Why NYT Dissed the ‘Drone Papers’

When the “Downing Street Memo” surfaced in the UK in 2006 revealing that the intelligence to justify the Iraq War had been “fixed” around the policy, the mainstream U.S. media largely ignored it. The same has now happened with the leak of documents about President Obama’s drone war, writes John Hanrahan.

By John Hanrahan

For that slice of the American public that still depends heavily on major daily newspapers as their main source of news, they might not even know that the on-line publication The Intercept has published a package of alarming drone-assassination articles based on secret military documents provided by an anonymous intelligence whistleblower.

These “Drone Papers” show, among other disclosures, that the U.S. government has been lying about the number of civilian deaths caused by drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. For every targeted individual assassinated, another five or six non-targeted individuals are killed, giving the lie to the Obama administration’s long-standing claims of careful, precision killing of specific targets in order to avoid killing civilians.

The Intercept, relying on a cache of slides provided to it by its whistleblower source, posted its package of eight articles on Oct. 15, 2015. Among those picking up on the stories was the Huffington Post (which ran excerpts), and other outlets, including The Guardian, Newsweek, New York Magazine, NPR, the PBS NewsHour, CNN , which generally cited some of The Intercept’s main findings or speculated about a “second [Edward] Snowden” coming forth as a national security whistleblower.

As of this writing, the premier mainstream publications that carry influence beyond their own immediate readership in setting the nation’s news agenda , The New York Times and The Washington Post , have carried virtually nothing about what is in these explosive documents, which cover the 2011-2013 period. The documents show the inner workings, and the deadly failures, of the Joint Special Operations Command’s targeted killing programs, a/k/a assassinations, which President Obama signs off on.

The Post so far appears to have ignored The Intercept’s stories; The Times , in a move lightly criticized by the paper’s public editor Margaret Sullivan  ,  managed to attach a whopping two paragraphs about The Intercept’s scoop to the end of a story about Obama’s decision to keep troops in Afghanistan until 2017. Those who didn’t read beyond the first few paragraphs of the troops-in-Afghanistan story would have missed altogether that bare mention of The Intercept’s scoop in the article’s 24th and 25th paragraphs, as I did.

Among the findings derived from the documents, which Post and Times readers have been deprived of: While drones do kill some of their intended targets, they kill far more non-targeted people who happen to be in the vicinity of the drone strike (or who happen to be using the cell phone or computer of someone who was targeted).

In one major special operations program in northeastern Afghanistan called Operation Haymaker (the only finding the Times mentioned in its two paragraphs), 35 individuals targeted for assassination were actually killed in drone strikes, but 219 other non-targeted individuals were also killed.

This meant, The Intercept reported, that during one five-month period of Operation Haymaker, “nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets. In Yemen and Somalis where the U.S. has far more limited intelligence capabilities to confirm the people killed are the intended targets, the equivalent ratios may well be much worse.”

All those killed, intended target or not, are designated “enemy killed in action” (EKIA), the source told The Intercept. Official U.S. government statements minimizing the number of civilian casualties, the source said, are “exaggerating at best, if not outright lies.”

Now at first I thought it could be that the Times and the Post were working diligently to match The Intercept stories, attempting before printing anything to obtain and carefully review similar sets of slides as The Intercept used for its stories. After all, The Intercept’s articles didn’t just appear overnight, but rather “were produced by a team of reporters and researchers that has spent months analyzing the documents.”

Perhaps these mainstream outlets were also attempting to take the story beyond what The Intercept has posted, I speculated. If so, we should all eagerly await the results.

But at least as far as the Times is concerned, that doesn’t appear to be the case. The paper’s public editor Margaret Sullivan questioned Times executive editor Dean Baquet, and the editor for national security coverage, William Hamilton, as to “why the story had received relatively short shrift.”

In response, Sullivan wrote, “Both said they found the project a worthy one. They and several Washington editors looked it over with interest, they said, and agreed that there was new detail in it. But they didn’t see it as something that warranted its own story, at least not at the moment, they said.”

The Times editors’ responses smack of that old chestnut of an excuse in the newsroom when some other publication scoops you: “We had that story already. Nothing much new here. Let’s kiss it off with two paragraphs.”

Before commenting further on the Times’s editors’ fairly inane response, it must be noted that over the past few years New York Times reporter Scott Shane has written some revealing stories about the U.S. drone program, without benefit of documents such as The Intercept is reporting on.

Shane’s articles included one earlier this year noting that, despite reassurances from the President on down, the U.S. is often unsure about whom it is actually killing in drone strikes, a major disclosure reinforced by The Intercept documents and its source.

