The Ugly Specter of Torture and Lies

Exclusive: President Obama refused to hold “war on terror” torturers to account but punished truth-tellers severely, a bleak legacy not erased by Chelsea Manning’s belated commutation, as Jonathan Marshall explains.

By Jonathan Marshall

January 17 was an unusually good day for truth and human rights on both sides of the Atlantic. Even before President Obama commuted whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s long prison sentence, the British Supreme Court ruled unanimously that government ministers cannot claim “state immunity” or other specious grounds to avoid legal accountability in cases of abduction (rendition) and torture. The decision was heralded by Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, and other human rights groups.

The lawsuit against Britain’s former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and a former senior intelligence officer was brought by Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a militant opponent of Muammar Gaddafi. He was kidnapped with his pregnant wife from Bangkok in March 2004 based on a tip from MI6, the British intelligence service.

Taken to a secret CIA prison in Thailand, they were blindfolded, hooded, hung from hooks on the cell wall, beaten, and blasted with loud music. A few days later the CIA flew them to Tripoli, where Belhaj was jailed and tortured by the Libyan regime for six years. He says he was also interrogated by British intelligence officers.

Owing to an edict by President Obama, Bush administration officials have never been tried for their complicity in more than 60 renditions of CIA prisoners, but Britain’s senior officials may face justice thanks to their Supreme Court ruling, which cited legal authorities ranging from the Magna Carta of 1215 to the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

Evidence of official British complicity in the kidnapping of Belhaj was discovered by Human Rights Watch in Gaddafi’s intelligence files after the Libyan dictator was overthrown in 2011. A 2004 fax by the chief of counterterrorism at MI6 to his Libyan counterpart said of Belhaj’s capture, “This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built in recent years.”

Seeking Favors from Gaddafi

At the time, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government was cozying up to Gaddafi, not only to fight Islamist extremists but to exploit lucrative business opportunities in the sectors of oil and finance. (Blair continued to visit Gaddafi even after Blair left office to pursue banking deals for JP Morgan, according to a senior executive with the $70 billion Libyan Investment Authority.)

A 2012 story in the Guardian on the Belhaj case reported:

“Two weeks after the couple were rendered to Libya, Tony Blair paid his first visit to the country, embracing Gaddafi and declaring that Libya had recognized ‘a common cause, with us, in the fight against al-Qaida extremism and terrorism.’ At the same time, in London, the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell announced that it had signed a £110m deal for gas exploration rights off the Libyan coast.

“Three days after that, a second leading [anti-Gaddafi activist], Abu Munthir al-Saadi, was bundled aboard a plane in Hong Kong and taken to Tripoli in a joint British-Libyan rendition operation. Saadi’s wife and four children were also kidnapped and taken to Libya. The youngest was a girl aged six. The family was incarcerated . . . for more than two months before being released. Saadi and Belhaj were held for more than six years, however, and say they were subjected to torture throughout this time.”

In 2005, responding to revelations of such abuses in the U.S.-led “war on terror,” Foreign Secretary Straw insisted that the United Kingdom had not rendered suspects to other countries:

“Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States, . . . there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop, because we have not been.” (The contrary evidence surfaced six years later, in 2011.)

In 2012, Saadi reached a £2.2 million settlement with the British government, which did not admit guilt. But Belhaj, who has asked for just £3 in damages, demands something money can’t buy: an official apology. Straw continues to deny responsibility for any unlawful renditions.

Andrew Tyrie, a Conservative MP and chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition, praised the latest ruling for bringing the public “a step closer to the truth about Britain’s role in extraordinary rendition – the program of kidnap and torture developed during the Bush administration, and facilitated by the UK government.”

He added, “The risk now is that the new laws on secret hearings – in the Justice and Security Act – could nonetheless thwart efforts to get to the truth, and undermine the ability of the courts to demonstrate that justice is being done. It would be bad for British justice if most of this case ends up buried in closed material proceedings.”

Obama’s Failure

The British government, which has spent more than £600,000 to fight the Belhaj case, claims that a full airing of the facts would seriously damage relations with the United States. President Obama could have knocked that assertion down at any time and welcomed the truth. Instead, he consistently refused throughout his two terms in office to convene a truth commission or hold anyone accountable for illegal rendition and torture (short of death). He even invoked the “state secrets” doctrine to block private lawsuits against government officials for torture.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote in 2011, “Obama’s deliberate suppression of this shameful past is wrong. It reflects bad policy, a dereliction of presidential responsibilities and a continuing disregard for international law. It treats torture as a policy option – one that can be turned on or off at presidential will.”

With a noted supporter of torture now moving into the White House, the folly of Obama’s approach is clearer than ever. That’s why a spokesman for the human rights legal defense organization Reprieve declared, “this case isn’t just about history. . . In 72 hours, a would-be torturer will take the reins of Earth’s most powerful security state. We enter the Trump era with not a soul held to account for Britain’s past role in rendition. . . Our intelligence agencies may well be pressured to help America torture again.”

To discourage that from happening, he urged Prime Minister Theresa May to “apologize to this family, draw a line in the sand against torture, and restore British honor once and for all.”

Jonathan Marshall is author of many recent articles on arms issues, including “How World War III Could Start,” “NATO’s ProvocativeAnti-Russian Moves,” “Escalations in a New Cold War,” “Ticking Closer to Midnight,” and “Turkey’s Nukes: A Sum of All Fears.”




Obama’s Bombing Legacy

Exclusive: President Obama has joked he still doesn’t know why he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, but his record of waging war was no joke to thousands at the receiving end of U.S. bombs, says Nicolas J S Davies.

By Nicolas J S Davies

As President Obama leaves office, much of his foreign policy record remains shrouded in the symbolism that has been the hallmark of his presidency. The persistence of Obama’s image as a reluctant war-maker and a Nobel Peace Prize winner has allowed Donald Trump and his cabinet nominees to claim that Obama has underfunded the military and been less than aggressive in his use of U.S. military power.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and their claims are clearly designed only to justify even more extravagant military spending and more aggressive threats and uses of force than those perpetrated under Mr. Obama’s “disguised, quiet, media-free” war policy.

The reality is that Obama has increased U.S. military spending beyond the post-World War II record set by President George W. Bush. Now that Obama has signed the military budget for FY2017, the final record is that Obama has spent an average of $653.6 billion per year, outstripping Bush by an average of $18.7 billion per year (in 2016 dollars).

In historical terms, after adjusting for inflation, Obama’s military spending has been 56 percent higher than Clinton’s, 16 percent higher than Reagan’s, and 42 percent more than the U.S. Cold War average, when it was justified by a military competition with a real peer competitor in the Soviet Union.  By contrast, Russia now spends one-tenth of what we are pouring into military forces, weapon-building and war.

What all this money has paid for has been the polar opposite of what most of Obama’s supporters thought they were voting for in 2008. Behind the iconic image of a hip, sophisticated celebrity-in-chief with strong roots in modern urban culture, lies a calculated contrast between image and reality that has stretched our country’s neoliberal experiment in “managed democracy” farther than ever before and set us up for the previously unthinkable “post-truth” presidency of Donald Trump.

Obama’s Model

Obama’s doctrine of covert and proxy war was modeled on the Phoenix Program in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and Ronald Reagan’s proxy wars in Central America in the 1980s. It involved a massive expansion of U.S. special operations forces, now deployed to 138 different countries, compared with only 60 when Obama took office.

As senior military officers told the Washington Post in June 2010, the Obama administration allowed, “things that the previous administration did not,” and, “They are talking publicly much less but they are acting more. They are willing to get aggressive much more quickly.”

Wherever possible, U.S. forces have recruited and trained proxy forces to do the actual fighting and dying, from the Iraqi government’s Shiite death squads to Al Qaeda splinter groups in Libya and Syria (supporting “regime change” projects in those countries) to mercenaries serving Arab monarchies and seemingly endless cannon fodder for the war in Afghanistan.

Obama’s ten-fold expansion of drone strikes further reduced U.S. casualties relative to numbers of foreigners killed. This fostered an illusion of peace and normality for Americans in the homeland even as the death toll inflicted by America’s post-9/11 wars almost certainly passed the two million mark.

The targets of these covert and proxy wars are not just guerrilla fighters or “terrorists” but also the “infrastructure” or “civilian support mechanism” that supports guerrillas with food and supplies, and the entire shadow government and civil society in areas that resist domination.

As a U.S. officer in Iraq explained to Newsweek in 2005, “The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving the terrorists. From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation.”

In previous decades, the victims of similar operations in Central America included the grandfather of a young lady I met in Cotzal in Guatemala – he was beheaded by an Army death squad for giving food to the Guerrilla Army of the Poor. The Catholic Church has now named Father Stanley Rother from Oklahoma, who was killed by a Guatemalan Army death squad in Santiago Atitlan in 1981, as a martyr and candidate for sainthood.

Bloody Iraq

In Iraq, the targets of such operations have included hundreds of academics and other professionals and community leaders. Just last week, U.S. air strikes targeted and killed three senior professors and their families in their homes at Mosul University. The victims included Dr. Mohamad Tybee Al-Layla (Ph.D. Texas), the highly respected former Dean of the College of Engineering.

