The Charmed, Doomed Life of Barry Seal

Exclusive: Tom Cruise’s portrayal of drug-smuggler-turned-government-informant Barry Seal is a fast-paced visit back to the Reagan era’s shadowy world of the CIA, cocaine and secret wars, writes James DiEugenio.

By James DiEugenio

Barry Seal’s life has become the stuff of  legend. And much of that legend owes itself to the manner in which his life ended. Seal was killed on the evening of Feb. 19, 1986, machine-gunned in his automobile by agents of the Medellin Cartel, his former employers. There were photos taken of his bullet-riddled body in his car.

His violent and bloody death created headlines and nightly news stories throughout America. In fact, one can say that his murder gave him a higher profile in death than he had in life. And because of the unusual circumstances of his murder — more properly called an assassination — his life now has become the fodder of legend.

Because of all the legerdemain that has sprouted up about Seal, it is not easy to separate fact from fiction. The current film about Seal, American Made, does not even try. In fact, it attempts to expand legend into myth. It then plays that myth for fast-action scenes, tongue-in-cheek comedy, and a plot line that moves as quickly as bowling pins falling during a ten-strike. Whatever the failings of director Doug Liman’s movie, it is hard to imagine someone being bored by it.

Before assessing the virtues and faults of American Made, let us try and set up some kind of base line for who Seal was, what he did, and how he died. That way we will at least have some kind of basis to measure just how far Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli have tilted over into myth. At its start, the film says that it is based on a true story; but at the end it states that the characters are fictitious and any relation to real characters and events is coincidental. Talk about having it both ways.

American Made began as a script by Spinelli entitled Mena. Reportedly, in that version, the story was more heavily centered on the CIA operations from that infamous airport in Mena, Arkansas, during America’s war in the 1980s against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. Because of that focus, the role of then-Gov. Bill Clinton was accented, and he was even depicted in a strip-club getting a lap dance.

As the story evolved, the focus changed into a more panoramic view of the 1970s and 1980s through Seal’s exploits. The picture begins with a montage of the late 1970s, with Jimmy Carter as president. It then picks up its story line when Ronald Reagan comes to the White House.

Cruise as Seal 

When we first encounter Seal — played by Tom Cruise — he is a TWA airline pilot who is a bit bored with his job. He picks up some extra cash by smuggling Cuban cigars into the country. A CIA officer named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) approaches him in the airport lounge since he knows about this illegal activity. He tells the pilot he already has a file on him, and this is how he entices Seal to join up with their nascent efforts to militarize the struggle in Central America.

With this opening, one can rightly say that Liman and Spinelli have already romanticized and aggrandized Seal’s character. Seal’s promising career with TWA ended in the summer of 1972 for something more serious than cigar contraband. He was involved in a conspiracy to ship explosives to Mexico using a TWA plane. Those explosives were reportedly headed for Cuba to be used against the Castro regime. Seal used his vacation time to arrange the deal. (Smuggler’s End, by Del Hahn, pgs. 31-37)

This is why he was fired by TWA; he did not, as the film depicts, leave on his own accord. But the introduction of the CIA character allows Liman’s film to depict CIA man Schafer helping set up Seal in what can only be called an Agency shell company for missions into Central America. And this is what the film says began Seal’s career in Central America. According to American Made, it started with reconnaissance missions on rebel groups, and Seal picking up intelligence reports from Panama’s Manuel Noriega.

In real life, the Schafer character never actually existed. But Seal had a connection with intelligence services as a pilot for the U.S. Army Special Forces division. (See the online essay “Air Cocaine” by Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn)

Seal joined TWA in 1964 and was fired over the explosives incident eight years later.  Since the 14,000 pounds of explosives were destined for Cuban exiles on the island, one has to wonder if, at the very least, the CIA knew about it, or perhaps even sanctioned it. After all, one of the excuses for not proceeding with the later trial of Seal was that it would “threaten national security interests.” (ibid)

By several accounts, after his termination Seal began his criminal career in the mid-1970s, smuggling small quantities of marijuana. He built up his business by purchasing a fleet of planes and recruiting several pilots. He quickly became a successful entrepreneur in the black markets of guns and drugs.

By 1978, Seal made a key business decision: he shifted from marijuana to cocaine. Cocaine was less bulky and had a higher profit margin. At this point, with several pilots working for him running several planes across the border into Central America, Barry Seal became a wealthy man. It is not possible to make a serious estimate of how much he was really worth, but he later pegged his wealth at $50 million. But more than one investigator later said that $50 million was considerably below the actual figures the Seal operation generated. (ibid)

Meeting the Cartel

In December 1979, Seal was arrested in Honduras on suspicion of drug smuggling, and he was convicted of arms smuggling. Liman’s film briefly depicts this incident as something like an overnight stay. In fact, Seal was in prison for eight months.

It is not easy to determine when Seal actually met up with the members of the Medellin Cartel in Colombia and became a key pilot. But almost every commentator says the association came after this prison incident. The film places the prison term while Seal was already doing business with Medellin.

To give a differing example: Roger Reaves was a major cocaine smuggler who was working with the Medellin Cartel when he first met Seal on a plane leaving Honduras after Seal was released. Reaves invited Seal to his home in California and became very impressed with his flying skills. He offered to sub-contract out some of his work for the cartel, which, at that time, consisted of the Ochoa brothers, Carlos Lehder and Pablo Escobar. (Reaves, Smuggler, pgs. 293-298.  Reaves is not depicted in the film.)

Differing from the film, Reaves wrote that it was Seal, not CIA officers, who wanted to move the drop point for the incoming shipments of cocaine from Louisiana to the small airfield in Mena. This 1982 move was likely based on the fact that Seal was a Louisiana citizen with a residence in Baton Rouge, and was therefore well known to law enforcement in the Bayous. A second likely reason is because Seal thought it would be easy to buy anonymity in a small town like Mena.

There is little doubt that the CIA followed Seal to Mena. For, as the film shows, Mena doubled as a training base for the Contras, the American-backed rebels trying to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. (Jim Naureckas, FAIR, October 10, 2017)

It was with this operation, subsidized by the CIA – shipping arms down to the Contras, bringing back tons of cocaine for Medellin – with which Barry Seal redefined the word wealth in the world of smuggling. He further expanded his fleet and pilot corps, since each flight was packed with between 200-500 kilos of cocaine. That kind of load would capture multi-millions on the street, and Seal was paid at least $2,000 per kilo. As the film depicts, banks had to build new deposit rooms for the rest of their clients, while dedicating their regular deposit repositories solely to Seal’s massive holdings.

Government Protection

Somehow, Seal managed to acquire protection for his operation. As a Senate investigation led by Sen. John Kerry noted in 1989, Seal’s associates at the Mena airport were targets of grand jury probes into narcotics trafficking. But even though there was evidence sufficient for an indictment on money laundering charges, and despite the willingness of state and federal officials to proceed, the cases were dropped.

Kerry’s investigation concluded that the “apparent reason might have revealed national security information.” (ibid) That usually means CIA involvement. Another indication of such involvement is the uncovering of a Customs official’s report where he explains that a drug inquiry into a pilot had to be cancelled because he “works for Seal and cannot be touched because Seal works for the CIA.” (ibid)

Seal’s operations also provided work for some local citizens. For instance, automatic pistols were made in Fayetteville by a gunsmith named William Holmes, who later testified that the CIA asked him to make 250 pistols for Seal. Holmes described the smuggler as “the ramrod of the Mena gun deal.” (St. Clair and Cockburn.)

But in 1983, Seal’s world began to crumble. Operation Screamer was an undercover sting that caught Seal shipping 200,000 Quaaludes into a Fort Lauderdale airport, a key incident that is not depicted in the film. American Made simply states that because the Contra resupply effort was not going well, the CIA decided to pull the plug on Seal’s Mena operation.

Seal quickly understands he is being made the fall guy and tries to get everything out. While doing so he is caught by at least four teams of agents: FBI, DEA, state and local police. This scene, with flashlights piercing the darkness and its Keystone Kops overtones, is pure Hollywood invention to create both humor and drama. But, admittedly, it makes for better cinema than a Quaalude bust.

In keeping with Liman’s choice of Hollywood tinsel vs. reality, once Seal is detained, he is  taken to the state attorney’s office in handcuffs with about 14 agents around him. The local Arkansas attorney is eager to indict him. But she then gets a call from Gov. Clinton. After taking the call, she walks outside and Seal, who is caught with enough evidence to put him away forever, is set free. The implication in Liman’s film is that Clinton then referred Seal to the White House and Vice President George H.W. Bush’s drug task force.

In reality, Seal was indicted — there was no saving phone call from Clinton or anyone else. After the indictment, it was Seal who approached the DEA offering to turn informant in return for a suspended sentence. His offer was refused and Seal was convicted and faced ten years in prison.

The Danger Zone

At this point, some have surmised that he got some advice from the CIA, for he initiated a call to Vice President Bush’s task force on drugs. (See St. Clair and Cockburn) From there, he was referred to the Miami office of the DEA and worked with two agents for the rest of his life: Ernst Jacobsen and Robert Joura, who are not in Liman’s film.

There is little doubt that Seal was one of the most important, if not the most important, informer the DEA ever had. They thought so highly of him that they paid him $800,000 per year. To use just one example among many: it was Seal’s work that helped convict Norman Saunders, prime minister of the Turks and Caicos Islands, on drug smuggling charges.

The most famous incident Seal was involved in was a sting operation against the Sandinista government. The idea was to show that somehow the Sandinistas were involved with transshipping drugs through Nicaragua for the Medellin Cartel. Seal had his plane outfitted with automatic cameras as he unloaded a large cargo of cocaine on a Nicaragua runway.

The camera took rather grainy and indistinct photos that appeared to show Seal, Pablo Escobar and a man named Frederico Vaughan, who was allegedly an assistant to a Sandinista cabinet member. In reality, the delivery did not take place at a military base as the Reagan administration claimed, and Vaughan was, to say the least, a very mysterious personage. Some even suspected he was a CIA double agent, in part, because he was calling his American drug contacts from a phone located at either the U.S. or other Western embassies. (Later, the DEA acknowledged that – except for this flight flown into and out of Nicaragua by the U.S. government – there were no other known cases of illicit drugs transiting Nicaragua during the Sandinista reign in the 1980s.)

Blowing Seal’s Cover

But the incident capsized Seal’s life because the White House was so eager to smear the Sandinistas with this ersatz proof of their supposed drug dealing with the Medellin Cartel that the information was promptly leaked to the media with a front page story in The Washington Times in July 1984. The Reagan administration milked the story for all it was worth, with President Reagan going on TV to accuse top Sandinistas of “exporting drugs to poison our youth.” But this exposure ended Seal’s value as a DEA informant while also making him a marked man in the eyes of the Medellin Cartel.

In this reviewer’s opinion, the film does not do a good job spelling out how this all played out, and its full range of dark overtones. Many have long suspected that the man who leaked the information about Seal’s Sandinista sting was White House aide Oliver North, who was overseeing the Contra war.

Liman depicts that Sandinista-sting as part of Seal’s downfall, but discounts the machinations around Seal’s two trials, one in Florida and one in Louisiana. By this time, Seal had begun to distrust the DEA and had expressed his doubts in a filmed video segment on a Baton Rouge television station.

The judge in the Florida Operation Screamer case cooperated with the DEA and those charges were suspended. But there was a second case in Louisiana, which in keeping with the film’s fable, Liman has taking place in Arkansas. This charge was over marijuana importation, and some believe it was manufactured by Louisiana authorities with the help of a dubious witness.

Seal had decided to plead guilty, thinking the judge would go along with the precedent in Florida and simply suspend the charges. But the smuggler was taken by surprise when Judge Frank Palazola sentenced him to probation, a $35,000 fine, and six months of community service at a local Salvation Army in Baton Rouge. The judge also refused to let Seal have armed bodyguards. And the judge refused to let Seal secretly serve the community service out of state. (See the 1986 special, Murder of a Witness, WBRZ TV, Baton Rouge)

This decision, which made Seal in his own words a “clay pigeon,” plus the failure of Attorney General Edwin Meese to intercede has caused decades of controversy over Seal’s murder. In keeping with its comic overtones, the film does not raise any of these serious issues.

A Fast-Paced Adventure

Despite these shortcomings, the film is exceptionally well made. Liman did a lot of thinking beforehand, because although the picture is fast paced, there is little, if any, wasted motion. This extends all the way down to brief animated sequences with maps to demonstrate American foreign policy in Central America.

In addition to the animated sequences, the film skillfully inserts documentary news scenes of Ronald and Nancy Reagan preaching “Just say not to drugs”; stop action shots of Seal trying to find hiding places for his accumulating cash; and a steadicam scene, the camera arcing widely around Seal as he is introduced by the CIA to the empty expanse of Mena.

All of these devices — and more — are edited with a sure, supple hand into a kind of waterfall of forward motion. I don’t think sitting through this film could bore anyone. As pure entertainment, taken on its own terms, it’s as tasty as eating your favorite candy bar.

And that description fits the performance of Tom Cruise. The first time I saw Cruise was in his second film in 1981, Taps, a leaden-footed pretentious dud of a film about a student rebellion at a military academy. But I waited around past the end to catch the casting list because I was impressed with his performance in the film’s most unattractive role as a psychotic sniper. Cruise took possession of that part, to the point that he overshadowed the likes of Sean Penn and George C. Scott.

As far as acting goes, Cruise’s subsequent films didn’t fulfill that promise, but his talent peaked out again in 1989 for Oliver Stone in Born on the Fourth of July. Since then, his career has largely been a series of actor-star turns, which are heavier in the star quality than the acting.

In this film, unlike in the World War II drama Valkyrie, for example, he does try to capture his character’s voice and its southern twang. He gives us Seal’s good nature and some humor, but that’s about it. Seal was a complex, multi-layered individual who was very hard to figure out because he was so involved in deception, even self-deception. Cruise only gets the surface.

It’s instructive to compare American Made with an earlier film version of Seal’s life, a 1991 HBO television film entitled Doublecrossed. That film did not have anywhere near the budget that Liman and Cruise had. But director Roger Young’s effort is a much more straightforward telling of Seal’s smuggling career than American Made. It includes many important points and personages that the current film leaves out. It does not have the sheer entertainment value this film has, but one understands the complexities of Seal’s life more than one does with American Made. And one can at least ask the proper questions about his assassination.

Hiding the Contra Crimes

At the end of the American Made, we see that Doug Liman dedicated the picture to his deceased father, attorney Arthur Liman, who was the Senate’s chief counsel to the 1987 Iran/Contra investigation, which is probably why, near the end, the CIA character Schafer suggests to his CIA boss that the way to get funding for the Contras is to sell arms to Iran. At the very end, the film notes the plane that took Seal out of Nicaragua after the staged drug sting was the same plane that was shot down over Nicaragua on Oct. 5, 1986, exposing Oliver North’s illegal Contra supply operation.

