A Call to End War on Whistleblowers

The post-9/11 expansion of U.S. government spying on citizens has coincided with an equally draconian crackdown on government whistleblowers who try to alert the American people to what is happening, an assault on the Constitution that seven whistleblowers say must end, writes John Hanrahan.

By John Hanrahan

Seven prominent national security whistleblowers on Monday called for a number of wide-ranging reforms, including passage of the “Surveillance State Repeal Act,” which would repeal the USA Patriot Act, in an effort to restore the Constitutionally guaranteed Fourth Amendment right to be free from government spying.

Several of the whistleblowers also said that the recent lenient sentence of probation and a fine for General David Petraeus, for his providing of classified information to his mistress Paula Broadwell, underscores the double standard of justice at work in the area of classified information handling.

Speakers said Petraeus’s favorable treatment should become the standard applied to defendants who are actual national security whistleblowers, such as Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Jeffrey Sterling (who has denied guilt but who nevertheless faces sentencing May 11 for an Espionage Act conviction for allegedly providing classified information to New York Times reporter James Risen).

In a news conference sponsored by the ExposeFacts project of the Institute for Public Accuracy at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., speakers included William Binney, former high-level National Security Agency (NSA) official; Thomas Drake, former NSA senior executive; Daniel Ellsberg, former U.S. military analyst and the Pentagon Papers whistleblower; Ray McGovern, formerly CIA analyst who chaired the National Intelligence Estimates in the 1980s; Jesselyn Radack, former Justice Department trial attorney and ethics adviser, and now director of National Security and Human Rights at the Government Accountability Project; Coleen Rowley, attorney and former FBI special agent; J. Kirk Wiebe, 32-year former employee at the NSA.

Several speakers warned that the Constitution, since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been shredded under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and that Obama’s unprecedented “war on whistleblowers” is part of the effort for the government to, as NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake put it, “unchain itself from the Constitution.” Drake said he and other national security whistleblowers were “the canaries in the Constitutional coal mine” to warn of the NSA mantra “to collect it all.”

Drake said he personally was “throwing my weight behind” passage of H.R. 1466, the Surveillance State Repeal Act, which was introduced by the bipartisan duo of Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, and Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky.

According to its sponsors, the measure would remove NSA’s claimed justification for its bulk phone metadata accumulation, but would also repeal the FISA Amendments Act through which the government claims the right to spy on Internet users. The issue is coming up now because three key provisions of the Patriot Act expire later this month. Responding to a question from a reporter, the other six whistleblowers said they also supported passage of H.R. 1466.

Petraeus’s recent favorable treatment from the Justice Department and a federal court judge came in for pointed comments from several speakers. In his deal with the government, Petraeus was allowed to plead to a misdemeanor for turning over classified materials to Paula Broadwell, who was writing an admiring biography of the general. Also, as part of the plea deal Petraeus was not even charged with the felony of lying to the FBI.

This stands in marked contrast to as many as nine individuals, including whistleblowers such as Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, Edward Snowden, John Kiriakou (CIA) and the soon-to-be-sentenced Jeffrey Sterling, who have all been charged under the Espionage Act since Barack Obama became president.

Until the Obama administration came into office, the Act had only been used three times since its passage in 1917, which means Obama has used it three times as much as all of his predecessors put together since the law’s passage. But General Petraeus somehow gets to skate free.

“We all owe a debt of gratitude to General David Petraeus for showing us what a farce (the Obama administration’s) war on whistleblowers and leaks more generally really is,” said Jesselyn Radack.

She said she personally had represented seven whistleblowers “charged under the draconian Espionage Actthe weapon of choice for the Obama administration except in the case of General Petraeus who was allowed to enter a plea on a minor misdemeanor charge,” which subjected him to two years probation and a $100,000 fine.

Drawing on Petraeus’ favored treatment despite the seriousness of his offense and his lying to the FBI about it, Radack said probation and a fine, such as Petraeus received, was “a more appropriate response” to unauthorized disclosure or leaks of classified information, rather than prison sentences.

Daniel Ellsberg commented in the same vein that, “I don’t think General Petraeus should go to prison” for providing classified material to Broadwell, but neither did he think true whistleblowers in the public interest should go to jail. He added, though, that “it would be wonderful for once to see a public official” go to jail for lying to Congress, or the courts, or the FBI, and for that I’d be willing to see him go to jail.”

As for the Obama administration’s overuse of the Espionage Act, Ellsberg said, “nobody but spies” who provide classified information to foreign governments should be tried under the Espionage Act.

Ellsberg prodded the mainstream press not only to protect whistleblower sources, but also to recognize that such sources are “the grist of investigative journalism.” Too many in the mainstream press, Ellsberg said, seem to regard whistleblowers the way police officers regard their informants, as “snitches” and “law-breakers.” He warned that Obama has “set the precedent” for dealing with whistleblowers, and the press needs to be more supportive of whistleblowers.

Ellsberg, Radack and Ray McGovern also said the Espionage Act, which prohibits whistleblowers from presenting their motives for disclosing classified information as part of their defense, needs to be amended to allow for “a public interest defense.” Illustrating the need for reform, McGovern said that in the Manning court-martial and the Sterling trial, as soon as defense attorneys started to raise the issue of motive, there was an immediate government objection and an immediate ruling of sustained from the judge.

McGovern said Sterling was convicted on “the vaguest of circumstantial evidence” in a “case that was not proven” against him. The government showed that Sterling had had telephone conversations with New York Times reporter James Risen, who had previously written about Sterling’s workplace discrimination lawsuit against the CIA, and prosecutors apparently convinced the jury that they were not discussing Sterling’s discrimination suit, but rather his knowledge of a CIA plan to provide flawed nuclear weapons blueprints to Iran .

What was the lesson any intelligence agency employee might draw from the flimsy evidence used in the Sterling case? Said McGovern: “Do not speak to journalists.” And, especially, “don’t speak to James Risen.”

Contrasting Sterling’s situation (facing a possible long prison sentence) with Petraeus (walking free, with a $100,000 fine, which McGovern noted was three-fourths of a one-hour speaking engagement fee for the general), McGovern said: “Equal justice? Forget about it.”

Coleen Rowley centered her remarks around a statement Obama made last week in apologizing for the deaths of two hostages, an American and an Italian, in a drone strike in Pakistan. Obama, she said, opined that “one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”

“I wish that were true,” Rowley said. “That would be nice if we learned from our mistakes,” but instead the government is going in the opposite direction in areas such as the drone program, as witness the accidental killing of the hostages.

Gathering an accurate assessment of intelligence is inherently going to happen at the bottom levels of intelligence agencies, Rowley said, so employees in the lower positions have to resist someone at the top stating a desired outcome and asking people at the bottom to tailor the intelligence accordingly.

She said that government officials and employees’ “highest loyalty is to the rule of law itself.” That is where whistleblowers come in.

Kirk Wiebe said that the public and political response to the NSA surveillance disclosures has not been encouraging, and painted a dire picture of civil liberties abuses, the militarization of local police forces and the “de facto destruction of the Constitution.”

“I am now entering the phase where I am becoming frightened,” Wiebe said. “People have asked me, are we going to be able to get out of this mess to turn the Titanic around? I don’t see the way to miss hitting the iceberg.”

“We as a nation are more aware of these issues than ever before,” Wiebe said, but “we’ve become a society willing to look the other way in the face of wrongdoing,” adding: “We are no longer afraid of the police state happening. It’s here in small measures, in increasing measures, week by week, day by day”

In introducing William Binney, IPA’s executive director Norman Solomon noted that 10 months before Edward Snowden’s NSA surveillance documents began to appear in The Guardian in June 2013, Binney had already gone public in a mini-documentary by filmmaker Laura Poitras.

In that interview Binney, without documents, raised many of the spying allegations that Snowden subsequently disclosed. It was this video that apparently encouraged Snowden to contact Poitras, who in turn contacted journalist Glenn Greenwald, to give them the NSA documents.

Binney said the NSA since 2002 had managed to use “terrorizing and fear-mongering” as a way to manipulate and “co-opt Congress and a senior judge at the FISA court,” while keeping the public in the dark about “violating the Constitutional rights of everybody in the country.”

Since it had the White House blessing, Binney said the NSA controlled all three branches of government before its activities came to light. Former NSA director Michael Hayden “to this day” continues to lie that the agency doesn’t collect content, only metadata, Binney said.

In raising the alarm about the sweep of NSA programs since leaving the agency, Binney said he had been painted by NSA as someone who had no credibility “because I was a disgruntled former employee.”

John Hanrahan, currently on the editorial board of ExposeFacts, is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for The Washington Post, The Washington Star, UPI and other news organizations. He also has extensive experience as a legal investigator. Hanrahan is the author of Government by Contract and co-author of Lost Frontier: The Marketing of Alaska. He has written extensively for NiemanWatchdog.org, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. [This story originally appeared at ExposeFacts.org]

Double Standards and Drones

American politicians and pundits genuflect to the theory of exceptionalism, which holds that the U.S. can do pretty much whatever it wants, but this lawlessness best exemplified by drones raining down death on “terrorists” and civilians alike makes more enemies than it kills, writes Marjorie Cohn.

By Marjorie Cohn

President Barack Obama stood behind the podium and apologized for inadvertently killing two Western hostages – including one American – during a drone strike in Pakistan. Obama said, “one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional, is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”

In his 2015 State of the Union address, Obama described America as “exceptional.” When he spoke to the United Nations General Assembly in 2013, he said, “Some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional.”

American exceptionalism reflects the belief that Americans are somehow better than everyone else. This view reared its head after the 2013 leak of a Justice Department white paper that describes circumstances under which the President can order the targeted killing of U.S. citizens. There had been little public concern in this country about drone strikes that killed people in other countries. But when it was revealed that U.S. citizens could be targeted, Americans were outraged. This motivated Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, to launch his 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination for CIA director.

It is this double standard that moved Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu to write a letter to the editor of the New York Times, in which he asked, “Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours?” (When I saw that letter, I immediately invited Archbishop Tutu to write the foreword to my book, Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. He graciously agreed and he elaborates on that sentiment in the foreword.)

Obama insists that the CIA and the U.S. military are very careful to avoid civilian casualties. In May 2013, he declared in a speech at the National Defense University, “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured the highest standard we can set.”

Nevertheless, of the nearly 3,852 people killed by drone strikes, 476 have reportedly been civilians. The Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), which examined nine drone strikes in Yemen, concluded that civilians were killed in every one. Amrit Singh, a senior legal officer at OSJI and primary author of the report, said “We’ve found evidence that President Obama’s standard is not being met on the ground.”

In 2013, the administration released a fact sheet with an additional requirement that “capture is not feasible” before a targeted killing can be carried out. Yet the OSJI also questioned whether this rule is being followed. Suspected terrorist Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, a U.S. citizen, was on the Pentagon’s “kill list” but he was ultimately arrested by Pakistani security forces and will be tried in a U.S. federal court.

“This is an example that capturing can be done,” according to Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The fact sheet also specifies that in order to use lethal force, the target must pose a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.” But the leaked Justice Department white paper says that a U.S. citizen can be killed even when there is no “clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

This renders the imminency requirement a nullity. Moreover, if there is such a low bar for targeting a citizen, query whether there is any bar at all for killing foreigners.

There must also be “near certainty” that the terrorist target is present. Yet the CIA did not even know who it was slaying when the two hostages were killed. This was a “signature strike” that targets “suspicious compounds” in areas controlled by “militants.”

Zenko says, “most individuals killed are not on a kill list, and the [U.S.] government does not know their names.” So how can one determine with any certainty that a target is present when the CIA is not even targeting individuals?

Contrary to popular opinion, the use of drones does not result in fewer civilian casualties than manned bombers. A study based on classified military data, conducted by the Center for Naval Analyses and the Center for Civilians in Conflict, concluded that the use of drones in Afghanistan caused 10 times more civilian deaths than manned fighter aircraft.

Moreover, a panel with experienced specialists from both the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations issued a 77-page report for the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank, which found there was no indication that drone strikes had advanced “long-term U.S. security interests.”

