The De Facto US/Al Qaeda Alliance

Exclusive: Buried deep inside Saturday’s New York Times was a grudging acknowledgement that the U.S.-armed “moderate” rebels in Syria are using their U.S. firepower to back an Al Qaeda offensive, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

A curious aspect of the Syrian conflict – a rebellion sponsored largely by the United States and its Gulf state allies – is the disappearance in much of the American mainstream news media of references to the prominent role played by Al Qaeda in seeking to overthrow the secular Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

There’s much said in the U.S. press about ISIS, the former “Al Qaeda in Iraq” which splintered off several years ago, but Al Qaeda’s central role in commanding Syria’s “moderate” rebels in Aleppo and elsewhere is the almost unspoken reality of the Syrian war. Even in the U.S. presidential debates, the arguing between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton has been almost exclusively about ISIS, not Al Qaeda.

Though Al Qaeda got the ball rolling on America’s revenge wars in the Middle East 15 years ago by killing several thousand Americans and others in the 9/11 attacks, the terrorist group has faded into the background of U.S. attention, most likely because it messes up the preferred “good guy/bad guy” narrative regarding the Syrian war.

For instance, the conflict in Aleppo between Syrian government forces and rebels operating primarily under Al Qaeda’s command is treated in the Western media as simply a case of the barbaric Assad and his evil Russian ally Vladimir Putin mercilessly bombing what is portrayed as the east Aleppo equivalent of Disney World, a place where innocent children and their families peacefully congregate until they are targeted for death by the Assad-Putin war-crime family.

The photos sent out to the world by skillful rebel propagandists are almost always of wounded children being cared for by the “White Helmet” rebel civil defense corps, which has come under growing criticism for serving as a public-relations arm of Al Qaeda and other insurgents. (There also are allegations that some of the most notable images have been staged, like a fake war scene from the 1997 dark comedy, “Wag the Dog.”)

Rare Glimpse of Truth

Yet, occasionally, the reality of Al Qaeda’s importance in the rebellion breaks through, even in the mainstream U.S. media, although usually downplayed and deep inside the news pages, such as the A9 article in Saturday’s New York Times by Hwaida Saad and Anne Barnard describing a rebel offensive in Aleppo. It acknowledges:

“The new offensive was a strong sign that rebel groups vetted by the United States were continuing their tactical alliances with groups linked to Al Qaeda, rather than distancing themselves as Russia has demanded and the Americans have urged. … The rebels argue that they cannot afford to shun any potential allies while they are under fire, including well-armed and motivated jihadists, without more robust aid from their international backers.” (You might note how the article subtly blames the rebel dependence on Al Qaeda on the lack of “robust aid” from the Obama administration and other outside countries – even though such arms shipments violate international law.)

What the article also makes clear in a hazy kind of way is that Al Qaeda’s affiliate, the recently renamed Nusra Front, and its jihadist allies, such as Ahrar al-Sham, are waging the brunt of the fighting while the CIA-vetted “moderates” are serving in mostly support roles. The Times reported:

“The insurgents have a diverse range of objectives and backers, but they issued statements of unity on Friday. Those taking part in the offensive include the Levant Conquest Front, a militant group formerly known as the Nusra Front that grew out of Al Qaeda; another hard-line Islamist faction, Ahrar al-Sham; and other rebel factions fighting Mr. Assad that have been vetted by the United States and its allies.”

The article cites Charles Lister, a senior fellow and Syria specialist at the Middle East Institute in Washington, and other analysts noting that “the vast majority of the American-vetted rebel factions in Aleppo were fighting inside the city itself and conducting significant bombardments against Syrian government troops in support of the Qaeda-affiliated fighters carrying out the brunt of front-line fighting.”

Lister noted that 11 of the 20 or so rebel groups conducting the Aleppo “offensive have been vetted by the C.I.A. and have received arms from the agency, including anti-tank missiles. …

“In addition to arms provided by the United States, much of the rebels’ weaponry comes from regional states, like Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Mr. Lister said, including truck-borne multiple-rocket launcher systems and Czech-made Grad rockets with extended ranges.”

