The Not So Land of the Free

The United States may be the least self-aware nation on earth, condemning other countries for repressive policies and calling itself the “land of the free” while locking up citizens in staggering numbers often for minor, non-violent offenses, as anti-war activist Kathy Kelly sees while serving time in federal prison.

By Kathy Kelly

It was a little over two weeks ago that Marlo entered Atwood Hall, here in Lexington federal prison. Nearly all the women here are nonviolent offenders. When I first saw Marlo, her eyes seemed glued to the tiled floors as she shuffled along hallways. I guessed her age to be 25 or so.

A few days later, she came to a choir rehearsal. She was still shy, but she looked up and offered a quiet smile when she joined the soprano section. The next time our choir gathered, Marlo raised her hand before we ended our rehearsal. “I got something to say,” she said, as she stood.

“When I first came here, I can tell all of you now, I was terrified. Just plain terrified. I have 70 months, and I felt so scared.” The intake process for this, her introduction to the prison system, had badly frightened her, but before sundown that same day, a second intake process had occurred, with several inmates finding her, reassuring her, and getting her beyond that first panic.

During my four stints in U.S. federal prisons, I’ve witnessed long-term inmates’ unconquerably humane response when a newcomer arrives. An unscripted choreography occurs and the new prisoner finds that other women will help her through the trauma of adjustment to being locked up for many months or years. Halfway through a three-month sentence myself, I’m saddened to realize that I’ll very likely adapt to an outside world for which these women, and prisoners throughout the U.S. prison system, are often completely invisible.

U.S. state and federal prison populations have risen, since 1988, from 600,000 to an estimated 1,600,000 in 2012. This trend shows inhumane behavior on the part of lawmakers and myriads of employees who benefit from the so-called “criminal justice” system. But our entire society bears responsibility for what now can aptly be labeled a “prison-industrial complex.”

Constructing prisons and filling prisons with people who posed little or no threat to our security didn’t happen secretively, without our consent. We watched, mesmerized perhaps, and allowed ourselves to become a country with the world’s largest prison system.

A friend from home recently sent me encouraging news of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s initiative to address the problems in some of the United States’ most brutally overcrowded prisons. A Chicago Tribune article from several weeks ago notes that Rauner plans to reduce the state’s prison population by 25 percent over the next ten years, establishing the reduction as a goal through executive order.

The article, by columnist Eric Zorn, cites a widely-cited recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice that “nearly 75% of the population of both sentenced offenders and pretrial detainees are in jail for nonviolent offenses like traffic, property, drugs or public order violations.”

Skyrocketing costs of incarceration have finally convinced some lawmakers to work toward “reducing prison populations.” Recently, I read a long report about how the California Department of Corrections has responded to a court-ordered demand that the state reduce the numbers of people locked up in California state prisons.

The order was first issued in 2009 by a three-judge panel. The state appealed the order, but in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it, ordering the state of California to comply by 2013. The California government sought and was granted two extensions. As of now, the order insists that California must reduce its prison population, by 2016, to “no more than 137.5 percent of the design capacity” of its state prisons.

Whatever plans Gov. Rauner’s committee proposes for Illinois, the notoriously incarceration-minded Illinois state legislature is likely to put up just as vigorous a fight. Meanwhile the California report discusses “cost-effective measures,” “recidivism reduction results,” “rehabilitative programming” and “programming slots” at “in-state contract facilities.” The language, highly impersonal, suggests warehousing. I wonder if zookeepers might be more attentive to the individuality of the beings they cage.

Trapped in a cruel and uncaring system, women here in Atwood Hall reliably find humane ways to cope. Among many signs of daily generosity, one of my favorites is the practice of “window shopping.” Women place extra items they can spare in the window sills nearest the stairwells. A new prisoner can find new fresh socks, a warm knit cap, books, magazines, pitchers items that quickly disappear and are soon replenished.

Perhaps we’ll begin to see a trend toward finding humane ways to cope with seemingly intractable problems in today’s criminal justice system. The U.S. Supreme Court’s insistence that the State of California must release many thousands of prisoners signals a trend in which, as Gov. Rauner’s order recognizes, “States across the country have enacted bi-partisan, data driven and evidence based reforms that have reduced the use of incarceration and its costs while protecting and improving public safety.”

Zorn notes that the MacArthur Foundation recently granted $75 million for a five-year “Safety and Justice Challenge” meant “to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about its prisons and jails.” I can’t imagine a figure too high to pay, in dollars or in human work hours, to effectively challenge the way U.S. people think about safety and justice. In describing a class that he taught in a New Jersey maximum-security prison, Chris Hedges wrote:

“The mass incarceration of primarily poor people of color, people who seldom have access to adequate legal defense and who are often kept behind bars for years for nonviolent crimes or for crimes they did not commit, is one of the most shameful mass injustices committed in the United States.

“The 28 men in my class have cumulatively spent 515 years in prison. Some of their sentences are utterly disproportionate to the crimes of which they are accused. Most are not even close to finishing their sentences or coming before a parole board, which rarely grants first-time applicants their liberty. Many of them are in for life.

“One of my students was arrested at the age of 14 for a crime that strong evidence suggests he did not commit. He will not be eligible for parole until he is 70. He never had a chance in court and because he cannot afford a private attorney he has no chance now of challenging the grotesque sentence handed to him as a child.”

Here in Atwood Hall, guards and administrators know that they imprison humane, caring, generous and talented women, people not very different from their own relatives, friends and co-workers. Where are the “bad sisters” that could ever justify the punishment of isolating women like Marlo from their children and other loved ones for long and wearying years?

I imagine that many BOP guards admire, as I do, the courage and fortitude of the women facing long sentences here. Do they wonder, sometimes, what courage would be required, in their own lives, to stop working as enforcers of the prison system? Or do they perhaps wish, sometimes, that the general public could muster up the will to stop voting for the prison system?

There is a cynical quote which a cynical friend of mine likes to quote to me, from the philosopher David Hume: “A prisoner who has neither money nor interest, discovers the impossibility of his escape, as well when he considers the obstinacy of the gaoler, as the walls and bars with which he is surrounded; and, in all attempts for his freedom, chooses rather to work upon the stone and iron of the one, than upon the inflexible nature of the other.”

It’s the cliché of the prisoner attempting escape: the prisoner sees more hope tunneling out through bricks than appealing to the stone-faced jailer.

But who are the jailers? These prisons were built, and filled, in our name – in the name of making us “safer.” More guards, more lawyers, judges, wardens, marshals, probation officers and court personnel would be hired even if the present ones resigned.

Meanwhile the creative work to create real security, real community in the face of social dislocation and crime, would still need to be done. We, the broader public, must be the jailers.

Sometimes we seem to be a stone rolling down the path of least resistance. But we’re not stone. We can choose not to be jailers, and choose, instead, to be ever more inflexible in our resistance to injustice and to hatred born of fear.

I’m here among women, some of whom, I’ve been told, are supposed to be “hardened criminals.” Fellow activists incarcerated in men’s prisons likewise concur that the system is futile, merciless and wrongheaded. Our jailers, I’m convinced, can see this. Men like Gov. Rauner, it seems, can see it, or his advisers can.

Where are the inflexible ones keeping women like Marlo isolated from and lost to the world, trembling for their future for the next five years? I would like to make an appeal to you, and to myself two months from now when I’ve left here and once more rejoined the polite society of these women’s “inflexible jailers.”

I choose to believe that we can be moved and these women can escape. I am writing this, as many have written and will write, to see if we’re easier to move than iron and stone.

Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence (info@vcnv.org), is in federal prison for participation in an anti-drone protest. She can receive mail at: KATHY KELLY 04971-045; FMC LEXINGTON; FEDERAL MEDICAL CENTER; SATELLITE CAMP; P.O. BOX 14525; LEXINGTON, KY 40512. 




Guiding Obama into Global Make-Believe

Exclusive: The Orwellian concept of “information warfare” holds that propaganda can break down enemies and decide geopolitical outcomes, a strategy that has taken hold of the U.S. government’s approach to international crises, especially the Ukraine showdown, as ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern explains.

By Ray McGovern

CIA Director John Brennan told TV host Charlie Rose on Friday that, on assuming office, President Barack Obama “did not have a good deal of experience” in intelligence-related matters, adding with remarkable condescension that now “he has gone to school and understands the complexities.”

If that’s the case, I would strongly suggest that Obama switch schools. Judging from his foreign policy team’s inept and increasingly dangerous actions regarding Ukraine and the endless stream of dubious State Department and senior military cry-wolf accusations of a Russian “invasion,” Obama might be forgiven for being confused by the “complexities.”

He should not be forgiven, though, if he remains too timid to bench his current foreign policy team and find more substantively qualified, trustworthy advisers without axes to grind. He is, after all, President. Has he no managerial skill … no guts?

This U.S. pattern of exaggeration making scary claims about Ukraine without releasing supporting evidence has even begun to erode the unity of the NATO alliance where Germany, in particular, is openly criticizing the Obama administration’s heavy-handed use of propaganda in its “information warfare” against Russia.

The German magazine Der Spiegel has just published a highly unusual article critical of the NATO military commander, Air Force General Philip Breedlove, entitled “Breedlove’s Bellicosity: Berlin Alarmed by Aggressive NATO Stance on Ukraine.

It is becoming clearer day by day that the Germans are losing patience with unsupported and alarmist U.S. statements on Ukraine, particularly in the current delicate period when a fledgling ceasefire in eastern Ukraine seems to be holding tenuously.

The Spiegel story was sourced to German officials who say Breedlove and his breed are making stuff up, adding that the BND (the CIA equivalent in Germany) “did not share” Breedlove’s extreme assessment of Russian actions. Spiegel continued:

“For months now, many in the Chancellery simply shake their heads each time NATO, under Breedlove’s leadership, goes public with striking announcements about Russian troop or tank movements. False claims and exaggerated accounts, warned a top German official during a recent meeting on Ukraine, have put NATO , and by extension, the entire West , in danger of losing its credibility.”

Scaring the Europeans

The Obama administration’s erratic and bellicose approach to Ukraine caused German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande to take matters into their own hands in February to press for a ceasefire and an agreement on how to resolve the crisis politically, rather than following the U.S. strategy of having the regime in Kiev escalate its “anti-terrorist operation” against ethnic Russian rebels in the east who are supported by Moscow.

Fearing the conflict was spinning out of control with the prospects of a showdown between nuclear-armed Russia and the United States on Russia’s border Merkel traveled to the White House on Feb. 9 seeking assurances from President Obama that he would not fall in line behind his tough-talking aides and members of Congress who want advanced weaponry for Ukraine.

Though Obama reportedly assured Merkel that he would resist the pressure, he continues to keep slip-sliding into line behind the war hawks and letting his subordinates feed the propaganda fires that could lead to a more dangerous war, especially Gen. Breedlove and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, a former adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 4, 2015, Nuland presented her usual black-and-white depiction of the Ukrainian civil war, claiming Russia had “manufactured a conflict controlled by the Kremlin, fueled by Russian tanks and heavy equipment.” She added that Crimea and eastern Ukraine live under a “Reign of Terror.”

Of course, the core problem with how Nuland and pretty much the entire U.S. establishment present the Ukraine crisis is that they ignore how it got started. Nuland, Sen. John McCain and other U.S. officials egged on western Ukrainians to destabilize and overthrow the elected President Viktor Yanukovych, whose political base was in the south and east, including Crimea.

The coup opened historic fissures in this deeply divided country where hatreds between the more European-oriented west and the ethnic Russian east go back many generations, including the unspeakable slaughter during World War II when some western Ukrainians joined with the Nazis to fight the Red Army and exterminate Jews and other minorities.

Despite the U.S. claims over the past year about unprovoked “Russian aggression,” Russian President Vladimir Putin was not the instigator of the conflict, but rather he was reacting to a violent “regime change” on his border and to Russian fears that NATO would seize the historic Russian naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea.

But Nuland and other neocon hardliners have never been interested in a nuanced presentation of reality. Instead, they have treated Ukraine as if it were a testing ground for the latest techniques in psychological or information warfare, although the propaganda is mostly aimed at the U.S. and European publics, getting them ready for more war.

Mocking Merkel

As for Merkel and her peace efforts, Nuland was overheard during a behind-closed-doors meeting of U.S. officials at a security conference in Munich last month disparaging the German chancellor’s initiative, calling it “Merkel’s Moscow thing,” according to Bild, a German newspaper, citing unnamed sources.

Another U.S. official went even further, the report said, calling it the Europeans’ “Moscow bullshit.”

The tough talk behind the soundproof doors at a conference room in the luxurious Bayerischer Hof hotel seemed to get the American officials, both diplomats and members of Congress, worked into a lather, according to the Bild account.

Nuland suggested that Merkel and Hollande cared only about the practical impact of the Ukrainian war on bread-and-butter issues of Europe: “They’re afraid of damage to their economy, counter-sanctions from Russia.”

Another U.S. politician was heard adding: “It’s painful to see that our NATO partners are getting cold feet” with particular vitriol directed toward German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen as “defeatist” because she supposedly no longer believed in a Kiev victory.

Sen. McCain talked himself into a rage, declaring “History shows us that dictators always take more, whenever you let them. They can’t be brought back from their brutal behavior when you fly to Moscow to them, just like someone once flew to this city,” Munich, a reference to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s “appeasement” of Adolf Hitler.

According to the Bild story, Nuland laid out a strategy of countering Merkel’s diplomacy by using strident language to frame the Ukraine crisis in a way that stops the Europeans from backing down. “We can fight against the Europeans, we can fight with rhetoric against them,” Nuland reportedly said.

NATO Commander Breedlove was quoted as saying the idea of funneling more weapons to the Kiev government was “to raise the battlefield cost for Putin, to slow down the whole problem, so sanctions and other measures can take hold.”

Nuland interjected to the U.S. politicians present that “I’d strongly urge you to use the phrase ‘defensive systems’ that we would deliver to oppose Putin’s ‘offensive systems.’” But Breedlove left little doubt that these “defensive” weapons would help the Ukrainian government pursue its military objectives by enabling more effective concentration of fire.