Nevertheless, the Obama administration maintains a double standard for apologies to the families of drone victims. “The White House is setting a dangerous precedent that if you are western and hit by accident we’ll say we are sorry,” said Reprieve attorney Alka Pradhan, “but we’ll put up a stone wall of silence if you are a Yemeni or Pakistani civilian who lost an innocent loved one. Inconsistencies like this are seen around the world as hypocritical, and do the United States’ image real harm.”

It is not just the U.S. image that is suffering. Drone strikes create more enemies of the United States. While Faisal Shahzad was pleading guilty to trying to detonate a bomb in Times Square, he told the judge, “When the drones hit, they don’t see children.”

Americans are justifiably outraged when we hear about ISIS beheading western journalists. Former CIA lawyer Vicki Divoll, who now teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy, told the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer in 2009, “People are a lot more comfortable with a Predator [drone] strike that kills many people than with a throat-slitting that kills one.” But Americans don’t see the images of the drone victims or hear the stories of their survivors. If we did, we might be more sympathetic to the damage our drone bombs are wreaking in our name.

Drone strikes are illegal when conducted off the battlefield. They should be outlawed. Obama, like Bush before him, opportunistically defines the whole world as a battlefield.

The guarantee of due process in the U.S. Constitution as well as in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights must be honored, not just in its breach. That means arrest and fair trial, not summary execution.

What we really need is a complete reassessment of Obama’s continuation of Bush’s “war on terror.” Until we overhaul our foreign policy and stop invading other countries, changing their regimes, occupying, torturing and indefinitely detaining their people, and uncritically supporting other countries that illegally occupy other peoples’ lands, we will never be safe from terrorism.

Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, past president of the National Lawyers Guild, and deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.

Gen. Petraeus: Too Big to Jail

From the Archive: Retired Gen. David Petraeus confessed on Thursday to giving sensitive government secrets to his mistress and then lying about it to the FBI, but will get no jail time, only two years probation and a fine, showing that he is too big to jail, as ex -CIA analyst Ray McGovern predicted in March.

By Ray McGovern (Originally published on March 5, 2015)

The leniency shown former CIA Director (and retired General) David Petraeus by the Justice Department in sparing him prison time for the serious crimes that he has committed puts him in the same preferential, immune-from-incarceration category as those running the financial institutions of Wall Street, where, incidentally, Petraeus now makes millions. By contrast, “lesser” folks and particularly the brave men and women who disclose government crimes get to serve time, even decades, in jail.

Petraeus is now a partner at KKR, a firm specializing in large leveraged buyouts, and his hand-slap guilty plea to a misdemeanor for mishandling government secrets should not interfere with his continued service at the firm. KKR’s founders originally worked at Bear Stearns, the institution that failed in early 2008 at the beginning of the meltdown of the investment banking industry later that year.

Despite manifestly corrupt practices like those of subprime mortgage lenders, none of those responsible went to jail after the 2008-09 financial collapse which cost millions of Americans their jobs and homes. The bailed-out banks were judged “too big to fail” and the bankers “too big to jail.”

Two years ago, in a highly revealing slip of the tongue, Attorney General Eric Holder explained to Congress that it can “become difficult” to prosecute major financial institutions because they are so large that a criminal charge could pose a threat to the economy or perhaps what he meant was an even bigger threat to the economy.

Holder tried to walk back his unintended slip into honesty a year later, claiming, “There is no such thing as ‘too big to jail.’” And this bromide was dutifully echoed by Holder’s successor, Loretta Lynch, at her confirmation hearing in late January.

Words, though, are cheap. The proof is in the pudding. It remains true that not one of the crooked bankers or investment advisers who inflicted untold misery on ordinary people, gambling away much of their life savings, has been jailed. Not one.

And now Petraeus, who gave his biographer/mistress access to some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets and then lied about it to the FBI, has also been shown to be too big to jail. Perhaps Holder decided it would be a gentlemanly thing to do on his way out of office to take this awkward issue off Lynch’s initial to-do list and spare her the embarrassment of demonstrating once again that equality under the law has become a mirage; that not only big banks, but also big shots like Petraeus who was Official Washington’s most beloved general before becoming CIA director are, in fact, too big to jail.

It strikes me, in a way, as fitting that even on his way out the door, Eric Holder would not miss the opportunity to demonstrate his propensity for giving hypocrisy a bad name.

A Slap on Wrist for Serious Crimes

The Justice Department let David Petraeus cop a plea after requiring him to admit that he had shared with his biographer/mistress eight black notebooks containing highly classified information and then lied about it to FBI investigators. Serious crimes? The following quotes are excerpted from “U.S. v. David Howell Petraeus: Factual Basis in support of the Plea Agreement” offered by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, Charlotte Division:

“17. During his tenure as Commander of ISAF in Afghanistan, defendant DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS maintained bound, five-by-eight-inch notebooks that contained his daily schedule and classified and unclassified notes he took during official meetings, conferences, and briefings. A total of eight such books (hereinafter the “Black Books”) encompassed the period of defendant DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS’S ISAF [Afghanistan] command and collectively contained classified information regarding the identities of covert officers, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and mechanisms, diplomatic discussions, quotes and deliberative discussions from high-level National Security Council meetings, and defendant DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS’s discussions with the President of the United States of America. [emphasis added]

“18. The Black Books contained national defense information, including Top Secret//SCI and code word information.”

Despite the sensitivity of the notebooks and existing law and regulations, Petraeus did not surrender them to proper custody when he returned to the U.S. after being nominated to become the Director of the CIA. According to the Court’s “Factual Basis,” Petraeus’s biographer/mistress recorded a conversation of Aug. 4, 2011, in which she asks about the “Black Books.” The Court statement continues:

“ [Petraeus] ‘Umm, well, they’re really I mean they are highly classified, some of them.  I mean there’s code word stuff in there.’ On or about August 27, 2011, defendant DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS sent an email to his biographer in which he agreed to provide the Black Books to his biographer. On or about August 28, 2011, defendant DAVID HOWEL PETRAEUS delivered the Black Books to a private residence in Washington, D.C. where his biographer was staying. On or about September 1, 2011, defendant DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS retrieved the Black Books from the D.C. private residence and returned them to his own Arlington, Virginia home.” [emphasis added]

I would think it a safe guess that Petraeus’s timing can be attributed to his awareness that his privacy and freedom of movement was about to be greatly diminished, once his CIA personal security detail started keeping close track of him from his first day on the job as CIA Director, Sept. 6, 2011.

“32. On or about October 26, 2012, defendant DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS was interviewed by two FBI special agents. [He] was advised that the special agents were conducting a criminal investigation. PETRAEUS stated that (a) he had never provided any classified information to his biographer, and (b) he had never facilitated the provision of classified information to his biographer. These statements were false. Defendant DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS then and there knew that he previously shared the Black Books with his biographer.” [emphasis added]

Lying to the FBI? No problem. As “Expose Facts” blogger Marcy Wheeler immediately commented: “For lying to the FBI a crime that others go to prison for for months and years Petraeus will just get a two point enhancement on his sentencing guidelines. The Department of Justice basically completely wiped out the crime of covering up his crime of leaking some of the country’s most sensitive secrets to his mistress.” [emphasis added]

Talk about “prosecutorial discretion” or, in this case, indiscretion giving Petraeus a fine and probation but no felony conviction or prison time for what he did! Lesser lights are not so fortunate. Just ask Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning who is serving a 35-year prison sentence for disclosing information to the public about U.S. war crimes and other abuses. Or Edward Snowden, who is stuck in Russia facing a U.S. indictment on espionage charges for informing the people about pervasive and unconstitutional U.S. government surveillance of common citizens.

Or former CIA officer John Kiriakou who was sent to prison for inadvertently revealing the name of one Agency official cognizant of CIA torture. Here’s what Neil MacBride, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said then: “The government has a vital interest in protecting the identities of those involved in covert operations. Leaks of highly sensitive, closely held and classified information compromise national security and can put individual lives in danger.”

When, on Oct. 23, 2012, Kiriakou acquiesced to a plea deal requiring two-and-a-half years in federal prison, then CIA Director Petraeus sent a sanctimonious Memorandum to Agency employees applauding Kiriakou’s conviction and noting, “It marks an important victory for our agency  there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws that protect our fellow officers and enable American intelligence agencies to operate with the requisite degree of secrecy.” [emphasis added]

Consequences for Kiriakou but not, as we now know, for Petraeus.

If you feel no discomfort at this selective application of the law, you might wish to scroll or page back to the “Factual Basis” for Petraeus’s Plea Agreement and be reminded that it was just three days after his lecture to CIA employees about the sanctity of protecting the identity of covert agents that Petraeus lied to FBI investigators on Oct. 26, 2012 about his sharing such details with his mistress.

Why Did Petraeus Do It?

Old soldiers like Petraeus (indeed, most aging but still ambitious men) have been known to end up doing self-destructive things by letting themselves be flattered by the attentions of younger women. This may offer a partial explanation human weakness even in a self-styled larger-than-life super-Mensch. But I see the motivation as mostly vainglory. (The two are not mutually exclusive, of course.)

Looking back at Petraeus’s record of overweening ambition, it seems likely he was motivated first and foremost by a desire to ensure that his biographer would be able to extract from the notebooks some juicy morsels he may not have remembered to tell her about. This might enhance his profile as Warrior-Scholar-“King David,” the image that he has assiduously cultivated and promoted, with the help of an adulating neocon-dominated media.

Petraeus’s presidential ambitions have been an open secret. And with his copping a plea to a misdemeanor, his “rehabilitation” seems to have already begun. He has told friends that he would like to serve again in government and they immediately relayed that bright hope to the media.

Sen. John McCain was quick to call the whole matter “closed.” A strong supporter of Petraeus, McCain added this fulsome praise: “At a time of grave security challenges around the world, I hope that General Petraeus will continue to provide his outstanding service and leadership to our nation, as he has throughout his distinguished career.”

And Michael O’Hanlon, Brookings’ neocon military specialist who rarely gets anything right, spoke true to form to the New York Times: “The broader nation needs his advice, and I think it’s been evident that people still want to hear from him. People are forgiving and I know he made a mistake. But he’s also a national hero and a national treasure.”

The “mainstream media” is trapped in its undeserved adulation for Petraeus’s “heroism.” It is virtually impossible, for example, for them to acknowledge that his ballyhooed, official-handout-based “success” in training and equipping tens of thousands of crack Iraqi troops was given the lie when those same troops ran away (the officers took helicopters) and left their weapons behind at the first sight of ISIL fighters a year ago.

Equally sham were media claims of the “success” for the “surges” of 30,000 troops sent into Iraq (2007) and 33,000 into Afghanistan (2009). Each “surge” squandered the lives of about 1,000 U.S. troops for nothing yes, nothing except in the case of Iraq buying time for President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to get out of town without a clear-cut defeat hanging around their necks.

Many of the supposed successes of Petraeus’s Iraqi “surge” also predated the “surge,” including a high-tech program for killing top militants such as Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the formation of the so-called Sunni Awakening, both occurring in 2006 under the previous field commanders. And, Bush’s principal goal of the “surge” to create political space for a fuller Sunni-Shiite reconciliation was never accomplished. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Surge Myth’s Deadly Result.”]

And last, it is important to note that David Petraeus does not have a corner on the above-the-law attitudes and behavior of previous directors of the CIA. The kid-gloves treatment he has been accorded, however, will increase chances that future directors will feel they can misbehave seriously and suffer no serious personal consequence.

The virtual immunity enjoyed by the well connected even when they lie to the FBI or tell whoppers in sworn testimony to Congress (as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has done) feeds the propensity to prioritize one’s own personal ambition and to delegate a back seat to legitimate national security concerns even basic things like giving required protection to properly classified information, including the identity of covert officers.

One might call this all-too-common syndrome Self-Aggrandizing Dismissiveness (SAD). Sadly, Petraeus is merely the latest exemplar of the SAD syndrome. The unbridled ambitions of some of his predecessors at CIA the arrogant John Deutch, for example have been equally noxious and destructive. But we’ll leave that for the next chapter.

