Behind Flint’s Lead-Poisoned Water

Largely abandoned by auto manufacturers who shifted factories to low-wage areas, Flint, Michigan, suffers from a powerlessness that allowed Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and other officials to ignore the city’s lead-poisoned water, as Dennis J Bernstein reports.

By Dennis J Bernstein

The lead-poisoned water of Flint, Michigan, is a national scandal that bears on multiple American problems, from poverty and race, to the impact of industrialization and deindustrialization, to political attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulators who then fail to do their jobs protecting citizens from hazards.

Columbia University Professor David Rosner, a leading expert on the deadly history of the use of lead by U.S. corporations, most notably General Motors, has documented how lead in various ways was mainlined into the blood streams of Americans, throughout the Twentieth Century, as a result of corporate greed.

Co-author of seven books on industrial and occupational hazards, including Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution and Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children, Dr. Rosner was interviewed by Dennis J Bernstein.

DB: Let’s begin with the micro and work our way out to the macro. What’s your best understanding of what happened in Flint? How did it come to pass that the people of Flint, mostly black and Latino, a bit less than half of them living under the poverty line, were poisoned by their own government?

DR: Well, it’s government, and its industry, and it’s all of us, in some sense. The short story is that the water in the Flint River corroded pipe, and leeched out of those pipes lead, into the faucets, and into the water the children were drinking. And that this was essentially something that was identified literally a couple of years ago, and the problem was never addressed, and was depicted as kind of a public relations problem, rather than a public health problem.

So children were ingesting this lead, and they were accumulating lead in their blood. And a young physician, Mona Hanna-Attisha, discovered that she was seeing in her hospital that children were coming in with elevated blood lead levels. And that this was strange, that there was a real spike, that the children were coming in poisoned. And she began to make an issue of it. And she got the attention of some legislators finally, and also community leaders who began to protest the fact that these children were coming in with lead poisoning. She was, at first, basically brushed off as kind of an overwrought, young physician, a pediatrician.

But slowly it began to emerge that there had been lots of correspondence about the polluted water. And that the water was corroding the pipes. And that there was a real problem here that ultimately made national headlines and became an issue of national importance. The tiny issue, the kind of microcosm is that there was a crisis identified luckily and became, by a whole set of circumstances, the focal point of national attention. The broader issue, of course, is much more complex, it goes deep into the history of, basically, our exploitation of this community, and of its people, and of poor communities around the country.

DB: I want to get there, right now, professor. You left it off at a good spot. This is a question [that] will get us into General Motors, about who knew what, when. A couple of details just are drilling through my brain. … The fact that, on the one hand, the government made available water coolers for state workers in Flint and they were given the option to drink the water cooler water or the poison. That’s one thing, and then we also find out that General Motors got a special dispensation from, I guess it’s Lake Huron, because their parts were being corroded by the water that they were feeding to the people and the kids of Flint.

DR: Well, you know, the story goes deeper into Flint’s history, industrial history. The first point is who knew what when? Anybody who knew anything about the history of Flint … when an historian thinks of Flint what they think of is General Motors. What they think of is the fact that … one of the largest labor disputes in American history occurred in Flint.

It was the sight of the formation, really, of the United Auto Workers. It was the sight of the formation of, really, major parts of the CIO in the 1930’s, over working conditions, because [of] the working conditions and wages … because this was the largest industrial auto plant in the country. Maybe with the exception of Ford. It was the place where Chevrolets were built, where Cadillacs were built, where Fisher Body Parts Company was.

This was [where] miles of the waterfront were literally plants, 80 acres of that city were literally industrial plants, building cars in the 1930s. And when you think about that, what you realize is that river was basically the sewer for, not only the car manufacturers, but the people who made batteries, and supplied batteries for those cars which were filled with lead and toxins; the people who made the glass which had lead in it and silica; the people who made oil and lubricating materials that went into the cars; the people who made the paint that was leaded paint that would ultimately cover the cars.

In some sense this was a giant industrial pollution site literally from the 1920s on. And [it] was the site of labor disputes because of working conditions, because of the exploitation of those people. So the history of Flint is rooted in this industrial production and also in the pollution of that river, because that river was the place where the refuse was dumped.

So the first thing that would occur to you is that this is a river and a piece of land that has to be really closely monitored. The second thing that should have occurred to them and would have occurred to them, is that for 50 years people stopped drinking out of that river. They stopped using Flint water over 50 years ago, because of the potential of pollution. They actually shipped the water all the way from Lake Huron because that river from basically Flint all the way up the river, to the Saginaw River, and up to Saginaw was one giant production line, for production of the car, the American motor car.

So that’s what you would think of as an historian. [The river] they were drinking out of, in the first place, whether it had lead or not lead, whether it was corroding pipes or not corroding pipes, it was kind of a nutty idea, because you just know you had to really inspect that water. Then the other thing, as you raise and point out, General Motors itself stopped using that water because it destroyed the transmissions of their cars. It was not pure enough to use for manufacturing the car, the transmissions. So they stopped using it.

The other thing, of course, was that a couple of years ago, or a year ago, they started shipping water into state buildings. So there was a lot of suspicion about what that water was. It’s not necessarily that they knew lead was in it, but they knew that something was wrong with it. And that they depicted this as a minor problem really talks to a much broader history of the domination of industries, but also the political power structure in Flint, and in Michigan in general, which was essentially a power structure that emphasized low levels of regulation, little government, suspicion of government, attempts to make sure that government didn’t do anything.

So, while we think that the government, the bureaucrats, the government regulators were at fault, in fact they had been subjected to 30 years of constant propaganda about how they shouldn’t touch business, especially in a state which had just gone through major economic crises.  You know, the idea of regulating companies or forcing them to clean up the messes they made, or to even start regulating the environment, would have been depicted as an assault on industries, an assault on jobs. …

I think we all, watching the presidential elections, we know what would have happened. So on the one hand, I blame government for not doing anything. On the other hand, I understand how the EPA and the local water environmental quality people, and all the other people who should have had their fingers on this issue, were in some sense intimidated about ever raising this issue until it became a crisis. You know, there are many Flints. Flint, Michigan, is just one of many sites around the country that have been used for industrial production, and they were abandoned. And, so, in some sense we’re experiencing many, many Flints. We just don’t know about them yet.

DB: I was teaching in the New York City school system in the early and mid-seventies, and it became illegal to paint the schools with lead, in I think it was 1978. I do know that I was a teacher of emotionally disturbed children and I worked with therapists and all the things that I’m reading about again, reading about in terms of the impacts of lead poisoning on kids and learning is just, again, devastating.

And I want to ask you before we go on and paint a larger picture, here around the country, I want to ask you how bad … what’s your informed judgment in terms of how bad the damage is going to be to the people, to the children? What can we say about that? We have about 100,000 folks who live in Flint.

DR: Sure. Well, in Flint and in the rest of the country … you know, first of all you have to understand that this epidemic is probably the longest running childhood, self-inflicted epidemic in American history. It’s been going on since early 1900’s. We’ve known about the dangers of lead paint specifically, and lead on the neurological development of the children. In the early part of the century, children went into convulsions, and comas and died from lead exposure. More recently, as it was put into gasoline, the kids breathed [it] in …

I remember ethyl gasoline. It was in the paint, it covered every wall. And it doesn’t take much lead to really poison a child. It takes less than a thumb nail sized … you know, one coat of a thumb nail could send a kid into convulsions. I mean, that’s the amount of lead it takes to harm a child. It’s the dust on the walls, it’s not big chunks of lead, it’s not a bullet that you swallow, it’s not chips that come off the wall. It’s dust. …

Our country, many of our cities, in the East and, I guess, the West, particularly were covered with lead because the cities expanded dramatically at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, we built entire cities. The whole mid-western belt of…rust belt cities were built in that period of time. And they all used lead at one point or another.

I mean, just to give your listeners a sense of what we’re talking about … this isn’t just a little bit of color, a little bit of lead in a can of paint, but throughout the early part of the century, at least the first half of the century, at least a half of every can of paint was composed of lead carbonate. At least in lead paint, I should say. There were other alternatives. But, if you painted with lead paint, you were talking about painting with 50 percent of the can of paint would be lead carbonate, which meant essentially every can of paint would smear up to 15 pounds of lead on the walls of a home.

So when you think about painting a city that was built in the early part of the century, over and over again, when you think about the number, the coats of paint that go on each time, and the number of times you paint in any 50 year period, you’re talking about every home having hundreds and hundreds of pounds of a neurotoxin of which the size of a nail is enough to send a kid into convulsions. So you’re talking about a huge problem, a huge problem.

The simple fact is that kids began to be identified as having lead poisoning as early as 1904 in Australia, and increasing throughout the early part of the century. In the United States we began identifying children in the 19-teens, a century ago now, as having been exposed to lead and developing convulsions and dying. We had, in the 1920’s, many articles that appeared in medical and public health journals, and yet, despite that, the lead industry, the lead pigment industry, began to push more and more, and harder and harder, to introduce lead into all the paints we used.

So the National Lead Company, for example, owned a company, I guess it’s still in existence, I don’t know if they own it anymore, Dutch Boy Paint. We’ve all seen the symbol of the Dutch Boy. The guy that sits on a swing with a brush in his hand. They marketed it to families. They told children to paint books that had the Dutch Boy in story land. Images of the Dutch Boy conquering old man gloom, and protecting the child from the evils of wall paper. I mean it’s really bizarre stuff, of 19th century houses that had to be repainted and they’re saying get rid of old man gloom, this 19th century dark color, we can brighten up your home.

DB: I remember those Dutch Boy commercials. I loved them.

DR: Yeah, and these advertisements are quite astounding. And they gave out booklets to kids, in paint stores. And told their parents to go buy this paint. And they gave out costumes to use as paint. So at the same time that internally, in their own corporate records, they’re talking about children dying from exposure to paint, they’re talking about it as a public relations problem, not a public health problem.

They’re saying “It’s really terrible. But it’s only happening…” they say at one point… “among Negro and Puerto Rican families. So let’s not worry about it. We can’t deal with it until we’ve torn down all the cities because all the cities’ housing is filled with this stuff. So we can’t really deal with it. And it’s only among Negro and Puerto Rican families that [it’s] happening. And it’s among ignorant women, ignorant families that don’t know how to take care of their kids, that’s causing this problem in the first place.”

This is the 1950’s. In 1950’s they’re talking about this problem. And beforehand, they’re identifying the kids dying, they fought legislation in Baltimore and elsewhere. And they fought warning labels that would indicate that lead was a problem. They threatened people with lawsuits, or physicians with lawsuits who identified lead poisoning among the children. They offered money and grants to people in order not to study it. It’s a really ugly history, like it really rivals, in fact I think it precedes the tobacco industry’s Joe Camel, and all the advertising and lies that they gave.

So you have this situation where in 1955 they’re saying “Look, we have a real problem, there’s a real problem here but it’s only affecting those families and it’s probably due to the fact that the parents are ignorant. They don’t know how to stop the kid from crawling on the floor, and putting their hands in their mouth, or going near a wall, that’s painted with lead.”

It’s a heartrending story that means that we’ve literally poisoned knowingly for a century, generations and generations of kids, most of whom were minority kids, most of whom were politically powerless. And we’re, in some sense, just beginning to cope with the massive damage. Kids don’t go into comas anymore, but they do get affected by this low-level exposure that causes them to develop subtle neurological problems: learning disorders, loss of IQ, behavioral problems, attention deficit, hyperactivity, all sorts of issues that interfere in their school performance, interfere in their lives, and interfere and literally change the course of their lives. So it’s an ongoing tragedy.

And the CDC still says that there are about 500,000 children with elevated blood lead levels, now, in the country. And this is a century after we began identifying children as having exposure to lead, and lead being a terrible neurotoxin [] for children. I’m sorry I’m going on too long.

DB: No, no, it’s incredibly important. There’s a tremendous amount of information that we know. But there’s a little blockage because of all the stuff you were talking about in terms of the way in which the corporations have suppressed real information, and corporate media really isn’t all that interested. So it’s very important to hear what you say Dr. Rosner. Just two more issues I want to hit. First of all, the broader picture, we’re not just talking about Flint. I guess you have your eyes on a few other cities. Tell us about the broader picture.

DR: Well, the broader picture is that this is a problem in every community in the country, this low-level exposure. Every time a family moves into an older building, a Victorian house, and renovates, they’re releasing lead. Every time they scrape a wall, every time they repaint and sand, you know, sand a wall to make it flat, every time they have a leak in the roof, that leads to paint puckering up, every time they drink out of the water fountain in older cities, where the pipes still exist, and the pipes are leaching lead, you’ve got a problem. And so we have to figure out how to address it. And everyone has been asking, “Why doesn’t government change it?”

And the bigger question is, “Why,” — and this is a problem that will take a lot of money, a lot of time, it can be done systematically, it doesn’t have to break the bank, but, — “Why isn’t the industry, why aren’t the industries that actually profited for generations from the use of lead, and actually sold it and created this mess in the first place, why aren’t they held accountable? Why aren’t they being asked to contribute to lead poisoning?” There are big suits here in California. There was a big trial a couple of years ago, in which there was a lawsuit against the lead pigment manufacturers…

DB: And they won a bunch of money, right?

DR: Well, [the state] won $1.15 billion from these companies. It’s now under appeal in the Supreme Court. And everyone is wondering how it’s going to turn out because it’s a very big political issue, if the Supreme Court decides that this can go forward, this is legitimate and it’s not going to be appealed. I’m not sure if it’s the Supreme Court or the appeals court, actually. I’m not sure how you are structured there.

The point is, it’s now being appealed and if it ultimately goes the way that the judge decided in the first place, this is a way of thinking about [how] other cities are going to think about this. Because this is extremely important. It was an extremely groundbreaking and important suit, but you have to realize that this is just one set of communities, it’s San Diego, and Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and Oakland and a couple of other major communities in the state, that brought the suit. And everyone’s waiting with baited breath about how this is going to come out.

DB:  In terms of the nature of racism in the communities that are subjected to this, these communities are the least able to fight back, to hire the … legal power. All this kind of stuff. What are your thoughts, just … back to the micro … the governor [of Michigan] says he’s not gonna show up [to Congressional hearings]. I guess they’re having hearings, they asked him to come to hearings. But he had to do budget work in Michigan. One wonders if this budget is going to include clean water for the people of Flint.

But isn’t it important to start investigating? The EPA has investigative powers, the Justice Department, all this kind of stuff. You poison people, you should be held accountable. Do you think that that would help start the ball rolling if the marshals went to gather up the governor of Michigan so he can testify and tell the truth about what happened?

