The Strange Journey of Larry Johnson

Election '08

On May 13, 2006, Larry C. Johnson -- former CIA intelligence officer, counterterrorism pundit, classmate of Valerie Plame -- put up a breaking post claiming that Karl Rove was under federal indictment for perjury and lying to investigators looking into the leaking of Plame's identity.

"Rove Indicted," Johnson blogged. "Frog march the bastard. As Freddie Mercury sang, 'another one bites the dust.'"

The post linked to the investigative site TruthOut and an anonymously sourced story that, it turned out, wasn't true. Still, on May 21, Johnson approvingly linked to TruthOut's explanation for the blunder. "They are sticking to their guns and justifiably so," he wrote. "Time will tell." In response, National Review's Byron York asked how an intelligence consultant who'd downplayed the threat of terrorism less than two months before Sept. 11 became a player in the Plame scandal and an icon on the left. But Johnson had been attacked by the right ever since he became an advocate for Plame; the criticism rolled right off.

But, by May and early June of this year, Johnson had become much more hated on the left than he ever was on the right. He was instrumental in spreading the rumor that Republican operatives possessed a tape of Barack Obama's wife Michelle railing against "whitey." The affair has turned some of Johnson's old friends and allies into raging, red-eyed enemies. "Smears of this type are unforgivable," wrote blogger Booman, who said that his friendship with Johnson had ended over the matter. "You're a sad and pathetic piece of shit," wrote Brad Reed of Sadly, No! Daily Kos, the left-wing blogopolis where Johnson's diaries once drew upward of 400 comments, became a carnival of Johnson-bashing. "You," wrote Kos regular Bob Johnson (no relation), "and the denizens of your cesspool of hate have promoted and stoked every fringe-lunatic, right-wing smear of Obama."

In the space of six months, a man who had been one of the most high-profile, credible recruits of the liberal blogosphere became as loathed as the White House apparatchiks he used to attack.

Johnson's following at places like Daily Kos was always something of a fluke. He followed four years as a CIA analyst with four years at the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism. Johnson left intelligence work in 1993, going on to build a dual career as a business consultant and a pundit on intelligence issues. He argued throughout the 1990s, on shows like "The NewsHour" and "Larry King Live," that domestic law enforcement was dropping the ball on terrorist threats while the threat of international terror was decreasing. In this age before blogs, Johnson's commentary, whether printed in the New York Times or submitted in congressional hearings, was dry, analytic and laced with facts.

Of course, part of the reason Johnson was able to build such a public profile was that his analysis was colored by his flinty, swashbuckling personality. In 2001 Peter Lance, an Emmy-winning investigative journalist, was writing the screenplay for a movie called "" for Showtime, a project for which Johnson was retained as a consultant. The Sept. 11 attacks occurred in the midst of pre-production, and as part of his rewrite, Lance followed a tip that Abdul Hakim Murad, a plotter of the 1993 World Trade Center attack, had revealed some of the planning for the next attacks while under interrogation in the Philippines. Johnson told Lance not to follow the tip: "He went ballistic," Lance remembers. When Lance's tip turned out to be right, Johnson worked to discredit it and keep it out of the movie. "Larry, to me, is one of the great empty suits," Lance says now. "He is emblematic of what goes wrong in the agency, emblematic of the attitude that let 9/11 happen."

But Johnson's commentary career boomed after 9/11, in part because of that pugnacity. As he recounts in Robert Greenwald's 2004 documentary "OutFoxed," Johnson signed on as a regular commentator on Fox News a few months after 9/11 and "called it like I saw it," but was purged from his regular guest spot after he told Sean Hannity the Iraq War would bog down American forces.