And in May 2012, Shane and Jo Becker were the first to report that President Obama signed off on a secret “kill list” of individuals to be targeted in drone strikes. The reporters at the same time also revealed that Obama “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

But this past significant coverage does not excuse why the Times and much of the mainstream press has so far not reported even a good timely summary of what The Intercept has published in its articles, which advance the drone story beyond what has previously been reported.

As revealing as the Times stories were at the time, they lacked what The Intercept now has: actual secret military documents that back up what its exclusive source is telling it, and that provide far more detail and data about the program than what was printed earlier.

The Times editors’ explanations just don’t wash. Do these editors really believe that one major drone story every year or so is all that is required, even in the face of vital new information published by a competitor?

In a newspaper full of wall-to-wall stories on Donald Trump, Republican Benghazi shenanigans, the ever-shifting permutations of the Democratic and Republican presidential races in Iowa and New Hampshire, stories all full of much the same elements one day to the next, it boggles the mind to think the Times believes it has “done” its quota of drone-atrocity stories for the time being. That they saw nothing in The Intercept’s stories “that warranted its own story” in the Times.

Do Times editors believe we, their reading public, don’t need to know anything more about this dreadful subject than what they told us in articles last spring and in the spring of 2012? That what Shane reported last May, as substantial a story as it was, is the last word in drone murders? The editors even acknowledged to Sullivan that The Intercept stories contained “new detail.” Why not share all that new detail with its readers?

The Intercept, after all, is a reliable, hard-charging news organization staffed by several of the nation’s top national security investigative reporters, and no editor at any other news operation should have any hesitancy about reporting a summary of its drone findings, backed up as they are by insider documents.

And in reporting the summary, of course crediting The Intercept in the same manner print news media and broadcast newscasts frequently do when they themselves don’t have a particular important story from their own reporters. It happens all the time.

Mainstream news organizations have an obligation to provide their readers with important, credible, timely news reports, even when the report comes from a competing, and reputable, news organization, and even if they might be working on their own story which they hope to publish at some point.

Margaret Sullivan didn’t come down hard on the Times for all but ignoring The Intercept’s stories, noting that since the newspaper “has done so much on this subject, it may be understandable that only a brief mention of The Intercept’s scoop has been made so far.”

Still, she added, “given the revelations in the released documents, as well as the mere existence of a major intelligence leaker who is not Edward Snowden , Times journalists would have served readers well to do more on ‘The Drone Papers.’ They also could consider doing so in the future.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of readers of the Times and the Post and other mainstream news outlets are being denied actual news that has serious implications for the ways the United States wages the endless wars this nation has been recklessly embarked on for the last 14 years.

Jeremy Scahill, the award-winning reporter who headed The Intercept’s reporting team on the Drone Papers, described the importance of the documents this way: “Taken together, the secret documents lead to the conclusion that Washington’s 14-year high-value targeting campaign suffers from an overreliance on signals intelligence [metadata from cellphones and computers], an apparently incalculable civilian toll, and, due to a preference for assassination rather than capture, an inability to extract potentially valuable intelligence from terror suspects. They also highlight the futility of the war in Afghanistan by showing how the U.S. has poured vast resources into killing local insurgents, in the process exacerbating the very threat the U.S. is seeking to confront.”

Scahill said the information in these secret slides is “especially relevant today as the U.S. military intensifies its drone strikes and covert actions against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.”

Tragically, there are few voices in the mainstream press and in Congress raising any alarms about the proliferation of what Scahill calls the borderless U.S. “unconventional wars that employ special operations forces at the tip of the spear”

Like so much else in the never-ending global war on Terror, Inc., the euphemistically named targeted killings have become part of the military landscape which most Americans passively accept as just the way things are, if they pay any attention at all. There are many brave souls around the country who regularly protest and get arrested at military drone sites and drone contractors’ facilities, or at the Pentagon and White House protesting against drones and U.S. militarism generally, but there is no mass movement.

With only a relative handful of people protesting, and with no congressional hearings and only sporadic news coverage raising any serious questions about the morality and legality of targeted assassinations under international law, the policy isn’t likely to change. Not unless and until a critical mass of well-organized citizens rises up in revulsion and anger at these cowardly killings and endless wars being carried out in our name.

And one big way the public should be able to find out more about the horrors of drone warfare, and how it fits into never-ending U.S. militarism, is from a news media that sees it as its mission to report about such subjects in all their terror and gruesome death aspects.

This topic truly is one of life and death for many people, particularly the beleaguered citizens of the greater Middle East. And it carries deep implications for our democracy, as well. As Scahill wrote about the Drone Papers:

“Whether through the use of drones, night raids, or new platforms yet to be unleashed, these documents lay bare the normalization of assassination as a central component of U.S. counterterrorism policy.”

The normalization of the United States as prime International Assassin: Somehow, that sounds like news, scary news that the American people need to know, and need to hear again and again.