In 2004, after the assassination of Dr. Abdul-Latif Ali Al-Mayah in Baghdad, a senior police officer explained who killed him and why to British journalist Stephen Grey: “Dr. Abdul-Latif was becoming more and more popular because he spoke for people on the street here. … You can look no further than the Governing Council. They are politicians that are backed by the Americans and who arrived to Iraq from exile with a list of their enemies. I’ve seen these lists. They are killing people one by one.”

As Obama’s murderous proxy wars in Iraq and Syria have spun further out of control, U.S. special operations forces and U.S.-trained death squads on the ground have increasingly been backed up by U.S. and allied air forces. Four years ago, as Obama was inaugurated for a second term, I wrote that the U.S. and its allies dropped 20,000 bombs and missiles in his first term. In his second term, they have dropped four times that number, bringing the total for Obama’s presidency to over 100,000 bombs and missiles striking seven countries, surpassing the 70,000 unleashed on five countries by George W. Bush.

Obama inherited a massive air campaign already under way in Afghanistan, where the U.S. and its allies dropped over 4,000 bombs and missiles every year for six years between 2007 and 2012. Altogether, U.S.-led air forces have dropped 26,000 bombs and missiles on Afghanistan under Obama, compared with 37,000 under Bush, for a total of 63,000 bomb and missile strikes in 15 years.

But the new U.S.-led bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria since 2014 has been much heavier, with 65,730 bomb and missile strikes in 2 1/2 years. Iraq has now been struck with 74,000 bombs and missiles, even more than Afghanistan: 29,200 in the “Shock & Awe” assault of 2003; 3,900 more before the invasion and during the U.S. occupation; and now another 41,000 in “Shock & Awe II” since 2014, including the current siege and bombardment of Mosul.

Obama’s total of 100,000 air strikes are rounded out by 24,700 bombs and missiles dropped on Syria, 7,700 in NATO and its Arab monarchist allies’ bombing of Libya in 2011, another 496 strikes in Libya in 2016, and at least 547 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Failed Policy

Donald Trump and his choices for secretaries of State and Defense, Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis, respectively, are right to say that Obama’s war policy has failed. But they are wrong to insist that the answer is to spend even more on weapons and use them even more aggressively.

Obama’s failure was the result of his deference to generals, admirals, the CIA and hawkish advisers like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and of his blind faith in U.S. military power. But war was never a legitimate or effective response to terrorism.

The misuse of military force has only spread violence and chaos across the Muslim world and spawned an explosive mix of political disintegration, rule by militias and warlords, a dizzying proliferation of armed groups with different interests and loyalties and, ultimately, more blowback for the West.

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, Israel, Qatar and other “allies” have been only too eager to exploit and redirect our aggression against their own enemies: Iran; Syria; Libya; and different ethnic groups, minorities and political movements in what was, for centuries, a diverse, tolerant region of the world.

The U.S. has become a blind giant stumbling through a thick forest of shadows and unseen dangers, striking out with its devastating war machine at the instigation of self-serving allies and the same dark forces in its own “intelligence” bureaucracy who have stirred up trouble, staged coups and unleashed war in country after country for seventy years.

The only consistent beneficiary in all this death, destruction and chaos is the “military industrial complex” that President Eisenhower warned us against in his farewell address in 1961.

In 2012, I researched and wrote about how General Dynamics CEO Lester Crown and his Chicago family backed and bankrolled the political career of Barack Obama. As manufacturers of Virginia class submarines, Arleigh Burke and Zumwalt destroyers and littoral combat ships (all programs saved, revived or expanded by Obama) as well as other types of munitions, the Crown family’s patronage of Barack Obama has proven to be a profitable investment, from the violence and chaos in the Muslim world to the New Cold War with Russia to the “pivot” to the South China Sea.

Now Mr. Trump has nominated General Dynamics board member, General James “Mad Dog” Mattis as Secretary of Defense, despite his responsibility for illegal rules of engagement and systematic war crimes in Iraq, an obvious conflict of interest with the millions he has earned at General Dynamics and clear laws that require civilian control of the military.

When will we ever learn to tell the difference between corrupt warmongers like Obama and Mattis and progressive leaders who will let us live in peace with our neighbors around the world, even at the expense of General Dynamics’ profits?

Nicolas J S Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.  He also wrote the chapters on “Obama at War” in Grading the 44th President: a Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.




The Murky Future for US Health Care

Republicans vow to repeal Obamacare, but President-elect Trump has injected confusion by claiming that the replacement will provide health insurance for all. But many health experts fear what comes next, reports Dennis J Bernstein.

By Dennis J Bernstein

All eyes are on the Republicans and Obamacare, as the dominant GOP now proceeds toward dismantling President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare policy plan, formally known as the Affordable Care Act. What they plan to replace it with is still anybody’s guess.

I spoke recently to public health care expert and single-payer advocate Dr. Don McCain about the debate, the negatives and positives of Obamacare, and what kind of health care system we need in the U.S. to really attend to the medical needs of all people.

McCain, a senior health policy fellow with the group Physicians for a National Health Program, said recently about the current debate, “President Obama meeting with the Congressional Democrats, and Vice President-elect Pence meeting with the Republicans are being touted as a strategy efforts on the two opposite sides of the health care reform debate. But are they really opposites?”

Dennis Bernstein: What do you mean by that? Aren’t they opposites? It does seem like the Democrats are on one side, and the Republicans are on the other.

Dr. Don McCain: That’s certainly the way they framed it. Of course, they passed Obamacare. The Democrats passed that even though it was a Republican plan. And now the Republicans claim it’s a Democrat plan that has to be repealed. Yet, what are they talking about, as far as reform is concerned? They are talking about tweaking our current system. Well, that’s all that Obamacare did.

We have a highly dysfunctional system, fragmented, with extreme administrative excesses. And a system that doesn’t function very well because it leaves people with insurance in debt. It leaves too many people uninsured and takes away choices for our health care providers, through these narrow networks that are increasing in prevalence.

The Democrats did improve that, but the improvements were very small compared to what needs to be done. The Republicans would turn around, and maybe repeal some of those things, and then introduce their own tweaks. But these are all only tweaks to our current, highly dysfunctional, wasteful, fragmented system.

So the opposite would be an integrated, universal system that provides healthcare to everyone, and eliminates this profound administrative waste. And gives people their choice again. Of course, that’s a single payer, national health program commonly known as an improved Medicare For All–fixing Medicare, and providing it to everyone.

DB: Well… the Republicans would say that’s a budget buster, that’s a big government program, that’s socialism, and ultimately it will be a disaster.

DM: Of course, it is paid through taxes but we already… two-thirds of our health care is already paid for through the tax system. In fact, we pay more in taxes for health care in the United States than other nations pay for their entire health care system.

So tax isn’t the problem. Getting the tax right is the problem, and we’ve got to make it much more equitable through progressive taxes where everyone can afford to pay the taxes that we would need to run the system. But it doesn’t bust budgets.

In fact, the efficiencies of a single payer system actually slow down the increases in health care costs. So we would not be having these high increases every year. Yeah, there’s been slowing for a couple of years, but they haven’t really fixed the fundamental defects, whereas through a Medicare-like system, they do control healthcare costs, much more effectively. So we would all be ahead and we would all have health care.

DB: … Let’s do a compare and contrast: Under Obamacare, how does the U.S. system compare to, say, Europe?

DM: It is much less efficient [with] extreme administrative waste. We pay about a trillion dollars a year in just administration of our system. It’s because it’s this fragmented system of multiple programs, and other reasons, for the excesses. We could recover about one-half of that trillion dollars, and redirect it into health care. They don’t have that in the European systems. They have much more efficient financing systems. None of them pay near what we do, in administration.

DB: And, in terms of actual health care?

DM: The health care systems… the health care delivery systems are pretty comparable. There is a difference and that is that many people in the United States, either because they are uninsured or underinsured, they have excess deductibles that they cannot afford, are unable to access our system. Whereas in the European nations [and] Canada there’s no problem with access.

Yes, there may be some delays in some countries, but that’s mainly for elective care. Any urgent care is taken care of right away and so, overall, the performance of their systems is superior. Commonwealth has done a study a few times of eleven nations and we always fall in last place, the eleventh, as far as the functioning of our healthcare system.

DB: And, what is your concern if the Republicans simply dismantle Obamacare? Will it matter… [if they don’t] have any program to put in its place? What do you think is going to happen here?

DM: It will matter because many of the people who gained insurance under Obamacare will lose it. And they will do virtually nothing to control our increasing health care costs. So overall, it would be worse. …

If they eliminate the subsidies and yet, as they said, they’ll continue the right of anyone to buy insurance regardless of pre-existing conditions…. [Then] the insurance model breaks down, because sick people buy insurance. Healthy people don’t until they get sick. Then insurance will be affordable for no one.

DB: So, what happens in terms of your own experiences as a medical doctor? What have been your struggles and how might they be mitigated so that you can spend your time doing health care, instead of being a businessman? Talk about that. What does that look like?

