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Leaked emails show Westerners truckling to the Syrian regime.

Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By LEE SMITH
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Those journalists to whom Shaaban granted access were best friends forever. One exchange features Shaaban and Alix Van Buren​—​who conducted an interview with Assad for La Repubblica​—​blowing cyber kisses to each other across the Mediterranean. Who knows what journalistic ethics are like in Rome, but Van Buren’s editors may be surprised to find that Van Buren considers the interview a joint effort to get the Syrian president’s message out to the masses. “Did you notice that Charlie Rose practically copied our interview from top to bottom,” Van Buren writes in an ingratiating email from May 2010. She thanks Shaaban (“you and I, what a team!”) for the lovely presents—Valentino perfume, a jewelry box—and spares nothing in the way of flattery. And yet eventually Van Buren pushes her luck a little too far. She writes Shaaban to request privileged access for a colleague, Gad Lerner, who is planning a trip to Damascus. Lerner, as it turns out, is Jewish. Van Buren furiously pleads his case​—​he is “independent (i.e., doesn’t belong to any lobby),” he has signed petitions against Netanyahu, and Shabaan should ignore the fact his signature is next to that of Bernard-Henri Lévy​—​but the Syrian apparatchik has to reject her dear friend’s request. “Many of those signatories,” Shaaban writes, “have indeed a history of strong support for Israel, and their long term aim is to serve the true interests of Israel.”

American journalists flattered the regime as well, but with less luck. In November 2011, more than half a year into the uprising, Brian Williams’s producer at NBC wrote to request an interview, as did Scott Pelley’s producer at CBS’s Evening News a few weeks later. With deaths mounting by the hour, it was quite a feeding frenzy last fall. Bob Simon’s producer at 60 Minutes sought an advantage. He reminded his Syrian correspondent that “60 Minutes interviewed President Hafez al-Assad back in the 1970s.” After a few paragraphs of boilerplate PR for his show (“For the last 43 years, it has featured stories on the most important newsmakers of our time .  .  . ”), the producer signs off, “We would be most honored to have President al Assad on our program.” God only knows what Barbara Walters’s staff wrote to actually get her prized interview with Assad in December​—​those missives weren’t leaked.

The hacked emails show how Assad’s advisers sought to prep him for the Walters interview. Sheherazad Jaafari, a press attaché at the Syrian mission to the United Nations, and daughter of Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Dr. Bashar Jaafari, boasted of her research into American media. Her advice was to turn any accusations directed at Assad back on American policymakers. For instance, when asked about torturing civilians, Assad should remind the viewing audience about Abu Ghraib, and explain that “Syria doesn’t have a policy to torture people, unlike the USA, where there are courses and schools that specialize in teaching policemen and officers how to torture.” She contends that “the American Psyche can be easily manipulated.”

In fact, only a small number of Americans are susceptible to the Syrian regime’s hamfisted propaganda, but on the evidence of the emails, they never needed to be manipulated.

“Dear Bouthaina, I hope this finds you well,” writes Martin Indyk in May 2010.

Some close friends of mine will be visiting Damascus from May 25-29, for tourism. However, they are influential people in Washington and I think that you and Walid [presumably Walid Mouallem, Syrian foreign minister] would benefit from meeting them and they would certainly benefit from meeting both of you. Jim was Chief of Staff to Vice President Walter Mondale in the Carter Administration. He has also served as Chairman of the Brookings Institution. I have appended his resume so that you will get a fuller picture. Put simply, he is very influential in the Obama White House and in the Democratic Party.

Jim, or James A. Johnson, was an Obama bundler who was also part of the vetting committee for Obama’s vice president. The Wikipedia entry appended to the email explained that Johnson withdrew “when it was reported that he had received loans directly from Angelo Mozilo, the CEO of Countrywide Financial, a company implicated in the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis.” The entry also shows that Johnson was the CEO of Fannie Mae when it “improperly deferred $200 million in expenses. This enabled top executives, including Johnson .  .  . to receive substantial bonuses in 1998.” Who knows why Indyk included a record of Johnson’s misdeeds. Maybe he was just trying to put Shaaban at ease​—​Johnson wasn’t one of these self-righteous Washington crusaders, but someone with plenty of political enemies of his own, just like the regime in Damascus.

It was Johnson’s wife, Maxine Isaacs, who later thanked Shaaban for the hospitality in Damascus:

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