US Report Still Lacks Proof on Russia ‘Hack’

Exclusive: Despite mainstream media acceptance, the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment on alleged Russian “hacking” still lacks hard public evidence, a case of “trust-us” by politicized spy agencies, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Repeating an accusation over and over again is not evidence that the accused is guilty, no matter how much “confidence” the accuser asserts about the conclusion. Nor is it evidence just to suggest that someone has a motive for doing something. Many conspiracy theories are built on the notion of “cui bono” – who benefits – without following up the supposed motive with facts.

But that is essentially what the U.S. intelligence community has done regarding the dangerous accusation that Russian President Vladimir Putin orchestrated a covert information campaign to influence the outcome of the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election in favor of Republican Donald Trump.

Just a day after Director of National Intelligence James Clapper vowed to go to the greatest possible lengths to supply the public with the evidence behind the accusations, his office released a 25-page report that contained no direct evidence that Russia delivered hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta to WikiLeaks.

The DNI report amounted to a compendium of reasons to suspect that Russia was the source of the information – built largely on the argument that Russia had a motive for doing so because of its disdain for Democratic nominee Clinton and the potential for friendlier relations with Republican nominee Trump.

But the case, as presented, is one-sided and lacks any actual proof. Further, the continued use of the word “assesses” – as in the U.S. intelligence community “assesses” that Russia is guilty – suggests that the underlying classified information also may be less than conclusive because, in intelligence-world-speak, “assesses” often means “guesses.”

The DNI report admits as much, saying, “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.”

But the report’s assessment is more than just a reasonable judgment based on a body of incomplete information. It is tendentious in that it only lays out the case for believing in Russia’s guilt, not reasons for doubting that guilt.

A Risky Bet

For instance, while it is true that many Russian officials, including President Putin, considered Clinton to be a threat to worsen the already frayed relationship between the two nuclear superpowers, the report ignores the downside for Russia trying to interfere with the U.S. election campaign and then failing to stop Clinton, which looked like the most likely outcome until Election Night.

If Russia had accessed the DNC and Podesta emails and slipped them to WikiLeaks for publication, Putin would have to think that the National Security Agency, with its exceptional ability to track electronic communications around the world, might well have detected the maneuver and would have informed Clinton.

So, on top of Clinton’s well-known hawkishness, Putin would have risked handing the expected incoming president a personal reason to take revenge on him and his country. Historically, Russia has been very circumspect in such situations, usually holding its intelligence collections for internal purposes only, not sharing them with the public.

While it is conceivable that Putin decided to take this extraordinary risk in this case – despite the widely held view that Clinton was a shoo-in to defeat Trump – an objective report would have examined this counter argument for him not doing so.

But the DNI report was not driven by a desire to be evenhanded; it is, in effect, a prosecutor’s brief, albeit one that lacks any real evidence that the accused is guilty.

Further undercutting the credibility of the DNI report is that it includes a seven-page appendix, dating from 2012, that is an argumentative attack on RT, the Russian government-backed television network, which is accused of portraying “the US electoral process as undemocratic.”

The proof for that accusation includes RT’s articles on “voting machine vulnerabilities” although virtually every major U.S. news organizations has run similar stories, including some during the last campaign on the feasibility of Russia hacking into the actual voting process, something that even U.S. intelligence says didn’t happen.

The reports adds that further undermining Americans’ faith in the U.S. democratic process, “RT broadcast, hosted and advertised third-party candidate debates.” Apparently, the DNI’s point is that showing Americans that there are choices beyond the two big parties is somehow seditious.

“The RT hosts asserted that the US two-party system does not represent the views of at least one-third of the population and is a ‘sham,’” the report said. Yet, polls have shown that large numbers of Americans would prefer more choices than the usual two candidates and, indeed, most Western democracies have multiple parties, So, the implicit RT criticism of the U.S. political process is certainly not out of the ordinary.

The report also takes RT to task for covering the Occupy Wall Street movement and for reporting on the environmental dangers from “fracking,” topics cited as further proof that the Russian government was using RT to weaken U.S. public support for Washington’s policies (although, again, these are topics of genuine public interest).

Behind the Curtain

Though it’s impossible for an average U.S. citizen to know precisely what the U.S. intelligence community may have in its secret files, some former NSA officials who are familiar with the agency’s eavesdropping capabilities say Washington’s lack of certainty suggests that the NSA does not possess such evidence.

For instance, that’s the view of William Binney, who retired as NSA’s technical director of world military and geopolitical analysis and who created many of the collection systems still used by NSA.

Binney, in an article co-written with former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, said, “With respect to the alleged interference by Russia and WikiLeaks in the U.S. election, it is a major mystery why U.S. intelligence feels it must rely on ‘circumstantial evidence,’ when it has NSA’s vacuum cleaner sucking up hard evidence galore. What we know of NSA’s capabilities shows that the email disclosures were from leaking, not hacking.”

There is also the fact that both WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and one of his associates, former British Ambassador Craig Murray, have denied that the purloined emails came from the Russian government. Going further, Murray has suggested that there were two separate sources, the DNC material coming from a disgruntled Democrat and the Podesta emails coming from possibly a U.S. intelligence source, since the Podesta Group represents Saudi Arabia and other foreign governments.

In response, Clapper and other U.S. government officials have sought to disparage Assange’s credibility, including Clapper’s Senate testimony on Thursday gratuitously alluding to sexual assault allegations against Assange in Sweden.

However, Clapper’s own credibility is suspect in a more relevant way. In 2013, he gave false testimony to Congress regarding the extent of the NSA’s collection of data on Americans. Clapper’s deception was revealed only when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of the NSA program to the press, causing Clapper to apologize for his “clearly erroneous” testimony.

A History of Politicization

The U.S. intelligence community’s handling of the Russian “hack” story also must be viewed in the historical context of the CIA’s “politicization” over the past several decades.

U.S. intelligence analysts, such as senior Russia expert Melvin A. Goodman, have described in detail both in books and in congressional testimony how the old tradition of objective CIA analysis was broken down in the 1980s.

At the time, the Reagan administration wanted to justify a massive arms buildup, so CIA Director William Casey and his pliant deputy, Robert Gates, oversaw the creation of inflammatory assessments on Soviet intentions and Moscow’s alleged role in international terrorism, including the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II.

Besides representing “politicized” intelligence at its worst, these analyses became the bureaucratic battleground on which old-line analysts who still insisted on presenting the facts to the president whether he liked them or not were routed and replaced by a new generation of yes men.

The relevant point is that the U.S. intelligence community has never been repaired, in part because the yes men gave presidents of both parties what they wanted. Rather than challenging a president’s policies, this new generation mostly fashioned their reports to support those policies.

The bipartisan nature of this corruption is best illustrated by the role played by CIA Director George Tenet, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton but stayed on and helped President George W. Bush arrange his “slam dunk” case for convincing the American people that Iraq possessed caches of WMD, thus justifying Bush’s 2003 invasion.

There was the one notable case of intelligence analysts standing up to Bush in a 2007 assessment that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program, but that was more an anomaly – resulting from the acute embarrassment over the Iraq WMD fiasco – than a change in pattern.

Presidents of both parties have learned that it makes their lives easier if the U.S. intelligence community is generating “intelligence” that supports what they want to do, rather than letting the facts get in the way.

The current case of the alleged Russian “hack” should be viewed in this context: President Obama considers Trump’s election a threat to his policies, both foreign and domestic. So, it’s only logical that Obama would want to weaken and discredit Trump before he takes office.

That doesn’t mean that the Russians are innocent, but it does justify a healthy dose of skepticism to the assessments by Obama’s senior intelligence officials.

[For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Escalating the Risky Fight with Russia” and “Summing Up Russia’s Real Nuclear Fears.”]

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




The Dubious Case on Russian ‘Hacking’

Still not showing evidence, U.S. intelligence chief James Clapper told senators he’s really sure Russia was the source of “hacked” Democratic emails, but the case remains weak, say ex-intelligence officials William Binney and Ray McGovern.

By William Binney and Ray McGovern

It has been several weeks since the New York Times reported that “overwhelming circumstantial evidence” led the CIA to believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin “deployed computer hackers” to help Donald Trump win the election. But the evidence released so far has been far from overwhelming.

The long anticipated Joint Analysis Report issued by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI on Dec. 29 met widespread criticism in the technical community. Worse still, some of the advice it offered led to a very alarmist false alarm about supposed Russian hacking into a Vermont electric power station.

Advertised in advance as providing proof of Russian hacking, the report fell embarrassingly short of that goal. The thin gruel that it did contain was watered down further by the following unusual warning atop page 1: “DISCLAIMER: This report is provided ‘as is’ for informational purposes only. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not provide any warranties of any kind regarding any information contained within.”

Also, curiously absent was any clear input from the CIA, NSA or Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Reportedly, Mr. Clapper will get a chance on Friday to brief an understandably skeptical Donald Trump, who has called the briefing delay “very strange,” even suggesting that top intelligence officials “need more time to build a case.”

Clapper’s Checkered History

Mr. Trump’s skepticism is warranted not only by technical realities, but also by human ones, including the dramatis personae involved. Mr. Clapper has admitted giving Congress on March 12, 2013, false testimony regarding the extent of the National Security Agency’s collection of data on Americans. Four months later, after the Edward Snowden revelations, Mr. Clapper apologized to the Senate for testimony he admitted was “clearly erroneous.” That he is a survivor was already apparent by the way he landed on his feet after the intelligence debacle on Iraq.

Mr. Clapper was a key player in facilitating the fraudulent intelligence. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put Mr. Clapper in charge of the analysis of satellite imagery, the best source for pinpointing the location of weapons of mass destruction — if any.

When Pentagon favorites like Iraqi émigré Ahmed Chalabi plied U.S. intelligence with spurious “evidence” on WMD in Iraq, Mr. Clapper was in position to suppress the findings of any imagery analyst who might have the temerity to report, for example, that the Iraqi “chemical weapons facility” for which Mr. Chalabi provided the geographic coordinates was nothing of the kind. Mr. Clapper preferred to go by the Rumsfeldian dictum: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” (It will be interesting to see if he tries that out on the President-elect Friday.)

A year after the war began, Mr. Chalabi told the media, “We are heroes in error. As far as we’re concerned we’ve been entirely successful.” By that time it was clear there were no WMD in Iraq. When Mr. Clapper was asked to explain, he opined, without adducing any evidence, that they probably were moved into Syria.

With respect to the alleged interference by Russia and WikiLeaks in the U.S. election, it is a major mystery why U.S. intelligence feels it must rely on “circumstantial evidence,” when it has NSA’s vacuum cleaner sucking up hard evidence galore. What we know of NSA’s capabilities shows that the email disclosures were from leaking, not hacking.

Here’s the difference:

Hack: When someone in a remote location electronically penetrates operating systems, firewalls or other cyber-protection systems and then extracts data. Our own considerable experience, plus the rich detail revealed by Edward Snowden, persuades us that, with NSA’s formidable trace capability, it can identify both sender and recipient of any and all data crossing the network.

Leak: When someone physically takes data out of an organization — on a thumb drive, for example — and gives it to someone else, as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning did. Leaking is the only way such data can be copied and removed with no electronic trace.

Because NSA can trace exactly where and how any “hacked” emails from the Democratic National Committee or other servers were routed through the network, it is puzzling why NSA cannot produce hard evidence implicating the Russian government and WikiLeaks. Unless we are dealing with a leak from an insider, not a hack, as other reporting suggests. From a technical perspective alone, we are convinced that this is what happened.

Lastly, the CIA is almost totally dependent on NSA for ground truth in this electronic arena. Given Mr. Clapper’s checkered record for accuracy in describing NSA activities, it is to be hoped that the director of NSA will join him for the briefing with Mr. Trump.

William Binney (williambinney0802@comcast.net) worked for NSA for 36 years, retiring in 2001 as the technical director of world military and geopolitical analysis and reporting; he created many of the collection systems still used by NSA. Ray McGovern (rrmcgovern@gmail.com) was a CIA analyst for 27 years; he briefed the president’s daily brief one-on-one to President Reagan’s most senior national security officials from 1981-85. [This article previously appeared in The Baltimore Sun at  http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-hacking-intelligence-20170105-story.html]




Fear and Misunderstanding of Russia

Much of America’s recent demonization of Russia relates to deep cultural and even religious differences between the two countries, requiring a deeper understanding of the other’s strengths and weaknesses, writes Paul Grenier.