John Hanrahan, currently on the editorial board of ExposeFacts, is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for  The Washington Post,  The Washington Star, UPI and other news organizations. He also has extensive experience as a legal investigator. Hanrahan is the author of Government by Contract  and co-author of Lost Frontier: The Marketing of Alaska. He wrote extensively for NiemanWatchdog.org, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.




Obama’s Abuse of ‘Espionage’ Act

President Obama who took office vowing “transparency” has run one of the most opaque administrations in U.S. history, hiding information that the public needs to know and destroying the lives of government officials who dare to share some secrets with the citizenry, ex-CIA officer John Kiriakou says.

By John Kiriakou

Chelsea Manning’s attorneys are gearing up for a long and hard appeal of the former soldier’s espionage convictions. It’s not going to be easy: The Supreme Court has had several opportunities in the past to rule the Espionage Act unconstitutionally broad (which it is), but has not done so. Let’s hope the Court has come to its senses. It’s time for the Espionage Act to go.

The Espionage Act was written in 1917 to combat German saboteurs during World War I. And it was updated only once, in the early 1950s during the hysteria surrounding the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

The truth of the matter is that the Espionage Act is almost never used. At least it wasn’t until Barack Obama became president. You see, from 1917 until 2008, the Espionage Act was used only three times to prosecute individuals not accused of aiding a foreign country. But President Obama’s Justice Department has charged nine individuals with espionage since he became president.

None of those individuals gave or sold classified information to a foreign power. None sought personal gain in any way. Instead they were charged with passing what the statute calls “national defense information” to members of the press or academia. Most of them were prosecuted for whistleblowing.

In most cases, what they did was the definition of whistleblowing: They revealed evidence of waste, fraud, abuse, or illegality. I am one of those individuals. I was charged with three counts of espionage. And for telling the press that the U.S. was torturing prisoners at black sites around the world and that torture was official U.S. government policy, I was sentenced to 30 months in prison. I served 23 months.

The Justice Department’s decision to file espionage charges against Edward Snowden under the same act is another example of the Obama administration’s policy of using an iron fist against human rights and civil liberties activists.

But there are other cases, too. Tom Drake, a senior executive at the National Security Agency (NSA), blew the whistle on an illegal and wasteful program to intercept the communications of American citizens. He didn’t go to the press. He went to the NSA’s Inspector General, the General Counsel, the Pentagon Inspector General, and then to the Congressional Oversight Committee, just like he was supposed to. His reward was 10 espionage charges, all of which were eventually thrown out, but not until he had lost his job, his home, and his pension.

And one man, a State Department analyst named Stephen Kim, took a plea to an espionage charge after he was arrested for having a conversation with a Fox News reporter about North Korea. This was something that was a regular part of his job. And an administration official called the information that Kim was convicted of giving Fox “a nothing burger.”

But that didn’t stop the Justice Department from forcing Kim to take a plea to a felony that sent him to prison for a year and a half. Kim also lost his job, his home and his family. His wife left him and moved back to South Korea. And just to add insult to injury, as a part of his plea bargain, Kim had to stand before the judge and say, “I am not a whistleblower.”

President Obama has used the Espionage Act to prosecute those whose whistleblowing he wants to curtail. But it’s more than that. The purpose of an Espionage Act prosecution is to ruin the whistleblower personally, professionally and financially. It is meant to send a message to anybody else considering speaking truth to power: Challenge us and we will destroy you.

The effect of an Espionage Act charge on a person’s life being viewed as a traitor, being shunned by family and friends, incurring massive legal bills is all a part of the plan to frighten other people from revealing governmental waste, fraud, abuse and illegality. It forces the whistleblower into personal ruin, to weaken him to the point where he will plead guilty to just about anything to make the case go away. I know. That’s exactly what happened to me.

In early 2012, I was arrested and charged with three counts of espionage and one count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA). (I was only the second person in U.S. history to be charged with violating the IIPA, a law that was meant to be used against rogues like Philip Agee, who wrote a book in the 1960s that listed the names of hundreds of undercover CIA officers.)

Two of my espionage charges were the result of a conversation I had with a New York Times reporter and an ABC News reporter about torture. Specifically, the classified information I was accused of giving the reporter was this: That the CIA had a program to capture or kill members of al-Qaeda. That’s right. The CIA argued in my case that the fact that we were looking for al-Qaeda fighters after the Sept. 11 attacks was Top Secret. Seriously. The CIA “declassified” the information solely for the purpose of prosecuting me.

I gave the reporter no classified information only the business card of a former CIA colleague who had never been undercover and who was then working in the private sector. The other espionage charge was for giving the same unclassified business card to a reporter for ABC News. All three espionage charges were eventually dropped, but only after I agreed to take a plea. I agreed to 30 months in prison so as not to risk the possibility of 45 years in prison that I could have gotten had I been found guilty at trial.