The U.S./Al Qaeda Alliance

In other words, the U.S. government and its allies have smuggled sophisticated weapons into Syria to arm rebels who are operating in support of Al Qaeda’s new military offensive against Syrian government forces in Aleppo. By any logical analysis, that makes the United States an ally of Al Qaeda.

The Times article also includes a quote from Genevieve Casagrande, a Syria research analyst from the Institute for the Study of War, a neoconservative “think tank” that has supported more aggressive U.S. military involvement in Syria and the Middle East.

“The unfortunate truth, however, is that these U.S.-backed groups remain somewhat dependent upon the Al Qaeda linked groups for organization and firepower in these operations,” Casagrande said.

The other unfortunate truth is that the U.S.-supplied rebels have served, either directly or indirectly, as conduits to funnel U.S. military equipment and ordnance to Al Qaeda.

One might think that the editors of The New York Times – if they were operating with old-fashioned news judgment rather than with propagandistic blinders on – would have recast the article to highlight the tacit U.S. alliance with Al Qaeda and put that at the top of the front page.

Still, the admissions are significant, confirming what we have reported at for many months, including Gareth Porter’s article last February saying: “Information from a wide range of sources, including some of those the United States has been explicitly supporting, makes it clear that every armed anti-Assad organization unit in those provinces [of Idlib and Aleppo] is engaged in a military structure controlled by [Al Qaeda’s] Nusra militants. All of these rebel groups fight alongside the Nusra Front and coordinate their military activities with it. …

“At least since 2014 the Obama administration has armed a number of Syrian rebel groups even though it knew the groups were coordinating closely with the Nusra Front, which was simultaneously getting arms from Turkey and Qatar.”

Double Standards

The Times article on page A9 also deviated from the normal propaganda themes by allowing a statement by Syrian officials and the Russians regarding their suspension of airstrikes over the past week to permit the evacuation of civilians from east Aleppo and the rebels’ refusal to let people leave, even to the point of firing on the humanitarian corridors:

“The [Syrian] government and its [Russian] allies accused the rebels of forcing Aleppo residents to stay, and of using them as human shields.”

The “human shields” argument is one that is common when the United States or its allies are pummeling some city controlled by “enemy” forces whether Israel’s bombardment of Gaza or the U.S. Marines’ leveling of Fallujah in Iraq or the current campaign against ISIS in the Iraqi city of Mosul. In those cases, the horrific civilian bloodshed, including the killing of children by U.S. or allied forces, is blamed on Hamas or Sunni insurgents or ISIS but never on the people dropping the bombs.

An entirely opposite narrative is applied when U.S. adversaries, such as Syria or Russia, are trying to drive terrorists and insurgents out of an urban area. Then, there is usually no reference to “human shields” and all the carnage is blamed on “war crimes” by the U.S. adversaries. That propaganda imperative helps explain why Al Qaeda and its jihadist comrades have been largely whited out of the conflict in Aleppo.

Over the past few years, U.S. regional allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, also have shifted their public attitudes toward Al Qaeda, seeing it as a blunt instrument to smash the so-called “Shiite crescent” reaching from Iran through Syria to Lebanon. For instance, in September 2013, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, then a close adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told the Jerusalem Post that Israel favored Syria’s Sunni extremists over President Assad.

“The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc,” Oren told the Jerusalem Post in an interview. “We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” He said this was the case even if the “bad guys” were with Al Qaeda.

And, in June 2014, speaking as a former ambassador at an Aspen Institute conference, Oren expanded on his position, saying Israel would even prefer a victory by the brutal Islamic State over continuation of the Iranian-backed Assad in Syria. “From Israel’s perspective, if there’s got to be an evil that’s got to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail,” Oren said.

Warming to Al Qaeda

As Israeli officials shifted toward viewing Al Qaeda and even ISIS as the lesser evils and built a behind-the-scenes alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Sunni states, American neoconservatives also began softening their tone regarding the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.

Across the U.S. foreign policy establishment, pressure built for “regime change” in Damascus even if that risked handing Syria to Sunni jihadists. That strategy hit a road bump in 2014 when ISIS began chopping off the heads of Western hostages in Syria and capturing swathes of territory in Iraq, including Mosul.

That bloody development forced President Barack Obama to begin targeting ISIS militants in both Iraq and Syria, but the neocon-dominated Washington establishment still favored the Israeli-Saudi objective of “regime change” in Syria regardless of how that might help Al Qaeda.