DR: Well, to tell you the truth, I’ve never understood why these were always liability suits over individual amounts of money, when, in fact, this seems like criminal behavior. But, of course, it should be [investigated], … This has to be investigated. I mean this is a paradigmatic case in a way. This is a paradigm for lots of other communities, and they have to know how it happened. And also you have to investigate and expose even if you don’t ultimately win a victory in terms of holding somebody personally accountable or the state accountable, because you want to put other people on notice around the country.

You want to let other departments of health to know that it’s not going to be easy to avoid. And that if they are not doing their job, or if they’re not regulating, if they’re not standing up for communities, they’re going to be held accountable. So I think it’s extremely important that investigations go forward if for no other reason to really publicly shame both public officials, and corporations and those individuals who allowed this to happen. There are kid’s lives that are being affected.

DB: And it is true, right, that you really can’t turn the clock back on lead poisoning. Once you got it, you got it.

DR: Well, once the damage is done, it’s a very insidious poison because it affects the neurology at very young ages. It changes the course of children’s lives, even in utero, it seems. But if a mother takes in lead, it will affect the child on initial exposure. It will change the behavior. … I’m not a neurologist, right? I feel awkward saying this, it will affect the brain, the development of the brain.

And once that pathway, or once the brain, is damaged it’s never going to heal, so to speak, because it’s still developing. It will develop around the problem, whatever the biochemical or physiological effects are, so that’s what seems to be the latest understanding of lead poisoning. [A] very little amount can affect you literally before you’re even aware of any developmental problems. It’s not going to show up for years.

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




Lost Lessons of Libya

Exclusive: Despite months of Western diplomatic efforts, Libya remains an object lesson in “regime change” arrogance, a failed state beset by rival militias and becoming a new base for Islamic extremists as the movie “Thirteen Hours” graphically depicts, writes James DiEugenio.

By James DiEugenio

American foreign policy leaders are not great at learning lessons from the past. The cautionary tale about “regime change” from George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 did not even last until 2011 when President Barack Obama at the urging of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plunged into “regime change” in Libya, creating one more failed state and another humanitarian catastrophe.

Different presidents, different parties, very similar results.

In the case of Libya, many of the failings from that enterprise are recounted in the book, Thirteen Hours, along with one of the tragic consequences of that adventure, the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, an event highlighted in a movie by the same name.

But the failure of Obama and Clinton to heed the warnings from the Iraq disaster has historical precedents in other prescient warnings that were ignored by impetuous leaders, such as early doubts expressed about the gathering storm clouds in Vietnam in the 1950s.

In 1958, William Lederer, a former Navy officer, and Eugene Burdick, a political scientist, submitted their draft of a non-fiction book called The Ugly American to W.W. Norton Company. An editor at Norton suggested it would probably be more dramatically effective if it was rewritten as a roman a clef, that is as a thinly disguised fiction based on actual people and events.

From a marketing standpoint at least, the editor was correct. The Ugly American became a sensational success, spending 76 weeks on the best-seller lists and eventually selling over four million copies. [New York Times, Nov. 29, 2009]

Arrogance and Stupidity

Essentially, the authors were criticizing the arrogance and stupidity of American foreign policy in Indochina. They were particularly hard on the State Department. They pictured its employees as being insensitive and unknowledgeable about the true circumstances and conditions of the cultures they were dealing with. Even the best of their representatives were blinded by the distortions of the Cold War. Their consuming anti-communism kept them from perceiving that they had become their own worst enemies.

Sen. John F. Kennedy, a skeptic about U.S. interventions in Third World conflicts, mailed a copy of The Ugly American to each member of the U.S. Senate, but the United States plunged nonetheless into the Vietnam killing fields, with Kennedy as president deploying the Green Berets and other military advisers to the South Vietnamese army and then after Kennedy’s death President Lyndon Johnson escalating the war dramatically by committing more than a half million U.S. soldiers.

But even the devastating failure in Vietnam did not instill any lasting sense of caution and humility in the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Bristling with boasts about “American exceptionalism,” President George W. Bush rushed off to invade Iraq in 2003 and President Barack Obama launched an air war in Libya in 2011 in support of an uprising against longtime strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

Like his predecessors in other U.S. interventions, Obama was either ignorant of or chose to ignore history, since Libya had a long record of suffering under and resisting foreign powers.

For three centuries, the Ottoman Empire had controlled Libya until 1890. In 1912, Italy took over the northern African country, but was cast out eight years later. However, in 1931, Italian fascist Benito Mussolini invaded again. His forces captured and hanged the Moslem leader Omar Mukhtar, who became a martyred hero, especially in eastern Libya.

It was not until after World War II, with Italy and its fascist Axis allies defeated, that Libya became free and independent. In 1951, a constitutional monarchy under the Senussi Moslem leader Idris al-Senussi was formed. At that time, Libya was one of the poorest and most illiterate countries in the world. [Thirteen Hours, by Mitchell Zuckoff, e-book version, p. 11]

In 1969, the king was overthrown in a bloodless military coup led by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi who then exercised what was essentially one-man rule over Libya for over 40 years during which Libya grew rich from oil fields mostly located in the east around Benghazi, although political power was concentrated in the west around Tripoli, which Gaddafi made the permanent capital and the home for the National Oil Corporation. Most of the improvements Gaddafi made, such as hospitals and schools, were also in the west. [ibid, p. 11]

Backing a Rebellion

So, in 2011, when a rebellion broke out against Gaddafi, it understandably started in east Libya and was partly fueled by the slighting of the east for the west. Once this happened, in the context of other uprisings known as the Arab Spring, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton assisted by then U.S Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and National Security staffer Samantha Power decided to seize the opportunity to eliminate Gaddafi, long considered a thorn in the side of U.S. foreign policy.

But as with Bush in Iraq they did not appear to have asked themselves: 1.) What do we have to replace him? and 2.) Will the situation in Libya be better or worse when he is gone? Some observers cautioned about any American intervention, simply because of the Pandora’s Box effect: Who could possibly predict what would happen afterwards?

The rebellion against Gaddafi began in February 2011 in east Libya, and then spread westward. It included the Islamist organizations, the Libyan Fighting Group and the Obaida Ibn Jarrah Brigade. These organizations appear to have fought Gaddafi because he allowed a secular form of government, including many rights for women.

The anti-Gaddafi opposition also included elements of Al Qaeda, though the rebel groups denied this at the time. The role of Islamic extremists was confirmed by a West Point study of captured Al Qaeda documents called the Sinjar Records, which showed that a disproportionate number of jihadists who flocked to fight American troops in Iraq came from eastern Libya. Also, according to documents released by Wikileaks, one of the rebel leaders had joined the Taliban. [The Daily Telegraph, Oct. 29, 2011]

So, although there were pro-democratic elements in the rebellion against Gaddafi, mainly among the professional classes, there was a real danger that, if the rebels won out, the result could be a hardline Islamist state that would revoke rights for women and create a new stronghold for terrorism.

Secretary Clinton also was made aware of the role of regional rivalries seeking Gaddafi’s demise as well as Western motives that had nothing to do with protecting the lives or improving the lot of Libyans. For instance, among Clinton’s recently declassified emails, private adviser Sidney Blumenthal informed her that Egyptian special operations units were training and arming Libyan militants along the Egypt/Libya border and in Benghazi even before the uprising began. [Brad Hoff, The Levant Report, Jan. 4, 2016]

France’s Motives

France also parachuted weapons to the rebels, including anti-tank rockets. [Le Figaro, June 28, 2011] And, as Blumenthal explained to Clinton, France’s motives were not entirely noble. French President Nicolas Sarkozy wanted a greater share of Libyan oil production than he was getting from Gaddafi. Also, Sarkozy was interested in a new government in Libya because Gaddafi had plans to supplant the French franc with the Libyan golden dinar in Francophone Africa. In other words, Gaddafi wanted to free Africa from the neocolonial interests of the old colonial powers.

Blumenthal warned Clinton, too, that elements of Al Qaeda were infiltrating upward into the rebel umbrella group called the NTC, the National Transitional Council. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “What Hillary Knew about Libya.”]

Retired UK Prime Minister Tony Blair was alerted to the terrorist role directly by Gaddafi. While in power, Blair had visited Gaddafi a number of times and the Libyan leader considered him a friend.

In two phone calls on Feb. 25, 2011, Gaddafi told Blair that the forces he was fighting were similar to Osama Bin Laden. He said, “We are not fighting them, they are attacking us. An organization had laid down sleeping cells in North Africa. Called the Al Qaeda Organization in North Africa. The sleeping cells in Libya are similar to dormant cells in America before 9/11.” [The Telegraph, Jan. 7, 2016] As the author of this story, Robert Mendick noted Gaddafi was prophetic about this considering the later attacks in France.

But the Western leaders ignored these warnings. Following the Lederer-Burdick script from Indochina, France and the U.S., for different reasons, decided to team up again to attack a Third World country, this time in Africa.

While there were covert operations already going on in Libya, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were working more or less out in the open at the United Nations.

Tricking the Russians

In February 2011, the U.S., France, Germany and England teamed up to pass Security Council Resolution 1970. This act condemned Gaddafi for using lethal force against civilians in Tripoli (which, as many commentators have written, probably did not happen.) The UN then passed a series of sanctions against Libya, including freezing some assets and enacting an arms embargo. At the same time Western countries were aiding some of the worst elements of the rebellion.

One month later, the Obama administration returned to the United Nations, wanting to go even further. Resolution 1973 proposed the establishment of “a no-fly zone” over Libya, supposedly for humanitarian purposes. It also contained a clause that allowed all necessary means to protect civilians, short of an occupying force. Russia and China were lobbied not to veto it but rather to abstain from the vote, which they did despite concerns that the use of military force could result in unintended consequences.

The pretense for this intervention was that Gaddafi’s forces, which had isolated the rebels near Benghazi, would inflict a bloodbath. So, soon after the “humanitarian” resolution passed, the Western military operation unleashed fierce attacks against Gaddafi’s army in the east and quickly expanded the intervention into a “regime change” project headed by NATO, bombing a wide range of Libyan government targets and blockading ports.

Codenamed “Operation Unified Protector,” over 9,000 strike sorties were flown and over 400 artillery batteries were destroyed along with 600 tanks or armored vehicles. [Final Mission Stats, published by NATO, Nov. 2, 2011]

Some critics argued at the time that the Obama administration was exaggerating the potential for a bloodbath. For instance, University of Texas professor Alan Kuperman pointed out that neither Amnesty International nor Human Rights Watch warned of any impending massacre in Libya and neither did the U.S. intelligence community.

In March 2011, Kuperman wrote that there was no photographic evidence to support the administration’s claims but rather mostly rebel propaganda transmitted to the White House, which uncritically accepted it. [Foreign Affairs, “Who Lost Libya”, April 21, 2015] Kuperman said the intervention was actually driven by the fact that Gaddafi was close to stifling the rebellion. [“Obama’s Libya Debacle,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2015]

The true aim of the UN/NATO enterprise was not humanitarian relief but “regime change.” Once the rebel forces sensed that, they decided to reject each and every offer of a truce with negotiations that the Libyan government extended.

Call for ‘Regime Change’

Obama signaled U.S. support for the rebel intransigence by announcing on March 3, 2011, that Gaddafi “must step down from power and leave.” (op. cit. “Who Lost Libya”) The State Department then ordered U.S. Africa Command to stop peace negotiations on March 22. Even though Gaddafi made two more offers for a truce, with minimal demands on his side requesting only that his inner circle be allowed to leave the country peacefully and that Libya retain a military force strong enough to fight Al Qaeda and ISIS elements of the rebellion. (ibid)

Former Rear Admiral Charles Kubic, who had a major role in the negotiations, confirmed that Gaddafi was willing to step down and that his military leaders were willing to withdraw their forces from the cities to the outskirts in order to begin a truce process. Kubic was puzzled by the refusal of Western officials to accept, not only this but also the offer to discuss constitutional changes and pay compensation to victims of the fighting.

Kubic came to the conclusion that, “It wasn’t enough to get him out of power; they wanted him dead.” (ibid) Gaddafi’s olive branches were rebuffed, dismissed out of hand.

If Gaddafi’s death was indeed the goal a kind of head-on-a-spike, tough-guy/gal moment of blood lust the goal was achieved. Due to the massive NATO bombing and repeated refusals of a negotiated settlement, Tripoli was taken in the autumn of 2011. Gaddafi retreated to his hometown of Sirte, where he was captured on Oct. 20, 2011, tortured (sodomized with a knife) and then murdered.

Secretary Clinton could hardly contain her glee. Basking in her “Mission Accomplished” moment, she famously declared to a broadcast reporter, “We came, we saw, he died.”

But as George W. Bush had shown, when proper geopolitical conditions are not considered, a seeming victory can become a disaster. It turned out Gaddafi was correct. There were strong elements of radical Islam incorporated into the rebellion against him. And although an interim government was constructed, it could not control the anarchy that had been unleashed by the civil war. The government simply could not coax or order the guerrillas, militias and Islamists to disarm.

Benghazi Chaos

There was so little order that huge arms bazaars materialized overnight and sold sophisticated weapons on the street. Even before the outbreak of violence against Americans at the State Department compound and the CIA annex in Benghazi, there were two major violent clashes in 2012: the Sabha tribal dispute, resulting in 147 dead and 395 wounded, and the Zuwara conflict between Gaddafi loyalists and local militias, with estimates of more than 50 dead and over 100 wounded.

In the face of this escalating violence and the inability of the new government to quell the disorder, several foreign embassies shuttered their windows and closed their doors. However, the United States did not withdraw, even from the anarchic situation surrounding Benghazi.

In Benghazi, the United States had allied itself with a less radical group called the February 17th Martyrs Brigade which supplied hired guards to protect State Department buildings. [Zuckoff, p. 19] But perhaps the most powerful militia in Libya at the time of the Benghazi attack was the Ansar al Sharia Brigade, which translates as Partisans of Islamic Law.