By Paul Grenier

Given the recent near-hysteria over Russia’s alleged hacking of U.S. political email traffic, it is difficult to imagine a U.S. -Russia relationship established upon a peaceful footing — or, to put it another way, a relationship so stable and constructive that it no longer would depend on the vagaries of changing political personalities.

Let’s look at it first through the prism of realism. If we are realists, we throw America’s habitual moralism out the window and offer the Russians a deal. The “normalization” negotiations between a realist America and the regional power of Russia might unfold along lines something like this:

The United States would propose a provisional alliance with Russia to thwart a rising China, which continues to grow inexorably in wealth and power. China’s ascendance naturally makes U.S. policymakers nervous, and thus does the United States (in the realist view) have a vested interest in a U.S.-Russian alliance.

According to this realist playbook, Russia would be flattered by these attentions but would want to know precisely what kind of provisional alliance the United States had in mind. Given that realists always seek to be open and honest, this particular realist government would explain that its attention is focused on China’s apparent expansionist ambitions in the South China Sea. After all, according to the realist outlook, nation-states not only usually do pursue constant expansion of their power whenever and wherever possible, as China seems to be doing now, but \should pursue such hegemonic expansion whenever possible because, in an anarchic world, that is the way to survive.

Would Russia accept such an offer? It might. But if it did, it would be with a certain sense of bad faith to match that surrounding the U.S. proposition. It would not be a friendship but an alliance based on mutual interest. If circumstances were to change, as inevitably they would at some point, the underlying sentiments of national interest might well evaporate — as they should.

But such conditionality wouldn’t contradict the realist conception of international relations. Under the realist model, there simply is no basis for a good faith long-term settlement. It is excluded by the power-political assumptions of the realist model, as is frankly acknowledged in such foundational realist texts, for example, as John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.

And realists are correct, no doubt, in arguing that Americans should stop moralizing about Russia taking actions to defend its vital interests in its own neighborhood in exactly the same manner as the United States does in defense of its vital interests in its own region.

And yet realism’s dismissive attitude toward the moral dimension — as historian Matthew Dal Santo recently pointed out — contains a flaw. It requires that the United States renounce certain moral concerns that are foundational to what America is. Would a coldly rational America still be America? And would Russia itself ultimately even welcome such a “partner”?

The prominent Russian political philosopher Boris Mezhuev, in a recent essay (in Russian) about the history of the America First movement, mused that an isolationist United States during World War II would not at all have been welcomed, first and foremost by Russia itself. It might have led to the annihilation of Russia at the hands of the Nazi war machine. Mezhuev’s point is that it is not the rejection of universal ideals that we should seek in international relations, but the finding of the right ideal.

Stop Being Russia
According to the outlook that might be described as the democracy-idealism/neoconservative-interventionist school, the only way to achieve a lasting settlement is for Russia to cease being what it is at the moment and to become instead much more like the United States. Russia should become a liberal democracy. Only then — because, as many Wilsonian idealists have argued, “liberal democracies don’t fight one another” — can the relationship be stabilized for the long term.

The theory is not entirely implausible. There are indeed forces within Russia that strongly identify with American liberal democratic values. American diplomats and journalists frequently run into people who hold such sentiments. They pop up among one’s well-traveled Russian-intelligentsia friends and are widely quoted in the articles written by prominent journalists who happen to be imbued themselves with the Wilsonian sensibility.

The problem with this line of thought — aside from the impossibility of imposing it from the outside — is that the Russian version of liberal democracy differs fundamentally from the American version.

The fact is that Russia today is already in many ways liberal. But its liberalism is of a peculiarly Russian sort. It does not deny rights and freedom, but it grounds them not negatively (in terms of what government shall not do), as does the Enlightenment liberalism of Locke and Hobbes, but rather in terms of Eastern Christianity’s image of what man is. As a result, there is no Russian liberalism, or Russian politics of any other sort — including its standard semi-authoritarianism — that separates the state from religion in the way that the United States does today.

An authentically Russian liberalism, in other words, is hardly less starkly different from our secular, liberationist order than is Russia’s present political arrangement under Vladimir Putin. The fact is that there simply is not available to Russia a political order that is aligned with the present-day American version of secular liberal democracy. Both its history and its mores exclude it. And if we try to impose it anyway, in defiance of Russian history and self-understanding, then we will find ourselves repulsed in the same way Napoleon was.

As Henry Kissinger wrote, “No power will submit to a settlement, however well-balanced and however ‘secure,’ which seems totally to deny its vision of itself.”

So where does that leave us? It leaves us precisely in the relationship in which the two countries currently languish. The realists, in such meager numbers as they exist, have little to offer beyond a temporary reprieve. As for the democracy idealists, they have witnessed Russia’s rejection of U.S.-style liberal democracy and secularism, and they have drawn the only possible conclusion: Russia is incorrigibly evil.

To prove their point, the idealists and neoconservatives point to Russian acts of violence, such as its bombardments in Syria or Chechnya or its support for the separatists in Eastern Ukraine. The Russians, for their part, cast back at America and its Western allies the West’s own acts of aggression and accompanying untruths.

Rejecting Lectures
It’s instructive, in this regard, to recall British Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s famous phone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in which the latter, after pointedly reminding the former about the Anglo-U.S. invasion of Iraq, demanded of Miliband, “Who are you to f***ing lecture me?”

Critics of Russia likewise point to various lies that Russian politicians have told in defense of their foreign-policy aims. But telling lies is in the very nature of international relations and certainly the waging of wars, as is reflected in the familiar accusation that  “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

And yet, though nations often tell lies as part of their self-defense, it doesn’t follow that what they are defending is therefore essentially a lie. It may be in some cases — Nazi Germany, for example, or ISIS. But such cases are rare.

In short, both the United States and Russia have used lots of violence against their enemies. In both cases, this violence has no doubt exceeded ethical norms. Both have told lies. So which side is the more evil? How does one prove such a thing?

Robert Kaplan, who generally belongs to America’s democracy-idealist camp, suggested in a recent essay that we can answer this question by means of a close reading of Russian literature.

Kaplan’s “The Real War of Ideas,” published in The National Interest in September, stakes its claim about Russia by reference to Anton Chekhov’s fictional My Life: A Provincial’s Story. A careful reading of this work, Kaplan tells us, allows us to “realiz[e] the utter impossibility of any good ever coming out of Russia.”

This remarkable story, Kaplan believes, holds the key to understanding Russia as a whole. “[E]verything from the czar, to Lenin and Stalin, to Putin, is connected in some indirect way to the Russian social reality” described by Chekhov. Here, for Kaplan, is the story’s money quote:

“They [the peasant muzhiks] were mostly nervous, irritated, insulted people; they were people of suppressed imagination, ignorant, with a poor, dull outlook, with ever the same thoughts about the gray earth, gray days, black bread, people who were sly but, like birds, only hid their heads behind a tree — who didn’t know how to count. They wouldn’t go to your haymaking for twenty roubles, but they would go for a half-bucket of vodka, though for twenty roubles they could buy four buckets. … [As for their masters, their money] had been acquired by a whole series of brazen, shameless deceptions.”

Here’s an interesting question: why, out of all the tremendous variety of Russian literature, has Kaplan chosen precisely this short story focusing on ignorant peasants, instead of, say, War and Peace? Answer: to demonstrate that Chekhov’s Russia is the same as Putin’s Russia — in the double sense that Russia has never successfully become modern and liberal and, for Kaplan, never will.

The peasantry symbolizes what is pre-modern and illiberal. These particular peasants, furthermore, are incapable of acting as a rational liberal should — maximizing their own advantage and thereby increasing wealth for society as a whole. Chekhov’s peasants cannot even properly calculate how to maximize their consumption of vodka!

The Chekhov passage has, furthermore, far-going implications for Russia’s place within the international order. If Russia were smart enough to become part of the Western order, if it played according to American rules, Russia would earn more than it does now! And yet Russia stubbornly, stupidly, and in contradiction of its own interest refuses this reasonable tradeoff. Russia’s rulers and oligarchs of today, like its peasant masters of yesteryear, prefer to practice deceit, because such is their nature. That, for Kaplan, is what Chekhov’s story tells us.

Selective Reading
Kaplan’s reading of the Chekhov story, however, is incomplete. On the very same page of Chekhov’s text, between the word “buckets” and the closing words about the masters’ “brazen, shameless deceptions,” there are the following lines:

“In fact, there was filth, and drunkenness, and stupidity, and deceit, but with all that you could feel, nevertheless, that the muzhiks’ life was generally upheld by some strong, healthy core. However much the muzhik looks like a clumsy beast as he follows his plow, and however much he befuddles himself with vodka, still, on looking closer, you feel that there is in him something necessary and very important that is lacking, for instance, in Masha and the doctor — namely, he believes that the chief thing on earth is truth [pravda], and that his salvation and that of all people lies in truth alone, and therefore he loves justice more than anything else in the world.”

Had he quoted the Russian author in full, I would be in agreement with Mr. Kaplan about the importance of this story for understanding Russia. To be sure, modern Russia, with its impeccable metro systems and fashionable cafes, has little in common with the peasant world here described (though in the provinces, something of that peasant world — fortunately to my mind — still remains). Modern Russians, furthermore, know how to count very well.

What then remains constant? First, the centrality of truth and justice. We have already, above, briefly discussed the role of lies. They are, sadly, something of a constant in foreign relations. What needs stressing here is something else. The attempt to lure or to force Russia into a world that requires that it “deny its vision of itself” by forcing it to be liberal — and thereby to interpret everything exclusively in terms of advantage, rights, losses, and profits — will not work.

This is confirmed not only by Russian behavior but also by the explicit words of its foreign minister, who in a recent interview insisted that “Russia’s only role in the world is to stand up for the truth [pravda] together with other powers, but exclusively on equal terms.”

The second constant is Christianity. The text’s reference to “salvation” and the word pravda itself have clearly Christian overtones. Russian Christianity differs from American Christianity. American Protestant Christianity embraces individualism and is open to change; in many ways, it has hitched its cart to the modernization project.

Russian Orthodox Christianity uses virtually the same liturgy today as it has for hundreds of years. Its standard of perfection in iconography is the same as it has been for hundreds of years. Russian spirituality is oriented to what is timeless and to beauty. American spirituality is oriented to the future and to rights. Both Russia and America can be very tough. But that toughness defends two very different ideals.

Kaplan’s selective quotation of the Chekhov story quite likely was unintentional. He may genuinely have found unimportant the passage about truth and justice and salvation, because these things fall outside the realm of modern American liberalism. His inability to notice the good in Russia when that good falls outside of the specifically liberal framework is something very common in recent Western reporting on Russia.

No Junior Partner
An accommodation with Russia will never be reached by ignoring what Russia is, still less by attempting to transform it into a junior United States. Nor is there any need to do so. An accommodation between Russia and the United States can be reached by applying what is healthy in the realist and idealist traditions, and jettisoning what is false.

Realism is right to the extent that it teaches that one’s own nation’s ideals do not necessarily embrace the whole of the human good. It teaches a salutary humility. Realism is wrong, however, when it dismisses moral considerations altogether, among other reasons because such a dismissal eliminates the only possible foundation of long-term trust.

The idealist school clings to the United States’ longstanding vision of itself as a force for good in the world. There is no need for the United States to abandon this vision. All that is needed is for the United States to expand its notion of the good.

For my money, a good place to start would be with the writings of Semyon Frank, one of the most respected Russian philosophers in Russia today. “In all that is human as such,” Frank wrote, “… there is nothing sacred; ‘the will of the people’ can be just as stupid and criminal as the will of an individual man. Neither the rights of man nor the will of the people are sacred in themselves. Only the truth as such, only the absolute good which is independent of man, is primordially sacred.”

Russia, for its part, needs to guard against the temptation of identifying this good, this absolute, with Russia itself.

