The Shaky Case That Russia Manipulated Social Media to Tip the 2016 Election

The idea promoted by the NYT’s Shane & Mazzetti that the Russian government seriously threatened to determine the 2016 election does not hold up when the larger social media context is examined more closely, reports Gareth Porter.

By Gareth Porter
Special to Consortium News

In their long recapitulation of the case that Russia subverted the 2016 election, Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times painted a picture of highly effective Russian government exploitation of social media for that purpose. Shane and Mazzetti asserted that “anti-Clinton, pro-Trump messages shared with millions of voters by Russia could have made the difference” in the election.

What we now know with certainty: The Russians carried out a landmark intervention that will be examined for decades to come,” they write elsewhere in the 10,000-word article.

But an investigation of the data they cite to show that the Russian campaigns on Facebook and Twitter were highly effective reveals a gross betrayal of journalistic responsibility. Shane and Mazzetti have constructed a case that is fundamentally false and misleading with statistics that exaggerate the real effectiveness of social media efforts by orders of magnitude.

‘Reaching’ 129 Million Americans

The Internet Research Agency (IRA), is a privately-owned company run by entrepreneur Vevgeny V. Prigozhin, who has ties with President Vladimir Putin. Its employees poured out large numbers of social media postings apparently aimed at stoking racial and cultural tensions in the United States and trying to influence U.S. voters in regard to the presidential election, as Shane and Mazzetti suggest. They even adopted false U.S. personas online to get people to attend rallies and conduct other political activities. (An alternative explanation is that IRA is a purely commercial, and not political, operation.)

Whether those efforts even came close to swaying U.S. voters in the 2016 presidential election, as Shane and Mazzetti claimed, is another matter.

Shane and Mazzetti might argue that they are merely citing figures published by the social media giants Facebook and Twitter, but they systematically failed to report the detailed explanations behind the gross figures used in each case, which falsified their significance.

Their most dramatic assertions came in reporting the alleged results of the IRA’s efforts on Facebook. “Even by the vertiginous standards of social media,” they wrote, “the reach of their effort was impressive: 2,700 fake Facebook accounts, 80,000 posts, many of them elaborate images with catchy slogans, and an eventual audience of 126 million Americans on Facebook alone.”

Then, to dramatize that “eventual audience” figure, they observed, “That was not far short of the 137 million people who would vote in the 2016 presidential elections.”

But as impressive as these figures may appear at first glance, they don’t really indicate an effective attack on the U.S. election process at all. In fact, without deeper inquiry into their meaning, those figures were grossly misleading.

A Theoretical Possibility

What Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch actually said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last October was quite different from what the Times reporters claimed. “Our best estimate is that approximately 126,000 million people may have been served one of these [IRA-generated] stories at some time during the two year period,” Stretch said.

Stretch was expressing a theoretical possibility rather than an established accomplishment. Facebook was saying that it estimated 126 million Facebook members might have gotten at least one story from the IRA –- not over the ten week election period but over 194 weeks during the two years 2015 through 2017. That, figure, in turn, was based on the estimate that 29 million people might have gotten at least one story in their Facebook feed over that same two-year period and on the assumption that they shared it with others at a particular rate.

The first problem with citing those figures as evidence of impact on the 2016 election is that Facebook did not claim that all or even most of those 80,000 IRA posts were election–related. It offered no data on what proportion of the feeds to those 29 million people was, in fact, election-related. But Stretch did testify that IRA content over that two–year period represented just four ten thousandths (.0004) of the total content of Facebook newsfeeds.

Thus each piece of IRA content in a Facebook feed was engulfed in 23,000 pieces of non-IRA content.

That is an extremely important finding, because, as Facebook’s Vice President for News Feed, Adam Moseri, acknowledged in 2016, Facebook subscribers actually read only about 10 percent of the stories Facebook puts in their News Feed every day. The means that very few of the IRA stories that actually make it into a subscriber’s news feed on any given day are actually read.

Facebook did conduct research on what it calls “civic engagement” during the election period, and the researchers concluded that the “reach” of the content shared by what they called “fake amplifiers” was “marginal compared to the volume of civic content shared during the U.S. elections.” That reach, they said, was “statistically very small” in relation to “overall engagement on political issues.”

Shane and Mazzaetti thus failed to report any of the several significant caveats and disclaimers from Facebook itself that make their claim that Russian election propaganda “reached” 126 million Americans extremely misleading.

Tiny IRA Twitter Footprint

Shane and Mazzetti’s treatment of the role of Twitter in the alleged Russian involvement in the election focuses on 3,814 Twitter accounts said to be associated with the IRA, which supposedly “interacted with 1.4 million Americans.” Although that number looks impressive without any further explanation, more disaggregated data provide a different picture: more than 90 percent of the Tweets from the IRA had nothing to do with the election, and those that did were infinitesimally few in relation to the entire Twitter stream relating to the 2016 campaign.

Twitter’s own figures show that those 3,814 IRA-linked accounts posted 175,993 Tweets during the ten weeks of the election campaign, but that only 8.4 percent of the total number of IRA-generated Tweets were election-related.

Twitter estimated that those 15,000 IRA-related tweets represented less than .00008 (eight one hundred thousandths) of the estimated total of 189 million tweets that Twitter identified as election-related during the ten-week election campaign. Twitter has offered no estimate of how many Tweets, on average were in the daily twitter stream of those people notified by Twitter and what percentage of them were election-related Tweets from the IRA. Any such notification would certainly show, however, that the percentage was extremely small and that very few would have been read.

Research by Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren of Clemson University on 2.9 million Tweets from those same 3,814 IRA accounts over a two year period has revealed that nearly a third of its Tweets had normal commercial content or were not in English; another third were straight local newsfeeds from U.S. localities or mostly non-political “hashtag games”, and the final third were on “right” or “left” populist themes in U.S. society.

Furthermore, there were more IRA Tweets on political themes in 2017 than there had been during the election year. As a graph of those tweets over time shows, those “right” and “left” Tweets peaked not during the election but during the summer of 2017.

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The Mysterious 50,000 ‘Russia-Linked’ Accounts

Twitter also determined that another 50,258 automated Twitter accounts that tweeted about the election were associated with Russia and that they have generated a total to 2.1 million Tweets — about one percent of the total of number election-related tweets during the period.

But despite media coverage of those Tweets suggesting that they originated with the Russian government, the evidence doesn’t indicate that at all. Twitter’s Sean Edgett told the Senate Intelligence Committee last November that Twitter had used an “expansive approach to defining what qualifies as a Russian-linked account.” Twitter considered an account to be “Russian” if any of the following was found: it was created in Russia or if the user registered the account with a Russian phone carrier or a Russian email; the user’s display name contains Cyrillic characters; the user frequently Tweets in Russian, or the user has logged in from any Russian IP address.

Edgett admitted in a statement in January, however, that there were limitations on its ability to determine the origins of the users of these accounts. And a past log-in from a Russian IP address does not mean the Russian government controls an account. Automated accounts have been bought and sold for many years on a huge market, some of which is located in Russia. As Scott Shane reported in September 2017, a Russian website BuyAccs.com offers tens and even hundreds of thousands of Twitter accounts for bulk purchase.

Twitter also observed that “a high concentration of automated engagement and content originated from data centers and users accessing Twitter via Virtual Private Networks (“VPNs”) and proxy servers,” which served to mask the geographical origin of the tweet. And that practice was not limited to the 50,000 accounts in question. Twitter found that locations of nearly 12 percent of the Tweets generated during the election period were masked because of the use of such networks and servers.

Twitter identified over half of the Tweets, coming from about half of the 50,000 accounts, as being automated, and the data reported on activity on those 50,000 accounts in question, indicates that both the Trump and Clinton campaigns were using the automated accounts in question. The roughly 23,000 automated accounts were the source of 1.34 million Tweets, which represented .63 percent of the total election-related Tweets. But the entire 50,000 accounts produced about 1 percent of total election-related tweets.

Hillary Clinton got .55 percent of her total retweets from the 50,000 automated accounts Twitter calls “Russia-linked” and .62 percent of her “likes” from them. Those percentages are close to the percentage of total election-related Tweets generated by those same automated accounts. That suggests that her campaign had roughly the same proportion of automated accounts among the 50,000 accounts as it did in the rest of the accounts during the campaign.

Trump, on the other hand, got 1.8 percent of this total “likes” and 4.25 percent of his total Retweets for the whole election period from those accounts, indicating his campaign was more invested in the automated accounts that were the source of two-thirds of the Tweets in those 50,000 “Russia-linked” accounts.

The idea promoted by Shane and Mazzetti that the Russian government seriously threatened to determine the winner of the election does not hold up when the larger social media context is examined more closely. Contrary to what the Times’ reporters and the corporate media in general would have us believe, the Russian private sector effort accounted for a minuscule proportion of the election-related output of social media. The threat to the U.S. political system in general and its electoral system in particular is not Russian influence; it’s in part a mainstream news media that has lost perspective on the truth.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian writing on US national security policy. His latest book, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, was published in February of 2014. Follow him on Twitter: @GarethPorter.