In July of 2003, Robert Novak revealed covert CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity in a column about her husband Joe Wilson's fact-finding trip to Niger. Johnson had trained at the agency with Plame and immediately became one of her most public advocates. He testified in October 2003 alongside two fellow former agents before a special Senate committee on the leak. He gave the Democrats' radio response to President Bush and started blogging at Daily Kos and Josh Marshall's TPMCafe. Johnson's embrace by the left and the blogosphere was under way. The analyst who'd written don't-believe-the-hype assessments of terrorist threats became a brash, score-settling blogger who went out on limbs.

For example, in a July 2006 post at Daily Kos, Johnson ripped into Michael Scheuer, the ex-CIA analyst and author of Imperial Hubris, calling him "an embarrassment to the profession of intelligence analysis," "the Salieri of intelligence analysts," and "a vicious little prick." Days later Johnson posted a diary accusing Israel of taking "a stupid pill" by invading Lebanon. He was pilloried by the right of the blogosphere for a few minor flubbed facts, but the Daily Kos community defended him.

In July 2007, Joe Wilson endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. Wilson and Johnson were friends who kept in close contact even after Wilson moved to New Mexico; both men began to swap rumors and arguments with other Clinton allies and donors. Johnson, like Wilson, began commenting more on electoral politics. It was after this that Johnson's 2-year-old blog No Quarter and his posts on other blogs started to swell with praise for Hillary Clinton and criticism of Barack Obama.

In November, Johnson posted his first anti-Obama broadside, "Why is Obama in Bed with Karl Rove?" on NoQuarter and Daily Kos. The Obama campaign had used a Novak column as grist in an attack against Clinton -- in Johnson's eyes, an unforgivable sin. "If Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Hillary Clinton's campaign told him that they had some dirt on Obama," wrote Johnson, "would Obama's staff react as they did to the Robert Novak column of Nov. 17?"

On Dec. 26, 2007, Johnson unloaded on Obama in a Daily Kos post, accusing "pro-Bush Republicans" of "hyping" him to Democrats. The Daily Kos version of the post drew 1,157 comments, most of them negative. The night of the Iowa caucuses, Johnson called the state "a pimple on the gnat's ass." "Obama, What Drugs Are You Using?" he asked in a Jan. 6 post about Obama's New Hampshire campaign chair (and pharmaceutical lobbyist) Jim Demers. On Jan. 12, Johnson announced that he was "all in for Hillary"; the next day, he pounded the drug theme again after Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson made a reference to Obama's teenage drug use. "No relation, unfortunately," wrote Larry Johnson, "but I'm willing to be adopted."

As he grew increasingly vitriolic, the Daily Kos community turned on him. On Feb. 13, Johnson published his final Daily Kos diary. Meanwhile, Johnson's own blog became a proving ground for anti-Obama bloggers. Johnson began mocking journalists who went overboard in praising Obama's speeches ("Jesus Fucking Christ!!! 'Triumph of word over flesh?' Great, we now have the black Jesus."), pushing Obama for answers about his financial deals ("You don't know dick about Tony Rezko? I don't think so."), pronouncing Obama's doom after the South Carolina primary ("Barack is the candidate of black voters and that won't win him much in the rest of the country."), and blasting for endorsing him ("They fuck the people who stand up for them and reward the ones who refuse to stand. That is courage in their eyes? Assholes!!).

It was months later -- in late April -- that the "whitey tape" rumor started, mostly among pro-Clinton Democratic donors in New York. One of the earliest versions of the rumor, according to one reporter who heard it in April, was that researchers for Rudy Giuliani had their hands on a tape of Michelle Obama at Trinity United giving a speech where she attacked white America, using the word "whitey."

Johnson told me over email that he heard the rumor for the first time in early May. On May 16, he claimed to "have it from four sources (three who are close to senior Republicans) that there is video dynamite -- Michelle Obama railing against 'whitey' at Jeremiah Wright's church." The next day Johnson posted a fresh rumor of "an ultra conservative Republican billionaire" who "hates John McCain" and had put out a $1 million bounty on the tape.