Paul Grenier is an essayist who writes frequently on cities, political philosophy, and foreign affairs. He co-directs a project, under the aegis of Solidarity Hall, on East-West dialogue. [This article originally appeared in The American Conservative at http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/legitimate-differences/]




Donald Trump’s Debt to Willie Horton

Special Report: A precursor of Donald Trump’s race-messaging campaign can be found in George H.W. Bush’s exploitation of the Willie Horton case in 1988, an ugly reminder of America’s racist heritage, writes JP Sottile.

By JP Sottile

America’s first “celebritician” launched his successful campaign for the Presidency with a simple, effective message: Mexicans are pouring across the border and they are bringing crime, they are bringing drugs and they are raping America’s women. That fallacious opening salvo portended the relentlessly “politically incorrect” tone of Donald J. Trump’s 17-month-long drive to the White House.

On the campaign trail Trump described a society on the brink of chaos. He regaled audiences attending his live shows with tall tales featuring roving gangs of menacing “illegals.” He promised to ban dangerous Muslim interlopers. He warned of a Syrian fifth column skulking into the homeland through the hollow humanitarianism of a refugee-filled “Trojan Horse.” He painted a foreboding picture of African-American neighborhoods as Third World “war zones.” He promised a national crackdown on crime with controversial policing measures like the potentially unconstitutional “stop and frisk” program.  He declared himself the “law and order” candidate. And he repeatedly promised to “make America safe again.”

Along the way, Trump solidified his support and confounded his critics with fictitious crime statistics that implied a national crisis due to rampant Black murderers and crime-prone immigrants. And he’s continued touting a bogus spike in the murder rate during frothy stops along his victory lap into the White House. Mostly, Trump’s calculated indifference to countervailing data allowed him to exploit a long-standing, politically profitable fear of crime despite little evidence that it is, in fact, an issue.

Not coincidentally, last year Gallup found that Americans “concern” about crime spiked to a 15-year high. The percentage of Americans expressing worry about crime skyrocketed from 39 percent in 2014 to 53 percent just two years later. That’s in spite of the fact that the aggregate crime rate remains at a 20-year low and in spite of the fact that the national homicide rate is at a 51-year low (even with the data-skewing murder rate of Chicago).

At the same time, Gallup also found that six in ten Americans also believe “racism against Blacks is widespread.” That’s up from 51 percent during Obama’s first year in office (2009). No doubt it’s a direct result from the recent barrage of shocking videos showing African-Americans in brutal and sometimes fatal encounters with police. These viral videos, along with mounting evidence that law enforcement disproportionately targets African-Americans, exposed an undeniable crisis in American policing.

Of course, the intersection between race and corrupt, unconstitutional policing is not new. Just imagine all those decades of unrecorded abuse before camera-phones finally offered corroborating evidence to widespread claims of physical assaults, harassing traffic stops, planted evidence and summary execution. But, then again, video evidence of police brutality isn’t new, either.

America got a stark look at excessive force when Rodney King’s vicious beating hit the evening news in 1991. It led to a high-profile trial. The failure to convict the offending officers then led to the “Rodney King Riot” in 1992. What did not follow was some long-overdue soul-searching about systemic racism in law enforcement. Instead, America got the 1994 Crime Bill, mass incarceration and a notable two decade-long gap in the tape between King’s beating and recent video evidence showing “high-profile” police-involved killings and a pattern of questionable treatment of Black Americans. That deafening silence is over.

Now the data shows non-Whites are far more likely to be subjected to traffic stops, to be arrested and to be incarcerated — particularly for simple drug possession. A new study by the Economic Policy Institute determined that “Black men are incarcerated at six times the rate of [W]hite men” and that “By the age of 14, approximately 25 percent of African American children have experienced a parent — in most cases a father — being imprisoned for some period of time.” The study’s authors also demonstrate a compelling causal relationship between disproportionate incarceration and the much-discussed “achievement gap” between Black and White students.

More perniciously, a recent USA Today investigation found that “[B]lack people across the nation – both innocent bystanders and those fleeing the police – have been killed in police chases at a rate nearly three times higher than everyone else.”  And most disturbingly, Black and Hispanic men are “2.8 and 1.7 times more likely to be killed by police use of force than white men,” according to a controversial new study.

Perhaps that’s why the timing and the success of Trump’s tendentious, “politically incorrect” campaign is so telling. His loud arrival on the political scene coincided with the first sustained public examination of law enforcement’s excesses after a nearly three decade-long crackdown under the guise of a drug war that, according to a new study by Human Rights Watch, still arrests Americans for drug possession at a mind-boggling rate of 1 person every 25 seconds.

Also not coincidentally, #BlackLivesMatter emerged as the first forceful African-American social and political movement in decades. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest against police violence became a lightening rod of controversy. And for the first time since the George H.W. Bush campaign ran the infamous Willie Horton ads during the 1988 Presidential campaign, race reemerged from the political hinterlands to take a central role in an American presidential campaign.

Racebait And Switch

Donald J. Trump set the stage for his White House run back in 2011 as the self-appointed ringmaster of Birtherism. He built his political brand by attacking the legitimacy of America’s first Black President. By the time Trump began his assault on GOP field, 66 percent of his supporters believed President Obama was born elsewhere and 43 percent believed he was a “secret Muslim.” Many of his hardcore devotees believed these falsehoods through to the end of the campaign. And many still do today.

With that predicate established, Trump astutely pivoted to hyperbolic and fallacious messaging about a perceived Muslim “threat.” He said Obama was “the Founder of ISIS.” And he outlined a ban on Muslim immigration. Throughout the campaign he contributed to — or simply exploited — the widespread misconception that Muslims make up 17 percent of the U.S. population when, in fact, they are a scant 1 percent of Americans. Either way, the perception was political gold for Trump.

That’s because 2016 was a campaign of perception and emotion, not facts and figures. And like a bristling political antenna, Trump picked up the growing unease in rural and suburban America and masterfully transmitted broad emotional, identity-based appeals rooted in the nation’s shifting demography. He expanded traditional racial parameters of who is dangerous to include Muslims, Mexicans and immigrants in general. He connected voters’ anger with the sense that America had been “lost.” He promised to return America to a supposed state of greatness.

Unsurprisingly, the strongest bastions of Trump’s “red meat and potatoes” support were, according to the Wall Street Journal, those small Midwestern towns and counties that experienced the fastest-shifting ethnic, religious and racial demographics over the last 15 years. On Election Day, his unshakable base of White Working Class males swelled, according to a FOX News exit poll, to include educated Whites, Whites of greater economic means and White women. Yes, he brought the vaunted Reagan Democrats back to the Republican fold. But he also got an unexpected boost from higher income Whites and suburban White women.

Despite the data, some argue that this coalition of Whites is not a “White backlash” vote. Trump’s slightly better than Romney (by 2 points each) performance with Black and Latino voters did exceed quite low expectations (although he still only got 8 percent of African-Americans). It is also true that a combination of Hillary Clinton’s vulnerabilities, economic dissatisfaction and thirst for change all contributed to Trump’s win. But that doesn’t fully explain the stark Whiteness of his base — which produced an Electoral College victory centered specifically in so-called “Duck Dynasty” America and a notable overall popular vote loss in aggregate America.

How Did Trump Win?

So, how did Trump form a strange coalition of the so-called Alt-Right movement and its motley crew of White Nationalists, Klansmen and disgruntled Caucasians with a surge of more educated, more affluent Whites, suburban women and the reborn Reagan Democrats?

Trump resurrected a well-established and all-too successful political ploy that takes racism and perniciously hides it in real issues — like crime, poverty, taxes, job scarcity, social welfare policy. He effectively underlined issues like economic insecurity, fear of terrorism and resentment against trade with politically incorrect, ethnically-themed and racially-conscious messaging. Like his use of faulty crimes statistics, he used these appeals to draw out the grudges and grievances of people who felt transgressed by politicians and/or were fearful and uneasy about the direction of the country.

These grudges simmered underneath the palpable economic grievances of working-class Americans and, specifically, working-class White Americans. But this was about more than just economic dislocation. Making America great “again” also spoke to fears about the changing face of the nation.

Trump hearkened back to a time before all those “politically correct” demographic changes so colorfully embodied by Obama’s coalition. Those were the very voters Hillary Clinton pursued. Instead, Trump built his monolithic, monochromatic base with a well-worn process of coding that replaces overt racism with far more complicated political messaging that marbles issues with bigotry, xenophobia and racism.

For example, Trump’s economic messages about Mexican immigrants and wily Chinese negotiators can appeal to racists and xenophobes while also appealing to people who are not bigots, but endure real or perceived economic hardships that appear to be addressed by expelling immigrant labor or renegotiating “fairer” trade deals.

In other words, it is possible to rationalize a racially-motivated policy as “not racist” because you don’t have to irrationally “hate” Mexicans to agree with a policy of removing an “illicit” labor pool. Nor do you have to “hate” clever Chinese leaders for doing to America what you think American negotiators would’ve done to the Chinese if America’s leaders weren’t so darn “stupid.”

The issues of wage decline from immigration or deindustrialization from bad trade deals can therefore be “race neutral.” It can be easily rationalized as “not racist” to want enforceable borders and better negotiations. It can also seem wholly justifiable to shut down Muslim immigration from specific countries. It possible to believe it’s not based on their religion or ethnicity, but because terrorists (thanks to a conveniently squishy application of the term) always seem to come from “over there.” Therefore, it isn’t technically racist to just want to stop terrorism. Just like it wasn’t necessarily racist to want less crime back in 1988.

Back then, the infamous Willie Horton ad and the relentless “law and order” messaging of the Bush campaign linked crime with Black men to build an electoral victory. The upshot then was a two-plus decade-long merger of crime with racist tropes about Black men. The upshot now is the marbling of economic unease with racism against Mexicans, ethnonationalism against Chinese and fear of Muslim interlopers. And then like now, this powerful style of messaging made it possible to explicitly embrace or tacitly accept prejudicial proclamations that would’ve otherwise been unacceptable.

In fact, there’s a certain symmetry to Trump’s meteoric rise and the conclusion that American law enforcement still grapples with systemic racism. His posture as the “law and order candidate” tapped into the backlash against the backlash against the era of mass incarceration. His consciously abrasive style resurfaced a deeply encoded racism that — like hundreds of thousands of Black men — was locked away into the prison system during the War on Drugs.

Law And Order

Racism has been evermore deeply encoded into the criminal justice system since the civil rights movement scored key victories in the mid-1960s. The old system of Jim Crow was methodically replaced with a “New Jim Crow” that, as Michelle Alexander so painfully detailed, turned incarceration as tool of de facto re-segregation. Controlling African-Americans was expressed as a need to “get tough on crime.” And the phrase “’law and order” became a subtle way of playing on racial fears and trading in a less overt forms of racism.

When Richard Nixon ran on “law and order” during the tumult and race riots of 1968, there was little doubt what he meant. It was about getting a handle on angry Black Americans reeling from the violent loss of Martin Luther King, Jr.  It was also a coded response to the new socio-political reality of post-Jim Crow America. At the same time, the Civil and Voting Rights Acts meant White America had lost (at least technically) its legally sanctioned place atop the racially stratified system. America was changing and not everyone was happy about it.

What arose out of that toxic cocktail of backlash and resentment was the racially conscious “Southern Strategy.” In 1972, Nixon’s political team leveraged the “old” Jim Crow South into a sweeping electoral victory. Nixon’s “Silent Majority” of disgruntled working, middle-class, suburban and Southern Whites transformed the Republican Party for decades to come. Notably, 1972 was also the year Nixon officially declared the War on Drugs.

According to Dan Baum, Nixon’s drug war might’ve actually been a surreptitious counter-attack against dissent on both the political Left and, perhaps most balefully, on an increasingly forceful Black activist movement. Writing in Harper’s, Baum cites infamous Nixon aide John Ehrlichman who said Nixon secretly turned the criminal justice system into a tool of political payback and racial control:

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

In other words, the quite real issues of drugs and crime were weaponized for political and racial purposes. Nixon’s War On Drugs and his call for “law and order” became nods and winks to law enforcement as they cracked-down on “crime”… and his opponents. Successive GOP campaigns focused on these quite real issues of drugs and crime. They also paid no political price for the disproportionate outcomes of the policies — particularly those faced particularly by Black Americans. It didn’t become an issue because the issue wasn’t officially “racism.” It was law and order.