DM: It really happened with the managed care revolution in the ‘80s, where the insurance companies basically gained the right to contract with doctors, and, of course, they contract with patients by selling them insurance plans. But this physician contracting, they have used to try to slow the race that way, while they continue to ratchet down on the way physicians can provide care to their patients.

So the reimbursement rates do not keep up with inflation. The prior authorization requests that you have to go through make it more and more difficult to get care for your patients.

And now [with] these narrow networks, they’ve made it extremely difficult to get the specialists that your patient needs, because they are not in these networks. So we’re losing choice in care.

And then the hassles, the computers. The computers are designed to assist the insurance company, and assist the government bureaucrats. But they are sure a headache, because they come between the physician and the patient.

Computerized records are a good thing, but the way the computers are being used, it’s increased the hassle factor. And, in fact, physicians now, over 50% of physicians are experiencing burn out, from a Mayo study.

DB: Wow. Now, before we let you go, I want to talk to you about something that’s personal to me. I know you’re a medical doctor, but dental care is very much a part of medical care. I don’t know the exact figures for how many people don’t have medical care now, but more people don’t have adequate dental care. I mean, I have a health plan here at KPFA, Pacifica. But it’s a joke. It’s gone with the second cleaning.

DM: That’s correct. In our proposals for health care reform, we include dental care. Because that’s a very basic, essential health service. And we think it needs to be part of the national health care program.

DB: But, again, it is interesting that in this country … I mean, I remember traveling as a student, and traveling in England, and having a massive toothache. I walked into an office and they took care of me. And I was done. I didn’t get a bill.

DM: Right. That’s the way it should be.

DB: And how would you explain it in this context–Health care is a human right?

DM: Yes. In fact, [on January 3rd] JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association, the editor-in-chief wrote an editorial and they’re allowing access for free, that says “healthcare is a right, and as we reform health care, we have to accept that fact.” And it’s a very interesting editorial, and your listeners should look it up.

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




It’s Not About Trump, But Us

The looming inauguration of Donald Trump has led many on the “liberal/left” to vow eternal resistance but this fury has obscured the need for self-reflection on how “progressives” have lost their way, as John Pilger explains.

By John Pilger

On the day President Trump is inaugurated, thousands of writers in the United States will express their indignation. “In order for us to heal and move forward …,” say Writers Resist, “we wish to bypass direct political discourse, in favour of an inspired focus on the future, and how we, as writers, can be a unifying force for the protection of democracy.”

And: “We urge local organizers and speakers to avoid using the names of politicians or adopting ‘anti’ language as the focus for their Writers Resist event. It’s important to ensure that nonprofit organizations, which are prohibited from political campaigning, will feel confident participating in and sponsoring these events.”

Thus, real protest is to be avoided, for it is not tax exempt. Compare such drivel with the declarations of the Congress of American Writers, held at Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1935, and again two years later. They were electric events, with writers discussing how they could confront ominous events in Abyssinia, China and Spain. Telegrams from Thomas Mann, C Day Lewis, Upton Sinclair and Albert Einstein were read out, reflecting the fear that great power was now rampant and that it had become impossible to discuss art and literature without politics or, indeed, direct political action.

“A writer,” the journalist Martha Gellhorn told the second congress, “must be a man of action now . . . A man who has given a year of his life to steel strikes, or to the unemployed, or to the problems of racial prejudice, has not lost or wasted time. He is a man who has known where he belonged. If you should survive such action, what you have to say about it afterwards is the truth, is necessary and real, and it will last.”

Her words echo across the unction and violence of the Obama era and the silence of those who colluded with his deceptions. That the menace of rapacious power — rampant long before the rise of Trump — has been accepted by writers, many of them privileged and celebrated, and by those who guard the gates of literary criticism, and culture, including popular culture, is uncontroversial. Not for them the impossibility of writing and promoting literature bereft of politics. Not for them the responsibility to speak out, regardless of who occupies the White House.

Clinton’s Contempt 

Today, false symbolism is all. “Identity” is all. In 2016, Hillary Clinton stigmatized millions of voters as “a basket of deplorables, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.” Her abuse was handed out at an LGBT rally as part of her cynical campaign to win over minorities by abusing a white, mostly working-class, majority. Divide and rule, this is called; or identity politics in which race and gender conceal class, and allow the waging of class war. Trump understood this.

“When the truth is replaced by silence,” said the Soviet dissident poet Yevtushenko, “the silence is a lie.”

This is not an American phenomenon. A few years ago, Terry Eagleton, then professor of English literature at Manchester University, reckoned that “for the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life.”

No Shelley speaks for the poor, no Blake for utopian dreams, no Byron damns the corruption of the ruling class, no Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin reveal the moral disaster of capitalism. William Morris, Oscar Wilde, HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw have no equivalents today. Harold Pinter was the last to raise his voice. Among today’s insistent voices of consumer-feminism, none echoes Virginia Woolf, who described “the arts of dominating other people … of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital.”

There is something both venal and profoundly stupid about famous writers as they venture outside their cosseted world and embrace an “issue.” Across the Review section of the Guardian on Dec. 10 was a dreamy picture of Barack Obama looking up to the heavens and the words, “Amazing Grace” and “Farewell the Chief.”

The sycophancy ran like a polluted babbling brook through page after page. “He was a vulnerable figure in many ways …. But the grace. The all-encompassing grace: in manner and form, in argument and intellect, with humour and cool ….[He] is a blazing tribute to what has been, and what can be again … He seems ready to keep fighting, and remains a formidable champion to have on our side … … The grace … the almost surreal levels of grace …”

I have conflated these quotes. There are others even more hagiographic and bereft of mitigation. The Guardian’s chief apologist for Obama, Gary Younge, has always been careful to mitigate, to say that his hero “could have done more”: oh, but there were the “calm, measured and consensual solutions …”

Idolizing Obama

None of them, however, could surpass the American writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the recipient of a “genius” grant worth $625,000 from a liberal foundation. In an interminable essay for The Atlantic entitled, “My President Was Black,” Coates brought new meaning to prostration. The final “chapter,” entitled “When You Left, You Took All of Me With You,” a line from a Marvin Gaye song, describes seeing the Obamas “rising out of the limo, rising up from fear, smiling, waving, defying despair, defying history, defying gravity.” The Ascension, no less.

One of the persistent strands in American political life is a cultish extremism that approaches fascism. This was given expression and reinforced during the two terms of Barack Obama. “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” said Obama, who expanded America’s favorite military pastime, bombing, and death squads (“special operations”) as no other president has done since the Cold War.

According to a Council on Foreign Relations survey, in 2016 alone Obama dropped 26,171 bombs. That is 72 bombs every day.  He bombed the poorest people on earth, in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan.

Every Tuesday — reported The New York Times — he personally selected those who would be murdered by mostly hellfire missiles fired from drones. Weddings, funerals, shepherds were attacked, along with those attempting to collect the body parts festooning the “terrorist target.”

A leading Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, estimated, approvingly, that Obama’s drones killed 4,700 people. “Sometimes you hit innocent people and I hate that,” he said, “but we’ve taken out some very senior members of Al Qaeda.”

Like the fascism of the 1930s, big lies are delivered with the precision of a metronome: thanks to an omnipresent media whose description now fits that of the Nuremberg prosecutor: “Before each major aggression, with some few exceptions based on expediency, they initiated a press campaign calculated to weaken their victims and to prepare the German people psychologically … In the propaganda system … it was the daily press and the radio that were the most important weapons.”

Destroying Libya

Take the catastrophe in Libya. In 2011, Obama said Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was planning “genocide” against his own people. “We knew … that if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”

This was the known lie of Islamist militias facing defeat by Libyan government forces. It became the media story; and NATO – led by Obama and Hillary Clinton – launched 9,700 “strike sorties” against Libya, of which more than a third were aimed at civilian targets. Uranium warheads were used; the cities of Misurata and Sirte were carpet-bombed. The Red Cross identified mass graves, and Unicef reported that “most [of the children killed] were under the age of ten.”

Under Obama, the U.S. has extended secret “special forces” operations to 138 countries, or 70 per cent of the world’s population. The first African-American president launched what amounted to a full-scale invasion of Africa. Reminiscent of the Scramble for Africa in the late Nineteenth Century, the U.S. African Command (Africom) has built a network of supplicants among collaborative African regimes eager for American bribes and armaments. Africom’s “soldier to soldier” doctrine embeds U.S. officers at every level of command from general to warrant officer. Only pith helmets are missing.

It is as if Africa’s proud history of liberation, from Patrice Lumumba to Nelson Mandela, is consigned to oblivion by a new master’s black colonial elite whose “historic mission,” warned Frantz Fanon half a century ago, is the promotion of “a capitalism rampant though camouflaged.”

It was Obama who, in 2011, announced what became known as the “pivot to Asia”, in which almost two-thirds of U.S. naval forces would be transferred to the Asia-Pacific to “confront China,” in the words of his Defense Secretary. There was no threat from China; the entire enterprise was unnecessary. It was an extreme provocation to keep the Pentagon and its demented brass happy.