[For more on Petraeus’s corruption and his close ties to self-interested neoconservatives, see “Neocons Guided Petraeus on Afghan War.”]

Full Disclosure: Petraeus has not yet answered McGovern’s letter of Feb. 3 regarding why McGovern was barred from a public speaking event by Petraeus in New York City on Oct. 30, 2014, and then was roughly arrested by police and jailed for the night. McGovern wonders if Petraeus failed to respond because he was pre-occupied working out his Plea Agreement.

Ray McGovern worked for a total of 27 years in all four of CIA’s main directorates. He served under seven Presidents and nine CIA Directors, and is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). He now works for Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.

Anti-Islam Hate in City of Brotherly Love

Though the First Amendment protected the right of American Nazis to march through Jewish neighborhoods of Skokie, Illinois, in 1978, the provocation was universally condemned. Now, an Islamophobic group is posting Muslim-bashing ads on Philadelphia buses, notes Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

On April 1, an anti-Muslim advertisement started appearing on 84 municipal buses in the Philadelphia regional area. The ad space was purchased for a four-week period by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), which paid $30,000 to run its message: a picture from the early 1940s of Adolf Hitler speaking to Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti (chief Muslim religious authority) of Jerusalem, with an accompanying text, “Islamic Jew Hatred: It’s in the Quran” and a call to “end all aid to Islamic countries.”

Philadelphia is just the latest city to experience this sort of offensive Islamophobia. Indeed, running Islamophobic attack ads on transit systems across the nation seems to be AFDI’s specialty.

The AFDI is part of an extremist organization called Stop Islamization of America (SIOA), which is led by the hyperactive Islamophobe and strident rightwing Zionist Pamela Geller. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has long tracked right-wing extremist organizations, has labeled the SOIA a “hate group.”

Philadelphia’s regional transit authority (SEPTA) tried to refuse the advertisement because it so blatantly did what it incorrectly alleged the Quran does – promote hatred. But the AFDI took SEPTA to court and won with a freedom of speech argument.

Analyzing the AFDI Advertisement

The ad now appearing in the Philadelphia area is actually a piece of propaganda. There is no accurate context given for the photo it displays, and the reference to the Quran lacks a citation. So let’s fill in what is missing with some analysis.

-The Photograph of the Grand Mufti Speaking to Hitler: Amin al-Husseini (1895-1974) was a member of a leading family in Jerusalem. Early in the British occupation of Palestine he was appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, making him one of the most influential Muslim leaders in the colony.

The British assumed they could control Husseini, who was only 26 years old at the time, and hoped that his appointment would placate Arab nationalist feelings. However, they had seriously underestimated him. Husseini’s goal was to achieve independence for Arab Palestine, and that made him a staunch opponent of the Zionist colonial project.

When a major anti-colonial Arab revolt broke out in 1936, the British mistakenly believed that Husseini was one of its major organizers and sought to arrest him. If they had managed to do so he probably would have been deported to one of Britain’s African colonies. To avoid this fate, Husseini fled to Iraq, which at this time was also a British colony in open revolt. When the British suppressed the Iraqi rebellion, Husseini fled to Fascist Italy from where he was eventually moved to Germany.

The advertisement that now appears on Philadelphia area buses shows Husseini speaking with Adolf Hitler. The implication, which is false, is that Palestine’s Muslim religious leader was himself a Nazi. If one does the research, one can find other pictures and documents that show Husseini recruiting Muslim soldiers in the Balkans to fight in the German army. He also did propaganda broadcasts in Arabic for the Germans urging resistance to British imperialism.

Thus, it cannot be denied that he collaborated with Nazi Germany during the war years. However, none of this activity was undertaken because he was a Nazi. It was done because he was opposed to British imperial rule in Palestine and other Arab territories. If the British had been at war with Sweden instead of Germany, Husseini would have sought refuge among the Swedes and broadcast propaganda for them.

The same can be said for Husseini’s attitude toward a Jewish Palestine. He was adamantly against it. When he proclaimed, as part of his pro-German propaganda, that he wished to see Jews driven from the Arab lands, the most logical interpretation of this statement is that it was Zionist Jews he sought expelled, for in other statements to German leaders of the time he said the best solution for Palestine was for the Jews to go back to their countries of origin.

Thus, Husseini’s statement seems to have no relevance for Palestine’s indigenous Sephardic Jews. There is no convincing evidence that he supported the Holocaust (though he was aware of it) despite an on-going Zionist effort to make it appear that he did.

Whatever one might think of the Mufti’s activities in wartime Germany, he was driven to them not by any belief in Nazi doctrines, but by the ongoing oppression of his native land by British policies in support of Zionist ambitions. Much like the British and American wartime alliance with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union or, for that matter, the U.S. alliance with Osama bin Laden and the Mujahedin in Afghanistan, Husseini’s alliance with Hitler’s Germany was a function of the enemy of my enemy is, at least for the moment, my friend.

– “Jew Hatred” and the Quran: The AFDI bus ad goes on to declare that “Jew Hatred” can be found in the Quran. It is hard to take such a charge seriously, because the Quran, like the Old and New Testaments, is a book of scripture in which one can find, and then misinterpret, almost anything one wants.

Thus, through selective and out-of-context quoting, or by simple innuendo, one can make outrageous accusations. Of course, the present bus ad forgoes quotation or citation and just makes an unsupported declaration.

One has to keep in mind that the Quran is approximately 1,500 years old, and so framing the attitude of all modern Muslims in terms of a few statements critical of early Seventh-Century Jews (while ignoring statements that are positive) is like saying that all educated English people dislike Jews because they revere the same Shakespeare who, in the late Sixteenth Century, wrote the Merchant of Venice.

Actually, if you compare the Quran and the Old Testament on the violent treatment of “the other,” the Old Testament is much worse. It is a very bloody affair (for instance, see book 1 of Samuel), featuring a wrathful deity who arranges cruel fates for any group that gets in the way of ancient Hebrews.

My personal opinion is that such a God deserves to be avoided rather than worshipped. On the other hand, the Quran’s portrayal of hell is pretty awful, but then its pains and tortures are attributed to that same wrathful deity found in the Old Testament.

Just to be even-handed on this topic, the New Testament’s Book of Revelation seems to inspire many Christian fundamentalists to earnestly yearn for global annihilation.

-Stop the Aid!: Finally, the ad calls for a halt to aid going to Islamic countries. Actually, this might not be a bad idea, considering that a lot of this aid is made up of loan guarantees to dictatorships for the purchase of U.S. weapons. If we could balance this out by halting the yearly $3 billion-plus in aid to Israel, we would have a win-win situation. However, on both counts the U.S. munitions manufactures would scream bloody murder (pun intended) because they are the ones profiting from such “aid.”

When a bigoted extremist like Pamela Geller places misleading and hate-promoting propaganda on buses, the Zionist establishment has nothing critical to say. They treat it as if it is all very proper and upheld by “free speech.”

However, when supporters of the Palestinian cause put up billboards picturing a series of maps that show the absorption of Arab Palestine by Zionist settlers between1948 and today, pious rabbis and Zionist lobbyists protest and call it “anti-Semitic.” Hypocrisy is the name of the game.

This is all about the ongoing battle to control the message: that is the history and reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the early 1970s, when I started supporting the Palestinian cause, the Zionists had a near monopoly on that message. There were almost no venues that would allow someone who was pro-Palestinian to speak or publish, and on the rare occasion that one found a platform, one was subjected to heckling and threats.

The situation has really changed. At least outside of the Washington Beltway, those who support Palestinian rights are on the offensive, and the Zionists on the defensive. However, the Zionists certainly have not given up, and the most egregious of them, such as those at the AFDI, still lash out with hate-filled messages. So, the fight goes on.

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 Nasty Blowback from America’s Wars

Exclusive: There are historical warnings to countries that inflict violence abroad, that the imperial impulse will blow back on the domestic society with suppression of public debate and repression of common citizens, that the war will come home — as is happening in the United States, says ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

Brutality thrives in American police treatment of common citizens reflecting an ethos of violence that has flourished over the past dozen years with almost no one in authority held accountable. Much of this behavior can be traced back to U.S. wars of choice and it is not as though we were not warned of the inevitable blowback.

On Feb. 26, 2003, three weeks before the U.S./UK attack on Iraq, Coleen Rowley, then division counsel and special agent at the FBI office in Minneapolis, had the prescience and the guts to send a letter to then FBI Director Robert Mueller.  The New York Times published it a week later.

Rowley warned Mueller that launching unjustified war would prove counterproductive in various ways. One blowback she highlighted was that the rationale being applied to allow preemptive strikes abroad could migrate back home, “fostering a more permissive attitude toward shootings by law enforcement officers in this country.” Tragically, the recent spate of murders by police has proved Rowley right.

And not only killing. Police brutality toward the citizenry, some of it by former soldiers who themselves were brutalized by war, has soared. Yet, the dark side of what was done by U.S. troops abroad as well as the damage that was done to their psyches and sense of morality is rarely shown in the U.S. mainstream media, which prefers to veer between romanticizing the adventure of war and lamenting the physical harm done to America’s maimed warriors.

One has to go to foreign media for real-life examples of the brutalization of, as well as by, the young soldiers we send off to battle. (See, for example, this segment from Germany’s “60 Minutes”-type TV program, Panorama.)

The glib, implicit approval of violence (embedded, for instance, in the customary “Thank you for your service”) simply adds to the widespread acceptance of brutality as somehow okay.

Gratuitous Beatings

Cases of police beating citizens who are detained or taken into custody have multiplied, with police offenders frequently held to the same unconscionable let’s-not-look-back “accountability” that has let George W. Bush and Dick Cheney walk free so far for launching the “war of aggression” on Iraq.

The post-World War II Nuremberg Tribunal carefully defined such a war as “the supreme international crime, differing from other war crimes only in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Accumulated evil? Having just emerged from the nightmare of world conflagration, the jurists on the Tribunal understood that it was the unleashing of the dogs of war launching an aggressive war that also loosed all the other atrocities and barbarities associated with warfare.

Looking back on the last decade, think of crimes like kidnapping, black prisons and torture as well as the slaughter of so many civilians as the Bush/Cheney war of choice has spread violence and death now in the form of the brutal Islamic State and America’s endless “drone wars” across almost the entire Middle East.

But part of that accumulated evil is also playing out at home on the streets of American cities and in even in our deserts. On April 9, San Bernardino’s “sheriff’s deputies” were caught on video viciously brutalizing a man who had already prostrated himself on the desert floor with his hands behind his back.

Warning: Watching this video may make you ill or cry. If so, take heart. For this would merely show that, because you still have a conscience, you are sickened by what you see, and that you can still “cry our beloved country.”

Conscience is a good thing, for it often brings the courage to speak out and confront the banality of evil that always flows and inevitably blows back from wars of aggression. Indifference to human suffering is another one of those accumulated evils of the whole.

We need to summon the kind of courage Coleen Rowley showed three weeks before the United States launched the “supreme international crime.” We need to monitor closely what happens after the unconscionable abuse by police of the helpless man in San Bernardino, after the recent police shootings of unarmed black men, and after the excessive brutality that America’s over-militarized police now regularly inflict on citizens during routine arrests.

“If you see something, say something” we are constantly told. If we see this video coverage, watch this sort of brutality, and do nothing, I fear for what will become of our country.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.  He served as an infantry/intelligence officer, and then as a CIA analyst for a total of 30 years.

When Journalists Join the Cover-ups

From the Archive: Ex-New York Times reporter Judith Miller still insists only innocent mistakes were made in the phony claims used to justify invading Iraq, but what the case really showed was a systematic failure of the Washington press corps, as Robert Parry explained in a two-part series in 2005.

By Robert Parry (Originally published on Oct. 18, 2005, with minor editing to update)

As embarrassing as the Judith Miller case was for the New York Times, the fiasco underscores a more troubling development that strikes near the heart of American democracy the press corps’ gradual retreat from the principle of skepticism on national security issues to career-boosting “patriotism.”

