA if he can't secure the joint chiefs chairmanship, and, equally as interesting, he indicates an intense interest in Libya, then in the early stages of what would be its NATO-supported mission to overthrow Qaddafi, until that point an ally against the al Qaeda brand of jihad, along with related and varied Islamic franchises.
P: Well, look, I can do math and reason as well. Um. But, you know, an awful lot of what we do in the future, believe it or not in Libya right now perhaps, is what that organization can do.
P: So that's -- if you want to contribute. You know, I’m not out to go out and make money. I mean, the offers are unbelievable. I would have done it long ago. Um, so it really is about serving.
KT: So what do I tell Roger when he says --
P: Tell him, I don't, I mean I don’t know what they’re going to offer me anyway. I really don’t. ...
K: ... So I can say something along the lines there are only two jobs you would be interested in.
P: That has to be off the record.
K: HIs deal with me was I was only supposed to talk to you.
P: Yeah, okay.
K: And my deal with you will be I sit down with him, and he is a little paranoid, so believe me, he doesn't have anybody in that room.
P: Well, we'll see what happens. I -- you know, look, he [Obama] gets to pick the chairman he wants and the guy’s he’s comfortable with, and, you know, and that’s the deal. And if they’re uncomfortable with the guy who they know will be hurt [?], then, okay so be it. …
P: But, but you look into something like the other one as potentially where you make a difference in Libya.
P: I think you make a huge difference. I think I think that’s a national asset. I think it’s a treasure.
P: No, I‘m talking about the organization. I think that organization is full of just -- heroes, unsung heroes, which is the way they want to be....
KT: .. And I agree with you ... – the Arab Spring, you lose it to or win it on covert.
P: ... You know, we’re not going to go out and do much more I don’t think. I mean, I was surprised we did Libya --
K: Oh, that was insane.
P: So, you know, If that’s extent of what we’re going to do -- we’re going to be retrenching militarily, I mean, I think. ... Again, you take big budget cuts, and that's going to be all about -- it's going to be the post, sort of, the early 1990s kind of stuff. ...
KT: It will be the quote, "peace dividend" after Iraq and after Afghanistan. ... Libya's a little bit of screw up on that front.
P: But the other folks, on the other hand, are going to be in a growth industry. ... Our intelligence community. Gonna have to do be --
K: ... Or you opt out ...
P: Yeah, yeah. ...
KT: And then you come to Fox and then we all sign up (laughs). No, but can ... I just tell him that what I've suggested and that we've discussed is that next time you go to New York you're gonna stop by and see him?
P: Yeah, sure. ... I'd love to see him. ... He's a brilliant guy.
KT: He is simply brilliant. ...
P: Tell him if I ever ran, but I won’t ... I’d take him up on his offer. He would quit Fox and bankroll it. Or maybe I’m confusing that with Rupert (laughter).
Okay, so they're joking around now as the session comes to an end.
KT: ... Big boss is bankrolling it; Roger's going to run it and the rest of us are going to be your in-house.
P: Yeah, right. It's never going to happen. My wife would divorce me. And I love my wife. ...
Call it "kidding on the square." Through the convivial chit chat and giggles, a pundit from Fox News president has delivered unsolicited political advice and offer of support, along with a more significant declaration of the network's institutional and continuing fealty to the general. Talk about "shading." Now we know more about why it has been that Fox News has never reported the other side of COIN, for example, or perhaps even the fact that Petraeus appears to have lied to Congress twice, which is a felony.
And that's a much, much bigger problem.