The violence escalated because of the easy availability of weapons, including grenades, mortars, rocket launchers and heavy machine guns. [ibid, p. 20] In June 2012, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at the British ambassador, contributing to the United Kingdom’s decision to depart Benghazi. (ibid, p. 22)

In June 2012, Ambassador Christopher Stevens sent a cable to Washington, warning that Al Qaeda influence was spreading in Libya and he had seen their flags flying. Around the same time, Stevens had sent another cable to Washington seeking more bodyguards. He described the security conditions in Libya as being “unpredictable, volatile and violent.” [ibid, p. 63]

This request was denied, as were similar ones. Altogether, Stevens’ requests for added security were denied three times, even though the State Department classified the conditions for staffers there as critical. In late August 2012, the department circulated a travel warning to Libya declaring that “Political violence in the form of assassination and vehicle bombs have increased in both Benghazi and Tripoli. Inter-military conflict can erupt at any time or any place in the country.” [ibid, p. 65]

So the questions become: 1.) If the U.S. was going to stay, why was State not willing to fully protect its own personnel? and 2.) If not willing to fully protect the personnel, why should they stay? Whatever the answer to those questions, one of the main functions of the State Department compound in Benghazi, which did not technically qualify as a consulate, was to gather intelligence on the growing influence of Al Qaeda. (ibid, pgs. 35, 61)

Whenever one of the State Department employees went out to meet with a citizen, whoever it may have been, they were escorted by at least one bodyguard. That guard was either employed by Diplomatic Security (DS) or the CIA’s Global Response Staff (GRS). The former arose after the Beirut bombing in 1983; the latter after 9/11. The GRS is largely staffed by former special operations officers, e.g. Navy Seals. Two of the men who died at Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, were part of the GRS, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.

A Fatal Visit 

Ambassador Stevens had arrived for a five-day visit in Benghazi from Tripoli on Sept. 10. He attended a ribbon cutting at a local school, and opened up an “American Corner” on a city street: a place where Libyans could get bilingual books and films and magazines. (ibid, p. 65) He had five DS agents assigned to him, plus a computer technology officer, Sean Smith.

The State Department compound in Benghazi was not secure even from the Libyan guards hired to defend it. A post-incident review stated that the compound “had been vandalized and attacked by some of the same guards who were there to protect it.” [ibid, p. 67] In fact, at the time Stevens was in Benghazi there was a work dispute going on with these very same guards.

For security reasons, Stevens had not planned on leaving the compound on Sept. 11, which was the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. During the day, Stevens heard from an assistant that protesters had stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo over an insulting video about Islam that had been placed on YouTube, called Innocence of Muslim. (p. 76)

A State Department warning was sent out about a danger to local government buildings from Libyans. Stevens was alerted to this but disregarded it. In his last diary entry that night, Stevens wrote about how much he enjoyed being in Benghazi, except for the “Never ending security threats”

Shortly after 9 p.m., a Toyota pick-up truck pulled up in front of the compound. The car had police insignia. It stayed awhile, and then left. An explosion rang out. Dozens of men swarmed the gate firing AK-47s into the air. Some had walkie-talkies. To this day, there is a debate about whether the gate was left open or whether the Libyan guards were coerced into opening it. [Zuckoff, pgs. 83-85]

The militia leader who seemed to have organized the attack was Abu Khattala. [New York Times, Dec. 28, 2013] He had been a leader of the Al Jarrah brigade, which had helped depose Gaddafi with extensive American aid. Some witnesses interviewed by David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times said that, during the rioting inside the compound, Innocence of Muslims was mentioned. Yet, whether or not the film was the casus belli of the attack or it was simply a pretense used by the main organizer, perhaps Khattala, has become part of a partisan debate, which has obscured some of the larger questions involved.

As calls went out for help, Stevens took refuge with Smith in a safe room part of his villa, led there by a security officer. The attackers could not get into the room but managed to set fire to most of the area outside. The security officer tried to lead Smith and Stevens to a bathroom with an escape window onto a terrace. But en route, he lost Stevens and Smith. He tried going back several times to find them, but could not. He was later overcome with smoke inhalation and collapsed on the terrace.

After a delay of about 20-30 minutes, six GRS officers left the CIA annex, which was about a mile from the State Department compound. They managed to counter the attackers, and they found the body of Sean Smith who was dead from smoke inhalation. They also tried to find Stevens but could not get into the safe room due to fire and smoke.

After the rescuers returned to the CIA annex, they took positions on the rooftops of the main buildings. Several more men arrived from Tripoli in the middle of the night, with the defenders repulsing an attack on the CIA annex. The attackers regrouped and launched a mortar barrage. In the shelling, Bud Doherty, one of the men who arrived from Tripoli, and Ty Woods, part of the rescue team, were killed.

Stevens’ body was later recovered by locals. He was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead from smoke inhalation. Stevens was the first American ambassador to die in office in the line of duty since 1988.

A Political Football

The administration sent UN Ambassador Susan Rice out that weekend to make the circle of talk shows relying on talking points that played up the impact of the YouTube video as provoking the attack. [ibid, New York Times.] The Republicans seized on Rice’s statement, insisting that it was part of an Obama administration cover-up. But as Kirkpatrick noted in his six-part series, the Republicans went overboard in their painting of a conspiracy theory. (ibid)

Yet, there were clearly errors in Secretary Clinton’s and the State Department’s handling of the Libyan conflict and the resulting chaos. Benghazi was one of the most dangerous State Department outposts in the world, perhaps the most dangerous, yet pleas for enhanced security were bureaucratically rebuffed. The other key error was the delay in getting help to the compound sooner.

But the question that neither side wants to address is the one that Professor Kuperman confronts head on: Would it have been better for Libya and America if the State Department had negotiated with Gaddafi to ease his ouster and, perhaps, have had his son Saif al-Islam take over Libya? Due to the insistence on “regime change,” Libya is now listed by the State Department as a failed state. In 2014, it descended into its second civil war in three years. And now Al Qaeda and ISIS have operational cells there.

Lederer and Burdick could not have written a more nightmarish scenario to show the arrogance and short sightedness of American foreign policy. Prominent neocon Richard Perle could not have done worse. Yet, the overriding failure of “regime change” strategies was not the focus of Republican investigations. The Republican-controlled Congress insisted instead on focusing on what Secretary Clinton knew and when she knew it.

As the Benghazi political firestorm swept across Washington, author Mitchell Zuckoff got in contact with the surviving GRS officers who rode from the CIA annex to rescue Stevens that night. Zuckoff, a former journalist and author, relied on those accounts in13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened at Benghazi, written as a deliberate attempt to sidestep all of the partisan issues that had enveloped the incident.

The book concentrated on the characters of the six GRS contractors, Ambassador Stevens, computer expert Smith, and the CIA chief of station who was fictionally named Bob. The book details the firefights at both the State Department Compound and the CIA annex in extraordinary detail.

Considering the focus of the book, director-producer Michael Bay was a decent enough choice to transform the book into a movie. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer had hired Bay to direct action films like Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and Bad Boys 2. Bay is strong on technical elements: visuals, sound and editing. He is not so interested in things like story, character development, subtlety, and dramatic structure. But, in truth, Zuckoff’s book is not really interested in those aspects either.

To adapt the book, Bay hired author Chuck Hogan, who wrote novels including Prince of Thieves, which was adapted into the Ben Affleck film The Town in 2010.

Book into Movie 

In comparing the book, Thirteen Hours, with the film by the same name, there seems to me to be only one really exaggerated scene of dramatic license. When a militia at a checkpoint stops two of the GRS agents, the book does not describe any shooting which followed. (Zuckoff, pgs. 23-25) Bay does show an exchange of fire.

There has been some controversy over whether the CIA station chief actually delayed the rescue attempt and resisted the GRS involvement. But this is all in Zuckoff’s book, and he details it profusely. (pgs. 94-102) If it did not happen, then the GRS agents are lying. I suspect the CIA is probably covering for the reluctance of  “Bob” to let the agents leave the station relatively unprotected.

One of the problems with the film is that, although it is an action movie, there is a lot of time between the set pieces of violence. And, the running time of the film is well over two hours. Thus, we have a lot of dialogue and scenes where people at the CIA annex are interacting, not one of Bay’s strengths. He also didn’t seem interested in casting acutely either.

Because of the subject matter, the film spent heavily on the production value and not on performance value. With the exception of Toby Stephens as Bud Doherty, the acting performances are not notable or dynamic. However, with the action scenes, Bay does a decent enough job. They are vividly presented, especially the last mortar attack in which the shells are seen arriving at the CIA annex in super slow motion.

Zuckoff’s book does mention the Internet video in more than one place. But Bay’s film makes very little comment on that topic. At the end, after the last attack, the film takes a nihilistic attitude toward the whole affair. The Arab linguist, who the GRS team employed as a translator on their rescue mission, decides not to go with them to the infirmary. He shakes his head in disgust and says words to the effect, none of this should have ever happened.

Before the end titles roll, the film tells us that Libya is classified as a failed state today. We then learn that the five surviving agents who tried to rescue Stevens all resigned shortly after this mission. This is as close as director Bay gets to any kind of political statement, a reflection of the Lederer-Burdick sense of how U.S. foreign policy ambitions often outstrip American ability to achieve those goals and how the misguided efforts result in grave human catastrophes.

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




Justice Scalia’s ‘Originalist’ Hypocrisy

From the Archive: The death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Scalia has prompted fawning eulogies about his legal brilliance and his heart-felt faith in constitutional “originalism,” but the reality is that he twisted the Framers’ thoughts into whatever was politically convenient, as Robert Parry noted in 2011.

By Robert Parry (Originally published on Jan. 5, 2011)

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia unintentionally revealed the hypocrisy of the Right’s rhetoric about “originalist” interpretations of the U.S. Constitution with his comments about how the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection under the law” doesn’t mean equal rights for women.

“In 1868, when the 39th Congress was debating and ultimately proposing the Fourteenth Amendment, I don’t think anybody would have thought that equal protection applied to sex discrimination, or certainly not to sexual orientation,” Scalia said in an interview with the legal magazine California Lawyer.

“So does that mean that we’ve gone off in error by applying the Fourteenth Amendment to both? Yes, yes. Sorry, to tell you that.”

However, if the “original intent” of the amendment’s drafters was so determinative that the Fourteenth Amendment supposedly was only meant to apply to black men at the end of slavery it might be safe to assume that the drafters weren’t thinking about protecting a white man like George W. Bush from possibly losing an election in Florida in 2000.

Yet, the Fourteenth Amendment was precisely what Scalia and four other partisan Republicans on the Supreme Court cited to justify shutting down the Florida recount and handing the White House to Bush, despite the fact that he lost the national popular vote and apparently would have come out on the short end of the Florida recount if all legally cast ballots were counted.

To justify their ruling, the five Republican justices cited the Fourteenth Amendment’s “equal protection” clause in claiming that Florida’s electoral precincts had failed to apply common standards for counting votes. Then, rather than giving the state time to rectify the situation, the justices set a deadline of two hours, effectively assuring Bush’s “victory.”

In other words, Scalia and other right-wing justices operate with a situational ethic when it comes to “originalism” and “strict construction.” If their partisan and ideological interests require the abandoning of those precepts, the principles are dumped overboard.

That is what most of us would call hypocrisy or dishonesty. But Scalia, like many on the Right, operates with a curious sense of false righteousness, at least when his “principles” match up with his ideology and partisan interests.

In the interview, Scalia packaged his assessment of “originalist” intent on the Fourteenth Amendment as a tough-minded recognition of the facts. Scalia claimed that the amendment’s provisions should only relate to the “original” intent of extending legal rights to black men.

He framed his argument as an invitation to state legislatures to grant women, gays and other groups equal rights. But that also suggests that the states would be free to deny these Americans their rights, if the legislatures saw fit.

“If indeed the current society has come to different views [regarding equal rights for women and gays], that’s fine,” Scalia said. “You do not need the Constitution to reflect the wishes of the current society. Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex.

“The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t. Nobody ever thought that that’s what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that. If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws. You don’t need a constitution to keep things up-to-date. All you need is a legislature and a ballot box.”

Defending White Plutocrats

Nevertheless, when the power to appoint future Supreme Court justices was at stake in Election 2000 Scalia signed off on a fully unanticipated application of the “equal protection” language.

In the Bush v. Gore case, Scalia joined in a ruling that blocked the Florida Supreme Court from interpreting statutes passed by the state legislature regarding standards for legally cast votes. Scalia and four other Republican justices stopped Florida’s canvassing boards from assessing whether rejected ballots had indeed reflected the clear intent of the voters.

In effect, Scalia and the four other partisan Republicans Justices William Rehnquist, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor were citing the Fourteenth Amendment to overturn a state law regarding how elections should be conducted.

They did so with the expressed intent of protecting the “rights” of George W. Bush and without any concern that the Congress in 1868 never expressed any intent for the amendment to be used as a device to overturn the will of the voters and put a white plutocrat in the White House.

But as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. And Scalia and his cohorts were willing to invent or ignore “originalism” as needed to achieve their partisan ends. They were acting as what they like to condemn, “activist judges.”

By the way, the relevant part of the Fourteenth Amendment doesn’t make any reference to race or to gender, only to “citizens” and “any person.”

It states: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Four decades ago before Scalia’s arrival on the scene the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that those provisions do apply to women. More recently, some federal judges have ruled that the language also would prohibit discriminatory laws against gays.

Bush v. Gore

As painful as it might be to some, it’s worth reviewing — in the context of Scalia’s statement — how the Bush v. Gore ruling came to pass.

The behind-the-scenes court drama began on Dec. 8, 2000. Bush was clinging to an official lead of only a few hundred votes out of six million cast in Florida when the Bush forces were dealt a crushing blow. A divided Florida Supreme Court ordered a statewide review of ballots that had been kicked out by antiquated counting machines.

The recount began on the morning of Dec. 9. Immediately, the canvassers began finding scores of legitimate votes that the machines had rejected.

Despite a supposed reverence for states’ rights and a disdain for federal interference, Bush’s lawyers raced to the U.S. Appeals Court in Atlanta to stop the count. Though dominated by Republican conservatives, the appeals court held to established precedents and refused to intervene to stop the recount.

A frantic Bush then turned to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. There, in the late afternoon, the high court took the unprecedented step of issuing an injunction to stop the counting of votes cast by American citizens.

In the injunction, Justice Scalia made clear that the purpose of the court’s action was to prevent Bush from falling behind in the tally and thus raising questions about his legitimacy should the Supreme Court later declare him the winner.

That outcome would “cast a cloud” over the “legitimacy” of an eventual Bush presidency, explained Scalia. “Count first, and rule upon the legality afterwards, is not a recipe for producing election results that have the public acceptance democratic stability requires,” Scalia wrote.

Trusting the Law

Nevertheless, on Dec. 11, 2000, Gore and his lawyers voiced confidence that the rule of law would prevail that the U.S. Supreme Court would rise above any partisan concerns and would insist that the votes be counted and the will of the voters be respected.

Gore was particularly confident that Justice O’Connor would reject partisanship and apply the law fairly. However, on that same day, reporter Mollie Dickenson wrote for Consortiumnews.com that O’Connor, a supposed “swing vote” was “firmly on board for George W. Bush’s victory.”