Miller and many other prominent Washington journalists over the past quarter century largely built their careers by positioning themselves as defenders of supposed “American interests.” Thus, instead of tough reporting about national security operations, these reporters often became conduits for government propaganda.

In that sense, Miller’s prominence at the Times where she had wide latitude to report and publish whatever she wanted was a marker for how the “patriotic” journalists had overwhelmed the competing “skeptical” journalists, who saw their duty as bringing a critical eye to all government information, including national security claims, by which the people were informed and empowered to judge what was truly in “American interests.” [For more on that broader history, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

For her part both in the credulous reporting about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction and protection of a White House source who sought to discredit a whistleblower about a key WMD lie Miller has come to personify the notion that American journalists should tailor their reporting to what is “good for the country” as defined by government officials.

Indeed, Miller seems to have trouble distinguishing between being a journalist and being part of the government team. Note, for instance, two of her comments about her grand jury testimony regarding the White House outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame, who was the wife of the WMD whistleblower, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

Presumably to give some deniability to one of her anti-Wilson sources Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis Libby Miller said she told special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald “that Mr. Libby might have thought I still had security clearance, given my special embedded status in Iraq,” where she had traveled with a military unit in a fruitless search for WMD stockpiles.

In other words, Miller was saying that Libby might be forgiven for disclosing the identity of a covert CIA officer to a journalist because he might have thought Miller had government authorization to hear such secrets. But the notion that a reporter would accept a security clearance which is a legally binding commitment to give the government authority over what information can be released is anathema to anyone who believes in a free and independent press.

It is one thing for “embedded” journalists to accept the necessity of military censorship over tactical details in exchange for access to the battlefield. It is altogether different for a journalist to have a “security clearance.” For some journalistic purists, this statement was the most shocking element of Miller’s lengthy account of her testimony as published in the Times.

Sacrificing Objectivity

Secondly, toward the end of a Times chronology on the case, written by three other reporters, Miller is quoted as saying that she hoped she would eventually return to the newsroom and resume covering “the same thing I’ve always covered threats to our country.” [NYT, Oct. 16. 2005]

To describe one’s “beat” as covering “threats to our country” amounts to another repudiation of a core journalistic principle objectivity the concept of a reporter setting aside his or her personal views so the facts can be researched and presented to the reader in as fair and balanced a way as possible.

Rather than insist on a separation between government and journalism, Miller appears to see little distinction between the two. Her comments suggest that she viewed her job as defending the security interests of the United States, rather than giving the public the unvarnished facts.

What that meant in the run-up to the war in Iraq was her serving as a conveyor belt for bogus intelligence on Iraq’s WMD. Most memorably, Miller co-wrote a key article asserting that Iraq’s purchase of aluminum tubes was evidence that Saddam Hussein was working on a nuclear bomb.

Cheney and other administration officials then cited the Times article as validation for their case against Iraq for alleged violation of arms control commitments. Both in Miller’s article and in TV appearances, administration officials told the American people that they couldn’t wait for the “smoking gun” proof of Iraq’s WMD to be “a mushroom cloud.”

The aluminum-tube story was later debunked by U.S. Energy Department experts and State Department analysts, but it remained a terrifying argument as George W. Bush stampeded the Congress and the country to war in fall 2002 and winter 2003. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s  “Powell’s Widening Credibility Gap.”]

The aluminum-tube story, which Miller co-authored with Michael R. Gordon, was one of six articles that prompted a post-invasion Times self-criticism. Miller wrote or co-wrote five of the six articles that were deemed overly credulous of the U.S. government’s point of view. “In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged,” the Times editor’s note said. [NYT, May 26, 2004]

Source Protection

Since the Oct. 16, 2005, articles detailing Miller’s role in the Plame controversy, Miller’s image as a journalistic martyr who went to jail rather than betray the confidence of a source also has been tarnished.

After 85 days in jail resisting a federal subpoena, Miller finally agreed to testify about her three conversations with Libby regarding Ambassador Wilson’s criticism of another high-profile administration WMD claim, that Iraq had been seeking enriched uranium from the African nation of Niger.

In 2002, Cheney’s office expressed interest in a dubious report from Italy claiming that Iraq was trying to buy “yellowcake” uranium in Niger. Reacting to Cheney’s concern, the CIA dispatched Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador in Africa, to check out the allegations. Wilson returned believing that the claim was most likely baseless, an opinion shared by other U.S. government experts. Nevertheless, the claim ended up in Bush’s State of the Union speech in January 2003.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Wilson began speaking with journalists on background about how his Niger findings had diverged from Bush’s State of the Union claim. Libby, a leading architect of the Iraq War, learned about Wilson’s criticism and began passing on negative information about Wilson to Miller.

Miller, who said she regarded Libby as “a good-faith source, who was usually straight with me,” met with him on June 23, 2003, in the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House, according to the Times chronology. At that meeting, “Ms. Miller said her notes leave open the possibility that Mr. Libby told her Mr. Wilson’s wife might work at the agency,” the Times reported.

But Libby provided clearer details at a second meeting on July 8, 2003, two days after Wilson went public in an Op-Ed piece about his criticism of Bush’s use of the Niger allegations. At a breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel near the White House, Libby told Miller that Wilson’s wife worked at a CIA unit known as Winpac, for weapons intelligence, nonproliferation and arms control, the Times reported.

Miller’s notebook, the one used for that interview, contained a reference to “Valerie Flame,” an apparent misspelling of Mrs. Wilson’s maiden name. In the Times account, Miller said she told Fitzgerald’s grand jury that she believed the name didn’t come from Libby but from another source. But Miller claimed she couldn’t recall the source’s name.

In a third conversation, by telephone on July 12, 2003, Miller and Libby returned to the Wilson topic. Miller’s notes contain a reference to a “Victoria Wilson,” another misspelled reference to Wilson’s wife, Miller said.

Two days later, on July 14, 2003, conservative columnist Robert Novak publicly outed Plame as a CIA operative in an article that cited “two administration sources” and tried to discredit Wilson’s findings on the grounds that his wife had recommended him for the Niger mission.

Miller never wrote an article about the Wilson-Plame affair although she claimed she “made a strong recommendation to my editor” for a story after Novak’s column appeared, but was rebuffed. Times managing editor (and later executive editor) Jill Abramson, who was Washington bureau chief in summer 2003, said Miller never made such a recommendation, and Miller said she wouldn’t divulge the name of the editor who supposedly said no, the Times chronology said.

A Criminal Probe

The Wilson-Plame affair took another turn in the latter half of 2003 when the CIA sought a criminal investigation of the leak of Plame’s covert identity. Because of conflicts of interest in George W. Bush’s Justice Department, Fitzgerald the U.S. Attorney in Chicago was named as a special prosecutor in December 2003.

Known as a hard-nosed and independent-minded prosecutor, Fitzgerald demanded testimony from Miller and several other journalists in summer 2004. Miller refused to cooperate, saying she had promised her sources confidentiality and arguing that waivers signed by Libby and other officials had been coerced.

Almost a year later, Miller was imprisoned for contempt of court. After 85 days in jail, she relented and agreed to testify, but only after she received a personal assurance from Libby that he wanted her to appear. But the details of the Miller-Libby minuet over the waiver put Miller’s refusal to testify in a different and more troubling light.

According to the Times account, Libby’s lawyer, Joseph A. Tate, assured Miller’s lawyer Abrams as early as summer 2004 that Miller was free to testify, but he added that Libby already had told Fitzgerald’s grand jury that Libby had not given Miller the name or undercover status of Wilson’s wife.

“That raised a potential conflict for Ms. Miller,” the Times reported. “Did the references in her notes to ‘Valerie Flame’ and ‘Victoria Wilson’ suggest that she would have to contradict Mr. Libby’s account of their conversations? Ms. Miller said in an interview that Mr. Tate was sending her a message that Libby did not want her to testify.”

According to Miller’s account, her attorney Abrams told her that Libby’s lawyer Tate “was pressing about what you would say. When I wouldn’t give him an assurance that you would exonerate Libby, if you were to cooperate, he then immediately gave me this, ‘Don’t go there, or, we don’t want you there.’”

Responding to a question from the New York Times, Tate called Miller’s interpretation of his position “outrageous.” After all, if Miller were telling the truth, Tate’s maneuver would border on suborning perjury and obstruction of justice.

But there is also a disturbing element for Miller’s defenders. Her subsequent actions could be interpreted as finding another means to protect Libby. By refusing to testify and going to jail, Miller helped Libby temporarily at least avoid a possible indictment for perjury and obstruction of justice.

Miller’s jailing also drew the Times editorial page and many Washington journalists into a campaign aimed at pressuring Fitzgerald to back off his investigation. In effect, many members of the Washington news media were pulled, unwittingly or not, into what looks like a cover-up of a criminal conspiracy.

The Times editorialized that Miller would not reverse her refusal to testify and that additional incarceration was unjustified. But the jail time worked. When Miller realized that Fitzgerald wouldn’t relent and that she might stay in prison indefinitely, she decided to reopen negotiations with Libby about whether she should testify.

Libby sent her a friendly letter that read like an invitation to testify but also to stick with the team. “Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning,” Libby wrote. “They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them.”

When Miller finally appeared before the grand jury, she offered an account that seemed to twist and turn in underground directions to protect Libby. For instance, she insisted that someone else had mentioned “Valerie Flame,” but she said she couldn’t recall who. Before testifying to the grand jury, Miller also extracted an agreement from Fitzgerald that he wouldn’t ask her questions about any source other than Libby.

But the longer back story of “Plame-gate” was how the Washington media culture changed over a generation, from the skeptical days of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers to an era in which leading journalists see their “roots” connecting to the national security state.

Part Two: Rise of the ‘Patriotic Journalist’

(Originally published on Oct. 20, 2005)

The apex for the “skeptical journalists” came in the mid-1970s when the press followed up disclosure of the Vietnam War’s Pentagon Papers and exposure of Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal with revelations of CIA abuses, such as illegal spying on Americans and helping Chile’s army oust an elected government.

There were reasons for this new press aggressiveness. After some 58,000 U.S. soldiers had died in Vietnam during a long war fought for murky reasons, many reporters no longer gave the government the benefit of the doubt. The press corps’ new rallying cry was the public’s right to know, even when the wrongdoing occurred in the secretive world of national security.

But this journalistic skepticism represented an affront to government officials who had long enjoyed a relatively free hand in the conduct of foreign policy. The Wise Men and the Old Boys the stewards of the post-World War II era faced a harder time lining up public consensus behind any action. This national security elite, including then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush, viewed the post-Vietnam journalism as a threat to America’s ability to strike at its perceived enemies around the world.

Yet, it was from these ruins of distrust the rubble of suspicion left behind by Vietnam and Watergate that the conservative-leaning national security elite began its climb back, eventually coming full circle, gaining effective control of what a more “patriotic” press would tell the people, before stumbling into another disastrous war in Iraq.

Pike Report

One early turning point in the switch from “skeptical” journalism to “patriotic” journalism occurred in 1976 with the blocking of Rep. Otis Pike’s congressional report on CIA misdeeds. CIA Director Bush had lobbied behind the scenes to convince Congress that suppressing the report was important for national security.

But CBS news correspondent Daniel Schorr got hold of the full document and decided that he couldn’t join in keeping the facts from the public. He leaked the report to the Village Voice and was fired by CBS amid charges of reckless journalism.

“The media’s shift in attention from the report’s charges to their premature disclosure was skillfully encouraged by the Executive Branch,” wrote Kathryn Olmstead in her book on the media battles of the 1970s, Challenging the Secret Government.

“[Mitchell] Rogovin, the CIA’s counsel, later admitted that the Executive Branch’s ‘concern’ over the report’s damage to national security was less than genuine,” Olmstead wrote. But the Schorr case had laid down an important marker. The counterattack against the “skeptical journalists” had begun.