By the time former California Governor and committed drug warrior Ronald Reagan made his own “law and order” appeals during the 1980 campaign, many White voters had fled to the suburbs while many White working-class voters grappled with the economic unease brought on by imported Japanese cars. They struggled with chronic economic stagflation and felt trapped in a sense of national malaise. Some were looking for scapegoats and blamed government programs that supposedly were helping Blacks and other minorities. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The Rise of Lee Atwater

It was in this milieu that a whip-smart, guitar-playing Southern-born GOP strategist named Lee Atwater honed the racial massaging that would eventually lead to the most notorious campaign ad in American political history. However unintentionally, he helped to expand Nixon’s War on Drugs into a generational crackdown on Black America. And he created a bipartisan consensus on crime that ultimately haunted Donald Trump’s opponent

During a now-infamous 1981 interview, Lee Atwater explained the evolution of coded racism from its earliest iteration in the Southern Strategy to its penultimate expression during the 1980 campaign to elect Ronald Reagan. Said Atwater:

You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’”

Sadly, Atwater’s language was far less shocking in 1981. But Atwater’s blunt talk (which was uncovered by James Carter IV in 2012) exposed a fundamental truth about American politics and the evolution of racism in American politicking. As a political matter, racism had to be increasingly coded over time. The further America got from the Civil Rights Act, the less acceptable it was to be overtly racist. Instead, race-based appeals were surreptitiously transmitted through coded messages. This was something Lee Atwater knew from first-hand experience.

Atwater — along with his friend Karl Rove — was a rising star in the College Republicans at the same time Nixon’s Southern Strategy was reshaping the party. The South Carolina native then cut his sharp teeth on his home state’s rough-hewn politics. He even worked for former Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond. But his big leap to the big time came after he helped The Gipper win a racially-tinged knife fight in the suddenly crucial South Carolina primary. In 1981, Atwater was given a spot as White House advisor as a reward for helping plot Reagan’s own Southern Strategy march to the White House.

Frankly, the Gipper was no stranger to the political power of the wedge issue or the code word. He’s long been accused of delivering smoothly-edged, racially-coded messages before, during and after his successful 1980 campaign. Atwater’s interview adds to that record, particularly since Reagan pioneered the conflation of both taxes and social welfare policy with the resentments against Black Americans. In 1976, he launched specious attacks against a fallacious cadre of so-called “Welfare Queens.” He linked “welfare reform” and “State’s Rights” during a purposeful 1980 campaign stop in Mississippi. As President, he often derided supposed “dependency” on government.

These coded messages implied that Blacks wantonly fed off the public trough through “government handouts”. It was implied that cutting off the “free” flow of funds into that trough would force “personal responsibility” onto a recalcitrant group of “lazy” Blacks living off harder-working Whites. Unsurprisingly, “personal responsibility” became a popular GOP code-phrase for three decades.

These messages are louder and clearer given Atwater’s 1981 interview.

But as conservative blogger John Hinderaker rightly points out, Atwater was not just saying coded racism works. He was also saying that blatant racism does not. Atwater — who counted African-Americans among his closest friends, who struggled to prove himself through an ill-fated stint on the Board of Trustees of Howard University and who even cut a blues record with B.B. King — may have actually believed this was “progress.” And it some strange way it probably was.

Like a discordant film negative, the Southern Strategy and the Silent Majority revealed the changing reality of American society. Crass, blatant racism was being pushed out of the public square. That was a good thing. But coded messages remained a potent political tool.

And when Atwater decided to “Strip the Bark” off of Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis during the 1988 campaign and, more importantly, to make convicted murderer Willie Horton his “running mate” … he created a whole new socially-acceptable category of racial profiling — the drug-dealing superpredator. He turned the 1988 election into a de facto referendum on the criminality of Black males. And his winning strategy set the tone for an era of mass incarceration.

Changing the Narrative

In 1988, night was falling on Morning in America. The “Black Monday” crash of 1987 on Wall Street shocked the economy out of its freewheeling frenzy. The nation’s capital was in a yearly competition with other major cities for the ignominious title “Murder Capital of America.” And the often-ridiculed “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign metastasized into a full-on hysteria about a new drug — the dreaded scourge of “crack cocaine.”

Less than two years earlier, the media mania after the drug-overdose death of college basketball star Len Bias galvanized a congressional response to the growing national freakout about cocaine and especially its cheaper derivative “crack,” which was associated more with the Black inner-cities. On Oct. 27, 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 became law and its almost comically disproportionate punishment for crack possession versus powder cocaine launched a process of African-American incarceration that can only be described as systematic.

Although tons of “upscale” powder cocaine had long fueled many of Wall Street’s financial high-rollers and some of Hollywood’s creative lows, the cheap, portable rocks became an obsession for politicians and law enforcement. Over the next two years, the “crack crisis” reached a fever pitch. The War On Drugs unfolded much like a domestic Vietnam War as fear of well-armed gangs, bleak tales of crack babies and relentless “if it bleeds, it leads” coverage by local television news brought the growing violence into America’s safe suburban living rooms every night at 5, 6 & 11.

Also unfolding every night was the high-stakes drama of the Iran-Contra scandal. The wounded Reagan Administration limped through the Congressional hearings of 1987. Reagan’s approval rating dropped to a four-year low. In his final year more Americans actually disapproved than approved of the Gipper. And the stench of constitutional crisis threatened the Presidential aspirations of Vice President George H.W. Bush.

During the 1988 campaign, Vice President Bush’s comical “out of the loop” defense undermined his competence and underlined his shiftiness. On one hand, Newsweek ran a cover story about Poppy’s battle with “The Wimp Factor.” On the other, The Nation ran a story indicating Bush may have been a long-time CIA operative. And, perhaps most ominously for team Bush, Sen. John Kerry’s “Kerry Committee” had been digging into allegations of drug trafficking by Reagan’s beloved Nicaraguan Contra rebels and found damaging evidence of a cocaine connection that first came to light in a 1985 story by Brian Barger and Robert Parry for the Associated Press.

The campaign to succeed Reagan looked like a big mess.

The lingering scandal, along with signs of a coming recession, catapulted a mild-mannered straight-shooter from Massachusetts, its Governor named Michael Dukakis, to the top of the Democratic ticket. At the time, Dukakis’s desire to restore competence to a government looked like a winning pitch. In fact, the unfolding Iran-Contra scandal and its relentless buck-passing was a primary motivation for the accountability-obsessed Dukakis. As he’s since said, his run was motivated by a desire to clean-up Washington after the Iran-Contra mess.

As such, the stern and technocratic Dukakis offered a starkly reliable antidote to the malicious maelstrom of the late-stage Reagan White House. For him it was going to be a campaign of facts, figures and forthrightness. Initially, the American people bought his brand. By the time the Democrats triumphantly left their convention in Atlanta, Dukakis opened up a 17-point lead over Vice President George H.W. Bush and Bush’s political team — led by Atwater — struggled to shift the conversation away from the scandals and away from a referendum on competence. Lee Atwater turned to the reliable voter response from the issue of crime.

Really, it was a no-brainer for the GOP’s boyish wonder. He had to change the narrative. And he had to hit voters in the gut. At the time, violent crime reached record highs and the media was already obsessed with the issue. His plan to “make Willie Horton” Dukakis’s running-mate simply took the most effective tool in America’s historical woodshed (the issue of race) and married it to a quite real issue (the rise in crime).

Horton, a convicted murderer, had raped a White woman while out of a Massachusetts prison on “furlough,” a prison-reform strategy with the goal of allowing prisoners to gradually reintegrate back into the community. Atwater used the Horton case as a crude tool to strip the bark off of Dukakis, who was also tied to liberal softness that opposed the death penalty and was portrayed as tolerating marauding urban drug criminals. The strategy quickly peeled ten points off Dukakis’ lead.

By late August, an unremitting focus on crime, felon furloughs and the death penalty (which Dukakis opposed) — along with an ill-advised ride in a tank by the bobble-headed Dukakis — flipped the race. Bush was up by four points going into September. But Atwater wasn’t done. His transformation of the issue crime was just beginning.

The Bush Campaign first featured Willie Horton in stump speeches during the summer of 1988. But those speeches lacked the one thing that made the ad so infamously toxic — William Horton’s iconic face. So, under Atwater’s guidance, the appropriately-named Americans for Bush Political Action Committee (AMBUSH) produced ads that not only framed the contest as a “law and order” election, but it reframed one of America’s oldest racist tropes.

Horton, a convicted murderer, had been released on a weekend furlough when he stabbed a man and “repeatedly” raped his girlfriend, a storyline that the narration bluntly pointed out under the image of Horton’s mugshot. It then paired Horton’s glowering expression, sullen eyes and wildly unkempt afro with the memorable phrase “weekend passes for murderers.” It was ostensibly an ad about crime, but it scored a direct hit by rebooting a dangerous canard first highlighted on film by D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation—the Black man as sexual predator.

The first Willie Horton ad had a limited run beginning on Sept. 7, 1988. It was followed up by the notorious “Revolving Door” ad a couple weeks later. That ad featured a bevy of criminals heading into and out of prison — with, as writer Ismael Reed pointed out, the lone Black man in the line slyly looking up when the narrator said the word “rape.” Again the message was clear—if you are afraid of crime you should be afraid of Black men. Taken together, those ads turned a not-uncommon furlough program into political poison.

Although the ads did not by themselves alter the outcome of the election, they swirled into a national controversy. Even if the ad never ran on your local station, you were likely to have seen, heard or read about Willie Horton. The ads effectively linked the national hysteria about crime and crack with a racially-charged portrayal that inexorably intertwined the issue of crime and with the faces of Black men. It normalized a specific, spurious portrayal of Black male criminals.

The Kill Switch

The two ads also set-up CNN anchor Bernard Shaw’s famous opening question to Dukakis in the second Presidential debate. That question: “If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer.” Dukakis quickly responded, “No I don’t Bernard, and I think you know I’ve opposed the death penalty all my life.” Dukakis went on to say he wanted to fight a “real war, not a phony war against drugs.” He proposed interdiction overseas and drug education at home. But none of that mattered. His death penalty answer was his campaign’s death sentence.

It was also the beginning of a post-Horton era in American society and criminal justice. Approval for the death penalty spiked to an all-time high in the years immediately after the 1988 campaign. The Black incarceration rate accelerated to society-shifting levels. It was followed by controversial new policing tactics that escalated arrests for trivial offenses and that imposed draconian punishments for drug crimes, like Stop and Frisk (1990), Broken Windows Theory (early 1990s), asset forfeiture (jumped 58 percent in 1990), “Three Strikes” laws (1994-6) and the “zero tolerance” focus on drug users and “street level” crime over large-scale distributors (1988).

Like the outcome of the election of 1988, it’s impossible to quantify the exact effect of the Willie Horton ad on the decade-long crackdown that followed. Like Trump’s politically incorrect campaign, it relied on perceptions and feelings. Not fact and figures. Atwater’s law-and-order campaign was in code, so it’s hard to decipher the impact. But, just like the beating of Rodney King, the Willie Horton ad did not inspire soul-searching about racism. Instead, it signaled the beginning of an era of public and political tolerance for excesses in the name of law and order. King’s beating may have been an outgrowth of the excessive policing these politics engendered. But the outrage and riot that followed the acquittal further cemented the racial divide between Atwater’s new coalition and those left behind on the drug war’s front lines.

The Scene of the Crime

Lee Atwater’s successful “law and order” campaign quickly evolved into a bipartisan consensus on crime. In effect, Atwater built a new “law and order” majority that merged the Southern Strategy with Reagan Democrats and, most importantly, the moderate, White, Baby Boomer Middle Class voters now firmly planted in America’s suburbs.

By 1992, “moderate” Democrats — like Southerner Bill Clinton — acknowledged the power of the GOP’s “tough-on-crime” approach. Then-candidate Clinton’s promise to put “100,000 cops on the street” catered specifically to the War on Drugs-based constituency that Atwater created. In a sense, racism was sanitized because it had become so inexorably subsumed into the category of crime. The consensus against crime was easily rationalized as “not racist.” But, like so many things, Clinton took it a step further.