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Future of Western Democracy Being Played Out in Brazil

Stripped to its essence, the Brazilian presidential elections represent a direct clash between democracy and an early 21st Century neofascism, indeed between civilization and barbarism, writes Pepe Escobar.

By Pepe Escobar
in Paris
Special to Consortium News

Nothing less than the future of politics across the West – and across the Global South – is being played out in Brazil.

Stripped to its essence, the Brazilian presidential elections represent a direct clash between democracy and an early 21st Century, neofascism, indeed between civilization and barbarism.

Geopolitical and global economic reverberations will be immense. The Brazilian dilemma illuminates all the contradictions surrounding the Right populist offensive across the West, juxtaposed to the inexorable collapse of the Left. The stakes could not be higher.

Jair Bolsonaro, an outright supporter of Brazilian military dictatorships of last century, who has been normalized as the “extreme-right candidate,” won the first round of the presidential elections on Sunday with more than 49 million votes. That was 46 percent of the total, just shy of a majority needed for an outright win. This in itself is a jaw-dropping development.

His opponent, Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT), got only 31 million votes, or 29 percent of the total. He will now face Bolsonaro in a runoff on October 28. A Sisyphean task awaits Haddad: just to reach parity with Bolsonaro, he needs every single vote from those who supported the third and fourth-placed candidates, plus a substantial share of the almost 20 percent of votes considered null and void.

Meanwhile, no less than 69 percent of Brazilians, according to the latest polls, profess their support for democracy. That means 31 percent do not.

No Tropical Trump

Dystopia Central does not even begin to qualify it. Progressive Brazilians are terrified of facing a mutant “Brazil” (the movie) cum Mad Max wasteland ravaged by evangelical fanatics, rapacious neoliberal casino capitalists and a rabid military bent on recreating a Dictatorship 2.0.

Bolsonaro, a former paratrooper, is being depicted by Western mainstream media essentially as the Tropical Trump. The facts are way more complex.

Bolsonaro, a mediocre member of Congress for 27 years with no highlights on his C.V., indiscriminately demonizes blacks, the LGBT community, the Left as a whole, the environment “scam” and most of all, the poor. He’s avowedly pro-torture. He markets himself as a Messiah – a fatalistic avatar coming to “save” Brazil from all those “sins” above.

The Goddess of the Market, predictably, embraces him. “Investors” – those semi-divine entities – deem him good for “the market”, with his last-minute offensive in the polls mirroring a rally in the Brazilian real and the Sao Paulo stock exchange.

Bolsonaro may be your classic extreme-right “savior” in the Nazi mould. He may embody Right populism to the core. But he’s definitely not a “sovereignist” – the motto of choice in political debate across the West. His “sovereign” Brazil would be run more like a retro-military dictatorship totally subordinated to Washington’s whims.

Bolsonaro’s ticket is compounded by a barely literate, retired general as his running mate, a man who is ashamed of his mixed race background and is frankly pro-eugenics. General Antonio Hamilton Mourão has even revived the idea of a military coup.

Manipulating the ticket, we find massive economic interests, tied to mineral wealth, agro-business and most of all the Brazilian Bible Belt. It is complete with death squads against Native Brazilians, landless peasants and African-American communities. It is a haven for the weapons industry. Call it the apotheosis of tropical neo-pentecostal, Christian-Zionism.

Praise the Lord

Brazil has 42 million evangelicals – and over 200 representatives in both branches of Parliament. Don’t mess with their jihad. They know how to exercise massive appeal among the beggars at the neoliberal banquet. The Lula Left simply didn’t know how to seduce them.

So even with echoes of Mike Pence, Bolsonaro is the Brazilian Trump only to a certain extent: his communication skills – talking tough, simplistically, is language understandable to a seven-year old. Educated Italians compare him to Matteo Salvini, the Lega leader, now Minister of Interior. But that’s also not exactly the case.

Bolsonaro is a symptom of a much larger disease. He has only reached this level, a head-to-head in the second round against Lula’s candidate Haddad, because of a sophisticated, rolling, multi-stage, judicial/congressional/business/media Hybrid War unleashed on Brazil.

Way more complex than any color revolution, Hybrid War in Brazil featured a law-fare coup under cover of the Car Wash anti-corruption investigation. That led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and Lula being thrown in jail on corruption charges with no hard evidence or smoking gun.

In every poll Lula would win these elections hand down. The coup plotters managed to imprison him and prevent him from running. Lula’s right to run was highlighted by everyone from Pope Francis to the UN’s Human Rights Council, as well as Noam Chomsky. Yet in a delightful historical twist, the coup plotters’ scenario blew up in their faces as the front-runner to lead the country is not one of them, but a neofascist.

One of them” would ideally be a faceless bureaucrat affiliated with the former social democrats, the PSDB, turned hardcore neoliberals addicted to posing as Center Left when they are the “acceptable” face of the neoliberal Right. Call them Brazilian Tony Blairs. Specific Brazilian contradictions, plus the advance of Right populism across the West, led to their downfall.

Even Wall Street and the City of London (which endorsed Hybrid War on Brazil after it was unleashed by NSA spying of oil giant Petrobras) have started entertaining second thoughts on supporting Bolsonaro for president of a BRICS nation, which is a leader of the Global South, and until a few years ago, was on its way to becoming the fifth largest economy in the world.

It all hangs on the “vote transfer” mechanism from Lula to Haddad and the creation of a serious, multi-party Progressive Democratic Front on the second round to defeat the rising neofascism. They have less than three weeks to pull it off.

The Bannon Effect

It’s no secret that Steve Bannon is advising the Bolsonaro campaign in Brazil. One of Bolsonaro’s sons, Eduardo, met with Bannon in New York two months ago after which the Bolsonaro camp decided to profit from Bannon’s supposed “peerless” social engineering insights.

Bolsonaro’s son tweeted at the time, “We’re certainly in touch to join forces, especially against Cultural Marxism.” That was followed by an army of bots disgorging an avalanche of fake news up to Election Day.

A specter haunts Europe. Its name is Steve Bannon. The specter has moved on to the tropics.

In Europe, Bannon is now poised to intervene like an angel of doom in a Tintoretto painting heralding the creation of a EU-wide Right Populist coalition.

Bannon is notoriously praised to high heavens by Italian Interior Minister Salvini; Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban; Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders; and scourge of the Paris establishment, Marine Le Pen.

Last month, Bannon set up The Movement; at first sight just a political start-up in Brussels with a very small staff. But talk about Boundless Ambition: their aim is no less than turning the European parliamentary elections in May 2019 upside down.

The European parliament in Strasbourg – a bastion of bureaucratic inefficiency – is not exactly a household name across the EU. The parliament is barred from proposing legislation. Laws and budgets can only be blocked via a majority vote.

Bannon aims at capturing at least one-third of the seats in Strasbourg. He’s bound to apply tested American-style methods such as intensive polling, data analysis, and intensive social media campaigns – much the same as in Bolsonaro’s case. But there’s no guarantee it will work, of course.

The foundation stone of The Movement was arguably laid in two key meetings in early September set up by Bannon and his right-hand man, Mischael Modrikamen, chairman of the quite small Belgian Parti Populaire (PP). The first meeting was in Rome with Salvini and the second in Belgrade with Orban.

Modrikamen defines the concept as a “club” which will “collect funds from donors, in America and Europe, to make sure ‘populist’ ideas can be heard by the citizens of Europe who perceive more and more that Europe is not a democracy anymore.”

Modrikamen insists, “We are all sovereignists.” The Movement will hammer four themes that seem to form a consensus among disparate, EU-wide political parties: against “uncontrolled immigration”; against “Islamism”; favoring “security” across the EU; and supporting “a Europe of sovereign nations, proud of their identity.”

The Movement should really pick up speed after next month’s midterms in the U.S. In theory, it could congregate different parties from the same nation under its umbrella. That could be a very tall order, even taller than the fact key political actors already have divergent agendas.

Wilders wants to blow up the EU. Salvini and Orban want a weak EU but they don’t want to get rid of its institutions. Le Pen wants a EU reform followed by a “Frexit” referendum.

The only themes that unite this mixed Right Populism bag are nationalism, a fuzzy anti-establishment drive and a – quite popular – disgust with the EU’s overwhelming bureaucratic machine.

Here we find some common ground with Bolsonaro, who poses as a nationalist and as against the Brazilian political system – even though he’s been in Parliament for ages.

There’s no rational explanation for Bolsonaro’s last-minute surge among two sections of the Brazilian electorate that deeply despise him: women and the Northeast region, which has always been discriminated against by the wealthier South and Southeast.