Thus, Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and its jihadist ally, Ahrar al-Sham, faded into the background under the fiction that the anti-Assad forces were primarily noble “moderates” trying to save the children from the bloodthirsty fiends, Assad and Putin.

Grudgingly, The New York Times, deep inside Saturday’s newspaper, acknowledged at least part of the troubling reality, that the U.S. government has, in effect, allied itself with Al Qaeda terrorists.

[For more background on this issue, see’s “New Group Think for War with Syria/Russia.”]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and

Police Clash with Pipeline Protesters

The confluence of the twin issues of Native American respect for the land and modern environmentalists’ alarm over global warming has met in resistance to a North Dakota oil pipeline, observed Ann Wright.

By Ann Wright

It’s like we are back to the 1800s when the U.S. Army rampaged against Native American tribes across the American West. The militarized police and the use of the National Guard this week in responding to the Standing Rock Sioux Native American challenge in North Dakota to big oil and its dangerous pipelines reminds one of Custer’s Last Stand against Sitting Bull.

In fact, the portrait of Sitting Bull is on one of the most popular t-shirts available to supporters of the “water protectors,” as those are known who protest yet one more oil pipeline that crosses sensitive watershed areas and major rivers of the United States.

Four days last week, I joined hundreds of Native Americans and social justice campaigners from around the United States and around the world, in challenging the Dakota Access Pipe Line (DAPL), the 1,172-mile, $3.7 billion dollar scar across the face of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois.

Last week, I photographed the area along Highway 6 south of Bismarck where the Energy Transfer Partnership contractors were busy digging the trench for the “Black Snake” as the pipeline is called.

I also counted 24 police cars returning to Bismarck at shift change around 3 p.m., a huge number of state law enforcement personnel and vehicles dedicated to protection of corporate business, instead of the rights of citizens.

Huge machines were chewing up the earth near water sources for all of North Dakota. The pipeline was rerouted from near Bismarck so if the pipeline breaks it would not endanger the water supply of the capital city of the state. But it was relocated to where it will cross the Missouri River and will jeopardize the water supply of the Native Americans and all Americans living in southern North Dakota and downstream of the Missouri River.

On Thursday, the digging took a more confrontational turn. The huge digging equipment arrived to cut across State Highway 1806 at a spot where water protectors had set up a front-line camp several months ago, one mile north of the main encampment of over 1,000 people.  As the equipment arrived, the “water protectors” blocked the highway.

In a dangerous incident, an armed private security guard of DAPL came onto the camp and was chased off into the water abutting the camp by water protectors. After a lengthy standoff, tribal agency police arrived and arrested the security guard. Water protectors set his security vehicle on fire.

On Friday more than 100 local and state police and North Dakota National Guard arrested over 140 people who blocked the highway attempting to stop the destruction of the land. Police in riot gear with automatic rifles lined up across a highway, with multiple MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush protected military vehicles), a sound cannon that can immobilize persons nearby, Humvees driven by National Guardsmen, an armored police truck and a bulldozer.

Police used mace, pepper spray, tear gas and flash-bang grenades and bean-bag rounds against Native Americans who lined up on the highway.   Police reportedly shot rubber bullets at their horses and wounded one rider and his horse.

As this police mayhem was unfolding, a small herd of buffalo stampeded across a nearby field, a strong symbolic signal to the water protectors who erupted in cheers and shouts, leaving law enforcement officials wondering what was happening.


The legality of the use by the State of North Dakota of its National Guard for the protests has been questioned strongly. National Guardsmen have been operating checkpoints to control entrance into the area and later were reportedly used to go house to house to talk to citizens about the protests — clearly law enforcement functions, not responsibilities of a military organization.

Supporters of the water protectors come from all over the United States. One grandmother arrived with cooking equipment and food, purchased with her social security check. Her granddaughter who helps her keep track of her finances, called her and said, “Granny, you have only $9 left in your bank account.” She responded, “Yes, and I going to use it today to buy more food to cook for these good people who are trying to save our water and our culture.”

Ann Wright served 29 years in the US Army/Army Reserve and retired as a Colonel. She also was a U.S. diplomat for 16 years.  She resigned in March 2003 in opposition to the Iraq war.

