Friday, August 30, 2013

Syria: another US war on an Arab nation to "protect" Israel?

Obama on PBS News Hour Aug. 29, 2013
The US's real reason for attacking Syria now

America is poised to bomb Syria, though for now, the UK isn't supporting it. Once again Obama is out-Bushing Bush, and getting away more easily with the US's imperial tactics. As many have pointed out, the heinous chemical weapon massacre of several hundred Syrians is a pretext of choice. This is clear because many thousands have already died in Syria's civil war and nothing was done to stop it. What's different now is that after a period of the rebel forces having the upper hand, Bashar al-Asad's, the government's, side in Syria has regained strength. The US doesn't want this. Washington declares it's not after "regime change" with the planned attacks, which is perhaps true of this particular strategic moment. But Obama has said it's time for al-Asad to go. And why does the US want this outcome? Because Syria is the only Arab ally of Iran, the neighbor Israel wants to wipe out. So, Israel wants to get rid of Iran, Iran is supported by and supports Syria, therefore the Syrian regime must go. It's breathtaking how stupid this hidden, yet obvious, set of motives and plan of action are. Yet as usual it's trumpeted from all parts of the US government, and the mainstream American media blindly repeat the claims.

Contrived, cynical pretext

It's different this time from 2003, or course, but there are also clear parallels. Notably, the US government is poised to act regardless of the facts, because there isn't any decisive proof that the chemical attack came from Bashar's government side. Obama even made Bush's cynical claim that Syria's chemical weapons are a possible threat to the US, adding fear-mongering to pretended moral outrage, both of which are contrived.

Robert Fiosk of The Independent 
Of course the issue at hand is hard to think about clearly. How can we look idly by when people are cruelly slaughtered using illegal weapons? But this is exactly what we have done before. First of all, the US has used chemical weapons. It used Agent Orange widely in Vietnam, causing enormous and ongoing suffering on both sides; US soldiers too are the victims. It used depleted Uranium in Iraq, causing an explosion of deformed babies we don't hear much about. Second, America has looked the other way when similar but worse crimes were committed in the not-so-distant but apparently forgotten past. Saddam Hussein used gas against the Kurds in 1988. That was fine, and was a much larger massacre than the current Syrian one. Iraq also used gas on the Iranian army. Saddam was the US's ally then, so it went unpunished. All this points to the hundreds dead by chemical weapons, maybe at government hands, maybe not, as a cynical pretext for attacking Syria now.   Robert Fisk of The Independent has made these points forcefully. He asks if Obama knows he is now fighting on Al-Qaida's side in Syria.

Ignoring more peaceful alternatives

Certainly the Syrian civil war is bringing on dire consequences. The refugee crisis is reportedly as bad as the Rwanda genocide, according to the UN. Up to 1.8 million Syrian refugees this year have registered in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. But why would US bombs -- and let's not pretend they'll be "surgical" -- make this situation better? As Phillis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies has pointed out recently, the US is ignoring the diplomatic solutions that might be pursued to bring about a cease-fire in Syria. That is what is needed. Why does the US ignore peaceful alternatives? Because they do not allow Washington as forceful a role in its imperial chess game. Warships armed with rockets in nearby waters are not an aspect of peace negotiations. Anything that brings more troops and weaponry, and, perchance, military bases, increases the US's regional domination.

Sharif Abdel Kouddous
Rough times for the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring that began officially with Tunisia in December 2010 was an awakening from a long sleep under exploitative and totalitarian regimes. This is a remarkable, historic development that ultimately can only move forward. But these are rough times for the Arab Spring. The results of the uprisings in Tunisia, Algeria, and Yemen have not been very happy at this point. The visibly worst current state of the Arab Spring is represented by the war in Syria and the decline in democracy in Egypt. The spirit of change had its moment of greatest hope and glory in Egypt's "Youth Revolution of 25 January 2011." Public demonstrations led to the dictator Hosni Mubarak's downfall. The hitherto ever-hopeful, and often inspiring young English-language Egyptian reporter for Democracy Now wrote recently in The Nation about how deeply challenged his hope has become. "'Despair is betrayal,' he said, "is the mantra that has echoed throughout Egypt during the many tough times over the past two and half years. Today, it is very hard not to feel like a traitor."

