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What does secrecy cost in America? Are we prepared to pay the price which may include sacrificing our democracy?

Posted on June 30th, 2013 in General,Government by Robert Miller

From Aljazeera

The recent revelations by Edward Snowden about the NSA spying on our emails, internet activity and phone call data is a disturbing extension of what we have always known about our own country—we love to spy and we can’t help ourselves when it comes to keeping all this massive, daily retrieved information in a giant storage facility in Utah, where I suppose the Mormons may use it someday to guide us all to heaven. Perhaps at the Pearly Gates, we will have to explain why we spent so much time on the phone and why too we accepted collect calls from Donald Trump—oops maybe that was a machine error! When this latest revelation grabbed our attention, my first thought was “where is Chalmers Johnson when you need him?” Sadly, Johnson passed away in 2010, but he left a detailed legacy on the subject of secrecy such that we have no problem reconstructing what he might have concluded about the Snowden revelations. Johnson was author of the “Blowback Trilogy” which included “Blowback,”  followed bySorrows of Empire,” with “Nemesis: the Last Days of the American Republic” as his last entry. I have commented many times before on Johnson’s books because they were instrumental in shaping my own views about the disparity between what we say we do and what actually transpires as foreign policy in the name of America. Johnson correctly identified that we are a military empire, not a colonial power, as we use installed puppet governments to do our bidding, often with an aircraft carrier standing offshore. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, which took place without benefit of a peace dividend, Johnson was a faithful Cold Warrior. It was only after the Soviet Union collapsed that Johnson realized the United States had committed itself to view the world through the rose-colored glasses of  a military empire, serving to thrust American hegemony, whether the world liked it or not, onto most regions of our small planet. Johnson’s evolution after the Cold War ended served to transition him to view the CIA and the attendant secrecy and document classification as a totally unnecessary form of national paranoia, created by the blowbacks we inflict on ourselves, attributed largely to the arrogance of the CIA whose operating guidelines were based on spreading American business interests. In fact “Blowback” is a CIA term meant to convey the negative consequences of CIA operations that might have seemed OK at the time, but eventually did harm to our national interests. The CIA overthrow of the democratically-elected leader Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 is a textbook example of “Blowback,” as it led to the Iranian revolution of 1979, which in turn helped another Cold Warrior get elected to the Presidency by the name of Ronald Reagan. Although the CIA recognized the Iranian revolution as an example of “Blowback,” it failed to recognize the other “Blowback” in the form of Ronald Reagan’s election  who immediately got to work on destroying the social fabric of America. One of the last articles that Johnson wrote was on the growth and privatization of our intelligence industry. Instead of halting our intelligence operations, we are doubling down on them and Snowden’s recent revelations serve to emphasize the massive, post-9/11 growth in intelligence and the privatization of our intelligence operation now carried out on a massive scale, largely created because no one can stop it and software tools have come along to make it all possible!