Why the Truth Might Get You Fired

The tension between intelligence analysts and political policymakers has always been between honest assessments and desired results, with the latter often overwhelming the former, as in the Iraq War, writes Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

For those who might wonder why foreign policy makers repeatedly make bad choices, some insight might be drawn from the following analysis. The action here plays out in the United States, but the lessons are probably universal.

Back in the early spring of 2003, George W. Bush initiated the invasion of Iraq. One of his key public reasons for doing so was the claim that the country’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, was on the verge of developing nuclear weapons and was hiding other weapons of mass destruction. The real reason went beyond that charge and included a long-range plan for “regime change” in the Middle East.

For our purposes, we will concentrate on the belief that Iraq was about to become a hostile nuclear power. Why did President Bush and his close associates accept this scenario so readily?

The short answer is Bush wanted, indeed needed, to believe it as a rationale for invading Iraq. At first he had tried to connect Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. Though he never gave up on that stratagem, the lack of evidence made it difficult to rally an American people, already fixated on Afghanistan, to support a war against Baghdad.

But the nuclear weapons gambit proved more fruitful, not because there was any hard evidence for the charge, but because supposedly reliable witnesses, in the persons of exiled anti-Saddam Iraqis (many on the U.S. government’s payroll), kept telling Bush and his advisers that the nuclear story was true.

What we had was a U.S. leadership cadre whose worldview literally demanded a mortally dangerous Iraq, and informants who, in order to precipitate the overthrow of Saddam, were willing to tell the tale of pending atomic weapons. The strong desire to believe the tale of a nuclear Iraq lowered the threshold for proof. Likewise, the repeated assertions by assumed dependable Iraqi sources underpinned a nationwide U.S. campaign generating both fear and war fever.

So the U.S. and its allies insisted that the United Nations send in weapons inspectors to scour Iraq for evidence of a nuclear weapons program (as well as chemical and biological weapons). That the inspectors could find no convincing evidence only frustrated the Bush administration and soon forced its hand.

On March 19, 2003, Bush launched the invasion of Iraq with the expectation was that, once in occupation of the country, U.S. inspectors would surely find evidence of those nukes (or at least stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons). They did not. Their Iraqi informants had systematically lied to them.

Social and Behavioral Sciences to the Rescue?

The various U.S. intelligence agencies were thoroughly shaken by this affair, and today, 13 years later, their directors and managers are still trying to sort it out – specifically, how to tell when they are getting “true” intelligence and when they are being lied to. Or, as one intelligence worker has put it, we need “help to protect us against armies of snake oil salesmen.” To that end the CIA et al. are in the market for academic assistance.

A “partnership” is being forged between the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which serves as the coordinating center for the sixteen independent U.S. intelligence agencies, and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The result of this collaboration will be a “permanent Intelligence Community Studies Board” to coordinate programs in “social and behavioral science research [that] might strengthen national security.”

Despite this effort, it is almost certain that the “social and behavioral sciences” cannot give the spy agencies what they want – a way of detecting lies that is better than their present standard procedures of polygraph tests and interrogations. But even if they could, it might well make no difference, because the real problem is not to be found with the liars. It is to be found with the believers.

The Believers

It is simply not true, as the ODNI leaders seem to assert, that U.S. intelligence agency personnel cannot tell, more often than not, that they are being lied to. This is the case because there are thousands of middle-echelon intelligence workers, desk officers, and specialists who know something closely approaching the truth – that is, they know pretty well what is going on in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Israel, Palestine and elsewhere.

Therefore, if someone feeds them “snake oil,” they usually know it. However, having an accurate grasp of things is often to no avail because their superiors – those who got their appointments by accepting a pre-structured worldview – have different criterion for what is “true” than do the analysts.

Listen to Charles Gaukel, of the National Intelligence Council – yet another organization that acts as a meeting ground for the 16 intelligence agencies. Referring to the search for a way to avoid getting taken in by lies, Gaukel has declared, “We’re looking for truth. But we’re particularly looking for truth that works.” Now what might that mean?