That’s what the Justice Department does. It heaps on charges so that the person pleads guilty to something anything to make the case go away. Believe me, very, very few people risk the 45 years. That’s why the government has a conviction rate of 98.2 percent.

(As an aside, when Saddam Hussein got 98 percent of the vote in his last presidential election, we screamed to the international community that it was rigged. When the Justice Department wins 98 percent, we say they’re all geniuses.)

So, why charge a whistleblower with a crime in the first place? Leaks happen all the time in Washington. But the leaks that make the government look good are never prosecuted. Former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta boastfully revealed the identity of the Seal Team member who killed Osama bin Laden in a speech to an audience that included uncleared individuals.

That’s a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Panetta also shared his memoir with his publisher before it was cleared by the CIA’s Publications Review Board. That is exactly this administration’s definition of espionage: Sharing national defense information with a person not entitled to receive it.

Former CIA director General David Petraeus gave classified information to his girlfriend, including the names of undercover officers. He then lied to the FBI about it. But he was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor. There was no Espionage Act charge for him.

The Obama administration’s so-called “cybersecurity czar,” General James “Hoss” Cartwright, allegedly told The New York Times that the White House was behind the release of the Stuxnet virus, which attacked computers being used in the Iranian nuclear program. That, too, is the definition of espionage.

But why wasn’t Cartwright prosecuted? In addition to being known in the press as President Obama’s favorite general, the Cartwright leak made the White House look good, tough and active against Iran. So there were no charges.

In my case, prosecution was my punishment for blowing the whistle on the CIA’s torture program and for confirming to the press, despite government protestations to the contrary, that the U.S. government was, indeed, in the business of torture.

Obama declared a war on whistleblowers virtually as soon as he assumed office. Some of the investigations began during the Bush administration, as was the case with Tom Drake, but Espionage Act cases have been prosecuted only under Obama. Indeed, former Attorney General Eric Holder said just before he left office in early 2015 that he wished he had prosecuted more leak cases.

This policy decision to target whistleblowers smacks of modern-day McCarthyism. Washington has always needed an “ism” to fight against, an idea against which it could rally its citizens like lemmings. First, it was anarchism, then socialism, then communism. Now, it’s terrorism. Any whistleblower who goes public in the name of protecting human rights or civil liberties is accused of helping the terrorists.

That the whistleblower has the support of groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or the American Civil Liberties Union doesn’t matter. The administration simply presses forward with wild accusations against the whistleblower: “He’s aiding the enemy!” “He put our soldiers’ lives in danger!” “He has blood on his hands!” Then, when it comes time for trial, the espionage charges invariably are either dropped or thrown out.

Yet another problem with the Espionage Act is that it has never been applied uniformly. Immediately after its passage in 1917, American socialist leader Eugene V. Debs was arrested and imprisoned under the Espionage Act simply for criticizing the U.S. decision to enter the First World War. He ran for president from his prison cell.

Nearly a century later, when the deputy director for national intelligence revealed the amount of the highly-classified intelligence budget in an ill-conceived speech, she was not even sent a letter of reprimand despite the fact that the Russians, Chinese and others had sought the figure for decades. When the disclosure was reported in the press, the CIA simply fluffed it off as an “accident.”

When a White House scheduling secretary in 2012 released the name of the senior CIA officer in Afghanistan to an email list of hundreds of reporters, the White House called it “inadvertent” and moved on.

The Obama administration’s espionage prosecutions are political actions for political reasons, and are carried out by political appointees. The only way to end this or any administration’s abuse of the Espionage Act is to rewrite the law. It is so antiquated that it doesn’t even mention classified information; the classification system hadn’t yet been invented. The law is still so broad and so vague that many legal scholars argue that it is unconstitutional.

The only hope of ending this travesty of justice is to scrap the Espionage Act and to enact new legislation that would protect whistleblowers while allowing the government to prosecute traitors and spies. This would require Congressional leadership, however, and that is something that is very difficult to come by.

Giants like the late Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Frank Church, and the late Rep. Otis Pike, who boldly took on and reformed the intelligence community in the 1970s, are long-gone. Until someone on Capitol Hill begins to understand the concept of justice for national security whistleblowers, very little is likely to change.

The press also has a role to play, one that, so far, it has largely ignored. That role is to report on and investigate the whistleblower’s revelations of illegality, not on the kind of car he drives, the brand of eyeglasses he wears, where he went to college, or what his next door neighbor has to say about his childhood.

The attacks on our civil liberties that the whistleblower reports are far too important to move off-message into trivialities. After all, the government is spying on all of us. That should be the story. If Congress can’t or won’t right this wrong, the Supreme Court must.