During his run against President George H.W. Bush, Clinton made certain to demonstrate his separation from left-wing sympathy toward Black anger by publicly upbraiding a rapper named Sista Souljah. In fact, “Sista Souljah moment” became political shorthand for triangulating against your own base by attacking a vulnerable proxy. She was one of many rappers making stark, musical statements against White racism and against police brutality in Black communities.

And in a moment of blatant grandstanding, Clinton excoriated her racialism. Of course, he didn’t dare confront N.W.A. or Ice-T or any of the higher profile artists reporting from the frontlines of the Drug War. Instead, he took advantage of an easy target of opportunity to triangulate against African-Americans and traditional Liberals in his own party. It instantly burnished his crime-fighting credentials, which included stern enforcement of the death penalty. And it worked like a charm.

Clinton expunged the Democrats’ perceived “weakness” on crime. He distanced himself from the legacy of Dukakis and the much-derided moniker “liberal.” Then as President he lorded over an escalation of the War On Drugs. By 1994, Clinton signed the draconian, bipartisan 1994 Crime Bill. He shepherded through welfare reform — a.k.a. the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act — in 1996. Yup, there’s that “personal responsibility” code word Reagan loved so much. Clinton turned it into policy. And during the State of the Union that same year he made another Reaganesque turn when he announced that “the era of big government is over.

Atwater’s triumph was complete — but he wouldn’t live to see it.

Lee Atwater was struck by an aggressive brain tumor in 1990. Some felt it was karma. Suffering mightily, he literally spent his dying days apologizing for the ad, apologizing to Dukakis and fighting in vain to clear his name from the charge that he was racist.

The Bitter Ironies

Atwater’s bare-knuckled campaign was a direct response to G.H.W. Bush’s weakness on Iran-Contra. If the campaign had been about Bush’s competence, his trustworthiness or his role in the Reagan White House, Houston would’ve had a problem. So, the focus on high crimes committed in the Reagan White House was replaced by street crimes committed in urban areas.

After all, Atwater didn’t need urban voters to build an electoral victory. Atwater simply changed what should’ve been a national referendum on a constitutional crisis and replaced it with a referendum on law and order, on crack cocaine and on the furloughed Black male predator roaming freely in the urban decay of a changing America.

Most importantly, the Iran-Contra all-stars desperately needed Poppy Bush to retain control of the Executive Branch, particularly with independent counsel Lawrence Walsh’s investigation churning in the background. Certainly, they could forget getting pardoned under the notoriously staid Dukakis.

And although Gary Webb wouldn’t start his groundbreaking investigation into the Contra-cocaine connection to the crack epidemic until 1995, the Kerry Committee already had cracked open the lid on Contra narco-trafficking. No doubt, the scandal’s biggest players knew there were more damning revelations looming behind the firewall. Losing the White House in 1988 could’ve been much more than a political rebuke. It could’ve meant prison. And that’s the bitterest irony.

Atwater helped preserve the legal firewall between the perpetrators of Iran-Contra and the seediest, most destructive elements of that scandal … by repurposing the fallout from a drug war that was partially due to the CIA-tolerated crack cocaine pipeline into South Central L.A. In essence, the CIA’s protection of Nicaraguan Contras instrumental in that pipeline helped generate part of the “law and order” political justification that ultimately kept the covert perps in power. It was an all-too vicious circle for Black Americans that got them coming and going.

The final irony is that nearly three decades later, Hillary Clinton would bank on African-American turnout to win the White House. But they didn’t quite turn out in the numbers she had hoped. Despite winning the popular vote, Clinton lost the “Battle of the Bases” in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Her racially diverse urban base was trumped by Trump’s monochromatic cadre of supporters in those states’ rural counties. Was that flaccid Clinton turnout partially because she was haunted by her own support for the crime crackdown consensus that got her husband elected and reelected?

Perhaps even more damning were her not-so-coded comments in support of the 1994 crime bill when she warned of Black “superpredators.” She even said society needs to “bring them to heel.” Whether or not that specifically cost her the White House, it certainly didn’t help. She underperformed Obama’s 2012 total with African-Americans by 5 points (Clinton: 88 percent vs. Obama: 93 percent). It also didn’t help that 1.4 million Black Americans had also lost the right to vote thanks to the grinding incarceration she’d once supported. Like far too many others who actually lost years of their lives to needless incarceration, she too was haunted by ghost of elections past. She merely lost the White House. Too many African-Americans lost far more.

The Ghost Of Willie Horton

Although there are as many interpretations of Donald Trump’s win as there are blatherati on a CNN panel, the one undeniable thru-line of his campaign was his effective use of both dog whistling and blatant bullhorning. Like the role of Willie Horton in the 1988 campaign, the exact electoral impact of Trump’s encoded messaging is hard to quantify.

As Peter Grier pointed out in the Christian Science Monitor, Trump wasn’t elected “solely by [W]hite men in pickups who fly Confederate flags.” He did get “almost 63 million votes,” and, Grier continues, “you don’t get that many without winning some women, some college-educated voters, and even some minorities.” True enough.

But also like 1988, the question is far bigger and the impact potentially far deeper than one electoral snapshot in time. Whether Trump won because of or in spite of his resurrection of racially encoded messaging, the simple fact is that his win gave racists and bigots and, for that matter, misogynists a reason to feel both validated and vindicated. Trump normalized the use of so-called “politically incorrect” language that, whether intentionally or not, expanded the old boundaries of racial coding to encompass Mexican criminals, Muslim terrorists and Chinese economic thieves … and even made sexual assault seem acceptable.

Will it also translate into a so-called deportation force that will eject millions of Latinos? And what does it mean to eject Latinos “humanely”? If you have to say you’ll do something “humanely,” it probably means it could easily become inhumane.

Will Latinos — who are already disproportionately subject to criminal penalties — become targets of crackdown on “narcoterrorism”? Like Trump on crime, his pick for Homeland Security wildly overstates the problem … and ignores the true perpetrators of the opioid crisis in the pharmaceutical industry.

Will Trump’s gung-ho pick for Attorney General — the racism-tainted Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama — leverage crime fears into a recharged War on Drugs? Will it happen in spite of voter-led efforts to dismantle it? Does the sudden rise in prison stock prices portend bounce-back for prison privatization and an incarceration rate that’s finally relenting a bit? Will #BlackLivesMatter become a political target under a hostile Department of Justice?

Will Team Trump’s notable hostility to Islam and his supporters’ comfort with the Muslim ban translate into a loyalty test? Will hate crimes continue past a post-election surge? And will it whip up into a wider war if and when one of his hotels is targeted by a lone wolf?

And will Trump’s mantra-like recitation of China as the culprit behind the deindustrialization of America (instead of the true culprits at Walmart and on Wall Street) lead to a trade war … or worse?

While those among Trump’s supporters can claim that none of these possibilities is necessarily indicative of racism, the problem is that he’s marbled these issues with race. Like it or not, people voted for whole package, not just the issue. Frankly, it’s another reminder — perhaps an all-too bitter one — that how elections are won often matters just as much, if not more, than the victory itself. It’s a cliché, but the journey does matter. And Donald J. Trump’s journey to the White House followed a well-worn path through a half-century of racially coded messages littering the campaign trails of the post-Civil Rights Era.

JP Sottile is a freelance journalist, radio co-host, documentary filmmaker and former broadcast news producer in Washington, D.C. He blogs at Newsvandal.com or you can follow him on Twitter, http://twitter/newsvandal.




New McCarthyism Targets Trump

Official Washington’s New McCarthyism is painting President-elect Trump as almost a “traitor” for seeking détente with Russia, a moment when peace-oriented Americans face a complex choice, says John V. Walsh.

By John V. Walsh

When President Obama expelled Russian diplomats over the hysterical and unproven accusation of Russia “hacking the election,” Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to be drawn into a petty squabble, saying he would delay any response until Donald Trump assumed office. Instead Putin invited American diplomats and their families in Moscow to join the official holiday celebrations in the Kremlin.

Then came the shock that shook Official Washington: President-elect Trump, in the form of a tweet heard round the world, wrote: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!”

And just to be sure that everyone saw it, Trump “pinned” the tweet which means it is the first thing seen by viewers of his account. This was a first use of “pinning” for Trump. And to be doubly sure, he posted it on Instagram as well. This was no spontaneous midnight outburst but a very deliberate action taken on Friday noon, Dec. 30, the day after Obama had issued his retaliation order.

The implications of this move are, arguably, breathtaking. Trump treated Putin as his ally, not as a hated adversary. And he treated Obama and the bipartisan foreign policy elite of Washington as his adversaries, not his allies – a move that makes perfect sense if Trump’s desire is to rein in the War Party’s New Cold War and to strive for a New Détente with Russia.

If the main enemy is those who are stoking the New Cold War and risking worse, then Trump has placed himself squarely against these war hawks. And stop to consider for a moment who these folks are. Besides President Obama and Hillary Clinton, they represent a full-blown armchair army: neocons, liberal interventionists, the mainstream media, various Soros-funded “non-governmental organizations,” virtually all the important think tanks, the leadership of both major parties, and the CIA and the other U.S. intelligence agencies. This array of Official Washington’s power elite has been working 24/7 at demonizing Putin and stoking tensions with nuclear-armed Russia. Trump took on all of them on with his tweet!

Putin as Ally Against the War Party

As Trump looks for new allies in pursuit of a New Détente and a relaxation of U.S.-Russian tensions, Putin is foremost among them. Thus, in the struggle for peace, Trump has drawn new lines, and they cross national borders. Not since Ronald Reagan embraced Mikhail Gorbachev or Richard Nixon went to China have we seen a development like this. In this new battle to reduce tensions between nuclear powers, Trump has shown considerable courage, taking on a wide range of attackers.

Later that afternoon, Maya Kosoff writing for Vanity Fair put out an article entitled “Twitter Melts Down over ‘Treason’ After Trump Praises Putin.” The first batch of such tweets came from “journalists and other foreign policy experts,” the next from Evan McMullin, the former CIA officer who tried to draw off Republican votes from Trump in the general election, who tweeted: “To be clear, @realDonaldTrump is siding with America’s greatest adversary even as it attacks our democracy. Never grow desensitized to this.”

Finally came the predictable rash of tweets calling Trump’s words “treasonous” or “seditious.” In response, Team Trump refused to issue a “clarification,” saying instead that Trump’s words spoke for themselves.

As stunning as Trump’s tweet was in many ways, it was in other ways entirely predictable. Despite the mainstream media’s scorn and Hillary Clinton’s mocking him as Putin’s “puppet,” Trump has held firm to his promise that he will seek peace with Russia and look for areas of cooperation such as fighting terrorism.

So, even when Trump’s Russia comments appeared to cost him politically, he stuck with them, suggesting that he believes that this détente is important. The rule of thumb is that if a politician says something that will win votes, you do not know whether it is conviction or opportunism. But if a politician says something that should lose her or him votes, then you can bet it is heartfelt.

Trump was bashed over his resistance to the New Cold War both during the Republican primaries when many GOP leaders were extremely hawkish on Russia and during the general election when the Clinton campaign sought to paint him as some sort of Manchurian Candidate. Even his vice presidential candidate Mike Pence staked out a more hawkish position than Trump.

Trump stood by his more dovish attitude though it presented few electoral advantages and many negatives. By that test, he appears to be sincere. So, his latest opening to Putin was entirely predictable.

A Choice of Peace or War

What is troubling, however, is that some Americans who favor peace hate Trump so much that they recoil from speaking out in his defense over his “treasonous” tweet though they may privately agree with it. Some progressives are uncomfortable with the mainstream’s descent into crude McCarthyism but don’t want to say anything favorable about Trump.

After all, a vote for President is either thumbs up or thumbs down – nothing in between – though voters may like or dislike some policy prescriptions of one candidate and other positions of another candidate. And progressives could list many reasons to not vote for Trump.

But a presidential administration is multi-issued – not all or none. One can disagree with a president on some issues and agree on others. For instance, many progressives are outraged over Trump’s harsh immigration policies but agree with him on scrapping the TPP trade deal.

In other words, there is no reason why those who claim to be for peace should not back Trump on his more peaceful approach toward Putin and Russia, even if they disdain his tough talk about fighting terrorism. That is the reality of politics.