I can certainly tell you what it means historically. It means that for the power brokers, “truth” must match up, fit with, their worldview – their political and ideological precepts. If it does not fit, it does not “work.” So the intelligence specialists who send their usually accurate assessments up the line to the policy makers often hit a roadblock caused by “group think,” ideological blinkers, and a “we know better” attitude.

On the other hand, as long as what you’re selling the leadership matches up with what they want to believe, you can peddle them anything: imaginary Iraqi nukes, Israel as a Western-style democracy, Saudi Arabia as an indispensable ally, Libya as a liberated country, Bashar al-Assad as the real roadblock to peace in Syria, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) aka Star Wars, a world that is getting colder and not warmer, American exceptionalism in all its glory – the list is almost endless.

What does this sad tale tell us? If you want to spend millions of dollars on social and behavioral science research to improve the assessment and use of intelligence, forget about the liars. What you want to look for is an antidote to the narrow-mindedness of the believers – the policymakers who seem not to be able to rise above the ideological presumptions of their class – presumptions that underpin their self-confidence as they lead us all down slippery slopes.

It has happened this way so often, and in so many places, that it is the source of Shakespeare’s determination that “what is past, is prelude.” Our elites play out our destinies as if they have no free will – no capacity to break with structured ways of seeing. Yet the middle-echelon specialists keep sending their relatively accurate assessments up the ladder of power. Hope springs eternal.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

The Passion Behind Standing Rock Protest

Police arrested more than 140 Native American and environmental protesters challenging an oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, a project touching the raw nerves of water and global warming, reports Dennis J Bernstein.

By Dennis J Bernstein

The months-long struggle to stop the Dakota Pipeline near the territory of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota has raised passions among Native American activists and environmentalists who have clashed with police trying to sweep the protesters aside.

To explain the intensity of the resistance, I interviewed Bill Means, co-founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and chairman of the International Indian Treaty Council, which has supported the North Dakota pipeline protests.

In late August, the Treaty Council joined forces with the local tribes of The Standing Rock Sioux and appealed to the United Nations to intercede and take formal action in support of the their fight against the construction of the Dakota pipeline over sacred Indian lands.

“We specifically request that the United States Government impose an immediate moratorium on all pipeline construction until the Treaty Rights and Human Rights of the Standing Rock Tribe can be ensured and their free, prior and informed consent is obtained,” stated Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault, and the Treaty Council, in their joint appeal to U.N. human rights officials. They requested actions by four U.N. human rights Special Rapporteurs citing “ongoing threats and violations to the human rights of the Tribe, its members and its future generations.”

The interview preceded this week’s latest round of arrests.

Dennis Bernstein: Bill Means, your work with the American Indian Movement as a co-founder and your knowledge of the treaties, and how many times are broken, and how they’re broken by the United States government, has always been enlightening and important. I know you are monitoring Standing Rock, and have taken an active stand, as a current board member of the International Indian Treaty Council.

Why don’t you just say first what it signifies at this point, in the struggle. And then some of the things that come to mind in terms of what you’ve been observing about it.

Bill Means: Well, first of all the overall struggle against global warming is really the backdrop to Standing Rock. And that’s the reason why I think so many people around the world, and the tribes all over America, are beginning to find affinity and support and solidarity with the people at Standing Rock, because it represents this world-wide struggle for sacred Mother Earth. So having that backdrop we’ve got various types of good news, and some sad news.

Of course, the very good and healthy news is we had the first baby born on the base of the Missouri River, at the Sacred Stone Camp at Standing Rock, which was beautiful. Born with the midwives there, and all the attention and support of the community. The women came forward and brought this new life here into this world at Standing Rock. So we hope that this young child will have a Mother Earth that she can be proud of, that she can grow up in that’s clean, and has clean water, and so that represents the future.

Also developing was the fact that our good friend and colleague, Miss Amy Goodman, had her case thrown out … by a federal judge in Bismarck, North Dakota. Where he said that she’s a journalist, doing her job, and she shouldn’t have been charged with these type [of] charges in the first place, and completely threw the charges out. So that’s a good development, as well as several other people she was arrested with. So I think that’s a beginning to turn the table on the illegal use and manipulation of the law to prevent legal, shall we say, dissent, to prevent people that are protesting legally and peacefully from their acts of courage. So that was good news, on that front.