During those congressional Iran-Contra hearings, a protester screamed for the panel to “ask about the cocaine” before being dragged out of the proceedings. Unfortunately, neither Arthur Liman nor the members of Congress did, leaving the issue of the Reagan administration’s collusion with cocaine traffickers largely unexplored.

Despite news articles by The Associated Press and the investigation by Sen. Kerry, the Contra-Cocaine scandal became one of Official Washington’s dirty secrets treated by the mainstream news media as a kooky conspiracy theory. The story was finally revived by journalist Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, but the result was a fierce counterattack against Webb spearheaded by The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, resulting in the destruction of Webb’s career and contributing to his eventual suicide in 2004. But one result was a belated admission by the CIA’s inspector general that, indeed, CIA officers were aware of the Contras’ cocaine trafficking but chose to look the other way and protect these CIA clients. [See’s “The Sordid Contra-Cocaine Saga.”]

Doug Liman tips his hat to this disturbing reality ever so briefly when he has the Contra political leader Adolfo Calero meet with Seal and Ochoa and mention Calero’s role in drug smuggling for the Contras.

If you want to be entertained about a serious subject then American Made is your film. If you wish to learn something more definitive about Barry Seal, see Doublecrossed. If you want to be educated about the whole sordid Reagan intervention in Central American, rent Kill the Messenger, the fine film that Jeremy Renner made about the tragedy that befell Gary Webb when he dared revive the ugly story of the CIA’s complicity in the Contra-cocaine network.

James DiEugenio is a researcher and writer on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other mysteries of that era. His most recent book is Reclaiming Parkland.

Mocking Trump Doesn’t Prove Russia’s Guilt

Exclusive: President Trump is getting mocked for “trusting” Vladimir Putin’s denial about “meddling” in U.S. politics — and not accepting Official Washington’s groupthink — but ridicule isn’t evidence, writes ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

If the bloody debacle in Iraq should have taught Americans anything, it is that endorsements by lots of important people who think something is true don’t amount to evidence that it actually is true. If endorsements were the same as evidence, U.S. troops would have found tons of WMD in Iraq, rather than come up empty.

So, when it comes to whether or not Russia “hacked” Democratic emails last year and slipped them to WikiLeaks, just because a bunch of people with fancy titles think the Russians are guilty doesn’t compensate for the lack of evidence so far evinced to support this core charge.

But the reaction of Official Washington and the U.S. mainstream media to President Trump saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed sincere in denying Russian “meddling” was sputtering outrage: How could Trump doubt what so many important people think is true?

Yet, if the case were all that strong that Russia did “hack” the emails, you would have expected a straightforward explication of the evidence rather than a demonstration of a full-blown groupthink, but what we got this weekend was all groupthink and no evidence.

For instance, on Saturday, CNN responded to Trump’s comment that Putin seems to “mean it” when he denied meddling by running a list of important Americans who had endorsed the Russian-guilt verdict. Other U.S. news outlets and politicians followed the same pattern.

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and a big promoter of the Russia-gate allegations, scoffed at what Trump said: “You believe a foreign adversary over your own intelligence agencies?”

The Washington Post’s headline sitting atop Sunday’s lede article read: “Trump says Putin sincere in denial of Russian meddling: Critics call that ‘unconscionable.’”

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee and another Russia-gate sparkplug, said he was left “completely speechless” by Trump’s willingness to take Putin’s word “over the conclusions of our own combined intelligence community.”

Which gets us back to the Jan. 6 “Intelligence Community Assessment” and its stunning lack of evidence in support of its Russian guilty verdict. The ICA even admitted as much, that it wasn’t asserting Russian guilt as fact but rather as opinion:

“Judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact. Assessments are based on collected information, which is often incomplete or fragmentary, as well as logic, argumentation, and precedents.”

Even The New York Times, which has led the media groupthink on Russian guilt, initially published the surprised reaction from correspondent Scott Shane who wrote: “What is missing from the public report is what many Americans most eagerly anticipated: hard evidence to back up the agencies’ claims that the Russian government engineered the election attack. … Instead, the message from the agencies essentially amounts to ‘trust us.’”

In other words, the ICA was not a disposition of fact; it was guesswork, possibly understandable guesswork, but guesswork nonetheless. And guesswork should be open to debate.

Shutting Down Debate

But the debate was shut down earlier this year by the oft-repeated claim that all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies concurred in the assessment and how could anyone question what all 17 intelligence agencies concluded!

However, that canard was finally knocked down by President Obama’s own Director of National Intelligence James Clapper who acknowledged in sworn congressional testimony that the ICA was the product of “handpicked” analysts from only three agencies – the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency.

In other words, not only did the full intelligence community not participate in the ICA but only analysts “handpicked” by Obama’s intelligence chiefs conducted the analysis – and as we intelligence veterans know well, if you handpick the analysts, you are handpicking the conclusions.

For instance, put a group of analysts known for their hardline views on Russia in a room for a few weeks, prevent analysts with dissenting viewpoints from weighing in, don’t require any actual evidence, and you are pretty sure to get the Russia-bashing result that you wanted.

So why do you think Clapper and Obama’s CIA Director John Brennan put up the no-entry sign that kept out analysts from the State Department and Defense Intelligence Agency, two entities that might have significant insights into Russian intentions? By all rights, they should have been included. But, clearly, no dissenting footnotes or wider-perspective views were desired.

If you remember back to the Iraq WMD intelligence estimate, analysts from the State Department’s intelligence bureau, known as INR, offered unwelcome dissenting views about the pace of Iraq’s supposed nuclear program, inserting a footnote saying they found it too difficult to predict the fruition of a program when there was no reliable evidence as to when – not to mention if – it had started.

DIA also was demonstrating an unusually independent streak, displaying a willingness to give due consideration to Russia’s perspective. Here’s the heterodox line DIA took in a major report published in December 2015:

“The Kremlin is convinced the United States is laying the groundwork for regime change in Russia, a conviction further reinforced by the events in Ukraine. Moscow views the United States as the critical driver behind the crisis in Ukraine and the Arab Spring and believes that the overthrow of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych is the latest move in a long-established pattern of U.S.-orchestrated regime change efforts.”

So, not only did the Jan. 6 report exclude input from INR and DIA and the other dozen or so intelligence agencies but it even avoided a fully diverse set of opinions from inside the CIA, FBI and NSA. The assessment – or guesswork – came only from those “hand-picked” analysts.

It’s also worth noting that not only does Putin deny that Russia was behind the publication of the Democratic emails but so too does WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange who has insisted repeatedly that the material did not come from the Russians. He and others around WikiLeaks have strongly suggested that the emails came as leaks from Democratic insiders.

Seeking Real Answers

In the face of Official Washington’s evidence-free groupthink, what some of us former U.S. intelligence analysts have been trying to do is provide both a fuller understanding of Russian behavior and whatever scientific analysis can be applied to the alleged “hacks.”

Forensic investigations and testing of relevant download speeds, reported by members of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), have undermined the Russia-did-it groupthink. But this attempt to engage in actual evaluation of evidence has been either ignored or mocked by mainstream news outlets.

Still, the suggestion in our July 24 VIPS memo that President Trump ask current CIA Director Mike Pompeo to take a fresh look at the issue recently had some consequence when Pompeo contacted VIPS member William Binney, a former NSA Technical Director, and invited him to explain his latest research on the impossibility of the Russians extracting the Democratic emails via an Internet hack based on known download speeds.

In typically candid terms, Binney explained to Pompeo why VIPS had concluded that the intelligence analysts behind the Jan. 6 report had been making stuff up about Russian “hacking.”

When news of the Binney-Pompeo meeting broke last week, the U.S. mainstream media again rejected the opportunity to rethink the Russia-did-it groupthink and instead treated Binney as some sort of “conspiracy theorist” with a “disputed” theory, while attacking Pompeo’s willingness to discuss Binney’s findings as “politicizing intelligence.”

Despite the smearing of Binney, President Trump appears to have taken some of this new evidence to heart, explaining his dispute with open-mouthed White House reporters on Air Force One who baited Trump with various forms of the same question: “Do you believe Putin?” amid the new jeering about Trump “getting played” by Putin.

Trump’s demeanor, however, suggested increased confidence that the Russian “hacking” allegations were the “witch hunt” that he has decried for months.

Trump also jabbed the press over its earlier false claims that “all 17 intelligence agencies” concurred on the Russian “hack.” And Trump introduced the idea of a different kind of “hack,” i.e., Obama’s political appointees at the heads of the agencies behind the Jan. 6 report.

Trump said, “You hear it’s 17 agencies. Well it’s three. And one is Brennan … give me a break. They’re political hacks. … I mean, you have Brennan, you have Clapper, you have [FBI Director James] Comey. Comey is proven to be a liar and he’s proven to be a leaker.”

Later, in deference to those still at work in intelligence, Trump said, “I’m with our [intelligence] agencies as currently constituted.”

While Trump surely has a dismal record of his own regarding truth-telling, he’s not wrong about the checkered record of the triumvirate of Clapper, Brennan and Comey.

Clapper played a key role in the bogus Iraq-WMD intelligence when he was head of the National Geo-spatial Agency and hid the fact that there was zero evidence in satellite imagery of any weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq invasion. When no WMDs were found, Clapper told the media that he thought they were shipped off to Syria.

In 2013, Clapper perjured himself before Congress by denying NSA’s unconstitutional blanket surveillance of Americans. After evidence emerged revealing the falsity of Clapper’s testimony, he wrote a letter to Congress admitting, “My response was clearly erroneous – for which I apologize.” Despite the deception, he was allowed to stay as Obama’s most senior intelligence officer for almost four more years.

Clapper also has demonstrated an ugly bias about Russians. On May 28, as a former DNI, Clapper explained Russian “interference” in the U.S. election to NBC’s Chuck Todd on May 28 with a tutorial on what everyone should know about “the historical practices of the Russians.” Clapper said, “the Russians, typically, are almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor, whatever, which is a typical Russian technique.”

Brennan, who had previously defended torture as having been an effective way to gain intelligence, was CIA director when agency operatives broke into the computers of the Senate Intelligence Committee when it was investigating CIA torture.

Former FBI Director Comey is infamous for letting the Democratic National Committee arrange its own investigation of the “hacking” that was then blamed on Russia, a development that led some members of Congress to call the supposed “hack” an “act of war.” Despite the risk of nuclear conflagration, the FBI didn’t bother to do its own forensics.

And, by his own admission, Comey arranged a leak to The New York Times that was specifically designed to get a Special Prosecutor appointed to investigate Russia-gate, a job that fell to his old friend Robert Mueller, who has had his own mixed record as the previous FBI director in mishandling the 9/11 investigation.

There are plenty of reasons to want Trump out of the White House, but there also should be respect for facts and due process. So far, the powers-that-be in Washington – in politics, the media and other dominant institutions, what some call the Deep State – have shown little regard for fairness in the Russia-gate “scandal.”

The goal seems to be to remove the President or at least emasculate him on a bum rap, giving him the bum’s rush, so to speak, while also further demonizing Russia and exacerbating an already dangerous New Cold War.

The truth should still count for something. No one’s character should be assassinated, as Bill Binney’s is being now, for running afoul of the conventional wisdom that Trump – like bête noire Putin – never tells the truth, and that to believe either is, well, “unconscionable,” as The Washington Post warns.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.  He was a CIA intelligence analyst for 27 years and is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.

Remaking Armistice Day into Veterans Day

The holiday now celebrated as Veterans Day – to thank American soldiers  – started as Armistice Day, a time for reflection on the horrors of war after millions died in World War I, as Gary Kohls recalls.

By Gary Kohls

One year shy of a century ago, on Nov. 11, 1918, at precisely 11 a.m. Paris time, a cease-fire (aka “truce” or “armistice”) was agreed to and signed by military negotiators from France, Britain and Germany. The terms of the truce ultimately resulted in the end of the “War to End All Wars” seven months later when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919.

Germany’s surrender to the Allies was regarded as the prudent thing to do after Kaiser Wilhelm’s tyrannical monarchy was overthrown by democratic socialist forces earlier in 1918. Erich Ludendorf, a classic example of Prussian militarism, was one of the German generals who first broached the idea of starting the negotiations that eventually led to Germany’s surrender.

Ludendorf saw that 1) Germany’s army was terminally exhausted, demoralized and poorly equipped; 2) the United States had finally entered the war with fresh troops; 3) the fledgling government at home was in disarray; 4) the war had bankrupted the nation (as all wars eventually do – unless there is enough looting and plundering of the occupied territories); 5) civilians at home were starving; and 6) victory was an impossibility. The writing was on the wall; Germany had no choice but to surrender.

The armistice was signed at Compiegne, France, by four French and British military officers, the German Foreign Minister, two German military officers and one German civilian.

According to the terms of the armistice, Germany agreed to immediately evacuate all occupied territories within two weeks and to surrender 5,000 cannons, 25,000 machine guns, 1,700 planes, and all German submarines. All Allied prisoners of war were to be released by Germany immediately, but German POWs were not to be released until a peace treaty was signed sometime in the future.

The year after the war ended, most of the national leaders that considered themselves victors proclaimed Nov. 11 to be a day of reflection on the horrors of war and for prayers that there never would be another war. All businesses were ordered to stop work for two minutes and stand in silence at exactly 11 a.m., a tradition that continued in the decades that followed. It was called Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom and Armistice Day in the United States.

Nov. 11 was intended to be a day of mourning and repentance for the satanic carnage that killed about 10 million soldiers, wounded another 20 million and inflicted more than 2 million civilian deaths.

The senselessness of that war should have resulted in the courts-martial of every gung-ho officer, the demeaning of every war-mongering politician, and the decertifying of every war-profiteering corporation. But it did not. The warmongers and war-profiteers just went into hibernation.

But the war did result in the dissolution of four empires, their emperors and kings, and the assorted aristocrats and sycophants who had been so cruelly ripping off the multitudes of poor people for so many centuries. The four empires that collapsed were the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires. And good riddance it was.

Of course, Germany did not celebrate Armistice Day because that Nov. 11 and the date of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles (that formally ended the war) were regarded by many Germans as the dates of treasonous acts committed by Germany’s new civilian democratic leaders who signed the documents – holding blameless the German military officers who suggested that the German army surrender in the first place.

The Nov. 11 date was despised by patriotic “Deutchland Uber Alles” Germans, especially the right-wing, pro-monarchist, proto-fascist and “Germany First” nationalists who repeatedly used the “Stab-in-the-Back” and “November Criminals” deception to weaken and then overthrow the Weimar Republic’s experiment in democracy.