“Russian artillery is by far what kills most Ukrainian soldiers, so a system is needed that can localize the source of fire and repress it,” Breedlove reportedly said. “I won’t talk about any anti-tank rockets, but we are seeing massive supply convoys from Russia into Ukraine. The Ukrainians need the capability to shut off this transport. And then I would add some small tactical drones.”

Nuland’s Rhetoric

Before the Ukraine coup in February 2014, Nuland was overheard in a phone conversation with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt discussing who should become the country’s new leaders “Yats is the guy,” she said about Arseniy Yatsenyuk who became the post-coup prime minister while also criticizing the less aggressive European approach with the pithy phrase, “Fuck the EU.”

Nuland’s tough-gal rhetoric continues, including her bellicose testimony before Congress this month, along with the alarmist (and unproven) reports from Gen. Breedlove, who claimed that “well over a thousand combat vehicles, Russian combat forces, some of their most sophisticated air defense, battalions of artillery’ having been sent to the Donbass” in eastern Ukraine.

The Nuland-Breedlove allies in Kiev are doing their part, too. Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko recently claimed that around 50 tanks, 40 missile systems and 40 armored vehicles entered east Ukraine’s breakaway Luhansk region from Russia via the Izvaryne border crossing.

This “rhetoric” strategy follows the tried-and-true intelligence gambit known as the Mighty Wurlitzer, in which false and misleading information is blasted out by so many different sources like the pipes of an organ that the lies become believable just because of their repetition.

The Ukraine story has followed this pattern with dubious claims being made and repeated by U.S. and Ukrainian officials and then amplified by a credulous Western news media, persuading people who otherwise might know better — even when supporting evidence is lacking.

Similarly, Official Washington’s chorus of loud demands for ignoring Merkel and sending sophisticated weapons to Ukraine continues to build with the latest member of the choir, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

On March 4, Clapper broke the important ethos of professional intelligence officers scrupulously avoiding policy advocacy when he told an audience in New York that the U.S. should arm the Ukrainians “to bolster their resolve and bolster their morale that, you know, we are with them.”

Clapper offered this endorsement as his “personal opinion,” but who cares about James Clapper’s personal opinion? He is Director of National Intelligence, for God’s sake, and his advocacy immediately raises questions about whether Clapper’s “personal opinion” will put pressure on his subordinates to shape intelligence analysis to please the boss.

We saw a possible effect of this recently when journalist Robert Parry contacted the DNI’s office to get an updated briefing on what U.S. intelligence has concluded about who was at fault for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.

Blaming the Russians

In prepared testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Assistant Secretary Nuland had insinuated that the Russians and the ethnic Russian rebels were to blame. She said, “In eastern Ukraine, Russia and its separatist puppets unleashed unspeakable violence and pillage; MH-17 was shot down.”

This may have been another example of Nuland using “rhetoric” to shape the debate, but it prompted Parry to ask the DNI’s office about what evidence there was to support Nuland’s finger-pointing in this tragic incident that killed 298 people.

Kathleen Butler, a DNI spokesperson, insisted that the U.S. intelligence assessment on MH-17 had not changed since July 22, 2014, five days after the shoot-down when the DNI’s office distributed a sketchy report suggesting Russian complicity based largely on what was available on social media.

Parry then sent a follow-up e-mail saying: “are you telling me that U.S. intelligence has not refined its assessment of what happened to MH-17 since July 22, 2014?” Butler responded: “Yes. The assessment is the same.” To which, Parry replied: “That’s just not credible.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “US Intel Stands Pat on MH-17 Shoot-down.”]

But the DNI’s response does make sense if later U.S. intelligence analysis contradicted the initial rush to judgment by Secretary of State John Kerry and other senior officials blaming Russia and the rebels. The Obama administration might not want to surrender a useful propaganda club to bash Moscow, or as Nuland might say, an important piece of anti-Russian “rhetoric.”

As for Brennan and his appearance before the stuffy Council on Foreign Relations fielding  questions posed by Charlie Rose as the “presider,” the CIA director seemed more concerned about the flak his agency has been getting for having a cloudy crystal ball and not anticipating how the Ukraine crisis would unfold, saying:

“Now I know that many would like the CIA to predict the future, answering questions such as ‘will Crimea secede and be annexed by Russia’ and ‘will Russian forces move into Eastern Ukraine.’ But the plain and simple truth is that … virtually all events around the globe, future events, including in Ukraine, are shaped by numerous variables and yet-to-happen developments as well as leadership considerations and decisions.”

But the prospect of CIA analysts seeing events clearly both understanding what may have caused an event in the past and perceiving the complex forces that may shape the future are diminished when the U.S. intelligence community becomes politicized and exploited for propaganda purposes, when it gets enlisted into “information warfare.”

Obama could surely use some experienced, mature help in putting an end to this potpourri of you-pick-your-favorite-statement about “Russian aggression.” The disarray and deceit on such an important issue does nothing to bolster confidence that he has been tutored well, that he understands the value of sober intelligence work, or that he is in control of U.S. foreign policy.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He worked primarily on Russian and European issues during his 27 years as a CIA analyst; he also prepared the President’s Daily Brief for Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan.  He is now a member of the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).




US Intel Stands Pat on MH-17 Shoot-down

Exclusive: Almost eight months after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine creating a flashpoint in the standoff between nuclear-armed Russia and America the U.S. intelligence community claims it has not updated its assessment since five days after the crash, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Despite the high stakes involved in the confrontation between nuclear-armed Russia and the United States over Ukraine, the U.S. intelligence community has not updated its assessment on a critical turning point of the crisis the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 since five days after the crash last July 17, according to the office of the Director of National Intelligence.

On Thursday, when I inquired about arranging a possible briefing on where that U.S. intelligence assessment stands, DNI spokesperson Kathleen Butler sent me the same report that was distributed by the DNI on July 22, 2014, which relied heavily on claims being made about the incident on social media.

So, I sent a follow-up e-mail to Butler saying: “are you telling me that U.S. intelligence has not refined its assessment of what happened to MH-17 since July 22, 2014?”

Her response: “Yes. The assessment is the same.”

I then wrote back: “I don’t mean to be difficult but that’s just not credible. U.S. intelligence has surely refined its assessment of this important event since July 22.”

When she didn’t respond, I sent her some more detailed questions describing leaks that I had received about what some U.S. intelligence analysts have since concluded, as well as what the German intelligence agency, the BND, reported to a parliamentary committee last October, according to Der Spiegel.

While there are differences in those analyses about who fired the missile, there appears to be agreement that the Russian government did not supply the ethnic Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine with a sophisticated Buk anti-aircraft missile system that the original DNI report identified as the likely weapon used to destroy the commercial airliner killing all 298 people onboard.

Butler replied to my last e-mail late Friday, saying “As you can imagine, I can’t get into details, but can share that the assessment has IC [Intelligence Community] consensus” apparently still referring to the July 22 report.

A Lightning Rod

Last July, the MH-17 tragedy quickly became a lightning rod in a storm of anti-Russian propaganda, blaming the deaths personally on Russian President Vladimir Putin and resulting in European and American sanctions against Russia which pushed the crisis in Ukraine to a dangerous new level.

Yet, after getting propaganda mileage out of the tragedy and after I reported on the growing doubts within the U.S. intelligence community about whether the Russians and the rebels were indeed responsible the Obama administration went silent.

In other words, after U.S. intelligence analysts had time to review the data from spy satellites and various electronic surveillance, including phone intercepts, the Obama administration didn’t retract its initial rush to judgment tossing blame on Russia and the rebels but provided no further elaboration either.

This strange behavior reinforces the suspicion that the U.S. government possesses information that contradicts its initial rush to judgment, but senior officials don’t want to correct the record because to do so would embarrass them and weaken the value of the tragedy as a propaganda club to pound the Russians.

If the later evidence did bolster the Russia-did-it scenario, it’s hard to imagine why the proof would stay secret especially since U.S. officials have continued to insinuate that the Russians are guilty. For instance, on March 4, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland fired a new broadside against Russia when she appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

In her prepared testimony, Nuland slipped in an accusation blaming Russia for the MH-17 disaster, saying: “In eastern Ukraine, Russia and its separatist puppets unleashed unspeakable violence and pillage; MH-17 was shot down.”

It’s true that if one parses Nuland’s testimony, she’s not exactly saying the Russians or the ethnic Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine shot down the plane. There is a semi-colon between the “unspeakable violence and pillage” and the passive verb structure “MH-17 was shot down.” But she clearly meant to implicate the Russians and the rebels.

Nuland’s testimony prompted me to submit a query to the State Department asking if she meant to imply that the U.S. government had developed more definitive evidence that the ethnic Russian rebels shot down the plane and that the Russians shared complicity. I received no answer.

I sent a similar request to the CIA and was referred to the DNI, where spokesperson Butler insisted that there had been no refinement in the U.S. intelligence assessment since last July 22.

But that’s just impossible to believe. Indeed, I’ve been told by a source who was briefed by U.S. intelligence analysts that a great deal of new information has been examined since the days immediately after the crash, but that the problem for U.S. policymakers is that the data led at least some analysts to conclude that the plane was shot down by a rogue element of the Ukrainian military, not by the rebels.

Yet, what has remained unclear to me is whether those analysts were part of a consensus or were dissenters within the U.S. intelligence community. But even if there was just dissent over the conclusions, that might explain why the DNI has not updated the initial sketchy report of July 22.

It is protocol within the intelligence community that when an assessment is released, it should include footnotes indicating areas of dissent. But to do that could undermine the initial certitude that Secretary of State John Kerry displayed on Sunday talks shows just days after the crash.

Pointing Fingers

Though the DNI’s July 22 report, which followed Kerry’s performance, joined him in pointing the blame at the Russians and the ethnic Russian rebels, the report did not claim that the Russians gave the rebels the sophisticated Buk (or SA-11) surface-to-air missile that the report indicated was used to bring down the plane.

The report cited “an increasing amount of heavy weaponry crossing the border from Russia to separatist fighters in Ukraine”; it claimed that Russia “continues to provide training including on air defense systems to separatist fighters at a facility in southwest Russia”; and its noted the rebels “have demonstrated proficiency with surface-to-air missile systems, downing more than a dozen aircraft in the months prior to the MH17 tragedy, including two large transport aircraft.”

But what the public report didn’t say which is often more significant than what is said in these white papers was that the rebels had previously only used short-range shoulder-fired missiles to bring down low-flying military planes, whereas MH-17 was flying at around 33,000 feet, far beyond the range of those weapons.

The assessment also didn’t say that U.S. intelligence, which had been concentrating its attention on eastern Ukraine during those months, detected the delivery of a Buk missile battery from Russia, despite the fact that a battery consists of four 16-foot-long missiles that are hauled around by trucks or other large vehicles.

I was told that the absence of evidence of such a delivery injected the first doubts among U.S. analysts who also couldn’t say for certain that the missile battery that was suspected of firing the fateful missile was manned by rebels. An early glimpse of that doubt was revealed in the DNI briefing for several mainstream news organizations when the July 22 assessment was released.

The Los Angeles Times reported, “U.S. intelligence agencies have so far been unable to determine the nationalities or identities of the crew that launched the missile. U.S. officials said it was possible the SA-11 was launched by a defector from the Ukrainian military who was trained to use similar missile systems.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Mystery of a Ukrainian ‘Defector.’”]

The Russian Case

The Russians also challenged the rush to judgment against them, although the U.S. mainstream media largely ignored or ridiculed their presentation. But the Russians at least provided what appeared to be substantive data, including alleged radar readings showing the presence of a Ukrainian jetfighter “gaining height” as it closed to within three to five kilometers of MH-17.

Russian Lt. Gen. Andrey Kartopolov also called on the Ukrainian government to explain the movements of its Buk systems to sites in eastern Ukraine and why Kiev’s Kupol-M19S18 radars, which coordinate the flight of Buk missiles, showed increased activity leading up to the July 17 shoot-down.

The Ukrainian government countered by asserting that it had “evidence that the missile which struck the plane was fired by terrorists, who received arms and specialists from the Russian Federation,” according to Andrey Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s Security Council, using Kiev’s preferred term for the rebels.

Lysenko added: “To disown this tragedy, [Russian officials] are drawing a lot of pictures and maps. We will explore any photos and other plans produced by the Russian side.” But Ukrainian authorities have failed to address the Russian evidence except through broad denials.

On July 29, amid this escalating rhetoric, the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, a group of mostly retired U.S. intelligence officials, called on President Barack Obama to release what evidence the U.S. government had, including satellite imagery.

“As intelligence professionals we are embarrassed by the unprofessional use of partial intelligence information,” the group wrote. “As Americans, we find ourselves hoping that, if you indeed have more conclusive evidence, you will find a way to make it public without further delay. In charging Russia with being directly or indirectly responsible, Secretary of State John Kerry has been particularly definitive. Not so the evidence.”

But the Obama administration failed to make public any intelligence information that would back up its earlier suppositions.

Then, in early August, I was told that some U.S. intelligence analysts had begun shifting away from the original scenario blaming the rebels and Russia to one focused more on the possibility that extremist elements of the Ukrainian government were responsible, funded by one of Ukraine’s rabidly anti-Russian oligarchs. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Flight 17 Shoot-down Scenario Shifts”and “Was Putin Targeted for Mid-air Assassination?”]

German Claims

In October, Der Spiegel reported that the German intelligence service, the BND, also had concluded that Russia was not the source of the missile battery that it had been captured from a Ukrainian military base but the BND still blamed the rebels for firing it. The BND also concluded that photos supplied by the Ukrainian government about the MH-17 tragedy “have been manipulated,” Der Spiegel reported.

And, the BND disputed Russian government claims that a Ukrainian fighter jet had been flying close to MH-17, the magazine said, reporting on the BND’s briefing to a parliamentary committee on Oct. 8. But none of the BND’s evidence was made public, and I was subsequently told by a European official that the evidence was not as conclusive as the magazine article depicted. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Germans Clear Russia in MH-17 Case.”]

When the Dutch Safety Board investigating the crash issued an interim report in mid-October, it answered few questions, beyond confirming that MH-17 apparently was destroyed by “high-velocity objects that penetrated the aircraft from outside.” The 34-page Dutch report was silent on the “dog-not-barking” issue of whether the U.S. government had satellite surveillance that revealed exactly where the supposed ground-to-air missile was launched and who fired it.