And then, of course, we have the ongoing problem that people have recorded …, massive trucks, semis carrying pipe. And so they are anxiously and quickly trying to get as much pipe laid towards the Missouri River as humanly possible, before there’s any type of interruptions of specific places they can’t go, which we know right now is being held up from crossing under the Missouri River. And we’re hoping that this extends itself out to other areas.

And so right now the company, the DAPL, Dakota Access Pipeline people are, where they can, they’re still building as fast as they can without any regard to the restraining orders or any regard to the federal authorities that asked them to quit and to cease and desist from building until the tribe, and other proper authorities have been, shall we say, counseled with, have been involved in some type of negotiation on [these] whole various issues of treaty rights, water rights, environmental issues. And so there’s plenty of law that needs to be settled but yet the Dakota Access pipeline continues to be built.

So we have in the face of these positive developments, we have yet to see the company cease and desist in the other areas.

DB: Bill, let me ask you to … step into that role for a moment and talk about the stand that the council has taken and the significance in history in terms of this stand, and this place, that we’re talking about in North Dakota.

BM: Well, first of all to give you a larger picture, the Missouri River, as you know, covers about four states, and bisects the state of South Dakota from north to south, I should say north-west to south-west. Also, including North Dakota, and Montana, and Iowa, and a little bit of Nebraska. So, having said that, you get that picture in your mind, they built at least four dams on the Missouri River that are directly built on Indian treaty land.

See, in our treaty of 1868 and 1851, those two treaties significantly for time immemorial set the borders of the Great Sioux Nation on the east bank of the Missouri River. And the 1851 treaty was even past east of the Missouri River. So you see those treaties being violated from the beginning of building all these dams. Because the dams are built on federal reservations and flood, primarily, federal Indian land.

So there’s many communities, including Standing Rock, which was flooded by the Oahe Dam, built in Pierre, South Dakota, in that region, which flooded not only Standing Rock but Cheyenne River Reservation. And then you have Yankton Reservation flooded twice, once by the Gavins Point Dam, and another time by the Fort Randall Dam. […] There’s a famous act known as the Pick-Sloan Act of federal government that was passed back in the ’40’s that allows these dams to be built.

And so we have a situation where [there is] the continued violation of treaty rights and water rights. The water, by treaty, belongs to Indian people. Now, Indian people have the philosophy that the water belongs to everyone. But we have to maintain these treaty rights and these water rights. And there’s a famous case in the water rights that says, “All the water necessary for the survival of Indian people should be granted in any kind of negotiation, should be under the jurisdiction of the Indian tribes.” And that was a famous case up on the Milk River in Montana. And so it’s called the Winters Doctrine of Federal Indian Water Law. So that’s kind of a doctrine that’s been there for many, many years.

Now, in spite of that, the government began to develop these dams on the Missouri River, and […] the Missouri River was never litigated, that is, the water was never divided up like it is, say, on the Colorado River over further west. And so, since their water rights have never been litigated, the water has not been quantified like who owns what drop of water, who owns this bank, who owns that bank, has not been decided.

And so, in our mind, in the federal law’s mind, we still have authority over the Missouri River, not only by treaty but by federal Indian water rights. So that’s the idea and the legal fight for Indian people. And that’s how Standing Rock got involved because of all these dams being built on the Missouri.

And there’s also the issue not only of the environmental issues, in which the federal government is required by law to do what they call environmental impacts statements, environmental impact study, which is supposed to give warning. [But] they’re supposed to give the impact of these massive development projects on the people. Not only Indian people, but non-Indian people.

So a lot of these rules and regulations are either being trampled on by the corporate entities or ignored by the federal government, or given some kind of a lip service to state government, or what they call the Public Utilities Commission. So this is kind of the backdrop, where we have state and federal authorities negligent throughout this process, historically, and even today, in protecting the rights of not only American Indians, but American citizens. So this is why we fight.

DB: We saw their struggle at Wounded Knee, many of their struggles, but a big one at Wounded Knee. Bill also is on the Board of the International Treaty Council, and they’re working with the local tribes in this struggle. And, Bill, can I ask you to just talk a little bit about the stand that the Treaty Council has taken and how you’ve been working with the local tribes legally, if you will?