John Kiriakou is an Associate Fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC. He is a former CIA counterterrorism operations officer and former senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. [Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. See: http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/277-75/33288-focus-if-congress-wont-scrap-the-espionage-act-maybe-the-supreme-court-will]




The Dark Truth in the Movie ‘Truth’

Exclusive: Almost four decades after starring in “All the President’s Men,” Robert Redford returns portraying another famous journalist in “Truth.” But the world has been turned upside down. Mainstream media is no longer the hero exposing a corrupt president, but the villain protecting one, as James DiEugenio explains.

By James DiEugenio

In spring 2004, CBS news producer Mary Mapes was doing what journalists are supposed to do dig up facts that help the public understand important events and often make the powers-that-be squirm. She and Dan Rather, her colleague at the “60 Minutes” offspring “60 Minutes II,” had just exposed the U.S. military’s bizarre mistreatment of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison.

Documented with damning photos and direct testimony, the story revealed how U.S. military guards had stripped detainees naked and subjected them to sexual humiliations and severe physical abuse. The story forced President George W. Bush to claim that he was morally outraged by these practices and to demand that the implicated soldiers be court-martialed.

But the string that the Abu Ghraib case pulled eventually revealed that Bush and his senior advisers had authorized very similar treatment for detainees at CIA “black sites” and at Guantanamo Bay prison. In that sense, the Abu Ghraib prison story was one of the most important of the Iraq War in that it exposed the secret ugliness and grotesque criminality of Bush’s “global war on terror.”

Mapes had done other compelling stories for “60 Minutes” and its spinoff, including coverage of Karla Faye Tucker’s execution. The young woman was convicted of murder, but, in prison, became a born-again Christian and asked for a commutation from then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush. But Bush was eyeing political advancement and refused to grant it, letting her execution go forward.

In another powerful human-interest story, Mapes found the child of segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, a child he had fathered with a black woman.

In other words, Mapes was the kind of producer who delivered hard-hitting stories that news organizations claim that they crave, the sort of reporting that not only makes for good journalism but good TV.

But Mary Mapes ran into a buzz saw of career-destroying trouble on Sept. 8, 2004, when she and her colleagues at “60 Minutes II” broadcast a segment on Bush’s spotty service in the Texas Air National Guard, the route that the Bush Family scion took to avoid the Vietnam War.

The segment posed the question of whether Bush had honored his commitment or got special dispensation to avoid a large part of his duty. Within minutes of the show being aired, actually before the hour was over, the report came under attack from right-wing bloggers who accused CBS of using forged documents as part of its presentation. The key claim of these Bush defenders was that some of the documents couldn’t have been typed in the early 1970s because IBM’s Selectric typewriters couldn’t produce superscripts (a claim that turned out to be false, since Selectric typewriters did allow for superscripts, such as the little “th” or “st” after a number).

Blaming the Messenger

Yet, caught off-guard by the ferocity of this attack and its amplification through the right-wing echo chamber and then back into the mainstream media CBS executives put Mapes on leave. Less than two weeks after the broadcast on Sept. 20, 2004 she left her office in New York, never to return.

She was told not to talk to any reporters about the segment, an order that she unwisely obeyed. She was also told by CBS News President Andrew Heyward not to do any work advancing the story. A few days later, Heyward announced the formation of a review panel. Former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, a Bush Family apparatchik, and former Associated Press chief Lou Boccardi headed it.

In January 2005, the panel issued its report critical of some journalistic procedures that Mapes and three other producers followed in putting together the segment, but the panel could not establish definitively whether the questioned documents were indeed forgeries.

On the day Heyward read the Thornburgh-Boccardi report without letting Mapes rebut its findings he called Mapes and fired her. Three other CBS employees involved with the production producer Josh Howard, vice president of prime time news Betsy West, and executive producer Mary Murphy were asked to resign.

Dan Rather was removed from his anchor spot at CBS Evening News in March of 2005. His contract was not picked up in 2006. Thus his association with CBS ended after 44 years.

But Mapes did not go quietly. Later in 2005, she wrote a book about her career at CBS and primarily about the whole Bush/National Guard segment she produced. Truth and Duty was a spirited defense of her and her colleagues’ performance on the story.

It was also a bare-knuckled reply to the workings and verdict of the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel, a report that most of the mainstream media and the unsuspecting public accepted at face value as being the last word on the whole issue.

Because Mapes had worked in Dallas for CBS News, she had heard many tales about Texas Gov. Bush’s National Guard service, or lack of such. In 1968, after George W. Bush graduated from Yale and without a student deferment, he was eligible for a tour in Vietnam via the draft. Though the Bush clan supported the Vietnam War in public, they understood that it was not at all a cause worth risking one’s life over. So to help Bush avoid getting shipped off to Indochina, the decision was made for him to join the National Guard but not just any unit in the National Guard.