Dickenson wrote that “according to a knowledgeable source, O’Connor was visibly upset – indeed furious – when the networks called Florida for Vice President Al Gore on Election Night. ‘This is terrible,’ she said, giving the impression that she desperately wanted Bush to win.

“Some have heard that one reason why O’Connor was so upset was that the O’Connors want to retire home to Arizona, but will not do so if Gore wins. In that case, O’Connor will remain on the court to deny Gore the opportunity to replace her.” (As it turned out, O’Connor did retire with Bush in office, enabling him to appoint right-wing Justice Samuel Alito, who became part of Scalia’s faction on the court.)

Yet, the Gore team apparently went before the court not knowing that whatever they argued, the five Republican partisans were determined to make Bush the next president.

The evidence is now clear that the five Republican partisans decided on the outcome first and worked out the rationale second. Indeed, their legal logic flipped from the start of their deliberations to the end, but their pro-Bush verdict remained steadfast.

USA Today disclosed this inside story in an article about the strains that the Bush v. Gore ruling created within the court. Though the article was sympathetic to the pro-Bush justices, it disclosed an important fact: that the five were planning to rule for Bush after oral arguments on Dec. 11. The court even sent out for Chinese food for the clerks, so work could be completed that night. [USA Today, Jan. 22, 2001]

At that point, the legal rationale for stopping the Florida recount was to have been that the Florida Supreme Court had made “new law” when it referenced the state constitution in an initial recount decision rather than simply interpreting state statutes.

Even though this basis for giving Bush the White House was highly technical, the rationale at least conformed with conservative principles, which are supposedly hostile to judicial “activism.” But the Florida Supreme Court threw a wrench into the plan.

On the evening of Dec. 11, the state court submitted a revised ruling that deleted the passing reference to the state constitution. The revised ruling based its reasoning entirely on state statutes, which permitted recounts in close elections.

This modified state ruling opened a split among the five conservatives. Justices O’Connor and Kennedy no longer felt they could agree with the “new law” rationale for blocking the recount, though Justices Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas were prepared to stick with the old thinking even though its foundation had been removed.

Finding a Reason

The plans for finishing up the formal opinion on the evening of Dec. 11 were scrapped as O’Connor and Kennedy veered off in a very different direction.

Through the day on Dec. 12, they worked on an opinion arguing that the Florida Supreme Court had failed to set consistent standards for the recount and that the disparate county-by-county standards constituted a violation of the “equal protection” rules of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The logic of this argument was quite thin and Kennedy reportedly had trouble committing it to writing. To anyone who had followed the Florida election, it was obvious that varied standards already had been applied throughout the state.

Wealthier precincts benefited from optical voting machines that were simple to use and eliminated nearly all errors, while poorer precincts with many African-Americans and retired Jews were stuck with outmoded punch-card systems with far higher error rates. Some counties had conducted manual recounts, too, and those totals already were part of the tallies giving Bush a tiny lead.

The statewide recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court was designed to reduce those disparities and thus bring the results closer to equality. Applying the “equal protection” provision, as planned by O’Connor and Kennedy, turned the Fourteenth Amendment on its head, guaranteeing less equality than would have occurred by letting the recount go forward.

Indeed, if one were to follow the “logic” of the O’Connor-Kennedy position, the only “fair” conclusion would have been to throw out Florida’s presidential election in total. After all, the U.S. Supreme Court was effectively judging Florida’s disparate standards to be unconstitutional. But that would have left Gore with a majority of the remaining electoral votes.

Or, more rationally, the U.S. Supreme Court could have given Florida more time to conduct the fuller recount that the O’Connor-Kennedy position envisioned, bringing in not only so-called “under-votes” in which a choice was hard to detect but “over-votes” in which citizens both punched the hole for their choice and wrote his name in.

However, Gore stood to benefit from either approach and that went against the pre-determined outcome to put Bush in the White House, whatever the legal excuse had to be.

Even more telling than the stretched logic of the O’Connor-Kennedy faction was the readiness of Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas to sign on to a ruling that was almost completely at odds with their initial legal rationale for blocking the recount — and in violation of their supposedly “strict constructionist” beliefs.

On the night of Dec. 11, that trio was ready to bar the recount because the Florida Supreme Court had created “new law.” On Dec. 12, the same three justices were voting to block the recount because the Florida Supreme Court had not created “new law” by establishing precise statewide recount standards.

The five conservatives had devised their own Catch-22. If the Florida Supreme Court set clearer standards, that would be struck down as creating “new law.” If the state court didn’t set clearer standards, that would be struck down as violating the “equal protection” principle. Heads Bush wins; tails Gore loses.

There was one other clever twist to the conservative majority’s maneuvering. When the ruling was issued at around 10 p.m. on Dec. 12, the Republican majority’s rationale asserted that the Fourteenth Amendment required a recount with equal standards applied statewide, but then gave Florida only two hours to complete the process before a deadline of midnight.

Because this two-hour window was absurdly unrealistic, the result of the ruling was to give Bush the White House based on a 537-vote lead in the “official” Florida results, as overseen by the state administration of his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.

Denying Politics

After the court’s ruling and Gore’s gracious-but-pained concession speech the next day, Justice Thomas told a group of high school students that partisan considerations played “zero” part in the court’s decisions. Later, asked whether Thomas’s assessment was accurate, Rehnquist answered, “Absolutely.”

In later comments about the court’s role in the case, Rehnquist seemed unfazed by the inconsistency of the court’s logic. His overriding rationale seemed to be that he viewed Bush’s election as good for the country whether most voters thought so or not.

In a speech on Jan. 7, 2001, Rehnquist said sometimes the U.S. Supreme Court needed to intervene in politics to extricate the nation from a crisis. His remarks were made in the context of the Hayes-Tilden race in 1876, when another popular vote loser, Rutherford B. Hayes, was awarded the presidency after justices participated in a special election commission.

“The political processes of the country had worked, admittedly in a rather unusual way, to avoid a serious crisis,” Rehnquist said. Scholars interpreted Rehnquist’s remarks as shedding light on his thinking during the Bush v. Gore case as well.

“He’s making a rather clear statement of what he thought the primary job of our governmental process was,” said Michael Les Benedict, a history professor at Ohio State University. “That was to make sure the conflict is resolved peacefully, with no violence.” [Washington Post, Jan. 19, 2001]

But where were the threats of violence and acts of disruption in the 2000 election? Gore had reined in his supporters, urging them to avoid confrontations and to trust in the “rule of law.” The only violence had come from the Bush side, when the Bush campaign flew protesters from Washington to Miami to put pressure on local election boards.

On Nov. 22, 2000, as the Miami-Dade canvassing board was preparing to examine ballots, a well-dressed mob of Republican operatives charged the office, roughed up some Democrats and pounded on the walls. The canvassing board promptly reversed itself and decided to forego the recount.

The next night, the Bush-Cheney campaign feted the rioters at a hotel party in Fort Lauderdale. Starring at the event was crooner Wayne Newton singing “Danke Schoen,” but the highlight for the operatives was a thank-you call from George W. Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, both of whom joked about the Miami-Dade incident, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The Journal noted that “behind the rowdy rallies in South Florida this past weekend was a well-organized effort by Republican operatives to entice supporters to South Florida,” with House Majority Whip Tom DeLay’s Capitol Hill office taking charge of the recruitment. [WSJ, Nov. 27, 2000. For more details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s Conspiracy to Riot.”]

Republican Defiance

In other less violent ways, Bush-Cheney operatives signaled that they would not accept an unfavorable vote total in Florida. In the chance that Gore pulled ahead, the Republican-controlled state legislature was preparing to void the results. In Washington, the Republican congressional leadership also was threatening to force a constitutional crisis if Gore prevailed in Florida.

If one takes Rehnquist’s “good-for-the-country” rationale seriously, that means the U.S. Supreme Court was ready to award the presidency to the side most willing to use violence and other anti-democratic means to overturn the will of the voters.

Rehnquist’s approach suggested that since Gore and his supporters were less likely to resort to violence while Bush and his backers were ready to provoke a crisis if they didn’t get their way that the high court should give the presidency to the side most committed to disruption.

A far more democratic and rational approach would have been for the Supreme Court to accept the O’Connor-Kennedy logic and simply extend the deadline for Florida to turn in its results. The court could have ordered the fullest and fairest possible recount with the winner being whichever candidate ended up with the most votes.

However, if that had occurred, the almost certain winner would have been Gore. When a group of news organizations conducted an unofficial recount of Florida’s disputed ballots in 2001, Gore came out narrowly on top regardless of what standards were applied to the famous chads dimpled, hanging or punched-through.

Gore’s victory would have been assured by the so-called “over-votes” in which a voter both punched through a candidate’s name and wrote it in. Under Florida law, such “over-votes” are legal and they broke heavily in Gore’s favor. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “So Bush Did Steal the White House.”]

In other words, the wrong candidate had been awarded the presidency. However, this startling fact was an unpleasant reality that the mainstream U.S. news media decided to obscure.

The tally wasn’t completed until after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the prevailing view among senior news executives became that it would be harmful to the nation’s need for unity if the press reported that Gore was the rightful winner of Election 2000.

So, the major newspapers and TV networks hid their own scoop when the results were published on Nov. 12, 2001. Instead of stating clearly that Florida’s legally cast votes favored Gore, the mainstream media bent over backwards to concoct hypothetical situations in which Bush might still have won the presidency, such as if the recount were limited to only a few counties or if the legal “over-votes” were excluded.

The discovery of Gore’s rightful victory was buried deep in the stories or relegated to charts that accompanied the articles.

Misleading the Readers

Any casual reader would have come away from reading The New York Times or The Washington Post with the conclusion that Bush really had won Florida and thus was the legitimate president after all. The Post’s headline read, “Florida Recounts Would Have Favored Bush.” The Times ran the headline: “Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote.”

Some columnists, such as the Post’s media analyst Howard Kurtz, even launched preemptive strikes against anyone who would read the fine print and spot the hidden “lede” of Gore’s victory. Kurtz labeled such people “conspiracy theorists.” [Washington Post, Nov. 12, 2001]

After reading these slanted “Bush Won” stories, I wrote an article for Consortiumnews.com noting that the obvious “lede” should have been that the recount revealed that Gore had won. I suggested that the news judgments of senior editors might have been influenced by a desire to appear patriotic only two months after 9/11. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Gore’s Victory.”]

My article had been up for only a couple of hours when I received an irate phone call from New York Times media writer Felicity Barringer, who accused me of impugning the journalistic integrity of then-Times executive editor Howell Raines. I got the impression that Barringer had been on the look-out for some deviant story that didn’t accept the pro-Bush conventional wisdom.

Today, the dominant conventional wisdom appears to be that while the Bush v. Gore decision was a case of politicized justice, it’s not something that Americans should get too upset about. There is even a school of thought that asserts that it was encouraging that U.S. citizens did not take to the streets to protest this overturning of their democratic judgment.

In a Sept. 13, 2010, interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the dissenters in the Bush v. Gore ruling, said he still believed the majority was wrong, but added that he found the aftermath remarkable in a positive way.

“That remarkable thing, is even though more than half the public strongly disagreed with it [Bush v. Gore], thought it was really wrong, they followed it,” Breyer said. “And the alternative, using guns, having revolutions, is a worse alternative.

“And it’s taken quite a long time, many, many years, decades and decades for Americans to come to that understanding. And that fact, that America will follow court decisions made by fallible human beings, even when those decisions are very unpopular, has not always been true.”

In other words, Breyer believes it is preferable for Americans to accept an anti-democratic judgment made by five partisans in black robes than to rise up in outrage against a powerful institution that has usurped the role of the voters and overturned the consent of the governed.

Yet, is that acquiescence really preferable to the courageous actions by people all over the world who have staged protests and risked their lives in defense of democracy when autocratic rulers have refused to accept the results of an election?

A decade after the fateful court ruling with the results of Bush’s presidency now painfully apparent and his appointed justices helping to open the floodgates of special-interest money to further distort the democratic process Bush v. Gore must be viewed as a moment when the United States started down a very dark road.

It also is a reminder that for Justice Scalia and his cohorts, a stated devotion to “originalism” and “strict construction” is more a propaganda exercise designed to fool the gullible than a bedrock principle that must be followed even when it doesn’t work in favor of a politically desired outcome.

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).




Deconstructing America’s ‘Deep State’

Americans perceive what has happened to their democratic Republic only dimly, tricked by rightists who call all collective government actions bad and by neoliberals who make “markets” a new-age god. But ex-congressional budget official Mike Lofgren shows how this “Deep State” really works, writes Chuck Spinney.

By Chuck Spinney

Just about everyone knows something is dangerously wrong with our nation’s political system. There is a growing awareness that the United States is drifting blindly into a state of greater inequality, stagnation, oligarchy and perpetual war, with a ruling establishment that neither responds to the will of the people nor to the problems our nation faces.

For evidence of this pervasive sense of unease, look no further than the 2016 presidential election, where a bombastic celebrity billionaire and a crusty grandfatherly democratic socialist are claiming the political system is rigged and are driving the scions of the status quo into the rubber room — at least for now.

books The Deep State 1

In his most recent book, The Deep State, Mike Lofgren has written a timely exegesis of that status quo and its staying power. He makes it easier for any concerned citizen to understand the realities of the political and constitutional crises now facing the United States — and perhaps even improve the reader’s sense for the madness and anger that now characterizes 2016 presidential election.

Before reading further, be advised, I am biased: the author, Mike Lofgren, is a long-time colleague and close friend. Lofgren worked on Capitol Hill while I worked in the Pentagon. Over the years, beginning in the late 1980s, we discussed and tried to understand the many hidden connections that had evolved insensibly over time to disconnect the money-siphoning operations of the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex from the system of checks and balances designed by the Framers of the Constitution.

Lofgren’s book goes much further. It grew out of a stunning essay “Anatomy of the Deep State” (February 2014), that Lofgren produced at the request of journalist Bill Moyers. Lofgren has written a tour de force that takes the reader on a wild ride through a swamp of confusion and disorder that reeks of corruption. His writing is at once witty and particular, but also general and prescriptive.

Making sense out of that mix is no mean feat. To be sure, the story Lofgren weaves is complex, and at times overwhelming and disgusting, but anyone can understand it, if one takes the time to read and think about what Lofgren is saying.

Lofgren’s analysis centers on how the looting operations of three mutually reinforcing “pillars” (my word) of the contemporary American Deep State evolved over time. These “pillars” are themselves self-organizing groupings of coincident interests that work to insensibly co-opt and exploit the fissures in the mechanistic distribution of power designed into the Constitution by James Madison.