As a result of Johnson’s long-time Cold Warrior status, he was often called on to consult with the CIA and gained carnal knowledge of America’s intelligence system as he learned first hand about the secretive nature of the agency and many details of its operations. Time and again Johnson’s message was to eliminate the CIA and put an end to national security secrecy. His point was that one of the reasons there were so many secrets and so much classified information, is that the CIA in particular did not want information to leak out for fear of public embarrassment once their actions came to light. I have never seen a government document retrieved through the Freedom of Information (FOI) act that didn’t have segments redacted out. The same is true for the Obama administration that seems more obsessed about keeping secrets than any previous administration. But the history of the CIA is most relevant for the future impact of our spying and secrecy operations,  because with these new revelations, it seems like the CIA has been given authority to spy on Americans. If CIA history serves as any indication about the future of domestic spying, there will be plenty of embarrassments right around the corner, periodically leaked by people in the center of things,  like Snowden who seems genuinely concerned about the depth of spying as inconsistent with our fading American democracy. While Snowden is holed up in the Moscow airport, one can hope that someone gives him a copy of the “Blowback Trilogy.” The CIA has a long history of embarrassing activity, from the overthrow of democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953 (prompted by the British whose oil interests in Iran had been nationalized by Mossadegh), to which one can add all the bloodthirsty dictators we helped install in South American countries through the CIA, or the right-wing dictatorships we supported in Greece for example; then throw in the inability of the CIA to understand the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union (thereby botching the one thing they were hired to do) and throw in CIA Director George Tenet’s “Slam Dunk” comment which helped lead to our invasion of Iraq and without too much thinking you have at least the beginning of what Johnson was talking about. Once the Soviet Union fell apart, you might also wonder, as I did,  what the CIA would be doing, as the world suddenly seemed like a less forbidding, conflict-laden place. Yet somehow we never managed to achieve the peace of mind that should have attended the demise of our most evil foe. To understand the future of the new NSA domestic surveillance operations, we need to look at the history of the CIA. But our concern goes beyond the historical aspects of the CIA, because we are now confronted with privatization of our security system, allowing private companies to hide behind our secrecy laws without any responsibility to reveal their clandestine acts or their intrusion into our foreign policy. That aspect of these new revelations should alarm all of us, but somehow the alarm button has yet to be pushed because we are told the new surveillance system is working—it has saved America from attack at last count, on 54 occasions!

But as we now know, the CIA fell upon its next most obvious target—us! Though by law the CIA is forbidden to spy on Americans, it takes very little imagination to realize that the entire program of domestic spying is championed as a way to stop terrorists communicating with residents in America; doesn’t that imply that the CIA is at least on one end of the information trove of data? And will we be able to discriminate one branch of spying from another? Yes our elaborate but dysfunctional spy system is now engaged, in full-time spying on Americans, including the ability to read and store our emails, take records of all of phone calls and track activity on the internet—the one source of information that they could not crack until social media sites began to cooperate with them by connecting them up with fiber optic cables for a direct line for snooping: wasn’t that a little too easy? Americans are not bothered by this level of eavesdropping and intrusion into our lives, but many of our European colleagues feel differently and their reaction to these revelations might wind up limiting the reach of Facebook and Twitter. This detailed information gathering has been going on for at least seven years and it will continue to expand unabated until the public stops it. Congress will only act to increase the budget for secrecy without challenging the need for it in view of our constitution which clearly protects Americans from unwarranted search and seizure. The reason we don’t stop it of course is that the government has said the system has prevented numerous attacks on Americans—the most recent count I read was 54: if you accept at face value that what they say is true, then you must also admit that that the foiled terrorist acts against us represent the “Blowbacks” from our failed foreign policy, a policy that was hell bent on creating American hegemony no matter what the cost. When are we going to pin the tail on the donkey by recognizing that our foreign policy has been dictated by American business interests and nothing else, including our own constitution, is allowed to stand in the way. Shouldn’t the spy budget be treated as an add-on cost charged to the corporations that benefit from this hyper-secrecy? Or is it that we can’t help it—it’s in our DNA.

When Snowden brought this level of spying to our attention, President Obama said we should have a conversation about it. Don’t hold your breath. Revealing anything about these episodes will involve too much breach of security and pose too big a risk for some of our “operatives,” so that conversation will never take place or if it does, it will be done without knowledge of the events that saved American lives. We already know how the government entraps would-be terrorists and exaggerates the threat to America (do these episodes involve arrests, charges and trials?). At the same time, we have to admit that there are serious-minded people who want to do great damage to America and kill our citizens, so this level of surveillance will continue and very likely intensify during the coming years. And the fact that our domestic surveillance operates from a black budget means that future expansion of these tactics will surely be part of the story.