After 12 years of pro-war propaganda from militarists like Adolf Hitler, Ludendorf and the Nazi Party, democracy never had a chance, especially with all the economic turmoil that followed the war and the 1929 Wall Street crash that spread mass unemployment around the world.

According to Wikipedia, the “Stab-in-the-Back” Myth is the notion, widely believed and promulgated in right-wing, pro-militarist circles in pre-Nazi Germany, that the Imperial German Army did not lose World War I, but rather the German military had been betrayed by the civilians on the home front, especially the pro-democracy groups that overthrew the tyrannical monarchy during the German Revolution of 1918-19.

The Fading of Reflection

Still, elsewhere the tradition of Nov. 11 continued. In 1926, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution declaring that Armistice Day should be a day of “thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through goodwill and mutual understanding between nations.” In 1938, Congress made Armistice Day an official holiday that was explicitly dedicated to perpetuating world peace. But world peace would not last.

For some, the horrors of World War II reinforced the need to further abhor war. General Omar Bradley delivered an Armistice Day speech in 1948, chastising those who placed their trust in military dominance. He said: “We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”

But the military and economic entities that are in control of the world didn’t take Bradley’s admonition seriously. In the post-World War II years, the U.S. was sensing that it could easily establish a powerful global empire. The CIA – created in the years following World War II – was feeling its oats and the Department of War was name-changed to the Department of Defense. Planetary, full-spectrum military and economic dominance by the U.S. was a possibility.

To promote these imperial objectives, anti-war and pro-peace sentiments had to be suppressed. Peace-loving holidays like Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Armistice Day and Labor Day needed to be de-emphasized or co-opted. And so they were. The process was so subtle that the public never flinched.

In June 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a bill changing the name of Armistice Day to Veterans’ Day. The stated purpose of the new holiday was “to thank all veterans who had served the United States of America.”

America’s neglected or wounded military veterans applauded the change in the Nov. 11 holiday as they seemed to appreciate being thanked for their service, even if many resented the empty sentiments.

One of the (perhaps intended) consequences of the gradual change away from the emphasis on peace was the amnesia over the horrors of war. Both adults and children were easily brain-washed into mindlessly glorifying the diabolical. Keeping America militarily strong was emphasized. In the halls of Congress and in the White House ever since World War II, there was little consideration of the cruelty, stupidity and futility of war.

In our corrupt capitalist society, there is just too much money to be made by war-profiteering corporations and wealthy investors when there are potential military conflicts brewing. The stocks of war industries surge when Donald Trump tweets about bombing foreign nations. And then there are legions of major media outlets that are always ready and willing to cheerlead for wars and rumors of war.

On Veterans Day in America today, none of the people in power are sincerely praying or working for a truly sustainable peace, even during the obligatory two minutes of silence.

Dr. Gary G. Kohls is a retired physician who writes about peace, justice, militarism, mental health and religious issues. 

The Balfour Declaration’s Century of Turmoil

As Israel continues to occupy Palestinian lands and threatens a new war against Lebanon, much of this turmoil traces back to Great Britain’s Balfour Declaration during World I, a century ago, reports Dennis J Bernstein.

By Dennis J Bernstein

Great Britain’s Balfour Declaration — a century ago — laid the groundwork for a Zionist state in the Middle East and led to the purging of millions of Palestinians from what became Israel, a human rights crisis that continues to roil the Middle East to this day.

I caught up with noted Palestinian human rights campaigner Mustafa Barghouti in San Francisco where he was lecturing on the Balfour Declaration, a letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour published on Nov. 9, 1917, and promising a Jewish homeland. The letter came during World War I while Great Britain was at war with Turkey’s Ottoman Empire.

In June 2002, Dr. Barghouti co-founded the Palestinian National Initiative, and currently serves as its Secretary-General.

Dennis Bernstein: What was the significance of the Balfour Declaration and what does it mean to the Palestinian people?

Mustafa Barghouti: The Balfour Declaration was a major historical crime committed against the Palestinian people.  It was a crime that led to a series of other crimes, including the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people in 1948, when 70% of the population were displaced and forced to leave their country.  There are still 6 million refugees spread all over the world.  It led to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and Jerusalem in 1967.

But most importantly, the Balfour Declaration was a racist act that discriminated against 90% of the population of Palestine.  It gave 10% of the population the right to a homeland and deprived the Palestinians of that right.  The result is what we see today, which is a system of apartheid that is much worse than what existed in South Africa.

I believe the Balfour Declaration was also a crime against the Jewish people.  It used the Jewish population to serve the colonial interests of the colonial powers of Europe at the time.  It pushed the Jewish population toward Zionism.  It put the Jewish people in contradiction with the Palestinians and with the Arabs and created a situation of instability which has existed now for a hundred years.

Britain should apologize for its crime in Palestine and compensate the Palestinian people for the harm caused to them.  At the very least, they should recognize the state of Palestine.  Theresa May, the prime minister of Britain, added insult to injury by celebrating the anniversary of this declaration in the company of Benjamin Netanyahu.  We responded with a fantastic rally in which 50,000 people gathered in the streets of London, occupying key locations for more than five hours.

I spoke in front of these people, as did Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labor Party, who could very soon become the next prime minister of Britain.  I think we can clearly say that we control public opinion in Britain.

Dennis Bernstein: What the Balfour Declaration essentially did was take a land where people had been living for generations, centuries, and gave it to another people.

Mustafa Barghouti: Exactly.  Britain had no ownership of Palestine and did not even govern Palestine at the time.  They took the land of the Palestinian people and gave it to the Jewish people, who were a very small minority in Palestine.  At that time, Palestine was under Ottoman Turkish rule.  Ninety percent of the population were Palestinians, whether Muslim or Christians, and ten percent were Jewish.

Balfour was not for the sake of the Jewish people as human beings, it was a case of using the Jewish people for colonial purposes.  And it was in the interests of the colonial powers to push the Jewish to become Zionist, although at that time most of the Jewish people did not want Zionism.

The Balfour Declaration was a part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided the Middle East between the French and British colonial powers.  Proof that the Jewish people were used for colonial purposes came in 1956 when the British responded to the Egyptian decision to nationalize the Suez Canal by attacking Egypt through Israel.  All of this led to the terrible crisis we see today.  It was totally unjust, it was absolutely colonial and it created the system of apartheid we have to struggle against today.

Dennis Bernstein: Why do you suppose some of the key leaders in the anti-apartheid movement have said that the situation in Palestine is worse than it was in South Africa?

Mustafa Barghouti: In South Africa, there was never the segregation of roads that you see in the occupied West Bank, there were never the walls you have here.  In South Africa, settlements were not used to ethnically cleanse the population.

Israel takes away 87% of our water resources in the West Bank.  A Palestinian in the West Bank is allowed to use no more than fifty cubic meters of water, while an illegal Israeli settler is allowed to use 2,400 cubic meters, 48 times more than a Palestinian.

The Israeli GDP per capita is about $38,000 while ours does not exceed $2,000.  But Israel obliges us to buy products at the Israeli market price.  So we make much less money but have to buy products at their cost.  In addition, they force us to pay for water and electricity at double the amount Israelis pay.  If we happen to have to send a child to an Israeli hospital, we would be obliged to pay four times what an Israeli would pay.

If you look it up in the dictionary, “apartheid” is defined as “two systems of laws for two peoples living in the same place.”  That is exactly what Israel has created.  Israeli citizens, even if they are illegal settlers violating international law, are treated with respect by the Israeli government, they have rights, they are ruled by civil law.  While Palestinians are ruled by military law.  They still use against us the Ottoman Turkish Law of 1911, the British Mandatory Law, the British Emergency Law, Jordanian law, Israeli law and 2,400 Israeli military orders.  That is why you have things like administrative detention, which means they can arrest any Palestinian without even bringing charges.  56 members of our elected parliament were jailed by Israel, many under administrative detention.  Imagine if the Mexican government came to the United States and arrested congress people and put them in jail without even charges!

Dennis Bernstein: People in custody are being subjected to torture, young people are being subjected to torture.  This is an ongoing program.  I am always stunned by the brutality and the acceptance of that brutality by the United States.  If what is going on in Palestine is a form of ethnic cleansing, then we would have to indict the United States.

Mustafa Barghouti: It is unfortunate that US institutions are completely biased toward Israel.  Without American support, Israel could not do what it does.  The problem is that there are double standards.  They speak about freedom, about democracy, about human rights…except when it comes to Palestine.  It is as if we are not human beings.  We speak about countries having to abide by international law–not having nuclear weapons, for instance–but Israel is above international law.  That can only be described as a double standard.

In the long run, this is bad, not only for the Palestinians, but also for the Jewish people.  The system of apartheid and racial discrimination run by the Israeli government is absolutely incompatible with the history of the Jewish people, the people who suffered from the Holocaust, from anti-Semitism and the pogroms in Russia.  They should not be oppressors, they should not be discriminating against other people.  That is why it does not surprise me to see many wonderful Jewish activists supporting Palestine and the BDS movement.  I don’t think the Israelis can be free until the Palestinians are free.

Dennis Bernstein: Do you see the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as an effective movement?  It certainly contributed to ending apartheid in South Africa.

Mustafa Barghouti: Of course, it is very effective.  It translates international solidarity with the Palestinian people into a material effect.  But it must be stated that the BDS movement is not against the Jewish people and it is not anti-Semitic.  It is a nonviolent form of action and freedom of expression.  It is about individual rights.  Those who have come out against BDS are positioning themselves against freedom of choice.  If you don’t want to boycott Israel, at least boycott settlement activities, which, according to United Nations Security Council resolution 2334, are a violation of international law.

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

Did Al Qaeda Dupe Trump on Syrian Attack?

Special Report: Buried deep inside a new U.N. report is evidence that could exonerate the Syrian government in the April 4 sarin atrocity and make President Trump look like an Al Qaeda dupe, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

A new United Nations-sponsored report on the April 4 sarin incident in an Al Qaeda-controlled town in Syria blames Bashar al-Assad’s government for the atrocity, but the report contains evidence deep inside its “Annex II” that would prove Assad’s innocence.

If you read that far, you would find that more than 100 victims of sarin exposure were taken to several area hospitals before the alleged Syrian warplane could have struck the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

Still, the Joint Investigative Mechanism [JIM], a joint project of the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [OPCW], brushed aside this startling evidence and delivered the Assad guilty verdict that the United States and its allies wanted.

The JIM consigned the evidence of a staged atrocity, in which Al Qaeda operatives would have used sarin to kill innocent civilians and pin the blame on Assad, to a spot 14 pages into the report’s Annex II. The sensitivity of this evidence of a staged “attack” is heightened by the fact that President Trump rushed to judgment and ordered a “retaliatory” strike with 59 Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian airbase on the night of April 6-7. That U.S. attack reportedly killed several soldiers at the base and nine civilians, including four children, in nearby neighborhoods.

So, if it becomes clear that Al Qaeda tricked President Trump not only would he be responsible for violating international law and killing innocent people, but he and virtually the entire Western political establishment along with the major news media would look like Al Qaeda’s “useful idiots.”

Currently, the West and its mainstream media are lambasting the Russians for not accepting the JIM’s “assessment,” which blames Assad for the sarin attack. Russia is also taking flak for questioning continuation of the JIM’s mandate. There has been virtually no mainstream skepticism about the JIM’s report and almost no mention in the mainstream of the hospital-timing discrepancy.

Timing Troubles

To establish when the supposed sarin attack occurred on April 4, the JIM report relied on witnesses in the Al Qaeda-controlled town and a curious video showing three plumes of smoke but no airplanes. Based on the video’s metadata, the JIM said the scene was recorded between 0642 and 0652 hours. The JIM thus puts the timing of the sarin release at between 0630 and 0700 hours.

But the first admissions of victims to area hospitals began as early as 0600 hours, the JIM found, meaning that these victims could not have been poisoned by the alleged aerial bombing (even if the airstrike really did occur).

According to the report’s Annex II, “The admission times of the records range between 0600 and 1600 hours.” And these early cases – arriving before the alleged airstrike – were not isolated ones.

“Analysis of the … medical records revealed that in 57 cases, patients were admitted in five hospitals before the incident in Khan Shaykhun,” Annex II said.

Plus, this timing discrepancy was not limited to a few hospitals in and around Khan Sheikhoun, but was recorded as well at hospitals that were scattered across the area and included one hospital that would have taken an hour or so to reach.

Annex II stated: “In 10 such cases, patients appear to have been admitted to a hospital 125 km away from Khan Shaykhun at 0700 hours while another 42 patients appear to have been admitted to a hospital 30 km away at 0700 hours.”

In other words, more than 100 patients would appear to have been exposed to sarin before the alleged Syrian warplane could have dropped the alleged bomb and the victims could be evacuated, a finding that alone would have destroyed the JIM’s case against the Syrian government.

But the JIM seemed more interested in burying this evidence of Al Qaeda staging the incident — and killing some expendable civilians — than in following up this timing problem.

“The [JIM] did not investigate these discrepancies and cannot determine whether they are linked to any possible staging scenario, or to poor record-keeping in chaotic conditions,” the report said. But the proffered excuse about poor record-keeping would have to apply to multiple hospitals over a wide area all falsely recording the arrival time of more than 100 patients.

The video of the plumes of smoke also has come under skepticism from Theodore Postol, a weapons expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who noted that none of the three plumes matched up with damage to buildings (as viewed from satellite images) that would have resulted from aerial bombs of that power.

Postol’s finding suggests that the smoke could have been another part of a staging event rather than debris kicked up by aerial bombs.

The JIM also could find no conclusive evidence that a Syrian warplane was over Khan Sheikhoun at the time of the video although the report claims that a plane could have come within about 5 kilometers of the town.

A History of Deception

Perhaps even more significantly, the JIM report ignored the context of the April 4 case and the past history of Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front staging chemical weapons attacks with the goal of foisting blame on the Syrian government and tricking the U.S. military into an intervention on the side of Nusra and its Islamic-militant allies.

On April 4, there was a strong motive for Al Qaeda and its regional allies to mount a staged event. Just days earlier, President Trump’s administration had shocked the Syrian rebels and their backers by declaring “regime change” was no longer the U.S. goal in Syria.

So, Al Qaeda and its regional enablers were frantic to reverse Trump’s decision, which was accomplished by his emotional reaction to videos on cable news showing children and other civilians suffering and dying in Khan Sheikhoun.

On the night of April 6-7, before any thorough investigation could be conducted, Trump ordered 59 Tomahawk missiles fired at the Syrian air base that supposedly had launched the sarin attack.