These emergent groupings form what some essayists have called an “iron triangle” of capitalists in the private sector and professional bureaucrats as well as elected officials in the legislative and executive branches of government, as well as in the menageries inhabited by hangers on, wannabees, journalists, and parasites feeding off the triangular host.

These triangles are energized by money flows and influence peddling, and their operations are lubricated by a maze of revolving doors that enable the individual players to climb the greasy pole to power and riches by moving freely back and forth from one corner to another, all the while pumping the money and propaganda needed by the triangle to survive and grow , on its own terms!

Lofgren’s discussion of the career trajectory and policy actions of Robert Rubin, President Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury, is a particularly illuminating, if extreme, example of how an adept player games the triangle to accrete fabulous riches and oligarchical power.

Figure 1 is my simplified schematic outlining the basic features of an iron triangle.

 

Lofgren’s analysis takes us around three triangles by examining the maze of living relationships making up (1) the triangular money pumping operations of the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex, as well as the more subtle looting and power grabbing operations of (2) the de-regulating scams of Big Finance and (3) the big-brother spying operations of the pseudo-libertarian hyper-capitalists of Silicon Valley.

To be sure, there are many other iron triangles that Lofgren does not discuss in great detail (e.g., Big Pharma, Big AG and the food supply, etc.), but his story is clear enough and sufficiently broad enough to make the larger argument.

But there is more. Lofgren explains how the more obvious idea of an iron triangle is only the inner core of a far-reaching web of interests. This web includes, inter alia, the machinations of lobbyists, think tanks, political action committees (PACs), universities, pseudo intellectuals and ideologues, establishment promoting pundits in the fourth estate, tax deductible foundations, and behind them, the deep pockets of the secretive billionaire oligarchs, who have had their influence unleashed by the recent decisions of the Supreme Court.

The blood giving life to the inner and outer aspects of this pulsating web of non-democratic power and influence is MONEY, which the Supreme Court in its Citizens United Decision legitimated as a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

To Lofgren’s argument, I would add the accumulating result of America’s insensible descent into the Deep State is a work in progress. I also argue that this work is being been accompanied by a gradual emergence of  a peculiarly American amalgam of fascist, corporatist and neoliberal organizational ideologies. This amalgam is evolving into “winner take all” political economy that subordinates citizens and workers and the state to growing oligarchical powers in the private sector.

Figure 2 is a kind of thought experiment I designed to explore the ramifications of this possibility. It lists some of the political and economic features of the fascist, corporatist and laissez-faire (aka neoliberal) ideologies. To be sure, these are murky features, especially in the case of those relating to fascism, but I think most objective readers would agree that the features outlined in Figure 2 are very prominent in each of these forms of political-economic organization. The experiment is to ask yourself if the emergent American political economy exhibits hints of these features. The boxes checked in red are my affirmative answers to these questions.

While Lofgren does not say so, I would argue there are growing signs that the emerging American political economy combines many elements of classical fascism and corporatism with neoliberal laissez-faire economics into something that is new and peculiarly American, a political economy that exhibits fascist tendencies, but unlike classical fascism, subordinates the state to neoliberal corporatist interests, while it exploits many of fascism’s authoritarian organizing principles to stabilize the emerging status quo.

Don’t take my word for it. Read Lofgren’s book, then think about how you would check or redefine the boxes in Figure 2 and draw your own conclusions.

One of the most important aspects of Lofgren’s analysis, at least to my thinking, lies in his frequent reminders that the structural aspects of this current state of affairs are not the results of a centrally guided conspiracy hashed out in a smoke-filled room. The “structure” of the contemporary American Deep State is more an emergent property triggered by the incremental give-and-take by thousands of players, whose successes and failures are conditioned by an interplay of chance and necessity, in what is really a cultural evolution.

To be sure, there are lots of smoke-filled rooms conspiring invisibly to play this game of chance and necessity, but they are competing with each other as well as cooperating — and it is the evolutionary character of the Deep State that enables it to survive, adapt and grow on its own terms, and that emergent character is what makes the Deep State so dangerously resistant to change.

Chuck Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon who was famous for the “Spinney Report,” which criticized the Pentagon’s wasteful pursuit of costly and complex weapons systems.




Neocon Freak-out over Syria

Neocon-dominated Official Washington is in freak-out mode about the success of the Russian-backed Syrian army around Aleppo, reviving long-discredited claims about “moderate” rebels and ignoring Al Qaeda’s key presence. This neocon frenzy also demands a new Cold War, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

There is no shortage of certitude in American commentary about what Russia is trying to do in Syria. For example, the Washington Post editorial page, unrelentingly hawkish on everything involving Syria, declares that “it has long been obvious to almost everyone that the regime of Vladimir Putin is seeking a military victory over Western-backed rebels, not a truce.”

Right after that editorial appeared, Moscow made a fresh proposal, currently the subject of international talks, for a cease-fire to begin in less than three weeks.

Also abundant in the commentary is the presumption that to oppose everything Russia is doing in Syria is the right thing to do, and anything that involves cooperation with the Russians there is a mistake. Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy laments that “rather than being opposed to the Russian efforts, we look to be in league with them.”

Much of this commentary is straight out of the early and middle years of the Cold War, when events in the Middle East were assessed in large part in terms of which of the two superpowers was gaining influence in a particular capital by winning the friendship of the local strongman or through a coup that installed some new strongman.

The Cold War scorecard for the region was kept in terms of how many security agreements and arms deals there were with the United States and the USSR respectively. Old habits evidently die hard, even though the Cold War is over. Much of the current discourse about Russia in the Middle East and specifically Syria portrays issues as even more zero-sum than they were during the Cold War, and certainly more than they are now.

For example, James Jeffrey, also of the Washington Institute, explicitly places discussion of Syria in the context of U.S.-Soviet competition in the Middle East during the Cold War, talks of the region as a “U.S. security zone,” bemoans how Russia “seems to be moving from victory to victory in Syria,” asks “if Putin can get away with such activities in Syria, where might he act next,” and asserts that what is happening in Syria has “potentially serious implications for the entire U.S. global security system.”

Putin undoubtedly had a variety of reasons (some of which Ross correctly identifies) for intervening militarily in Syria. But more important than parsing motivations the Russian leader may have had as of last year is to consider current realities that both Russia and the United States are facing in Syria today. The following realities are especially important in formulating an effective policy toward Syria and toward the Russian role there.

First, this is not the Cold War, and not everything is zero-sum. Some Russian objectives conflict with U.S. objectives but others are neutral with respect to U.S. interests and still others are congruent with those interests.

Second, a purely military outcome is currently as much out of reach in the Syrian civil war as it ever has been, notwithstanding the Russian-backed regime advances near Aleppo that have received much attention over the past couple of weeks. Propping up the Assad regime certainly has been one of the Russian objectives, but propping up the regime is not the same as leaving the regime in such a commanding position that it would not need indefinite and costly Russian help to keep standing up, let alone to recapture all of the Syrian territory it has lost in the course of the war.

Besting opposition forces at Aleppo or elsewhere does not mean the armed opposition is going to sulk away. And even if the “moderate” opposition could somehow be wiped out, then the regime and its backers would still be squarely facing the extremists and especially ISIS. Putin surely is perceptive enough to realize all this, notwithstanding what the Post editorialists assert is his objective. Russia still has a strong interest in a negotiated settlement in Syria.

Third, the chief recent impediment to negotiations to reach such a settlement has been erected by opposition elements, who have balked at negotiating unless their demands for preconditions are met, including in particular cessation of the regime’s military operations. Insistence on such demands precludes negotiations. If we were to make a habit out of insisting on prior cease-fires before sitting down to talk, we would still be fighting the Korean War.

The Russian-backed regime offensive around Aleppo should be viewed in these terms. If you want a Cold War-era comparison, think about the Christmas bombing: the devastating escalation of the U.S. air war against North Vietnam in late 1972.

If that offensive were interpreted at the time the way many commentators are interpreting the fighting at Aleppo today, the interpretation would be that the Nixon administration was seeking a military victory and was not genuinely interested in a negotiated settlement. And that interpretation would have been wrong; the bombing was instead a way of changing the incentives of an opponent who had been balking at finalizing a settlement.

Fourth, the interests of Assad and his regime are not the same as Russian interests. The regime may not have an interest in negotiating its own demise, but Russia does not have an interest in indefinitely expending resources to prevent that demise.

With this in mind, a sound strategy is outlined by Samuel Charap and Jeremy Shapiro, who argue that the chances for a peace settlement are enhanced by getting the United States and Russia on the same page, which will be a different page from the one Assad can be expected to be on.

Charap and Shapiro write, “The United States should refocus the next round of talks on creating a unity government that Russia will accept, the first task of which would be to arrange a general cease-fire and an end to the violence. The details of the deal are of secondary importance, because Assad will reject it. Russia will then lose its patience with the regime. At that point, the United States and Russia would have a chance at finding a common position on ending the war.”

It does neither Syrians nor anyone else any good to respond to the Russian intervention by getting into a Cold War-style dither and pretending that U.S. interests are the opposite of whatever Russia is doing. Increased Russian leverage from the intervention, especially over the Assad regime, can itself be leveraged by the United States to advance its own interests.

Those interests have much more to do with tamping down the conflict than with shaping a particular political future for Damascus. A specific timetable for Assad’s departure matters little to U.S. interests. What matters more is curbing the warfare that already has given ISIS a big opportunity for growth, that continues to breed extremism, and that risks destabilizing effects in nearby parts of the region. This is a page that both Washington and Moscow can be on.

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




Who Would Dr. King Endorse?

Hillary Clinton won endorsements from Congressional Black Caucus members while civil rights legend Harry Belafonte came out for Bernie Sanders. But another question is who would Martin Luther King Jr. have supported since he like Sanders advocated for “democratic socialism,” as Jeff Cohen recalls.

By Jeff Cohen

Corporate mainstream media have sanitized and distorted the life and teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., putting him in the category of a “civil rights leader” who focused narrowly on racial discrimination; end of story. Missing from the story is that Dr. King was also a tough-minded critic of our capitalist economic structure, much like Bernie Sanders is today.

The reality is that King himself supported democratic socialism and that civil rights activists and socialists have walked arm-in-arm for more than a century.

The same news outlets that omit such facts keep telling us that the mass of African-American voters in South Carolina and elsewhere are diehard devotees of Hillary (and Bill) Clinton implying that blacks are somehow wary of Bernie Sanders and his “democratic socialism.”

Here are some key historical facts and quotes that get almost no attention in mainstream media:

1909: Many socialists both blacks and whites were involved in forming the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), our country’s oldest civil rights group.  Among them was renowned black intellectual W.E.B. Dubois.

1925: Prominent African-American socialist A. Philip Randolph became the first president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union that played a major role in activism for civil and economic rights (including the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”).

1952: In a fascinating letter to Coretta Scott, the woman he would marry a year later, Martin King wrote: “I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. . . . Today capitalism has out-lived its usefulness.”

1965: King wrote an essay in Pageant magazine, “The Bravest Man I Ever Knew,” extolling Norman Thomas as “America’s foremost socialist” and favorably quoting a black activist who said of Thomas: “He was for us before any other white folks were.”

1965: After passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, King became even more vocal about economic rights: “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”

1965-66: King supported President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” but urged more calling for a “gigantic Marshall Plan” for our nation’s poor of all races.

1966: In remarks to staffers at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King said: “You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. . . . It really means that we are saying something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

March 1967: King commented to SCLC’s board that “the evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.”

April 1967: In his speech denouncing the U.S. war in Vietnam at New York’s Riverside Church, King extended his economic critique abroad, complaining about “capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries.”

May 1967: In a report to SCLC’s staff, King said: “We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power . . . this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together . . . you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others . . . the whole structure of American life must be changed.”

August 1967: In his final speech to an SCLC convention, King declared: “One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.

“We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?’”

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated as he and SCLC were mobilizing a multiracial army of the poor to descend nonviolently on Washington D.C. demanding a “Poor Peoples Bill of Rights.” He told a New York Times reporter that “you could say we’re involved in the class struggle.”

A year before he was murdered, King said the following to journalist David Halberstam: “For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the South, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”

Unlike what Hillary Clinton professes today, Dr. King came to reject the idea of slow, incremental change. He thought big. He proposed solutions that could really solve social problems.

Unlike corporate-dominated U.S. media, King was not at all afraid of democratic socialism. Other eminent African American leaders have been unafraid. Perhaps it’s historically fitting that former NAACP president Ben Jealous has recently campaigned for Bernie Sanders in South Carolina.

If mainstream journalists did more reporting on the candidates’ actual records, instead of crystal-ball gazing about the alleged hold that the Clintons have over African American voters, news consumers would know about the deplorable record of racially-biased incarceration and economic hardship brought on by Clinton administration policies. (See Michelle Alexander’s “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote.”)

With income inequality even greater now than during Martin Luther King’s final years, is there much doubt that King would be supporting the progressive domestic agenda of Bernie Sanders? Before Bernie was making these kinds of big economic reform proposals, King was making them but mainstream media didn’t want to hear them at the time . . . or now.

Jeff Cohen is cofounder of RootsAction.org, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College.

 




BBC Imagines World War III

Believing their own propaganda about “Russian aggression,” Western leaders are building up NATO forces in the Baltic states, which treat ethnic Russians as second-class citizens, possibly provoking a nuclear showdown that no one wants and that a searing BBC documentary imagines, writes Gilbert Doctorow.

By Gilbert Doctorow

The documentary film “World War Three: Inside the War Room was described in advance by the BBC as a “war game” detailing the minute-by-minute deliberations of the country’s highest former defense and security officials facing an evolving crisis involving Russia.

What gave unusual realism and relevance to their participation is that they were speaking their own thoughts, producing their own argumentation, not reading out lines handed to them by television script writers.

The mock crisis to which they were reacting occurs in Latvia as the Kremlin’s intervention on behalf of Russian speakers in the south of this Baltic country develops along lines of events in the Donbas as from summer 2014. When the provincial capital of Daugavpils and more than 20 towns in the surrounding region bordering Russia are taken by pro-Russian separatists, the United States calls upon its NATO allies to deliver an ultimatum to the Russians to pull back their troops within 72 hours or be pushed out by force.

This coalition of the willing only attracts the British. After the deadline passes, the Russians “accidentally” launch a tactical nuclear strike against British and American vessels in the Baltic Sea, destroying two ships with the loss of 1,200 Marines and crew on the British side. Washington then calls for like-for-like nuclear attack on a military installation in Russia, which, as we understand, leads to full nuclear war.