In the late 1970s, conservative leaders began a concerted drive to finance a media infrastructure of their own along with attack groups that would target mainstream reporters who were viewed as too liberal or insufficiently patriotic.

Richard Nixon’s former Treasury Secretary Bill Simon took the lead. Simon, who headed the conservative Olin Foundation, rallied like-minded foundations associated with Lynde and Harry Bradley, Smith Richardson, the Scaife family and the Coors family to invest their resources in advancing the conservative cause.

Money went to fund conservative magazines taking the fight to the liberals and to finance attack groups, like Accuracy in Media, that hammered away at the supposed “liberal bias” of the national news media.

Reagan-Bush Years

This strategy gained momentum in the early 1980s with the arrival of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Spearheaded by intellectual policymakers now known as the neoconservatives, the government developed a sophisticated approach described internally as “perception management” that included targeting journalists who wouldn’t fall into line. [For the latest on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Victory of ‘Perception Management.’”]

So, when New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner reported from El Salvador about right-wing death squads, his accounts were criticized and his patriotism challenged. Bonner further infuriated the White House in early 1982 when he disclosed a massacre by the U.S.-backed Salvadoran army around the town of El Mozote. The story appeared just as Reagan was praising the army’s human rights progress.

Like other journalists who were viewed as overly critical of Reagan’s foreign policy, Bonner faced both public attacks on his reputation and private lobbying of his editors, seeking his removal. Bonner soon found his career sidetracked. After being pulled out of Central America, he resigned from the Times.

Bonner’s ouster was another powerful message to the national news media about the fate that awaited reporters who challenged Ronald Reagan’s White House. (Years later, after a forensic investigation confirmed the El Mozote massacre, the Times rehired Bonner.)

Though conservative activists routinely bemoaned what they called the “liberal media” at the big newspapers and TV networks, the Reagan administration actually found many willing collaborators at senior levels of U.S. news organizations.

At the New York Times, executive editor Abe Rosenthal followed a generally neoconservative line of intense anticommunism and strong support for Israel. Under owner Martin Peretz, the supposedly leftist New Republic slid into a similar set of positions, including enthusiastic backing for the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.

Where I worked at the Associated Press, general manager Keith Fuller the company’s top executive was considered a staunch supporter of Reagan’s foreign policy and a fierce critic of recent social change. In 1982, Fuller gave a speech condemning the 1960s and praising Reagan’s election.

“As we look back on the turbulent Sixties, we shudder with the memory of a time that seemed to tear at the very sinews of this country,” Fuller said during a speech in Worcester, Massachusetts, adding that Reagan’s election a year earlier had represented a nation “crying, ‘Enough.’

“We don’t believe that the union of Adam and Bruce is really the same as Adam and Eve in the eyes of Creation. We don’t believe that people should cash welfare checks and spend them on booze and narcotics. We don’t really believe that a simple prayer or a pledge of allegiance is against the national interest in the classroom. We’re sick of your social engineering. We’re fed up with your tolerance of crime, drugs and pornography. But most of all, we’re sick of your self-perpetuating, burdening bureaucracy weighing ever more heavily on our backs.”

Fuller’s sentiments were common in the executive suites of major news organizations, where Reagan’s reassertion of an aggressive U.S. foreign policy mostly was welcomed. Working journalists who didn’t sense the change in the air were headed for danger.

By the time of Reagan’s landslide reelection in 1984, the conservatives had come up with catchy slogans for any journalist or politician who still criticized excesses in U.S. foreign policy. They were known as the “blame America firsters” or in the case of the Nicaragua conflict “Sandinista sympathizers.”

The practical effect of these slurs on the patriotism of journalists was to discourage skeptical reporting on Reagan’s foreign policy and to give the administration a freer hand for conducting operations in Central America and the Middle East outside public view.

Gradually, a new generation of journalists began to fill key reporting jobs, bringing with them an understanding that too much skepticism on national security issues could be hazardous to one’s career. Intuitively, these reporters knew there was little or no upside to breaking even important stories that made Reagan’s foreign policy look bad. That would just make you a target of the expanding conservative attack machine. You would be “controversialized,” another term that Reagan operatives used to describe their anti-reporter strategies.


Often I am asked why it took so long for the U.S. news media to uncover the secret operations that later became known as the Iran-Contra Affair, clandestine arms sales to the Islamic fundamentalist government of Iran with some of the profits and other secret funds funneled into the Contra war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.

Though the AP was not known as a leading investigative news organization and my superiors weren’t eager supporters we were able to get ahead on the story in 1984, 1985 and 1986 because the New York Times, the Washington Post and other top news outlets mostly looked the other way. It took two external events the shooting down of a supply plane over Nicaragua in October 1986 and the disclosure of the Iran initiative by a Lebanese newspaper in November 1986 to bring the scandal into focus.

In late 1986 and early 1987, there was a flurry of Iran-Contra coverage, but the Reagan administration largely succeeded in protecting top officials, including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The growing conservative news media, led by Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times, lashed out at journalists and government investigators who dared push the edges of the envelope or closed in on Reagan and Bush.

But resistance to the Iran-Contra scandal also penetrated mainstream news outlets. At Newsweek, where I went to work in early 1987, Editor Maynard Parker was hostile to the possibility that Reagan might be implicated. During one Newsweek dinner/interview with retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft and then-Rep. Dick Cheney, Parker expressed support for the notion that Reagan’s role should be protected even if that required perjury. “Sometimes you have to do what’s good the country,” Parker said. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

When Iran-Contra conspirator Oliver North went on trial in 1989, Parker and other news executives ordered that Newsweek’s Washington bureau not even cover the trial, presumably because Parker just wanted the scandal to go away. (When the North trial became a major story anyway, I was left scrambling to arrange daily transcripts so we could keep abreast of the trial’s developments. Because of these and other differences over the Iran-Contra scandal, I left Newsweek in 1990.)

Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, a Republican, also encountered press hostility when his investigation finally broke through the White House cover-up in 1991. Moon’s Washington Times routinely lambasted Walsh and his staff over minor issues, such as the elderly Walsh flying first class on airplanes or ordering room-service meals. [See Walsh’s Firewall.]

But the attacks on Walsh were not coming only from the conservative news media. Toward the end of 12 years of Republican rule, mainstream journalists also realized their careers were far better served by staying on the good side of the Reagan-Bush crowd.

So, when President George H.W. Bush sabotaged Walsh’s probe by issuing six Iran-Contra pardons on Christmas Eve 1992, prominent journalists praised Bush’s actions. They brushed aside Walsh’s complaint that the move was the final act in a long-running cover-up that protected a secret history of criminal behavior and Bush’s personal role.

“Liberal” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen spoke for many of his colleagues when he defended Bush’s fatal blow against the Iran-Contra investigation. Cohen especially liked Bush’s pardon of former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who had been indicted for obstruction of justice but was popular around Washington.

In a Dec. 30, 1992, column, Cohen said his view was colored by how impressed he was when he would see Weinberger in the Georgetown Safeway store, pushing his own shopping cart.

“Based on my Safeway encounters, I came to think of Weinberger as a basic sort of guy, candid and no nonsense which is the way much of official Washington saw him,” Cohen wrote. “Cap, my Safeway buddy, walks, and that’s all right with me.”

For fighting too hard for the truth, Walsh drew derision as a kind of Captain Ahab obsessively pursuing the White Whale. Writer Marjorie Williams delivered this damning judgment against Walsh in a Washington Post magazine article, which read:

“In the utilitarian political universe of Washington, consistency like Walsh’s is distinctly suspect. It began to seem rigid of him to care so much. So un-Washington. Hence the gathering critique of his efforts as vindictive, extreme. Ideological. But the truth is that when Walsh finally goes home, he will leave a perceived loser.”

By the time the Reagan-Bush era ended in January 1993, the era of the “skeptical journalist” was dead, too, at least on issues of national security.

The Webb Case

Even years later, when historical facts surfaced suggesting that serious abuses had been missed around the Iran-Contra Affair, mainstream news outlets took the lead in rallying to the Reagan-Bush defense.

When a controversy over Contra-drug trafficking reemerged in 1996, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times went on the attack against Gary Webb, the reporter who revived interest in the scandal. Even admissions of guilt by the CIA’s inspector general in 1998 didn’t shake the largely dismissive treatment of the issue by the major newspapers. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

(For Webb’s courageous reporting, he was pushed out of his job at the San Jose Mercury News, his career was ruined, his marriage collapsed and in December 2004 he killed himself with his father’s revolver.) [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Warning in Gary Webb’s Death.”]

When Republican rule was restored in 2001 with George W. Bush’s controversial “victory,” major news executives and many rank-and-file journalists understood that their careers could best be protected by wrapping themselves in the old red-white-and-blue. “Patriotic” journalism was in; “skeptical” journalism was definitely out.

That tendency deepened even more after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as many journalists took to wearing American flag lapels and avoided critical reporting about Bush’s sometimes shaky handling of the crisis. For instance, Bush’s seven-minute freeze in a second-grade classroom after being told “the nation is under attack” was hidden from the public even though it was filmed and witnessed by White House pool reporters. (Millions of Americans were shocked when they finally saw the footage two years later in Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.”)

In November 2001, to avoid other questions about Bush’s legitimacy, the results of a media recount of the Florida vote were misrepresented to obscure the finding that Al Gore would have carried the state and thus the White House if all legally cast votes were counted. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “So Bush Did Steal the White House.”]

Iraq War

In 2002, as Bush shifted focus from Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan to Saddam Hussein and Iraq, the “patriotic” journalists moved with him. Some of the few remaining “skeptical” media figures were silenced, such as MSNBC’s host Phil Donahue whose show was canceled because he invited on too many war opponents.

In most newspapers, the occasional critical articles were buried deep inside, while credulous stories accepting the administration’s claims about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction were bannered on Page One.

New York Times reporter Judith Miller was in her element as she tapped into her friendly administration sources to produce WMD stories, like the one about how Iraq’s purchase of aluminum tubes was proof that it was building a nuclear bomb. The article gave rise to the White House warning that Americans couldn’t risk the “smoking gun” on Iraq’s WMD being “a mushroom cloud.”

In February 2003, when Secretary of State Colin Powell made his United Nations speech accusing Iraq of possessing WMD stockpiles, the national news media swooned at his feet. The Washington Post’s op-ed page was filled with glowing tributes to his supposedly air-tight case, which would later be exposed as a mix of exaggerations and outright lies. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Powell’s Widening Credibility Gap.”]

The rout of “skeptical” journalism was so complete driven to the fringes of the Internet and to a few brave souls in Knight-Ridder’s Washington bureau that the “patriotic” reporters often saw no problem casting aside even the pretense of objectivity. In the rush to war, news organizations joined in ridiculing the French and other longtime allies who urged caution. Those countries became the “axis of weasels” and cable TV devoted hours of coverage to diners that renamed “French fries” as “Freedom fries.”

Once the invasion began, the coverage on MSNBC, CNN and the major networks was barely discernable from the patriotic fervor on Fox. Like Fox News, MSNBC produced promotional segments, packaging heroic footage of American soldiers, often surrounded by thankful Iraqis and underscored with stirring music. [See Neck Deep.]

“Embedded” reporters often behaved like excited advocates for the American side of the war. But objectivity also was missing back at the studios where anchors voiced outrage about Geneva Convention violations when Iraqi TV aired pictures of captured American soldiers, but the U.S. media saw nothing wrong with broadcasting images of captured Iraqis. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “International Law a la Carte.”]

As Judith Miller would later remark unabashedly, she saw her beat as “what I’ve always covered threats to our country.” Referring to her time “embedded” with a U.S. military unit searching for WMD, she claimed that she had received a government “security clearance.” [NYT, Oct. 16, 2005]

While Miller may have been an extreme case of mixing patriotism and journalism, she was far from alone as a member of her generation who absorbed the lessons of the 1980s, that skeptical journalism on national security issues was a fast way to put yourself in the unemployment line.

Only gradually, as Iraq’s WMD stockpiles failed to materialize but a stubborn insurgency did, the bloody consequences of “patriotic” journalism have begun to dawn on the American people. By not asking tough questions, journalists contributed to a mess (that ultimately cost the lives of almost 4,500 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis).

Retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, a top military intelligence official under Ronald Reagan, predicted that the Iraq invasion “will turn out to be the greatest strategic disaster in U.S. history.”

Plame Case

At the core of this disaster were the cozy relationships between the “patriotic” journalists and their sources. In her Oct. 16, 2005, account of her interviews with Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, Miller gave the public an inadvertent look into that closed world of shared secrets and mutual trust.

Libby talked with Miller in two face-to-face meetings and one phone call in 2003, as the Bush administration tried to beat back post-invasion questions about how the President made his case for war, according to Miller’s story.

As Miller agreed to let Libby hide behind a misleading identification as a “former Hill staffer,” Libby unleashed a harsh attack on one whistleblower, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was challenging Bush’s claims that Iraq had sought enriched uranium from the African nation of Niger. The Miller/Libby interviews included Libby’s references to Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, who was an undercover CIA officer working on proliferation issues.

While the Plame case became a major embarrassment for the Bush administration and for the New York Times it did not stop many of Miller’s colleagues from continuing their old roles as “patriotic” journalists opposing the disclosure of too many secrets to the American people. For instance, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen who hailed George H.W. Bush’s pardons that destroyed the Iran-Contra investigation in 1992 adopted a similar stance against Fitzgerald’s investigation.

“The best thing Patrick Fitzgerald could do for his country is get out of Washington, return to Chicago and prosecute some real criminals,” Cohen wrote in a column entitled “Let This Leak Go.”

“As it is, all he has done so far is send Judith Miller of the New York Times to jail and repeatedly haul this or that administration high official before a grand jury, investigating a crime that probably wasn’t one in the first place but that now, as is often the case, might have metastasized into some sort of cover-up but again, of nothing much,” Cohen wrote. “Go home, Pat.” [Washington Post, Oct. 13, 2005]

If Fitzgerald did as Cohen wished and closed down the investigation without indictments, the result would have been the continuation of the status quo in Washington. The Bush administration would get to keep control of the secrets and reward friendly “patriotic” journalists with selective leaks and protected careers.

It is that cozy status quo that was endangered by the Plame case. But the stakes of the case were even bigger than that, going to the future of American democracy and to two questions in particular: Will journalists return to the standard of an earlier time when disclosing important facts to the electorate was the goal, rather than Cohen’s notion of putting the comfortable relationships between Washington journalists and government officials first?

Put differently, will journalists decide that confronting the powerful with tough questions is the true patriotic test of a journalist?

(Eventually, the Plamegate investigation ended with Fitzgerald bringing no charges for the leak of a covert CIA officer but he did convict Libby of lying to investigators and he was sentenced to 30 months in prison. But Libby never did go to jail because President Bush commuted his sentence.)

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 barnesandnoble.com). You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

Obama’s Fateful Indecision

Exclusive: With Israel and Saudi Arabia siding with the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda versus Iran and its allies, President Obama faces a critical decision whether to repudiate those old allies and cooperate with Iran or watch as Sunni terrorist groups possibly take control of a major country in the Mideast, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The foreign policy quandary facing President Barack Obama is that America’s traditional allies in the Middle East Israel and Saudi Arabia along with Official Washington’s powerful neocons have effectively sided with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State out of a belief that Iran represents a greater threat to Israeli and Saudi interests.

But what that means for U.S. interests is potentially catastrophic. If the Islamic State continues its penetration toward Damascus in league with Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and topples the Syrian government, the resulting slaughter of Christians, Shiites and other religious minorities as well as the risk of a major new terrorist base in the heart of the Middle East could force the United States into a hopeless new war that could drain the U.S. Treasury and drive the nation into a chaotic and dangerous decline.


To avoid this calamity, Obama would have to throw U.S. support fully behind the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, precipitate a break with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and withstand a chorus of condemnations from influential neocon pundits, Republican politicians and hawkish Democrats. Influenced by Israeli propaganda, all have pushed for ousting Assad in a “regime change.”

But the world has already had a grim peek at what an Islamic State/Al-Qaeda victory would look like. The Islamic State has reveled in its ability to provoke Western outrage through acts of shocking brutality, such as beheadings, incinerations, stonings, burning of ancient books and destruction of religious sites that the group deems offensive to its fundamentalist version of Islam.

Over the Easter holiday, there were reports of the Islamic State destroying a Christian Church in northeastern Syria and taking scores of Christians as prisoners. An Islamic State victory in Syria would likely mean atrocities on a massive scale. And, there are signs that Al-Qaeda might bring the Islamic State back into the fold if it achieves this success, which would let Al-Qaeda resume its plotting for its own outrages through terrorist attacks on European and U.S. targets.

Though Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State have been estranged in recent months, the groups were said to be collaborating in an assault on the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, south of Damascus.

The Associated Press reported that “Palestinian officials and Syrian activists say the Islamic State militants fighting in Yarmouk were working with rivals from the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. The two groups have fought bloody battles against each other in other parts of Syria, but appear to be cooperating in the attack on Yarmouk.”

United Nations spokesman Chris Gunness told the AP, “The situation in the camp is beyond inhumane.”

In late March, the Saudis, working with Turkish intelligence, supported Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and other jihadist forces in capturing the Syrian city of Idlib, the New York Times reported.

Syria has become a frontline in the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Islam, with Saudi Arabia a longtime funder of the Sunni fundamentalist Wahhabism, which gave rise to Al-Qaeda under the direction of Saudi Osama bin Laden. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks were Saudi nationals, and elements of the Saudi royal family and other Persian Gulf sheikdoms have been identified as Al-Qaeda’s financiers. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Secret Saudi Ties to Terrorism.”]

The Israeli-Saudi Alliance

In seeking “regime change” in Syria, Saudi Arabia has been joined by Israel whose leaders have cited Syria as the “keystone” in the pro-Iranian Shiite “strategic arc” from Tehran through Damascus to Beirut. In making that point in September 2013, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told the Jerusalem Post that Israel favored the Sunni extremists over Assad and the Shiites.

“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 affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

In June 2014, Oren expanded on this Israeli position. Then, speaking as a former ambassador, Oren said Israel would even prefer a victory by the Islamic State. “From Israel’s perspective, if there’s got to be an evil that’s got to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail,” Oren said.

On March 3, in the speech to a cheering U.S. Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also argued that the danger from Iran was much greater than from the Islamic State (or ISIS). Netanyahu dismissed ISIS as a relatively minor annoyance with its “butcher knives, captured weapons and YouTube” when compared to Iran, which he accused of “gobbling up the nations” of the Middle East.

He claimed “Iran now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked, more will surely follow. We must all stand together to stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation and terror.”

Netanyahu’s rhetoric was clearly hyperbole Iran’s troops have not invaded any country for centuries; Iran did come to the aid of the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq in its fight with the Islamic State, but the “regime change” in Baghdad was implemented not by Iran but by President George W. Bush and the U.S. military; and it’s preposterous to say that Iran “dominates” Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa though Iran is allied with elements in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

But hyperbole or not, Netanyahu’s claims became marching orders for the American neocons, the Republican Party and much of the Democratic Party. Republicans and some Democrats denounced President Obama’s support for international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program while some prominent neocons were granted space on the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and New York Times to advocate bombing Iran. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Publishes Call to Bomb Iran.”]

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia with U.S. logistical and intelligence help began bombing the Houthi rebels in Yemen who have been fighting a long civil war and had captured several major cities. The Houthis, who practice an offshoot of Shiite Islam called Zaydism, deny that they are proxies of Iran although some analysts say the Iranians have given some money and possibly some weapons to the Houthis.

However, by attacking the Houthis, the Saudis have helped Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula regain its footing, including creating an opportunity to free scores of Al-Qaeda militants in a prison break and expanding Al-Qaeda’s territory in the east.

Obama’s Choice

Increasingly, the choice facing Obama is whether to protect the old alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia and risk victories by Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State or expand on the diplomatic opening from the framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program to side with Shiite forces as the primary bulwark against Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

For such a seismic shift in U.S. foreign policy, President Obama could use the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who assisted in brokering agreements in 2013 in which Assad surrendered Syria’s chemical weapons and in which Iranian leaders signed an interim agreement on their nuclear program that laid the groundwork for the April 2 framework deal.

In 2013, those moves by Putin infuriated Official Washington’s neoconservatives who were quick to identify Ukraine as a possible flashpoint between the United States and Russia. With Putin and Obama both distracted by other responsibilities, neocon Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland teamed up with neocon National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman and neocon Sen. John McCain to help fund and coordinate the Feb. 22, 2014 coup that ousted elected President Viktor Yanukovych. The resulting civil war and Russian intervention in Crimea drove a deep wedge between Obama and Putin.

The mainstream U.S. news media got fully behind the demonization of Putin, making a rapprochement over Ukraine nearly impossible. Though German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to broker a settlement of the conflict in February known as Minsk-2 the right-wing government in charge in Kiev, reflecting Nuland’s hard-line position, sabotaged the deal by inserting a poison pill that effectively required the ethnic Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine to surrender before Kiev would conduct elections under its control. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Ukraine’s Poison Pill for Peace Talks.”]

The Kiev regime is also incorporating some of its neo-Nazi militias into the regular army while putting neo-Nazi extremists into key military advisory positions. Though the U.S. media has put on blinders so as not to notice the Swastikas and SS symbols festooning the Azov and other battalions, the reality has been that the neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists have been the fiercest fighters in killing ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Wretched US Journalism on Ukraine.”]

On Saturday, German Economic News reported that the Ukrainian army appointed right-wing extremist Dimitri Jarosch as an official adviser to the army leadership as the Kiev regime now bolstered by U.S. military equipment and training and receiving billions of dollars in Western aid prepares for renewed fighting with eastern Ukraine.

The problem with Obama has been that although he himself may be a “closet realist” willing to work with adversarial countries like Iran and Russia he has not consistently challenged the neocons and their junior partners, the liberal interventionists. The liberals are particularly susceptible to propaganda campaigns involving non-governmental organizations that claim to promote “human rights” or “democracy” but have their salaries paid by the congressionally financed and neocon-run National Endowment for Democracy or by self-interested billionaires like financier George Soros.

The effectiveness of these NGOs in using social media and other forums to demonize targeted governments, as happened in Ukraine during the winter of 2013-14, makes it hard for honest journalists and serious analysts to put these crises in perspective without endangering their careers and reputations. Over the past year, anyone who questioned the demonization of Putin was denounced as a “Putin apologist” or a “Putin bootlicker.” Thus, many people not wanting to face such slurs either went along with the propagandistic “group think” or kept quiet.

Obama is one person who knows better but hasn’t been willing to contest Official Washington’s narratives portraying Putin or Assad or the Iranians or the Houthis as the devils incarnate. Obama has generally gone with the flow, joining the condemnations, but then resisting at key moments and refusing to implement some of the most extreme neocon ideas such as bombing the Syrian army or shipping lethal weapons to Ukraine’s right-wing regime or forsaking negotiations and bombing Iran.

Pandering to Israel and Saudi Arabia

In other words, Obama has invested huge amounts of time and energy in trying to maintain positive relations with Netanyahu and the Saudi royals while not fully joining in their regional war against Iran and other Shiite-related governments and movements. Obama understands the enormous risk of allowing Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State to gain firm control of a major Middle Eastern country.

Of course, if that happens in, say, Syria, Obama would be blamed for not overthrowing the Assad regime earlier, as if there actually was a “moderate opposition” that could have withstood the pressure of the Sunni extremists. Though the neocons and liberal interventionists have pretended that this “moderate” force existed, it was always marginal when it came to applying real power.

Whether one likes it or not, the only real force that can stop an Al-Qaeda or Islamic State victory is the Syrian army and the Assad regime. But Obama chose to play the game of demanding that “Assad must go” to appease the neocons and liberal interventionists while recognizing that the notion of a “moderate” alternative was never realistic.