Complexities of the Egyptian situation led to the current violent, no-win state of chaos. The bottom line is that the "deep government" of the Egyptian military headed by the SCAF or Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and representing enormous economic power was never dislodged or weakened. Elections led somewhat by a fluke to the presidency of Mohammad Morsi, not the leading Muslim Brotherhood party's primary leader, and Morsi ruled like a dictator himself, ignoring the possibilities for democratic coalition and trying to embed his party everywhere in power. His outrageous conduct led to the most massive public demonstrations yet, and he was out, in a military coup, if you like, but one demanded by the masses. This time, the people, aided willy-nilly by the SCAF, overthrew an elected president -- who represented the country's largest and best-organized political party. This has led to constantly increasing polarization and also, worse yet, to more violent repression, a virtual pogrom, of the Islamists by the SCAF forces. And this goes on. It is hard to see how the military "deep government" can be ousted, but it must be, for parliamentary democracy to be achieved.

Head of SCAF, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi
The UK, on the other hand, gave a demonstration of a real parliamentary democracy yesterday when Parliament, with the Prime Minister, David Cameron on hand, ceded to the will of the English public and a majority vote and promised, for now anyway, not to support America's plans to attack Syria. When do we ever see Congress listening to the American people and Obama listening to Congress, and standing in the same hall, in open and volatile discussion, with its members? These are ideas and practices not in play in the American empire, land of the free, home of the brave, where the suicide rate of its veterans who bear the brunt of the country's warlike policies, on the brink of a destructive new Middle Eastern adventure, is twice that of the ordinary citizen.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Obama's war on free information

Obama, who once spoke so glowingly of the value of whistleblowers and a free press in a democracy, has turned out to be the most secretive president in modern times. His war on journalists and whistleblowers is an all-out campaign against freedom of information.

Demonizing Edward Snowden, smashing Bradley Manning: the war on whistleblowers and a war on the press

Obama spoke about his desire for transparency and its importance in a democracy early on, but his has been the most secretive presidency in recent times. It has classified many more documents than Bush's adminsistration has -- so many, that everything is a secret now, and revealing any information is to breach "security." To heighten the effect, four million people have security clearances. Something has to give. The Obama administration is much more tight lipped and hostile to the press than Bush's was. Most notably of all, it has evoked the 1917 World War I Espionage Act to to prosecute Americans twice as often as all other previous American administrations put together. In general, the mainstream media has been eager to go along, demonizing Edward Snowden and virtually ignoring the burying of Private Bradley Manning, who was held in solitary confinement for three years without trial, a hunk of it naked. A New Yorker writer in a blog Jeffrey Toobin, was quick to get the Snowded-smearing bandwagon rolling, calling him a "grandiose narcissist." Even pro-left Nation film critic Stuart Klawans published a review in the New York Times dismissing Robert Greenwald's documentary, War on Whistleblowers, as a "Bar Mitzvah video"; others too have criticized this film as not fully sounding the alarm (because under an hour long), slipshod, or too sensationalist. But Greenwald did sound the alarm. So have many others. But what Greenwald does is merely provide a quick outline of whistleblowers and show how they are being prosecuted. We need such outlines, because there are going to be more Snowdens and Mannings and more prosecutions.

Manning and Snowden

A whistleblower is nothing like a spy

Whistleblowers are being charged with espionage over and over nowadays. But this is propaganda and intimidation. The important thing is to see the differences between a spy and a whistleblower. A spy traditionally works for a foreign power; he or she gathers secrets from another country and is paid for it. None of the American whistleblowers have done that. A spy steals secrets. The US government, the NSA particularly, does that all the time, but does not sell them; it keeps them for itself, enormous volumes of them it turns out, with minimal positive results but an invasion of everyone's privacy. Whistleblowers customarily have acquired the information they reveal legitimately, in the course of their work. Manning and Snowden revealed only information they were already given access to in their jobs. Whistleblowers usually are troubled by things they find are going on -- that their government is doing in our name. They inform their superiors of their concerns. They are brushed off, and when they, repeatedly, try to go through channels, they must choose either to slink away and say nothing, or to go public. They do not give their information to "the enemy" -- unless you, like, apparently, the Obama administration, regard the press in that light -- but to the public.

The effort to demonize Julian Assange is part and parcel of the effort to demonize whistleblowers, only the method has differed. He has been defamed, threatened with charges of sexual misconduct in Sweden, and accused of being a sensationalist, not a journalist. The government doesn't know how to regard Assange, because he is a new animal, a hactivist turned conduit for whistleblowers.