The ‘Champagne’ Unit

Young Bush would join the 147th Fighter Wing of the Texas Air National Guard (or TANG). This Houston-based unit was a haven for the rich and powerful in Texas, so much so that it was nicknamed the “Champagne Unit.” Bush went in as a Second Lieutenant, even though he had not met any of the requisite requirements to merit such an officer’s position.

The 147th also trained Bush to be a pilot. Again, this was unusual because it was rather expensive to train a pilot from scratch. The usual route was to borrow trained pilots from regular Air Force units or to train young men who had some experience, which Bush did not have.

How did George W. Bush gain entry into the TANG? The Bush family cover story was that he had talked to Lt. Col. Walter Staudt, who told him positions were open. It later turned out that it was not at all that simple. What really happened was that Ben Barnes, state Speaker of the House, used some influence to gain entry for Bush, letting him leapfrog over many other applicants. In fact, one of the scoops that Mapes got for the “60 Minutes II” segment was that Barnes went on camera to talk about what he had done.

But getting in was just the beginning of the story. Young Bush was allowed to take “hiatuses” from active duty. For instance, Bush got a six-week leave to work on Sen. Ed Gurney’s campaign in Florida. He then seemed to lose his skills as a pilot. He had difficulty landing his F-102 fighter plane. Consequently, he was pulled from flight duty, his last sortie being performed in April 1972.

Then, with many months still left on his National Guard contract, he asked permission to work on another senatorial campaign for Win Blount in Alabama. Bush requested, and was granted, a transfer to the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance unit in Montgomery at Dannelly Field. But there was no credible evidence in Alabama that Bush ever showed up.

When Blount lost in November of 1972, Bush returned to Texas, but not apparently to Ellington Air Base in Houston as he was supposed to. He went to Florida and Washington DC, and then returned to Alabama. He then tried to go back to Texas to report, but his superiors did not want him there. Further, there was never any paperwork returned to Ellington from Alabama about his alleged alternative service.

As many who have examined the record have concluded, it is hard not to say that young Bush went AWOL and did not fulfill the last two years of a six-year military commitment. That should have gotten him kicked out of the TANG and made him eligible for the draft. His negligence should have meant no honorable discharge, but he got one nonetheless.

Finessing a Vulnerability

Years later when Bush launched his political career, it appears that his handlers understood what a liability this whole episode was. Karl Rove and Karen Hughes tried to intimidate local Texas writers like James Moore from questioning Bush about it. But then, as Moore noted, there were reports from TANG manager Bill Burkett that some of Bush’s entourage went into National Guard Headquarters to purge Bush’s files. Whatever one thinks of Burkett’s credibility, there were indeed several documents missing from Bush’s file, which should have been there.

The first time I ever heard about the Bush/TANG story was during the presidential campaign of 2004, which tells us something about the national news media’s insistence on ignoring it when Bush first ran for president in 2000. Back then, much of the mainstream press was enamored of George W. Bush, who gave out nicknames to his favorite reporters. The campaign press was also generally disdainful of Vice President Al Gore, who was deemed a boring nerd.

During that campaign, Walter Robinson of the Boston Globe brought the story about Bush’s shirking his National Guard duty outside of Texas. Robinson interviewed several of Bush’s commanders who did not recall seeing him in 1972 or 1973, either in Texas or Alabama.

But that well-documented story fell on deaf ears as far as the national press was concerned. Big-time political reporters were much more interested in making fun of Gore for supposedly saying, “I invented the Internet” although Gore never actually said that. In 2000, within the Washington press corps, there was a palpable yearning for a return of the Bush Family “adults” and the dispatch of Bill Clinton’s tawdry entourage.

However, four years later, in Campaign 2004, retired Gen. Wesley Clark was running as a Democrat and documentarian Michael Moore had framed a possible Clark-Bush race as “The General vs. the Deserter.” So, during an early debate, ABC’s Peter Jennings asked Clark about the charge that Bush had gone AWOL in Alabama. Jennings was clearly trying to embarrass Clark or get him to repudiate Moore’s comment.

As Amy Goodman later recalled this exchange on her show Democracy Now, it appeared to be a warning shot by the mighty MSM: We are not going to tolerate this kind of criticism of a sitting president. Mainstream journalists also were a bit touchy because they had ignored this important angle in 2000.

Ignoring Bush’s Past

In retrospect, it seems amazing that the MSM almost completely missed this story in 2000, even though they had the Boston Globe story in hand. As Mapes writes in her book, what could be more relevant than a man running for president who had escaped the Vietnam draft by having strings pulled to get him into the TANG and who then decided he did not need to fulfill his rather easy weekend commitment and thus reneged on the terms of his agreement? Does such an episode not speak to Bush’s character, especially his honesty and sense of duty?