In 2014, the Obama’s administration oversaw and paid for a fascist-led coup in Ukraine against the democratically elected government, threatening Russia in the western borderland through which Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, with a loss of 27 million lives. It was Obama who placed missiles in Eastern Europe aimed at Russia, and it was the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who increased spending on nuclear warheads to a level higher than that of any administration since the Cold War — having promised, in an emotional speech in Prague, to “help rid the world of nuclear weapons”.

Obama, the constitutional lawyer, prosecuted more whistleblowers than any other president in history, even though the U.S. Constitution protects them. He declared Chelsea Manning guilty before the end of a trial that was a travesty. He has refused to pardon Manning who has suffered years of inhumane treatment, which the United Nations says amounts to torture. He has pursued an entirely bogus case against Julian Assange. He promised to close the Guantanamo concentration camp and didn’t.

A Smooth Operator

Following the public relations disaster of George W. Bush, Obama, the smooth operator from Chicago via Harvard, was enlisted to restore what he calls “leadership” throughout the world. The Nobel Prize committee’s decision was part of this: the kind of cloying reverse racism that beatified the man for no reason other than he was attractive to liberal sensibilities and, of course, American power, if not to the children he kills in impoverished, mostly Muslim countries.

This is the Call of Obama. It is not unlike a dog whistle: inaudible to most, irresistible to the besotted and boneheaded, especially “liberal brains pickled in the formaldehyde of identity politics,” as Luciana Bohne put it. “When Obama walks into a room,” gushed George Clooney, “you want to follow him somewhere, anywhere.”

William I. Robinson, professor at the University of California, and one of an uncontaminated group of American strategic thinkers who have retained their independence during the years of intellectual dog-whistling since 9/11, wrote this last week:

“President Barack Obama … may have done more than anyone to assure [Donald] Trump’s victory. While Trump’s election has triggered a rapid expansion of fascist currents in U.S. civil society, a fascist outcome for the political system is far from inevitable …. But that fight back requires clarity as to how we got to such a dangerous precipice. The seeds of 21st century fascism were planted, fertilized and watered by the Obama administration and the politically bankrupt liberal elite.”

Robinson points out that “whether in its 20th or its emerging 21st century variants, fascism is, above all, a response to deep structural crises of capitalism, such as that of the 1930s and the one that began with the financial meltdown in 2008 …. There is a near-straight line here from Obama to Trump … The liberal elite’s refusal to challenge the rapaciousness of transnational capital and its brand of identity politics served to eclipse the language of the working and popular classes … pushing white workers into an ‘identity’ of white nationalism and helping the neo-fascists to organise them”..

The seedbed is Obama’s Weimar Republic, a landscape of endemic poverty, militarized police and barbaric prisons: the consequence of a “market” extremism which, under his presidency, prompted the transfer of $14 trillion in public money to criminal enterprises in Wall Street.

Perhaps his greatest “legacy” is the co-option and disorientation of any real opposition. Bernie Sanders’ specious “revolution” does not apply. Propaganda is his triumph.

The lies about Russia — in whose elections the U.S. has openly intervened — have made the world’s most self-important journalists laughingstocks. In the country with constitutionally the freest press in the world, free journalism now exists only in its honorable exceptions.

The obsession with Trump is a cover for many of those calling themselves “left/liberal”, as if to claim political decency. They are not “left,” neither are they especially “liberal.” Much of America’s aggression towards the rest of humanity has come from so-called liberal Democratic administrations — such as Obama’s. America’s political spectrum extends from the mythical center to the lunar right. The “left” are homeless renegades Martha Gellhorn described as “a rare and wholly admirable fraternity.” She excluded those who confuse politics with a fixation on their navels.

While they “heal” and “move forward”, will the Writers Resist campaigners and other anti-Trumpists reflect upon this? More to the point: when will a genuine movement of opposition arise? Angry, eloquent, all-for-one-and-one-for all. Until real politics return to people’s lives, the enemy is not Trump, it is ourselves.

John Pilger is an Australian-British journalist based in London. Pilger’s Web site is: www.johnpilger.com.




Trump’s Remaking of US Foreign Policy

President-elect Trump is outlining a foreign policy that rejects the interventionist tenets of Washington’s neocon/liberal-hawk establishment and puts U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control at the top of his agenda, writes Gilbert Doctorow.

By Gilbert Doctorow

Over the weekend, President-elect Trump received two journalists from mainstream European print media — The Times of London and the German magazine Bild — for a joint interview in New York City’s Trump Tower. The event was videotaped and we are seeing some remarkable sound bites, particularly those of interest to the British and German publics.

For the government of British Prime Minister Theresa May, nothing could have sounded sweeter than Donald Trump’s statement that she would be invited for talks in the White House shortly after he is sworn in on Jan. 20 and that he seeks very quickly to reach agreement on a bilateral free trade pact. The effect of the pledge itself, even ahead of its successful implementation, assures the British that the sting of severing ties with the European Union will be greatly offset by new commercial possibilities in the world’s biggest economy; in this way, it strengthens May’s hand enormously as she enters into talks with the E.U. leadership over the detailed terms of what will apparently be a “Hard Brexit.”

Further adding to her leverage with the E.U. were Trump’s remarks suggesting that the E.U. will face stern trade pressure, beginning with Germany and its automobile industry, to do more to manufacture in the U.S. That precisely raises the relative importance of the U.K. market, which the E.U. will otherwise lose if it imposes severe penalties on Britain in negotiations over Brexit.

For the general public’s consumption, Donald Trump used the interview to explain his special affection for Britain, speaking about his Scottish mother’s delight in the Queen and her watching every royal event on television for its unequaled pageantry. But we may expect that Prime Minister May will find there is a bill to pay for the “special relationship” with the U.S. under President Trump.

Rather than the British media’s early speculation that Prime Minister May would be the one to set the misguided Trump straight about the nefarious Vladimir Putin, she may now have to become a leading European advocate for détente with Russia at Trump’s behest. In this connection, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson’s advice to Congress during his visit to Washington last week that Official Washington “stop demonizing Putin” may well have been a straw in the wind.

For the Germans, Trump also offered a bit of flattery, saying how much he respected their Chancellor Angela Merkel. However, as he went on, he virtually flattened the Iron Lady’s reputation by calling her open-door policy of admitting migrants into Germany and the E.U. a catastrophe. He noted that Merkel’s controversial position had swayed the election results in Britain on Brexit and may lead to the departure of other countries from the E.U. Given his staff’s consultation with Marine Le Pen, a visiting French candidate for the presidency from the right-wing Front National, Trump’s list surely includes France.

Finally, among the sound bites that will be featured in media coverage of the interview, we hear Donald Trump describe NATO as an outdated organization that needs overhaul. However, apart from his reiterated insistence that Member States must pay their fair share, which he claims only Britain and four others from the 28 Member States are currently doing, the interview offers no specifics on what kind structural change, if any, he seeks for NATO. We only hear that NATO has not been prepared to deal with the threat of international terrorism.

Views on Russia

But it was in another area, Trump’s remarks on Russia and the terms he named for possibly lifting sanctions, that we find convincing proof that the President-elect’s approach to foreign affairs is not just the sum of isolated tactical considerations but a complete reinvention of the guiding principles of U.S. foreign policy. What we are witnessing is a shift to a new strategic, geopolitical paradigm.

In the past couple of decades, going back to the second term of President Bill Clinton, the ideology of neoconservatism with its stress on “democracy promotion” as being the whole of national interest, dictated policy decisions that amounted to the tail wagging the dog. The Baltic States were admitted into NATO in its 2004 enlargement because they wanted it. The decision to station U.S., German and other NATO brigades in Poland and other states along the Russian border taken last July in Warsaw and implemented, in the case of Poland, by U.S. forces in the past several days, was justified by the anxiety of these countries over the possibility of Russian aggression, even though NATO’s action has been highly provocative vis-à-vis Russia and brought the major nuclear powers ever closer to direct confrontation.

In the interview, Trump changed entirely the metrics by which sanctions on Russia would be lifted. Instead of fulfillment of the Minsk Accords over Ukraine’s ethnic Russian Donbas region – which nationalist hardliners in Kiev had the power to block – Trump conditioned the relaxation of sanctions on progress in curbing the nuclear arms race and moving toward significant nuclear disarmament, issues that are fully within the power of the Kremlin to implement.

To be sure, these issues today are more complex than they were in the heyday of disarmament talks. The recent obstacles include the U.S. anti-ballistic missile installations in Poland and Romania, the forward stationing of NATO human and materiel resources in the former Warsaw Pact countries, and the standing invitations to Ukraine and Georgia to enter NATO. So any negotiations between Washington and Moscow will be very complex.

But Trump’s statement shows that he is focused on the big picture, on the triangular relationship between Washington, Moscow and Beijing that he believes to be of vital importance in keeping the peace globally, rather than on some amorphous reliance on expanding democracy globally on the unproven assumption that democracies among themselves are peace-loving.

These elements in Donald Trump’s thinking, quite unexpected in a businessman, bring him very close to the Realism of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, while his setting nuclear disarmament as a key goal, aligns him with Ronald Reagan and — strange to say — with Barack Obama at the very start of his presidency.