This is the digital age. This means that vast amounts of documents can be easily accessed and conveyed, as Manning did to Wikileaks, which acted as a conduit to the press. No need for the hours of furtive photocopying that Daniel Ellsberg had to do in the Pentagon Papers days, and you can't stop the press before printing: it's out and all over the Internet the instant the decision is made to reveal it.

If you want to claim that Assange, Snowden, and Manning are traitors and spies, you have to ask yourself how come the information they provided was immediately published wholesale by the New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, and Le Monde, the most eminent journals of four of the West's leading countries. We remember that in the Pentagon Papers case Nixon at first tried to indict the New York Times, for publishing Ellsberg's revelations, but that was dropped. This time Obama didn't bother. He just went for little Bradley Manning, a sitting duck, so to speak, since he was serving in the military and could be manhandled, so they thought, in secret, and tried without a jury by a military court where the press had poor access. But how Manning has been treated is no secret. The more you try to hide, the more will come out: the more secrets you create, the more will be revealed.

James Goodale on  Democracy Now!
 !It is interesting to see what James Goodale, a distinguished First Amendment lawyer and the New York Times' attorney in the Pentagon Papers case, had to say when interviewed on Democracy Now! about the Obama administration. He said that Obama is "behind Nixon and ahead of Bush II," but "close to Nixon now," and added that if Obama prosecutes Julian Assange, he will "surpass Nixon." It appears that the Obama administration has an indictment of Assange ready on file (for conspiracy, according to Goodale) and is poised to use it. Goodale discussed the revelations of the administration's surveillance of 100 AP reporters and indictment of six -- showing that Obama's unprecedented war on whistleblowers is paralleled by an even more wholesale war on journalism in America.

David Cay Johnston on Democracy Now!
In this light David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and president of Investigative Reporters and Editors, was also interviewed on Democracy Now! about the administration's war on the AP. He described how Obama "campaigned on transparency," yet his White House from the first was hostile to the press. People would refuse to give information, say "What do you want that for?," refuse to say who they were, and even hang up on him. This is a secretive administration and it makes no bones about it. Johnston said "I rate them worse than the Bush administration."

This is what we're dealing with. Think about this when you hear Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, whose revelations have been an enormous influence in the world already, called traitors and spies. Snowden is demonized and sought for prosecution by the US, yet in Congress a big investigation is under way spurred by his revelations. This is the same kind of disconnect as the prosecution of Manning, while his revelations, published in the New York Times, are referenced constantly, part of common knowledge. This makes no sense. Whistleblowers break rules to serve a higher cause, often at great cost to themselves. They deserve protection, not prosecution. This presidency's mania for secrecy poses grave dangers to journalism.


 Article on The Whistleblower, "180° Flip Flop on Espionage Act Now That Journalists are in Cross-hairs"

LA Times review, 'Warn on Whistleblowers' fails to fully sound alarm ... 3586.story

New Yorker blog, "Demonizing Edward Snowden" ... ou-on.html

Friday, July 5, 2013

Egypt: The people get rid of Morsi

Anti-Morsi demonstrator

The Egyptian people have taken to the streets again in unprecedented numbers, this time to oust the first democratically elected president (though by a small margin), the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, who had served only a year. Clearly Morsi was not transformed by democratic election into a representative leader. His rule was heavy handed and arbitrary, serving not the people but himself and the Muslim Brotherhood, and was not seeming all that much better than Hosni Mubarak, the 30-year dictator the revolution of January 25, 2011 had deposed. The Muslim Brotherhood is not out of the picture, but its public support seems shaken. 

Things look different now from a year ago. The turbulent voice of the Egyptian people when they take to the streets is a powerful expression of revolutionary and democratic fervor. We've seen how the voices of Tarrir Square can impose the echoing cry of إرحل/irhal("leave") throughout the country and bring down a leader. But while driving out a thirty-year dictator was a very good thing, ousting an elected leader sets no democratic precedent. 

Morsi's aggressive but ephemeral presidency

What did Morsi do wrong? Plenty, it turns out. For an example offensive to foreigners, he appointed an Islamic fundamentalist associated with al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, the group behind the 1997 Luxor massacre, as governor of Luxor province. The Minister of Tourism resigned as a result. A similar case is the recent trial and conviction in absentia of 43 foreign NGO workers; this goes back to before Morsi took office; but Egyptian rights groups have protested the Muslim Brotherhood's imposing of legal restrictions on their freedom to operate. 