At the time, I was told by an intelligence source that at least some CIA analysts believed that the sarin incident indeed had been staged with sarin possibly flown in by drone from a Saudi-Israeli special operations base in Jordan.

This source said the on-the-ground staging for the incident had been hasty because of the surprise announcement that the Trump administration was no longer seeking regime change in Damascus. The haste led to some sloppiness in tying down all the necessary details to pin the atrocity on Assad, the source said.

But the few slip-ups, such as the apparent failure to coordinate the timing of the hospital admissions to after the purported airstrike, didn’t deter the JIM investigators from backing the West’s desire to blame Assad and also create another attack line against the Russians.

Similarly, other U.N.-connected investigators downplayed earlier evidence that Al Qaeda’s Nusra was staging chemical weapons incidents after President Obama laid down his “red line” on chemical weapons. The militants apparently hoped that the U.S. military would take out the Syrian military and pave the way for an Al Qaeda victory.

For instance, U.N. investigators learned from a number of townspeople of Al-Tamanah about how the rebels and allied “activists” staged a chlorine gas attack on the night of April 29-30, 2014, and then sold the false story to a credulous Western media and, initially, to a U.N. investigative team.

“Seven witnesses stated that frequent alerts [about an imminent chlorine weapons attack by the government] had been issued, but in fact no incidents with chemicals took place,” the U.N. report said. “While people sought safety after the warnings, their homes were looted and rumours spread that the events were being staged. … [T]hey [these witnesses] had come forward to contest the wide-spread false media reports.”

Dubious Evidence

Other people, who did allege that there had been a government chemical attack on Al-Tamanah, provided suspect evidence, including data from questionable sources, according to the report.

The report said, “Three witnesses, who did not give any description of the incident on 29-30 April 2014, provided material of unknown source. One witness had second-hand knowledge of two of the five incidents in Al-Tamanah, but did not remember the exact dates. Later that witness provided a USB-stick with information of unknown origin, which was saved in separate folders according to the dates of all the five incidents mentioned by the FFM [the U.N.’s Fact-Finding Mission].

“Another witness provided the dates of all five incidents reading it from a piece of paper, but did not provide any testimony on the incident on 29-30 April 2014. The latter also provided a video titled ‘site where second barrel containing toxic chlorine gas was dropped tamanaa 30 April 14’”

Some other witnesses alleging a Syrian government attack offered curious claims about detecting the chlorine-infused “barrel bombs” based on how the device sounded in its descent.

The U.N. report said, “The eyewitness, who stated to have been on the roof, said to have heard a helicopter and the ‘very loud’ sound of a falling barrel. Some interviewees had referred to a distinct whistling sound of barrels that contain chlorine as they fall. The witness statement could not be corroborated with any further information.”

However, the claim itself is absurd since it is inconceivable that anyone could detect a chlorine canister inside a “barrel bomb” by “a distinct whistling sound.”

The larger point, however, is that the jihadist rebels in Al-Tamanah and their propaganda teams, including relief workers and activists, appear to have organized a coordinated effort at deception complete with a fake video supplied to U.N. investigators and Western media outlets.

For instance, the Telegraph in London reported that “Videos allegedly taken in Al-Tamanah … purport to show the impact sites of two chemical bombs. Activists said that one person had been killed and another 70 injured.”

The Telegraph quoted supposed weapons expert Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat and a senior fellow at the fiercely anti-Russian Atlantic Council, as endorsing the Al-Tamanah claims.

“Witnesses have consistently reported the use of helicopters to drop the chemical barrel bombs used,” said Higgins. “As it stands, around a dozen chemical barrel bomb attacks have been alleged in that region in the last three weeks.”

The Al-Tamanah debunking in the U.N. report received no mainstream media attention when the U.N. findings were issued in September 2016 because the U.N. report relied on rebel information to blame two other alleged chlorine attacks on the government and that got all the coverage. But the case should have raised red flags given the extent of the apparent deception.

If the seven townspeople were telling the truth, that would mean that the rebels and their allies issued fake attack warnings, produced propaganda videos to fool the West, and prepped “witnesses” with “evidence” to deceive investigators. Yet, no alarms went off about other rebel claims.

The Ghouta Incident

A more famous attack – with sarin gas on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Aug. 21, 2013, killing hundreds – was also eagerly blamed on the Assad regime, as The New York Times, Human Rights Watch, Higgins’s Bellingcat and many other Western outlets jumped to that conclusion despite the unlikely circumstances. Assad had just welcomed U.N. investigators to Damascus to examine chemical attacks that he was blaming on the rebels.

Assad also was facing the “red line” threat from President Obama warning him of possible U.S. military intervention if the Syrian government deployed chemical weapons. Why Assad and his military would choose such a moment to launch a deadly sarin attack outside Damascus, killing mostly civilians, made little sense.

But this became another rush to judgment in the West that brought the Obama administration to the verge of launching a devastating air attack on the Syrian military that might have helped Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate and/or the Islamic State win the war.

Eventually, however, the case blaming Assad for the 2013 sarin attack collapsed.

An analysis by genuine weapons experts – such as Theodore Postol, an MIT professor of science, technology and national security policy, and Richard M. Lloyd, an analyst at the military contractor Tesla Laboratories – found that the missile that delivered the sarin had a very short range placing its likely firing position in rebel territory.

Later, reporting by journalist Seymour Hersh implicated Turkish intelligence working with jihadist rebels as the likely source of the sarin.

We also learned in 2016 that a message from the U.S. intelligence community had warned Obama how weak the evidence against Assad was. There was no “slam-dunk” proof, said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. And Obama cited his rejection of the Washington militaristic “playbook” to bomb Syria as one of his proudest moments as President.

With this background, there should have been extreme skepticism when jihadists and their allies made new claims about the Syrian government engaging in chemical weapons attacks. But there wasn’t.

The broader context for these biased investigations is that U.N. and OPCW investigators have been under intense pressure to confirm accusations against Syria and other targeted states.

Right now, the West is blaming Russia for the collapsing consensus behind U.N. investigations, but the problem really comes from Washington’s longtime strategy of coercing U.N. organizations into becoming propaganda arms for U.S. geopolitical strategies.

The U.N.’s relative independence in its investigative efforts was decisively broken early this century when President George W. Bush’s administration purged U.N. agencies that were not onboard with U.S. hegemony, especially on interventions in the Middle East.

Through manipulation of funding and selection of key staff members, the Bush administration engineered the takeover or at least the neutralizing of one U.N.-affiliated organization after another.

For instance, in 2002, Bush’s Deputy Under-Secretary of State John Bolton spearheaded the takeover of the OPCW as Bush planned to cite chemical weapons as a principal excuse for invading Iraq.

OPCW Director General Jose Mauricio Bustani was viewed as an obstacle because he was pressing Iraq to accept OPCW’s conventions for eliminating chemical weapons, which could have undermined Bush’s WMD rationale for war.

Though Bustani was just reelected to a new term, the Brazilian diplomat was forced out, to be followed in that job by more pliable bureaucrats, including the current Director General Ahmet Uzumcu of Turkey, who not only comes from a NATO country but served as Turkey’s ambassador to NATO and to Israel. [For details, see’s “U.N. Enablers of ‘Aggressive War.’”]

Since those days of the Iraq invasion, the game hasn’t changed. U.S. and other Western officials expect the U.N. and related agencies to accept or at least not object to Washington’s geopolitical interventions.

The only difference now is that Russia, one of the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council, is saying enough is enough – and Russia’s opposition to these biased inquiries is emerging as one more dangerous hot spot in the New Cold War.

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

How US Blunders Strengthened Iran

Exclusive: By echoing the Israeli-Saudi bellicosity toward Iran, President Trump is repeating the same mistakes of his predecessors and inviting wider Mideast wars that could enhance Iran’s position, writes Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

Behind only North Korea, Iran is the country the Trump administration vilifies most. The White House endorses Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s injunction that “We must all stand together to stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation and terror.”

Parroting Netanyahu’s claim that Iran is “busy gobbling up the nations” of the Middle East, CIA Director and conservative GOP stalwart Mike Pompeo warned in June that Iran — which he branded “the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism” — now wields “enormous influence . . . that far outstrips where it was six or seven years ago.”

In an interview with MSNBC, Pompeo elaborated, “Whether it’s the influence they have over the government in Baghdad, whether it’s the increasing strength of Hezbollah and Lebanon, their work alongside the Houthis in Iran, (or) the Iraqi Shias that are fighting along now the border in Syria . . . Iran is everywhere throughout the Middle East.”

Few would deny that Iran’s influence in the region has grown over the past decade. What’s missing from such dire warnings of its imperial designs, however, is any reflection on how aggressive policies by the United States and its allies have consistently backfired, creating needless chaos that Iran has exploited as a matter of self-interest and self-defense.

Consider the case of Hezbollah, a Lebanese-based Shiite organization that Israeli leaders describe as a major threat and almost certainly the target of Israel’s next war. Although the Iranian-backed force intervened actively in Syria to back the Assad government, it disclaims any intent to start a war with Israel.

It does, however, declare with great bravado its intent to deter another Israeli invasion of its homeland. “Israel should think a million times before waging any war with Lebanon,” said its leader earlier this year.

Spurred by Israeli Invasions

In fact, Hezbollah owes its very existence to Israel’s repeated invasions of their country. In 1982, Israel broke a cease-fire with the Palestine Liberation Organization and invaded southern Lebanon with 60,000 troops. The Reagan administration took no steps to stop that invasion, which caused thousands of civilian casualties and turned much of the population against Israel.

With Iranian money and guidance, the Shiite resistance in Lebanon coalesced around the organization that became known as Hezbollah. “We are only exercising our legitimate right to defend our Islam and the dignity of our nation,” the group claimed in one of its ideological tracts. “We appealed to the world’s conscience, but heard nothing.”

Years later, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak conceded that “It was our presence [in Lebanon] that created Hezbollah.” Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin seconded that assessment, saying that Israel had let the “genie out of the bottle.”

In 2006, Israel again invaded Lebanon, this time to wipe out Hezbollah. Israel’s indiscriminate attacks against civilians drew condemnation from international human rights organizations. They also succeeded in strengthening the very enemy Israel sought to annihilate.

“Especially since the 2006 war with Israel, . . . an overwhelming majority of the Shi’a have embraced Hezbollah as the defender of their community,” writes Augustus Richard Norton in his study, Hezbollah: A Short History. “This suggests that outsiders . . . seeking to reduce Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon must redress the security narrative rather than take steps that validate it.”

Instead, of course, the United States and its Sunni Arab and Turkish allies promoted the violent overthrow of Syria’s government, drawing Hezbollah forces into the fight for the survival of their longtime ally. While Hezbollah has paid a political and human price for its military expedition, its soldiers have gained tremendous battle experience, making them all the more formidable a foe.

The Iraqi Gift

Washington’s greatest geostrategic gift to Iran was the unprovoked U.S. overthrow of Iran’s arch enemy, Saddam Hussein, in 2003. Iran had lost hundreds of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars in an eight-year war with Iraq, triggered by Saddam’s invasion in 1980. The Bush administration not only killed Saddam, but handed political power to Iraq’s majority Shiite population, which looked to Iran for spiritual and political guidance.

That windfall may not have been entirely luck. The leading Iraqi lobbyist for war, the neoconservatives’ darling Ahmed Chalabi, was later identified by U.S. authorities as a key Iranian intelligence asset. U.S. counterintelligence agents concluded that Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles, who peddled false claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, had “been used as agents of a foreign intelligence service … to reach into and influence the highest levels of the U.S. government,” in the words of a Senate Intelligence Committee report.

But Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office shut down the investigation, leaving Chalabi to direct the political purge of Iraq’s government and then become Iraq’s deputy prime minister and oil minister. The Chalabi-led purge targeted Iraq’s Sunni politicians, aggravating the country’s sectarian divide and fueling the insurgency that still plagues the country today. The violence strengthened Iran’s hand in the country, as Shiite militia sought Tehran’s help to defend their communities.

At the same time, popular opposition to the U.S. occupation led to the rise of radical Sunni terrorists. It was from their swelling ranks in Iraq’s prisons that ISIS was born. ISIS made lightning gains across much of western Iraq in June 2014, with the conquest of Fallujah, Tikrit, and Mosul, the country’s second most populous city. With its very existence in jeopardy, Iraq’s beleaguered government welcomed Iran’s immediate dispatch of 2,000 soldiers to help block the ISIS offensive. Syria’s air force also began striking ISIS bases in coordination with Baghdad.

Misguided Pressure

Washington, in contrast, rejected Iraq’s call for air strikes and suggested that its Shiite-led government should step down to placate aggrieved Sunnis. Only in August 2014 did President Obama authorize limited bombing of ISIS to protect minorities threatened by their military advance. Needless to say, many Iraqis were grateful to Iran for its military support at a critical time.

“The Iranians are playing a long game and a waiting game,” said Sajad Jiyad, the director of the Al Bayan Center for Planning and Studies in Baghdad. “They put their skins on the line. They lost three or four generals plus a dozen senior officers.”

So when a “hamfisted” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking in Saudi Arabia, recently demanded that Baghdad send home Iranian-backed paramilitary units that helped defeat ISIS, it didn’t go over well with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

“No party has the right to interfere in Iraqi matters,” his office stated. Abadi called the Popular Mobilization forces “Iraqi patriots,” not mere proxies of Iran, and insisted that they “should be encouraged because they will be the hope of country and the region.” Score another few points for Tehran.

ISIS might never have spread into Syria had not the United States publicly promoted the overthrow of the Assad government in 2011, following years of covert efforts by Washington and Israel to weaken the regime and promote sectarian divisions within Syria.

Contributing greatly to the rise of radical Islamist forces in Syria was the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, which unleashed large stocks of arms and hundreds of hardened fighters to spread their revolution into Syria.

By late 2011, Sunni-led states such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar began financing and arming militant Islamist rebels in Syria, including Al Qaeda and even ISIS. The resulting war killed hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians, uprooted millions of refugees, and laid waste to ancient cities.

The Obama administration proved itself just as deluded as the Bush administration about the efficacy of armed intervention. Describing hopes by the White House that Libya’s uprising would “ripple out to other nations in the region” and fuel anti-regime movements in Syria and Iran, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Syria has served for 30 years as Iran’s closest strategic ally in the region. U.S. officials believe the growing challenge to Mr. Assad’s regime could motivate Iran’s democratic forces.”

Instead, of course, Syria’s conflict prompted Iran’s hardliners to send Revolutionary Guard units and Hezbollah forces to the defense of their ally. With the help of Russian air power, they turned the tide in Assad’s favor, leaving the Damascus regime intact and greatly in Tehran’s debt.