The new story came from a "major Republican operative" who told Johnson that "Karl Rove and his political allies control the tape." It was corroborated by "a retired CIA buddy" who was "friends with a lawyer who saw the tape." Two days later, with this story still uncorroborated, Johnson speculated that Barack Obama's angry response to criticism of his wife came from fear of "the ticking 'whitey' time bomb."

On May 26, Johnson, for the first time publicly, explained that he'd originally heard the story from "two friends," one a Democrat and one a Republican, who didn't know each other, but each claimed to have seen the tape.

By this point, Johnson's writing on the rumor was becoming the hub for a national game of telephone. The story had taken on a life of its own. Liberal blogs buzzed about the rumor; journalists swapped stories and secondhand info about whether the tape existed.

On May 30, Rush Limbaugh dropped a mention of the rumor of a tape that shows "Michelle going nuts in the church, too, talking about whitey this and whitey that." The next day Johnson promised "new and dramatic developments" to come on Monday morning. The day after Johnson's "bombshell" post, Roger Stone appeared on Geraldo Rivera's Sunday Fox News show and gave his own version of what he was hearing.

"There's a buzz," Stone said, "which I believe now to be credible, that some indelible record exists of public remarks that Michelle Obama allegedly made, which are outrageous at best, but could be termed racist, including some reference to white people as whiteys, allegedly." NoQuarter bloggers Bud White and SusanUnPC used the Stone video as proof of the story's veracity; NoQuarter even uploaded the segment onto YouTube.

The frenzy continued throughout the day, as Montana and South Dakota Democrats went to the polls. NoQuarter blogger and Clinton backer SusanUnPC produced a picture of Michelle Obama with Louis Farrakhan's wife at a 2004 event. The next day the anonymously written blog Hillbuzz produced a new version of what was on the tape. Johnson all but endorsed it, calling it "important news," even though the facts and timing of the 2004 event where Hillbuzz claimed the video was taken negated important pieces of the other theories, like Louis Farrakhan's presence, the Trinity United setting and the timing -- how could Obama have referred to Hurricane Katrina in 2004?

But by this point, Clinton's campaign was clearly losing steam. New rumors ground to a halt. When Obama was asked to respond to one version on his press plane, Johnson accused him of a "non-denial denial": "If Barack said, 'No, and hell no' I would be wondering about my sources. But he punted." The story had become a joke, with bloggers riding the rumor to "RickRoll" gullible readers, sending them to a video of Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" disguised as "Michelle Obama's Whitey Video." (As of June 18, the video had clocked more than 175,000 views on YouTube.)

Hillary Clinton dropped out of the presidential race the weekend after Johnson posted his accusation about Obama's "non-denial denial." The "whitey" story had spun itself out. And on June 12 Obama's campaign launched a site called "Fight the Smears" that provided a no-frills response to the rumor: "No such tape exists. Michelle Obama has not spoken from the pulpit of Trinity United and has not used that word."

It was the denial that Johnson didn't get a week earlier, but he wasn't satisfied. On the contrary, the fact that Obama's campaign told Time magazine that they'd heard about the rumor in April convinced Johnson of the veracity of his sources. Reached over email on June 12, Johnson was unrepentant.

"There is a recording of Michelle saying disparaging things about white people," he wrote. "A person who saw the tape said the word 'whitey' was used. I don't know when or where she made the remarks. I do know that the Republicans who are circulating the tape don't want this out until after the convention. Those are the facts as I know them from multiple sources who do not know each other. I stand by their accounts."

And what of the bloggers who have written him out of the movement? What about his credibility? "I am amused that my 'credibility' is now in question," Johnson wrote. "The Democrats did not have such a problem when I was asked to deliver the response to President Bush's Saturday radio address in July of 2005. I have not changed. Some just don't like the message."

Reprinted with permission from David Weigel, "Larry Johnson's Strange Trip," The American Prospect Online: June 24, 2008. The American Prospect, 2000 L St. NW, Suite 717, Washington, D.C. 20036. All rights reserved.

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