Now you can see why domestic spying is so much more natural for the CIA and all the other fifteen security agencies. For one thing everyone speaks the same language. What? You think that the CIA should be confined to non-domestic spying? I can see you have missed the point—the American people are the new terrorists or at least the links that will lead to revelations about future attacks against America, which lie embedded in the massive information that is now being collected every day. America no longer trusts its own citizens. Increasingly, you see activists labeled as terrorists; Edward Snowden has been referred to as a terrorist by Senator Dianne Feinstein (who claimed that Americans don’t engage in hacking into other country’s computers) and organizations such as PETA have been labeled as a terrorist organization for their activities in filming cruelty to animals inside giant hog and chicken farms: there is a new law against that sort of spying. The President, who promised us a more transparent Presidency, has not only committed more documents to secrecy than his predecessor, but, obsessed by leaks, he has turned the Federal workplace into a spy on your neighbor environment where people suspicious of their fellow workers, those who might become “leakers” should be reported to their supervisor. Failure to do so could result in losing your job. How’s that for a healthy workplace environment? “Did you notice George’s changed behavior at the water cooler this morning?” “Could he be headed towards a leak?” “And I don’t mean the men’s bathroom.”

Before he died, Johnson had published a review on the privatization of our security system, which I commented on in 2008. In his review, Johnson pointed out there are 16 agencies that comprise our intelligence system and one can only imagine what kind of cooperation exists between these agencies and how much overlap and redundancy must be present in their collective work load. At the time, Johnson was reviewing an excellent book by Sheldon Wolin who characterizes America as an example of “inverted totalitarianism.” By that he means a country that went from a successful democracy into a totalitarian state, which is about where we are now. Increasingly Americans lie in fear of expressing activism because of the changing rules and labels, in which their actions might get them labeled as a “terrorist.”

One of the driving forces for enhanced domestic spying occurred in the Bush administration when both Cheney and Rumsfeld did not trust the CIA and formed their own intelligence apparatus within the military. We all know that one of the criticisms surrounding our failure to be more informed about the attacks on 9/11 was the lack of interactions between agencies in our intelligence system. With sixteen agencies gathering intelligence, we can surely say that things have perhaps gotten worse rather than improved. The budget that supports these agencies is a black budget, meaning that our total expenditures for this item are unknown, though estimates have placed the total at $ 66 billion—that’s right $ 66 billion (as of few years ago)! That’s more than twice what we spend on health-care research funded by the National Institutes of Health.

I do not know, nor do any of us, whether we have been spared attacks on American interests because of the hyper-domestic surveillance that we just learned about. Perhaps the future will reveal more about that issue, but I doubt it. However, I do know that our use of drones and the secrecy that surrounds their deployment is creating enemies for us and we know that drones have been flying in our airspace, used by the FBI; we can imagine how that will grow in the future. I also know, as do many others, that a security state we have established is incompatible with a democracy and already we are seeing whistle-blowers treated and referred to as terrorists and soon we can expect that activists’ demonstrations will be synonymous with acts of terrorism. That is now the magic word and we can surely appreciate how much our government wants that label to stick once is has been applied. This is going on right now with Snowden: can our government make the charges against him as a terrorist stick? We had all better hope not. In the meantime, sales of George Orwell’s “1984” have gone up 7000 times at Amazon.

In many ways the revelations of Snowden have backfired on the Obama administration. Snowden is occupying too much front news space such that Obama’s speech on climate change was muffled by Snowden grabbing all the headlines. Mark Weisbrot, writing in Aljazeera has commented on Obama’s attempt to finally get Snowden off the front page news. But by charging him under the Espionage Act as a traitor, he has done anything but aid in keeping the story exactly where he doesn’t want it. And now it looks like it will take months of negotiation to get Snowden back in the United States, if it happens at all, at which time he can be prosecuted with the idea of jailing him and throwing away the key. From the Weisbrot article

  • “Dissenting voices have grown as the story continues.  Some petitions:  at the White House web site, for a presidential pardon, signed by 123,000;  Roots Action, hands off Snowden (31,000); Avaaz, for respecting Snowden’s rights and terminating the PRISM program (1.3 mn). Yesterday a number of celebrities (including Oliver Stone, Danny Glover, John Cusack) prominent whistle-blowers (Daniel Ellsberg, Joe Wilson, Thomas Drake, Colleen Rowley), and experts (Noam Chomsky, Juan Cole, and many others) launched a petition to President Rafael Correa to grant political asylum to Snowden.
  • Yes, the Obama team has every reason to want this whole story to go away. But he may not find it so easy to get rid of it.”