The Yemeni Mess

Echoing longstanding claims by Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration also insists that Iran is a major backer of Houthi tribal forces who swept down from northern Yemen to seize control of most of the country in early 2015. That March, with U.S. backing, a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states launched a scorched–earth military campaign to oust the Houthis, in the name of resisting Iran.

The coalition’s indiscriminate bombing of industrial and other civilian targets, including schools and hospitals, has laid waste to much of the country and destroyed the economy. Its blockade of ports caused mass hunger and triggered the world’s worst cholera epidemic.

“Cynics can argue that the real strategy of the Saudi coalition is to rely on starvation and disease to wear down the Yemeni people,” observed former White House adviser and CIA analyst Bruce Riedel. “The United Nations has labeled the war the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world . . . (Yet) Iran is the only winner, as it provides aid and expertise to the Houthis at a tiny fraction of the cost of the Saudi war effort while the Islamic Republic’s Gulf enemies spend fortunes on a conflict they jumped into with no endgame or strategy.”

Experts point out that Washington picked the wrong ally in this fight. “The Houthis are one of the few groups in the Middle East that has little intention or ability to confront the United States or Israel,” writes Harvard lecturer Asher Orkaby. “And far from being aligned with extremists, the Houthi movement has repeatedly clashed with the Islamic State . . . and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It is Saudi Arabia that has long supported Sunni Islamist groups in Yemen.”

To compound the irony, the paranoid sheiks in Riyadh created the very threat they set out to crush with their invasion in 2015. Iranian ties to the Houthis were negligible before then. Remarking on years of attempts to smear them as pawns of Iran, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen reported in a classified cable in 2009, “The fact that . . .  there is still no compelling evidence of that link must force us to view this claim with some skepticism.”

Two former members of the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning have recently confirmed that “the vast majority of the Houthi arsenal . . . was seized from Yemeni army stockpiles,” not provided by Iran.

As the devastating war grinds on, however, Iran has provided the Houthis with modest training, advice, and ground munitions. “Iran has exploited, on the cheap, the Saudi-led campaign, and thus made the expansion of Iranian influence in Yemen a Saudi self-fulfilling prophecy,” they observe.

“By catering to the Saudis in Yemen,” they add, “the United States has . . . strengthened Iranian influence in Yemen, undermined Saudi security, brought Yemen closer to the brink of collapse, and visited more death, destruction, and displacement on the Yemeni population.”

Qatar and Beyond

In a moment of particular lunacy, President Trump this June tweeted his support for a Saudi-led political and economic blockade of Qatar, a tiny but gas-rich Gulf emirate. Riyadh is aggrieved in part by Qatar’s sponsorship of Al Jazeera, the politically nettlesome broadcaster. Trump’s action surprised and embarrassed the Pentagon, which operates a huge military base in Qatar.

Iran quickly took advantage of this latest Saudi blunder. It opened its airspace to Qatari flights that were barred from crossing the Arabian Peninsula. It shipped food to replace supplies lost by the closure of the Saudi-Qatari border. In gratitude, Qatar restored full diplomatic relations with Tehran after recalling its ambassador two years ago.

“This dispute has pushed Qatar towards other players in the region who are critical: Iran, Turkey, Russia, China,” said Rob Richer, former Associate Deputy Director for Operations at the CIA. “These are players who now have a lot more influence as we diminish our influence in the region. In this way, the blockade has actually undermined everything that the Saudis and Emiratis wanted by pushing the Qataris into the arms of these other regional players.”

Time after time, in other words, the United States and its regional supporters have made a mess of matters with their overt and covert military interventions in the Middle East. It’s only natural that Iran, having long been targeted by Washington and its allies (sometimes for understandable reasons), tries to seize opportunities to defend its interests.

The lesson we should learn is that curbing Iran and promoting U.S. security interests will require less intervention from afar, not more self-defeating forays into the region.

As Chatham House research fellow Renad Mansour recently observed, until the United States overcomes its counterproductive reactions to obsessive fears of Iranian influence, “the Iranophobes will be right about one thing: Iran is the smarter player in the region.”

Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books related to national security and international relations, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War, and the International Drug Trade (Stanford University Press, 2012).

The Legacy of Dennis Banks

Native American activist Dennis Banks, who died Oct. 29 at 80, leaves behind a legacy that includes a reenergized movement that reminded America of its original sins of genocide and deceit, as Dennis J Bernstein reports.

By Dennis J Bernstein

Noted civil rights activist Dennis J. Banks, who co-founded the American Indian Movement and championed indigenous rights in the face of continuing oppression of Native Americans, died on Oct. 29 in his native Minnesota. He was 80 years old.

Banks was born dirt poor on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation of the Ojibwa Tribe in northern Minnesota.  He grew up impoverished in a home with no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing, not uncommon for American Indians. Like many native children, at the age of five, Banks was forced to go to a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which was meant to “civilize” the children. Banks later compared the schools to “concentration camps” for the cruel and inhumane way they treated the native children.

Banks moved to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in 1966, after he was discharged from the U.S. military. There he was sent to prison for stealing groceries and other necessities to feed his family, he said.

While in prison, Banks founded the American Indian Movement, or AIM, with other jailed Native Americans. AIM, as it came to be known, became one of the most important and influential activist groups at the height of the civil rights movement.

AIM garnered national attention during the 1973 armed standoff between Native American activists and federal authorities at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The 72-day militant protest against tribal leaders accused them and the entire U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs of widespread corruption. Wounded Knee had been the site of an 1890 massacre of more than 300 Oglala Lakota men, women and children by U.S. Cavalry troops.

The Feds charged Banks and another AIM leader, Russell Means, with conspiracy and other offenses related to the siege. The charges were ultimately dismissed.

I spoke with Russell’s brother and AIM co-founder Bill Means, following Banks’ passing.

Dennis Bernstein: We are so sorry to hear about the passing of Dennis J. Banks.  Maybe you could help us understand Dennis’ place in the world of resistance and standing our ground.

Bill Means: I was thinking back to when I first met Dennis.  It was as a soldier coming back from Vietnam. My brother and my mother were at a conference in San Francisco and invited me to come.  I was amazed that people in the Indian community were getting together to organize behind various issues such as treaty rights, fighting the extractive industries, and exposing health conditions on the reservations.

We took a day trip to Alcatraz, which was being occupied at the time, and that is where I met Dennis Banks.  Alcatraz was one of the sparks that lit the fire of Indian resistance and indigenous movements throughout the world.  The Alcatraz event was started by Bay Area institutions, including students at San Francisco State and Lehman Brightman’s organization, United Native Americans.  The Bay Area is well known for very creative movements aimed at self-determination.

At the time, I couldn’t wait to get out of this uniform and become a part of this movement.  From the time of my discharge six months later, the only thing on my mind was how I could get with the AIM people, finish my college education, and help organize what was going on with various actions in the Dakotas and Minnesota.

Dennis Bernstein: Talk about Wounded Knee and how you brought history up to date in the 1970’s.

Bill Means:  AIM had been leading the fight against racism in South Dakota, including the death of a young man named Raymond Yellow Thunder in the city of Gordon, Nebraska.  There has always been a very tense relationship between Indians and these border towns that surround reservations.  The mistreatment of Indians was not unlike what was happening in the South with African Americans.

As the Civil Rights Movement grew, so did the Indian Rights Movement.  We were fighting for our civil rights from the perspective of treaty rights.  Unlike any other minority in the country, we had a political and legal relationship with the United States government which was on the level of nation-to-nation rather than state rights.  The states had always trampled on our rights.  That is how they formed, by taking Indian land.

We had always been fighting against extractive industries, whether it was gold, uranium, coal or oil.  However, when Raymond Yellow Thunder was killed, it had to do directly with racism and the treatment of Indians.  He was dragged into an American Legion club on a Saturday night and became entertainment for the White ranchers and farmers that lived in that area.  Three days later he was found beaten to death in the trunk of a car.

For at least a week, no one was charged with his death.  His family came to the American Indian Movement in Omaha and told us that they had been to the BIA, the FBI, the US Marshals, and nobody would help them.  We took a caravan from Omaha to the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Two days later we marched on Gordon and held the town for about two days.  They finally brought to trial two brothers, who got two years apiece.  In the end, they served a little over a year, for conspiring to kill an Indian person.  AIM was in the forefront in fighting racism and bringing to national attention this type of incident where Indian deaths go unpunished.

In 1972 we went to the BIA headquarters.  We had developed what we called a twenty-point solution paper and went to Washington D.C., where we were supposed to meet with various state delegations to the national congress.  When we got there, the government cancelled all of these meetings.  We then took over the BIA for about seven days, and nobody missed it!  We showed that the BIA was one of the most inefficient bureaucracies in the United States, where 80% of their budget went for administrative costs.

About a year later, we went to Wounded Knee.  A delegation of Oglalas came to AIM and asked us to help them in their fight against the corrupt leadership of the tribal government.  The district Indians, which included mostly full-blooded Indians, were being discriminated against by the half-breeds in control of the government.  This was similar to the puppet governments in Latin America that provided resources and labor for the US.  A system of colonialism existed on the reservations.

The traditional leadership decided that we ought to go to Wounded Knee.  That was where we wouldn’t be alone, we would be with the spirits of our ancestors who were killed in the 1890 massacre.  We went to Wounded Knee to make a statement, that we stand on our treaty rights, that we are nations of people, that we have human rights, as well as civil rights.

Dennis Bernstein: Your brother, Russell Means, and Dennis Banks were indicted.  What were they accused of?  It was a very powerful trial and they were ultimately found not guilty.

Bill Means: Actually, over 500 people were charged.  I myself was charged with interfering with a federal officer, possession of Molotov cocktails, and various other charges which were all eventually dropped.

Russell and Dennis were tried separately in what were called the “leadership trials.”  They lasted for nine months, longer than any other trial in US history.  The judge finally dismissed the case because of FBI misconduct, including coercion of witnesses and illegal wiretapping.  A republican judge in South Dakota completely reversed a history of racism in the federal court of South Dakota in finding for the defendants.

Dennis Bernstein: But they somehow figured out a way to put Dennis Banks in prison for fourteen months.  How did that come about?

Bill Means: That was on state charges, which went back to before Wounded Knee.  In the town of Custer, South Dakota, there had been a major demonstration in which several public buildings were burnt to the ground and a confrontation between the police and AIM and the Oglala people following the death of a man called Wesley Bad Heart Bull who was killed in a bar by white ranchers who stabbed him over twenty-seven times.  No one was charged.  This was in January and Wounded Knee happened in February.  Dennis was tried in state court, as opposed to federal court, and he served time in state prison.

Before he was convicted, he was given asylum by Governor Jerry Brown and lived in California for two years before Brown was beaten in the next election, at which time he was exiled to a reservation in New York.  He eventually turned himself in, was tried and convicted and served his time.  He was convicted of riot and some other charges.  When the people in the courtroom refused to stand for the judge, the judge ordered riot police to attack and arrest everyone refusing to stand.  And then various other charges were brought, in order to get some sort of conviction.

Dennis Bernstein: What were you standing for at Wounded Knee?  That was an amazing moment in the history of indigenous rights.  You referred to it as “a reign of terror.”

Bill Means: That was due to the oppression of the FBI, which resulted in the conviction of Leonard Peltier. But before and during Wounded Knee the issue was treaty rights: that the US government didn’t have jurisdiction on our reservations.  The treaty of 1868 said that “if there are bad men among us, they will be brought to trial.”  In a famous case, the United States finally “assumed” jurisdiction over Indians because in the early 1900’s we were not citizens of the United States.  At Wounded Knee we were bringing up our treaty rights, that we were not under US jurisdiction.

Dennis Bernstein: What exactly was the “reign of terror”?

Bill Means:  After Wounded Knee, the number of FBI agents in western South Dakota went from three to over a hundred.  All these FBI agents descended on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  They said they were looking for guns and fugitives.  They proceeded to terrorize Indian people by breaking down the doors of people’s homes, dragging out women and children and the elderly, forcing them to lie on the ground.  They did what they wanted with Indian people, as if they were back in the times of Custer when the cavalry was in charge.

Dennis Bernstein:  As a soldier in Vietnam you witnessed another reign of terror.  It must have seemed like whatever they were willing to do to people in other countries they were willing to do to continue the genocide against the indigenous community.

Bill Means: We used to refer to South Dakota as “the Mississippi of the North.”  Then the FBI became more vicious.  They weren’t being prosecuted, they weren’t being held responsible for violating the law.  It wasn’t till the trial of Dennis Banks and Russell Means that a judge ruled that they were guilty of misconduct.

Dennis Bernstein: Toward the end, Dennis Banks was waging a battle against the diabetes epidemic within the indigenous population.  Several times he went on long walks across the United States to bring attention to various indigenous issues.  Why did he do so much walking?

Bill Means: He wanted to inform and keep people involved at the grassroots.  He was the voice of the grassroots.  He went on these walks to keep the presence, the spirit of AIM, alive in the hearts and minds of local people.  Dennis was an amazing organizer, never quitting, never stopping, always at the front line.

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

Rearranging the Watergate Myth

Exclusive: A Washington axiom holds that that when power and truth clash, power usually wins, but the contest can be complicated by competing personal agendas, as James DiEugenio notes about a new Watergate movie.

By James DiEugenio

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had two distinct advantages in putting their imprint on Watergate as the story’s principal heroes. First, timing: their book All the President’s Men was published in June 1974 before the scandal had run its course, indeed, before President Nixon resigned that August. Thus, they were out of the box before any rivals.

Second, they got sound advice: Robert Redford purchased the rights to their book when it was in the manuscript stage and he tilted its construction from a third-person objective view, to a first-person political adventure story to make the book more adaptable as a film. (The Secret Man, by Bob Woodward, p. 113)

Since the movie ended up being a big hit, this further enhanced the two reporters’ standing at the center of Watergate.

Redford’s influence also molded the use of an anonymous source who spoke on “deep background.” Hence, the memorable name given to him in the book, Deep Throat, an ironic play on the title of a pornographic movie that coincidentally was released just five days before five burglars working for Nixon’s campaign were captured inside the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate building on June 17, 1972.

In 2005, in the pages of Vanity Fair, it was finally revealed that Mark Felt, the number-two man at the FBI, had been Deep Throat, a revelation that created a media firestorm and prompted another scramble for book and movie rights.

Yet, when Felt’s daughter Joan asked Woodward to co-author a book with her 91-year-old, ailing father, Woodward declined. Instead, he wrote his own book, The Secret Man, which beat Felt’s book (A G-Man’s Life co-authored by attorney John O’Connor) to the market by almost a year.