Much like Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 U.S. election, Bolsonaro’s campaign targeted undecided voters in Northeastern states, as well as women voters, with a barrage of fake news demonizing Haddad and the Workers’ Party. It worked like a charm.

The Italian Job

I’ve just been to northern Italy checking out how popular Salvini really is. Salvini defines the May 2019 European Parliament elections as “the last chance for Europe.” Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero sees them as the first “real election for the future of Europe.” Bannon also sees the future of Europe being played in Italy.

It’s quite something to seize the conflicting energy in the air in Milan, where Salvini’s Lega is quite popular while at the same time Milan is a globalized city crammed with ultra-progressive pockets.

At a political debate about a book published by the Bruno Leoni Institute regarding exiting the euro, Roberto Maroni, a former governor of the powerful Lombardia region, remarked: “Italexit is outside of the formal agenda of the government, of the Lega and of the center-right.” Maroni should know, after all he was one of the Lega’s founders.

He hinted however that major changes are on the horizon. “To form a group in the European parliament, the numbers are important. This is the moment to show up with a unique symbol among parties of many nations.”

It’s not only Bannon and The Movement’s Modrikamen. Salvini, Le Pen and Orban are convinced they can win the 2019 elections – with the EU transformed into a “Union of European Nations.” This would include not just a couple of big cities where all the action is, with the rest reduced to fly over status. Right Populism argues that France, Italy, Spain, and Greece are no longer nations – only mere provinces.

Right Populism derives immense satisfaction that its main enemy is the self-described “Jupiter” Macron – mocked across France by some as the “Little Sun King.” President Emmanuel Macron must be terrified that Salvini is emerging as the “leading light” of European nationalists.

This is what Europe seems to be coming to: a trashy, Salvini vs. Macron cage match.

Arguably the Salvini vs. Macron fight in Europe might be replicated as Bolsonaro vs. Haddad in Brazil. Some sharp Brazilian minds are convinced Haddad is the Brazilian Macron.

In my view he is not. His has a background in philosophy and he’s a former, competent mayor of Sao Paulo, one of the most complex megalopolises on the planet. Macron is a Rothschild mergers and acquisitions banker. Unlike Macron, who was engineered by the French establishment as the perfect “progressive” wolf to be released among the sheep, Haddad embodies what’s left of really progressive Left.

On top of that – unlike virtually the whole Brazilian political spectrum – Haddad is not corrupt. He’d have to offer the requisite pound of flesh to the usual suspects if he wins of course. But he’s not out to be their puppet.

Compare Bolsonaro’s Trumpism, apparent in his last-minute message before Election Day: “Make Brazil Great Again,” with Trump’s Trumpism.

Bolsonaro’s tools are unmitigated praise of the Motherland; the Armed Forces; and the flag.

But Bolsonaro is not interested in defending Brazilian industry, jobs and culture. On the contrary. A graphic example is what happened in a Brazilian restaurant in Deerfield Beach, Florida, a year ago: Bolsonaro saluted the American flag and chanted “USA! USA!”

That’s undiluted MAGA – without a “B”.

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Jason Stanley, professor of philosophy at Yale and author of How Fascism Works, takes us further. Stanley stresses how “the idea in fascism is to destroy economic politics… The corporatists side with politicians who use fascist tactics because they are trying to divert people’s attention from the real forces that cause the genuine anxiety they feel.”

Bolsonaro has mastered these diversionist tactics. And he excels in demonizing so-called Cultural Marxism. Bolsonaro fits Stanley’s description as applied to the U.S.:

Liberalism and Cultural Marxism destroyed our supremacy and destroyed this wonderful past where we ruled and our cultural traditions were the ones that dominated. And then it militarizes the feeling of nostalgia. All the anxiety and loss that people feel in their lives, say from the loss of their healthcare, the loss of their pensions, the loss of their stability, then gets rerouted into a sense that the real enemy is liberalism, which led to the loss of this mythic past.”

In the Brazilian case, the enemy is not liberalism but the Workers’ Party, derided by Bolsonaro as “a bunch of communists.” Celebrating his astonishing first round victory, he said Brazil was on the edge of a corrupt, communist “abyss” and could either choose a path of “prosperity, freedom, family” or “the path of Venezuela”.

The Car Wash investigation enshrined the myth that the Workers’ Party and the whole Left is corrupt (but not the Right). Bolsonaro overextended the myth:  every minority and social class is a target – in his mind they are “communists” and “terrorists.”

Goebbels comes to mind – via his crucial text The Radicalization of Socialism, where he emphasized the necessity of portraying the center-left as Marxists and socialists because, as Stanley notes, the middle class sees in Marxism not so much the subverter of national will, but mainly the thief of its property.”

That’s at the center of Bolsonaro’s strategy of demonizing the Workers Party – and the Left in general. The strategy of course is drenched in fake news – once again mirroring what Stanley writes about U.S. history: “The whole concept of empire is based on fake news. All of colonization is based on fake news.”

Right Against Left Populism?

As I wrote in a previous column, the Left in the West is like a deer caught in the headlights when it comes to fighting Right populism.

Sharp minds from Slavoj Zizek to Chantal Mouffe are trying to conceptualize an alternative – without being able to coin the definitive neologism. Left populism? Popularism? Ideally, that should be “democratic socialism” – but no one, in a post-ideology, post-truth environment, would dare utter the dreaded word.

The ascent of Right populism is a direct consequence of the emergence of a profound crisis of political representation all over the West; the politics of identity erected as a new mantra; and the overwhelming power of social media, which allows – in Umberto Eco’s peerless definition – the ascent of “the idiot of the village to the condition of Oracle.”

As we saw earlier, the central motto of Right populism in Europe is anti-immigration – a barely disguised variation of hate towards The Other. In Brazil the main theme, emphasized by Bolsonaro, is urban insecurity. He could be the Brazilian Rodrigo Duterte – or Duterte Harry: “Make my day, punk.”

He portrays himself as the Righteous Defender against a corrupt elite (even though he’s part of the elite); and his hatred of all things politically correct, feminism, homosexuality, multiculturalism – are all unpardonable offenses to his “family values.”

A Brazilian historian says the only way to oppose him is to “translate” to each sector of Brazilian society how Bolsonaro’s positions affect them: on “widespread weaponizing, discrimination, jobs, (and) taxes.” And it has to be done in less than three weeks.

Arguably the best book explaining the failure of the Left everywhere to deal with this toxic situation is Jean-Claude Michea’s Le Loup dans la Bergerie – The Wolf Among the Sheep – published in France a few days ago.

Michea shows concisely how the deep contradictions of liberalism since the 18th century – political, economic and cultural – led it to TURN AGAINST ITSELF and be cut off from the initial spirit of tolerance (Adam Smith, David Hume, Montesquieu). That’s why we are deep inside post-democratic capitalism.

Euphemistically called “the international community” by Western mainstream media, the elites, who have been confronted since 2008 with “the growing difficulties faced by the process of globalized accumulation of capital,” now seem ready to do anything to keep its privileges.

Michea is right that the most dangerous enemy of civilization – and even Life on Earth – is the blind dynamics of endless accumulation of capital. We know where this neoliberal Brave New World is taking us.

The only counterpunch is an autonomous, popular movement “that would not be submitted to the ideological and cultural hegemony of ‘progressive’ movements that for over three decades defend only the cultural interests of the new middle classes around the world,” Michae says.

For now, such a movement rests in the realm of Utopia. What’s left is to try to remedy a coming dystopia – such as backing a real Progressive Democratic Front to block a Bolsonaro Brazil.

One of the highlights of my Italian sojourn was a meeting with Rolf Petri, Professor of Contemporary History at the Ca Foscari University in Venice, and author of the absolutely essential A Short History of Western Ideology: A Critical Account.

Ranging from religion, race and colonialism, to the Enlightenment project of “civilization”, Petri weaves a devastating tapestry of how “the imagined geography of a ‘continent’ that was not even a continent offered a platform for the affirmation of European superiority and the civilizing mission of Europe.”

During a long dinner in a small Venetian trattoria away from the galloping selfie hordes, Petri observed how Salvini – a middle-class small entrepreneur – craftily found out how to channel a deep unconscious longing for a mythical harmonious Europe that won’t be coming back, much as petty bourgeois Bolsonaro evokes a mythical return to the “Brazilian miracle” during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

Every sentient being knows that the U.S. has been plunged into extreme inequality “supervised” by a ruthless plutocracy. U.S. workers will continue to be royally screwed as are French workers under “liberal” Macron. So would Brazilian workers under Bolsonaro. To borrow then from Yeats, what rough beast, in this darkest hour, slouches towards freedom to be born?

Pepe Escobar, a veteran Brazilian journalist, is the correspondent-at-large for Hong Kong-based Asia Times. His latest book is 2030. Follow him on Facebook.

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The Fifth Online Vigil for Julian Assange

As the crisis over Julian Assange continues to mount, the fifth online vigil for Assange was broadcast live on Saturday by Consortium News. You can watch the entire event here.