People like Snowden, Manning and Ellsberg are public servants of the highest calling, because they see the discontinuity between America as a democracy and America as a surveillance state with too many secrets and too many classified documents. These “leaks” by public-spirited individuals, working within the government, are the only source we have of learning about the behavior of a government that purports to be a democracy. We have arrived at a new place where we once thought we would never be—a state that is so securitized that government embarrassment is evident when these new information gathering systems are exposed—it’s not the individual acts that bother us, but the presence of the system that gathers information—a machine and a piece of software, aided by a $ 66 billion budget and untold numbers of companies making a profit by spying on us. So it is no longer the individual acts that are embarrassing, but the mere revelation of the means by which information is collected that creates such outlandish charges leveled against the individuals that leak this information. Think of the difference: Ellsberg leaked a military history of our involvement in the Vietnam War—a 3000 page document, something that could be xeroxed— while Snowden merely leaked evidence of a new surveillance system and the extent to which it is used to spy on us and other countries. The Pentagon Papers describing the history of the Vietnam War, were only declassified in 2011—how’s that for a timely update of history! No one ever called Ellsberg a terrorist, but those are the words that are now used to describe Snowden. This distinction should alarm everyone who believes that we have a chance to save our democracy.



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The beginning of reconciliation between the Soviet and American governments

Posted on June 9th, 2013 in History by Robert Miller

President John F. Kennedy

Fifty years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy gave one of his most memorable speeches on the Cold War. Today the NYT has an article honoring the memory of Kennedy’s speech that he gave on June 10, 1963 as the commencement speaker for the graduating class of American University. It was in that speech that Kennedy pleaded for a new understanding on the part of the American public and the Russian people to begin addressing the differences between the two countries on issues that were badly out of alignment, including the problem of nuclear proliferation and testing. Kennedy emphasized that the two superpowers had such huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons that they were now in a position to do more damage to each other than to any other country, should someone touch the nuclear trigger. Where was the advantage of having a nuclear arsenal, when, as Kennedy had learned during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the two countries came close to a nuclear showdown (much later we learned that had it not been for a Russian nuclear submarine captain who disobeyed his orders to fire, many of us could have been annihilated)? Prior to that speech, Kennedy had interacted with Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian leader, who reminded him that American aggression towards the Soviet Union had taken place during the Bolshevik revolution, when we had American troops in Russia waging war on the side of the White Russians. Also, after WW II, when Russia and America were allies, Truman never gave Russia the kind of credit it should have had for their part in the war, particularly since the Russian effort saved thousands of American lives by engaging so many of Hitler’s soldiers after they invaded Russia. It was in that June speech that Kennedy touched on the issues that Truman never addressed: he reviewed the immense suffering that the Russian people had gone through, how they lost territory the equivalent of Chicago to the East Coast and how they heroically rebuilt their industrial capacity by reassembling their industries deep inside the Russian interior and eventually triumphed over the invading German army, though the cost was high—Russia lost 27 million people in that war. In many ways, had Truman given that speech in 1945, we might never have had the Cold War. Prior to Kennedy’s speech, he already had approval from Khrushchev that a better understanding could be achieved between the two countries, but Kennedy kept the Pentagon out of the loop, as he feared the American generals would disapprove of efforts to reduce tensions between Russia and the United States. Kennedy’s speech led directly to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 which was ratified by the U.S. Senate in September of that year.  If Kennedy had not been assassinated in November 1963, he might have ended the Cold War. Instead, Ronald Reagan intensified the Cold War with his Star Wars Missile Defense initiative and Gorbachev ended the Cold War without a shot being fired. You can read or listen to Kennedy’s speech from the Kennedy Library site.