Woodward seemed to owe a great deal to Felt for his assistance as a Watergate source, yet in the book, Woodward went out of his way to demonstrate that Felt suffered from severe memory loss as early as 2000 when the reporter visited Felt after a lecture he gave in California.

The Mark Felt Movie

The movie took another ten years to get into production. Written and directed by Peter Landesman who wrote the script for the fine film about Gary Webb, Kill the Messenger, the current film bears the cumbersome title, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. It also does not approach the Webb film in quality. One reason is that Landesman was stuck with Felt as his main focus. And, as even Woodward tried to explain in The Secret Man, it is not easy to explain why Felt did what he did.

Previously, Woodward and Bernstein had maintained that Deep Throat was trying to shield the office of the presidency “to effect a change in its conduct before all was lost.” (Woodward and Bernstein, p. 243)  In 1992, journalist James Mann proffered the FBI defense concept. Mann, who correctly thought Deep Throat was Felt, theorized that the veteran FBI agent thought the White House would try to pull a power play on the Bureau to obstruct justice. (The Atlantic, May/92)

Then there is the careerist Inside-the-Beltway theory: Felt leaked in order to make acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray look bad, in hopes that Nixon would replace Gray with Felt. By 2005, even Woodward, in The Secret Man, acknowledged this was a distinct possibility.

What made the third motive — Felt’s drive to be named FBI Director — a possibility was that on May 2, 1972 (about six weeks before the Watergate break-in), longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was found dead in his home. A few days later, his lifelong friend and FBI colleague Clyde Tolson resigned his number-two position.

At that point, most FBI observers saw three men as the frontrunners to succeed Hoover: Felt, who was next in line in the FBI hierarchy; former number-three man Cartha DeLoach, who had retired in 1970 for a more lucrative job at Pepsi-Cola but was favored by Attorney General Richard Kleindienst; and former director of domestic intelligence William Sullivan, who had been forced into retirement by Hoover for insubordination the year before. [See L. Patrick Gray and Ed Gray, In Nixon’s Web, pgs. 16-17]

L. Patrick Gray was not on most lists. He had been part of a distinguished law firm in Connecticut and came to Washington in 1970 to work under Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Robert Finch. At the time of Hoover’s death, Gray was awaiting confirmation as Deputy Attorney General. But Nixon chose Gray as acting FBI director within 48 hours of Hoover’s death. The reason ostensibly was that by choosing someone from the outside, it would be easier to glide the person through the confirmation process to be permanent director. As an outsider, Gray was not tainted by the scandals that were beginning to erupt over the FBI’s COINTELPRO domestic spying.

Motivational Mysteries

So, among the enduring mysteries of Watergate were these two: what had motivated Felt to become Deep Throat and whether his and Woodward’s roles were as central to the scandal as All the President’s Men made them out to be. In discussing his film, Landesman has called All the President’s Men part of the “mythology” of Watergate and contended that the Woodward/Bernstein contribution to Watergate has been overrated: That the crisis was resolved by many more people than those two reporters gave credit to. Referring to the Woodward/Bernstein role, Landesman said, “It’s not even a big piece of the whole picture.”

There is also strong evidence that Felt, who died in 2008, was himself overrated as part of the mythology of the Woodward/Bernstein shaping of the story. But Landesman was not going to touch that angle because it would undercut the rationale for his film.

Since Landesman’s film was based on the Felt/O’Connor book, it also was never going to use the Shakespearean dramatic concept of Felt’s ambition to be FBI director as the character’s motivating factor. Yet, in contrast to All the President’s Men, Landesman does not focus on the notion that Felt was driven by the altruistic motive of preserving the sanctity of the White House. For the most part, Landesman portrays Felt as protecting the FBI from getting run over by the White House as part of a cover-up, a theme struck in the first major scene.

Felt is at the White House at some point before Hoover’s death talking to Attorney General John Mitchell and White House counsel John Dean about what it would take to convince Hoover to resign. The scene ends with Felt warning the White House that Hoover has secret files on everybody in Washington. Therefore, it would not be wise to press him to do something he really does not want to do.

The film also makes Gray the antagonist to Landesman’s hero Felt. So, after Hoover dies, the film has Gray asking for Hoover’s infamous Official and Confidential files that contain the dirt on Washington’s powerbrokers, but Felt arranges their destruction before they can fall into Gray’s hands. However, according to both a House committee investigation and Curt Gentry’s detailed biography of Hoover, that is not what happened. The destruction of the files was ordered by Tolson, and it went on for weeks after the files were transferred back to Hoover’s home.  (Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover, pgs. 730-35)

Landesman’s second antagonist to Felt is William Sullivan, which leads to another case of dramatic license. In the Felt/O’Connor book, and in Landesman’s movie, Sullivan is meant to be the epitome of all that was bad with the FBI under Hoover. In the film, after Hoover’s funeral – but before Gray was appointed – there is a scene between Sullivan and Felt in which the two men discuss who would be the better successor.

Felt’s position was to defend Hoover’s practices and push many of the abuses off on Sullivan, such as wiretaps ordered up by then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger but which were approved by Hoover; and the letter to Martin Luther King Jr., suggesting he commit suicide, written by Sullivan but approved by Hoover. (Gentry, pgs. 571-72; 632-33) As Woodward notes, Felt even tried to defend Hoover’s years long campaign against King.  (Woodward, The Secret Man, p. 43)

Disappearing Woodward/Bernstein

Once the film gets into Watergate, there are two aspects to the script that are notable. First, the main press representative that Felt begins leaking to is Sandy Smith of Time magazine, not Woodward. Indeed, Woodward takes up less than five minutes of screen time and Bernstein is not even a character in the film (making me wonder if this is part of the residue left over from Woodward’s rejection of Felt as a co-author in 2005). In the film, Smith, who Felt meets twice in a low-class diner, is clearly the main recipient of Felt’s leaking. Smith did get information from Felt and ran some significant stories on Watergate. (Felt and O’Connor, p. 198)

But this leads us to the key aspect of Landesman’s script. In its attempt to make Gray into a villain, the use of dramatic license gets extravagant. As John Dean has noted in his review of the O’Connor/Felt book, a lot of what Felt conveyed to Woodward turned out to be wrong.  [New York Times, May 7, 2006] For instance, as Dean knows since he was White House counsel, the White House monitored the FBI investigation not through Gray but through Assistant Attorney General Henry Peterson. Yet, the message of this film is that Felt was a hero because Gray was, to say the least, not a very zealous investigator on the Watergate case.

Today, the problem with trying to sustain the story of Felt as truth-teller and Gray as at best a foot-dragger is that when Gray died in 2005, he was working on a Watergate book that his son Ed Gray completed. Patrick Gray kept cartons of handwritten notes during his year as acting FBI director, allowing his son to finish the book in 2008 and establish that Patrick Gray was not part of the cover-up. In reading through the notes, Ed Gray discovered that his father’s early thoughts about the break-in were remarkably acute. (See the notes depicted on pages 60 and 85)

Within 72 hours, after checking to see if the FBI had the primary jurisdiction in the case, he wrote an unequivocal order that as many agents and supervisors would be applied to Watergate to make sure that an “absolute, immediate, and imaginative investigation is conducted. All leads are to be set out by telephone and teletype as appropriate. Bureau to be aware of all leads.” (ibid, p. 63)

So, if you’re trying to cover up a crime, why would you ask that all leads be sent out by teletype and telephone which would distribute the information to a large number of agents? And, why would you also order as much manpower as necessary?

As the film progresses, the dramatic line portraying Gray as the bad guy was accentuated more and more. For instance, there is a scene in which Gray tells Felt that they have to wrap up the case in 48 hours, which is contradicted by the expansive order from Gray to his FBI subordinates. In Gray’s book, it is shown that it was White House adviser John Ehrlichman who gave the suggestion for an early wrap up to Peterson, and he refused it. (Gray p. 69)

The evidence suggests that one of Felt’s principal goals was to discredit Gray, in part, by spreading misinformation to Woodward, such as Felt’s description of a White House meeting at which Nixon informs Gray that he will be nominated as permanent FBI director. The third person at the meeting was Ehrlichman, who took notes. The conversation was also taped.

Misleading Leak

In one of the parking-garage meetings, Felt told Woodward that the conversation was all about Watergate, that Gray had told the White House about his containment strategy and wanted to be rewarded with appointment as permanent director, an account that Woodward and Bernstein published in their book. It never seemed to dawn on them that Felt couldn’t know this because he wasn’t there and had access to neither the taping system nor Ehrlichman’s notes. Gray’s lawyer called Woodward and requested they place an on-page rejoinder to this libel, which the publishers did. (Gray, p. 180) But the incident showed how unreliable Felt was about Gray.

John McDermott, who was the Special Agent in Charge of the Washington office from the fall of 1972 and later rose to number-three man in the Bureau, responded to Felt’s version of events in a private manuscript, writing that there was no evidence that the FBI’s inquiry was effectively sidelined by Gray or anyone else. Later, in a letter, he asked anyone to come forward with evidence to prove any suppression or diversion of the FBI’s inquiry. He concluded that if no one could do so then Felt’s accusation amounted to rubbish. (Letter to Craig Detlo, 11/1/2006)

The film’s climax is Gray’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation to be permanent director. The film suggests that what sank his nomination was that he allowed John Dean to sit in on interviews the FBI did with White House employees. But that is not the whole story. Gray explained that because the White House was not a suspect in the crime, the employer legal privilege prevailed. And he noted that he also let lawyers from the Democratic National Committee sit in on interviews with their employees.

Whether or not that judgment was a good one, what really sank Gray’s nomination was a story that he leaked to Senator Lowell Weicker, a personal friend. Near the beginning of the Watergate scandal, Dean and Ehrlichman called Gray to the White House and gave him files from E. Howard Hunt’s safe. They told him these dealt with national security matters, not Watergate. Therefore, they should never see the light of day.

Gray believed them and eventually burned the files after only glancing at them. It turned out that one of the files dealt with Hunt’s attempt to forge State Department memos stating President Kennedy ordered the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. The other file was Hunt’s attempt to dig up dirt on Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick Incident. Technically they did not have anything to do with Watergate. But the fact that Gray had incinerated evidence from Hunt’s White House safe – and that Hunt was implicated in the Watergate burglary – was too much for the mushrooming scandal. Gray called up President Nixon and said he was withdrawing his nomination.

The film shows Felt’s retirement ceremony and Nixon’s speech resigning the presidency, implying that Felt retired once he knew Nixon was forced to resign. But this is more dramatic license. Felt resigned a full year before Nixon stepped down and Felt’s retirement had nothing to do with Nixon’s resignation. Felt was forced out because the new FBI Director, William Ruckelshaus, suspected him of leaking more information about the Kissinger wiretaps, which may or may not have been the case. (Gray, p. 267)

Beyond the problems with the script, the film is executed in largely a pedestrian manner. Landesman should have looked at what director Michael Cuesta did in Kill the Messenger. In a film that was essentially a newspaper story, Cuesta applied some subtle and quiet cinematic techniques in order to make the story visually interesting and dramatically potent. I can’t say that about Landesman’s effort here. His direction is only one notch above what a television version of the film would be.

The one exception was Liam Neeson’s performance as Felt. Except for Schindler’s List, Neeson has never gotten much opportunity to show what a good actor he is. But here he is both solid and subtle. He never strikes a false move and never forces anything. It’s a controlled, quiet performance that is clearly the best in the film.

There’s also a larger historical issue that goes unaddressed, the connection between Nixon’s 1968 sabotage of President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks and Nixon’s panic over a file containing evidence of what Johnson called Nixon’s “treason,” a file that disappeared from the White House with Johnson’s departure in January 1969. Nixon, who was informed about the existence of the file by Hoover, grew increasingly concerned in 1971 when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers which chronicled the Vietnam War lies up to 1967.

What Nixon knew was that there was a potentially more explosive sequel detailing his own treachery that may have extended the war several years. Amid the furor over the Pentagon Papers, Nixon ordered Howard Hunt to create a team to finally locate the file and even considered breaking into the Brookings Institution where some Nixon aides thought the file might be hidden. Hunt’s team later undertook a number of other black-bag operations including the Watergate break-in, but never found the file, which actually was in the possession of Johnson’s last National Security Advisor Walt Rostow. [See’s “The Heinous Crime Behind Watergate.”]

So, the more we learn about Watergate the more we can see that it was in some ways a drama of different people’s hidden agendas being played off against other people’s agendas. One of those players was Bob Woodward. Another was Mark Felt.  For dramatic reasons, Robert Redford wanted to exalt the role of the former. For his own artistic reasons, Landesman wants to make Mark Felt the hero of his 2017 revisionist version. For this reviewer, this just substitutes one dubious protagonist for another.

James DiEugenio is a researcher and writer on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other mysteries of that era. His most recent book is Reclaiming Parkland.

How America Spreads Global Chaos

The U.S. government may pretend to respect a “rules-based” global order, but the only rule Washington seems to follow is “might makes right” — and the CIA has long served as a chief instigator and enforcer, writes Nicolas J.S. Davies.

By Nicolas J.S. Davies

As the recent PBS documentary on the American War in Vietnam acknowledged, few American officials ever believed that the United States could win the war, neither those advising Johnson as he committed hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops, nor those advising Nixon as he escalated a brutal aerial bombardment that had already killed millions of people.

As conversations tape-recorded in the White House reveal, and as other writers have documented, the reasons for wading into the Big Muddy, as Pete Seeger satirized it, and then pushing on regardless, all came down to “credibility”: the domestic political credibility of the politicians involved and America’s international credibility as a military power.

Once the CIA went to work in Vietnam to undermine the 1954 Geneva Accords and the planned reunification of North and South through a free and fair election in 1956, the die was cast. The CIA’s support for the repressive Diem regime and its successors ensured an ever-escalating war, as the South rose in rebellion, supported by the North. No U.S. president could extricate the U.S. from Vietnam without exposing the limits of what U.S. military force could achieve, betraying widely held national myths and the powerful interests that sustained and profited from them.

The critical “lesson of Vietnam” was summed up by Richard Barnet in his 1972 book Roots of War.  “At the very moment that the number one nation has perfected the science of killing,” Barnet wrote, “It has become an impractical means of political domination.”

Losing the war in Vietnam was a heavy blow to the CIA and the U.S. Military Industrial Complex, and it added insult to injury for every American who had lost comrades or loved ones in Vietnam, but it ushered in more than a decade of relative peace for America and the world. If the purpose of the U.S. military is to protect the U.S. from the danger of war, as our leaders so often claim, the “Vietnam syndrome,” or the reluctance to be drawn into new wars, kept the peace and undoubtedly saved countless lives.