What I’ve discovered is that many progressives – as well as many on the Right – who oppose endless war and disdain empire will tell you in whispers that they do support Trump’s attempt at Détente 2.0, though they doubt he will succeed. In the meantime, they are keeping their heads down and staying quiet.

But clearly Trump’s success depends on how much support he gets – as weighed against how much grief he gets. By lacking the courage to defend Trump’s “treasonous tweet,” those who want to rein in the warmongers may be missing a rare opportunity. If those who agree with Trump on this issue stay silent, it may be a lost opportunity as well.

John V. Walsh, an anti-war activist, can be reached at John.Endwar@gmail.com




Obama’s Deadly Afghan Acquiescence

From his first days, President Obama showed a lack of guts when confronted by powerful insiders. He backed down even when that meant squandering U.S. soldiers in the futile Afghan War “surges,” says ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern.

Occasionally a New York Times writer like Mark Landler will be permitted to step up to the plate and write a sensible article about President “No Guts Obama” and how he caved in to folks whom he lacked the political courage to cross.

Landler’s Jan. 1 article shows, among other things, how Obama’s bowing to heavyweights like Gen. David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ended up getting thousands of people killed and prolonging the fool’s-errand Afghan war.

The pity, of course, is that Landler’s piece, “The Afghan War and the Evolution of Obama,” comes eight years too late. There is a lot of numbness out there today about how we were all had by “NGO,” together with attempts to blame bad decisions on his benighted advisers. But you know where the buck is supposed to stop. And a number of us, including Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), spared no effort to get through to him in “real time.”

I can understand that some of you will not want to risk being further depressed. Others, however, may wish to be reminded of our efforts to warn President Obama before he let himself be conned into doubling down on the Afghan folly. Those others may want to skim through the re-runs (linked below) of early warnings in March 2009 and January 2010, together with some retrospective comments.

On March 28, 2009, as Obama was beginning his plunge into the Afghan War swamp, I wrote an articled entitled, Welcome to Vietnam, Mr. President,” which Consortiumnews.com republished last year with the intro: “With still no end in sight for the Afghan War, President Obama can’t say he wasn’t warned. Barely two months into his presidency in 2009, ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern welcomed Obama to his own Vietnam quagmire.”

Included in that piece was this passage: Equally relevant to Obama’s fateful early decision on Afghanistan, Gen. Douglas MacArthur told another young President in April 1961: ’Anyone wanting to commit American ground forces to the mainland of Asia should have his head examined.’”

The truth of that advice even eventually sunk into the fellow whom we at the CIA used to call “windsock Bobby Gates” in the days when he was starting his bureaucratic climb to the top by tailoring his positions to please his superiors.

Though Gates helped maneuver Obama into a pointless Afghan “counterinsurgency surge” in fall 2009, Gates later told aspiring officers at West Point: Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it.”

My “Welcome to Vietnam, Mr. President” article of March 28, 2009, also noted: “When JFK’s top military advisers, critical of the President’s reluctance to go against [MacArthur’s] advice, virtually called him a traitor  — for pursuing a negotiated solution to the fighting in Laos, for example — Kennedy would tell them to convince Gen. MacArthur first, and then come back to him. (Alas, there seems to be no comparable Gen. MacArthur today.)”

Leaked Doubts

On Jan. 27, 2010, I was back at it again, citing the belated disclosure that U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry had tried to warn President Obama against escalating the Afghan War. I wrote:

“I imagine that in years to come, Eikenberry will proudly show his cables to his grandchildren. Or maybe he won’t, out of fear that one of them might ask why he didn’t have the guts to quit and let the rest of the country know what he thought of this latest March of Folly.”

Eikenberry is an interesting case study showing, among other things, that lack of guts on the part of a commander-in-chief can be contagious. A retired Lt. General and then Obama’s ambassador in Kabul, Eikenberry knew more about Afghanistan than the so-called “Gang of Five” – Gen. Petraeus, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Defense Secretary Gates, Secretary of State Clinton, and special envoy Richard Holbrooke – put together.

Eikenberry sent back to Washington some very important, sensible advice, though we don’t know whether Clinton forwarded the cables on to her boss. Nor do we know whether Eikenberry exercised his ambassadorial prerogative to contact the President directly.

Eikenberry had served three years in Afghanistan over the course of two separate tours of duty. During 2002-2003, he was responsible for rebuilding Afghan security forces. He then served 18 months (2005-2007) as commander of all U.S. forces stationed in the country. Surely, he could see the toll in killed and wounded that would inevitably result from the hopeless counterinsurgency strategy being urged on “NGO” by the “Gang of Five.”

And Eikenberry’s cables show that he felt strongly about it. He also knew, of course, that Obama was about to let himself be sandbagged by the Gang and its clever use of the media. So he sent two SECRET NODIS (“NODIS” means No Dissemination) cables to Clinton, who was his boss (and who – along with Gates – was one of what Gates called the “un-fireables”). Eikenberry surely doubted that Clinton would share his advice with Obama, but did Eikenberry ever think of resigning loudly on principle? Apparently not.

So, what did he do when he was overruled? He trod up to Congress and fully supported the feckless surge of troops launched out of the cowardice/stupidity of “NGO” in bowing to the “Gang of Five.” It probably never occurred to Eikenberry to blow the whistle on the “tough guy/gal” policy which would end up getting a thousand or so U.S. troops killed along with a much larger number of Afghans.

For many a graduate of West Point, the academy’s motto seems to get garbled as they climb the ladder of success. Instead of “Duty, Honor, Country,” it becomes “Career, President, Sinecure Retirement.” Perhaps blowing the whistle did occur to Eikenberry. But if you challenge the Establishment in that way, you seldom end up with a cushy job like running a Research Center at Stanford.

Presumably, Eikenberry takes some gratification now in the fact that he turns out to have been correct in his bleak assessment of the surge” in Afghanistan. He may even have been the one behind eventually leaking his cables to The New York Times, thus earning him applause from his academic colleagues.

But his burnished credentials didn’t save the lives of the soldiers tossed into the Afghan meat grinder or the many civilians who died needlessly as senior U.S. government officials put ideology and careerism – the need to look tough – ahead of what made sense for either Afghanistan or the United States.

In the end, however, the bloody futility of the past eight years in Afghanistan rest most heavily on the “Gang of Five” and the easily outmaneuvered “NGO,” who sits at the desk where the buck stops. 

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.  He was an Army Infantry/Intelligence officer and then CIA analyst for a total of 30 years, and is now a member of the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).




Danger in Democrats Demonizing Putin

With the Clintons’ corporate money machine floundering after a devastating election defeat, Democrats are desperate to find someone to blame and have dangerously settled on Vladimir Putin, writes Norman Solomon.

By Norman Solomon

Many top Democrats are stoking a political firestorm. We keep hearing that Russia attacked democracy by hacking into Democratic officials’ emails and undermining Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Instead of candidly assessing key factors such as longtime fealty to Wall Street that made it impossible for her to ride a populist wave, the party line has increasingly circled around blaming Vladimir Putin for her defeat.

Of course partisan spinners aren’t big on self-examination, especially if they’re aligned with the Democratic Party’s dominant corporate wing. And the option of continually fingering the Kremlin as the main villain of a 2016 morality play is clearly too juicy for functionary Democrats to pass up — even if that means scorching civil liberties and escalating a new cold war that could turn radioactively hot.

Much of the current fuel for the blame-Russia blaze has to do with the horrifying reality that Donald Trump will soon become president. Big media outlets are blowing oxygen into the inferno. But the flames are also being fanned by people who should know better.

Consider the Boston Globe article that John Shattuck — a former Washington legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union — wrote in mid-December. “A specter of treason hovers over Donald Trump,” the civil libertarian wrote. “He has brought it on himself by dismissing a bipartisan call for an investigation of Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee as a ‘ridiculous’ political attack on the legitimacy of his election as president.”

As quickly pointed out by Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at New York University, raising the specter of treason “is simply wrong” — and “its wrongness matters, not just because hyperbole always weakens argument, but because the carefully restricted definition of the crime of treason is essential to protecting free speech and the freedom of association.”

A Liberal Zeitgeist

Is Shattuck’s piece a mere outlier? Sadly, no. Although full of gaping holes, it reflects a substantial portion of the current liberal zeitgeist. And so the argument that Shattuck made was carried forward into the new year by Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, who approvingly quoted Shattuck’s article in a Jan. 1 piece that flatly declared: “In his dalliance with Vladimir Putin, Trump’s actions are skirting treason.”

The momentum of fully justified loathing for Trump has drawn some normally level-headed people into untenable — and dangerous — positions. (The “treason” approach that Shattuck and Kuttner have embraced is particularly ironic and misplaced, given that Trump’s current course will soon make him legally deserving of impeachment due to extreme conflicts of interest that are set to violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.)

Among the admirable progressives who supported Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign but have succumbed to Russia-baiting of Trump are former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Congressman Keith Ellison, who is a candidate for chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Last week, in a widely circulated post on his Facebook page, Reich wrote: “Evidence continues to mount that Trump is on Putin’s side.” But Reich’s list of “evidence” hardly made the case that Trump “is on Putin’s side,” whatever that means.

A day later, when Trump tweeted a favorable comment about Putin, Rep. Ellison quickly echoed Democratic Party orthodoxy with a tweet: “Praising a foreign leader for undermining our democracy is a slap in the face to all who have served our country.”

Some of Putin’s policies are abhorrent, and criticizing his regime should be fair game as much as criticizing any other. At the same time, “do as we say, not as we do” isn’t apt to put the United States on high moral ground. The U.S. government has used a wide repertoire of regime change tactics including direct meddling in elections, and Uncle Sam has led the world in cyberattacks.

Intervention in the election of another country is categorically wrong. It’s also true that — contrary to conventional U.S. wisdom at this point — we don’t know much about a Russian role in last year’s election. We should not forget the long history of claims from agencies such as the CIA that turned out to be misleading or downright false.

Late last week, when the Obama administration released a drum-rolled report on the alleged Russian hacking, Democratic partisans and mainline journalists took it as something akin to gospel. But the editor of ConsortiumNews.com, former Associated Press and Newsweek reporter Robert Parry, wrote an assessment concluding that the latest report “again failed to demonstrate that there is any proof behind U.S. allegations that Russia both hacked into Democratic emails and distributed them via WikiLeaks to the American people.”

Key Questions

Even if the Russian government did intervene in the U.S. election by hacking emails and publicizing them, key questions remain. Such as:

–Do we really want to escalate a new cold war with a country that has thousands of nuclear weapons?

–Do we really want a witch-hunting environment here at home, targeting people with views that have some overlap with Kremlin positions?

–Can the president of Russia truly “undermine our democracy” — or aren’t the deficits of democracy in the United States overwhelmingly self-inflicted from within the U.S. borders?

It’s so much easier to fixate on Putin as a villainous plotter against our democracy instead of directly taking on our country’s racist and class biases, its structural mechanisms that relentlessly favor white and affluent voters, its subservience to obscene wealth and corporate power.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about refusing to normalize the Trump presidency. And that’s crucial. Yet we should also push back against normalizing the deflection of outrage at the U.S. political system’s chronic injustices and horrendous results — deflection that situates the crux of the problem in a foreign capital instead of our own.

We should reject the guidance of politicians and commentators who are all too willing to throw basic tenets of civil liberties overboard, while heightening the risks of brinkmanship that could end with the two biggest nuclear powers blowing up the world.

Norman Solomon is co-founder of the online activist group RootsAction.org. His books include War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. He is the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.




WPost’s New ‘Fake News’ on Russian ‘Hack’

Exclusive: The Washington Post’s latest folly – falsely reporting a Russian “hack” into Vermont’s electric grid – reflects the paper’s steep decline from the days of Watergate, reports ex-British intelligence officer Annie Machon.

By Annie Machon

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) has been hacked – cue a national American trauma, allegations of dirty tricks, fears that democracy has been subverted, all leading to what the next U.S. president would call “our long national nightmare.”

But, no, I am not talking about the current Russo-phobic hysteria currently engulfing the mainstream U.S. media, replete with claims about “fake news,” expelled Russian diplomats, and a lack of skepticism about the evidence-lite hacking allegations.