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What we did in Iraq: will we do it again?

Posted on June 5th, 2013 in General by Robert Miller

From NYT Oil wells in Iraq increasingly fuel growth in China

In the aftermath of our departure from Iraq, sectarian violence is growing and may escalate further because of the war in Syria, which has been diverted from an Arab Spring revolt to sectarian violence—Shiites vs Sunnis. Today, no one can tell whether the entire Middle East might get caught up in a conflagration that spreads across boarders and threatens to reshape the map in ways that have not been done since the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the close of WW I.

Doctors in Iraq are experiencing dramatic increases in the incidence of cancer and there is little doubt on their part that the cause can be attributed to the massive number of depleted uranium shells we left behind. In many cases, there are cancers that have appeared in all members of single families, and this is in a place in the world where cancers were once rare.  John Pilger, writing in CounterPunch with a title “The Inquities of War,” quotes a cancer specialist in Iraq in 1999, “Before the Gulf war,” he said, “we had two or three cancer patients a month. Now we have 30 to 35 dying every month. Our studies indicate that 40 to 48 per cent of the population in this area will get cancer: in five years’ time to begin with, then long after. That’s almost half the population. Most of my own family have it, and we have no history of the disease. It is like Chernobyl here; the genetic effects are new to us; the mushrooms grow huge; even the grapes in my garden have mutated and can’t be eaten.” Also, along the corridor, Dr. Ginan Ghalib Hassen, a pediatrician, kept a photo album of the children she was trying to save. Many had neuroplastoma [neuroblastoma]. “Before the war, we saw only one case of this unusual tumor in two years,” she said. “Now we have many cases, mostly with no family history. I have studied what happened in Hiroshima. The sudden increase of such congenital malformations is the same.”

Investigators from the World Health Organization (WHO) who might have shed light on these issues were prevented from entering the regions in Iraq in which the war was fought, and as Pilger states “The US government sought to prevent WHO from surveying areas in southern Iraq where depleted uranium had been used and caused serious health and environmental dangers.” Our government does not want us to know about these issues.

Quoting further from Pilger’s article “Today, a WHO report, the result on a landmark study conducted jointly with the Iraqi Ministry of Health has been “delayed.” Covering 10,800 households, it contains “damning evidence”, says a ministry official and, according to one of its researchers, remains “top secret.” The report says that birth defects have risen to a “crisis” right across Iraqi society where DU [depleted uranium] and other toxic heavy metals were used by the US and Britain. Fourteen years after he sounded the alarm, Dr. Jawad Al-Ali reports “phenomenal” multiple cancers in entire families.

Tony Blair and George W. Bush have left the scene of Iraq. Two years ago, a Dutch Panel concluded that the war against Iraq was illegal and “had no sound mandate in international law.” To my knowledge this judgment has not been seriously challenged and while it lacks the weight of enforceable law, the prestige of members of the inquiry panel likely gives it weight among Europeans. At the same time, the Dutch Report has had little impact in America and certainly no impact on GWB.

It was never difficult to understand that the invasion was meant to give the United States a direct stake in Middle East oil supplies. While we sent an armed contingent of soldiers to guard the Ministry of Oil offices, we had no problem allowing massive looting of museums and archeological dig sites, some of which were covered over with asphalt to make runways for airplanes. But did we come away with oil contracts? According to the New York Times, China is now Iraq’s biggest customer with oil contracts for nearly half the oil that Iraq produces and is bidding for additional contracts to gain an even larger share. In the meantime, we protect China’s access to the oil by having the fifth fleet stationed in the Middle East. We brutally destroyed a country and for a reason that no one can identify.


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