The isolation of Julian Assange, publisher of WikiLeaks, continues unabated as his lawyers and the former president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, warn of deepening crisis for the imperiled asylee. These warnings come on the heel of the appointment of renowned Icelandic journalist Kristinn Hrafnsson as the new editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks – itself an indication of the dire circumstances at hand.

Assange’s most high-profile supporters mobilized for the fifth #Unity4J online vigil on Saturday  in solidarity with the silenced journalist. Guests included the CIA anti-torture whistleblower John Kiriakou, ex-U.S. House of Representatives member Cynthia McKinney, progressive comedian Graham Elwood and ACLU Board member and Radio Host Garland Nixon. You can watch the entire event here.




Julian Assange in Crisis for Fifth Unity4J Online Vigil; Consortium News to Broadcast it Live on Saturday

As the crisis over Julian Assange continues to mount, the fifth online vigil for Assange will be held on Saturday, to be broadcast live by Consortium News.

The isolation of Julian Assange, publisher of WikiLeaks, continues unabated as his lawyers and the former president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, warn of deepening crisis for the imperiled asylee. These warnings come on the heel of the appointment of renowned Icelandic journalist Kristinn Hrafnsson as the new editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks – itself an indication of the dire circumstances at hand.

Assange’s most high-profile supporters are mobilizing for the fifth #Unity4J online vigil on Saturday  in solidarity with the silenced journalist. Guests will include the CIA anti-torture whistleblower John Kiriakou, ex-U.S. House of Representatives member Cynthia McKinney, progressive comedian Graham Elwood and ACLU Board member and Radio Host Garland Nixon.

Past vigils in support of this political prisoner have been a great success, drawing in hundreds of thousands of viewers, with the support of the official Julian Assange and WikiLeaks social media accounts, as well as Julian’s mother, Christine Assange.

The vigil will commence Saturday, October 6 at 10:00am EST (7:00am PST), and will run until 11:00pm EST (8:00pm PST). The #Unity4J movement invites all supporters of free speech, press freedom and human rights to participate in the historic event.  Organizer Suzie Dawson said:

“The astounding pace at which this solidarity movement for Julian Assange has grown is indicative of the universal respect and empathy for this generation’s greatest publisher. The greater the jeopardy he is placed in by the powers that persecute him, the more motivated and active his everyday supporters and defenders become. Every supporter who rises to protect him, brings our collective hope of justice and freedom one step closer.”

Livestream will be accessible at: https://unity4j.com/stream and on Consortium News. The official website: https://unity4j.com Official Twitter: @Unity4J Event hashtag: #Unity4J WikiLeaks Legal Defense Fund: https://iamwikileaks.org/donate WikiLeaks support website: https://justice4assange.com Courage Foundation: https://couragefound.org

Credible accounts for Julian Assange updates: https://twitter.com/suzi3d/lists/assange-updates

MEDIA INQUIRIES: Media inquiries and interview requests should be made to Suzie Dawson, via DM on Twitter: @Suzi3D, or by emailing info@unity4j.com .

For more background on the recent escalation of grave threats to Julian Assange’s life and liberty, we recommend reading the following articles:

Courage Foundation: Assange’s Protection from US Extradition “in Jeopardy”

Inter-American Court Decision Regarding Asylum Rights 

United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s decision regarding Assange’s Plight 

Getting Assange: The Untold Story

Access to Medical Care, a Human Right, Must Also be Guaranteed to Julian Assange 




The Trouble With ‘Preventing Palestine’

Seth Anziska’s new book on the Arab-Israeli “peace process” is a useful primer on the conflict, but it does not fully examine the paradox of the Carter administration’s solution that we are still living with, argues As’ad AbuKhalil.

By As`ad AbuKhalil
Special to Consortium News

A new book by Seth Anziska, titled “Preventing Palestine: A Political History from Camp David to Oslo” created quite a buzz before its official release a few weeks ago. The writer had mentioned it in press articles and noted that he had unearthed important documents. The book, however, is not as firm in its Palestinian advocacy as has been assumed by supporters of the cause who have praised it on social media and in reviews.  

Anziska, a lecturer in Jewish-Muslim Relations at University College London, seeks to trace the origins of the current stalemate in the American-formulated “peace process” to the Carter administration and its Camp David accords. But there are several political and scholarly problems with the book: 

  • The title “Preventing Palestine” and the book’s treatment seems to deny agency to the Palestinian people. It treats the project of establishing a Palestinian state as if it is merely a United States initiative which, alone, can determine the fate of the Palestinians. This approach is also reflected in the research where English-language sources (and some Hebrew) are consulted, but no Arabic sources are cited. Referring to the memoirs of Shafiq Al-Hout, a founder of the PLO,  and interviewing Palestinian journalist Bayan Nuwayhid al-Hut is not enough to write the Palestinian people into this narrative.
  • The author’s treatment of the Carter administration is way too charitable. It puts too much emphasis on human rights when the view of the administration was the result of a complex process.

View Inside the Carter Administration

There were different currents within the administration:

  • The Arabists believed that U.S. interests in the region were best served by responding to Gulf regimes’ appeal for U.S. intervention in the Middle East peace process in order to impose a more equitable and fair settlement than what was being dictated by Israel or the U.S. However, the views of Gulf regimes were not entirely due to their interest in Palestinian justice—they were revenge for firm opposition by the Israel lobby to arms sales to Gulf countries. As the Israel lobby reconciled with Gulf regimes and supported U.S. arms to the region by 1990, Gulf advocacy for a “fair” U.S. settlement diminished and later disappeared.  
  • Anziska also never mentions that the domestic policy advisers to Carter came up, cynically, with the idea of “the Holocaust museum” not so much as a moral remembrance of the victims of the historical crime but as a way to appease Jewish voters (which is insulting to Jewish voters and to the victims of the Holocaust).  
  • The domestic policy advisers believed that Carter’s interest in a Middle East settlement would reduce Jewish support for Carter in the re-election.  This explains the cynical statement made by Hamilton Jordan (Carter’s chief of staff) to the effect that Carter would become president of the West Bank.  
  • The national security team headed by Zbigniew Brzezinski believed that a U.S. settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict would enhance the strategic posture of the U.S. vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.
  • There was also a strong Zionist camp within the administration which lobbied on behalf of Israeli intransigence. Vice President Walter Mondale (who harbored early presidential ambition) sought to obstruct Carter’s peace efforts. 
  • Despite Carter’s human rights rhetoric, the book mentions how the same Jimmy Carter hosted and praised the likes of the Shah of Iran and Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia, among other pro-U.S. despots.

Re-Examining Arab-Israeli History

The author should have started his chronicle in the Nixon administration and the Rogers Plan.  His periodization seems to put a special humanitarian cast on Carter’s policies, when they were a continuation of previous U.S. policies that were intended to save Israel in the wake of the 1967 war. This continuity can be seen in the book in names like Dennis Ross, Mideast point man for both the Reagan and Clinton administrations and as a special assissant to Obama; Martin Indyk, a Mideast envoy for Clinton and Obama and Douglas Feith, who worked on Mideast issues in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.

One of the biggest failings of the author is his inability to transcend Zionist  sensibilities in the rendering of judgment about acts of political violence. His tone and language of outrage and revulsion against acts of Palestinian political violence contrast starkly with his lack of judgment on a long history of Israeli war crimes, massacres and invasions.  

He applies the word “terrorist” casually to Palestinian acts of political violence but does not apply it to the long record of Israeli-backed terrorism and war crimes. For example, he refers to “genuine Israeli concern over terror attacks in the 1970s.” Is the author of the opinion that the Palestinians in the refugee camps who were regularly bombarded from air, land, and sea by successive Israeli governments harbored no such concerns over Israeli acts of terror?  

Anziska lumps all acts of Palestinian armed struggle under the same rubric of terrorism, without exploring the Palestinian people’s elementary right to self-defense.    

The author only lists “at least” 5,000 victims (mostly civilians, of course) of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when even the right-wing Lebanese newspaper, An-Nahar, gave an estimate of 20,000. Anziska lists the number of 20,000 in the endnote section but settles in the text on 5,000.  

The book is a useful and informative account of the peace process, but is rarely original. For example, the Sabra and Shatila document that he talks about in the chapter on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon is not (contrary to what he claims) the full secret classified appendix of the Kahan Commission report. My own judgment is that it is, in fact, not even the full appendix.  

What the author obtained from William Quandt, a Mideast scholar at the University of Virginia, is what the Israeli government voluntarily submitted to the defense team of Time magazine in the famous case of Sharon’s lawsuit against the publication. Israeli censorship is notoriously strict and political, and what the author obtained was a section (most likely redacted) from the unpublished classified appendix of the Kahan Commission report. But the originality of the findings in the report is less than the author assumes perhaps because he can’t read Arabic.  