In January, when I re-contacted the source who had been briefed by the U.S. analysts, the source said their thinking had not changed, except that they believed the missile may have been less sophisticated than a Buk, possibly an SA-6, and that the attack may have also involved a Ukrainian jetfighter firing on MH-17.

Since then there have been occasional news accounts about witnesses reporting that they did see a Ukrainian fighter plane in the sky and others saying they saw a missile possibly fired from territory then supposedly controlled by the rebels (although the borders of the conflict zone at that time were very fluid and the Ukrainian military was known to have mobile anti-aircraft missile batteries only a few miles away).

But what is perhaps most shocking of all is that on an issue as potentially dangerous as the current proxy war between nuclear-armed Russia and the United States, a conflict on Russia’s border that has sparked fiery rhetoric on both sides the office of the DNI, which oversees the most expensive and sophisticated intelligence system in the world, says nothing has been done to refine the U.S. assessment of the MH-17 shoot-down since five days after the tragedy.

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.




In Venezuela, Who’s Threatening Whom?

In Official Washington, the land of scary make-believe, there is much snorting disbelief about Venezuela’s claim that the U.S. is encouraging a coup and much grave concern that Venezuela represents an “extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security, as President Obama says and Ted Snider analyzes.

By Ted Snider

On March 9, President Barack Obama signed an executive order “declaring a national emergency with respect to the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by the situation in Venezuela.”

As laughable as that may sound , Venezuela threatening the United States , such a declaration is needed to start a sanctions program against Venezuela, a process that the United States also undertook against Iran and Syria. But at least in those cases the U.S. claimed, however disingenuously, that Iran and Syria were states with programs that were developing weapons of mass destruction.

Claiming Venezuela is a security threat to America is more like President Ronald Reagan warning that Nicaragua in the 1980s was a threat to U.S. national security because it was “just two days’ driving time from Harlingen, Texas.”

But Obama is only being absurd if you just consider the first half of his conjunction: that Venezuela is an “extraordinary threat to the national security” of the United States. Of course it’s not. But Obama is quite correct if you include the second half of the conjunction that Venezuela is an “extraordinary threat to the . . . foreign policy of the United States.” Because Venezuela is such a threat if you understand U.S. foreign policy to be the maintenance of U.S. hegemony, especially over Latin America.

For generations, America simply has not tolerated threats to its hegemony, especially in its hemisphere. And as Venezuela’s Cuban ally can attest, the United States rejects the existence of alternative political and economic systems that present competition to the preferred U.S. model for Latin America, in which American corporations are granted almost free reign over the region’s resources.

Noam Chomsky has written about Cuba’s threat to America being the threat of the “contagious example.” Thus, U.S. plans for regime change in Cuba emerged quickly in the late 1950s, not because of communism or a Russian connection neither of those threats had emerged yet but because Castro’s Cuba, like the Venezuela of Chavez and Maduro, provided an alternative model for development.

According to Chomsky, Fidel Castro represented a “successful defiance” of the United States that “challenged U.S. hegemony in Latin America.” The fear was that the Cuban example could inspire other Latin American countries to assert independence from U.S. dominance.

Political writer Diana Johnstone has noted that, in order to protect its hegemony, America needs to sweep aside any “viable alternative” and that “the basic, intolerable alternative” is “a government of a sovereign state determined to control its own resources and markets.”

That definition applies to Castro’s Cuba and to Venezuela’s experiment in participatory democracy in which some of the country’s oil wealth has been spent to address social ills experienced by millions of Venezuelans such as poverty, hunger, illiteracy and disease.

The U.S. government views this sort of democratic nationalism as a dangerous challenge to Washington’s preferred “free market” model. After all, truly democratic leaders are obliged to do what the majority of their people want. And, given the power to choose, the people will choose to keep the wealth from their nation’s resources in the hands of their nation.

The Danger of Nationalism

If the democratic leader is also a nationalist, then he or she is likely to nationalize those resources, putting them out of the direct control of U.S. corporations. So, democratic nationalists have to go.

Under Hugo Chavez, Venezuela nationalized the electricity, telecommunications, steel and most importantly  oil and natural gas industries that were largely in the hands of U.S. corporations. Much of the money then went toward food, health, education and other essential services for Venezuela’s people.

What Chavez called the Bolivarian Revolution also involved providing discounted fuel to like-minded Latin American neighbors, contributing to the rise of other populist governments across the region. So the contagious Venezuelan example indeed did represent “an extraordinary threat” to U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, by offering a viable alternative for regional development.

Of course, the Obama administration didn’t justify its sanctions by citing how Venezuela had diminished U.S. hegemony over the region. White House spokesman Josh Earnest stressed the “human rights” angle: “We are deeply concerned by the Venezuelan government’s efforts to escalate intimidation of its political opponents.”

While those claims about political intimidation have often been exaggerated as they reverberate through the U.S. propaganda megaphone, it’s true that Venezuela does obstruct its political opponents — when it appears they are organizing coups against the democratically elected government.

But even that resistance to unconstitutional “regime change” can be viewed as a threat to American foreign policy because Washington’s goal for the past 13 years has been to remove the governments of Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro, one way or another.

Naturally, the U.S. government and mainstream U.S. media reject the suggestion that a coup was in the offing. “We’ve seen many times that the Venezuelan government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela,” the White House’s Earnest said.

Or, as State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki declared on Feb. 13, in rejecting Maduro’s claims about having disrupted a coup: “These latest accusations, like all previous such accusations, are ludicrous. As a matter of longstanding policy, the United States does not support political transitions by non-constitutional means.”

That statement prompted a rare gasp of disbelief from at least one member of the Washington press corps, Associated Press correspondent Matthew Lee, who said: “Sorry. The U.S. has whoa, whoa, whoa the U.S. has a longstanding practice of not promoting What did you say? How longstanding is that? I would in particular in South and Latin America, that is not a longstanding practice.”

The denials by Earnest and Psaki are particularly stunning because it’s been well established that the U.S. government funded leaders and organizations that briefly pulled off a coup against President Chavez in 2002. An investigation by the UK Observer cited officials of the Organization of American States and other diplomatic sources saying the U.S. government was not only aware of the coup, but sanctioned it.

Some of the coup leaders visited Washington for several months prior to the coup, including Pedro Carmona, who became the coup President, and Vice Admiral Carlos Molina, who said, “We felt we were acting with U.S. support.”

Who’s Threatening Whom?

So, it is Venezuela, not America, that should be calling the other an extraordinary threat to its national security. And that threat has not stopped. The U.S. government has gone on funding opposition groups in Venezuela. According to economist and writer Marc Weisbrot, U.S. funding of those groups in Venezuela since 2000 has reached $90 million.

That interference also didn’t stop after the election of President Obama though he promised to break with George W. Bush’s interventionist policies. Instead, there has been more continuity than change in the imperious way the U.S. government deals with Latin America.

In 2009, Honduras’ democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya was removed in a coup that was dressed up as a constitutional procedure, a maneuver that was supported by Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

After Zelaya’s ouster, the Obama administration recognized the coup regime over the objections of Latin American governments and international organizations. The administration never fully suspended aid to the coup regime, never recalled the U.S. ambassador, and never even officially called it a coup.

But U.S. diplomats privately recognized that the removal of Zelaya was a coup, according to diplomatic cables from the embassy in Honduras that were among the U.S. government documents leaked by Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and published by WikiLeaks.

“There is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 [2009] in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup,” one Embassy cable said. “There is … no doubt from our perspective that [interim president] Roberto Micheletti’s assumption of power was illegitimate.”

Similarly, in Paraguay, when President Fernando Lugo was forced from power in 2012, the Obama administration again cooperated with the coup makers by refusing to call the coup a coup though U.S. diplomats knew that it was.

Another U.S. Embassy cable, published by WikiLeaks, reported that Lugo’s right-wing political opponents had set as their goal to “Capitalize on any Lugo missteps” and to “impeach Lugo and assure their own political supremacy.” The cable noted that to achieve their goal, they were ready to “legally” impeach Lugo “even if on spurious grounds.”

Again, the Obama administration acquiesced in this illegal coup disguised as a constitutional procedure.

Another Coup?

Now, the Obama administration is mocking claims by Maduro that he confronted a coup attempt last month which he claimed had U.S. backing. Venezuelan National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello has also claimed that officials at the Canadian and British embassies had links to the failed coup. In response, Maduro demanded that the United States shrink its embassy staff by 80 percent.

To back their case, Venezuelan officials have produced significant evidence, including a recording of a communique to be issued after the Maduro government was removed from power, confessions by military officials, and a recorded phone conversation between opposition leaders discussing the coup.

According to Venezuelan officials, the day before the planned coup, Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and opposition leaders Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado signed a National Transition Agreement, and weapons were found in the office of the opposition party.

Lucas Koerner of Venezuelanalysis.com adds that the aircraft to be used as part of the failed coup had links to the notorious American security firm Academi (formerly Blackwater). And it has been reported that a number of the coup leaders obtained U.S. visas from the American embassy to facilitate escape should the coup fail.

The planned coup apparently had many steps. One was to create unrest in the streets, with the turmoil made worse by coup plotters attacking marchers to cause panic. The plans were an echo of a June 2013 document entitled “Strategic Venezuelan Plan” that laid out a strategy for destabilizing Venezuela and paving the way for Maduro’s removal in 2013.

The plan was authored by former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s Democratic Internationalism Foundation, the First Columbian Think Tank, the U.S. consulting firm FTI Consulting, the Director of USAID for Latin America, and leaders of the Venezuelan opposition, including Maria Corina Machado.

Writer Eva Golinger quoted the document as calling for “the accelerated deterioration of the government, facilitating an opposition victory” in December 2013 elections, “but if it could be done beforehand, that would be even better.” Golinger cited as the plan’s goal to “create situations of crisis in the streets that will facilitate U.S. intervention, as well as NATO forces, with the support of the Colombian government.”

Given America’s history of intervention in Venezuela and the rest of Latin America, Obama’s assertion that Venezuela is an “extraordinary threat” to America’s security is indeed a brazen one. Unless the threat to which Obama is referring is the extraordinary occurrence of a Latin American country stopping a threat from the United States.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in U.S. foreign policy and history.




GOP Senators Take Orders from AIPAC

By reaching out to Iran in a bid to sabotage negotiations to limit its nuclear program, Sen. Tom Cotton and his 46 Republican colleagues not only show their contempt for President Obama and the U.S. Constitution but their obeisance to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and AIPAC, explains Gareth Porter.

By Gareth Porter

The “open letter” from Sen. Tom Cotton and 46 other Republican senators to the leadership of Iran, which even Republicans themselves admit was aimed at encouraging Iranian opponents of the nuclear negotiations to argue that the United States cannot be counted on to keep the bargain, has created a new political firestorm.

It has been harshly denounced by Democratic loyalists as “stunning” and “appalling”, and critics have accused the signers of the letter of being “treasonous” for allegedly violating a law forbidding citizens from negotiating with a foreign power. But the response to the letter has primarily distracted public attention from the real issue it raises: how the big funders of the Likud Party in Israel control Congressional actions on Iran.

The infamous letter is a ham-handed effort by Republican supporters of the Netanyahu government to blow up the nuclear negotiations between the United States and Iran. The idea was to encourage Iranians to conclude that the United States would not actually carry out its obligations under the agreement i.e. the lifting of sanctions against Iran.

Cotton, R-Arkansas, and his colleagues were inviting inevitable comparison with the 1968 conspiracy byRichard Nixon, through rightwing campaign official Anna Chennault, to encourage the Vietnamese government of President Nguyen Van Thieu to boycott peace talks in Paris. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “LBJ’s ‘X’ File on Nixon’s ‘Treason.’“]

But while Nixon was plotting secretly to get Thieu to hold out for better terms under a Nixon administration, the 47 Republican senators were making their effort to sabotage the Iran nuclear talks in full public scrutiny. And the interest served by the letter was not that of a possible future president but of the Israeli government.

The Cotton letter makes arguments that are patently false. The letter suggested that any agreement that lacked approval of Congress “is a mere executive agreement”, as though such agreements are somehow of only marginal importance in U.S. diplomatic history. In fact, the agreements on withdrawal of U.S. forces from both the wars in Vietnam and in Iraq were not treaties but executive agreements.

Equally fatuous is the letter’s assertion that “future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.” Congress can nullify the agreement by passing legislation that contradicts it but can’t renegotiate it. And the claim that the next president could “revoke the agreement with the stroke of a pen,” ignores the fact that the Iran nuclear agreement, if signed, will become binding international law through a United Nations Security Council resolution, as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has pointed out.

The letter has provoked the charge of “treason” against the signers and a demand for charges against them for negotiating with a foreign government in violation of the Logan Act. In a little over 24 hours, more than 200,000 people had signed a petition on the White House website calling such charges to be filed.

But although that route may seem satisfying at first thought, it is problematic for both legal and political reasons. The Logan Act was passed in 1799, and has never been used successfully to convict anyone, mainly because it was written more than a century before U.S. courts created legal standards for the protection of First Amendment speech rights. And it is unclear whether the Logan Act was even meant to apply to members of Congress anyway.

AIPAC Marching Orders

The more serious problem with focusing on the Logan Act, however, is that what Cotton and his Republican colleagues were doing was not negotiating with a foreign government but trying to influence the outcome of negotiations in the interest of a foreign government.

The premise of the Senate Republicans reflected in the letter that Iran must not be allowed to have any enrichment capacity whatever did not appear spontaneously. The views that Cotton and the other Republicans have espoused on Iran were the product of assiduous lobbying by Israeli agents of influence using the inducement of promises of election funding and the threat of support for the members’ opponents in future elections.

Those members of Congress don’t arrive at their positions on issues related to Iran through discussion and debate among themselves. They are given their marching orders by AIPAC lobbyists, and time after time, they sign the letters and vote for legislation or resolution that they are given, as former AIPAC lobbyist MJ Rosenberg has recalled.

This Israeli exercise of control over Congress on Iran and issues of concern to Israel resembles the Soviet direction of its satellite regimes and loyal Communist parties more than any democratic process, but with campaign contributions replacing the inducements that kept its bloc allies in line.

Rosenberg has reasoned that AIPAC must have drafted the letter and handed it to Senator Cotton. “Nothing happens on Capitol Hill related to Israel,” he tweets, “unless and until Howard Kohr (AIPAC chief) wants it to happen. Nothing.”