There are recent reports of anti-American feeling, possibly spurred by the increasing polarization under Morsi, which is illustrated by the sad fact that Andrew Pochter, a 21-year-old American college student in the country to teach English to children and improve his Arabic, was stabbed to death June 29 while watching demonstrations in Alexandria. Pochter seems to have been an inspiring and idealistic young man: too often mass action hurts the wrong people.

Morsi did a couple of good things at the outset to build confidence abroad. He helped end the fighting in Gaza and negotiated a $4.8 billion IMF loan. But domestically he quickly became overbearing. A recent article by Ziad Akl in the Egyptian Daily News listing internal problems of the Morsi presidency points out his earliest action was to exercise arbitrary (and confused) power over the Constitutional Court  (المحكمة الدستورية العليا), showing "clear signs of vulgar abuse of power" from day one. Morsi made constitutional changes designed to secure the Muslim Brotherhood's power. Another cause of Morsi's downfall was economic. He did nothing to right the drop in GNP that came with the revolution; in fact it has dropped further. Things were better under Mubarak, and Morsi might have done better to stick to Mubarak's programs if he could not improve on them. 

In a bold move to reform the Egyptian military Morsi forced older Mubarak-era high ranking officers, headed by Field Marshall Muhamad Hussein Tantawi, into retirement, and replaced them with younger ones. It doesn't look like this is going to make musch difference now. The inbred, hereditary elite that is the top echelon of the Egyptian military no doubt remains influential. Morsi removed the unpopular prosecutor, opened the doors for a retrial of Mubarak and other officials, and granted himself and the Constituent Assembly (الجمعية التأسيسية) immunity from rulings by the country's pro-Mubarak judiciary. Critics feared pro-Mubarak judges would dissolve the Constituent Assembly, just as they had dissolved the country's first democratically elected parliament before Morsi was elected president in June. At first Morsi didn't touch Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, the prosecutor general responsible for lenient sentences for Mubarak and others of his regime, but then he ousted him. 

All Morsi's actions tended to increase the polarization between groups. 

The enduring power of the Egyptian military 

Democracy has a special obstacle in Egypt: the military. This is a powerful force for stability, but also a self-serving elite, with a vast network of businesses it owns. With the ousting of Morsi, the military is taking over again as when Mubarak resigned. The Egyptian military is deeply entrenched. Removing presidents won't get to it. It's highly political, but ideologically opportunistic and flexible. It was not dislodged by the revolutionary spirit of two and a half years ago after Mubarak resigned: instead it took control, and would not leave till Morsi became president. Can anything dislodge it? As a recent NY Times article put it, the Egyptian military "has one primary objective. . . preserving national stability and its untouchable realm of privilege within the Egyptian state." And maybe not in that order. The temporary leader they have put in, the top judge Adly Mahmud Mansour, seems a mere front man. 

Adly Mahmoud Mansour
This objective has been reasserted now. Here are two Tweets July 4 from Sharif Abdel Kouddous,* the Nation Institute Fellow and "Democracy Now" reporter in Egypt: "Senior MB [Muslim Brotherhood] member says entire Guidance Council has been arrested. Troops broke into members' homes. 'We're back to Mubarak's regime.'" Then a few minutes later Sharif tweeted: "Senior MB member: Army/feloul will use anti-Morsi anger 2 return 2 power then crackdown on anybody who speaks out once they're firmly rooted." (Feloul = remnants of the Mubarak regime.)

The Revolution or January 25 did not get rid of these forces. It's back to square one. Mubarak is gone; Morsi is gone. Now the Egyptian people have little more faith in the Muslim Brotherhood than in the feloul. But perhaps ironically, the Egyptians in the streets have welcomed the military as saviors and old friends. (The military did support the people after the revolution, but will support anybody that's expedient.) 

So what is different now? The country is in disorder, on the verge of financial collapse. Transportation is at a standstill. Tourism, an important source of national income, is obstructed. 

Tahrir Square after Morsi's resignation [Amr Nabil NYTimes]
Nonetheless the atmosphere was joyous in Tahrir Square, Egypt's symbolic theater of political action, when Morsi reluctantly stepped down. Now it is time for another election. But how will that go? Will the revolutionary fervor lead to a more democratic leader now, or will the polarization that increased under Morsi lead to more chaos? How does a revolution transform itself into a democracy? For one thing, by writing a constitution. And the constitution was one place where the new Egyptian revolution went awry, and this is just one of the basic fundamentals that need to be worked on.