In 2017, George Freiha, the former chief of staff of the late Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel, published a book titled “With Bashir” in which he published minutes of meetings between Gemayel and Ariel Sharon.

The minutes of those meetings make it clear that both sides discussed in detail a plan for the Phalanges’s henchmen to invade the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and engage in the massacres on behalf of the Israeli occupation army and its surrogate militias in Beirut. Freiha claims he was present when both leaders mentioned invading the camps. 

That was not cited in Anziska’s book.

The Contradiction With Carter’s ‘Peace Efforts’

“Preventing Palestine” is so intent on putting a positive light on Carter’s “peace efforts” that Anziska accepts the notion that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s easy surrender to Israeli conditions in the negotiations undercut U.S. efforts at promoting Palestinian interests. He cites Carter officials to show they wanted Sadat to push for meaningful Palestinian self-autonomy. But it is not believable that the superpower needed Sadat to pressure Israel on behalf of the U.S. to further Palestinian rights when the U.S. has far more leverage over Israel.  

Just as Sadat did not care about Palestinian rights, the U.S. was willing to retract statements and issue rhetorical readjustments in order to appease the Israeli government.  

This book will serve as a useful introduction for courses on the Arab-Israeli conflict on college campuses. It provides an interesting and comprehensive chronicle of the peace process since Carter’s administration.

But the paradox of the Carter administration (and of this book) is that the administration that did the most (in theory) to find a comprehensive solution (on terms that are far more agreeable to the Israeli side than to the Palestinian side) is the same administration paved the way for greater Israeli occupation and aggression by taking Egypt out of the equation so Israel could fight on one front for the first time. 

The desire to lure Egypt away from the “Arab fold” on Israel was too tempting for the Carter administration to really care about the people who have never mattered to any U.S. president. 

Camp David wound up being the single most important factor in enabling, even encouraging Israel to engage in successive invasions of Lebanon and of the Palestinian territories. The U.S. sold the Palestinians out to achieve a strategic benefit for Israeli occupation.

As’ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Lebanon (1998), Bin Laden, Islam and America’s New “War on Terrorism” (2002), and The Battle for Saudi Arabia (2004). He also runs the popular blog The Angry Arab News Service.

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Is Saudi Arabia the Middle East’s Next Failed State?

Ibn Khaldun—the famous Tunisian historian, geographer and social theorist—believed that decadence leads to collapse for Muslim dynasties. Such a scenario may be playing out with the Saudis, reports Daniel Lazare.

By Daniel Lazare
Special to Consortium News

Reports are growing that Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s hyperactive crown prince, is losing his grip. His economic reform program has stalled since his father, King Salman, nixed plans to privatize 5 percent of Saudi Aramco. The Saudi war in Yemen, which the prince launched in March 2015, is more of a quagmire than ever while the kingdom’s sword rattling with Iran is making the region increasingly jumpy.

Heavy gunfire in Riyadh last April sparked rumors that MBS, as he’s known, had been killed in a palace coup. In May, an exiled Saudi prince urged top members of the royal family to oust him and put an end to his “irrational, erratic, and stupid” rule. Recently, Bruce Riedel, an ex-CIA analyst who heads up the Brookings Institution’s Intelligence Project, reported that the prince is so afraid for his life that he’s taken to spending nights on his yacht in the Red Sea port of Jeddah.  

Channeling Ibn Khaldun

What does it all mean? The person to ask is Ibn Khaldun, the famous Tunisian historian, geographer, and social theorist. You might have trouble getting him on the phone, though, since he died in 1406. But he’s still the single best guide to the deepening Saudi crisis.  

If you do somehow channel him, the message might be grim. In a nutshell, it’s that if MBS goes, he’ll likely take the Al-Saud with him, and that the people waiting in the wings will not be the “moderates” beloved of Washington, but ISIS and al-Qaida. A modern state bristling with shopping malls, superhighways, and high-tech weaponry thus will succumb to a ragtag militia riding Toyota pickups and waving AK-47s.

Ibn Khaldun, a member of an upper-class Spanish-Muslim family that fled to North Africa after the fall of Seville in 1248, was one of the most remarkable personalities of the late Middle Ages on either side of the Christian-Muslim divide. He wrote The Muqaddimah, a book-length prologue to his six-volume world history, which British historian Arnold Toynbee praised “as undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.” The anthropologist Ernest Gellner described Khaldun as a forerunner of modern sociology. The Muqaddimah, a strange blend of faith, fatalism, and science, is best known for its musings on the subject of the urban-nomadic conflict and the process by which dynasties rise and decay.

As Ibn Khaldun put it:

[T]he life of a dynasty does not as a rule extend beyond three generations. The first generation retains the desert qualities, desert toughness, and desert strategy. … They are sharp and greatly feared.  People submit to them. … [T]he second generation changes from the desert attitude to sedentary culture, from privation to luxury and plenty, from a state in which everybody shared in the glory to one in which one man claims all the glory for himself while the others are too lazy to strive for glory. …  The third generation … has completely forgotten the period of desert life and toughness, as if it never existed…. Luxury reaches its peak among them, because they are so much given to a life of prosperity and ease.

Decadence leads to collapse as fierce nomadic fundamentalists gather in the desert and prepare to mete out punishment to the city dwellers for their religious laxity. “[A] new purge of the faith is required,” summed up Friedrich Engels, who evidently read Ibn Khaldun, “a new Mahdi [i.e., redeemer] arises, and the game starts again from the beginning.”

It’s a recurrent cycle that has held true for a remarkable number of Muslim dynasties from the seventh century on.

Evidence of Instability

The big question now is whether the pattern will hold true for the Saudis.  

The answer so far is that it will. Events are proceeding on course. Ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state, by allying himself with Wahhabism, the local version of Islamic ultra-fundamentalism, embodied Ibn Khaldun’s concept of a ruthless desert warrior who uses religion to mobilize his fellow tribesman and battle his way to the throne in 1932. Once Saud took power, he proved to be a tough and cagey politician who put down rebellion and expertly played Britain and America off against one another to solidify his throne.

But the half-dozen sons who followed were different. The first, Saud, was a heavy spender who brought the kingdom to the brink of bankruptcy. The second, Faisal was an autocrat who was so out of his depth that he believed Zionism somehow begat communism. Khalid, who took power in 1975, was an absentee monarch who was gripped by paralysis when hundreds of rebels took over Mecca’s Grand Mosque in November 1979 and had to be rescued by French commandos flown in specially for the occasion. Fahd, who succeeded to the throne in 1982, was obese, diabetic, and a heavy smoker who ultimately fell victim to a massive stroke.  Abdullah, his successor, also was sickly and obese, while Salman, who assumed the throne in 2015 at age 79, has suffered at least one stroke and is said to exhibit “mild dementia.” A video of the king landing in Moscow in 2017 shows a doddering old man who can barely descend a staircase.

The upshot is a group study in decrepitude. MBS, who all but took over the throne in 2015, meanwhile personifies all the foolishness and decadence that Ibn Khaldun attributed to the third generation. He’s more energetic than his father. But as one would expect of someone who has spent his entire life cosseted amid fantastic wealth, he’s headstrong, impractical, and immature. Appointed minister of defense by his father at the ripe old age of 29, he declared war on Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s neighbor to the south, two months later and then disappeared on a luxury vacation in the Maldives where a frantic Ashton Carter, Barack Obama’s secretary of defense, was unable to reach him for days.

A year later, MBS unveiled Vision 2030 a grandiose development plan aimed at bringing Saudi Arabia into the 21st century by diversifying the economy, loosening the grip of the ultra-intolerant Wahhabiyya,and putting an end to the country’s dual addiction to oil revenue and cheap foreign labor. In a country in which young men routinely wait years for a comfortable government sinecure to open up, the goal was to rejigger the incentives to encourage them to take private-sector jobs instead.  

It hasn’t worked. In a rare moment of candor, a pro-government newspaper recently reported that thousands of employers are evading government hiring quotas by paying Saudi workers not to show up. “Employers say young Saudi men and women are lazy and are not interested in working,” it said, “and accuse Saudi youth of preferring to stay at home rather than to take a low-paying job that does not befit the social status of a Saudi job seeker.”

Some 800,000 foreign workers have left the country while capital is fleeing in the wake of last November’s mass roundup in which hundreds of princes and businessmen were herded into the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton and forced to turn over billions in assets. Foreign direct investment has plummeted from $7.5 billion to $1.4 billion since 2016 while a series of super-splashy development projects are in jeopardy now that Saudi Aramco privatization, which MBS was counting on as a revenue source, is on hold.  

While granting women permission to drive, MBS has imprisoned women’s rights advocates, threatened a dissident cleric and five Shiite activists with the death penalty, and cracked down on satirical postings on social media.  He preaches austerity and hard work, yet plunked down $500 million for his yacht, $450 million for a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, and $300 million for a French chateau. The hypocrisy is so thick that it’s almost as if he wants to be overthrown.  