Instead, I am dipping back into history – the old Watergate scandal – when Richard Nixon’s “plumbers” stole information the old-fashioned way; they broke into the DNC offices, rifled the files and planted listening devices. On June 17, 1972, when police captured five burglars inside the DNC offices at the Watergate building in Washington, the case slowly unfolded over the next two years until President Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, and was replaced by Vice President Gerald Ford who declared “our long national nightmare is over.”

During those two years, The Washington Post became internationally and justifiably famous for breaking the story about Nixon’s role in the Watergate cover-up and – since then – generations of cub reporters have dreamed of being the next Woodward and Bernstein. Besides leading to the downfall of the mendacious and paranoid Nixon, the scandal contributed to the reining in of an out-of-control intelligence establishment culminating in the Church Committee hearings of 1975.

What followed was greater, if unfortunately temporary, control of the U.S. intelligence agencies and at least an apparent respect for the rights of American citizens under the terms of the U.S. Constitution. The work of The Washington Post then was indeed relevant and world-changing.

The movie depiction of the Post’s investigation, “All the President’s Men” celebrated this exposé and confirmed in Western minds that our wonderful free press spoke truth to power. And perhaps, in this case, the press did (although I have to say that I preferred the meltdown scene in the prophetic movie, “The Network,” which envisioned the slide of the news media into ratings-driven madness).

Lost Credibility

But – regarding The Washington Post – how the mighty have fallen. Over the past couple of months, the Post has blown what was left of its journalistic reputation out of the water.

First it unblushingly reported the PropOrNot “blacklist” of “fake news” Internet sites that were allegedly working at the Kremlin’s command to swing the U.S. election to Donald Trump, except that the list encompassed many of the most reputable independent (i.e., not U.S. corporate-owned) English-language international news sites (including Consortiumnews.com). Threatened with angry writs from some of the sites, the paper quickly printed a disclaimer distancing itself from the anonymous people behind PropOrNot, but still not apologizing for the McCarthyistic smear.

Then, last Friday, the newspaper was at it again – breathlessly reporting that the Vermont energy grid was apparently hacked by the scapegoat du jour, Russia. Although there should have been obvious questions asked: Why Vermont? What has that state ever done to Russia? Well, not much as it turns out; nor Russia to Vermont.

Yet again the Post has revised its reporting down to the fact that a laptop, completely unconnected to the grid, according to the energy provider’s statement, had been infected by malware. In other words, there was no Russian hacking into the Vermont power grid.

And yet, because it’s The Washington Post, this fake breaking “news” was taken seriously and metastasized through the body politic of America and beyond. This Russian hacking became a “post-truth” reality, no matter how fact-free the original story. (I hereby propose a #factfreediet for us all on Twitter for January, so we can highlight this phenomenon.)

Explaining Why

But here are the obvious next questions: Why did this non-story appear in The Washington Post and why now? Has The Washington Post suddenly fallen prey to a revamped Operation Mockingbird, its editorial staff stuffed to the gills with CIA agents of influence?

As I have written before, the CIA and its associates within the Deep State appear to be hell bent on undermining the legitimacy of the Trump election result and this hyping of Russian hacking is one of the key weapons in this struggle. So perhaps the Deep State players are (re)activating a few agents of influence in the mainstream American media?

But there may possibly be a more tangential explanation for The Washington Post’s plunge into fiction: Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com and one of the wealthiest people in the world. Amazon is not only the favorite purveyor of all goods online, but also suspected (at least in the U.K.) of massive tax avoidance scams as well as abusive employment practices in the same country.

Bezos is also, since 2013, the proud owner of The Washington Post, a purchase that heralded his unexpected business swerve into the old mainstream media. The deal to buy the newspaper was reported in the business press to have cost him $250 million.

Interestingly in the same year Amazon cut a deal to develop a cloud-based service for the CIA – a deal worth a reported $600 million over ten years. It also appears that this service has expanded across all 17 of America’s intelligence agencies, so who can tell what it might be worth to Amazon now and in the future?

It is no doubt just an interesting coincidence that the Bezos-owned Washington Post is the fount of the current stream of CIA assertions that the Russians are hacking key U.S. institutions, starting with the DNC – which then somehow became “hacking the election” – and now the utility grid. Bezos himself has asserted that he exerts no direct control over the editorial decisions of the newspaper, and he has left in place many of the neoconservative editors who preceded his stewardship, so there may not be any need for direct orders.

Of course, all state-level players, including the Russians and certainly the Americans, are going to be probing the basic systems underpinning all our countries for vulnerabilities. That is what intelligence agencies do, and it is also what mercenary spy companies do on behalf of their corporate clients, and what hackers (either of the criminal flavor or the socially-minded hacktivists) do too. The dodgy malware, the code, and the vulnerabilities are all out there, often for sale or squirreled away by the national spy agencies for potential future advantage.

Whatever the truth about the DNC hacking allegations, The Washington Post sadly seems uninterested in properly pursuing it – indeed it seems interested in little beyond pursuing the specific political agenda of fanning a dangerous distrust of Russia and undermining the legitimacy of President-elect Trump.

If such a compliant corporate culture had existed back in 1972 at the time of the first DNC “hack,” the Watergate scandal would surely never have been exposed. And the old media still wonders why it is no longer trusted?

Annie Machon is a former intelligence officer in the UK’s MI5 Security Service (the U.S. counterpart is the FBI).




The War Against Alternative Information

The U.S. government is creating a new $160 million bureaucracy to shut down information that doesn’t conform to U.S. propaganda narratives, building on the strategy that sold the bloody Syrian “regime change” war, writes Rick Sterling.

By Rick Sterling

The U.S. establishment is not content simply to have domination over the media narratives on critical foreign policy issues, such as Syria, Ukraine and Russia. It wants total domination. Thus we now have the “Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act” that President Obama signed into law on Dec. 23 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017, setting aside $160 million to combat any “propaganda” that challenges Official Washington’s version of reality.

The new law mandates the U.S. Secretary of State to collaborate with the Secretary of Defense, Director of National Intelligence and other federal agencies to create a Global Engagement Center “to lead, synchronize, and coordinate efforts of the Federal Government to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests.” The law directs the Center to be formed in 180 days and to share expertise among agencies and to “coordinate with allied nations.”

The legislation was initiated in March 2016, as the demonization of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia was already underway and was enacted amid the allegations of “Russian hacking” around the U.S. presidential election and the mainstream media’s furor over supposedly “fake news.” Defeated Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton voiced strong support for the bill: “It’s imperative that leaders in both the private sector and the public sector step up to protect our democracy, and innocent lives.”

The new law is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least because it merges a new McCarthyism about purported dissemination of Russian “propaganda” on the Internet with a new Orwellianism by creating a kind of Ministry of Truth – or Global Engagement Center – to protect the American people from “foreign propaganda and disinformation.”

As part of the effort to detect and defeat these unwanted narratives, the law authorizes the Center to: “Facilitate the use of a wide range of technologies and techniques by sharing expertise among Federal departments and agencies, seeking expertise from external sources, and implementing best practices.” (This section is an apparent reference to proposals that Google, Facebook and other technology companies find ways to block or brand certain Internet sites as purveyors of “Russian propaganda” or “fake news.”)

Justifying this new bureaucracy, the bill’s sponsors argued that the existing agencies for “strategic communications” and “public diplomacy” were not enough, that the information threat required “a whole-of-government approach leveraging all elements of national power.”

The law also is rife with irony since the U.S. government and related agencies are among the world’s biggest purveyors of propaganda and disinformation – or what you might call evidence-free claims, such as the recent accusations of Russia hacking into Democratic emails to “influence” the U.S. election.

Despite these accusations — leaked by the Obama administration and embraced as true by the mainstream U.S. news media — there is little or no public evidence to support the charges. There is also a contradictory analysis by veteran U.S. intelligence professionals as well as statements by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and an associate, former British Ambassador Craig Murray, that the Russians were not the source of the leaks. Yet, the mainstream U.S. media has virtually ignored this counter-evidence, appearing eager to collaborate with the new “Global Engagement Center” even before it is officially formed.

Of course, there is a long history of U.S. disinformation and propaganda. Former CIA agents Philip Agee and John Stockwell documented how it was done decades ago, secretly planting “black propaganda” and covertly funding media outlets to influence events around the world, with much of the fake news blowing back into the American media.

In more recent decades, the U.S. government has adopted an Internet-era version of that formula with an emphasis on having the State Department or the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy supply, train and pay “activists” and “citizen journalists” to create and distribute propaganda and false stories via “social media” and via contacts with the mainstream media. The U.S. government’s strategy also seeks to undermine and discredit journalists who challenge this orthodoxy. The new legislation escalates this information war by tossing another $160 million into the pot.

Propaganda and Disinformation on Syria

Syria is a good case study in the modern application of information warfare. In her memoir Hard Choices, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote that the U.S. provided “support for (Syrian) civilian opposition groups, including satellite-linked computers, telephones, cameras, and training for more than a thousand activists, students and independent journalists.”

Indeed, a huge amount of money has gone to “activists” and “civil society” groups in Syria and other countries that have been targeted for “regime change.” A lot of the money also goes to parent organizations that are based in the United States and Europe, so these efforts do not only support on-the-ground efforts to undermine the targeted countries, but perhaps even more importantly, the money influences and manipulates public opinion in the West.

In North America, representatives from the Syrian “Local Coordination Committees” (LCC) were frequent guests on popular media programs such as “DemocracyNow.” The message was clear: there is a “revolution” in Syria against a “brutal regime” personified in Bashar al-Assad. It was not mentioned that the “Local Coordination Committees” have been primarily funded by the West, specifically the Office for Syrian Opposition Support, which was founded by the U.S. State Department and the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

More recently, news and analysis about Syria has been conveyed through the filter of the White Helmets, also known as Syrian Civil Defense. In the Western news media, the White Helmets are described as neutral, non-partisan, civilian volunteers courageously carrying out rescue work in the war zone. In fact, the group is none of the above. It was initiated by the U.S. and U.K. using a British military contractor and Brooklyn-based marketing company.

While they may have performed some genuine rescue operations, the White Helmets are primarily a media organization with a political goal: to promote NATO intervention in Syria. (The manipulation of public opinion using the White Helmets and promoted by the New York Times and Avaaz petition for a “No Fly Zone” in Syria is documented here.)

The White Helmets hoax continues to be widely believed and receives uncritical promotion though it has increasingly been exposed at alternative media outlets as the creation of a “shady PR firm.” During critical times in the conflict in Aleppo, White Helmet individuals have been used as the source for important news stories despite a track record of deception.

Recent Propaganda: Blatant Lies?

As the armed groups in east Aleppo recently lost ground and then collapsed, Western governments and allied media went into a frenzy of accusations against Syria and Russia based on reports from sources connected with the armed opposition. CNN host Wolf Blitzer described Aleppo as “falling” in a “slaughter of these women and children” while CNN host Jake Tapper referred to “genocide by another name.”

The Daily Beast published the claims of the Aleppo Siege Media Center under the title “Doomsday is held in Aleppo” and amid accusations that the Syrian army was executing civilians, burning them alive and “20 women committed suicide in order not to be raped.” These sensational claims were widely broadcast without verification. However, this “news” on CNN and throughout Western media came from highly biased sources and many of the claims – lacking anything approaching independent corroboration – could be accurately described as propaganda and disinformation.

Ironically, some of the supposedly “Russian propaganda” sites, such as RT, have provided first-hand on-the-ground reporting from the war zones with verifiable information that contradicts the Western narrative and thus has received almost no attention in the U.S. news media. For instance, some of these non-Western outlets have shown videos of popular celebrations over the “liberation of Aleppo.”

There has been further corroboration of these realities from peace activists, such as Jan Oberg of Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research who published a photo essay of his eyewitness observations in Aleppo including the happiness of civilians from east Aleppo reaching the government-controlled areas of west Aleppo, finally freed from areas that had been controlled by Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate and its jihadist allies in Ahrar al-Sham.