As Obama told the New York Times Thomas L. Friedman in August 2014, the idea that the U.S. arming the “moderate” rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Behind Obama’s Chaotic Foreign Policy.”]

But Obama may be running out of time in his halfway strategy of half-heartedly addressing the real danger that lies ahead if the Islamic State and/or Al-Qaeda ride the support of Saudi Arabia and Israel to a victory in Syria or Iraq or Yemen.

If the United States has to recommit a major military force in the Middle East, the war would have little hope of succeeding but it would drain American resources and eviscerate what’s left of the constitutional principles that founded the American Republic.

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 barnesandnoble.com). You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

Iran Deal: A Possible Crossroads to Peace

Exclusive: The Israeli-Saudi alliance and the American neocons are furious over the framework agreement for a peaceful settlement to the Iran nuclear dispute, but the deal gives hope to people who see the need to end the perpetual wars that have roiled the Middle East and deformed the U.S. Republic, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The April 2 framework agreement with Iran represents more than just a diplomatic deal to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. It marks a crossroad that offers a possible path for the American Republic to regain its footing and turn away from endless war.

Whether that more peaceful route is followed remains very much in doubt, however, given the adamant opposition from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Sunni Arab allies in Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich sheikdoms. On Thursday, Netanyahu continued his denunciations of the deal — saying it would “threaten the survival of Israel” — and no one should underestimate the Israel Lobby’s power over Congress.

But the choice before the American people is whether they want to join a 1,300-year-old religious war in the Middle East between Sunnis and Shiites with Israel now having thrown in its lot with the Sunnis despite the fact that Saudi Arabia and its cohorts have been supporting Al-Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists.

Despite blame also falling on Iran and the Shiite side in this sectarian conflict, the Iranians have emerged as the most effective resistance to Al-Qaeda, which carried out the 9/11 attacks killing some 3,000 Americans, and to the Islamic State, which has engaged in and franchised out to other extremist groups the practice of chopping off the heads of Americans, Christians, Shiites and other “apostates.”

Though the Saudi royal family and other Sunni princes around the Persian Gulf deny that they support Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, few knowledgeable people believe them, since the jihadists follow Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist fundamentalist teachings and have consistently served Saudi interests as the frontline fighters in the Sunni-Shiite conflict. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Secret Saudi Ties to Terrorism.”]

Preference for Al-Qaeda

Plus, Saudi Arabia and Israel have made clear that they would prefer the Sunni fighters, even Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, to prevail over governments and other forces linked to Iran. The Saudi-Israeli alliance has provided real military assistance to these Sunni jihadists.

For instance, the current Saudi bombing campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen (who practice a form of Shiite Islam) has served to bolster Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, including aiding in a prison break that released scores of hardened Al-Qaeda militants. A source familiar with the Yemeni conflict told me that the Saudis also are giving Al-Qaeda weapons supplied by Israel.

In the Syrian civil war, senior Israelis have made clear they would prefer Sunni extremists to prevail over President Bashar al-Assad, who is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Assad’s relatively secular government is seen as the protector of Shiites, Christians and other minorities who fear the vengeful brutality of the Sunni jihadists who now dominate the anti-Assad rebels and have absorbed the U.S.-trained “moderates” into the extremist ranks.

In September 2013, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told the Jerusalem Post that Israel favored the Sunni extremists over Assad and the Shiites. “The greatest danger to Israel is by the [Shiite] strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc,” Oren said 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 affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

In June 2014, Oren expanded on this Israeli position. Then, speaking as a former ambassador, Oren said Israel would even prefer a victory by the Islamic State. “From Israel’s perspective, if there’s got to be an evil that’s got to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail,” Oren said.

This Israeli preference has extended into a tacit alliance with Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front in Syria, with which the Israelis have what amounts to a non-aggression pact, even caring for Nusra fighters in Israeli hospitals and mounting lethal air attacks against Lebanese and Iranian advisers to the Syrian military fighting Nusra forces.

Netanyahu himself has played down the danger from the Islamic State (or ISIS) when compared to what he claims is the greater Iranian threat. In his March 3 address to a cheering and hooting U.S. Congress, Netanyahu depicted ISIS as a minor annoyance with “butcher knives, captured weapons and YouTube” when compared to Iran, which he accused of “gobbling up the nations” of the Middle East.

He claimed “Iran now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked, more will surely follow. We must all stand together to stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation and terror.”

But Netanyahu was engaging in hyperbole at best. Of those four capitals cited, Iran took none by force; no invasions had occurred. In the case of Syria and Iraq, Iran has been helping the established governments withstand assaults from the Islamic State and, in Syria, Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front as well.

In Iraq, the only reason there is a Shiite-dominated government is because President George W. Bush invaded in 2003 and deposed the Sunni-dominated government of Saddam Hussein. In Lebanon, Iran is merely allied with one element of the government, Hezbollah.

The Yemeni Civil War

Regarding Yemen, Netanyahu and the Saudis have sought to portray the conflict as a case of Iranian “aggression,” but those claims border on the ludicrous. The Houthi rebels, who have gained control of several large Yemeni cities including the capital Sanaa, follow an offshoot of Shiite Islam known as Zaydism, but it is relatively close to Sunni Islam and has peacefully co-existed with Sunni Islam for centuries.

The Houthis also deny that they are agents for Iran, and Western intelligence services believe that Iranian support has consisted mostly of some funding. Former CIA official Graham E. Fuller has called the notion “that the Houthis represent the cutting edge of Iranian imperialism in Arabia as trumpeted by the Saudis” a “myth.” He added:

“The Zaydi Shia, including the Houthis, over history have never had a lot to do with Iran. But as internal struggles within Yemen have gone on, some of the Houthis have more recently been happy to take Iranian coin and perhaps some weapons — just as so many others, both Sunni and Shia, are on the Saudi payroll. The Houthis furthermore hate al-Qaeda and hate the Islamic State.”

In other words, the alarmist rhetoric from Netanyahu and the Saudis about the Houthis is hyped. And the Obama administration’s decision to assist the Saudi air strikes inside Yemen, including some attacks that have inflicted heavy civilian casualties, would seem to be undermining the U.S. goal of combating Islamic terrorism by strengthening Al-Qaeda.

Helping the Saudis kill Yemenis also contradicts the high-blown U.S. rhetoric denouncing Russia for intervening in a civil war in Ukraine, on Russia’s border. One can only imagine the fiery U.S. rhetoric if Russia launched air strikes against the neo-Nazi militias and other Ukrainian forces fighting on behalf of the U.S.-backed Kiev regime.

In Ukraine, when elected President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia to escape a violent coup on Feb. 22, 2014, the Obama administration cited Yanukovych’s departure as proof that he had vacated his office, thus justifying the appointment of a new president without the bother of following Ukraine’s constitution. Ukrainians who resisted Yanukovych’s ouster were deemed “terrorists” and any subsequent intervention by the Russians to protect the ethnic Russians under assault was decried as “aggression.”

Yet, when ousted Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, the Obama administration took the opposite position: Hadi’s departure was not proof that he had vacated his office but rather justification to bomb the Yemenis who had replaced him even if that helped actual terrorists in Al-Qaeda another case of what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander.

Hope for the Republic

However, more significant for Americans is that the diplomatic agreement between world powers and Iran to tightly restrict its nuclear program to ensure that it’s for peaceful purposes only is that the deal repudiates the calls for war from Netanyahu and leading American neoconservatives. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Publishes Call to Bomb Iran.”]

Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities could cause a massive human and environmental catastrophe, unleashing radiation on civilian populations and possibly making large swaths of Iran uninhabitable. That might serve the Saudi-Israeli interests by forcing Iran to focus exclusively on a domestic crisis of the first order.

Thus, Iran might be unable to assist the Iraqis and the Syrians in their desperate struggles against Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Prime Minister Netanyahu and former Ambassador Oren might get their preference and see Sunni jihadists hoisting the black flag of Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State over Damascus, if not Baghdad.

But such a victory, with its attendant slaughter of innocents and the prospects of new terrorist attacks on the West, would almost surely force whoever is the U.S. president to recommit hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to remove Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State from power. It would be a war of vast expense in money and blood with little prospect of American success.

Beyond the death of many U.S. soldiers, there would be an equally certain death of the American Republic, since the United States would have to become a fully militarized state dedicated to perpetual war. That might please — and profit — the neocons but it would be a tragedy for those Americans who believe in constitutional principles and democratic ideals. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “A Family Business of Perpetual War.”]

That is why the framework agreement with Iran offers a hope, albeit perhaps a thin one, that the United States can now separate itself from the endless war demands of Israel and Saudi Arabia and chart a course home to a more peaceful harbor where our constitutional system might have a chance to repair.

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 barnesandnoble.com). You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

Obama’s Secrecy Obsession

Exclusive: Though President Obama likes to present himself as a regular guy, he acts like an elitist when he unnecessarily withholds information from the American people. At this critical juncture of his presidency, he might finally take a chance on trusting the public with facts, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

If President Barack Obama is ever to take control of his foreign policy and move the United States into a more peaceful and pragmatic direction he will need to shake his obsession with secrecy and bring the American people into his confidence by sharing with them information about key events that have shaped recent crises.

Right now, the American people are deeply confused about what is transpiring in the Middle East and eastern Europe — and Obama appears satisfied that they stay that way. He doesn’t seem to understand that one of the president’s greatest advantages is his power to release information to the public, thus changing the narrative as written by rival political forces and forcing those forces to adjust to a more complete storyline.

Instead, Obama has behaved as if he’s still trying to prove to the national security establishment that he can hoard secrets as compulsively as anyone, that he’s not the wild-eyed radical outsider that the Right has made him out to be. At a news conference on March 24, Obama even made a joke about his record of keeping the American people in the dark about information developed by the U.S. intelligence community.

“As a general rule, I don’t comment on intelligence matters in a big room full of reporters,” Obama said with a smirk on his face. “And I think I’ll continue that tradition.”

But Obama’s lack of transparency after promising in 2008 to run a transparent administration has left him at the mercy of Washington’s closed club of insiders, while alienating him from the broad American public. With neoconservatives and other opinion leaders dictating the dominant narrative on topic after topic, Obama has ended up reacting to events, not controlling them.

Thus, even if a framework agreement on limiting Iran’s nuclear program is reached, it is likely to get battered in Congress, where Israeli clout is overwhelming. The President will have to fend off repeated attempts to sabotage the deal.

A more effective strategy might be for Obama to build public support by surrounding any agreement with the release of U.S. intelligence information on a range of related topics and with a blunt speech to the people explaining the need to work with major countries even when there are differences and disagreements.

For one, Obama could provide an historical accounting of U.S. relations with Iran, including the CIA’s role in ousting the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossaddegh in 1953, the U.S. support for the autocratic Shah over the ensuing quarter century (including helping to start Iran’s nuclear program), American dealings with the regime of hard-line Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1980s (including secret contacts between Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign and Iranian emissaries, and the evolution of the Iran-Contra scandal), and whatever evidence exists of Iran’s support for terrorism.

The President also could give the American people a deeper look into the complexities of Middle East politics by exposing the role of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-Arab states in support of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Obama has long reneged on his promise to release the 28 redacted pages of the congressional 9/11 report dealing with alleged Saudi financing of Al-Qaeda.

And, if Obama really believed in the value of an informed electorate, he might toss into the pile of declassified material the U.S. intelligence data on the Syrian-Sarin incident of Aug. 21, 2013, which brought the United States to the brink of going to war against the Syrian government after a rush to judgment blaming Bashar al-Assad’s regime for use of the poison gas (although later information pointed more toward a likely rebel provocation). [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Collapsing Syria-Sarin Case.”]

Rallying the People

Nothing would rally the American people to the President more than a display of candor by him and a show of faith in them. A democratic Republic cannot survive when leaders routinely hide key facts and keep the people in the dark, all the better to manipulate them with exaggerations, lies and propaganda. Obama could show that he understands that core democratic principle by making as much information available as possible.