Fundamental Enemies

As for the lean and hungry fundamentalists whom Ibn Khaldun said would administer the final blow, there’s no doubt who fits that bill: ISIS and al- Qaida. Both are fierce, warlike, and pious, both inveigh against a Saudi regime drowning in corruption, and both would like nothing more than to parade about with the crown prince’s head on a pike.  

In May, al-Qaida denounced Saudi religious reforms as “heretical” and urged clerics to rise up against a “moderate, open Islam, which all onlookers know is American Islam.”

In July, Islamic State took credit for an attack on a Saudi security checkpoint that claimed the life of a security officer and a foreign resident.

In August, ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi accused Saudi Arabia of “trying to secularize its inhabitants and ultimately destroy Islam.”  

These are fighting words. Both groups meanwhile enjoy extensive support inside the kingdom. Prior to the attack on the World Trade Center, wealthy Saudis, including members of the royal family, helped fund al-Qaida to the tune of $30 million a year, according to Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan’s 2011 best seller, The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden.

In 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confided in a diplomatic memo that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” More than three thousand Saudis have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join up with al-Qaida, ISIS and other Islamist forces. Once they return home, such jihadis might constitute a fifth column threatening the royal family as well. A crumbling royal family could fall like a ripe date into their outstretched palm.

Could Saudi Arabia become the Middle East’s next failed state? 

Washington is filled with so-called Middle East experts contributing to one disaster after another. Could it be that the best Mideast hand worth listening to is a North African scholar who died more than six centuries ago?

Daniel Lazare is the author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics.  He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nation to Le Monde Diplomatique and blogs about the Constitution and related matters at Daniellazare.com.

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Seven Days in September

A new book, an anonymous Op-Ed and an Obama speech in the first seven days of September appeared to reveal dangerous insider moves against a dangerous, but constitutionally elected president, writes Joe Lauria.

By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News

In the first seven days of September efforts to manage and perhaps oust a constitutionally elected president were stunningly made public,  raising complex questions about America’s vaunted democratic system.  

What unfolded appears reminiscent of the novel and film Seven Days in May: the story of an attempted military coup against a U.S. president who sought better relations with Russia. The fictional president was based on the real one, John F. Kennedy, who opened the White House in 1963 to director John Frankenheimer to film the only scenes of a Hollywood movie ever made there.   

Kennedy was well aware of the Pentagon brass’ political fury after his refusal to proceed with a full-scale assault against Cuba in the Bay of Pigs operation. It was compounded by his desire for detente with Moscow after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which Kennedy expressed forcefully in his seminal American University address, five months before his death. 

This is the essential (must watch) scene in the film, a brilliant 2:25 minutes of screen history:

The key quote from the character playing Kennedy is: “You have such a fervent, passionate, evangelical affection for your country, why in the name of God don’t you have any faith in the system of government you’re so hellbent to protect?”

You didn’t have to know Jack Kennedy to know that Donald Trump is no Jack Kennedy. Trump has staked out a raft of positions dangerous to the interests of most Americans and people around the world: on climate, billionaire tax breaks, health insurance, drone warfare, torture, immigration, Iran, Palestine and more.

But Trump has ostensibly tried to improve relations with Russia and North Korea to defuse the most sensitive nuclear trigger points on earth.  And for that he at least appears to be getting the pre-1963 Kennedy treatment.   

Circumstantial 

Until the first seven days of September there was only circumstantial evidence that intelligence agencies worked with the party in power to undermine the opposition party candidate before the election and the president afterward. 

These included:

  • a series of anonymous leaks to undermine the president from Obama’s intelligence officials, one admitted to by then FBI Director James Comey;
  • a series of anti-Trump political messages between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, including one that admits to there being “no there, there” regarding Trump-Russia collusion, even though Strzok joined Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team precisely to look for a “there, there;”
  • the use of a Democratic Party paid-for opposition research dossier  (not an intelligence agency vetted report) to be later used to obtain a warrant to spy on the Trump campaign and form a basis for the Mueller probe;
  • a CIA and FBI operative, linked to the firm that produced the dossier, who had infiltrated Jimmy Carter’s 1980 campaign, and in 2016 courted Trump campaign operatives in a possible sting operation to connect Trump to Moscow. 

This created a picture of the Democrats, the ruling party in the executive branch, using its intelligence agencies to undermine first a candidate and then a constitutionally elected president. Most of the corporate media buried or dismissed these leads as a “conspiracy theory,” while relentlessly pushing the so-far unproven conspiracy theory that Trump colluded with Russia to steal the election.

The effort appeared to be classic projection onto Russia to deflect attention from Hillary Clinton’s self-made defeat and, in centuries-old political tradition, to falsely blame a hostile foreign power for rising domestic unrest resulting instead from bi-partisan, unjust policies, which have indeed “undermined our democracy” and “sowed social divisions.” It was that unrest that helped elect Trump.

As much of a danger as he may be to the republic, Trump will be gone in two or six years. The greater danger may well have been out-of-control, unelected intelligence officials inserting themselves into the electoral process and now, allied with Trump administration officials, into the governing process. A saying at the National Security Agency is: “Administrations come and go, but we will still be here.” 

Long-time Suspicions 

There have always been suspicions of forces behind the scenes holding the real power over American presidents. We only occasionally get glimpses of this. 

Defense Secretary Ash Carter openly defied President Barack Obama when he sabotaged a plan to cooperate militarily with Russia against extremists in Syria by killing dozens of Syrian Arab Army soldiers just as Secretary of State John Kerry was nailing down the details of the agreement, which was then abandoned. This came as unelected officials pressured Obama to directly intervene in Syria.

Most of the time we are left to speculate about the unseen forces controlling a president.

But in September’s first seven days we had three unusually public indications of unelected people trying to undermine an elected president:  the revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book; the anonymous op-ed in The New York Times and an unusual speech by Barack Obama about Trump.

Masha Gessen, a strong critic of Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, explained the danger this way in The New Yorker: 

“Having this state of affairs described in print further establishes that an unelected body, or bodies, are overruling and actively undermining the elected leader. While this may be the country’s salvation in the short run, it also plainly signals the demise of some of its most cherished ideals and constitutional norms. An anonymous person or persons cannot govern for the people, because the people do not know who is governing.”

Real Evidence Emerges 

On Sept. 5, The New York Times took the highly unusual decision to publish an anonymous op-ed article. Titled, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” it had the subtitle: “I work for the president but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”

The official, who has yet to be unmasked, provides clear evidence of unelected officials trying to control a less-than aware president:  “The dilemma — which he does not fully grasp — is that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda…”

But here is the key.  This behind-the-throne power has a distinct political agenda. They’re not really concerned about “rising above politics, reaching across the aisle and resolving to shed the labels in favor of a single one: Americans” as the writer professes. Their concern is  determining policy. 

For instance this cabal has no problem with some of the most regressive parts of Trump’s program. The writer celebrates them.  “Don’t get me wrong,” he writes. “There are bright spots that the near-ceaseless negative coverage of the administration fails to capture: effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.”

Deregulation to let the private sector run roughshod over workers. Deregulation to worsen climate change. Tax reform to put millions more into billionaire’s pockets while average Americans remain mired in debt. And a more robust military to multiply human suffering around the world. 

This, instead, seems like the real problem the insiders have with Trump: “On Russia, for instance, the president was reluctant to expel so many of Mr. Putin’s spies as punishment for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain. He complained for weeks about senior staff members letting him get boxed into further confrontation with Russia, and he expressed frustration that the United States continued to impose sanctions on the country for its malign behavior. But his national security team knew better — such actions had to be taken, to hold Moscow accountable.”

It is Trump’s Russia policy–the only rational part of his agenda–that is their problem, not unlike the generals in Frankenheimer’s masterpiece. 

Obama Slams Trump

On Sept. 7, Obama broke with the tradition of former presidents and criticized his successor in a speech at the University of Illinois. It’s an unwritten rule in Washington then when you leave the White House you don’t look back. Of course it’s been broken before. Teddy Roosevelt called Taft a “puzzlewit” and a “fathead.”  But the idea is that when you are no longer an elected president you shouldn’t undermine the one who is. 

“How hard can that be, saying that Nazis are bad?” Obama said, referring to Trump’s reluctance to condemn neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, VA last year.

As Obama was still president when his intelligence agencies apparently went to work on Trump, it was a bit rich for him to say: “”It should not be Democratic or Republican, it should not be partisan to say that we don’t pressure the Department of Justice or the FBI to use the criminal justice system as a cudgel to punish our political opponents.”

Evidently recalling his own battles with administration officials who pressured him, Obama however recognized that it is undemocratic for a president’s team to try to undermine him.  “The idea that everything will turn out OK because there are people inside the White House who secretly aren’t following the President’s orders,” Obama said of the anonymous op-ed, “… is not a check. I am being serious here. That is not how our democracy is supposed to work.”