AIPAC apparently supported the letter, but there may be more to the story. Sen. Cotton just happens to be a protégé of neoconservative political kingpin Bill Kristol, whose Emergency Committee on Israel gave him nearly a million dollars late in his 2014 Senate campaign and guaranteed that Cotton would have the support of the four biggest funders of major anti-Iran organizations.

Cotton proved his absolute fealty to Likudist policy on Iran by sponsoring an amendment to the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013 that would have punished violators of the sanctions against Iran with prison sentences of up to 20 years and extended the punishment to “a spouse and any relative, to the third degree” of the sanctions violator.

In presenting the amendment in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Cotton provided the useful clarification that it would have included “parents, children, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents, great grandparents, grandkids, great grandkids”.

That amendment, which he apparently believed would best reflect his adoption of the Israeli view of how to cut Iran down to size, was unsuccessful, but it established his reliability in the eyes of the Republican Likudist kingmakers. Now Kristol is grooming him to be the vice-presidential nominee in 2016.

So the real story behind the letter from Cotton and his Republican colleagues is how the enforcers of Likudist policy on Iran used an ambitious young Republican politician to try to provoke a breakdown in the Iran nuclear negotiations. The issue it raises is a far more serious issue than the Logan Act, but thus far major news organizations have steered clear of that story.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. [This story first appeared at Middle East Eye.]




LBJ’s ‘X’ File on Nixon’s ‘Treason’

From the Archive: The letter to Iran from 47 Republicans senators, seeking to kill President Obama’s talks on limiting Iran’s nuclear program, recalls other GOP sabotage of foreign policy by Democratic presidents, including Richard Nixon’s scheme to stop a Vietnam peace deal in 1968, as Robert Parry wrote in 2012.

By Robert Parry (Originally published on March 3, 2012)

On May 14, 1973, Walt W. Rostow, who had been national security adviser during some of the darkest days of the Vietnam War, typed a three-page “memorandum for the record” summarizing a secret file that his former boss, President Lyndon Johnson, had amassed on what may have been Richard Nixon’s dirtiest trick, the sabotaging of Vietnam peace talks to win the 1968 election.

Rostow reflected, too, on what effect LBJ’s public silence may have had on the then-unfolding Watergate scandal. As Rostow composed his memo in spring 1973, President Nixon’s Watergate cover-up was unraveling. Just two weeks earlier, Nixon had fired White House counsel John Dean and accepted the resignations of two top aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman.

Three days after Rostow wrote the memo, the Senate Watergate hearings opened as the U.S. government lurched toward a constitutional crisis. Yet, as he typed, Rostow had a unique perspective on the worsening scandal. He understood the subterranean background to Nixon’s political espionage operations.

Those secret activities surfaced with the arrest of the Watergate burglars in June 1972, but they had begun much earlier. In his memo for the record, Rostow expressed regret that he and other top Johnson aides had chosen for what they had deemed “the good of the country” to keep quiet about Nixon’s Vietnam peace-talk sabotage, which Johnson had privately labeled “treason.”

“I am inclined to believe the Republican operation in 1968 relates in two ways to the Watergate affair of 1972,” Rostow wrote. He noted, first, that Nixon’s operatives may have judged that their “enterprise with the South Vietnamese” in frustrating Johnson’s last-ditch peace initiative had secured Nixon his narrow margin of victory over Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968.

“Second, they got away with it,” Rostow wrote. “Despite considerable press commentary after the election, the matter was never investigated fully. Thus, as the same men faced the election in 1972, there was nothing in their previous experience with an operation of doubtful propriety (or, even, legality) to warn them off, and there were memories of how close an election could get and the possible utility of pressing to the limit and beyond.” [To read Rostow’s memo, click here, here and here.]

Rostow also was aware that as the Watergate scandal deepened in late 1972 and early 1973 Nixon’s men had curiously approached the retired President Johnson with veiled threats about going public with their knowledge that Johnson had ordered wiretaps to spy on their Vietnam peace sabotage in 1968. Apparently, Nixon thought he could bully Johnson into helping shut down the Watergate probe.

Instead, the threat had infuriated Johnson, who was still pained by his failure to end the Vietnam War before he left office on Jan. 20, 1969, a tragic lost opportunity that he blamed on Nixon’s treachery and deceit. Just a couple of weeks after Nixon’s strange overture about the 1968 bugging and two days after Nixon was sworn in for a second term, Johnson died of a heart attack on Jan. 22, 1973.

‘The X Envelope’

So, in spring 1973, Rostow found himself in a curious position. As Johnson’s presidency ended in 1969 and at Johnson’s instruction Rostow had taken with him the White House file chronicling Nixon’s Vietnam gambit, consisting of scores of “secret” and “top secret” documents. Rostow had labeled the file “The ‘X’ envelope.”

Also, by May 1973, Rostow had been out of government for more than four years and had no legal standing to possess this classified material. Johnson, who had ordered the file removed from the White House, had died. And, now, a major political crisis was unfolding about which Rostow felt he possessed an important missing link for understanding the history and the context. So what to do?

Rostow apparently struggled with this question for the next month as the Watergate scandal continued to expand. On June 25, 1973, John Dean delivered his blockbuster Senate testimony, claiming that Nixon got involved in the cover-up within days of the June 1972 burglary at the Democratic National Committee. Dean also asserted that Watergate was just part of a years-long program of political espionage directed by Nixon’s White House.

The very next day, as headlines of Dean’s testimony filled the nation’s newspapers, Rostow reached his conclusion about what to do with “The ‘X’ envelope.” In longhand, he wrote a “Top Secret” note which read, “To be opened by the Director, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, not earlier than fifty (50) years from this date June 26, 1973.”

In other words, Rostow intended this missing link of American history to stay missing for another half century. In a typed cover letter to LBJ Library director Harry Middleton, Rostow wrote: “Sealed in the attached envelope is a file President Johnson asked me to hold personally because of its sensitive nature. In case of his death, the material was to be consigned to the LBJ Library under conditions I judged to be appropriate.

“The file concerns the activities of Mrs. [Anna] Chennault and others before and immediately after the election of 1968. At the time President Johnson decided to handle the matter strictly as a question of national security; and in retrospect, he felt that decision was correct.

“After fifty years the Director of the LBJ Library (or whomever may inherit his responsibilities, should the administrative structure of the National Archives change) may, alone, open this file. If he believes the material it contains should not be opened for research [at that time], I would wish him empowered to re-close the file for another fifty years when the procedure outlined above should be repeated.”

Opening the File

Ultimately, however, the LBJ Library didn’t wait that long. After a little more than two decades, on July 22, 1994, the envelope was opened and the archivists began the process of declassifying the contents. (Some documents, including what appears to be the oldest document in the file, an Aug. 3, 1968, “top secret” memo from White House national security aide Bromley Smith to Johnson, remain partially or wholly classified even today.)

Still, the dozens of declassified documents revealed a dramatic story of hardball politics played at the highest levels of government and with the highest of stakes, not only the outcome of the pivotal 1968 presidential election but the fate of a half million U.S. soldiers then sitting in the Vietnam war zone.

Relying on national security wiretaps of the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington and surveillance of right-wing China Lobby activist Anna Chennault, Johnson concluded that Nixon’s Republican presidential campaign was colluding with South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu to derail the Paris peace talks and thus deny a last-minute boost to Democratic presidential nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

At the time, Johnson thought a breakthrough was near, one that could have ended a war which had already claimed the lives of more than 30,000 American troops and countless Vietnamese. Nixon, like Humphrey, was receiving briefings on the progress as the negotiations gained momentum in October 1968.

The Johnson administration was encouraged when North Vietnam agreed on a framework for peace talks. However, America’s South Vietnamese allies began to balk over details about how the negotiations would be conducted, objecting to any equal status for the South Vietnamese Viet Cong insurgents.

“Top Secret” reports from the National Security Agency informed President Johnson that South Vietnam’s President Thieu was closely monitoring the political developments in the United States with an eye toward helping Nixon win the Nov. 5 election.

For instance, an Oct. 23, 1968, report presumably based on NSA’s electronic eavesdropping quotes Thieu as saying that the Johnson administration might halt the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam as part of a peace maneuver that would help Humphrey’s campaign but that South Vietnam might not go along. Thieu also appreciated the other side of the coin, that Johnson’s failure would help Nixon.

“The situation which would occur as the result of a bombing halt, without the agreement of the [South] Vietnamese government would be to the advantage of candidate Nixon,” the NSA report on Thieu’s thinking read. “Accordingly, he [Thieu] said that the possibility of President Johnson enforcing a bombing halt without [South] Vietnam’s agreement appears to be weak.” [Click here and here.]

By Oct. 28, 1968, according to another NSA report, Thieu said “it appears that Mr. Nixon will be elected as the next president” and that any settlement with the Viet Cong should be put off until “the new president” was in place.

Nixon’s Go-Between

The next day, Oct. 29, national security adviser Walt Rostow received the first indication that Nixon might actually be coordinating with Thieu to sabotage the peace talks. Rostow’s brother, Eugene, who was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, wrote a memo about a tip from a source in New York who had spoken with “a member of the banking community” who was “very close to Nixon.”

The source said Wall Street bankers at a working lunch to assess likely market trends and to decide where to invest had been given inside information about the prospects for Vietnam peace and were told that Nixon was obstructing that outcome.

“The conversation was in the context of a professional discussion about the future of the financial markets in the near term,” Eugene Rostow wrote. “The speaker said he thought the prospects for a bombing halt or a cease-fire were dim, because Nixon was playing the problem to block.

“They would incite Saigon to be difficult, and Hanoi to wait. Part of his strategy was an expectation that an offensive would break out soon, that we would have to spend a great deal more (and incur more casualties) a fact which would adversely affect the stock market and the bond market. NVN [North Vietnamese] offensive action was a definite element in their thinking about the future.”

In other words, Nixon’s friends on Wall Street were placing their financial bets based on the inside dope that Johnson’s peace initiative was doomed to fail. (In another document, Walt Rostow identified his brother’s source as Alexander Sachs, who was then on the board of Lehman Brothers.)

A separate memo from Eugene Rostow said the speaker had added that Nixon “was trying to frustrate the President, by inciting Saigon to step up its demands, and by letting Hanoi know that when he [Nixon] took office ‘he could accept anything and blame it on his predecessor.’” So, according to the source, Nixon was trying to convince both the South and North Vietnamese that they would get a better deal if they stalled Johnson.

In his later memo to the file, Walt Rostow recounted that he learned this news shortly before attending a morning meeting at which President Johnson was informed by U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker about “Thieu’s sudden intransigence.” Walt Rostow said “the diplomatic information previously received plus the information from New York took on new and serious significance.”

That same day, Johnson “instructed Bromley Smith, Executive Secretary of the National Security Council, to get in touch with the Deputy Director of the FBI, Deke DeLoach, and arrange that contacts by Americans with the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington be monitored,” Rostow wrote.

The White House soon learned that Anna Chennault, the fiercely anticommunist Chinese-born widow of Lt. Gen. Claire Chennault and a member of Nixon’s campaign team, was holding curious meetings with South Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States Bui Diem. On Oct. 30, an FBI intercept overheard Bui Diem telling Mrs. Chennault that something “is cooking” and asking her to come by the embassy.

Johnson Complains

On Oct. 31, at 4:09 p.m., Johnson his voice thick from a cold began working the phones, trying to counteract Nixon’s chicanery. The Democratic president called Republican Senate Leader Everett Dirksen and broached a concern about Nixon’s interference with the peace talks. Johnson said he considered Nixon’s behavior a betrayal because he had kept Nixon abreast of the peace progress, according to an audio recording of the conversation released by the LBJ Library in late 2008.

“I played it clean,” Johnson said. “I told Nixon every bit as much, if not more, as Humphrey knows. I’ve given Humphrey not one thing.”

Johnson added, “I really think it’s a little dirty pool for Dick’s people to be messing with the South Vietnamese ambassador and carrying messages around to both of them [North and South Vietnam]. And I don’t think people would approve of it if it were known.”

Dirksen: “Yeah.”

Referring to his political trouble with Democrats as well as Republicans, Johnson continued, “While they criticized my conduct of the war, they have never told the enemy that he’d get a better deal, but these last few days, Dick is just gotten a little shaky and he’s pissing on the fire a little.”

Johnson then told Dirksen, “We have a transcript where one of his partners says he’s going to frustrate the President by telling the South Vietnamese that, ‘just wait a few more days,’   he can make a better peace for them, and by telling Hanoi that he didn’t run this war and didn’t get them into it, that he can be a lot more considerate of them than I can because I’m pretty inflexible. I’ve called them sons of bitches.”

Dirksen responded by expressing the Republican concern that Johnson might spring a breakthrough on the peace talks right before the election. “The fellas on our side get antsy-pantsy about it,” the Illinois Republican said. “They wonder what the impact would be if a cease-fire or a halt to the bombing will be proclaimed at any given hour, what its impact would be on the results next Tuesday,” Election Day.

Johnson denied he would play politics with the war and recalled Nixon’s pledges to support his handling of the war. Johnson said, “With Nixon saying ‘I want the war stopped, that I’m supporting Johnson, that I want him to get peace if he can, that I’m not going to pull the rug out [from under] him,’ I don’t know how it could be helped unless he goes to parting under the covers and gets his hand under somebody’s dress.”

Knowing Dirksen would report back to Nixon, Johnson also cited a few details to give his complaint more credibility. “He better keep Mrs. Chennault and all this crowd tied up for a few days,” Johnson said.

Bombing Halt

That night, Johnson announced a bombing halt of North Vietnam, a key step toward advancing the peace process. The next morning at 11:38, he discussed the state of play with Sen. Richard Russell, D-Georgia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Johnson again mentioned Nixon’s secret maneuverings though expressing hope that his warning to Dirksen had worked.

Nixon has “had these people engaged in this stuff,” said Johnson, amid loud honking to clear his sinuses. “Folks messing around with both sides. Hanoi thought they could benefit by waiting and South Vietnam’s now beginning to think they could benefit by waiting, by what people are doing. So he [Nixon] knows that I know what he’s doing. And this morning they’re kind of closing up some of their agents, not so active. I noticed that one of the embassies refused to answer their call.”