Even the senior officer corps of the U.S. military saw it that way, since many of them had survived the horrors of Vietnam as junior officers. The CIA could still wreak havoc in Latin America and elsewhere, but the full destructive force of the U.S. military was not unleashed again until the invasion of Panama in 1989 and the First Gulf War in 1991.

Half a century after Vietnam, we have tragically come full circle. With the CIA’s politicized intelligence running wild in Washington and its covert operations spreading violence and chaos across every continent, President Trump faces the same pressures to maintain his own and his country’s credibility as Johnson and Nixon did. His predictable response has been to escalate ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and West Africa, and to threaten new ones against North Korea, Iran and Venezuela.

Trump is facing these questions, not just in one country, Vietnam, but in dozens of countries across the world, and the interests perpetuating and fueling this cycle of crisis and war have only become more entrenched over time, as President Eisenhower warned that they would, despite the end of the Cold War and, until now, the lack of any actual military threat to the United States.

Ironically but predictably, the U.S.’s aggressive and illegal war policy has finally provoked a real military threat to the U.S., albeit one that has emerged only in response to U.S. war plans. As I explained in a recent article, North Korea’s discovery in 2016 of a U.S. plan to assassinate its president, Kim Jong Un, and launch a Second Korean War has triggered a crash program to develop long-range ballistic missiles that could give North Korea a viable nuclear deterrent and prevent a U.S. attack. But the North Koreans will not feel safe from attack until their leaders and ours are sure that their missiles can deliver a nuclear strike against the U.S. mainland.

The CIA’s Pretexts for War

U.S. Air Force Colonel Fletcher Prouty was the chief of special operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1955 to 1964, managing the global military support system for the CIA in Vietnam and around the world. Fletcher Prouty’s book, The Secret Team: The CIA and its Allies in Control of the United States and the World, was suppressed when it was first published in 1973. Thousands of copies disappeared from bookstores and libraries, and a mysterious Army Colonel bought the entire shipment of 3,500 copies the publisher sent to Australia. But Prouty’s book was republished in 2011, and it is a timely account of the role of the CIA in U.S. policy.

Prouty surprisingly described the role of the CIA as a response by powerful people and interests to the abolition of the U.S. Department of War and the creation of the Department of Defense in 1947. Once the role of the U.S. military was redefined as one of defense, in line with the United Nations Charter’s prohibition against the threat or use of military force in 1945 and similar moves by other military powers, it would require some kind of crisis or threat to justify using military force in the future, both legally and politically. The main purpose of the CIA, as Prouty saw it, is to create such pretexts for war.

The CIA is a hybrid of an intelligence service that gathers and analyzes foreign intelligence and a clandestine service that conducts covert operations. Both functions are essential to creating pretexts for war, and that is what they have done for 70 years.

Prouty described how the CIA infiltrated the U.S. military, the State Department, the National Security Council and other government institutions, covertly placing its officers in critical positions to ensure that its plans are approved and that it has access to whatever forces, weapons, equipment, ammunition and other resources it needs to carry them out.

Many retired intelligence officers, such as Ray McGovern and the members of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), saw the merging of clandestine operations with intelligence analysis in one agency as corrupting the objective analysis they tried to provide to policymakers. They formed VIPS in 2003 in response to the fabrication of politicized intelligence that provided false pretexts for the U.S. to invade and destroy Iraq.

CIA in Syria and Africa

But Fletcher Prouty was even more disturbed by the way that the CIA uses clandestine operations to trigger coups, wars and chaos. The civil and proxy war in Syria is a perfect example of what Prouty meant. In late 2011, after destroying Libya and aiding in the torture-murder of Muammar Gaddafi, the CIA and its allies began flying fighters and weapons from Libya to Turkey and infiltrating them into Syria. Then, working with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Croatia and other allies, this operation poured thousands of tons of weapons across Syria’s borders to ignite and fuel a full-scale civil war.

Once these covert operations were under way, they ran wild until they had unleashed a savage Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria (Jabhat al-Nusra, now rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), spawned the even more savage “Islamic State,” triggered the heaviest and probably the deadliest U.S. bombing campaign since Vietnam and drawn Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Hezbollah, Kurdish militias and almost every state or armed group in the Middle East into the chaos of Syria’s civil war.

Meanwhile, as Al Qaeda and Islamic State have expanded their operations across Africa, the U.N. has published a report titled Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment, based on 500 interviews with African militants. This study has found that the kind of special operations and training missions the CIA and AFRICOM are conducting and supporting in Africa are in fact the critical “tipping point” that drives Africans to join militant groups like Al Qaeda, Al-Shabab and Boko Haram.

The report found that government action, such as the killing or detention of friends or family, was the “tipping point” that drove 71 percent of African militants interviewed to join armed groups, and that this was a more important factor than religious ideology.

The conclusions of Journey to Extremism in Africa confirm the findings of other similar studies. The Center for Civilians in Conflict interviewed 250 civilians who joined armed groups in Bosnia, Somalia, Gaza and Libya for its 2015 study, The People’s Perspectives: Civilian Involvement in Armed Conflict. The study found that the most common motivation for civilians to join armed groups was simply to protect themselves or their families.

The role of U.S. “counterterrorism” operations in fueling armed resistance and terrorism, and the absence of any plan to reduce the asymmetric violence unleashed by the “global war on terror,” would be no surprise to Fletcher Prouty. As he explained, such clandestine operations always take on a life of their own that is unrelated, and often counter-productive, to any rational U.S. policy objective.

“The more intimate one becomes with this activity,” Prouty wrote, “The more one begins to realize that such operations are rarely, if ever, initiated from an intent to become involved in pursuit of some national objective in the first place.”

The U.S. justifies the deployment of 6,000 U.S. special forces and military trainers to 53 of the 54 countries in Africa as a response to terrorism. But the U.N.’s Journey to Extremism in Africa study makes it clear that the U.S. militarization of Africa is in fact the “tipping point” that is driving Africans across the continent to join armed resistance groups in the first place.

This is a textbook CIA operation on the same model as Vietnam in the late 1950s and early 60s. The CIA uses U.S. special forces and training missions to launch covert and proxy military operations that drive local populations into armed resistance groups, and then uses the presence of those armed resistance groups to justify ever-escalating U.S. military involvement. This is Vietnam redux on a continental scale.

Taking on China

What seems to really be driving the CIA’s militarization of U.S. policy in Africa is China’s growing influence on the continent. As Steve Bannon put it in an interview with the Economist in August, “Let’s go screw up One Belt One Road.”

China is already too big and powerful for the U.S. to apply what is known as the Ledeen doctrine named for neoconservative theorist and intelligence operative Michael Ledeen who suggested that every 10 years or so, the United States “pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show we mean business.”

China is too powerful and armed with nuclear weapons. So, in this case, the CIA’s job would be to spread violence and chaos to disrupt Chinese trade and investment, and to make African governments increasingly dependent on U.S. military aid to fight the militant groups spawned and endlessly regenerated by U.S.-led “counterterrorism” operations.

Neither Ledeen nor Bannon pretend that such policies are designed to build more prosperous or viable societies in the Middle East or Africa, let alone to benefit their people. They both know very well what Richard Barnet already understood 45 years ago, that America’s unprecedented investment in weapons, war and CIA covert operations are only good for one thing: to kill people and destroy infrastructure, reducing cities to rubble, societies to chaos and the desperate survivors to poverty and displacement.

As long as the CIA and the U.S. military keep plunging the scapegoats for our failed policies into economic crisis, violence and chaos, the United States and the United Kingdom can remain the safe havens of the world’s wealth, islands of privilege and excess amidst the storms they unleash on others.

But if that is the only “significant national objective” driving these policies, it is surely about time for the 99 percent of Americans who reap no benefit from these murderous schemes to stop the CIA and its allies before they completely wreck the already damaged and fragile world in which we all must live, Americans and foreigners alike.

Douglas Valentine has probably studied the CIA in more depth than any other American journalist, beginning with his book on The Phoenix Program in Vietnam. He has written a new book titled The CIA as Organized Crime: How Illegal Operations Corrupt America and the World, in which he brings Fletcher Prouty’s analysis right up to the present day, describing the CIA’s role in our current wars and the many ways it infiltrates, manipulates and controls U.S. policy.

The Three Scapegoats

In Trump’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he named North Korea, Iran and Venezuela as his prime targets for destabilization, economic warfare and, ultimately, the overthrow of their governments, whether by coup d’etat or the mass destruction of their civilian population and infrastructure. But Trump’s choice of scapegoats for America’s failures was obviously not based on a rational reassessment of foreign policy priorities by the new administration. It was only a tired rehashing of the CIA’s unfinished business with two-thirds of Bush’s “axis of evil” and Bush White House official Elliott Abrams’ failed 2002 coup in Caracas, now laced with explicit and illegal threats of aggression.

How Trump and the CIA plan to sacrifice their three scapegoats for America’s failures remains to be seen. This is not 2001, when the world stood silent at the U.S. bombardment and invasion of Afghanistan after September 11th. It is more like 2003, when the U.S. destruction of Iraq split the Atlantic alliance and alienated most of the world. It is certainly not 2011, after Obama’s global charm offensive had rebuilt U.S. alliances and provided cover for French President Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Cameron, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Arab royals to destroy Libya, once ranked by the U.N. as the most developed country in Africa, now mired in intractable chaos.

In 2017, a U.S. attack on any one of Trump’s scapegoats would isolate the United States from many of its allies and undermine its standing in the world in far-reaching ways that might be more permanent and harder to repair than the invasion and destruction of Iraq.

In Venezuela, the CIA and the right-wing opposition are following the same strategy that President Nixon ordered the CIA to inflict on Chile, to “make the economy scream” in preparation for the 1973 coup. But the solid victory of Venezuela’s ruling Socialist Party in recent nationwide gubernatorial elections, despite a long and deep economic crisis, reveals little public support for the CIA’s puppets in Venezuela.

The CIA has successfully discredited the Venezuelan government through economic warfare, increasingly violent right-wing street protests and a global propaganda campaign. But the CIA has stupidly hitched its wagon to an extreme right-wing, upper-class opposition that has no credibility with most of the Venezuelan public, who still turn out for the Socialists at the polls. A CIA coup or U.S. military intervention would meet fierce public resistance and damage U.S. relations all over Latin America.

Boxing In North Korea

A U.S. aerial bombardment or “preemptive strike” on North Korea could quickly escalate into a war between the U.S. and China, which has reiterated its commitment to North Korea’s defense if North Korea is attacked. We do not know exactly what was in the U.S. war plan discovered by North Korea, so neither can we know how North Korea and China could respond if the U.S. pressed ahead with it.

Most analysts have long concluded that any U.S. attack on North Korea would be met with a North Korean artillery and missile barrage that would inflict unacceptable civilian casualties on Seoul, a metropolitan area of 26 million people, three times the population of New York City. Seoul is only 35 miles from the frontier with North Korea, placing it within range of a huge array of North Korean weapons. What was already a no-win calculus is now compounded by the possibility that North Korea could respond with nuclear weapons, turning any prospect of a U.S. attack into an even worse nightmare.

U.S. mismanagement of its relations with North Korea should be an object lesson for its relations with Iran, graphically demonstrating the advantages of diplomacy, talks and agreements over threats of war. Under the Agreed Framework signed in 1994, North Korea stopped work on two much larger nuclear reactors than the small experimental one operating at Yongbyong since 1986, which only produces 6 kg of plutonium per year, enough for one nuclear bomb.

The lesson of Bush’s Iraq invasion in 2003 after Saddam Hussein had complied with demands that he destroy Iraq’s stockpiles of chemical weapons and shut down a nascent nuclear program was not lost on North Korea. Not only did the invasion lay waste to large sections of Iraq with hundreds of thousands of dead but Hussein himself was hunted down and condemned to death by hanging.

Still, after North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006, even its small experimental reactor was shut down as a result of the “Six Party Talks” in 2007, all the fuel rods were removed and placed under supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the cooling tower of the reactor was demolished in 2008.

But then, as relations deteriorated, North Korea conducted a second nuclear weapon test and again began reprocessing spent fuel rods to recover plutonium for use in nuclear weapons.

North Korea has now conducted six nuclear weapons tests. The explosions in the first five tests increased gradually up to 15-25 kilotons, about the yield of the bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but estimates for the yield of the 2017 test range from 110 to 250 kilotons, comparable to a small hydrogen bomb.

The even greater danger in a new war in Korea is that the U.S. could unleash part of its arsenal of 4,000 more powerful weapons (100 to 1,200 kilotons), which could kill millions of people and devastate and poison the region, or even the world, for years to come.

The U.S. willingness to scrap the Agreed Framework in 2003, the breakdown of the Six Party Talks in 2009 and the U.S. refusal to acknowledge that its own military actions and threats create legitimate defense concerns for North Korea have driven the North Koreans into a corner from which they see a credible nuclear deterrent as their only chance to avoid mass destruction.

China has proposed a reasonable framework for diplomacy to address the concerns of both sides, but the U.S. insists on maintaining its propaganda narratives that all the fault lies with North Korea and that it has some kind of “military solution” to the crisis.

This may be the most dangerous idea we have heard from U.S. policymakers since the end of the Cold War, but it is the logical culmination of a systematic normalization of deviant and illegal U.S. war-making that has already cost millions of lives in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. As historian Gabriel Kolko wrote in Century of War in 1994, “options and decisions that are intrinsically dangerous and irrational become not merely plausible but the only form of reasoning about war and diplomacy that is possible in official circles.”

Demonizing Iran

The idea that Iran has ever had a nuclear weapons program is seriously contested by the IAEA, which has examined every allegation presented by the CIA and other Western “intelligence” agencies as well as Israel. Former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei revealed many details of this wild goose chase in his 2011 memoir, Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times.

When the CIA and its partners reluctantly acknowledged the IAEA’s conclusions in a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), ElBaradei issued a press release confirming that, “the agency has no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran.”

Since 2007, the IAEA has resolved all its outstanding concerns with Iran. It has verified that dual-use technologies that Iran imported before 2003 were in fact used for other purposes, and it has exposed the mysterious “laptop documents” that appeared to show Iranian plans for a nuclear weapon as forgeries. Gareth Porter thoroughly explored all these questions and allegations and the history of mistrust that fueled them in his 2014 book, Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, which I highly recommend.

But, in the parallel Bizarro world of U.S. politics, hopelessly poisoned by the CIA’s endless disinformation campaigns, Hillary Clinton could repeatedly take false credit for disarming Iran during her presidential campaign, and neither Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump nor any corporate media interviewer dared to challenge her claims.

“When President Obama took office, Iran was racing toward a nuclear bomb,” Clinton fantasized in a prominent foreign policy speech on June 2, 2016, claiming that her brutal sanctions policy “brought Iran to the table.”