Fear Over Fear

The most alarming revelations about the effort to control a president come from Woodward’s book, Fear: Trump in the White House, which first appeared in the media during the first seven days of September on Sept. 4. Woodward said in an interview that he “looked hard for evidence of collusion with Russia, but didn’t find any.”

That did not stop members of Team Trump from interfering in his duties as chief executive, going well beyond the role of counseling the president. 

Much of Woodward’s reporting is from anonymous and second hand sources.  Assuming that what he writes is true he reported that former White House economic adviser Gary Cohn “stole a letter off Trump’s desk.”  Had Trump signed it, the U.S. would have withdrawn from a free trade agreement with South Korea.  Woodward quotes Cohn in the words of an unnamed official as saying, “I stole it off his desk….I wouldn’t let him see it. He’s never going to see that document. Got to protect the country.”

That would appear to cross the line.

However it then becomes a lot more complicated than Seven Days in May.  

“He drafts a tweet saying, ‘We are going to pull out dependents from South Korea … Family members of the 28,000 people there,’” Woodward told CBS News. 

According to CBS:

That tweet was never sent, because of a back channel message from North Korea that it would regard a pullout of dependents as a sign the U.S. was preparing to attack. “At that moment there was a sense of profound alarm in the Pentagon leadership that, ‘My God, one tweet and we have reliable information that the North Koreans are going to read this as an attack is imminent,’” Woodward said.

According to the book, Trump also told Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to assassinate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after the April 2017 chemical attack.  “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them,” Trump said, according to Woodward. (That would not please the Kremlin, his supposed master, but whatever) .

Mattis supposedly told Trump he’d “get right on it” but ignored the order.  Mattis devised pin prick strikes instead. 

Is that insubordination? Or was that saving the U.S., the Middle East and perhaps the world from a major war?

It certainly sets up an excruciating dilemma. This time it may be the generals preserving the peace.

Seven Days in September may indeed be the reverse of Seven Days in May.

Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston GlobeSunday Times of London and numerous other newspapers. He can be reached at joelauria@consortiumnews.com and followed on Twitter @unjoe .

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Extremists Unite to Diss Populism as Threat to Democracy

If there’s one thing that brings a tear to Caitlin Johnstone’s eye, it’s the inspiration she feels watching Republican-aligned neoconservatives and Democrat-aligned neoconservatives find a way to bridge their almost nonexistent differences. 

By Caitlin Johnstone
If there’s one thing that brings a tear to my eye, it’s the inspiration I feel when watching Republican-aligned neoconservatives and Democrat-aligned neoconservatives find a way to bridge their almost nonexistent differences and come together to discuss the many, many, many, many, many, many many many things they have in common.

In a conference at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, “Resistance” leader and professional left-puncher Neera Tanden met with Iraq-raping neocon Bill Kristol to discuss bipartisanship and shared values. While leprechauns held hands and danced beneath candy rainbows and gumdrop Reaper drones, the duo engaged in a friendly, playful conversation with the event’s host in a debate format which was not unlike watching the Pillsbury Doughboy have a pillow fight with himself in a padded room after drinking a bottle of NyQuil.

To get the event started, the host whose name I refuse to learn asked the pair to discuss briefly what common ground such wildly different people could possibly share to make such a strange taboo-shattering dialogue possible.

“Issues around national security and believing in democratic principles as they relate to foreign policy,” replied Tanden. “And opposing authoritarianism, and opposing the kind of creeping populism that undermines democracy itself.”

Neera Tanden, in case you are unaware, is a longtime Clinton and Obama insider and CEO of the plutocrat-backed think tank Center for American Progress. Her emails featured prominently in the 2016 Podesta drops by WikiLeaks, which The New Republic described as revealing “a pattern of freezing out those who don’t toe the line, a disturbing predilection for someone who is a kind of gatekeeper for what ideas are acceptable in Democratic politics.”

Any quick glance at Tanden’s political activism and Twitter presence will render this unsurprising, as she often seems more concerned with attacking the Green Party and noncompliant progressive Democrats than she does with advancing progressive values. Her entire life is dedicated to keeping what passes for America’s political left out of the hands of the American populace.

Kristol co-signed Tanden’s anti-populist rhetoric and her open endorsement of neoconservative foreign policy, and went on to say that another thing he and Tanden have in common is that they’ve both served in government. That makes you realize that nothing’s black and white and everything’s kinda nebulous and amorphous so it doesn’t really matter if you, say for example, help deceive your country into a horrific blunder that ends up killing a whole lot of people for no good reason.

“I do think if you’ve served in government –this isn’t universally true but somewhat true– that you do have somewhat more of a sense of the complexity of things, and many of its decisions are not black and white, that in public policy there are plusses and minuses to most policies,” Kristol said. “There are authentic disagreements both about values, but also just about how certain things are gonna work or not work… and that is what adds a kind of humility to one’s belief that one is kind of always right about everything.”

I found this very funny coming from the man who is notoriously always wrong about everything, and I’d like to point out that “complexity” is a key talking point that the neoconservatives who’ve been consistently proven completely wrong about everything are fond of repeating. Everything’s complicated and nothing’s really known and it’s all a big blurry mess so maybe butchering a million Iraqis and destabilizing the Middle East was a good thing. Check out this short clip of John Bolton being confronted by Tucker Carlson about what a spectacular error the Iraq invasion was for a great example of this:

I listened to the whole conference, but it was basically one long smear of amicable politeness which was the verbal equivalent of the color beige, so I had difficulty tuning in. Both Tanden and Kristol hate the far left (or as those of us outside the U.S. pronounce it, “the center”), both Tanden and Kristol hate Trump, and hey maybe Americans have a lot more in common than they think and everyone can come together and together together togetherness blah blah. At one point Kristol said something about disagreeing with internet censorship, which was weird because his Weekly Standard actively participates in Facebook censorship as one of its authorized “fact checkers”.

The buzzword “bipartisan” gets used a lot in U.S. politics because it gives the illusion that whatever agenda it’s being applied to must have some deep universal truth to it for such wildly divergent ideologies to set aside their differences in order to advance it. But what it usually means is Democrat neocons and Republican neocons working together to inflict new horrors upon the world. 

America’s two mainstream political parties agree furiously with one another on war, neoliberalism, Orwellian surveillance, and every other agenda which increases the power and profit of the plutocratic class which owns them both. The plutocrat-owned mass media plays up the differences between Democrats and Republicans to hysterical proportions, when in reality the debate over which one is worse is like arguing over whether a serial killer’s arms or legs are more evil.

Neera Tanden and Bill Kristol are the same fucking person. They’re both toxic limbs on the same toxic beast, feeding the lives of ordinary people at home and abroad into its gaping mouth in service of the powerful. And populism, which is nothing other than support for the protection of common folk from the powerful, is the only antidote to such toxins. Saying populism undermines democracy is like saying democracy undermines democracy.

This article originally appeared on Medium.

Caitlin Johnstone is a rogue journalist, poet, and utopia prepper who publishes regularly at Medium. Follow her work on FacebookTwitter, or her website. She has a podcast and a new book Woke: A Field Guide for Utopia Preppers. This article was re-published with permission.




Privatization, the EU and a Bridge

A Genoa bridge that collapsed last month killing 43 people is privately owned, but a key factor that has slowed basic infrastructure investment in Italy in recent years is the fault of the EU, reports Andrew Spannaus.  

By Andrew Spannaus
in Milan

Special to Consortium News

A little over a month ago, on August 14, a highway bridge collapsed in the middle of the Italian city of Genoa, killing 43 people, damaging the populated areas below, and interrupting a major traffic artery connecting the two sides of the city. The bridge had been built in the 1960s, with a construction technique that had been criticized by some experts over the years, and its decay was obvious; it had already undergone various repairs, and a new round of extraordinary maintenance was planned for this fall.

The maintenance didn’t come in time. As heavy rain fell in the area, cars and trucks dropped from a height of 150 feet, causing death and injury, and marking a national tragedy that has gripped the country.

Why did this happen? Italy’s highway company was privatized in 1999, and concessions were then granted to operate the roads. The largest concession-holder (with about 50% of the network) is currently Autostrade per l’Italia S.p.A., controlled by the Benetton family, founders of the eponymous fashion brand. They make a handsome profit off of highway tolls – among the highest in Europe – and they are responsible for maintenance and investments, which have stagnated even as tolls have more than doubled in the past 25 years.

Autostrade’s defense in regard to the disaster is that while concerns had been raised about the bridge, there was no indication of imminent danger. It’s a weak argument, considering that in Genoa the bridge had been the subject of public debate for years, with some seeing it as “a disaster waiting to happen.” After initial resistance, Autostrade ultimately responded to public pressure by allocating 500 million Euros (575 million dollars) to compensate the families of the victims and rebuild the bridge.