However, on Nov. 2, Johnson learned that his protests had not shut down the operation. The FBI intercepted the most incriminating evidence yet of Nixon’s interference when Anna Chennault contacted Ambassador Bui Diem to convey “a message from her boss (not further identified),” according to an FBI cable.

According to the intercept, Chennault said “her boss wanted her to give [the message] personally to the ambassador. She said the message was that the ambassador is to ‘hold on, we are going to win’ and that her boss also said, ‘hold on, he understands all of it.’ She repeated that this is the only message ‘he said please tell your boss to hold on.’ She advised that her boss had just called from New Mexico.”

In quickly relaying the message to Johnson at his ranch in Texas, Rostow noted that the reference to New Mexico “may indicate [Republican vice presidential nominee Spiro] Agnew is acting,” since he had taken a campaign swing through the state.

That same day, Thieu recanted on his tentative agreement to meet with the Viet Cong in Paris, pushing the incipient peace talks toward failure. That night, at 9:18, an angry Johnson from his ranch in Texas telephoned Dirksen again, to provide more details about Nixon’s activities and to urge Dirksen to intervene more forcefully.

“The agent [Chennault] says she’s just talked to the boss in New Mexico and that he said that you must hold out, just hold on until after the election,” Johnson said. “We know what Thieu is saying to them out there. We’re pretty well informed at both ends.”

Johnson then renewed his thinly veiled threat to go public. “I don’t want to get this in the campaign,” Johnson said, adding: “They oughtn’t be doing this. This is treason.”

Dirksen responded, “I know.”

Johnson continued: “I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter of this importance. I don’t want to do that [go public]. They ought to know that we know what they’re doing. I know who they’re talking to. I know what they’re saying.”

The President also stressed the stakes involved, noting that the movement toward negotiations in Paris had contributed to a lull in the violence. “We’ve had 24 hours of relative peace,” Johnson said. “If Nixon keeps the South Vietnamese away from the [peace] conference, well, that’s going to be his responsibility. Up to this point, that’s why they’re not there. I had them signed onboard until this happened.”

Dirksen: “I better get in touch with him, I think.”

“They’re contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war,” Johnson said. “It’s a damn bad mistake. And I don’t want to say so. You just tell them that their people are messing around in this thing, and if they don’t want it on the front pages, they better quit it.”

A Worried Nixon

After hearing from Dirksen, Nixon grew concerned that Johnson might just go public with his evidence of the conspiracy. Nixon discussed his worries with Sen. George Smathers, a conservative Democrat from Florida, who, in turn, called Johnson on the morning of Nov. 3, just two days before the election.

Smathers recounted that “Nixon said he understands the President is ready to blast him for allegedly collaborating with [Texas Sen. John] Tower and [Anna] Chennault to slow the peace talks,” according to a White House summary of the Smathers call to Johnson. “Nixon says there is not any truth at all in this allegation. Nixon says there has been no contact at all. Nixon told Smathers he hoped the President would not make such a charge.”

At 1:54 p.m., trying to head off that possibility, Nixon spoke directly to Johnson, according to an audiotape released by the LBJ Library.

“Mr. President, this is Dick Nixon.”

Johnson: “Yes, Dick.”

Nixon: “I just wanted you to know that I got a report from Everett Dirksen with regard to your call. I just went on ‘Meet the Press’ and I said that I had given you my personal assurance that I would do everything possible to cooperate both before the election and, if elected, after the election and if you felt that anything would be useful that I could do, that I would do it, that I felt Saigon should come to the conference table.

“I feel very, very strongly about this. Any rumblings around about somebody trying to sabotage the Saigon government’s attitude, there’s absolutely no credibility as far as I’m concerned.”

Armed with the FBI reports and other intelligence, Johnson responded, “I’m very happy to hear that, Dick, because that is taking place. Here’s the history of it. I didn’t want to call you but I wanted you to know what happened.”

Johnson recounted some of the chronology leading up to Oct. 28 when it appeared that South Vietnam was onboard for the peace talks. He added: “Then the traffic goes out that Nixon will do better by you. Now that goes to Thieu. I didn’t say with your knowledge. I hope it wasn’t.”

“Huh, no,” Nixon responded. “My God, I would never do anything to encourage Saigon not to come to the table. Good God, we want them over to Paris, we got to get them to Paris or you can’t have a peace.”

Nixon also insisted that he would do whatever President Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk wanted, including going to Paris himself if that would help. “I’m not trying to interfere with your conduct of it; I’ll only do what you and Rusk want me to do,” Nixon said, recognizing how tantalizingly close Johnson was to a peace deal.

“We’ve got to get this goddamn war off the plate,” Nixon continued. “The war apparently now is about where it could be brought to an end. The quicker the better. To hell with the political credit, believe me.”

Johnson, however, sounded less than convinced. “You just see that your people don’t tell the South Vietnamese that they’re going to get a better deal out of the United States government than a conference,” the President said.

Still professing his innocence, Nixon told Johnson, “The main thing that we want to have is a good, strong personal understanding. After all, I trust you on this and I’ve told everybody that.”

“You just see that your people that are talking to these folks make clear your position,” Johnson said.

Nixon protested that some of his Democratic rivals were citing the bombing halt as good news for Humphrey’s campaign. “Some of Humphrey’s people have been gleeful,” Nixon said. “They said the bombing pause is going to help them and our people say it hurts.”

“I’ll tell you what I say,” Johnson cut in. “I say it doesn’t affect the election one way or the other. I don’t think it will change one vote.”

Trying to end the conversation on a pleasant note, Nixon inserted, “Anyway, we’ll have fun.”

According to some reports, Nixon himself was gleeful after the conversation ended, believing he had tamped down Johnson’s suspicions. However, privately, Johnson didn’t believe Nixon’s protestations of innocence.

What to Do?

In a 2:18 p.m. phone conversation with Secretary of State Rusk about the messages from the Nixon camp to the South Vietnamese leadership, Johnson said, “I don’t think they say these things without his knowledge.”

Rusk: “Well, certainly not without Agnew’s knowledge, some cutouts somewhere.”

Johnson: “Well, what do we do now? Just say nothing?”

Rusk: “I would think we ought to hunker down and say nothing at this point.”

However, on Nov. 4, the White House received another report from the FBI that Anna Chennault had visited the South Vietnamese embassy. Johnson also got word that the Christian Science Monitor was onto the story of Nixon undermining the peace talks.

The FBI bugging of the South Vietnamese embassy picked up a conversation involving journalist Saville Davis of the Monitor’s Washington bureau, seeking a comment from Ambassador Bui Diem about “a story received from a [Monitor] correspondent in Saigon.” Rostow relayed the FBI report to Johnson who was still at his Texas ranch.

The “eyes only” cable reported: “Davis said that the dispatch from Saigon contains the elements of a major scandal which also involves the Vietnamese ambassador and which will affect presidential candidate Richard Nixon if the Monitor publishes it. Time is of the essence inasmuch as Davis has a deadline to meet if he publishes it. He speculated that should the story be published, it will create a great deal of excitement.”

Davis also approached the White House for comment about the draft article, which had arrived from correspondent Beverly Deepe. Her draft began: “Purported political encouragement from the Richard Nixon camp was a significant factor in the last-minute decision of President Thieu’s refusal to send a delegation to the Paris peace talks at least until the American Presidential election is over.”

The Monitor’s inquiry gave President Johnson one more opportunity to bring to light the Nixon campaign’s gambit before Election Day, albeit only on the day before and possibly not until the morning of the election when the Monitor could publish the story.

So, Johnson consulted with Rusk, Rostow and Defense Secretary Clark Clifford in a Nov. 4 conference call. Those three pillars of the Washington Establishment were unanimous in advising Johnson against going public, mostly out of fear that the scandalous information might reflect badly on the U.S. government.

“Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected,” Clifford said. “It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”

Johnson concurred with the judgment, and an administration spokesman told Davis, “Obviously I’m not going to get into this kind of thing in any way, shape or form,” according to another “eyes only” cable that Rostow sent Johnson. The cable added:

“Saville Davis volunteered that his newspaper would certainly not print the story in the form in which it was filed; but they might print a story which said Thieu, on his own, decided to hold out until after the election. Incidentally, the story as filed is stated to be based on Vietnamese sources, and not U.S., in Saigon.”

Rostow’s cable also summed up the consensus from him, Rusk and Clifford: “The information sources [an apparent reference to the FBI wiretaps] must be protected and not introduced into domestic politics; even with these sources, the case is not open and shut.

“On the question of the ‘public’s right to know,’ Sec. Rusk was very strong on the following position: We get information like this every day, some of it very damaging to American political figures. We have always taken the view that with respect to such sources there is no public ‘right to know.’ Such information is collected simply for the purposes of national security.

“So far as the information based on such sources is concerned, all three of us agreed: (A) Even if the story breaks, it was judged too late to have a significant impact on the election. (B) The viability of the man elected as president was involved as well as subsequent relations between him and President Johnson. (C) Therefore, the common recommendation was that we should not encourage such stories and hold tight the data we have.”

According to a “memorandum for the record,” presumably written by Walt Rostow, “our contact with the man in New York” reported on Election Day, Nov. 5, that Nixon remained nervous about the election’s outcome and thus reneged on his commitment to Johnson not to exploit the peace-talk stalemate for political gain.

“On the question of the problem with Saigon, he [Nixon] did not stay with the statesman-like role but pressed publicly the failure of Saigon to come along as an anti-Democrat political issue,” the memo said. So, even as Johnson refused to exploit evidence of Nixon’s “treason,” Nixon played hardball until the last vote was cast.

Nixon’s Victory

Nixon narrowly prevailed over Humphrey by about 500,000 votes or less than one percent of the ballots cast.

On the day after the election, Rostow relayed to Johnson another FBI intercept which had recorded South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem saying, prior to the American balloting, that he was “keeping his fingers crossed” in hopes of a Nixon victory.

On Nov. 7, Rostow passed along another report to Johnson about the thinking of South Vietnam’s leaders, with a cover letter that read: “If you wish to get the story raw, read the last paragraph, marked.”

That marked paragraph quoted Major Bui Cong Minh, assistant armed forces attaché at the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, saying about the peace talks: “Major Minh expressed the opinion that the move by Saigon was to help presidential candidate Nixon, and that had Saigon gone to the conference table, presidential candidate Humphrey would probably have won.”

The White House also learned that Anna Chennault remained in contact with Ambassador Bui Diem, including a cryptic conversation on Nov. 7, in which she told him she had conveyed a message from President Thieu to “them,” presumably a reference to the Nixon team.

The cable read: “She advised she had given ‘them’ everything when she finally got back to her office to call, that ‘they’ got the whole message. Chennault continued that ‘they’ are still planning things but are not letting people know too much because they want to be careful to avoid embarrassing ‘you’, themselves, or the present U.S. government. Therefore, whatever we do must be carefully planned. Chennault added that Senator John Goodwin Tower had talked to her today. and Chennault and Tower plan to meet [Ambassador] Diem ‘either Monday.’”

After reading the cable on the morning of Nov. 8, Rostow wrote to Johnson, “First reactions may well be wrong. But with this information I think it’s time to blow the whistle on these folks.” Of course, as the president-elect, Nixon was now in the driver’s seat and there wasn’t anything Johnson could do to change that.

Another report on Nov. 8 described a breakfast meeting between Ambassador Bui Diem and “a reliable and trustworthy American,” who discussed President Thieu’s revised approach to the Paris talks which “gave the GVN [South Vietnam] a more prominent status than the NLF [Viet Cong] and put negotiations on a Vietnamese-to-Vietnamese basis rather than a U.S.-to-Vietnamese basis.

“Asked if he [Bui Diem] thought there was much chance of Hanoi’s acceptance, he replied ‘no,’ but he added that it put the GVN on the offensive rather than in the position of appearing to scuttle negotiations.”

In other words, the South Vietnamese government was making a public relations move to ensure the talks would fail but without Thieu getting the blame. Bui Diem also expressed satisfaction that the U.S. elections had ousted key anti-war senators, Wayne Morse, Ernest Gruening and Joseph Clark. [Click here, here and here.]

Pressuring Nixon

The report upset Johnson, but he chose to continue trying to persuade Nixon to live up to his pre-election commitment to do whatever he could to push the peace process toward success. At 2:54 p.m. on Nov. 8, Johnson spoke again with Sen. Dirksen to stress the urgency of Nixon getting Thieu to reverse his position on the peace talks.

“Hell, no, this ought to go right now,” Johnson declared. “If they [the South Vietnamese] don’t go in there this week, we’re just going to have all kinds of problems. We want Thieu to get a message so he can get a delegation from Saigon to Paris next week. We think we’ve held up each day, we’re killing men. We’re killing men.

“Saigon now thinks that they will play this out and keep this thing going on until January the 20th [Inauguration Day] and we think that’s a mistake.”

That evening at 9:23, Nixon called Johnson from Key Biscayne, Florida, where Nixon was taking a vacation after the grueling election. Nixon sounded confident and relaxed, even as Johnson continued to push regarding the peace talks. Johnson recounted the evidence of the continued interference by Nixon’s emissaries and even described the Republican motivation for disrupting the talks, speaking of himself in the third person.

“Johnson was going to have a bombing pause to try to elect Humphrey; they [the South Vietnamese] ought to hold out because Nixon will not sell you out like the Democrats sold out China,” Johnson said.

“I think they’ve been talking to [Vice President-elect Spiro] Agnew,” Johnson continued. “They’ve been quoting you [Nixon] indirectly, that the thing they ought to do is to just not show up at any [peace] conference and wait until you come into office.

“Now they’ve started that [boycott] and that’s bad. They’re killing Americans every day. I have that [story of the peace-talk sabotage] documented. There’s not any question but that’s happening. That’s the story, Dick, and it’s a sordid story. I don’t want to say that to the country, because that’s not good.”

Faced with Johnson’s threat, Nixon promised to tell the South Vietnamese officials to reverse themselves and join the peace talks. However, nothing changed.

At a Nov. 11 dinner party, President Thieu discussed what he termed a U.S. “betrayal” of him when he was getting pressured regarding the Paris peace talks, according to a “secret” U.S. government report on Thieu’s comments. The report added, “Thieu told his guests that during the U.S. election campaign he had sent two secret emissaries to the U.S. to contact Richard Nixon.” [Click here, here, here, here, here and here.]