*See the article  in The Nation by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, "What Led to Morsi's Fall--and What Comes Next?"  Further details and background about flaws of Morsi's presidency and dangers of the new military takeoer will be found in the article, "Coup in Egypt:  what does it mean? by Fred Goldstein in Workers World.   The Middle East Research and Information Project sums up the situation in Egypt as of July 10, 2013 in their MERIP blog, "Egypt in Year Three." 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Bradley Manning's pretrial statement (March 2013)


The court martial trial of Bradley Manning begins today, June 3, 2013. 

The Bradley Manning case is a crucial one, parallel in many ways to that of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War ear -- a link Ellsberg himself, still vigorous and an activist at the age of 82, has underlined in his ongoing strong public support of Manning's actions and support of his case. As everyone knows, the government documents Manning conveyed to Wikileaks were presented by major world media print outlets, though the New York Times, the chief US outlet for the leaked information, has denied any responsibility to stand up for Manning, saying it likewise had no feeling of responsibility to Daniel Ellsberg, though they were relieved that he was released. 

Here are transcripts from a surreptitious recording of Manning's own pre-court martial statement in March 2013 as transcribed by Democracy Now!, which broadcast the statement at the time. It's interesting to note that though various sources had depicted Manning as undone by his youth and discomfort about his homosexuality, neurotic, fearful, or crazed to begin with or as a result of his long solitary confinement by the government, his words were forceful and clear and he spoke in a strong, confident voice that belied all those claims. The quotes are broken up as they were in the program.

On his decision to leak what are called "Significant Activities" tables, or SigActs for short, incident reports from U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan:

BRADLEY MANNING: I began to think about what I knew and the information I still had in my possession. For me, the SigActs represented the on-the-ground reality of both the conflicts—of both the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I felt we were risking so much for—we were risking so much for people that seemed unwilling to cooperate with us, leading to frustration and hatred on both sides. I began to become depressed with the situation that we found ourselves increasingly mired in year after year. The SigActs documented this in great detail and provided context of what we were seeing on the ground.

In attempting to conduct counterterrorism, or CT, and counterinsurgency, COIN, operations, we became obsessed with capturing and killing human targets on lists and on being suspicious of and avoiding cooperation with our host nation partners, and ignoring the second and third order effects of accomplishing short-term goals and missions.

I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information contained within the CIDNE-I and CIDNE-A tables, this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general, as well as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan.

I also believed the detailed analysis of the data over a long period of time by different sectors of society might cause society to reevaluate the need or even the desire to engage in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations that ignore the debate—that ignore the complex dynamics of the people living in the effected environment every day.
. . .
On the so-called "Collateral Murder" video of an Apache helicopter—made by military—Apache helicopter attack in Iraq, July 12, 2007:

BRADLEY MANNING: It was clear to me that the event happened because the aerial weapons team mistakenly identified Reuters employees as a potential threat and that the people in the bongo truck were merely attempting to assist the wounded. The people in the van were not a threat but merely "Good Samaritans."
The most alarming aspect of the video to me, however, was the seemingly delightful bloodlust the aerial weapons team—they appeared to have. They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life by referring to them as, quote, "dead bastards," unquote, and congratulating each other on the ability to kill in a large—in large numbers.

At one point in the video, there’s an individual on the ground attempting to crawl to safety. The individual is seriously wounded. Instead of calling for medical attention to the location, one of the aerial weapons team crew members verbally asks for the wounded person to pick up a weapon so that he can have a reason to engage. For me, this seems similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.

While saddened by the aerial weapons team’s true lack—crew’s lack of concern about human life, I was disturbed by the response of the discovery of injured children at the scene. In the video, you can see the bongo truck driving up to assist the wounded individual. In response, the aerial weapons team crew assumes the individuals are a threat. They repeatedly request for authorization to fire on the bongo truck, and once granted, they engage the vehicle at least six times.

Shortly after the second engagement, a mechanized infantry unit arrives at the scene. Within minutes, the aerial weapons team crew learns that children were in the van, and despite the injuries, the crew exhibits no remorse. Instead, they downplay the significance of their actions, saying, quote, "Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle," unquote.

The aerial weapons team crew members sound like they lack sympathy for the children or the parents. Later, in a particularly disturbing manner, the aerial weapons team crew verbalizes enjoyment at the sight of one of the ground vehicles driving over a body.
. . . .