In fact, as Trita Parsi documented in his 2012 book, A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy With Iran, the Iranians were ready, not just to “come to the table,” but to sign a comprehensive agreement based on a U.S. proposal brokered by Turkey and Brazil in 2010. But, in a classic case of “tail wags dog,” the U.S. then rejected its own proposal because it would have undercut support for tighter sanctions in the U.N. Security Council. In other words, Clinton’s sanctions policy did not “bring Iran to the table”, but prevented the U.S. from coming to the table itself.

As a senior State Department official told Trita Parsi, the real problem with U.S. diplomacy with Iran when Clinton was at the State Department was that the U.S. would not take “Yes” for an answer. Trump’s ham-fisted decertification of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA is right out of Clinton’s playbook, and it demonstrates that the CIA is still determined to use Iran as a scapegoat for America’s failures in the Middle East.

The spurious claim that Iran is the world’s greatest sponsor of terrorism is another CIA canard reinforced by endless repetition. It is true that Iran supports and supplies weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas, which are both listed as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government. But they are mainly defensive resistance groups that defend Lebanon and Gaza respectively against invasions and attacks by Israel.

Shifting attention away from Al Qaeda, Islamic State, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and other groups that actually commit terrorist crimes around the world might just seem like a case of the CIA “taking its eyes off the ball,” if it wasn’t so transparently timed to frame Iran with new accusations now that the manufactured crisis of the nuclear scare has run its course.

What the Future Holds

Barack Obama’s most consequential international achievement may have been the triumph of symbolism over substance behind which he expanded and escalated the so-called “war on terror,” with a vast expansion of covert operations and proxy wars that eventually triggered the heaviest U.S. aerial bombardments since Vietnam in Iraq and Syria.

Obama’s charm offensive invigorated old and new military alliances with the U.K., France and the Arab monarchies, and he quietly ran up the most expensive military budget of any president since World War Two.

But Obama’s expansion of the “war on terror” under cover of his deceptive global public relations campaign created many more problems than it solved, and Trump and his advisers are woefully ill-equipped to solve any of them. Trump’s expressed desire to place America first and to resist foreign entanglements is hopelessly at odds with his aggressive, bullying approach to every foreign policy problem.

If the U.S. could threaten and fight its way to a resolution of any of its international problems, it would have done so already. That is exactly what it has been trying to do since the 1990s, behind both the swagger and bluster of Bush and Trump and the deceptive charm of Clinton and Obama: a “good cop – bad cop” routine that should no longer fool anyone anywhere.

But as Lyndon Johnson found as he waded deeper and deeper into the Big Muddy in Vietnam, lying to the public about unwinnable wars does not make them any more winnable. It just gets more people killed and makes it harder and harder to ever tell the public the truth.

In unwinnable wars based on lies, the “credibility” problem only gets more complicated, as new lies require new scapegoats and convoluted narratives to explain away graveyards filled by old lies. Obama’s cynical global charm offensive bought the “war on terror” another eight years, but that only allowed the CIA to drag the U.S. into more trouble and spread its chaos to more places around the world.

Meanwhile, Russian President Putin is winning hearts and minds in capitals around the world by calling for a recommitment to the rule of international law, which prohibits the threat or use of military force except in self-defense. Every new U.S. threat or act of aggression will only make Putin’s case more persuasive, not least to important U.S. allies like South Korea, Germany and other members of the European Union, whose complicity in U.S. aggression has until now helped to give it a false veneer of political legitimacy.

Throughout history, serial aggression has nearly always provoked increasingly united opposition, as peace-loving countries and people have reluctantly summoned the courage to stand up to an aggressor. France under Napoleon and Hitler’s Germany also regarded themselves as exceptional, and in their own ways they were. But in the end, their belief in their exceptionalism led them on to defeat and destruction.

Americans had better hope that we are not so exceptional, and that the world will find a diplomatic rather than a military “solution” to its American problem. Our chances of survival would improve a great deal if American officials and politicians would finally start to act like something other than putty in the hands of the CIA.

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 Deep State’s JFK Triumph Over Trump

Exclusive: Fifty-four years after President Kennedy’s assassination, the CIA and FBI demanded more time to decide what secrets to keep hiding – and a chastened President Trump bowed to their power, observes ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

It was summer 1963 when a senior official of CIA’s operations directorate treated our Junior Officer Trainee (JOT) class to an unbridled rant against President John F. Kennedy. He accused JFK, among other things, of rank cowardice in refusing to send U.S. armed forces to bail out Cuban rebels pinned down during the CIA-launched invasion at the Bay of Pigs, blowing the chance to drive Cuba’s Communist leader Fidel Castro from power.

It seemed beyond odd that a CIA official would voice such scathing criticism of a sitting President at a training course for those selected to be CIA’s future leaders. I remember thinking to myself, “This guy is unhinged; he would kill Kennedy, given the chance.”

Our special guest lecturer looked a lot like E. Howard Hunt, but more than a half-century later, I cannot be sure it was he. Our notes from such training/indoctrination were classified and kept under lock and key.

At the end of our JOT orientation, we budding Agency leaders had to make a basic choice between joining the directorate for substantive analysis or the operations directorate where case officers run spies and organize regime changes (in those days, we just called the process overthrowing governments).

I chose the analysis directorate and, once ensconced in the brand new headquarters building in Langley, Virginia, I found it strange that subway-style turnstiles prevented analysts from going to the “operations side of the house,” and vice versa. Truth be told, we were never one happy family.

I cannot speak for my fellow analysts in the early 1960s, but it never entered my mind that operatives on the other side of the turnstiles might be capable of assassinating a President – the very President whose challenge to do something for our country had brought many of us to Washington in the first place. But, barring the emergence of a courageous whistleblower-patriot like Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, I do not expect to live long enough to learn precisely who orchestrated and carried out the assassination of JFK.

And yet, in a sense, those particulars seem less important than two main lessons learned: (1) If a President can face down intense domestic pressure from the power elite and turn toward peace with perceived foreign enemies, then anything is possible. The darkness of Kennedy’s murder should not obscure the light of that basic truth; and (2) There is ample evidence pointing to a state execution of a President willing to take huge risks for peace. While no post-Kennedy president can ignore that harsh reality, it remains possible that a future President with the vision and courage of JFK might beat the odds – particularly as the American Empire disintegrates and domestic discontent grows.

I do hope to be around next April after the 180-day extension for release of the remaining JFK documents. But – absent a gutsy whistleblower – I wouldn’t be surprised to see in April, a Washington Post banner headline much like the one that appeared Saturday: “JFK files: The promise of revelations derailed by CIA, FBI.”

The New Delay Is the Story

You might have thought that almost 54 years after Kennedy was murdered in the streets of Dallas – and after knowing for a quarter century the supposedly final deadline for releasing the JFK files – the CIA and FBI would not have needed a six-month extension to decide what secrets that they still must hide.

Journalist Caitlin Johnstone hits the nail on the head in pointing out that the biggest revelation from last week’s limited release of the JFK files is “the fact that the FBI and CIA still desperately need to keep secrets about something that happened 54 years ago.”

What was released on Oct. 26, was a tiny fraction of what had remained undisclosed in the National Archives. To find out why, one needs to have some appreciation of a 70-year-old American political tradition that might be called “fear of the spooks.”

That the CIA and FBI are still choosing what we should be allowed to see concerning who murdered John Kennedy may seem unusual, but there is hoary precedent for it.  After JFK’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, the well-connected Allen Dulles, whom Kennedy had fired as CIA director after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, got himself appointed to the Warren Commission and took the lead in shaping the investigation of JFK’s murder.

By becoming de facto head of the Commission, Dulles was perfectly placed to protect himself and his associates, if any commissioners or investigators were tempted to question whether Dulles and the CIA played any role in killing Kennedy. When a few independent-minded journalists did succumb to that temptation, they were immediately branded – you guessed it – “conspiracy theorists.”

And so, the big question remains: Did Allen Dulles and other “cloak-and-dagger” CIA operatives have a hand in John Kennedy’s assassination and subsequent cover-up? In my view and the view of many more knowledgeable investigators, the best dissection of the evidence on the murder appears in James Douglass’s 2008 book, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters.

After updating and arraying the abundant evidence, and conducting still more interviews, Douglass concludes that the answer to the big question is Yes. Reading Douglass’s book today may help explain why so many records are still withheld from release, even in redacted form, and why, indeed, we may never see them in their entirety.

Truman: CIA a Frankenstein?

When Kennedy was assassinated, it must have occurred to former President Harry Truman, as it did to many others, that the disgraced Allen Dulles and his associates might have conspired to get rid of a President they felt was soft on Communism – and dismissive of the Deep State of that time. Not to mention their vengeful desire to retaliate for Kennedy’s response to the Bay of Pigs fiasco. (Firing Allen Dulles and other CIA paragons of the Deep State for that fiasco simply was not done.)

Exactly one month after John Kennedy was killed, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Harry Truman titled “Limit CIA Role to Intelligence.” The first sentence read, “I think it has become necessary to take another look at the purpose and operations of our Central Intelligence Agency.”

Strangely, the op-ed appeared only in the Post’s early edition on Dec. 22, 1963. It was excised from that day’s later editions and, despite being authored by the President who was responsible for setting up the CIA in 1947, the all-too-relevant op-ed was ignored in all other major media.

Truman clearly believed that the spy agency had lurched off in what Truman thought were troubling directions. He began his op-ed by underscoring “the original reason why I thought it necessary to organize this Agency … and what I expected it to do.” It would be “charged with the collection of all intelligence reports from every available source, and to have those reports reach me as President without Department ‘treatment’ or interpretations.”

Truman then moved quickly to one of the main things clearly bothering him. He wrote “the most important thing was to guard against the chance of intelligence being used to influence or to lead the President into unwise decisions.”

It was not difficult to see this as a reference to how one of the agency’s early directors, Allen Dulles, tried to trick President Kennedy into sending U.S. forces to rescue the group of invaders who had landed on the beach at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 with no chance of success, absent the speedy commitment of U.S. air and ground support. The planned mouse-trapping of the then-novice President Kennedy had been underpinned by a rosy “analysis” showing how this pin-prick on the beach would lead to a popular uprising against Fidel Castro.

Wallowing in the Bay of Pigs

Arch-Establishment figure Allen Dulles was offended when young President Kennedy, on entering office, had the temerity to question the CIA’s Bay of Pigs plans, which had been set in motion under President Dwight Eisenhower. When Kennedy made it clear he would not approve the use of U.S. combat forces, Dulles set out, with supreme confidence, to give the President no choice except to send U.S. troops to the rescue.

Coffee-stained notes handwritten by Allen Dulles were discovered after his death and reported by historian Lucien S. Vandenbroucke. In his notes, Dulles explained that, “when the chips were down,” Kennedy would be forced by “the realities of the situation” to give whatever military support was necessary “rather than permit the enterprise to fail.”

The “enterprise” which Dulles said could not fail was, of course, the overthrow of Fidel Castro. After mounting several failed operations to assassinate Castro, this time Dulles meant to get his man, with little or no attention to how Castro’s patrons in Moscow might react eventually. (The next year, the Soviets agreed to install nuclear missiles in Cuba as a deterrent to future U.S. aggression, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis).

In 1961, the reckless Joint Chiefs of Staff, whom then-Deputy Secretary of State George Ball later described as a “sewer of deceit,” relished any chance to confront the Soviet Union and give it, at least, a black eye. (One can still smell the odor from that sewer in many of the documents released last week.)

But Kennedy stuck to his guns, so to speak. A few months after the abortive invasion of Cuba — and his refusal to send the U.S. military to the rescue — Kennedy fired Dulles and his co-conspirators and told a friend that he wanted to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds.” Clearly, the outrage was mutual.

When JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters came out, the mainstream media had an allergic reaction and gave it almost no reviews. It is a safe bet, though, that Barack Obama was given a copy and that this might account in some degree for his continual deference – timorousness even – toward the CIA.

Could fear of the Deep State be largely why President Obama felt he had to leave the Cheney/Bush-anointed CIA torturers, kidnappers and black-prison wardens in place, instructing his first CIA chief, Leon Panetta, to become, in effect, the agency’s lawyer rather than take charge? Is this why Obama felt he could not fire his clumsily devious Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who had to apologize to Congress for giving “clearly erroneous” testimony under oath in March 2013? Does Obama’s fear account for his allowing then-National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander and counterparts in the FBI to continue to mislead the American people, even though the documents released by Edward Snowden showed them – as well as Clapper – to be lying about the government’s surveillance activities?

Is this why Obama fought tooth and nail to protect CIA Director John Brennan by trying to thwart publication of the comprehensive Senate Intelligence Committee investigation of CIA torture, which was based on original Agency cables, emails, and headquarters memos? [See here and here.]

The Deep State Today

Many Americans cling to a comforting conviction that the Deep State is a fiction, at least in a “democracy” like the United States. References to the enduring powers of the security agencies and other key bureaucracies have been essentially banned by the mainstream media, which many other suspicious Americans have come to see as just one more appendage of the Deep State.

But occasionally the reality of how power works pokes through in some unguarded remark by a Washington insider, someone like Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, the Senate Minority Leader with 36 years of experience in Congress. As Senate Minority Leader, he also is an ex officio member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is supposed to oversee the intelligence agencies.

During a Jan. 3, 2017 interview with MSNBC’S Rachel Maddow, Schumer told Maddow nonchalantly about the dangers awaiting President-elect Donald Trump if he kept on “taking on the intelligence community.” She and Schumer were discussing Trump’s sharp tweeting regarding U.S. intelligence and evidence of “Russian hacking” (which both Schumer and Maddow treat as flat fact).

Schumer said: “Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.  So even for a practical, supposedly hard-nosed businessman, he’s being really dumb to do this.”

Three days after that interview, President Obama’s intelligence chiefs released a nearly evidence-free “assessment” claiming that the Kremlin engaged in a covert operation to put Trump into office, fueling a “scandal” that has hobbled Trump’s presidency. On Monday, Russia-gate special prosecutor Robert Mueller indicted Trump’s one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort on unrelated money laundering, tax and foreign lobbying charges, apparently in the hope that Manafort will provide incriminating evidence against Trump.

So, President Trump has been in office long enough to have learned how the game is played and the “six ways from Sunday” that the intelligence community has for “getting back at you.” He appears to be as intimidated as was President Obama.

Trump’s awkward acquiescence in the Deep State’s last-minute foot-dragging regarding release of the JFK files is simply the most recent sign that he, too, is under the thumb of what the Soviets used to call “the organs of state security.”

Ray McGovern works with the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.  During his 27-year career at CIA, he prepared the President’s Daily Brief for Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, and conducted the one-on-one morning briefings from 1981 to 1985.  He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).