Further, since Bush’s experience in the TANG seemed to be a fig leaf to avoid service in Vietnam, what would that say about how Bush regarded the seriousness of sending other men into combat? Not only did Bush never experience the danger, he actively avoided it.

Was this issue not even more relevant considering what Bush later did in Afghanistan and Iraq in dispatching National Guard units to repeated combat tours? But the American public never got a chance to fully debate this issue because the MSM largely hid it from public view in 2000 and then insisted on keeping it buried in 2004.

Yet, Mapes plowed ahead with her work on the Bush-National Guard story. She obtained documents from Burkett purportedly written by Bush’s immediate supervisor, the deceased Jerry Killian, that seemed to corroborate much of what had been said earlier about Bush’s avoidance of service. The documents were copies, not originals, so the ink and paper could not be tested though she used other means to seek to authenticate them, including pressing Burkett on where he got them.

She also interviewed another TANG officer, Bobby Hodges, who had served above Killian. Hodges backed up the complaints about Bush that appeared in the documents, namely that Bush refused to report for a physical, that his superior wanted to call for a panel before grounding him, and that there was pressure from above to not discipline Bush. But Hodges refused to appear on camera and did not want to see the Killian documents. (Mapes, p. 173, e-book edition.)

To further verify the documents, Rather and Mapes secured the services of four document examiners. Of the four, two vouched for the documents as genuine and signed by Killian. Two had reservations. Mapes put together what she called an overall “meshing document,” a collection of unquestionably genuine documents, which matched the information in the documents secured by Burkett.

She wanted to make a comparison graphic to include on the show, but senior producer Josh Howard vetoed that idea in favor of more from House Speaker Barnes. (ibid, p. 187) Josh Howard also deleted the off-camera audio interview with Bobby Hodges. Howard and news vice president Betsy West cut another interview with a military expert, Colonel David Hackworth.

In her book, Mapes wrote that after these deletions, she probably should have either delayed the story, or perhaps asked for it to be killed. (ibid, p. 188) But she did not.

Tipping Off the White House

But there was one other development that should have given her pause. Producer Josh Howard allowed the White House to look at the documents and comment on the show in advance. The White House had no comment on the documents, and only a mildly dismissive reply to the thesis of the show, responding that Bush had been released from his National Guard service with an honorable discharge.

The lack of both rigor and vigor in this reply, considering it was just weeks before the election, should have signaled that something ominous was being prepared. Because the online response was so fast and ferocious, it appears that Bush’s defenders were tipped off in advance, a possibility that gained more credence after Bush published his account in his 2010 memoir, Decision Point.

According to Bush, he was shown one of the purported memos by White House aide Dan Bartlett after stepping off Marine One late one night in September 2004.

“Dan told me CBS newsman Dan Rather was going to run a bombshell report on 60 Minutes based on the document,” Bush wrote. “Bartlett asked if I remembered the memo. I told him I had no recollection of it and asked him to check it out.

“The next morning, Dan walked into the Oval Office looking relieved. He told me there were indications that the document had been forged. The typeface came from a modern computer font that didn’t exist in the early 1970s.”

Though Bush does not specify exactly when these conversations took place relative to the program, they suggest that the White House had a more central role in launching the right-wing blogger attacks over “forged” documents than was known at the time. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush Gloats Over Dan Rather’s Ouster.”]

The counterattack from rightwing web sites followed the attack line laid out by Bartlett. The bloggers ignored the interviews about Bush being AWOL and focused solely on whether the documents were genuine or if a Microsoft Word program on a computer created them.

Once the first critiques were published, the attacks on CBS spread throughout the conservative blogosphere, then conservative talk radio, and next onto Fox News, before becoming a hot topic in the MSM.

The IBM Selectric

The bloggers’ claim was that the IBM Selectric typewriter that Killian supposedly used to type his memos lacked technical features regarding types of fonts, superscripting and proportional spacing. But the Bush defenders were wrong. IBM’s Selectric typewriters did possess those features, meaning that the documents could have been typed back then. (ibid, pgs. 194-203)

The CBS experts had anticipated this line of attack. But what shocked Mapes was that even though the critics were proved wrong, that didn’t seem to matter as the MSM joined in the rush to judgment against CBS. Again, the attacks did not focus on the substance of the report the interviews indicating that the sitting president of the United States had essentially been a wartime deserter but on the trustworthiness of the Killian documents.

Rather than resist the media stampede, CBS president Andrew Heyward joined in trampling his reporting team. Heyward decided to rid CBS of the problem and satisfy CEO Leslie Moonves who never cared much for investigative reporting by appointing a blue-ribbon panel that certainly couldn’t be criticized for being biased against Bush, quite rather the opposite.