On his hope that the public would be as alarmed as he was about the conduct of the aerial weapons team crew members:

BRADLEY MANNING: I hoped that the public would be as alarmed as me about the conduct of the aerial weapons team crew members. I wanted the American public to know that not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan were targets that needed to be neutralized, but rather people who were struggling to live in the pressure-cooker environment of what we call "asymmetric warfare."

After the release, I was encouraged by the response in the media and general public who observed the aerial weapons team video. As I hoped, others were just as troubled, if not more troubled, than me by what they saw.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Obama's overreaching on two fronts: universal battlegrounds, repression of speech 

(Ed Andrieski/AP Photo; David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images, from a 2012  ABC story)

Of the various major concerns about the Obama administration I alluded to last December, there are two clearly in the foreground at the moment. First is the administration's assumed right to wage war anywhere in the world, bypassing Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, known as the War Powers Clause. The second is the repression of free speech, which takes us to the First Amendment of the Constitution. And both of these have many ramifications.

Universal battlefield

The use of drones, it's been pointed out, appears to replace the odious "extraordinary rendition" of the Clinton era, greatly stepped up by Bush II after the September 11 attacks, which involved sending suspects to be tortured and interrogated and permanently incarcerated outside US borders. No need for "extraordinary rendition" with Obama's personal "Kill List," by which he simply sends drones out to kill supposed enemies wherever they are, without apprehension or questioning. The other element is the redefining of the field of battle, by which the Pentagon looks on Obama as qualified to launch an attack, preemptive or otherwise, anywhere on the globe. This is where the War Powers Clause is most dramatically violated. At a hearing of the Armed Services Committee, it appeared that the Pentagon, revisiting the Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, enacted by Congress days after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, now define this act as giving the President the power to wage endless war anywhere in the world, including in Syria, Yemen and the Congo. At the meeting, new Maine Senator Angus King declared this reinterpretation of things "astoundingly disturbing."


In his recent New Yorker piece,"Remote Control: Our Drone Illusion," Steve Coll considers the new US conception of warfare, examining two newly published books of investigative journalism, The Way of the Knife (Penguin), by Mark Mazzetti, a New York Times reporter; and Dirty Wars (Nation), by Jeremy Scahill, of The Nation. These books both describe a "war without battlefields," without specific ones, anyway. Notably, as in the case of Anwar Awlaki, the government has assassinated US citizens. It's important to note that the Obama administration is expanding the policies of the previous administration, not diminishing them, in terms of concept and policy and how they are carried out. "Astoundingly disturbing"? You could say that.

Attack on speech and the press

The attack on speech has two main sides too, victims being divided among those who give out information, the "sources," and those who report what they say, the "reporters," in traditional terminology. Just as Nixon sought to attack both Daniel Ellsberg and the New York Times, Obama is after both Bradley Manning, an easy mark and already long incarcerated without trial, and Julian Assange, of Wikileaks, whom the powers that be would like to remove from his refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, send to Sweden, and extradite to America for imprisonment and, perhaps, trial. The government's attack on whistle blowers has been exceptional in its determination and severity.

But there is now something new, a scandal that actually links Obama with Nixon in the minds of many. This is the news that the Justice Department has invaded the email and phone communications of one hundred newsmen of the Associated Press for months, without a credible cause or any result. The excuse for this given by a stonewalling Attorney General Eric Holder was trying to find who had revealed the instance of a Yemeni would-be bomber that he claimed was of tremendous danger to the citizenry.


The Obama administration turns out to be, among US governments, an excessively repressive and invasive one. According to a New York Times editorial, "Spying on the Associated Press," this administration has indicted six current and former officials under the Espionage Act, which had previously been used only three times since it was enacted in 1917. Daniel Ellsberg was one of those earlier three.

There is some irony in the fact that Europeans still seem to complain that compared to Bush II, whom they resented, Obama is "weak," when his second turn seems more and more decisive, despite the impossibility of his controlling the Republicans in Congress. Now Bush II comparisons vie with Nixon ones. Recently the lawyer for the New York Times in the Ellsberg case, James Goodale, interviewed on Democracy Now! concerning his new book about it, points out that the Pentagon Papers case is about censorship, and he debunks the claim that the information Ellsberg revealed or the Wikileaks information or, by assumption, the case used to justify invading the privacy of 100 AP reporters, was in any of these cases critical or important. Goodale calls the Pentagon Papers case "hot air" and the new one "malarkey." But he says that Obama has drawn even with Nixon now, and depending on how he pursues current cases he may pull ahead of him as a more repressive President.