BM: Ah, yeah, we’ve been working in two areas. [First] helping them to organize through the National Lawyers Guild– legal defense for those water protectors that are being charged with various crimes as they do their legal, and peaceful, protests to the pipeline. So that’s one area that’s very important. And we want to give kudos and strength to the National Lawyers Guild for lending that support, and other lawyers both that work for the tribe and others.

Another area that’s significant is that the International Indian Treaty Council along with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe filed [a] human rights complaint with the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, as part of the United Nations under the Human Rights Laws and Protocol that the United States has agreed to as being part of the United Nations.

Here we’ve presented the evidence of which I’ve talked about–federal/state regulations, treaty rights, water rights that are facts in law–and presented those human rights as human rights violations in the struggle of Indian people to maintain clean water, and access to clean water, and drinking water. So we presented to specific, what they call, repertoires. These are people that study the issues, internationally in the Human Rights Commission. And those special repertoires, or the issues they’re studying, of course, is the special repertoire on water, the special repertoire on indigenous peoples, the special repertoire of sacred places.

As you know, in Syria and in other wars around the world, these armies, these militants, these people have destroyed many, many graves, artifacts, in an attempt to promote their way of life. And so this has become an international issue. […] The DAPL pipeline in particular has destroyed graves already. And so all these issues, whether it’s water, whether it’s the rights of Indigenous people, are now being studied by the United Nations. And the United States has to answer these questions as party to these human rights treaties that they signed.

So, we have pressure being exerted internationally by the United Nation’s human rights system. While all these other issues are going on both locally, in the courts from the water resisters, as well as the water protectors, as well as the tribe itself in federal court. So we have a court case going against various federal agencies, and now some negotiations are taking place with the Department of the Army which handles Corps of Engineers, which governs the river ways and waterways of America. Also, we have involved the Department of Interior and the Department of Justice. So we can tell from those various words that they have significant interests in these issues.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is totally within the Department of Interior. And, of course, the Department of Justice is supposed to be protecting us, the Indian people, the American people from these corporate carpetbaggers, and these corporate interests that continue to ignore the laws of the United States and treaty laws.

So, here we have three agencies now involved in trying to carry out negotiations and what they call “consultations” with the tribes and the local communities of non-Indians who are also protesting.

DB: There’s a couple things in terms of the terminology I want you to expand on, but first of all, in terms of the graves… you say that sacred grave sites, burial sites have already been destroyed. Who would have been in those graves?

BM: Well, these ancient sites, some of our ancestors were buried along the river, as you know, we have a saying in our language which goes “water is life.” So in respect for the life, many times historically our people were buried overlooking the river, overlooking the water. And that attachment goes back centuries, in our culture the role of water [is] as the first medicine to our people. And the role that water plays in humanity, and its need for purity. Its need to allow our people to grow, to live.

And so, this is one of the areas that historically our people were buried and then, as this pipeline goes, there’s even a federal act for that called American Indian Graves and Historical Preservation Act. And in that federal law, federal entities and companies are supposed to consult and they’re supposed to work with Indian tribes when they come across these ancient burial grounds.

And so, these go back for many centuries, some of these burial grounds, as well as fairly modern day areas. So rather than consult, they generally just go through and destroy them. Or when they do consult, their way of consulting is they call the local state university, have the anthros come out, dig up the bones that are left and haul them off to the university, in total disrespect for our culture, for humanity, for our way of life.

And so, this is a problem that has [been] seen time and again with these pipelines, these development projects, in and around the Missouri River, especially because water being life, there’s a lot of, shall we say, generations that have grown up around that river, and continue to live in those areas. So that’s why it’s important. It would be akin, I guess, like if we went in and started digging up maybe some famous cemetery. You know, what if we went to say the National Military Cemetery, in Washington, D.C. and started digging them up.

DB: …over there at Arlington, where they have the ceremonies every year.

BM: Yeah, if we went there and started digging them up, or maybe to the Cathedral of Saint John, in New York. And where they have their burial ground, outside there in New York, we go there and start digging up and say we want to look for the size of the heads, or we want to study the white man, in these Indian universities and Indian colleges. People would be outraged. But, yet, when it’s Indian people calling for justice for destroying our culture, and our historical artifacts, and our graves, somehow we get ignored. Somehow we get a dual standard of justice when it comes to Indian people.