If Donald Trump can stave off the jackals from the Western mainstream media and the U.S. foreign policy establishment – a combination that has formed a snarling circle around him even before the takes office – he may have a chance to make historic changes in international relations toward a more peaceful world.

Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. His latest book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.




Playing Politics with Terrorism List

Congressional Republicans continue to push Islamo-phobic bills, now seeking to put the mostly political Muslim Brotherhood on the foreign terrorist list, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Legislation introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Florida, to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) is regrettable on multiple counts. It represents a perversion of the FTO list and reflects an attitude that is likely to increase rather than decrease Islamist terrorism.

There was no official U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations until 20 years ago, and no need for one despite international terrorism having been a major official concern well before then. Notwithstanding the common practice in public discourse and the press of referring to how this or that government brands or designates a particular group as “terrorist,” any listing or branding by itself accomplishes nothing in combating such groups or reducing terrorism.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 created the U.S. FTO list for a very specific practical reason. Other provisions in that law criminalized for the first time the provision of material support to foreign terrorist organizations. To make prosecution under this statute possible, there needed to be a precise way of defining what constitutes a foreign terrorist organization. Hence the creation of the list.

The 1996 legislation established a procedure in which the various departments and agencies involved participate in a lengthy review process to examine which groups should be listed as FTOs. The law spells out the criteria to govern the review, which basically are that the group must be an identifiable organization that is foreign and has engaged in terrorism that somehow affects U.S. interests. The review process has been thorough and laborious, including the preparation of detailed “administrative records” assembling the available information about each group under examination. The Secretary of State makes the final determinations regarding listing or delisting.

There has been some political manipulation of the list, though it has been to keep or move a group off the list rather than putting it on. The most salient case of this involved the Iranian cult and terrorist group known as the Mojahedin-e Khalq, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delisted in 2012. The group, which has killed American citizens in terrorist attacks and clearly met the criteria for being on the FTO list, had not changed its stripes. Instead, the delisting was a response to the group’s long-running and well-financed lobbying campaign to win favor in Washington and especially among members of Congress.

A Congressionally imposed listing of the Muslim Brotherhood would be the first time such politicization would involve putting an organization on the FTO list rather than taking it off. It also would be the first time a group was listed not because of terrorist activities but instead because of dislike for its ideology.

Such a Congressional imposition would be a political end-run around the well-established process for applying the best possible expertise and information to the question of whether a group meets the criteria under the law that governs the FTO list. Such a move would reduce further the credibility in foreign eyes of what the U.S. Government say about terrorism, and lend substance to charges that much of what the United States calls opposition to terrorism is really just opposition to politics and ideologies it does not favor.

Mostly Political, Not Violent

The Muslim Brotherhood is a predominantly Egyptian organization with origins that go back to the 1920s. Its establishment was partly a response to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and to the militant secularism of Ataturk and his abolition of the Istanbul-based caliphate. For most of its modern history in Egypt, the Brotherhood has been the principal peaceful manifestation of political Islam.

During the rule of Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood was officially proscribed but in practice tolerated, being allowed to run candidates for office as independents or under the label of some other party. The extent of the Brotherhood’s popular support was demonstrated after Mubarak’s fall, when in a free election a Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president. The Egyptian military coup of 2013 began a harsh crackdown that was aimed at political liberties in general but specifically at the Muslim Brotherhood.

The forms and practices of Brotherhood offshoots outside Egypt have depended on the extent of political liberty in each location. In Jordan, for example, the organization has had a status slightly freer than the Egyptian Brotherhood had under Mubarak. The group in Jordan runs candidates and wins parliamentary seats under the Brotherhood’s own party label, the Islamic Action Front. Where political liberty is lacking, something different evolves. In the Palestinian territories, for example, that evolution involved the creation of Hamas (which has its own place on the U.S. FTO list).

The habit of seeing previous Muslim Brotherhood ties in the violent and extreme activities of other groups disregards how participation in these groups, and especially the use of terrorism, is a rejection of the Brotherhood’s peaceful, gradualist path. Such groups are foes, not offshoots or extensions, of the Brotherhood. The groups that terrorized Egypt in the 1990s explicitly opposed the Brotherhood and thought that its peaceful ways were feckless. The leader of one of those groups, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is now the leader of Al Qaeda.

The Folly of Suppression

The fundamental mistake in suppressing groups such as the Brotherhood, or in effect condoning such suppression with a step such as the Cruz-Diaz legislation, is that closing peaceful channels for the expression of political Islam moves more people into the violent channels. We have seen this process playing out in Egypt since the coup, with the harsh practices of military strongman Abdul Fatah al-Sisi being followed directly by an upsurge in terrorist violence in Egypt.

The unfortunate lesson being absorbed by many young men with Islamist inclinations is that all those years of forbearance by the Brotherhood were for naught. The lesson is that only a violent path has any chance of success.

The newly introduced legislation is bad not only as a politicization of counterterrorism but also as a counterproductive approach to Islamist terrorism in particular. Also unfortunate are indications of this approach becoming part of the new administration’s direction. A disturbing part of the testimony this week by the nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was his seamless lumping of the Muslim Brotherhood with “other agents of radical Islam, like al-Qaeda.”

Likely to be even more damaging is the entrenchment of indiscriminate Islamophobia at the center of national security decision-making in the White House.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

 




America’s Self-Destructive Obsessions

The U.S. population is led from one hysteria to the next, now transitioning from the Global War on Terror to the New Cold War with Russia, a fearful madness that is infecting the collective psyche, says Michael Brenner.

By Michael Brenner

Captain Ahab’s obsessive hunt for Moby Dick was driven by the thirst for revenge. The great white whale had maimed Ahab – in soul as well as body. Ahab was consumed by the passion to restore his sense of self, and make himself whole again, by killing his nemesis – a compulsion that his wooden leg never lets weaken.

America’s “war-on-terror” has become our national mission for restoration. The psychic wound of 9/11 is what grieves us; it inflames our collective passion for vengeance. The physical wound is already healed. By now, it must be memorialized in order for the scar to be seen.  It never did impair our functioning. In that sense, little more than a broken toe.

In the aftermath of 9/11, there was genuine fear of a repeat attack – something that we now know never was in the cards. Our enemy has been emasculated; the great Satan was shot dead in Abbottabad. Only pinpricks at long intervals from within our midst draw blood.

Catharsis has eluded us, though. We still seethe with emotions. We suffer from the embedded anxiety that is dread, from uneasy feelings of vulnerability, from a seeming lost prowess and control. A society that talks casually about “closure” on almost all occasions cannot find closure on 9/11. Instead, the society has a powerful need to ritualize the fear, to pursue the implacable quest for ultimate security, to perform violent acts of vengeance that neither cure nor satiate.

So, we search the seven seas hunting for monsters to slay; not Moby Dick himself, but his accessories, accomplices, enablers, facilitators, emulators, sympathizers. Whales of every species, great and small, fall to our harpoons. The dead and innocent dolphins far outnumber even the smallest of whales. Fortunes of war.

Since there is no actual Moby Dick out there to pursue, we have fashioned a virtual game of acting out the hunt, the encounter, the retribution. We thereby have embraced the post-9/11 trauma rather than exorcised it. That is the “war-on-terror.” That war is about us – it no longer is about them.

Ahab destroyed himself, destroyed his crew, destroyed his ship. He sacrificed all in the quest – a quest for the unattainable. The United States is sacrificing its principles of liberty, its political integrity, the trust that is the bedrock of its democracy, its standing in the world as the “best hope of mankind,” and its capacity to feel for others – including its fellow citizens. America’s Moby Dick has migrated and transmuted itself. It now is lodged in our innermost being.

There, it spawns fictive offspring, such as Vladimir Putin. But the phantasmagoric Putin is but the projection of our own existential dread. The spectral persona who haunts our minds, “Putin” has no objective existence. “Putin” is the creation of our troubled national psyche. We have transposed onto him the whole maelstrom of turbid emotions we had imparted to Osama bin-Laden, and then the Islamic State.

To be rid of America’s transmuted Moby Dick we must kill part of our tainted being – a form of psycho-political chemotherapy. Otherwise, our national soul will whither away just as Ahab was sucked into the ocean depths entangled in the very ropes he had fashioned to ensnare Moby Dick.

Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. mbren@pitt.edu




Mainstream Media’s Russian Bogeymen

Exclusive: The mainstream hysteria over Russia has led to dubious or downright false stories that have deepened the New Cold War, as Gareth Porter notes regarding last month’s bogus tale of a hack into the U.S. electric grid.

By Gareth Porter

In the middle of a major domestic crisis over the U.S. charge that Russia had interfered with the U.S. election, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) triggered a brief national media hysteria by creating and spreading a bogus story of Russian hacking into U.S. power infrastructure.

DHS had initiated the now-discredited tale of a hacked computer at the Burlington, Vermont Electricity Department by sending the utility’s managers misleading and alarming information, then leaked a story they certainly knew to be false and continued to put out a misleading line to the media.

Even more shocking, however, DHS had previously circulated a similar bogus story of Russian hacking of a Springfield, Illinois water pump in November 2011.