On Nov. 13, South Vietnam’s Minister of Information Ton That Thein held a press conference criticizing Johnson and his diplomats for rushing matters on the peace talks. Thein also acknowledged possible pre-election contacts with elements of Nixon’s campaign.

A U.S. Embassy cable reported that “Asked whether Nixon had encouraged the GVN [the government of South Vietnam] to delay agreement with the US, Thein replied that, while there may have been contacts between Nixon staffers and personnel of the [South Vietnamese] Embassy in Washington, a person of the caliber of Nixon would not do such a thing.” [Click here, here and here.]

On Nov. 15, ten days after the election, suspicions of the peace-talk sabotage began seeping into the U.S. news media. Columnist Georgie Anne Geyer reported, “Top Saigon officials are boasting privately they helped assure the election of Richard M. Nixon. They are pleased about it. ‘We did it,’ one of them said. ‘We helped elect an American President.’”

Columnists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson noted in a Nov. 17 column that Johnson “learned that Saigon’s Ambassador Bui Diem had been in touch secretly with Richard Nixon’s people. There were unconfirmed reports that South Vietnamese leaders had even slipped campaign cash to Nixon representatives.”

‘Lady Still Operational’

As the weeks passed and the peace talks remained stalled, Anna Chennault kept up her contacts with South Vietnam’s Embassy, briefing a senior diplomat there on Dec. 9, 1968, about Nixon’s selection of “her very good friend” Melvin Laird to be Secretary of Defense.

According to the FBI cable, “She went on to say that ‘we’ should be very happy about this [and] not to be too concerned about the press’s references about a coalition government. Chennault indicated that Laird is a very strong man.” Rostow forwarded the cable to Johnson on Dec. 10, with the notation, “The Lady is still operational.”

But Johnson’s White House remained tight-lipped about its knowledge of Nixon’s treachery. According to the documents in “The ‘X’ Envelope,” the first detailed press inquiry about the peace-talk sabotage came from St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Tom Ottenad who contacted Rostow on Jan. 3, 1969, just 17 days before Johnson would leave office.

Ottenad outlined the activities of Anna Chennault on behalf of the campaign and pressed Rostow to confirm that the administration was aware of the subterfuge. Rostow responded, “I have not one word to say about that matter.”

An FBI intercept also picked up the Post-Dispatch questioning Bui Diem about contacts with Chennault. While he denied any improper contacts with the Nixon administration, Bui Diem acknowledged that Chennault “has visited the Vietnamese embassy from time to time, but not frequently.”

As published, Ottenad’s article began, “A well-known top official of committees working for the election of Richard M. Nixon secretly got in touch with representatives of South Vietnam shortly before the presidential election. It was in connection with an apparent effort to encourage them to delay in joining the Paris peace talks in hopes of getting a better deal if the Republicans won the White House.”

But there was little follow-up to Ottenad’s scoop. A sketchy account also appeared in author Teddy White’s The Making of a President 1968, which was published in summer 1969, drawing a response from Chennault, who called the accusations an “insult.”

Even in retirement, Rostow remained mum about the Chennault episode, rebuffing another overture from Ottenad on Feb. 11, 1970. Ottenad also approached ex-President Johnson, but he too chose to hold his tongue, though his legacy had been devastated by his conduct of the Vietnam War and by his failure to end it.

After Ottenad’s inquiry, Johnson’s aide Tom Johnson offered a heads-up to Nixon’s chief of staff “Bob” Haldeman about another possible story on this touchy topic. To a somewhat baffled Haldeman, Tom Johnson volunteered that ex-President Johnson had given no authorization to anyone to discuss the matter.

“Haldeman said he was most appreciative that we had advised him of this information and would keep the telephone call completely confidential,” Tom Johnson’s memo to ex-President Johnson read. “Haldeman seemed genuinely pleased and surprised that we would call on such a matter and expressed his thanks again for the attitude we have been taking toward President Nixon.” [Tom Johnson later served as president of CNN.]

More Dead

From the start of Nixon’s presidency in 1969, the U.S. participation in the Vietnam War continued for more than four years at horrendous cost to both the United States and the people of Vietnam. Having allegedly made his secret commitment to the South Vietnamese regime, Nixon kept searching for violent new ways to get Thieu a better deal than Johnson would have offered. Seeking what he called “peace with honor,” Nixon invaded Cambodia and stepped up the bombing of North Vietnam.

In those four years, the war bitterly divided the United States, as anti-war protests turned increasingly confrontational; parents turned against their children and children against their parents; “hard-hats” attacked “hippies”; Nixon baited one group of angry protesters with his “V” for victory sign and called other protesters “bums”; four students were gunned down at Kent State.

But it seemed nothing could stop the war, not massive protests, not even disclosures about the deception that had gotten the United States into the conflict. Former Defense Department official Daniel Ellsberg leaked the “Pentagon Papers,” a secret history of the war’s early years, but the conflict still ground on.

Fatefully, Nixon struck back at Ellsberg by organizing a White House “plumbers unit” that broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. The “plumbers,” including ex-CIA operatives, later switched their attention to Nixon’s political rivals, burglarizing the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate building in search of intelligence, including what dirt the Democrats might have on Nixon.

Before U.S. participation in the war was finally brought to a close in 1973, on terms similar to what had been available to President Johnson in 1968, a million more Vietnamese were estimated to have died. Those four years also cost the lives of an additional 20,763 U.S. soldiers, with 111,230 wounded.

Ironically, as the Democrats stayed mum, Nixon apparently judged that they were more concerned about the information regarding his Vietnam War “treason” coming out than he was. So, after some of his “plumbers” got arrested at the Watergate on June 17, 1972, Nixon began to view the 1968 events as a blackmail card to play against Johnson to get his help squelching the expanding probe.

Nixon discussed the 1968 bugging in his Oval Office meetings about Watergate as early as July 1, 1972. According to Nixon’s White House tapes, his aide Charles Colson touched off Nixon’s musings by noting that a newspaper column claimed that the Democrats had bugged the telephones of Anna Chennault in 1968 when she was serving as Nixon’s intermediary to Thieu.

“Oh,” Nixon responded, “in ’68, they bugged our phones too.”

Colson: “And that this was ordered by Johnson.”

Nixon: “That’s right”

Colson: “And done through the FBI. My God, if we ever did anything like that you’d have the ”

Nixon: “Yes. For example, why didn’t we bug [the Democrats’ 1972 presidential nominee George] McGovern, because after all he’s affecting the peace negotiations?”

Colson: “Sure.”

Nixon: “That would be exactly the same thing.”

By early November 1972, as Nixon was cruising to an easy victory over McGovern but was worried about future problems with the Watergate scandal, the tale of Johnson’s supposed wiretaps of Nixon’s campaign was picked up by the Washington Star, Nixon’s favorite newspaper for planting stories damaging to his opponents.

Washington Star reporters contacted Rostow on Nov. 2, 1972, and, according to a Rostow memo, asked whether “President Johnson instructed the FBI to investigate action by members of the Nixon camp to slow down the peace negotiations in Paris before the 1968 election. After the election [FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover informed President Nixon of what he had been instructed to do by President Johnson. President Nixon is alleged to have been outraged.” But Rostow still was unwilling to help on the story.

Hoover apparently had given Nixon a garbled version of what had happened, leading him to believe that the FBI bugging was more extensive than it was. According to Nixon’s White House tapes, he pressed Haldeman on Jan. 8, 1973, to get the story about the 1968 bugging into the Washington Star.

“You don’t really have to have hard evidence, Bob,” Nixon told Haldeman. “You’re not trying to take this to court. All you have to do is to have it out, just put it out as authority, and the press will write the Goddamn story, and the Star will run it now.”

Haldeman, however, insisted on checking the facts. In The Haldeman Diaries, published in 1994, Haldeman included an entry dated Jan. 12, 1973, which contains his book’s only deletion for national security reasons.

“I talked to [former Attorney General John] Mitchell on the phone,” Haldeman wrote, “and he said [FBI official Cartha] DeLoach had told him he was up to date on the thing. A Star reporter was making an inquiry in the last week or so, and LBJ got very hot and called Deke [DeLoach’s nickname], and said to him that if the Nixon people are going to play with this, that he would release [deleted material, national security], saying that our side was asking that certain things be done.

“DeLoach took this as a direct threat from Johnson,” Haldeman wrote. “As he [DeLoach] recalls it, bugging was requested on the [Nixon campaign] planes, but was turned down, and all they did was check the phone calls, and put a tap on the Dragon Lady [Anna Chennault].”

In other words, Nixon’s threat to raise the 1968 bugging was countered by Johnson, who threatened to finally reveal that Nixon’s campaign had sabotaged the Vietnam peace talks. The stakes were suddenly raised. However, events went in a different direction.

On Jan. 22, 1973, ten days after Haldeman’s diary entry and two days after Nixon began his second term, Johnson died of a heart attack. Haldeman also apparently thought better of publicizing Nixon’s 1968 bugging complaint.

Several months later with Johnson dead and Nixon sinking deeper into the Watergate swamp Rostow, the keeper of “The ‘X’ envelope,” mused about whether history might have gone in a very different direction if he and other Johnson officials had spoken out in real time about what Johnson called Nixon’s “treason.” Still, Rostow chose to keep the facts from the American people.

And the silence had consequences. Though Nixon was forced to resign over the Watergate scandal on Aug. 9, 1974, the failure of the U.S. government and the American press to explain the full scope of Nixon’s dirty politics left Americans divided over the disgraced president’s legacy and the seriousness of Watergate.

Many Republicans viewed Watergate as a Democratic plot to reverse the landslide results of the 1972 election. Other observers saw the scandal as an isolated event provoked by Nixon’s personal paranoia. But almost no one made the connection that Rostow did, that Nixon’s high-handed political espionage had involved an earlier scheme that dragged out the Vietnam War for four bloody years.

If the public had known that  story, including the evidence that some of Nixon’s Wall Street friends were using inside knowledge of the  peace-talk sabotage to play the markets,  the Republicans would have been hard-pressed to argue that Nixon was simply a victim of partisan Democratic scandal-mongering.

Over the years, pieces of the story about Nixon’s “treason” did surface from time to time, but never getting much traction with the major U.S. news media or the political classes. It fell into that hazy category between “conspiracy theory” and “old news.”

In 1980, Anna Chennault published an autobiography entitled The Education of Anna, in which she acknowledged that she, indeed, had been a courier for messages between the Nixon campaign and the South Vietnamese government.

She quoted Nixon aide John Mitchell as calling her a few days before the 1968 election and telling her: “I’m speaking on behalf of Mr. Nixon. It’s very important that our Vietnamese friends understand our Republican position and I hope you made that clear to them.” But still there was no outcry for a serious investigation.

An October Reprise?

The lack of interest in Nixon’s Vietnam peace-talk gambit also might have encouraged the Republicans to dig into Nixon’s bag of dirty tricks again in 1980 when some of his old allies, including George H.W. Bush and William Casey, were key figures in Ronald Reagan’s campaign and saw another prospect for ousting another Democratic president over another “October Surprise.”

After all, if Nixon could get away with sabotaging Vietnam peace talks when half a million U.S. soldiers were in harm’s way, what was the big deal about upsetting President Jimmy Carter’s negotiations to free 52 U.S. embassy employees then held hostage in Iran? And if the Democrats eventually did get wind of any GOP-Iran hanky-panky, what were the chances that they would hold anyone accountable?

Wouldn’t these Democrats be just as susceptible as Johnson’s team was to appeals that telling the whole sordid tale wouldn’t be good for the country? The Democrats had even taken a strange sort of pride in keeping these dirty Republican secrets secret.

As it turned out, Democrats did show the same reluctance to seriously investigate allegations of Republican interference in Carter’s hostage negotiations with Iran as they did regarding the Nixon campaign’s sabotage of Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks. [For details on the 1980 reprise of Nixon’s “treason,” see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege or America’s Stolen Narrative or Consortiumnews.com’s “New October Surprise Series.”]

Democrats also presided over timid investigations of Reagan’s later arms-for-hostage deals with Iran, known as the Iran-Contra Affair, and of Reagan’s secret military support for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, the so-called Iraq-gate scandal.

In 1992, I interviewed R. Spencer Oliver, a longtime Democratic Party figure whose phone was one of those that had been bugged at Watergate. Oliver also was one of the few Washington Democrats with the toughness and tenacity to push serious investigations into these Republican scandals.

When I asked him why the Democrats so often retreated in the face of fierce Republican resistance, he explained that the Watergate scandal though it led to the ruin of one Republican president had taught the Republicans how to thwart serious inquiries: “What [the Republicans] learned from Watergate was not ‘don’t do it,’ but ‘cover it up more effectively.’ They have learned that they have to frustrate congressional oversight and press scrutiny in a way that will avoid another major scandal.”

While Oliver was surely right, there was also the tendency of Democrats to avoid the risks required to stand up to Republican abuses. The failed investigations of the 1980 October Surprise case, the Iran-Contra Affair and Iraq-gate seemed part and parcel with avoiding a confrontation with Nixon over the Vietnam peace talks in 1968.

In all those cases, there was the echo of Rostow’s musings in 1973, wondering whether the silence of Johnson’s White House regarding Nixon’s “treason” in 1968 had proved not to be “good for the country” after all.

By not holding the Republicans accountable, Rostow had reflected, “There was nothing in their previous experience with an operation of doubtful propriety (or, even, legality) to warn them off, and there were memories of how close an election could get and the possible utility of pressing to the limit and beyond.” But even with that recognition, Rostow still had kept silent.

Indeed, if Rostow had had his way, “The ‘X’ envelope” today would still be locked away from the American people for another decade and possibly 50 years longer.

By the time Rostow died on Feb. 13, 2003, the Republican Party had muscled its way back into power once more, via the tainted election in 2000 and the latest GOP president, George W. Bush, was marching the United States into another destructive war behind another smokescreen of lies and distortions, in Iraq.

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.