Dr. Nabil Antaki, a medical doctor from Aleppo, described the liberation of Aleppo in an interview titled “Aleppo is Celebrating, Free from Terrorists, the Western Media Misinformed.” The first Christmas celebrations in Aleppo in four years are shown here, replete with marching band members in Santa Claus outfits. Journalist Vanessa Beeley has published testimonies of civilians from east Aleppo. The happiness of civilians at their liberation is clear.

Whether or not you wish to accept these depictions of the reality in Aleppo, at a minimum, they reflect another side of the story that you have been denied while being persistently force-fed the version favored by the U.S. State Department. The goal of the new Global Engagement Center to counter “foreign propaganda” is to ensure that you never get to hear this alternative narrative to the Western propaganda line.

Even much earlier, contrary to the Western mythology of rebel “liberated zones,” there was strong evidence that the armed groups were never popular in Aleppo. American journalist James Foley described the situation in 2012 like this:

“Aleppo, a city of about 3 million people, was once the financial heart of Syria. As it continues to deteriorate, many civilians here are losing patience with the increasingly violent and unrecognizable opposition — one that is hampered by infighting and a lack of structure, and deeply infiltrated by both foreign fighters and terrorist groups. The rebels in Aleppo are predominantly from the countryside, further alienating them from the urban crowd that once lived here peacefully, in relative economic comfort and with little interference from the authoritarian government of President Bashar al-Assad.”

On Nov. 22, 2012, Foley was kidnapped in northwestern Syria and held by Islamic State terrorists before his beheading in August 2014.

The Overall Narrative on Syria

Analysis of the Syrian conflict boils down to two competing narratives. One narrative is that the conflict is a fight for freedom and democracy against a brutal regime, a storyline promoted in the West and the Gulf states, which have been fueling the conflict from the start. This narrative is also favored by some self-styled “anti-imperialists” who want a “Syrian revolution.”

The other narrative is that the conflict is essentially a war of aggression against a sovereign state, with the aggressors including NATO countries, Gulf monarchies, Israel and Jordan. Domination of the Western media by these powerful interests is so thorough that one almost never gets access to this second narrative, which is essentially banned from not only the mainstream but also much of the liberal and progressive media.

For example, listeners and viewers of the generally progressive TV and radio program “DemocracyNow” have rarely if ever heard the second narrative described in any detail. Instead, the program frequently broadcasts the statements of Hillary Clinton, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and others associated with the U.S. position. Rarely do you hear the viewpoint of the Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, the Syrian Foreign Minister or analysts inside Syria and around the world who have written about and follow events there closely.

“DemocracyNow” also has done repeated interviews with proponents of the “Syrian revolution” while ignoring analysts who call the conflict a war of aggression sponsored by the West and the Gulf monarchies. This blackout of the second narrative continues despite the fact that many prominent international figures see it as such. For example, the former Foreign Minister of Nicaragua and former President of the UN General Assembly, Father Miguel D’Escoto, has said, “What the U.S. government is doing in Syria is tantamount to a war of aggression, which, according to the Nuremberg Tribunal, is the worst possible crime a State can commit against another State.”

In many areas of politics, “DemocracyNow” is excellent and challenges mainstream media. However in this area, coverage of the Syrian conflict, the broadcast is biased, one-sided and echoes the news and analysis of mainstream Western corporate media, showing the extent of control over foreign policy news that already exists in the United States and Europe.

Suppressing and Censoring Challenges

Despite the widespread censorship of alternative analyses on Syria and other foreign hotspots that already exists in the West, the U.S. government’s new “Global Engagement Center” will seek to ensure that the censorship is even more complete with its goal to “counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation.” We can expect even more aggressive and better-financed assaults on the few voices daring to challenge the West’s “group thinks” – smear campaigns that are already quite extensive.

In an article titled “Controlling the Narrative on Syria”, Louis Allday describes the criticisms and attacks on journalists Rania Khalek and Max Blumenthal for straying from the “approved” Western narrative on Syria. Some of the bullying and abuse has come from precisely those people, such as Robin Yassin-Kassab, who have been frequent guests in liberal Western media.

Reporters who have returned from Syria with accounts that challenge the propaganda themes that have permeated the Western media also have come under attack. For instance, Canadian journalist Eva Bartlett recently returned to North America after being in Syria and Aleppo, conveying a very different image and critical of the West’s biased media coverage. Bartlett appeared at a United Nations press conference and then did numerous interviews across the country during a speaking tour. During the course of her talks and presentation, Bartlett criticized the White Helmets and questioned whether it was true that Al Quds Hospital in opposition-held East Aleppo was attacked and destroyed as claimed.

Bartlett’s recounting of this information made her a target of Snopes, which has been a mostly useful website exposing urban legends and false rumors but has come under criticism itself for some internal challenges and has been inconsistent in its investigations. In one report entitled “White Helmet Hearsay,” Snopes’ writer Bethania Palmer says claims the White Helmets are “linked to terrorists” is “unproven,” but she overlooks numerous videos, photos, and other reports showing White Helmet members celebrating a Nusra/Al Qaeda battle victory, picking up the bodies of civilians executed by a Nusra executioner, and having a member who alternatively appears as a rebel/terrorist fighter with a weapon and later wearing a White Helmet uniform. The “fact check” barely scrapes the surface of public evidence.

The same writer did another shallow “investigation” titled “victim blaming” regarding Bartlett’s critique of White Helmet videos and what happened at the Al Quds Hospital in Aleppo. Bartlett suggests that some White Helmet videos may be fabricated and may feature the same child at different times, i.e., photographs that appear to show the same girl being rescued by White Helmet workers at different places and times. While it is uncertain whether this is the same girl, the similarity is clear. 

The Snopes writer goes on to criticize Bartlett for her comments about the reported bombing of Al Quds Hospital in east Aleppo in April 2016. A statement at the website of Doctors Without Borders says the building was “destroyed and reduced to rubble,” but this was clearly false since photos show the building with unclear damage. Five months later, the September 2016 report by Doctors Without Borders says the top two floors of the building were destroyed and the ground floor Emergency Room damaged yet they re-opened in two weeks.

The many inconsistencies and contradictions in the statements of Doctors Without Borders resulted in an open letter to them. In their last report, Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF) acknowledges that “MSF staff did not directly witness the attack and has not visited Al Quds Hospital since 2014.”

Bartlett referenced satellite images taken before and after the reported attack on the hospital. The images do not show severe damage and it is unclear whether or not there is any damage to the roof, the basis for Bartlett’s statement. In the past week, independent journalists have visited the scene of Al Quds Hospital and report that that the top floors of the building are still there and damage is unclear.

The Snopes’ investigation criticizing Bartlett was superficial and ignored the broader issues of accuracy and integrity in the Western media’s depiction of the Syrian conflict. Instead the article appeared to be an effort to discredit the eyewitness observations and analysis of a journalist who dared challenge the mainstream narrative.

U.S. propaganda and disinformation on Syria has been extremely effective in misleading much of the American population. Thus, most Americans are unaware how many billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on yet another “regime change” project. The propaganda campaign – having learned from the successful demonizations of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and other targeted leaders – has been so masterful regarding Syria that many liberal and progressive news outlets were pulled in. It has been left to RT and some Internet outlets to challenge the U.S. government and the mainstream media.

But the U.S. government’s near total control of the message doesn’t appear to be enough. Apparently even a few voices of dissent are a few voices too many.

The enactment of HR5181, “Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation,” suggests that the ruling powers seek to escalate suppression of news and analyses that run counter to the official narrative. Backed by a new infusion of $160 million, the plan is to further squelch skeptical voices with operation for “countering” and “refuting” what the U.S. government deems to be propaganda and disinformation.

As part of the $160 million package, funds can be used to hire or reward “civil society groups, media content providers, nongovernmental organizations, federally funded research and development centers, private companies, or academic institutions.”

Among the tasks that these private entities can be hired to perform is to identify and investigate both print and online sources of news that are deemed to be distributing “disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda directed at the United States and its allies and partners.”

In other words, we are about to see an escalation of the information war.

Rick Sterling is an independent investigative journalist. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and can be reached at rsterling1@gmail.com




Hypocrisy Over Alleged Russian ‘Hacking’

As Official Washington rages over alleged Russian hacking of Democratic emails, a forgotten back story is how the U.S. government pioneered the tactics of cyber-war and attacked unsuspecting countries, recalls Michael Brenner.

By Michael Brenner

The psychodrama over the alleged but unsubstantiated Russian hacking of Democratic emails to influence the U.S. presidential election has yet to reach its climax. Already, though, it has earned nomination as the most surreal and passionate work of fiction of the Twenty-first Century.

In all the excitement, it is easy to lose perspective. Perhaps the biggest piece of the untold story is the United States government’s pioneering role in electronic surveillance and hacking. We seem to have forgotten that the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency eavesdropped on heads of state in Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Iraq, Venezuela – and, at last count, several score other capitals. Also, the United Nations Secretary General, the President of the European Union Commission, the European Central Bank and God knows whom else.

This was not coincidental. It was part of a calculated strategy approved by two successive Presidents to monitor all electronic communications around the globe. Author James Bamford and other knowledgeable experts have provided us with a detailed history of the program.

Yet, the U.S. — as presented to us by the mainstream media and most commentators reflecting Official Washington –is portrayed as the innocent among the main protagonists. The plot line represents America as the victim of unprovoked cyber aggression by the Russians and, in other circumstances, the Chinese – these attacks coming out of the blue, an aggressive blow in an assumed contest for global dominance between the powers.

Is any of this true? Frankly, we haven’t even seen the proof. But let’s assume that there is an element of truth to it (leaving apart the nonsense about a Kremlin plot to manipulate and then destroy American democracy).

On the Offensive

Let us recall that it was the United States that launched the first cyber attacks – some years ago by the NSA. This history is detailed in the Snowden documents whose authenticity never has been questioned. We succeeded in trespassing on the computer networks of several Chinese government agencies and individuals. We boasted about our success in intra-governmental communications. Those occurred at a time when related documents now in the public realm revealed the NSA’s ambition to tap into every electronic communications network in the world and laid out a program for achieving that goal.

Simultaneously, the United States was launching offensive assaults on Iran. The targets there included not just their nuclear research facilities but also critical centers for the oil and gas industry. These are acts of war. Yet there was never a mandate from any international body for doing so, nor a casus belli. We did it in collaboration with the Israelis because we made the unilateral judgment that aggression was in our national interest. Now we are outraged that others are doing what we have done. This is rank hypocrisy. It also is not very bright. For the initial actions made the casual assumptions that the U.S. would always have an advantage; therefore, the setting of norms and rules was unnecessary and undesirable. The same logic operated in regard to drones and targeted assassinations.

Conditions now have changed and the now U.S. is vulnerable to attack. The option of negotiating international rules of the road and perhaps formal regulations is slipping away. We will have to live with the chaotic mess that we have created.

Whatever thinking the NSA did on the subject (and perhaps other agencies) bears an uncanny resemblance to Air Force General Curtis LeMay’s attitude toward nuclear strategy: An emphasis on offense because it played to our advantage; defense only in the form of “massive retaliation” which – for Lemay – was the strategic cover for massive first strike; and a conviction that this was an unavoidable zero-sum game played for the highest stakes. In other words, cowboy strategy. And it is cowboy strategic thinking that has ruled in the NSA.

Cyber Army

The most revealing article on this appeared in WIRED in July 2014 by James Bamford. Army General Keith Alexander, who was NSA director from 2005 to 2014, revealed the full scope of his ambition. Here are some of the article’s more noteworthy quotes: “For years, U.S. General Keith Alexander has been amassing a secret cyber army. Now it’s ready to attack. … Alexander’s forces are formidable – thousands of NSA spies, plus 14,000 cyber troops. … Endgame hunts for hidden security weaknesses that are ripe for exploitation.”

Plans included a “launch on warning” doctrine calling for a massive cyber-retaliation against anyone who launched a strategic attack on sensitive U.S. computers. Its code name was “MonsterMind.” But preparations for the Great Cyber War evidently left no time to keep track of smaller attacks (such as the alleged hacking of Democratic emails) or else its radar was badly defective.

[Also see THE INTERCEPT of Oct. 10, 2014, “Core Secrets: NSA Saboteurs in China and Germany” by Peter Maass and Laura Poitras.]

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