The story of how DHS twice circulated false stories of Russian efforts to sabotage U.S. “critical infrastructure” is a cautionary tale of how senior leaders in a bureaucracy-on-the-make take advantage of every major political development to advance its own interests, with scant regard for the truth.

The DHS had carried out a major public campaign to focus on an alleged Russian threat to U.S. power infrastructure in early 2016. The campaign took advantage of a U.S. accusation of a Russian cyber-attack against the Ukrainian power infrastructure in December 2015 to promote one of the agency’s major functions — guarding against cyber-attacks on America’s infrastructure.

Beginning in late March 2016, DHS and FBI conducted a series of 12 unclassified briefings for electric power infrastructure companies in eight cities titled, “Ukraine Cyber Attack: implications for U.S. stakeholders.” The DHS declared publicly, “These events represent one of the first known physical impacts to critical infrastructure which resulted from cyber-attack.”

That statement conveniently avoided mentioning that the first cases of such destruction of national infrastructure from cyber-attacks were not against the United States, but were inflicted on Iran by the Obama administration and Israel in 2009 and 2012.

Beginning in October 2016, the DHS emerged as one of the two most important players – along with the CIA—in the political drama over the alleged Russian effort to tilt the 2016 election toward Donald Trump. Then on Dec. 29, DHS and FBI distributed a “Joint Analysis Report” to U.S. power utilities across the country with what it claimed were “indicators” of a Russian intelligence effort to penetrate and compromise U.S. computer networks, including networks related to the presidential election, that it called “GRIZZLY STEPPE.”

The report clearly conveyed to the utilities that the “tools and infrastructure” it said had been used by Russian intelligence agencies to affect the election were a direct threat to them as well. However, according to Robert M. Lee, the founder and CEO of the cyber-security company Dragos, who had developed one of the earliest U.S. government programs for defense against cyber-attacks on U.S. infrastructure systems, the report was certain to mislead the recipients.

“Anyone who uses it would think they were being impacted by Russian operations,” said Lee. “We ran through the indicators in the report and found that a high percentage were false positives.”

Lee and his staff found only two of a long list of malware files that could be linked to Russian hackers without more specific data about timing. Similarly a large proportion of IP addresses listed could be linked to “GRIZZLY STEPPE” only for certain specific dates, which were not provided.

The Intercept discovered, in fact, that 42 percent of the 876 IP addresses listed in the report as having been used by Russian hackers were exit nodes for the Tor Project, a system that allows bloggers, journalists and others – including some military entities – to keep their Internet communications private.

Lee said the DHS staff that worked on the technical information in the report is highly competent, but the document was rendered useless when officials classified and deleted some key parts of the report and added other material that shouldn’t have been in it. He believes the DHS issued the report “for a political purpose,” which was to “show that the DHS is protecting you.”

Planting the Story, Keeping it Alive

Upon receiving the DHS-FBI report the Burlington Electric Company network security team immediately ran searches of its computer logs using the lists of IP addresses it had been provided. When one of IP addresses cited in the report as an indicator of Russian hacking was found on the logs, the utility immediately called DHS to inform it as it had been instructed to do by DHS.

In fact, the IP address on the Burlington Electric Company’s computer was simply the Yahoo e-mail server, according to Lee, so it could not have been a legitimate indicator of an attempted cyber-intrusion. That should have been the end of the story. But the utility did not track down the IP address before reporting it to DHS. It did, however, expect DHS to treat the matter confidentially until it had thoroughly investigated and resolved the issue.

“DHS wasn’t supposed to release the details,” said Lee. “Everybody was supposed to keep their mouth shut.”

Instead, a DHS official called The Washington Post and passed on word that one of the indicators of Russian hacking of the DNC had been found on the Burlington utility’s computer network. The Post failed to follow the most basic rule of journalism, relying on its DHS source instead of checking with the Burlington Electric Department first. The result was the Post’s sensational Dec. 30 story under the headline “Russian hackers penetrated U.S. electricity grid through a utility in Vermont, U.S. officials say.”

DHS official evidently had allowed the Post to infer that the Russians hack had penetrated the grid without actually saying so. The Post story said the Russians “had not actively used the code to disrupt operations of the utility, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss a security matter,” but then added, and that “the penetration of the nation’s electrical grid is significant because it represents a potentially serious vulnerability.”

The electric company quickly issued a firm denial that the computer in question was connected to the power grid. The Post was forced to retract, in effect, its claim that the electricity grid had been hacked by the Russians. But it stuck by its story that the utility had been the victim of a Russian hack for another three days before admitting that no such evidence of a hack existed.

The day after the story was published, the DHS leadership continued to imply, without saying so explicitly, that the Burlington utility had been hacked by Russians. Assistant Secretary for Pubic Affairs J. Todd Breasseale gave CNN a statement that the “indicators” from the malicious software found on the computer at Burlington Electric were a “match” for those on the DNC computers.

As soon as DHS checked the IP address, however, it knew that it was a Yahoo cloud server and therefore not an indicator that the same team that allegedly hacked the DNC had gotten into the Burlington utility’s laptop. DHS also learned from the utility that the laptop in question had been infected by malware called “neutrino,” which had never been used in “GRIZZLY STEPPE.”

Only days later did the DHS reveal those crucial facts to the Post. And the DHS was still defending its joint report to the Post, according to Lee, who got part of the story from Post sources. The DHS official was arguing that it had “led to a discovery,” he said. “The second is, ‘See, this is encouraging people to run indicators.’”

Original DHS False Hacking Story

The false Burlington Electric hack scare is reminiscent of an earlier story of Russian hacking of a utility for which the DHS was responsible as well. In November 2011, it reported an “intrusion” into a Springfield, Illinois water district computer that similarly turned out to be a fabrication.

Like the Burlington fiasco, the false report was preceded by a DHS claim that U.S. infrastructure systems were already under attack. In October 2011, acting DHS deputy undersecretary Greg Schaffer was quoted by The Washington Post as warning that “our adversaries” are “knocking on the doors of these systems.” And Schaffer added, “In some cases, there have been intrusions.” He did not specify when, where or by whom, and no such prior intrusions have ever been documented.

On Nov. 8, 2011, a water pump belonging to the Curran-Gardner township water district near Springfield, Illinois, burned out after sputtering several times in previous months. The repair team brought in to fix it found a Russian IP address on its log from five months earlier. That IP address was actually from a cell phone call from the contractor who had set up the control system for the pump and who was vacationing in Russia with his family, so his name was in the log by the address.

Without investigating the IP address itself, the utility reported the IP address and the breakdown of the water pump to the Environmental Protection Agency, which in turn passed it on to the Illinois Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center, also called a fusion center composed of Illinois State Police and representatives from the FBI, DHS and other government agencies.

On Nov. 10 – just two days after the initial report to EPA – the fusion center produced a report titled “Public Water District Cyber Intrusion” suggesting a Russian hacker had stolen the identity of someone authorized to use the computer and had hacked into the control system causing the water pump to fail.

The contractor whose name was on the log next to the IP address later told Wired magazine that one phone call to him would have laid the matter to rest. But the DHS, which was the lead in putting the report out, had not bothered to make even that one obvious phone call before opining that it must have been a Russian hack.

The fusion center “intelligence report,” circulated by DHS Office of Intelligence and Research, was picked up by a cyber-security blogger, who called The Washington Post and read the item to a reporter. Thus the Post published the first sensational story of a Russian hack into a U.S. infrastructure on Nov. 18, 2011.

After the real story came out, DHS disclaimed responsibility for the report, saying that it was the fusion center’s responsibility. But a Senate subcommittee investigation revealed in a report a year later that even after the initial report had been discredited, DHS had not issued any retraction or correction to the report, nor had it notified the recipients about the truth.

DHS officials responsible for the false report told Senate investigators such reports weren’t intended to be “finished intelligence,” implying that the bar for accuracy of the information didn’t have to be very high. They even claimed that report was a “success” because it had done what “what it’s supposed to do – generate interest.”

Both the Burlington and Curran-Gardner episodes underline a central reality of the political game of national security in the New Cold War era: major bureaucratic players like DHS have a huge political stake in public perceptions of a Russian threat, and whenever the opportunity arises to do so, they will exploit it.

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.




Who’s the Real Manipulator of Elections?

Exclusive: In berating Russia for alleged interference in the recent U.S. election, the U.S. intelligence community ignores the extensive U.S. role in manipulating political movements around the globe, observes Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

The Director of National Intelligence’s public report on alleged Russian hacking opens with a “key judgment” that “Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order.”

That’s a strong claim. The assertion suggests a fundamental and sustained Kremlin challenge to Western freedom, reminiscent of the early years of the Cold War. That such an unqualified and ideologically charged claim should lead the report speaks volumes about the politicization of the U.S. intelligence community’s leadership. That such a claim has gone mostly unchallenged, aside from Donald Trump, speaks volumes about the powerful ideological consensus in Washington for escalating political and military conflict with Russia.

Yet a recent review of relations with Russia during the Obama years by former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul — a harsh critic of President Putin — puts the lie to the notion that Moscow has consistently sought to undermine U.S. political interests. At the same time, however, McFaul’s article illustrates the blinders shared by many American policy makers regarding the counterproductive impact on Russian behavior of repeated U.S. electoral and military interventions.