How ‘Free Markets’ Defame ‘Democracy’

Exclusive: Venezuela seems to be following Ukraine on the neocon hit list for “regime change” as Washington punishes Caracas for acting against a perceived coup threat. But a broader problem is how the U.S. conflates “free markets” with “democracy,” giving “democracy” a bad name, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The one common thread in modern U.S. foreign policy is an insistence on “free market” solutions to the world’s problems. That is, unless you’re lucky enough to live in a First World ally of the United States or your country is too big to bully.

So, if you’re in France or Canada or for that matter China, you can have generous health and educational services and build a modern infrastructure. But if you’re a Third World country or otherwise vulnerable like, say, Ukraine or Venezuela Official Washington insists that you shred your social safety net and give free reign to private investors.

If you’re good and accept this “free market” domination, you become, by the U.S. definition, a “democracy” even if doing so goes against the wishes of most of your citizens. In other words, it doesn’t matter what most voters want; they must accept the “magic of the market” to be deemed a “democracy.”

Thus, in today’s U.S. parlance, “democracy” has come to mean almost the opposite of what it classically meant. Rather than rule by a majority of the people, you have rule by “the market,” which usually translates into rule by local oligarchs, rich foreigners and global banks.

Governments that don’t follow these rules by instead shaping their societies to address the needs of average citizens are deemed “not free,” thus making them targets of U.S.-funded “non-governmental organizations,” which train activists, pay journalists and coordinate business groups to organize an opposition to get rid of these “un-democratic” governments.

If a leader seeks to defend his or her nation’s sovereignty by such means as requiring these NGOs to register as “foreign agents,” the offending government is accused of violating “human rights” and becomes a candidate for more aggressive “regime change.”

Currently, one of the big U.S. complaints against Russia is that it requires foreign-funded NGOs that seek to influence policy decisions to register as “foreign agents.” The New York Times and other Western publications have cited this 2012 law as proof that Russia has become a dictatorship, while ignoring the fact that the Russians modeled their legislation after a U.S. law known as the “Foreign Agent Registration Act.”

So, it’s okay for the U.S. to label people who are paid by foreign entities to influence U.S. policies as “foreign agents” and to imprison people who fail to register but not for Russia to do the same. A number of these NGOs in Russia and elsewhere also are not “independent” entities but instead are financed by the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

There is even a circular element to this U.S. complaint. Leading the denunciation of Russia and other governments that restrain these U.S.-financed NGOs is Freedom House, which marks down countries on its “freedom index” when they balk at letting in this back-door U.S. influence. However, over the past three decades, Freedom House has become essentially a subsidiary of NED, a bought-and-paid-for NGO itself.

The Hidden CIA Hand

That takeover began in earnest in 1983 when CIA Director William Casey was focused on creating a funding mechanism to support Freedom House and other outside groups that would engage in propaganda and political action that the CIA had historically organized and financed covertly. Casey helped shape the plan for a congressionally funded entity that would serve as a conduit for this U.S. government money.

But Casey recognized the need to hide the CIA’s strings. “Obviously we here [at CIA] should not get out front in the development of such an organization, nor should we appear to be a sponsor or advocate,” Casey said in one undated letter to then-White House counselor Edwin Meese III as Casey urged creation of a “National Endowment.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “CIA’s Hidden Hand in ‘Democracy’ Groups.”]

Casey’s planning led to the 1983 creation of NED, which was put under the control of neoconservative Carl Gershman, who remains in charge to this day. Gershman’s NED now distributes more than $100 million a year, which included financing scores of activists, journalists and other groups inside Ukraine before last year’s coup and now pays for dozens of projects in Venezuela, the new emerging target for “regime change.”

But NED’s cash is only a part of how the U.S. government manipulates events in vulnerable countries. In Ukraine, prior to the February 2014 coup, neocon Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland reminded Ukrainian business leaders that the United States had invested $5 billion in their “European aspirations.”

Nuland then handpicked who would be the new leadership, telling U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt that “Yats is the guy,” referring to “free market” politician Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who not surprisingly emerged as the new prime minister after a violent coup ousted elected President Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22, 2014.

The coup also started a civil war that has claimed more than 6,000 lives, mostly ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine who had supported Yanukovych and were targeted for a ruthless “anti-terrorist operation” spearheaded by neo-Nazi and other far-right militias dispatched by the U.S.-backed regime in Kiev. But Nuland blames everything on Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Nuland’s Mastery of Ukraine Propaganda.”]

On top of Ukraine’s horrific death toll, the country’s economy has largely collapsed, but Nuland, Yatsenyuk and other free-marketeers have devised a solution, in line with the wishes of the Washington-based International Monetary Fund: Austerity for the average Ukrainian.

Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Nuland hailed “reforms” to turn Ukraine into a “free-market state,” including decisions “to reduce and cap pension benefits, increase work requirements and phase in a higher retirement age; [and] cutting wasteful gas subsidies.”

In other words, these “reforms” are designed to make the hard lives of average Ukrainians even harder by slashing pensions, removing work protections, forcing people to work into their old age and making them pay more for heat during the winter.

‘Sharing’ the Wealth

In exchange for those “reforms,” the IMF approved $17.5 billion in aid that will be handled by Ukraine’s Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko, who until last December was a former U.S. diplomat responsible for a U.S. taxpayer-financed $150 million investment fund for Ukraine that was drained of money as she engaged in lucrative insider deals deals that she has fought to keep secret. Now, Ms. Jaresko and her cronies will get a chance to be the caretakers of more than 100 times more money. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Ukraine’s Finance Minister’s American ‘Values.’”]

Other prominent Americans have been circling around Ukraine’s “democratic” opportunities. For instance, Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter was named to the board of directors of Burisma Holdings, Ukraine’s largest private gas firm, a shadowy Cyprus-based company linked to Privat Bank.

Privat Bank is controlled by the thuggish billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky, who was appointed by the Kiev regime to be governor of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, a south-central province of Ukraine. In this tribute to “democracy,” the U.S.-backed Ukrainian authorities gave an oligarch his own province to rule. Kolomoysky also has helped finance paramilitary forces killing ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.

Burisma has been lining up well-connected American lobbyists, too, some with ties to Secretary of State John Kerry, including Kerry’s former Senate chief of staff David Leiter, according to lobbying disclosures.

As Time magazine reported, “Leiter’s involvement in the firm rounds out a power-packed team of politically-connected Americans that also includes a second new board member, Devon Archer, a Democratic bundler and former adviser to John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. Both Archer and Hunter Biden have worked as business partners with Kerry’s son-in-law, Christopher Heinz, the founding partner of Rosemont Capital, a private-equity company.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Whys Behind the Ukraine Crisis.”]

So, it seems even this modern form of “democracy” has some “sharing the wealth” aspects.

Which brings us to the worsening crisis in Venezuela, a South American country which has been ruled over the past decade or so by leftist leaders who with broad public support have sought to spread the nation’s oil wealth around more broadly than ever before, including paying for ambitious social programs to address problems of illiteracy, disease and poverty.

While there were surely missteps and mistakes by the late President Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro, the Chavista government has made progress in addressing some of Venezuela’s enduring social ills, which had been coolly ignored by previous U.S.-backed rulers, such as President Carlos Andres Perez, who collaborated with the CIA and hobnobbed with the great and powerful.

I was once told by an Andres Perez assistant that the Venezuelan president shared his villa outside Caracas with the likes of David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger, bringing in beauty pageant contestants for their entertainment.

Chavez and Maduro at least have tried to improve the lot of the average Venezuelan. However, facing a deepening economic crisis made worse by the drop in world oil prices, Maduro has found himself under increasing political pressure, some of it financed or inspired by Washington and supported by the rightist government in neighboring Colombia.

Allegations of a Coup

Maduro has reacted to these moves against his government by accusing some opponents of plotting a coup, a claim that is mocked by the U.S. State Department and by the U.S. mainstream media, which apparently doesn’t believe that the United States would ever think of staging a coup in Latin America.

This week, the White House declared that the evidence of any coup-plotting is either fabricated or implausible, as the New York Times reported. President Barack Obama then cited what he called “an extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States” from Venezuela and froze the American assets of seven Venezuelan police and military officials.

The fact that Obama can deliver that line with a straight face should make any future words out of his mouth not credible. Venezuela has done nothing to threaten the “national security of the United States” extraordinarily or otherwise. Whatever the truth about the coup-plotting, Venezuela has a much greater reason to fear for its national security at the hands of the United States.

But in this up-is-down world of Official Washington, bureaucrats and journalists nod in agreement at such absurdities.

A few weeks ago, I was having brunch with a longtime State Department official who was chortling about the pain that the drop in oil prices was inflicting on Venezuela and some other adversarial states, including Iran and Russia.

I asked why the U.S. government took such pleasure at watching people in these countries suffer. I suggested that it was perhaps more in U.S. interests for these countries and their people to be doing well with money in their pockets so they could shop and do business.

His response was that these countries had caused trouble for U.S. foreign policy in the past and now it was their turn to pay the price. He also called me a “Putin apologist” when I wouldn’t agree with the State Department’s line blaming Russia for all of Ukraine’s ills.

But the broader question is: Why does the United States insist on imposing “free market” rules on these struggling countries when Democrats and even some Republicans agree that an unrestrained “free market” has not worked well for the American people? It was “free market” extremism that led to the Great Depression of the 1930s and to the Great Recession of 2008, the effects of which are only now slowly receding.

Further, real democracy i.e., the will of the majority to shape societies to serve the many rather than the few has turned out also to be good economics. American society and economy were arguably strongest when government policy encouraged a growing middle class from the New Deal through the 1970s.

To be sure, there were faults and false starts during those decades, but experiments with an uncontrolled “free market” have proven catastrophic. Yet, that is what the U.S. government seems determined to foist on vulnerable countries whose majorities would prefer to make their societies more equitable, more fair.

And beyond the negative social impact of the “free market,” there is the danger that conflating policies that cause economic inequality with democracy will give democracy a very bad name.

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.




How the GOP Undermines America

The world might find the goofy behavior of the “last remaining superpower” comical if it weren’t so scary. Though Democrats surely have their share of unfunny clowns, the Republicans took center stage in this circus of buffoonery with an open letter to Iran advertising U.S. unreliability, ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

Sen. Tom Cotton’s sophomoric stunt of an open letter to the Iranians telling them not to have confidence in whatever the United States puts on the negotiating table has received the broad and swift condemnation it deserves. Some of the strong criticism has come from editorial pages and other sources of commentary that generally are not very friendly toward the Obama administration in general or even to its policies on Iran in particular.

A bright side to this incident that embarrasses and disgraces half of the United States Senate comes in the clarity it provides in terms of what games are being played and what is at stake. Even before this latest antic, Cotton deserved credit for being more honest about his objective than most of his colleagues who are engaged in the same destructive efforts to undermine diplomacy on Iran.

Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, has stated openly and explicitly that his goal is to kill off any agreement at all with Iran. Unlike many others, he has not tried to fool us with the subterfuge that legislative sabotage is aimed at getting a chimerical “better deal” with Iran. Now with the letter, the unwritten alliance between American hardliners and Iranian hardliners in opposing any agreement is made more open than ever.

What is going on here is not just the work of Tom Cotton. The outrageous letter to the Iranians flows naturally from a broader ongoing process. The fact that the great majority of Republican senators signed the letter is the most obvious indication of that.

There no doubt is today much regret in the senatorial offices involved, but the fact is that 47 of them signed it. There are a couple of possible interpretations of what took place among the members, neither of which makes those members look good.

One is that they are so distracted or careless that they can let a 37-year-old who has been in the Senate only two months rope them into doing something this stupid. The other, which is the more plausible interpretation, is that Cotton’s letter was only the latest vehicle for a journey that the whole party has already been taking for some time.

The letter was a natural next step after bringing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the Capitol for the express purpose of denouncing and opposing U.S. policy toward Iran. In each case it was a matter of Congressional Republicans enlisting foreigners to try to sabotage a major element of current U.S. foreign policy.

Because Israel is considered an “ally,” Netanyahu got to use the podium in the House chamber whereas Iranian hardliners do not get that privilege. But the fundamental nature and purpose of what was taking place was the same.

The impact of all of this on the immediate prospects for completing a nuclear deal between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) and Iran is certainly important and has been the subject of much of the immediate commentary about the letter. There is a basis for optimism that this clownish overplaying of their hand by some of those who would like to sabotage the diplomacy will lessen the danger of such sabotage.

The episode at least demonstrates why, if one wants U.S. policy toward Iran to be formulated and executed in a responsible and adult way, then for the time being the less Congressional involvement there is the better.

We ought to reflect also, however, on how the kind of irresponsible behavior we have just seen is part of a bigger pattern that goes well beyond policy toward Iran and has deleterious effects on U.S. interests abroad besides what happens to an Iranian nuclear deal. This behavior damages U.S. credibility.

There is an irony here in that some of those who signed Cotton’s letter have been among those who have bemoaned supposed diminishing of America’s international credibility because of other matters, usually involving issues of whether the United States should persist in prosecuting overseas military operations where any direct U.S. interests being protected are questionable.

U.S. credibility is not determined by military doggedness in such situations. It is partly determined by the United States living up to negotiated multilateral agreements that are clearly in its interests, as would be the case with a P5+1 agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. Probably the single most remarkable, and egregious, aspect of the Cotton letter is that it was blatantly and expressly designed to damage U.S. credibility.

In the future, it will lack credibility for any signatory of this letter to complain about alleged damage to U.S. credibility regarding anything else.

The connection between the sort of behavior we are talking about and the standing of the United States overseas, however, is even broader than that and extends to the handling of domestic policy. Foreigners and foreign governments observe how the United States, the superpower with the world’s largest economy, handles its own affairs, and they draw conclusions about how viable and reliable an interlocutor the United States would be on international matters.

The foreigners are looking to see whether there is consistency and rationality in how the U.S. political system pursues U.S. national interests. If they do see those things, then the United States is someone they can do business with, whether as a rival or as an ally, even if U.S. interests differ from their own. If they do not see those things, then opportunities are lost for doing business that would benefit both the United States and the foreign state.

A nation does not represent itself as a viable interlocutor, whose execution of policy can be trusted by other nations, if passionate internal divisions supersede sober pursuit of the nation’s interests. As an outsider we encounter such situations in, say, Iraq, where sectarian loyalties and hatreds make it impossible to rely on a government in Baghdad consistently pursuing an Iraqi national interest.