The show was aired on Feb. 3 by BBC Two, meaning it was directed at a domestic audience, not the wider world. However, in the days since its broadcast, it has attracted a great deal of attention outside the United Kingdom, more in fact than within Britain. The Russians, in particular, adopted a posture of indignation, calling the film a provocation.

In his widely watched weekend wrap-up of world news, Russia’s senior television journalist Dimitri Kiselev devoted close to ten minutes denouncing the BBC production. He cited one participant (former UK Ambassador to Russia Sir Tony Brenton) expressing pleasure at the idea of “killing tens of thousands of Russians.” This segment was later repeated on Vesti hourly news programs during the past week. Kiselev asked rhetorically how the British would react if Moscow produced a mirror image show from its War Room.

For its part, the world broadcaster Russia Today issued a harsh review which castigates the British broadcaster for presenting Russia as “Dr. Evil Incarnate, the villain that regularly plays opposite peace-loving NATO nations.” It saw the motivation of the producers as related to “the military-industrial shopping season.”

RT alleges the BBC was trying to drum up popular support for the modernization of Britain’s nuclear Trident submarines at a cost to taxpayers of some 100 billion pounds ($144.7 billion).

Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said it was low grade, translated by some as trash, and that he didn’t bother to watch it. If so, that is a pity for the reasons I will set out below.

The program also generated a great deal of emotion in Latvia, on both sides of the fundamental issue. The country’s Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics tweeted that he found parts of the program to be ‘’rubbish’’ while other parts had lessons to be studied. Public Broadcasting of Latvia was concerned over the scant support the country appears to enjoy in Britain and other NATO member states, judging by the deliberations in the War Room.

For their part, members of the Russian speaking community were deeply upset by the way the program provides grist to the mill of those who view them as a fifth column ready to be used by the Kremlin for its aggressive purposes.

Examination of the British print media’s reaction to World War Three results in a very different impression of the film. Reviews in the British press mostly directed attention to the program’s entertainment value. The Telegraph called the film “gripping and terrifying.”

The Independent reviewer tells us: “It started out as quite a dull discussion but as the hypothetical situation escalated and boy did it escalate quickly it fast became compelling, if not terrifying, viewing. It was a little clichéd the Russians were the bad guys, the UK set lots of deadlines but ultimately wouldn’t commit to any action and the US went in all guns (or nuclear weapons) blazing but then clichés are always clichés for a reason.”

In a reversal of roles, the tabloid Daily Mail ended up doing the heavy lifting for the British press with thoughtful in-depth reporting.

The Daily Mail expressed deep surprise at the way World War Three ends, with the War Room team voting overwhelmingly to order Trident submarine commanders not to fire even as Russian nuclear ICBMs have been launched and are on their way to targets in the West, including England. The paper noted, correctly I might add, that this puts in question the value of the Trident deterrent, which the Cameron government is planning to renew. The newspaper sent out its reporters to follow up on this stunning aspect of the BBC film.

The Daily Mail especially wanted elucidation of two remarks at the very end of the film, just prior to the final vote. One was by Sir Tony Brenton, UK Ambassador to Russia, 2004-2008, who says in the film: “Do we pointlessly kill millions of Russians or not? To me it’s a no-brainer we do not.”

This quote deserves special attention because it was made by Brenton right after his widely cited and seemingly scandalous statement which has been taken out of context, namely that he wouldn’t mind killing tens of thousands of Russians in response to the destruction of the British vessel in the Baltic by Russia at the cost of 1,200 British lives.

The second remark from the end of the film cited by The Daily Mail which they in fact follow-up was more surprising still, coming as it did from a top military official, General Sir Richard Shirreff, who served as Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, 2011-2014. Shirreff declared on camera: “I say do not fire.”
When asked about it, Shirreff gave the newspaper a still better sound bite that bears repeating in full: “At this point it was clear deterrence had failed. My feeling was it had become a moral issue that the use of force can only be justified to prevent a greater evil if the UK is going to be obliterated, what is going to be achieved if we obliterate half of Russia as well? It was going to create an even worse evil.”

It is a great pity that the Kremlin has chosen to vilify the BBC’s producers and overlook these extraordinary open text signals from the very top of the British political and defense elites.

If nothing else, The Daily Mail reporting knocks out the easy answers and compels us to ask anew what did the British broadcaster have in mind when it produced the pseudo-documentary World War Three. Moreover, why did top former British diplomats, military officials and politicians agree to participate in this film?

In one sense, this film is a collective selfie. It might be just another expression of our contemporary narcissism, when former top government officials publish their memoirs soon after leaving office and tell all. But several of the participants are not even former office holders. They continue to be active and visible.

One can name the Liberal Democrat Baroness Falkner, spokesperson for foreign policy. Also, Dr. Ian Kearns who remains very much in the news as the director of the European Leadership Network, partner to the leadership of the Munich Security Conference and a member of teams that are invited to Moscow from time to time to talk international security issues with the Russians. Surely these VIP participants in the film had no intension of cutting off contacts by antagonizing the Kremlin. So there is something else going on.

What that something else might be can be teased out if we pay close attention to their deliberations on screen. I believe they earnestly sought to share with the British public the burden of moral and security decision-making, to present themselves as reasonable people operating to the best of their knowledge and with all due respect for contrary opinions to reach the best possible recommendations for action in the national interest.

In the War Room, we are presented with two very confident hardliners, General Richard Shirreff, mentioned above, and Admiral Lord West, former Chief of Naval Staff; and with two very confident soft-liners, Baronness Falkner, the Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs Spokesman, and Sir Tony Brenton. The others seated at the table do not have firm views and are open to persuasion.

It is noteworthy that argumentation is concise and apart from the occasional facial expression showing exasperation with opponents, there is a high level of purely intellectual debate throughout. Though one of the reviewers in the British press calls Falkner a “peacenik” in what is not meant as a compliment, no such compartmentalizing of thinking appears in the video. And the counter arguments are set out in some detail.

The voting at turning points in the developing scenario of confrontation with Russia is open. When the participants consider Britain joining the United States-led coalition of the willing ready to use force to eject the Russians from Latvia, they insist they will not be passive in the relationship, will not be Washington’s “poodle.” This is in clear reference to criticism of the Blair government’s joining the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Baroness Falkner is allowed to question the very logic of NATO. She calls the early decisions taken by the majority of her colleagues “sleepwalking,” an allusion to the group think that brought all of Europe into the suicidal First World War. With further reference to WWI, she says that the British government must look after the security of its people and not blindly submit to the wishes of an Alliance when that spells doom, such as happened in 1914.

At each turn of the voting on what to do next until the very last, the hardliners win out. But positions can and ultimately do flip-flop. In the end the overwhelming majority around the table decides not to press the button.
However, if the participants want to show themselves as open-minded and sincere, that does mean that the facts they work from are objective and equally well vetted. Here we come to a crucial problem of the video: Narration of the pre-history to the crisis over the Baltics, namely the archival footage on the Russian-Georgian War of 2008, the Russian “annexation” of Crimea and the Russian “intervention” in Donbass, is an unqualified presentation of the narrative from Washington and London, with Russia as “aggressor.” The narration of the crisis events as they unfold is also the unqualified, unchallenged view from the Foreign Office.

The pseudo-reporting on the ground in Daugavpils which is the epicenter of the crisis gives viewers part of the reason for the fictional Russian intervention, but only a small part. One Russian speaker tells the reporter that she is there in the demonstration because Russian-speakers have been deprived of citizenship since the independence of Latvia and this cannot continue.

But we are not told what the former diplomats in the War Room surely know: that Britain was complicit in this situation. In fact, the British knew perfectly well from before the vote on accession of the Baltic states to the European Union in 2004 that Latvia and Estonia were in violation of the rules on minorities of European conventions.

However, in the back-room negotiations which led to the final determination of the list of new Member States, the British chose to ignore the Latvian violations, which should have held up admission, for the sake of getting support from other Member States for extending E.U. membership to Cyprus.

The unfolding scenario of Russian actions and Western reactions does not attempt to penetrate Russian thinking in any depth. We are given the usual generalizations about the personality of Vladimir Putin. The most profound observation we are offered is that Russian elites only understand strength and would not allow Putin to back down, so he must be offered face-saving gestures even as his aggression is foiled.

The objectives of Russian moves on the geopolitical chessboard are not debated. The question of how the Baltics and Ukraine are similar or different for Russian national interest is hardly explored. Simply put, as the British press reviews understood, the Russians are “bad guys.”

Moreover, the authors of this war game assume that the past is a good guide to the future, which in warfare of all kinds is very often a fallacious and dangerous assumption. There is no reason to believe that the Russian “hybrid warfare” used in the Crimea and Donbass would be applied to the Baltics, or that escalation would be gradual.

Given the much smaller scale of the Baltic states, each with two million or fewer inhabitants, and the short logistical lines, it might be more reasonable to consider the Russians moving in and occupying the capitals in one fell swoop if they had reason to do so.

At present, they do not. But if the build-up of NATO troops and materiel along the Western frontiers of Russia and in the Baltic Sea continues as projected in President Obama’s latest appropriations for that purpose, reason for Russian action might well appear.

In this case, the confrontation might proceed straight to red alert on strategic nuclear forces without any intermediary pinpricks that this film details, much as happened back in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The British, as well as other NATO countries would then be totally sidelined as talks went on directly between Moscow and Washington.

The tragedy in our times of “information warfare” is that well-educated and sincere citizens are blind-sighted. We have an old maxim that when you cannot persuade, confuse. The fatal flaw comes when you start to believe your own propaganda.

If nothing else, the BBC documentary demonstrates that for Western elites this is what has happened. The reaction to the film from the Kremlin, suggests the same has happened to Eastern elites.

Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator, American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? (August 2015) is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites. For donations to support the European activities of ACEWA, write to eastwestaccord@gmail.com  © Gilbert Doctorow




How Crimeans See Ukraine Crisis

Two years ago, the Maidan uprising ousted Ukraine’s elected president, prompting resistance in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, with Crimeans voting overwhelmingly to reunify with Russia, a move that then sparked a new cold war. As propaganda enveloped this issue, Natylie Baldwin went to see for herself last fall.

By Natylie Baldwin

We had boarded the bus that would transport us from the gates of Moscow’s Vnukovo airport to the plane waiting on the tarmac to fly us to Simferopol, Crimea, when a friendly blonde in her late 30’s asked us in accented English if we were from “The States”?

When we answered that we were, she told us she currently lived in Texas but was going to visit relatives in Crimea. As we chatted more and my travel mate and I explained our reason for going there – to see Crimea for ourselves and find out from the people living there what they thought about the Ukraine war and the peninsula’s reunification with Russia – it became apparent that this lady had a few things she wanted to get off her chest.

“You cannot separate Ukraine from Russia, there is too much culture and history together,” she said.  Choking up on her words, she continued, “American people are good people I have many friends in the U.S. – but their government leaders are not because they interfere too much in other places. I worry about Hillary [Clinton], you know. When [Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi was killed, she said ‘We came, we saw, he died. Ha ha.’ What kind of leader is that? Is she going to be the next president?”

She felt that, due to the violence on the Maidan and Washington’s interference in the form of Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland’s manipulations, Putin’s intervention in Crimea was correct:  “Putin did the right thing for Crimea, he is a good leader.”

When we landed in Simferopol, it was clear that the small airport had been recently renovated as everything was clean and freshly painted. After haggling down the price to something reasonable with the proprietor of a taxi service, we loaded ourselves into a cab in which stale cigarette smoke hung thick in the air.

My travel mate, who spoke functional Russian, asked the driver what he thought about Crimea’s reunification with Russia. He replied in broken English, “Historically and ethnically we are Russian, so it is better to be with Russia than Ukraine.” He acknowledged, however, that there were still many problems to be addressed and it would take time, but with Russia they now had hope.

His sentiments would be echoed throughout our stay in Crimea. Tatyana, a professional tour guide from Yalta, told us the next day that, in terms of road repair and airport renovation, there had been more infrastructure investment in one year under Russian governance than there had been in all the 23 years with post-Soviet Ukraine.

Looking around Simferopol, more such investment would obviously be needed. The roads and buildings had not been sufficiently maintained and it gave the place an air of being run down. Alongside that, however, were parks and trees, roads filled with people in cars and packed mini-buses during commute hours, and parents walking on sidewalks clutching the hands of their small children. Everyone was dressed in the typical Western attire one would see in the U.S. and most young people fingered smart phones.

On the bus ride from Simferopol to Yalta, there were many small houses in various stages of disrepair and frozen construction. My travel mate, who had been going in and out of Russia since the 1980s, remarked that it looked like the Soviet era.

As we approached the Yalta coastline, however, the lush trees and sparkling blue water that reflected a sunlit sky, emerged from the mountainous journey, dissipating the gloom. We toured Livadia Palace, the seasonal home of the czars from Alexander II to Nicholas II. It was also the location of the famous Yalta Conference of 1945 where Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin met as WWII was winding down.

Afterwards, we walked down a lane littered with lovely and well-cared for “stray” cats that now took up residence on the grounds of the palace. Then we came to a small two-story restaurant where we had lunch with Tatyana, who articulated the feelings of many Crimeans about the Maidan protests that rocked Kiev in early 2014:

“No one asked us if we wanted to go along with Maidan. There are Russians as well as people who are a mix of Russian and Ukrainian here. We are not against Ukraine as many of us have relatives there, but Maidan was not simply a spontaneous protest. We are aware of the phone call with Victoria Nuland and [U.S. Ambassador] Geoffrey Pyatt, we saw the photos of her with [opposition leaders] Yatsenyuk, Tiagnibok [leader of Svoboda, the neo-fascist group that was condemned by the EU in 2012], and Klitschko on television. We saw the images of her handing out cookies to the protesters.”

We returned to Simferopol that evening and talked to a group of local small business entrepreneurs. They spoke of the many disruptions that the political upheaval with Ukraine and the subsequent reunification had caused. Kiev stopped paying salaries and pensions and even cut off electricity, which prompted Russia to provide generators to hospitals and other establishments where there were significant numbers of people in need.

In fact, Crimea had been dependent upon Ukraine for 70 percent of its power since reunification. Consequently, Russia is in the process of laying a power cable beneath the Kerch Strait from the Krasnodar region, which is now partially operational and will be fully operational by summer of 2016.

In the meantime, Russia had been paying Ukraine $211 million to supply Crimea with energy through the end of 2015. In what is perceived by many to be retaliation for seceding, Ukraine had seriously cut energy supplies to Crimea without notice numerous times throughout 2014 and raised prices by 15 percent. Similar issues with water supply have also been reported.