From Cooperation to Conflict

Writing for Foreign Policy, McFaul states that Russian cooperation allowed the Obama administration to negotiate the New START treaty, which slashed the number of missile launchers on each side; implement joint economic sanctions to pressure Iran into dismantling any capability of producing nuclear weapons; open up critical transportation routes for the resupply of NATO forces in Afghanistan; and arrange huge business deals for major U.S. corporations. Russia also cooperated extensively in counterterrorism and persuaded the Assad regime to give up its stockpiles of chemical weapons.

These are hardly the actions of a government with a long-term plan to undermine the United States or the “liberal democratic order.” That order is far more at risk from the Saudi monarchy, whose “export of the rigid, bigoted, patriarchal, fundamentalist strain of Islam known as Wahhabism has fueled global extremism and contributed to terrorism,” to quote The New York Times.

So what went wrong with Russia? As I recently argued, and McFaul acknowledges, one major sticking point in recent years was the Obama administration’s insistence on deploying missile defenses in Eastern Europe, which Moscow interpreted as a long-term threat to its nuclear deterrent. Congressional meddling in Russian affairs by imposing sanctions on alleged human rights abusers also angered the Kremlin. But those issues were not fatal, McFaul insists.

Instead, McFaul claims, the fault lay with Putin’s paranoid reaction to “common people demonstrating in the streets to demand greater freedoms and democratic rule” during the Arab Spring, the 2011 Russian elections, and then in Ukraine. “Putin’s response to those events, first the annexation of Crimea and then intervention in support of insurgents in eastern Ukraine, ended for good our ability to cooperate,” he maintains.

McFaul writes that Putin had “wild theories” about “American financial support for Russian opposition leaders and their organizations,” and about U.S. responsibility for regime change more generally in the Middle East and Ukraine.

“We tried to convince Putin and his government otherwise. We explained that the CIA was not financing demonstrators in Cairo, Moscow, or Ukraine . . . But Putin’s theory of American power — engrained long ago as a KGB officer (and confirmed, it must be admitted, by previous American actions in Iran, Latin America, Serbia, and Iraq) — was only reconfirmed by events during the Arab Spring and especially on the streets of Moscow in the winter of 2011 and spring of 2012.

“In his view, people don’t rise up independently and spontaneously to demand greater freedom. They must be guided, and the Obama administration was the hidden hand. On that, we profoundly disagreed; our bilateral relations never recovered.”

Even Paranoids Have Enemies

McFaul’s parenthetical acknowledgment of past U.S. complicity in regime change all over the world is refreshing. But he dismisses as “phantom” the documented evidence that the Obama administration also sought to overthrow regimes in areas of Russian interest with catastrophic results.

In Libya, for example, Putin was appalled when Obama flagrantly violated his narrow mandate from the United Nations Security Council to protect civilians in the 2011 civil war. That March, President Obama accepted that “broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” One month later, he declared, with the leaders of France and Great Britain, “Colonel Gaddafi must go, and go for good.”

A recent British parliamentary report condemning that fundamental change of mission blamed the Western military campaign for triggering Libya’s “political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.”

McFaul is similarly silent about Obama’s promotion of regime change in Russia’s longstanding ally, Syria. Fresh from their disaster in Libya, Obama and his two European partners declared in August 2011 that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

Their proclamation came four months after the Washington Post reported that Obama had continued a covert Bush administration program to fund Syrian Islamists who were engaged in “a long-standing campaign to overthrow the country’s autocratic leader, Bashar al-Assad.” Five years and half a million dead later, can McFaul really paint Putin as paranoid about regime change?

Russia’s 2011 Elections

McFaul also discounts as irrational Putin’s anger over Washington’s alleged intervention in Russia’s 2011 parliamentary elections, which a hostile Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned as fraudulent. Putin complained that Clinton judged the elections unfair even before international election monitors announced their findings. He called her comments a “signal for our activists who began active work with the U.S. Department of State” to stage mass protests.

Concerns about the fairness of the election were legitimate. Putin no doubt scapegoated Washington in part to explain the drop in popularity of his United Russia party. However, he wasn’t making up the fact that the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED), created during the Reagan administration to take the place of covert CIA programs to influence civil groups, was “all over the place inside Russia.”

Moreover, according to University of Westminster dean Roland Dannreuther, “For Putin and his entourage, there were clear parallels with Western democracy promotion in the Middle East and rising opposition and societal conflict within Russia,” which had only recently achieved political and economic stability after its near collapse in the 1990s.

“The lesson they took from events in Libya and Syria was that the West’s commitment to ‘democracy’ meant a willingness to break up societies, to use force, and to impose the wishes of an elite pro-Western minority on the majority. The interpretation was that ‘we must not allow the ‘Libyan scenario’ to be reproduced in Syria’. Even more important, of course, was that the ‘Libyan scenario’ should not be reproduced in Russia or in key neighbours, such as Ukraine.”

Regime Change in Ukraine

Ukraine was, in fact, the final straw. After Washington recognized the February 2014 coup against the elected government of Viktor Yanukovych, who was friendly with Moscow, Russia’s rushed to annex (or reunify with) Crimea and back the separatist movement in Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine. Western powers responded with economic sanctions. Relations have gone downhill ever since.

Although the political opposition to Yanukovych had genuine mass appeal (at least in Western Ukraine), Washington’s hands were all over the movement to oust him and move Ukraine closer to the West. The demonstrators were publicly encouraged by Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland (former foreign policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney) and by the ardently anti-Putin Sen. John McCain. Just weeks before the Ukraine coup, the Russians intercepted a phone call between Nuland and the U.S. ambassador, discussing their picks for new leadership in the country.

U.S. government funds also poured into Ukraine before the coup, through the National Endowment for Democracy, to train grass-roots activists, support key journalists, and foster business groups. In 2013, the president of NED, Carl Gershman, published a blatantly provocative op-ed column in the Washington Post calling Ukraine “the biggest prize” among countries of interest to Russia. He boasted that U.S. programs to pull Ukraine into the Western orbit would “accelerate the demise of the ideology of Russian imperialism that Putin represents” and defeat him “not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.”

NED: History of Interventions

Putin has had reason to doubt Western claims about “democracy promotion” since Washington and its European allies overlooked Boris Yeltsin’s unconstitutional power grab in 1993 and his blatant manipulation of the 1996 election. That election prompted a famous Time magazine cover story: “Yanks to the Rescue: The Secret Story of How American Advisers Helped Yeltsin Win.”

U.S. interference in Russia’s domestic affairs was soon followed by the so-called “color revolutions” in such former Soviet republics as Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Columbia University’s Alexander Cooley remarked, “Eurasian elites viewed the color revolutions not as legitimate democratic responses to corrupt authoritarian rule, but as Western-sponsored threats targeting their very survival. These perceptions were supported when various Western NGOs and donors began to publicly take credit for their role in ushering in regime changes . . .”

Cooley added, “the United States has also contributed to the erosion of its own credibility as a promoter of democratic values through the manner in which it dealt with the government of Georgia and its democratic failings in the post-[2003] Rose Revolution period. Indeed . . . the United States’ vigorous support of Georgia contributed to the notion that Washington’s efforts to promote democracy in the post-Soviet space were simply justification for supporting anti-Russian regimes.”

Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 followed more than $65 million in spending by the Bush administration “to aid political organizations in Ukraine” and “to bring opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko to meet U.S. leaders,” reported Associated Press.

Its report continued, “U.S. officials say the activities don’t amount to interference in Ukraine’s election, as Russian President Vladimir Putin alleges, but . . . officials acknowledge some of the money helped train groups and individuals opposed to the Russian-backed government candidate — people who now call themselves part of the Orange revolution.”

American Manipulation

Ian Traynor, the Guardian’s European editor, called the 2004 Ukraine campaign “an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in western branding and mass marketing that, in four countries in four years, has been used to try to . . . topple unsavoury regimes.”

“Funded and organised by the US government, deploying US consultancies, pollsters, diplomats, the two big American parties and US non-government organisations, the campaign was first used in Europe in Belgrade in 2000 to beat Slobodan Milosevic at the ballot box,” he continued.

“If the events in Kiev vindicate the US in its strategies for helping other people win elections and take power from anti-democratic regimes, it is certain to try to repeat the exercise elsewhere in the post-Soviet world.”

As it happened, the campaign in Kiev did turn out to Washington’s liking. Yushchenko — who was married to a former official in the Reagan administration — emerged as Ukraine’s new president and began seeking membership in NATO and the European Union.

Scholars agree that Putin and other Russian elites were deeply shaken by these successive U.S. interventions along their borders. That should have come as no surprise: Washington would have reacted much the same to Russia spending tens of millions of dollars on political revolutions in our backyard, as indeed we did during the Cold War in Guatemala, Cuba, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Grenada.

The DNI report thus would have been much more correct to state that Russia has long opposed U.S.-led regime changes on its borders and in the Middle East. Moscow is not implacably hostile to American values or interests, as shown by the cooperative behavior it repeatedly showed during the early Obama years.