We also see it in Bangladesh, where the personal animosity between the “two begums” who head each of the major political parties there have made Bangladeshi politics so dysfunctional that in the recent past the military has had to step in.

A pattern that is similar in some respects has, tragically, come to prevail in the United States. Foreigners could hear the then minority (now majority) leader of the United States Senate state a few years ago that his number one priority was not any particular U.S. national interest in either domestic or foreign affairs but instead the prevention of a second term for the incumbent U.S. president. Foreigners then were able to see the senator’s party act along the same lines, using extortionate legislative methods to push a partisan agenda even at the expense of damaging the country’s credit rating and causing disruptive interruptions to government operations.

Once the same party achieved a majority in both houses of Congress there was much talk about how this would lead to newly responsible behavior, but the opening gavel of the new Congress had hardly fallen when once again there was the tactic of holding the operations of a government department hostage to press a specific partisan demand (this time on immigration) in opposition to the president’s policies.

Foreigners can see today in the same party an animosity toward the other party and especially to the current U.S. president that is as passionate as the sectarian hatreds in Iraq or the personal hatreds between the begums in Bangladesh, and that leads to at-all-costs efforts to defeat any achievements by this president.

The biggest such achievement in foreign policy would be an accord to restrict the Iranian nuclear program, hence all the pulling out of stops, aided by the role of Netanyahu and the Iranian hardliners, to defeat such an agreement.

The biggest achievement in domestic policy has been the Affordable Care Act, hence while those proverbial crumbling roads and bridges in the U.S. infrastructure continue to crumble, the House of Representatives spends its time and effort on voting 56 times to repeal the Act. The campaign to destroy Obamacare has become an Ahab-against-the-white-whale obsession that is being endlessly pursued despite mounting evidence of the Act’s success; observant foreigners must be shaking their heads wondering how a country in which such obsessions govern the political system ever got to be a superpower.

The closing of eyes even to the performance of public programs within the United States is but one example of an all-too-conspicuous denial of reality on other matters. Sen. James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, gave another demonstration of this the other day when he tossed a snowball in the Senate chamber to emphasize his disbelief in climate change, a prank that rivals what the youngster Cotton has done in demeaning the world’s supposedly greatest deliberative body.

The foreign perceptions of all this that matter include not only whether CO2-belching China will live up to its side of international agreements to save the planet but also more broadly what foreigners think about the prospect of doing any business on anything with a government that has a major part of it so far apart from the reality-based community and so disinclined to work responsibly on behalf of its own national interests.

Sen. Cotton’s letter deserves all the scorn it has received as far as the Iranian nuclear issue is concerned. It also should dismay us because of the bigger problem it illustrates of domestic political passions undermining the standing of the United States in the world and its ability to do business with the rest of the world.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)




Nuland’s Mastery of Ukraine Propaganda

Exclusive: In House testimony, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland blamed Russia and ethnic-Russian rebels for last summer’s shoot-down of MH-17 over Ukraine, but the U.S. government has not substantiated that charge. So, did Nuland mislead Congress or just play a propaganda game, asks Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

An early skill learned by Official Washington’s neoconservatives, when they were cutting their teeth inside the U.S. government in the 1980s, was how to frame their arguments in the most propagandistic way, so anyone who dared to disagree with any aspect of the presentation seemed unpatriotic or crazy.

During my years at The Associated Press and Newsweek, I dealt with a number of now prominent neocons who were just starting out and mastering these techniques at the knee of top CIA psychological warfare specialist Walter Raymond Jr., who had been transferred to President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council staff where Raymond oversaw inter-agency task forces that pushed Reagan’s hard-line agenda in Central America and elsewhere. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Victory of ‘Perception Management.’”]

One of those quick learners was Robert Kagan, who was then a protégé of Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams. Kagan got his first big chance when he became director of the State Department’s public diplomacy office for Latin America, a key outlet for Raymond’s propaganda schemes.

Though always personable in his dealings with me, Kagan grew frustrated when I wouldn’t swallow the propaganda that I was being fed. At one point, Kagan warned me that I might have to be “controversialized,” i.e. targeted for public attack by Reagan’s right-wing media allies and anti-journalism attack groups, like Accuracy in Media, a process that did indeed occur.

Years later, Kagan emerged as one of America’s top neocons, a co-founder of the Project for the New American Century, which opened in 1998 to advocate for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, ultimately gaining the backing of a large swath of the U.S. national security establishment in support of that bloody endeavor.

Despite the Iraq disaster, Kagan continued to rise in influence, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a columnist at the Washington Post, and someone whose published criticism so alarmed President Barack Obama last year that he invited Kagan to a White House lunch. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Obama’s True Foreign Policy Weakness.”]

Kagan’s Wife’s Coup

But Kagan is perhaps best known these days as the husband of neocon Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, one of Vice President Dick Cheney’s former advisers and a key architect of last year’s coup in Ukraine, a “regime change” that toppled an elected president and touched off a civil war, which now has become a proxy fight involving nuclear-armed United States and Russia.

In an interview last year with the New York Times, Nuland indicated that she shared her husband’s criticism of President Obama for his hesitancy to use American power more assertively. Referring to Kagan’s public attacks on Obama’s more restrained “realist” foreign policy, Nuland said, “suffice to say that nothing goes out of the house that I don’t think is worthy of his talents. Let’s put it that way.”

But Nuland also seems to have mastered her husband’s skill with propaganda, presenting an extreme version of the situation in Ukraine, such that no one would dare quibble with the details. In prepared testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, Nuland even slipped in an accusation blaming Russia for the July 17 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 though the U.S. government has not presented any proof.

Nuland testified, “In eastern Ukraine, Russia and its separatist puppets unleashed unspeakable violence and pillage; MH-17 was shot down.”

Now, it’s true that if one parses Nuland’s testimony, she’s not exactly saying the Russians or the ethnic Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine shot down the plane. There is a semi-colon between the “unspeakable violence and pillage” and the passive verb structure “MH-17 was shot down.” But anyone seeing her testimony would have understood that the Russians and their “puppets” shot down the plane, killing all 298 people onboard.

When I submitted a formal query to the State Department asking if Nuland’s testimony meant that the U.S. government had developed new evidence that the rebels shot down the plane and that the Russians shared complicity, I received no answer.

Perhaps significantly or perhaps not, Nuland presented similarly phrased testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday but made no reference to MH-17. So, I submitted a new inquiry asking whether the omission reflected second thoughts by Nuland about making the claim before the House. Again, I have not received a reply.

However, both of Nuland’s appearances place all the blame for the chaos in Ukraine on Russia, including the 6,000 or more deaths. Nuland offered not a single word of self-criticism about how she contributed to these violent events by encouraging last year’s coup, nor did she express the slightest concern about the actions of the coup regime in Kiev, including its dispatch of neo-Nazi militias to carry out “anti-terrorist” and “death squad” operations against ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Nuclear War and Clashing Ukraine Narratives.”]

Russia’s Fault

Everything was Russia’s fault or as Nuland phrased it: “This manufactured conflict, controlled by the Kremlin; fueled by Russian tanks and heavy weapons; financed at Russian taxpayers’ expense, has cost the lives of more than 6,000 Ukrainians, but also of hundreds of young Russians sent to fight and die there by the Kremlin, in a war their government denies.”

Nuland was doing her husband proud. As every good propagandist knows, you don’t present events with any gray areas; your side is always perfect and the other side is the epitome of evil. And, today, Nuland faces almost no risk that some mainstream journalist will dare contradict this black-and-white storyline; they simply parrot it.

Besides heaping all the blame on the Russians, Nuland cited in her Senate testimony some of the new “reforms” that the Kiev authorities have just implemented as they build a “free-market state.” She said, “They made tough choices to reduce and cap pension benefits, increase work requirements and phase in a higher retirement age; they passed laws cutting wasteful gas subsidies.”

In other words, many of the “free-market reforms” are aimed at making the hard lives of average Ukrainians even harder by cutting pensions, removing work protections, forcing people to work into their old age and making them pay more for heat during the winter.

Nuland also hailed some of the regime’s stated commitments to fighting corruption. But Kiev seems to have simply installed a new cast of bureaucrats looking to enrich themselves. For instance, Ukraine’s Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko is an expatriate American who before becoming an instant Ukrainian citizen last December ran a U.S. taxpayer-financed investment fund for Ukraine that was drained of money as she engaged in lucrative insider deals, which she has fought to keep secret. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Ukraine’s Finance Minister’s American ‘Values.’”]

Yet, none of these concerns were mentioned in Nuland’s propagandistic testimony to the House and Senate not that any of the committee members or the mainstream press corps seemed to care that they were being spun and even misled. The hearings were mostly opportunities for members of Congress to engage in chest-beating as they demanded that President Obama send U.S. arms to Ukraine for a hot war with Russia.

Regarding the MH-17 disaster, one reason that I was inquisitive about Nuland’s insinuation in her House testimony that the Russians and the ethnic Russian rebels were responsible was that some U.S. intelligence analysts have reached a contrary conclusion, according to a source briefed on their findings. According to that information, the analysts found no proof that the Russians had delivered a BUK anti-aircraft system to the rebels and concluded that the attack was apparently carried out by a rogue element of the Ukrainian military.

After I published that account last summer, the Obama administration went silent about the MH-17 shoot-down, letting stand some initial speculation that had blamed the Russians and the rebels. In the nearly eight months since the tragedy, the U.S. government has failed to make public any intelligence information on the crash. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Danger of an MH-17 ‘Cold Case.’”]

So, Nuland may have been a bit duplicitous when she phrased her testimony so that anyone hearing it would jump to the conclusion that the Russians and the rebels were to blame. It’s true she didn’t exactly say so but she surely knew what impression she was leaving.

In that, Nuland appears to have taken a page from the playbook of her husband’s old mentor, Elliott Abrams, who provided misleading testimony to Congress on the Iran-Contra Affair in the 1980s and even though he was convicted of that offense, Abrams was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush and thus was able to return to government last decade to oversee the selling of the Iraq War.

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.




Treading a Delicate Line on Israel

A sensitive point in criticizing Israel over its persecution of the Palestinians is the need to separate the actions of that government from the Jewish people, many of whom also object to those repressive policies. One bungled case at UCLA raised accusations of anti-Semitism, as Lawrence Davidson describes.

By Lawrence Davidson

On March 5, the New York Times carried a front page story about a second-year student at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) named Rachel Beyda, who is Jewish and was seeking appointment as a member on the university’s Judicial Board, a student committee that considers judicial questions in reference to the activities of student government.

As the story goes, Ms. Beyda’s application was originally rejected because a majority of the board felt that her association with organizations such as Hillel, a group that uncritically supports Israel’s apartheid-style culture and maintains anti-democratic rules and procedures of its own, would represent a conflict of interest and result in possible bias on her part.

Given the tension on many campuses, including UCLA, between those who support and oppose Israeli policies and behavior – tensions which occasionally result in student organizations being disciplined – it was not an unreasonable assumption. Unfortunately, the student board members who questioned Ms. Beyda’s affiliations made it appear that their concerns flowed from her religion and ethnicity.

Then “at the prodding of a faculty adviser who pointed out that belonging to Jewish organizations was not a conflict of interest, the students [on the board] revisited the issue and unanimously put her [Beyda] on the board.”

Of course, the story does not end there. According to the New York Times, the episode has “set off an anguished discussion of how Jews are treated” and served to “spotlight what appears to be a surge of hostile sentiment directed against Jews on many campuses in the country, often a byproduct of animosity toward the policies of Israel.”

The Los Angeles-area Zionists have had a field day blowing the incident out of all proportions. For instance, Rabbi Aaron Lerner, “the incoming executive director of the Hillel chapter at U.C.L.A.” told the Times, “we don’t like to wave the flag of anti-Semitism, but this is different. This is bigotry. This is discriminating against someone because of their identity.”

At least on one point Lerner is wrong. Hillel does “wave the flag of anti-Semitism.” After all, Hillel maintains that “Israel is a core element of Jewish life and the gateway to Jewish identity.” The organization follows the Zionist line that those who strongly oppose Israel, oppose the Jews and Judaism per se.

Lerner’s charge of “bigotry” is harder to evaluate without seeing the recorded video of the board meeting (which has been removed from YouTube). However, in a letter to the campus newspaper, the students who originally voted against Ms. Beyda apologized for the tack they had taken in their questioning of her.

The Times goes on to air the opinions of Rabbi John L. Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood who called the board incident “insidious”;  Avinoam Baral, the president of student council, who said the board was unfairly suggesting Beyda might have “divided loyalties”; and Natalie Charney, student president of the UCLA chapter of Hillel who complained that this was all the result of an “overall climate of targeting Israel” that has led to the “targeting of Jewish students.”

Well, no one can accuse the New York Times of putting forth a balanced interpretation of events.

What is the Real Issue?

There is certainly something upsetting about this incident. It might very well be that the recent acrimonious struggle that resulted in the UCLA student government endorsing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel set the scene for a less than sensitive approach to Ms. Beyda’s application to the Judicial Board.

Nonetheless, the incident and its repercussions tell us that those who oppose Israeli behavior have to be careful not to fall into the Zionist trap of assuming, or even inferring, that Israel is identical with the Jewish people and that individual Jews cannot do other than support the Zionist state. This is simply not true.

It seems to me that the mistake the board members made was to focus on Ms. Beyda’s membership in “Jewish” organizations. We can infer that from the faculty adviser’s intervention as described above. If those objecting to her application had thought the issue through, they would have realized that the real problem is not membership in organizations that are Jewish, but rather membership in organizations that support institutional racism and oppression.

Focusing on the latter points allows one to get past the issue of being Jewish. After all, there should be a problem if an applicant belonged to any such organization, be it Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, communist or even pseudo-democratic.

In the United States we may be approaching a tipping point in the struggle against Zionist racism and Israeli oppression. As such it is extremely important that those involved in this struggle express their feelings in a way that clearly maintains a separation between what is objected to and Jews generally.

The struggle is against racism, discrimination, oppression, occupation and illegal colonization because they are evils no matter who perpetrates them. The Israeli case has to be prioritized because Israel and its Zionist allies have bought and bullied our own government and political parties in a corrupting manner.

Expressed in this way, anyone who applied for the UCLA Judicial Board, regardless of religion or ethnicity, might properly be asked about their attitude toward such issues.

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.