The issue is one of control. By declaring more and more documents "Secret" or "Top Secret" or whatever, the government asserts the right to hide its actions and its decisions, and this is the hallmark of totalitarian regimes. There is no discussion; there is no openness. This then gives rise to the question of whether we live in a democracy. But of course we have this information, and it is being discussed in the press.


Obama's tone is often troubling. It would be nice if he didn't use "I" so much in talking about the policies of his administration. When a new issue came up, of the Internal Revenue Service's allegedly vetting requests for non-profit status selectively focusing on ones with the words "Tea Party" or "Patriot" in their names, Obama replied: "I’ve reviewed the Treasury Department watchdog’s report, and the misconduct that it uncovered is inexcusable. It’s inexcusable, and Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it. I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency, but especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has in all of our lives." It would be nice if he used "we" more often, or "this administration." He sounds like a schoolteacher giving a tongue-lashing to naughty students.

Another aspect of things is one described by David Cay Johnson in the case of government spying on AP reporters -- a marked secretiveness toward the press. The administration boast of seeking a revival of the "media shield" law, as others, including Assange, have pointed out, is meaningless, because it has no force in cases of claimed "national security" (such as this one). Furthermore, Johnson, who is President of Investigative Reporters and Editors and a Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist who has dealt with administrations going back a while, has this to say about the current one: "I and many other journalists have observed that this administration, despite its public rhetoric, has repeatedly and continually been very difficult to deal with. I rate them worse than the Bush administration. And every single story that I wrote at the New York Times, with one exception, had Bush people on the record by name, rank and serial number. So, this is a very troubling aspect of this administration. It is hostile to the news media. It seems to have an attitude that if they don’t like the question, they don’t have to answer it. And it makes it very difficult and cumbersome to get responses from there. They’re behaving much more like a corporation than like the people’s government." The effect of a big story like this AP spying case is that people are afraid to talk to the press now, Johnson pointed out.

So this is not only an administration and a government that now wages war arbitrarily wherever and whenever it chooses using modern instant assassination techniques. It is also an extraordinarily repressive and secretive group, whose behavior lacks openness when compared to Bush II and his "neocons." It is hard to say where this will all lead, but it doesn't look good.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Iraq ten years after: what "shock and awe" really means

"Shock and awe" initial attack on Baghdad 20 March 2003

A false basis

Now, on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War, a lot of assessments of this event are being written. And this is not easy to do, because the effects are so sweeping. To begin with is the terrible example of responding to a terrorist attack by a group based in one country (Afghanistan) by making war on another country (Iraq) unconnected with the attack. This was a war fought entirely under false pretenses, and leaders, press, and the American general public went along with it. The pretexts should have been patently false to anyone. There was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had links with Al Qaeda. There was no proof that he possessed "weapons of mass destruction" (an ominously vague coinage for nuclear weapons) and might use them on the US. When the falsity of these claims became obvious, the Bush administration switched to the claim that they were liberating the Iraqi people from a tyrant. Indeed Saddam Hussein was a tyrant. But the US loves tyrants and does not make war on them, not in the open, anyway. The irony is that Iraqis today feel less safe now than than under Saddam. They were not liberated. They were delivered into evil and destruction.


The worst thing the Iraq War proves about the US is how mindlessly Americans feed on mainstream TV "news," with no sense of history, collective memory, or understanding of politics, world affairs and geography. This is what Noam Chomsky describes in his book, Manufacturing Consent. This makes the American public ripe for incitement to another pointless, dangerous, brutal, costly war of choice like the Iraq war. Next on the agenda clearly is Iran, to please Israeli hawks. Americans are easily deceived into accepting their government's arbitrary, violent acts of imperialism. Little ones, like the takeover of Grenada under Bush Senior, go almost unnoticed, accepted as routine. Big ones, like Vietnam or Iraq, are enthusiastically supported with dollars and lives, until people wake up and realize they were a mistake all along.

The many costs

As I predicted at the time, the 2003 invasion of Iraq further destroyed the already beleaguered but then still internally secure country and left it in a state of chaos that today just gets worse. No one could have predicted just how spectacularly the US would mismanage the aftermath of the war, sowing the seeds for civil war and disorder, greatly strengthening Al Qaeda in the region. Moreover Iraq's current leader, Nouri al-Malaki, a client and handpicked ally of the US like Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, himself is a tyrant. Bush II's claims that the US and their allies were bringing freedom and democracy to the country were a mockery. The US is weaker, impoverished by the two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan is as ungovernable as ever. Iraq is closer to Tehran.