In order to genuinely advance U.S. interests and better protect our freedoms, therefore, the Trump administration should follow through on the President-elect’s implicit promises to rethink policies that provoke conflict with Russia in the name of promoting democracy.

Jonathan Marshall is author of many recent articles on arms issues, including “How World War III Could Start,” “NATO’s ProvocativeAnti-Russian Moves,” “Escalations in a New Cold War,” “Ticking Closer to Midnight,” and “Turkey’s Nukes: A Sum of All Fears.”

 




America in Need of ‘Democracy Promotion’

The U.S. government lectures other countries about “democracy” – and  finances internal opposition in the name of “democracy promotion” – but its own behavior falls far short of democratic norms, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The health, or sickness, of democracy in foreign countries has long been a matter of concern in the United States, notwithstanding disagreements regarding exactly what the United States can, or should, do to promote democracy abroad. Consider the case of the following country — for now, let us call it Slobbovia — as outsiders would view it and as it might be the subject of something equivalent to a State Department dispatch or a report from a nongovernmental organization concerned with democracy.

Slobbovia has a legal and constitutional structure that provides for political and civil rights and is in the form of a representative democracy with built-in checks and balances. In practice, much political activity derives not from that legal and constitutional framework but instead consists of crude use of levers of power by those with access to those levers.

Elements with the most power routinely show less regard for democratic procedures than for solidification of their own party’s power. Ultimate motivations for such behavior may include retention of power for its own sake and the advancement of minority economic interests that would be unable to prevail under majority rule.

The ruling party — the party that as of later this month will be in full control of both the executive and legislative branches of the national government — aggressively uses non-democratic means to preserve and expand its position. Among these has been enactment at the state level — where the ruling party also controls most of the legislatures — of laws designed to impede voting by citizens deemed more likely to vote for the opposition, by imposing requirements difficult for many of those citizens to meet. The rationale for such laws has been to counter voting fraud, even though such fraud has been so rare as to be almost nonexistent.

The voter suppression laws have effectively disenfranchised what is probably a substantial, although admittedly impossible to quantify, portion of the electorate. The rationale — echoed by the incoming president, who has made accusations, without support, of widespread voting fraud — also has undermined confidence in Slobbovian democracy.

Gerrymandering Voting Districts

Both the ruling party and the principal opposition party extensively manipulate the boundaries of legislative districts to benefit their own party and to entrench incumbents, but this practice has disproportionately benefited the ruling party because of its control over most state legislatures, where the manipulative line-drawing occurs.

Because members of state legislatures can draw their own district boundaries, this districting technique is another way for a minority to continue in power even after it has lost whatever majority support it once had. At the national level, the manipulation of district lines has enabled the ruling party to retain a majority of seats in the lower house of the legislature even when it has won fewer votes than the opposition party did.

The ruling party also benefits from an archaic feature of Slobbovian presidential elections — a holdover from a system devised partly to propitiate slave-holding interests — in which the candidate winning the most votes does not necessarily get the presidency. This has happened twice in the last five presidential elections. The oddity was especially marked in the most recent election, in which the presidency is being given to a candidate who finished a full two percentage points behind the opposition party’s candidate.

When the opposition party has managed despite these handicaps to make inroads — as it did in winning the two previous presidential elections — the dominant party has used its position in the national legislature to flout the majority will and to impede the ability of the other party to govern. Its techniques have included a form of extortion in which, lacking the votes to enact its policies through normal democratic means, it threatens to shut down the government altogether or to destroy Slobbovia’s credit rating through a debt default if it does not get its way.

The party’s leader in the upper house of the national legislature openly declared his intention, as his highest priority, to make the president a failure. He and his party acted consistently with that declaration. This approach included automatic and total opposition to what was the principal domestic policy initiative of the day, even though this meant the party did not have any alternative to offer once it regained full control of the policymaking branches of government.

Controlling the Courts

The ruling party has placed heavy emphasis on controlling as well the judiciary, which is significant in that Slobbovia’s highest court has become in effect another policymaking branch of government, with justices in ideological camps that clearly correspond to the preferences of the two major political parties.

The death a year ago of one justice threatened a loss of the dominant party’s hold on the court. The party’s members in the upper house of the legislature — which the constitution says must provide advice and consent regarding presidential appointments to the court — disregarded that constitutional provision and refused to consider the incumbent president’s nominee, even though it meant the vacancy would last at least a year and the nominee in question was a moderate.

The sympathy of a majority of the court toward the dominant party’s ideology has played a major role in increasing the part of money in Slobbovian politics, especially by striking down legislation intended to regulate money’s role in election campaigns. Slobbovia is no kleptocracy, and for the most part the role of money in politics does not take the form of what is undeniably corruption, as it does in many other countries.

It is worthy of note, however, that the first attempted action by the ruling party’s members in the lower house of the newly convened national legislature was to disable an office with the mission of investigating corruption among members. The action was scuttled after it provoked outrage. (The incoming president criticized the timing, but not the substance, of the attempted disabling of the office.)

The increasing role of money is instead more a matter of deference to minority moneyed interests, based on disproportionate access of those interests to the corridors of power, at the expense of majority interests as would be expressed through democratic means. This trend involves the flouting of previous custom and in some respects the flouting of law.

The incoming president, contrary to the practice of his predecessors, refuses to disclose fully his financial interests and specifically his tax returns. He is a businessman with worldwide interests that he is not divesting, making it almost inevitable that during his administration there will be violations of a provision in the Slobbovian constitution that prohibits U.S. officials from receiving private gain from foreign governments. The intermingling of public business with private business interests also involves members of the President’s family who evidently are going to have hands in both, notwithstanding Slobbovian law that is supposed to restrict nepotism. Some observers have even seen similarities to family rule in North Korea.

Some senior appointees of the incoming president who also have extensive private interests that could conflict with the public interest appear likely to be confirmed in their appointments even though they have failed to complete ethics-related submissions that are supposed to be required for confirmation. The financial donations that some wealthy nominees have made to the same members of the upper house who will be voting on their nominations may have something to do with this outcome.

Also of concern regarding the intermingling of private and public interests are informal advisers who have extensive financial interests that would be affected by policy decisions and whose grey-area status keeps them outside even the ostensible legal restrictions that apply to formally appointed officials.

An Unfavorable Trend

An overall assessment of the state of democracy in Slobbovia must begin with the observation that this is a nation with a long history and strong tradition of representative democracy. But this tradition is visibly and seriously eroding. The trend is unfavorable.

The defects in Slobbovian democracy are growing and becoming more obvious. This country is increasingly a place where minority interests can, and do, use nondemocratic means to prevail over the will and interests of a majority. As both a cause and effect of this pattern, the aspects of political culture that, at least as much as constitutional and legal provisions, are critical to the sustaining of a liberal representative democracy have been weakening. The most important aspect of such culture is widespread acceptance that observing and nourishing democratic norms themselves are more important than any one policy outcome or the fortunes of any one political party. Too often this is not the set of priorities one observes.

Realizing that this particular Slobbovia is actually the United States, one can get a sense of how non-Americans are viewing American democracy. This in turn can have implications for democracy in the observers’ own lands. Right now there is uncertainty about what effect the direct actions of the incoming Trump administration will have on democracy abroad.

Anne Applebaum expresses a pessimistic view that Trump, far from promoting any expansion of democracy, may undermine hitherto well-established democracies in Europe by making common cause with racist and anti-immigration elements in hard-right nationalist movements.

Democracy scholar Thomas Carothers believes, somewhat more optimistically, that “as Trump and his team move to actual policymaking,” their support for democracy and human rights abroad “will prove less consistently negative than their initial signals might indicate.”

Carothers correctly identifies, however, the biggest negative of all: “Various problematic features of U.S. political life in recent years — the institutional gridlock, the ever-rising role of money in politics, and the frequent skirmishing over basic electoral rules and procedures — have already tarnished the United States’ image abroad.

But the recent U.S. presidential election process damaged this image much more widely and deeply. Although this damage had many sources, numerous actions that Trump took during the campaign and since the election — from his vows to prosecute his main opponent to his baseless postelection assertions of massive electoral fraud — figure significantly in the dispiriting diminishment of America’s global political brand.”

For anyone interested in expanding democracy abroad, this is a reason for deep pessimism. America is more likely to be successful in encouraging such expansion by setting an example than by direct manipulation or intervention. Because stable democracy requires those critical elements of political culture — including genuine and willing commitment to democratic procedures themselves — it must arise in large part inwardly, even if inspired by a salient example such as the United States, rather than being imposed from the outside.

For all Americans, the biggest reason to be bothered by the trends in American democracy is that it is their own country. That is a reason to be pessimistic even if not giving a hoot about the expansion of democracy abroad.

That is also one of the biggest problems to think about in connection with the alleged Russian interference in the U.S. election. Primary among the likely Russian motives, as suggested in the official government report on the Russian initiative, was “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.” Sure, what the Russians allegedly did is worthy of condemnation, but Americans ought to be most disturbed by the fact that there already were enough reasons to shake such faith that the Russians would have known they had a vulnerable target. The recent election, with or without Russian interference, provided still more reasons.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)