The first response from Italy’s populist government led by the Five-Star Movement (M5S) and the League, was to channel rage against the private company, using popular arguments against the neoliberal policies of privatization and budget-cutting. They are right, of course, that the disaster came on the watch of a private company, which is claimed to be more efficient than the public sector. Italy’s highway system works fairly well, but there’s no ignoring the need for upgrades to the parts of the infrastructure that were built during the economic boom of the 1950s and 60s, which have reached the end of their useful life.

Yet tolls are already high, and the private concessionaire wants to guarantee its profits; who’s going to pay for all the work that needs to be done?

The two Deputy Prime Ministers of the Italian Government, Luigi Di Maio of M5S and Matteo Salvini of the League, have led the charge against Autostrade. Di Maio has threatened to revoke the concession and re-nationalize the highways, although the institutional pushback has been strong. Salvini, on the other hand, immediately pointed the finger at European Union (EU) budget constraints: “Investments that save lives… must not be calculated by the strict, cold rules imposed by Europe”, he said on Aug. 15.

EU Hinders Infrastructure Funding 

The disaster in Genoa was not a direct consequence of cuts to the public budget, since the section of the highway is run by a private company, as centrist politicians and much of the major media jumped to point out. But Salvini’s broadside pinpointed an essential issue for Italy – and many other European countries – today: massive public investment is needed, but EU budget constraints prevent it.

The Italian government is responsible for the public welfare, but it is unable to guarantee that public welfare. There are many reasons for this, starting with the country’s massive public debt – 131 percent  of GDP, among the highest in the world – and the inefficiency of public spending. The construction tender process is slow and complicated, and tangled bureaucracy means that even money allocated is often left unspent for years.

These are long-term problems that require legislative reforms and the reorganization of priorities. The current government has promised to streamline the tender system, and also to direct available funds to the most urgent projects.

Yet the key factor that has slowed down basic infrastructure investment in Italy in recent years has been the EU budget rules, which after originally setting a maximum deficit of 3 of GDP, now make it mandatory to fully balance the budget, although countries are allowed to move gradually towards that goal.

The Italian government is constantly under pressure to cut public spending in order to get closer to a zero deficit every year. This, despite the fact that Italy has run a primary budget surplus (i.e. before interest on the public debt) practically every year since 1992. Public investment has fallen continually over the years; by more than one-third at the national level, down to 2% of GDP, and by as much as one-half over the past ten years when it comes to local governments.

This happened in particular because in order to meet the EU budget criteria, Italy adopted something called the “Internal Stability Pact,” to go along with the European “Stability and Growth Pact.” The internal version used the budgets of municipalities, provinces and regions to help reach national budget goals. In essence, the local authorities were required to cut spending even if they had money in the bank, so that the government in Rome could count those funds to meet the EU rules.

The harsh austerity implemented from 2011 to 2014 made things even worse. After the spread between Italian and German bonds on the financial markets spiked in the summer of 2011, leading to fears of financial catastrophe for Italy and the Euro system as a whole, technocratic governments rapidly moved to slash spending even more.

This policy, dictated by the European Central Bank and the European Commission and enthusiastically implemented by neoliberals in Italy, led to a true disaster. The result was a 25% drop in industrial production, and a sharp rise in unemployment and poverty. And not surprisingly – at least to rational people – the economic contraction ended up making the public debt even larger.

Who Should Decide?

When after the bridge disaster in Genoa the government promised to rebuild the country’s road infrastructure no matter what the cost, the reaction was swift. On the one hand, EU officials such as budget commissioner Guenther Oettinger denied Europe is responsible for lack of investment in Italy, and on the other, financial markets rapidly increased the risk premium on Italy’s state bonds.

The question is: why should financial markets or technocrats decide whether Italy’s roads are safe? The populist government was elected on the promise of challenging EU austerity policies, and the coalition agreement between M5S and the League sets two main priorities in this field: increasing public aid to the poor, through a form of universal income, and simplifying and lowering the country’s high tax rates, to help both businesses and individuals.

The main fight in the government right now is if they will actually carry through on these promises, despite the pressure to toe the line on the budget criteria. Economics Minister Giovanni Tria seems cowed by the pressure from the bond markets, and clearly fears antagonizing the EU. Di Maio and Salvini insist on keeping their promises, touting the heretical, but true, argument that productive investment actually produces growth. Something has to give. The hope is that it won’t be another bridge.

Andrew Spannaus is a journalist and strategic analyst based in Milan, Italy. He was elected chairman of the Milan Foreign Press Association in March 2018. He has published the books “Perché vince Trump” (“Why Trump is Winning” – June 2016) and “La rivolta degli elettori” (“The Revolt of the Voters” – July 2017).

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The Battle for Our Minds

There are battlefields in Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, and elsewhere, but given the state of corporate media, perhaps the most consequential battle now being fought is for our minds, says Patrick Lawrence.

By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News

After reading The New York Times piece “The Plot to Subvert an Election” I put the paper down with a single question.

Why, after two years of allegations, indictments, and claims to proof of this, that, and the other did the newspaper of record—well, once the newspaper of record—see any need to publish such a piece? My answer is simple: The orthodox account of Russia-gate has not taken hold: It has failed in its effort to establish a consensus of certainty among Americans. My conclusion matches this observation: The orthodox narrative is never going to achieve this objective. There are too many holes in it.

The information age is actually a media age,” John Pilger, the noted British–Australian journalist, remarked during a symposium four years ago, when the Ukraine crisis was at its peak. “We have war by media; censorship by media; demonology by media; retribution by media; diversion by media—a surreal assembly line of obedient clichés and false assumptions.” Pilger revisited the theme in a piece last week on Consortium News, arguing that once-tolerated, dissenting opinion has in recent years “regressed into a metaphoric underground.”

There are battlefields in Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, and elsewhere, but perhaps the most consequential battle now being fought is for our minds.

Those who dispense with honest intellectual inquiry, healthy skepticism of all media, and an insistence that assertions require supporting evidence should not win this war. The Times piece by Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti—two of the paper’s top-tier reporters—is a case in point: If the Russia-gate narrative were so widely accepted as their report purports, there would have been no need to publish such a piece at this late date.

Many orthodox narratives are widely accepted however among a public that is not always paying attention. The public too often participates in the manufactured consent. Usually it take years for the truth to be widely understood. Sometimes it comes when the U.S. admits it decades later, such as the role of the CIA in the coups in Iran and Chile. Other times it comes through admissions by former U.S. officials, such as former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara about the Vietnam War.

Even Recent Narratives are Fraying

There are more recent examples of official narratives quickly fraying if not starting to fall apart, though Establishment media continues to push them.

For instance, there are serious doubts about who was responsible for alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria. The most significant was in Eastern Ghouta in August 2013 followed by attacks in Khan Sheikhoun (April 2017) and Douma (April 2018).

The corporate media accounts of each of these attacks have been countered with persuasive evidence against the prevailing view that the government of Bashar al–Assad was to blame. It has been provided journalists (Seymour Hersh ), a scientist (Theodore Postol ), and on-the-ground correspondents and local witnesses. These reports are subject to further verification. But by no means do official narratives stand without challenge.

There is also the case of Malaysian Flight MH–17, shot down over Ukrainian territory in June 2014. The official report, issued a year later, concluded that the plane was downed by Ukrainian rebels using a Russian-supplied missile. The report was faulty from the first: Investigators never visited the site , some evidence was based on a report produced by Bellingcat , an open-source web site affiliated with the vigorously anti–Russian Atlantic Council, and Ukraine was given the right to approve the report before it was issued.

Last week the Russian military disclosed evidence that serial numbers found in the debris at the MH–17 crash site indicate the missile that downed the plane was produced at a Soviet military-production plant in 1986 owned by Ukraine. Let us see further verification of this evidence (although I seriously doubt any Western correspondent will seek any). The official report of 2015 noted the serial numbers, so we know they are authentic, but it did not use them to trace the missile’s provenance.

There is also the seriously muddled case of the poisoning of the Skripals in Britain.  Why hasn’t the Western media dug into this story rather than accept at face value the pronouncements of the British government?

A month ago I lamented the damage Russia-gate has done to many of our most important institutions, the press not least among them. What is the corporate media thinking? That once President Trump is dumped, all will return to normal and professional standards will be restored? One can also argue the reverse: that adversarial journalism has returned to the White House beat largely out of personal animus towards Trump and that it will disappear again once a more “normal” president is in office.

As Pilger put it, “This is a seismic shift, with journalists policing the new ‘groupthink,’ as [Robert] Parry called it, dispensing myths and distractions, pursuing its enemies.”

In other words, Establishment journalism has shifted far afield from its traditional ideals of non-partisan, objective reporting and is instead vying for your mind to enlist it in its agenda to promote American interests abroad or one party or the other at home.

We can’t let them get away with it. Our minds are our own.

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author, and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century (Yale). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is www.patricklawrence.us. Support his work via www.patreon.com/thefloutist.

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