And so, we have to make this resistance in order to send a message to America that, “We’re still here as Indigenous people.” Not only here in America but wherever the minerals, wherever the clean water still exists, that’s where Indigenous people are today, all over the world.

DB: And, to put this in the political context, obviously there’s a presidential election going on. Have any of these candidates expressed any sympathy for the Indigenous community for this case against destroying sacred burial grounds and digging up graves, so that universities can study the bones? Has anybody stepped forward? Have you been impressed by any of the politicians?

BM: Ah, no not at all. As a matter of fact, Donald Trump said there’s a war on coal, and that he’s going to stop that war. Now, coal is probably the most devastating form of energy production that we have in America, or in the world. So that gives you an idea about his concern about Mother Earth. Hillary, on the other hand, has only paid lip service to Indian issues. We haven’t heard her come out on the DAPL pipeline, or any other pipeline. She did say that she changed her position on the XL pipeline, which President Obama stopped, along with some white ranchers in Nebraska, and Indian people that worked together–what they called the CIA, Cowboy and Indian Alliance, which is getting stronger by the day, where white people and Indian people have come together–to protect their land.

And so, the candidates, they haven’t even voiced a public statement, for sure. And it only comes out when asked maybe in a local rally or something, then they give basically lip service, and talk about window dressing on the issue.

DB: Before we let you go, and this is something I’ve really been wanting to speak with you about. I think one of the most powerful parts of this movement is that the Indigenous community is really taking the lead. They’ve really come together and opened the door in a way that white people and all people can sort of come in and be a part of it. But the fact is, that… and the power is, we now refer to the protestors as water protectors, or water resistors, this is through the Indigenous communities vision of life which is really a vision in the context of global warming, it’s the only vision that can save us.

BM: Exactly right. I think that what Indigenous people have to offer the world is the fact that we have to build our policies and our governments around the future of Mother Earth. And so whether you’re left or right, we all have to live on the Earth. Whether you’re left or right, you have to drink water, water that is pure.

And, so these basic issues of human life are what Indigenous people have been calling for respect, all these years. It’s only when we protest that it brings this issue into the forefront of the rest of the world, where they decide hey, maybe this global warming does have an impact on Indigenous people, because it’s impacting us. Whether that’s in Europe, whether that’s in the United States, Latin America. The pollution has gotten so bad that it’s beginning to affect our daily lives. And so, until you respect Earth itself, and the power of Mother Earth, then you will never respect the future of our future generations, and those who come after us.

The Indian philosophy of life is that we have to look seven generations ahead when we make these decisions about development, about exploitation of natural resources, about all these extractive industries. What harm does that do to our Mother, the Earth? And what is the impact on the future generations? So that’s the philosophy that’s beginning to come out in terms of political variations in government policy around the world, is that we really have to, no matter what form of government you have, you have to be able if you look at Mother Earth as the leading policy, as the primary very function of government – just protect the Earth, not corporations. And so, until we can do that then I think we’re in a losing battle.

And we hope that these types of struggles, which we have no intention of changing because it’s going on all where Indigenous people are around the world, which is now 400 million Indigenous people who still speak their language, still have their traditional government, still have their culture and language. These are the people who are protecting the Earth. And we hope to enlarge that Earth protective family, to include each and every American, each and every citizen living on Mother Earth.

DB: Bill, it’s almost a tradition with us in terms of remembering Leonard Peltier. Now, last we spoke you gave President Obama an F for keeping his promises in terms of really making a difference in the Indigenous communities of North America. Do you think, and what would you say, do you think he could raise his grade from and F to a D or a C, if he decided to take a courageous action and finally, finally free Leonard Peltier?

BM: Yes, I think he really could because Leonard Peltier represents the treatment the United States government has given to Indian people throughout the history of this great country. And so until we can deal with the basic issues of human rights and justice, then I think Indian people will always be on the bottom rung of the ladder of social justice. And so I think it’s up to President Obama, before he leaves to try to take this one act of clemency, in which everyone will be able to sit down at the table and say, “Leonard Peltier is finally free. He’s going home. He’s going to see his children, for the first time in 41 years.” And we hope and we pray that that happens before the president goes out of office.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at