The human, material, and monetary costs of the 2003 Iraq War are staggering. For US taxpayers, the price tag is estimated at $2 trillion and rising, some say eventually to $6 trillion. Hundreds of thousands died in Iraq, and the deaths are ongoing. Iraq Body Count lists 312 violent deaths already in Iraq this month. For 2006-2009 the most common number of refugees given was 2.5 million, mostly to Syria and Jordan. (Nowadays the revolt in Syria accounts for 100,000 Syrians listed as refugees to Iraq.)  Ever since 2003 Iraq has remained one of the world's most unsafe places.

Falluja baby with multiple birth defects

The most horrible toll of the Iraq War is ongoing collateral damage to the innocent. In the foreground now are the cancer and manifold birth defects caused by depleted Uranium and other toxic materials, particularly white phosphorus (both forbidden by international law) heavily employed by US forces in areas like Basra and Fallujah. Cancer and birth defects have recently been reported to be definitely more numerous in those locations than they were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombs, possibly up to 14 times more numerous, the birth defects also individually more extreme.

The Iraq War has taken a terrible toll on Americans and Allied troops who fought there too. We hear little of them but we do get wind of the neglect of veterans and the constant suicides. One victim was Tomas Young, featured in in the 2007 documentary Body of War, a young soldier paralyzed in his first minutes of combat in Iraq. Young had joined up to fight in Afghanistan, thinking that was where the trouble came from. He never wanted to go to Iraq, and after he returned disabled he became an anti-war activist. This week Democracy Now! reported on Tomas Young's recent letter to Bush and Cheney calling on them to admit to their war crimes and his current plan to end his own life of constant pain.

The US governing elite has not learned from any of this. When Obama visits the Middle East, Israel first of course, bypassing Gaza and the Palestinians, he speaks of "all options" concerning Iran being "still on the table," a menacing phrase pleasing to Netanyahu.

What "shock and awe" really means

The "shock and awe" approach, known in military doctrine as "rapid dominance," is simply the use of overwhelming force. It's favored by the US, which has by far the greatest military strength in the world, as a method of defeating the opponent (or victim) psychologically as well as militarily. But a corollary benefit that the Bush hawks and their predecessors and ideologues the ultra-right Project for the New American Century  clearly expressed is to show off that the US is the dominant power on the planet. This is what "shock and awe" really means. To be the bully in the schoolyard. Except that the schoolyard is left strewn with corpses and deformed babies, an environment of chaos, no longer habitable.

Strength of mind?

But let's return to our calm warnings, presuming a world of reason still exists, as editorial writers like to do. In one of his typically savvy and straightforward op-ed pieces in the NY Times, Paul Krugman used the Iraq War anniversary lessons to point in a column called "Marches of Folly" to the way group think also fosters misguided actions on the economy - here as in Europe (led by Angela Merkel, whose country, Germany, wields key purse strings) to ignore the fact that in a weak economy what's needed is stimulus and jobs, not deficit-hawking. Confusion is as easily sold on these matters, Krugman argues, as on going to war in Iraq. Don't believe in any of these public matters that "everyone" thinks something, Krugman warns. Think for yourself.

Well, I never believed any of the claims to justify the war in Iraq. I did not see any real point in war in Afghanistan either, for that matter, though immediately trapping Osama in his lair would have made sense if it could have been done. Apparently since it took the CIA ten years to find him, it couldn't. Anyway you do not make war on a whole country to track down a small band of terrorists. The police tracking goes on, even if its results can be slow; various Al Qaeda attacks have been stopped, just not, alas, the 2001 ones. War serves other purposes, unfortunately. It galvanizes the country, and makes its leaders appear strong. The Iraq War was very profitable to war profiteers like Blackwater, K.B.R.-Halliburton, CACI and Titan. It was profitable to oil companies and oil rich Gulf nations. But I did not believe Condaleeza Rice's "smoking gun." I was deeply embarrassed by Colin Powell's Power Point lecture to the UN; you could almost hear the humiliation already in his voice. But the trouble is, I and those like me didn't speak up loudly enough. As Yeats says in his poem "The Second Coming":

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


US Marines in Falluja

Note:  In the Independent in March and April of 2012 Robert Fisk published a series of three articles about the children of Falluja with birth defects:
The Children of Fallujah - Sayef's story..
"The Children of Falluja - the hospital of horrors. "
The Children of Fallujah - families fight back.