He may have forgotten but he opened his presidency with a memorandum instructing Executive Branch department heads on the importance of transparency. He wrote: “My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

While some sensitive data is appropriately protected for national security reasons, excessive secrecy is a form of elitism showing disdain for the many millions of us who aren’t special enough to be inside the club. Secrecy also empowers an unscrupulous leader to mislead and to scare the people with selective leaks and half-truths as we saw during George W. Bush’s presidency, a pattern that Obama vowed to break.

But like much else Obama mostly chose continuity, not change. After a few promising document releases in the first days of his presidency, including President Bush’s “torture memo” arguing the tortured legality of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Obama reversed course and turned his administration into one of the most opaque and secretive of modern times, pursuing leakers more aggressively than any previous U.S. president.

In his second term, Obama has further slid into a pattern of deception embracing the Orwellian concept of “information warfare” in which propaganda themes are created and maintained even when the evidence goes in a different direction. The Syrian-Sarin gas incident is one such case when the early Assad-did-it claims were left in place despite the U.S. intelligence community’s shifting analysis.

Similarly, key incidents in the Ukraine crisis such as responsibility for the lethal sniper fire on Feb. 20, 2014, and for the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014 were pinned on U.S. propaganda targets (Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Russian President Vladimir Putin, respectively) and U.S. officialdom made no effort to clarify the record even as evidence emerged that suggested a contrary conclusion. [A worthwhile documentary on the sniper mystery is “Maidan Massacre.”]

Instead of refining or correcting the record, President Obama has let the hasty early judgments stand all the better to smear the adversaries and manipulate the public.

For instance, regarding the MH-17 crash, the office of the Director of National Intelligence told me recently that the U.S. intelligence assessment of that shoot-down, killing 298 people, had not been refined since July 22, 2014, five days after the incident. The statement was not credible. Indeed, I have been told that U.S. analysts have vastly expanded their knowledge of the case and at least some analysts have broken with the initial conclusions.

But the early rush to judgment had proved useful in demonizing Putin so any contradictions of the storyline were seen as negating a potent propaganda weapon and also would be embarrassing to Secretary of State John Kerry and other senior officials who went off half-cocked. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “US Intel Stands Pat on MH-17 Shoot-down.”]

Yet, in a healthy democracy, leaders would immediately update the public with relevant information and dispel any misunderstandings in recognition and respect for the people’s fundamental right to know, especially on issues of war or peace.

Instead, Obama has joined in keeping the new assessments of all these key moments hidden from the American people. That secrecy suggests that Obama holds the public in contempt and thus he shouldn’t be surprised when that contempt is returned to him.

What America needs now more than ever is an old-fashioned presidential speech from the Oval Office with Obama looking directly into the camera and leveling with the nation, much like President Dwight Eisenhower did in his farewell address in 1961 with his famous warning about the influence of the Military-Industrial Complex.

If Obama were to explain the opportunities and the challenges facing the country in stark and truthful terms there might still be a chance to avert the looming catastrophes ahead.

[For more on the topic of propaganda and manipulation, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Victory of ‘Perception Management.’”]

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 barnesandnoble.com). You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

Deciphering the Mideast Chaos

Exclusive: The tangle of conflicts in the Middle East is confusing to many Americans who lack some key facts, such as the transformational Israeli-Saudi alliance that is dragging the American people into a sectarian religious war dating back 1,300 years, as Robert Parry explains.

By Robert Parry

Few Americans seem to comprehend what is unfolding in the Middle East with the latest conflict involving Saudi airstrikes against the Houthi rebels who now control Yemen’s capital of Sanaa. In this swirl of regional wars, it’s often not clear where the U.S. government stands and how American interests are affected.

The reason for the confusion is simple: Many key pundits who get to explain what’s going on from the op-ed pages of the major U.S. newspapers and from the TV talk shows prefer that the American people don’t fully grasp what’s happening. Otherwise, the people might realize the dangers ahead and demand substantial changes in U.S. government policies.

But a few basic points can help decipher the confusion: Perhaps the most important is that although it’s rarely acknowledged in the mainstream U.S. media Israel is now allied with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Persian Gulf states, which are, in turn, supporting Sunni militants in Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, this Israel-Saudi bloc sustains Al-Qaeda and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the Islamic State.

The U.S. news media is loath to note these strange Israeli bedfellows, but there’s a twisted logic to the Israeli-Saudi connection. Both Israel and the Saudi bloc have identified Shiite-ruled Iran as their chief regional adversary and thus are supporting proxy wars against perceived Iranian allies in Syria and now Yemen. The Syrian government and the Houthi rebels in Yemen are led by adherents to offshoots of Shiite Islam, so they are the “enemy.”

The schism between Sunni and Shiite Islam dates back to 632, to the secession struggle after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The dispute led to the Battle of Karbala where Hussein ibn Ali was captured and beheaded in 680, an event that gave rise to Shiite Islam as a rival to Sunni Islam, which today has both moderate and extremist forms with Saudi Arabia sponsoring the ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabism.

The extremist Wahhabism has inspired some of the most radical Sunni movements, including Al-Qaeda and now the Islamic State, along with their practice of suicide attacks as a form of martyrdom that has become a staple of these groups’ anti-Western jihad.

In other words, what has most outraged Americans has been the behavior of these Sunni extremists, from Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks to the Islamic State’s beheading of helpless hostages and religious minorities in Syria and elsewhere. And, the principal backer of this Sunni extremism has been Saudi Arabia where wealthy prince-playboys buy leniency for their licentious behavior from the religious ulema (or leaders) by financing the extreme Wahhabi teachings. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Secret Saudi Ties to Terrorism.”]

Confusing the American People

The West has had grievances with elements of the Shiite world, too, such as the seizure of U.S. Embassy hostages in Iran in 1979 and excessive violence by the Syrian military against opposition forces in 2011. But the most intense American anger has been provoked by the actions of Sunni fundamentalists involving mass murder of innocents.

Yet, over the years, the U.S. government has exploited the general lack of knowledge among Americans about the intricacies of Middle East religions and politics by funneling the anger against one group to rationalize actions against another.

For instance, in 2003, as revenge for the 9/11 slaughter of 3,000 Americans carried out primarily by Saudi extremists under the leadership of Saudi Osama bin Laden President George W. Bush shielded the Saudis from blame and ordered the invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, a secular Sunni dictator who was a fierce opponent of Al-Qaeda and other religious fanatics.

Ironically, that war put Shiites in power in Baghdad, turned Iraq’s Sunnis into a persecuted minority, and created fertile ground for a particularly virulent strain of Al-Qaeda to take root under the leadership of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. That group became “Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” later morphing into “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” and finally into “the Islamic State,” with its own twisted branches reaching out across the Middle East and Africa to justify more provocative slaughter of Westerners and “non-believers.”

While on the surface, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Persian Gulf states repudiate this violent extremism, some of their oil-rich princes and intelligence services have provided covert support to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to advance the cause of breaking the “Shiite crescent” from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut.

In seeking to smash this “Shiite crescent,” these Sunni-ruled states have been joined by Israel, which has taken the position that Iran and its Shiite allies are more dangerous than the Sunni extremists, thus transforming Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State into the “lesser evils.”

This was the subtext of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress on March 3 that the U.S. government should shift its focus from fighting Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to fighting Iran.

One of the hit lines of Netanyahu’s speech was when he told a cheering Congress that the United States should not collaborate with Iran just because it was the most effective counterforce to the bloodthirsty ISIS. Or as he put it, “So when it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”

But Netanyahu was soft-pedaling his real message, which was that ISIS with its “butcher knives, captured weapons and YouTube” was a minor annoyance compared to Iran, which he accused of “gobbling up the nations” of the Middle East. To the applause of Congress, he claimed “Iran now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked, more will surely follow.”

His choice of capitals was peculiar because Iran took none of those capitals by force and, indeed, was simply supporting the embattled government of Syria and was allied with elements of the government of Lebanon. As for Iraq, Iran’s allies were installed not by Iran but by President George W. Bush via the U.S. invasion. And, in Yemen, a long-festering sectarian conflict has led to the capture of Sanaa by Houthi rebels who deny that they are supported by Iran (although Iran may have provided some limited help).

Amid the wild and inchoate cheering by Republicans and many Democrats, Netanyahu continued: “We must all stand together to stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation and terror.” But, in reality, there has been no “march of conquest.” There have been no images of Iranian armies on the march or a single case of Iranian forces crossing a border against the will of a government.

Cheering the Propaganda

Netanyahu’s oration was just another example of his skillful (but dishonest) propaganda and the groveling behavior of the U.S. Congress when in the presence of an Israeli leader.

Among the many facts that Netanyahu left out was Israel’s historically close ties to Iran even during the reign of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1980s when the Israelis served as a key Iranian arms supplier after the Saudi-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran. Only after that eight-year-long war ended and Iran’s treasury was depleted did Israel shift away from Iran and toward the oil-rich Saudis.

Regarding the Syrian civil war, senior Israelis have made clear they would prefer Sunni extremists to prevail over President Assad, who is an Alawite, a branch of Shiite Islam. Assad’s relatively secular government is seen as the protector of Shiites, Christians and other minorities who fear the vengeful brutality of the Sunni jihadists who now dominate the anti-Assad rebels.

In one of the most explicit expressions of Israel’s views, its Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, then a close adviser to Netanyahu, told the Jerusalem Post in September 2013 that Israel favored the Sunni extremists over 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 affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

And, if you might have thought that Oren had misspoken, he reiterated his position in June 2014 at an Aspen Institute conference. Then, speaking as a former ambassador, Oren said Israel would even prefer a victory by the Islamic State, which was massacring captured Iraqi soldiers and beheading Westerners, than the 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.

Israel’s preference has extended into a tacit alliance with Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front in Syria, with which the Israelis have essentially a non-aggression pact, even caring for Nusra fighters in Israeli hospitals and mounting lethal air attacks against Lebanese and Iranian advisers to the Syrian military.

A Powerful Alliance

Over the past decade, the Israelis and the Saudis have built a powerful alliance, a relationship that has operated mostly behind the curtains. They combined their assets to create what amounted to a new superpower in the Middle East, one that could project its power mostly via the manipulation of U.S. policymakers and opinion leaders and thus deployment of the U.S. military.

Israel possesses extraordinary political and media influence inside the United States and Saudi Arabia wields its oil and financial resources to keep American officialdom in line. Together, the Israeli-Saudi bloc now controls virtually the entire Republican Party, which holds majorities in both chambers of Congress, and dominates most mainstream Democrats as well.

Reflecting the interests of the Israeli-Saudi bloc, American neocons have advocated U.S. bombing against both the Syrian and Iranian governments in pursuit of “regime change” in those two countries. Prominent neocons, such as John Bolton and Joshua Muravchik, have gone to the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to openly advocate U.S. bombing campaigns against Iran. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Publishes Call to Bomb Iran.”]

But the problem with this Israeli-Saudi strategy for the American people is that the only viable military alternatives to the Assad government in Syria are Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the even more brutal Islamic State. So if Israel, Saudi Arabia and the neocons succeed in ousting Assad, the likely result would be the black flags of Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State flying over Damascus.

That would likely mean major atrocities, including executions of Christians and other religious minorities, as well as terrorist plots mounted against Europe and the United States. An Al-Qaeda or Islamic State conquest of Damascus would likely force any U.S. president to invade Syria at enormous costs in blood and treasure, albeit with little hope of achieving any long-term success.

Such a U.S. intervention might very well mean the end of the United States as a viable democratic society to the extent that one exists today. A full-scale transformation into a militaristic state would be required to sustain this open-ended conflict, channeling national wealth into endless warfare and requiring the repression of anti-war sentiments at home.

So, what is at stake for the American Republic is essentially existential, whether the constitutional structure that began in 1789 will continue or will disappear. Politicians, who say they love the Constitution but follow Netanyahu into this dead-end for the Republic, are speaking out of both sides of their mouths.

The only hope for the Republic would come from recalling the wisdom of America’s first presidents to avoid entangling foreign alliances when they drag the United States toward destruction.

[For more on Obama and the neocons, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocons: The Anti-Realists.”]

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 barnesandnoble.com). You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.