“Kiev claims they want us back, but then they alienate us even more with these kinds of actions,” said one of the entrepreneurs, shaking his head.

Crimeans are also dealing with high inflation due to a combination of sanctions and transportation difficulties. Until the permanent land bridge to Russia is completed in December 2018, transportation between the mainland and the peninsula are limited to temporary bridges, ferry service and flights to and from Crimea’s one airport in Simferopol. (A second airport is due to be built in Sevastopol by spring 2016).

More and stricter business regulations under Russia’s governance have also proved to be a challenge. The entrepreneurs acknowledged that some people had lost businesses due to either the political transfer or the sanctions. But this did not change their conviction that the reunification with Russia was worth the short-term cost in order to save themselves from the extremist elements who had taken power in Kiev, immediately introduced legislation threatening the status of the Russian language, and fueled episodes of violence that ensued against ethnic Russians in Crimea.

The subsequent “anti-terrorist operation” employed by Kiev to deal with similar concerns of ethnic Russians in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, instead of negotiation, has only cemented this view.

“We are suffering under the sanctions, but the sanctions will not make us go back to where we don’t want to be,” said one entrepreneur. “There are still many Crimeans willing to fight if it were to become necessary.”

The next day we took another bus ride, this time to Sevastopol, where Russia has had its naval base since the reign of Catherine the Great in the Eighteenth Century. In fact, Crimea had been part of Russia from Catherine’s time until Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to give it as a gift to Ukraine in 1954. Since both Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union at the time, the possible consequences of this decision were not considered.

Viktor Vasilievich Savitskiy, a retired Russian naval officer and resident of Crimea who served as an election monitor during the referendum, recalls being asked by British naval officers after the dissolution of the USSR, how having their naval base in a different country would work out. Savitskiy said, “I thought it was a strange question at the time. We had a long history and cultural ties with Ukraine. Now I realize those questions were not so strange.”

Not only is Sevastopol Russia’s only warm water port, it is the place where the Soviets stopped the German advance for eight months during WWII. By the time the siege had ended, around 90 percent of the city had been devastated.

One of the first places we visited in Sevastopol was a hostel run by Yuriy Mishin and his wife Manita. Born in Chita in the Lake Baikal area of Russia near the border of Siberia, Mishin was nostalgic for the days of the Soviet Union in which he’d grown up and said he would like to see a voluntary commonwealth consisting of the former republics of the USSR.

In February 2014, Mishin was a participant in Crimea’s resistance to the post-coup regime in Kiev, a resistance movement variously referred to as the “Crimean Spring” and the “Third Defense of Sevastopol.” He believes the events of the Maidan culminated in an illegal change of government in Kiev.

Although he says that under Viktor Yushchenko’s rule from 2005 to 2010, Ukrainian ultra-nationalism enjoyed a resurgence, there had been no substantive threat to Russian speakers in Crimea until the Maidan protests were hijacked by extremists who chanted threatening slogans [“Ukraine for Ukrainians”] and turned to violence. He said that after Maidan, “friends I’d had in Ukraine called and threatened to kill me because I was the director of a Russian historical club.”

Mishin said the people of Sevastopol began to have meetings to discuss ways to defend themselves from the growing upheaval that the events in Kiev had set in motion. He made a point that we would hear repeatedly from Crimeans we spoke to — that they did not expect Putin to intervene or to accept their requests for reunification due to the numerous times since the 1990s when Crimeans voted, either directly or through their parliament, for reunification, which Russia had always ignored. But they are very grateful that he did.

“Putin’s move was a pleasant surprise,” Mishin said. “He is a strong and brave politician.”

When asked what he thought should be the top priorities for Crimea going forward, he said “peace – no bombs or missiles – and develop infrastructure and tourism.”

As we hurried from one appointment to another in Sevastopol, we walked along a narrow cobbled road studded with ruts. Manita lamented how many times over the years there had been money allocated by the Ukrainian government to fix the roads but the repairs never happened because of the abiding corruption.

After about a five-minute walk in the morning chill, we arrived at a small office where a banner with the St. George colors draped one wall. A tall barrel-chested man with short dark hair and a full beard greeted us with a hardy handshake. His name was Anatoly Anatolievich Mareta and he was the leader (ataman) of the Black Sea Hundred Cossacks. He offered us hot tea as we sat down at a large table.

He then spoke at length about the events leading up to the Crimean resistance in early 2014. After the Feb. 21, 2014 agreement between embattled President Viktor Yanukovych and three European nations allowing for early elections, the armed ultra-nationalists who had hijacked the Maidan protests rejected the deal and led an uprising on Feb. 22 that forced Yanukovych to flee and his government to collapse. When the Europeans then abandoned their role as guarantors, a turning point was reached.

A one-day meeting of anti-Maidan supporters was held in Sevastopol as 30,000 Crimeans gathered in the center of the port city to declare that they didn’t recognize the coup government in Kiev and would not pay taxes to it. They then decided to defend Sevastopol and the Crimean isthmus with arms. They chose a people’s mayor, Aleksai Chaly, and checkpoints were set up. After extremist Tatars and Ukrainian ultra-nationalists showed up in Simferopol, throwing bottles, teargas, and beating busloads of ethnic Russians with flag poles, he said the group’s help was requested.

As the situation deteriorated further, with a standoff between local residents and local police officials who were beholden to and taking orders from Kiev underway, Mareta admitted that the Cossacks realized that theirs was a revolt that amounted to a suicide mission if Kiev gave the order to put it down with full force. “Their hearts were in it, but their minds knew they might lose,” Mareta said.

From Feb. 28 – 29, Cossacks from parts of continental Russia, including Kuban and Don, began to arrive to reinforce the isthmus. Ukrainian planes were blocked from landing at the local airport as Russian soldiers, stationed legally in Crimea under contract, manned the gates.

Crimeans told me that it was understood at the time that the “little green men” who quietly appeared on the streets in the coming days were Russian soldiers under lease at the naval base who had donned unmarked green uniforms. The people viewed them as protectors whose presence allowed them to peacefully conduct their referendum without interference from Kiev, not as invaders.

Savitskiy described the sense of joyful surprise among Crimeans in Sevastopol regarding the eventual Russian intervention: “The Russian military was very cautious and waited for the order to intervene. It was an unexpected gift.”

Our driver in Sevastopol, who shall remain unnamed due to the fact that he has relatives in central Ukraine that he does not want to endanger, drove us to our next destination. We exchanged pleasantries and he asked us what part of the U.S. we were from. When I told him we were from San Francisco, he proceeded to serenade us with a few lines from Scott MacKenzie’s “If You’re Going to San Francisco, Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair.”

Born to a Russian mother and a Ukrainian father, he told us that he had served in the Ukrainian Navy until 2013, but he supported the reunification with Russia.

We parked in a lot near the dock at the naval base and were led a short distance over to a light beige van. A slight man with a rugged face, decked out in crisp khaki fatigues and a Putin t-shirt appeared. Nicolai Kachin gave us a tour of the interior of his taxi van which was adorned with images of places and people relevant to the “Third Defense of Sevastopol.” There were a number of photos of the Russian president.

Kachin was born in the Urals in continental Russia but had been attracted to Crimea since early childhood and considered it his “second home.” He had been working as a guide and driver when the Maidan protests were underway.

“I watched the news as the situation became more difficult in December (2013),” he said, recalling meetings among the Russian population of Crimea as things in Kiev degenerated into violence. After the events of Feb. 21, “the situation had changed. By February 23rd, the men and women of Sevastopol came out to defend the city. Chaly was elected mayor (after the Ukrainian appointed mayor was removed), seven checkpoints were set up and residents volunteered.”

He stressed his belief that, if Crimeans hadn’t taken the initiative to defend themselves against the coup in Kiev, and Putin hadn’t backed them up, their fate would have been far worse. He said, “Sevastopol was the first city to rise up in Crimea. If residents hadn’t stood up to defend themselves, war would be raging in Crimea worse than in the Donbass.”

Kachin was awarded medals by the Russian government for his role in guarding the checkpoint outside the Ukrainian naval site until the referendum was concluded. He displayed his medals with great pride, but emphasized that the people of Sevastopol did not have glory in mind when they defended their city:

“When originally we enrolled into the self-defense units, we had no idea about awards. We did not think about it. All the city – women, men, youth – stood up to defend Sevastopol and our dignity.”

He was very pleased to be able to relate his story to Americans as most of the people who’d sought him out were Russians, along with some Ukrainians and a few Europeans.

Expressions of gratitude toward President Putin could be seen throughout Crimea in the form of billboards with his picture alongside the words “Crimea. Russia. Forever.” I asked several residents if this reflected the general sentiment of the population. They confirmed enthusiastically that it did.

A Pew poll from April 2014 revealed that 91 percent of Crimean respondents believed the referendum was free and fair, 93 percent had confidence in Putin, and 85 percent believed Kiev should recognize the results.

Another poll in June 2014, this one from Gallup, showed 94 percent of ethnic Russians in Crimea thought the referendum reflected the views of the people and 68 percent of ethnic Ukrainians in Crimea agreed. The poll found that 74 percent believed that joining Russia would make life better.

A GfK poll from February 2015, sponsored by a pro-Ukrainian group in Canada, revealed 93 percent of Crimeans endorsed the referendum.

The Crimean Tatars, an ethnic minority comprising approximately 12 percent of the population, is divided on reunification. Surveys reflecting the view of Crimean Tatars specifically, or which break down opinion by ethnicity to include the Tatars, are difficult to find. Russian media has reported that 30 percent of Crimean Tatars voted in favor of reunification but it is unclear where this figure originates from.

One survey conducted jointly by Open Democracy and the Levada Center, published in March of 2015, did include Tatar opinion. Their results revealed that 50 percent of Crimean Tatars supported the referendum (30 percent generally and 20 percent absolutely) while 30 percent opposed it and 20 percent did not express support or opposition.

There are reports from Western media and organizations that Crimea has been repressing Tatars since the reunification. The most recent report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights discusses claims of “people who were dismissed or threatened to be dismissed from their posts for refusing to take up Russian Federation passports”; concerns about due process in the trials of two high-profile defendants accused of extremism and/or terrorism; informal designation of the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Simferpol as an “extremist organization”; and, the apparent abduction, separately, of three Crimean Tatar men who have gone missing. A criminal murder investigation has been opened by Russian authorities in one of the cases.

No doubt there have been tensions since the coup in Kiev exacerbated pre-existing political and ethnic divisions across Ukraine; however, as journalist Roger Annis has pointed out, there were no repercussions when up to 20,000 Tatars took part in a rally on May 18, 2014, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of their expulsion by Stalin.  This gathering was held in Simferopol in defiance of a temporary ban on mass rallies at the time by the Crimean authorities. Both The Guardian and AP reported on the rally.

However, Girey Bairov, a Tatar activist who works as a dentist in Crimea and refused to participate in the referendum, which he saw as illegitimate, explained the historical plight of the Crimean Tatars and the consequent distrust of living under Russian governance:

“Before Stalin repressions in 1944, Crimean Tatars lived in their own territory called Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Almost all names of Crimea villages and cities were of Crimean Tatar origin.  We lived in our own houses. All land in collective farms belonged to us. We lost it all. While Crimean Tatar men were fighting with the Red Army against Fascists, Stalin made an order to deport all Crimea Tatar children, women and old people. All their belongings were taken away and they were thrown onto the hungry steppes of Central Asia where half of Tatar people died. From 1944 to 1989, we lived in exile, but were dreaming to return back to Crimea and everything we lost.”

In an attempt to facilitate reconciliation with Crimean Tatars, Putin issued a decree on April 21, 2014, reiterating previous public condemnations of the Stalin-era expulsion of the Tatars for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis, and calling for measures to rehabilitate the Tatars and “to restore historical justice and remove the consequences of the illegal deportation and the violations of their rights.”

Along with Russian and Ukrainian, the Tatar language is now an official language in Crimea – something the Tatars had never achieved while under Ukrainian governance.

Putin subsequently met with representatives of Crimean Tatars on May 16, 2014.  Moreover, members of the leadership of Tatarstan, a republic of the Russian Federation with approximately 4 million citizens, have met with the Tatar population of Crimea.

But Bairov said Russia is only “trying to solve the Crimean Tatar question on paper.” He said the everyday reality for Tatars is very different, including a 90 percent reduction in the number of Tatars who hold positions in authority and Tatar activists being jailed and deported.

The most visible representative of the Tatar opposition to the Crimean referendum and reunification (and most cited by Western media) is Mustafa Dzhemilev, a Soviet-era dissident and current member of the Ukrainian parliament. Some of Dzhemilev’s public statements and actions, however, would seem to call his credibility into question.

For example, he has dismissed any concerns about the neo-fascist and ultra-nationalist elements in the post-coup government in Kiev and declared that all parties in the Ukrainian parliament are “ten times more democratic” than Putin’s government.

Dzhemilev’s latest activities include a blockade of Ukrainian goods into Crimea, which is being enforced at the border in partnership with neo-fascist members of Right Sector since September. The aforementioned UN human rights report expressed concern about these blockade enforcers who were described as “uniformed men sometimes wearing masks and balaclavas [who] reportedly have lists of people considered to be ‘traitors’ due to their alleged support to the de facto authorities in Crimea or to the armed groups in the east.”

Incidents of beatings and property damage are cited, adding that these events occurred in the presence of police and border guards on the Ukrainian side who declined to intervene.

During that same month, Dzhemilev’s close colleague, Refat Chubarov, promised to have electricity to Crimea cut off, foreshadowing the Nov. 21, 2015 sabotaging of power lines into Crimea which caused partial or full blackouts for almost 2 million Crimeans.

The convoluted logic behind these actions is reflected in the fact that the blockade has likely caused more damage to Ukrainian producers than Crimean consumers (who have been substituting Russian and Turkish imports) or the Russian government.

Dzhemilev has a history of allying with and expressing support for dubious parties in his years’ long role as the chairman of the Majlis, the unrecognized Crimean Tatar Assembly. In fact, Dzhemilev admitted in a 2012 interview with the magazine, The Ukrainian Week, that the Majlis had largely been ineffective in resolving the main problems of naturalization, enfranchisement and legitimization of land acquisition for the thousands of Tatars who have returned to independent Ukraine since the 1990s.

Many Tatars have returned from Uzbekistan where they already had citizenship, creating obstacles to repatriation, such as requirements to return to Uzbekistan to pay a duty and renounce Uzbek citizenship.

The Majlis’ ineffectiveness contributed to a public row in 2011 with a segment of Crimean Tatars represented by a group called Sebat, which, according to the private Ukrainian television station Ukrayina, accused Dzhemilev and his deputy, Chubarov, of “betraying national interests, misappropriation [of] money and procrastinating the settlement of the land issue.”

Moreover, a network of Tatar social organizations formed in 2006, known as the Milli Firqua People’s Party of Crimea, denies the Majlis speaks for all or even most Crimean Tatars, citing 15-20 percent support for each of their respective organizations, with the majority of Crimean Tatars non-aligned.

The UN Refugee Agency’s timeline on Crimean Tatars in Ukraine chronicles the problems that Tatars faced throughout the 1990s in newly independent Ukraine, including high unemployment, lack of access to water and electricity in homes, and the absence of paved roads in their communities. The Majlis’ subsequent support for the “Orange Revolution” government of Viktor Yushchenko in 2005 yielded many promises but still no real action in the resolution of these issues.

Bairov acknowledges that the hopes of Crimean Tatars were not realized under Ukrainian governance: “While we lived in Ukraine from 1991 to 2014, we were waiting for 23 years that the Crimean Tatar question would be solved fairly. Our Ukrainian leaders convinced us that once Ukraine becomes a truly democratic state, we will have at least 36 percent of Crimean Tatars in power, as it was earlier [in 1944], the flag and coat of arms will be Crimean Tatar. But Ukraine failed to restore the rights of Crimean Tatars.”

Dzhemilev claimed in 2010 that most Tatars had supported Yulia Tymoshenko in that year’s elections, but also said that the Tatar community did not oppose the winner, Viktor Yanukovych, and would work with him. After supporting the coup in 2014, both Dzhemilev and Chubarov were granted appointments to the Ukrainian parliament as part of the Poroshenko Bloc, which is considered “the electoral machine of the [current] Ukrainian president,” Petro Poroshenko.

Following this admittedly ineffectual pattern, it is unclear how implementing a blockade or advocating for the cutting of electricity to Crimea will help fellow Tatars there or put them on the road to progress. Perhaps realizing this, some leaders of the Majlis consented to the resumption of power to Crimea and allowing repairs to the lines, a move Right Sector continued to block until the Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy “Yats” Yatsenyuk announced  on Dec. 16 that the blockade was now being officially endorsed by the Kiev government. Subsequently, President Poroshenko admitted to regularly meeting with Dzhemilev and Chubarov to “coordinate” the blockade.

It remains to be seen how the Crimean Tatars ultimately fare under Russian governance. Many hope that the initial gestures of reconciliation immediately after the reunification will be followed up on with substantive steps toward political and economic integration.

Natylie Baldwin is co-author of Ukraine: Zbig’s Grand Chessboard & How the West Was Checkmated, available from Tayen Lane Publishing. In October of 2015, she traveled to six cities in the Russian Federation and has written several articles based on her conversations and interviews with a cross-section of Russians. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various publications including Consortiumnews, OpEd News, The New York Journal of Books, The Common Line, Santa Fe Sun Monthly, Dissident Voice, Energy Bulletin, Newtopia Magazine, and the Lakeshore. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and blogs at natyliesbaldwin.com




Saudis Goad Obama to Invade Syria

Exclusive: Syrian rebels, including dominant jihadist elements, torpedoed Geneva peace talks by setting preconditions to come to the table. But the maneuver also renewed pressure on President Obama to commit to a “regime-change” invasion of Syria alongside Saudi and other Sunni armies, as Joe Lauria explains.

By Joe Lauria

The Russian-backed Syrian Army’s encirclement of Aleppo, the battle that could determine the outcome of the five-year-old war, has sparked a Saudi plan with allied Arab nations to hold a war maneuver next month of 150,000 men to prepare for an invasion of Syria.

Saudi Arabia’s desire to intervene (under the cover of fighting Islamic State terrorists but really aimed at ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) has been welcomed by Washington but dismissed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander and some Western analysts as a ruse.

Iranian Maj. Gen. Ali Jafari told reporters in Tehran, “They claim they will send troops, but I don’t think they will dare do so. They have a classic army and history tells us such armies stand no chance in fighting irregular resistance forces.”

“The Saudi plan to send ground troops into Syria appears to be just a ruse,” wrote analyst Finian Cunningham on RT’s website. “In short, it’s a bluff aimed at pressuring Syria and Russia to accommodate … ceasefire demands.”

But I don’t believe it is a bluff or a ruse and here’s why: It appears instead to be a challenge by the Saudis to get President Barack Obama to commit U.S. ground troops to lead the invasion. The Saudis made it clear they would only intervene as part of a U.S.-led operation.

After meeting Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington on Monday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said: “The coalition will operate the way it has operated in the past, as an international coalition, even when there is a ground-force contingent in Syria. There would be no international coalition against ISIS [an acronym for the Islamic State] in Syria if the U.S. did not lead this effort.”

Riyadh knows better than anyone that it doesn’t have the military capability to do anything beyond pounding the poorest Arab country into dust, that would be its neighbor Yemen. And it can’t win that war either. But when Saudi Arabia’s ambitions outsize their capabilities, who do they call? The “indispensable nation,” the United States.

President Obama has so far resisted direct U.S. combat involvement in the Syrian civil war despite longstanding Saudi, Israeli and neocon pressures. They clamored for intervention after the chemical weapons fiasco in Ghouta in the summer of 2013. The attack supposedly crossed Obama’s “red line,” (although there is growing evidence that the sarin attack was a “false flag” provocation by the rebels to draw the U.S. military into the war on their side).

Obama came close to acceding to that pressure. On Aug. 30, 2013, he sent out a breast-beating John Kerry, playing the role normally reserved for the president, to threaten war. However, after the British parliament voted against intervention, Obama threw the issue to Congress. And before it acted, he accepted a Russian deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons (though Assad continued to deny any role in the sarin attack).

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh contends Obama backed away because British intelligence informed him it was the rebels and not the Syrian government that carried out the chemical attack.

Even earlier in the conflict, Obama resisted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s pressure to set up “a no-fly zone” inside Syria (which would have required the U.S. military destroying Syria’s air defenses and much of its air force, compromising the government’s ability to battle Sunni jihadist groups, including those associated with Al Qaeda).

Obama also defied the Saudis, Israelis and the neocons in pushing through the Iranian nuclear deal over their strident opposition in 2015. But Obama has not shown the same resolve against the neocons and liberal interventionists elsewhere, such as in Libya in 2011 and Ukraine in 2014.

Regarding Saudi Arabia’s new offer to intervene in Syria, the Obama administration has welcomed the Saudi plan but has not committed to sending in U.S. ground troops, preferring instead to deploy some air power and a limited number of Special Forces against Islamic State targets inside Syria.

However, the Saudi plan is being discussed at a NATO defense ministers’ summit in Brussels this week. In Istanbul last month, Vice President Joe Biden hinted at a possible Obama change in position when he said if U.N.-led peace talks in Geneva failed, the United States was prepared for a “military solution” in Syria. (In making that comment, Biden may have given the rebels an incentive to sink the peace talks.)

The talks collapsed last Wednesday when Syrian rebel groups set preconditions for joining the talks, which were supposed to be started without preconditions. (However, the U.S. mainstream media has almost universally blamed Assad, the Iranians who are supporting Assad, and Russian President Vladimir Putin who has committed Russian air power to the offensive around Aleppo).

So, with the Syrian government now realistically viewing victory in the war for the first time, the panicked Saudis appear to be prodding Obama on whether he’s ready to be remembered as the president who “lost” Syria to the Russians and Iranians.

Like most leaders, Obama is susceptible to his “legacy,” that vain concern about how ‘history will view him.” It is an attitude that can conflict with doing what’s best for the country he leads and, in this case, would risk direct confrontation with Russia. Even embedding only hundreds of U.S. Special Forces with Saudi and other Arab troops inside Syria could lead to disaster if they are struck by Russian warplanes.

The Saudis are counting on U.S. domestic criticism to motivate Obama, such as this from New York Times columnist Roger Cohen: “Syria is now the Obama administration’s shame, a debacle of such dimensions that it may overshadow the president’s domestic achievements. Aleppo may prove to be the Sarajevo of Syria.”

Emile Hokayem, a Middle East scholar at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote that it’s understandable for Obama to seek a negotiated settlement of the war. “But to do so while exposing the rebellion to the joint Assad-Russia-Iran onslaught and without contingency planning is simply nefarious.”

It is up to Obama to resist such pressure and not commit the folly of risking a direct confrontation with Russia by committing U.S. ground forces to what would amount to an illegal invasion of Syria. It might be in Saudi Arabia’s interests, but how is it in America’s?

Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist based at the U.N. since 1990. He has written for the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Johannesburg Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. He can be reached at joelauria@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.




Hillary Clinton’s Very Bad Night

Exclusive: The magnitude of Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire drubbing has establishment Democrats wringing their hands as it dawns on them that no candidate in modern U.S. political history has bounced back from a 22-point loss in that first-in-the-nation primary to win the White House, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s stunning 22-point loss to Sen. Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire is even more devastating when looked at in the context of the modern history of this first-in-the-nation primary: No one has ever lost by such a margin and gone on to win the presidency.

Among Democrats, no one who lost by even half that margin in New Hampshire has recovered to win the party’s nomination. In 2008, Barack Obama lost to Hillary Clinton by 2.6 percentage points; in 1992, Bill Clinton lost to Paul Tsongas by 8.4 percentage points; in 1984, Walter Mondale lost to Gary Hart by 9.4 percentage points; in 1972, George McGovern lost to Edmund Muskie by 9.3 percentage points.

In two of those cases, New Hampshire did favor neighboring politicians Sen. Tsongas from Massachusetts and Sen. Muskie from Maine but Tuesday’s 22-point margin for Vermont Sen. Sanders cannot be explained simply by making the “nearby-favorite-son” argument. Sanders swept nearly every demographic group, including women, losing only to Clinton among New Hampshire’s senior citizens and the state’s small number of non-white voters. Sanders’s margin among young voters was particularly impressive, 82 percent, roughly the same proportion as the Iowa caucuses last week.

If Hillary Clinton hopes to overcome her New Hampshire drubbing, she would have to look for encouragement from the legacy of Republican George W. Bush who lost the 2000 New Hampshire primary to Sen. John McCain by a margin of 49 percent to 30.2 percent, but even Bush’s landslide loss represented a smaller margin of defeat than Clinton suffered on Tuesday.

A Worried Establishment

Clinton’s failure to generate momentum or much enthusiasm in her pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination presents the Democratic Party establishment with a dilemma, since many senior party leaders fret about the risk that Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist,” might lead the Democrats to the kind of electoral disaster that Sen. George McGovern did in 1972.

Though the Democrats rebounded in 1976 with Jimmy Carter’s victory amid Republican disarray over Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, the Republicans soon reestablished their domination over presidential politics for a dozen years with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. For the Democrats to reclaim the White House in 1992, it took a “New Democrat,” Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, to repackage the Democratic message into one proposing “neo-liberal” (anti-regulatory, free-trade) economics, embracing Republican tough-on-crime tactics, and rejecting “Big Government.”

President Clinton also emphasized “micro-policies,” best illustrated by his call for “school uniforms,” rather than proposing “macro-policies” for addressing poverty and other structural problems facing Americans. Though the economy performed fairly well under Clinton his success lessening pressures from liberal groups he also opened the door to Wall Street and other corporate excesses (by supporting deregulation of the financial and media industries).

At that point in the 1990s, the “neo-liberal” strategies had not been tested in the U.S. economy and thus many Americans were caught off-guard when this new anti-regulatory, free-trade fervor contributed to a hollowing out of the Great American Middle Class and a bloated Gilded Age for the top One Percent.

The full consequences of neo-liberalism became painfully apparent with the Wall Street Crash of 2008 and the resulting Great Recession. The suffering and hopelessness now affecting many Americans, including the white working class, has led to an angry political rejection of the American Establishment as reflected in the insurgent candidacies of Donald Trump and Sanders.

A Legacy Campaign

Hillary Clinton (like Jeb Bush) faces the misfortune of running a legacy campaign at a time when the voters are angry about the legacies of both “ruling families,” the Clintons and the Bushes. Though Sanders is a flawed candidate faulted for his muddled foreign-policy prescriptions, he (like Trump) has seized the mantle of fighting the Establishment at a time when millions of Americans are fed up with the Establishment and its self-serving policies.

In some ways, the Iowa and New Hampshire results represented the worst outcome for establishment Democrats. Clinton’s razor-thin victory in Iowa and her slashing defeat in New Hampshire have left Democratic strategists uncertain as to whether they should rally behind her despite her lukewarm to freezing-cold reception from voters or try to recruit another candidate who could cut off Sanders’s path to the nomination and represent a “more electable” choice in November.

If Clinton continues to stumble, there will be enormous pressure from Democratic leaders to push her aside and draw Vice President Joe Biden or perhaps Sen. Elizabeth Warren into the race.

If that were to occur — and, granted, the Clintons are notoriously unwilling to admit defeat — the Democrats could experience a political dynamic comparable to 1968 when anti-Vietnam War Sen. Eugene McCarthy challenged the prohibitive favorite President Lyndon Johnson and came close enough in New Hampshire to prompt Sen. Robert Kennedy to jump into the race — and to convince Johnson to announce that he would not seek another term.

Many idealistic Democrats who had backed McCarthy in his seemingly quixotic fight against Johnson were furious against “Bobby-come-lately,” setting up a battle between two anti-war factions of the Democratic Party. Of course, the history of the 1968 campaign was marred by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and then Robert Kennedy, followed by the chaotic Chicago convention, which handed the nomination to Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Then, after Republican Richard Nixon secretly sabotaged Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks, Nixon managed to eke out a victory over Humphrey.

While Campaign 2016 reflects a very different America and the key Democratic issue is “income inequality,” not the Vietnam War some parallels could become obvious if the presumptive nominee (Johnson in 1968 and Clinton in 2016) is pushed out or chooses to step aside.

Then, the Democratic choice would be plunging ahead with a back-bench candidate (McCarthy in 1968 and Sanders in 2016) or looking for a higher-profile and more mainstream alternative, such as Biden who (like Humphrey) would offer continuity with the sitting president or Warren who shares many of Sanders’s positions (like Robert Kennedy did with McCarthy) but who might be more acceptable to “party regulars.”

A Warren candidacy also might lessen the disappointment of women who wanted to see Hillary Clinton as the first female president. At the moment, however, the question is: Did New Hampshire deal a death blow to Hillary Clinton’s campaign or can she become the first candidate in modern U.S. political history to bounce back from a 22-point loss in the first-in-the-nation primary?

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).