Also, if the panel did its job correctly and issued a scathing critique of Mapes and her team Heyward could begin to reorganize the news department and swing the nightly news more to “infotainment,” supposedly a more profitable approach to “news.”

Though Rather first resisted the growing attacks seeing them as par for the course when trying to hold a powerful person accountable he soon saw the writing on the wall. He apparently hoped to salvage the situation by issuing an apology.

In her book, Mapes describes Rather’s call in which he informs her about his apology and the appointment of the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel. Mapes wrote she started weeping at the news, because she understood that she was finished. (ibid, p. 230)

And she was. The Thornburgh-Boccardi panel was anything but independent. It was an appendage of Heyward and Moonves — and protective of President Bush. The panel had a job in front of it: to convict those involved with the segment, no matter what the real facts of the case were.

Boccardi, known inside the AP as a careerist bureaucrat who also was uncomfortable with investigative journalism, was mostly a front, the token “journalist.” The other key participants in the inquiry were attorneys with Thornburgh’s law firm. Therefore, Mapes would not be judged by a panel of working journalists using journalistic standards, but by prosecuting attorneys chosen and paid for by Heyward and Moonves.

People who cared about real journalism noted the bias and flaws in the inquiry. New York Times former corporate counsel James C. Goodale, who argued landmark freedom-of-the-press cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, dissected the Thornburgh-Boccardi report in an article in New York Review of Books.

His article was so trenchant that Thornburgh and Boccardi made the mistake of replying to it. Goodale’s rebuttal was even more compelling. Suffice it to say that the panel never tried to determine if the Killian documents were genuine, probably because, as time went on, more and more evidence emerged that a computer or word processor could not have created the documents.

Extreme blow-ups revealed evidence of wear on certain letters of the typeface, a sign that a real typewriter, not some word-processing software, was used. (ibid, p. 329)

Mapes’s Truth and Duty was a strong and energetic reply to the forces that combined to torpedo her career, retire Rather from CBS, and intimidate network investigative reporting. Mapes argues that the last point was particularly effective. I wouldn’t go as far as that, since I think those forces were at work long before 2004. If they weren’t, then the whole Bush/TANG issue would have come up for serious examination in 2000.

Making a Movie

Screenwriter James Vanderbilt evidently liked Mapes’s book. His credits had included movies, such as Zodiac and The Amazing Spider Man. However, when he finally got a chance to direct a film, he picked Truth and Duty.

Vanderbilt also resisted the Hollywood impulse to overly fictionalize real events. He kept the script very close to the book. As far as I could tell, whatever alterations were quite minor.

Vanderbilt begins the film, entitled simply “Truth,” on the eve of the November 2004 election, well after Mapes had been banished from CBS, and the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel had been appointed. We glimpse her in her attorney’s office. I thought this was a good way to start the movie, since it left the implication that Mapes’s fate would be impacted by the election and also that her story, if properly handled, could have decided that election.

We then flashback to the days after the Abu Ghraib story appeared, when Mapes and Rather still had their careers. We see Rather getting an award and Mapes playing with her young son in her Dallas home.

After the success of the Abu Ghraib story, she’s approached by new “60 Minutes II” producers who want her to pitch them a story idea. She chooses whether Bush ducked out on his National Guard duty. We then watch as the story is built, including Barnes being caught on private video camera boasting about getting Bush into the TANG.

But as the film dramatically shows, there were two reversals to the story that proved disastrous to Mapes. First, Burkett apparently misrepresented where and how he got the Killian documents. He told her that they were given to him by a National Guard higher-up named George Conn, who worked at a level above Killian.

However, after the segment aired — and the controversy was swirling — Burkett told CBS executives that his earlier account was not accurate, a deception that he said was meant to stop Mapes from pestering him about the documents’ provenance.

In his revised account, he said he got the documents from a woman named Lucy Ramirez, who then asked him to burn the copies that she gave him after he had copied them.

Flipping the Script

CBS New president Heyward understood how badly this revision reflected on the story. So, he asked Burkett to do an on-camera interview discussing it. Burkett agreed to do so. But, as the film shows, Heyward, through prime-time news vice president Betsy West, used this interview to demean Burkett and take some of the stigma away from CBS.

We watch as West pens note after note to give to Mapes, who gives them to Rather, each one trying to transfer blame onto Burkett until finally Mapes will not cooperate anymore and finally neither will Rather.

After the interview is over, Burkett’s wife comes out of their room at the hotel and is asked how her husband is doing. We know he is not doing well because we just saw him taking oxygen for a neurological ailment that afflicts him.

The wife laces into the New York media bigwigs for taking advantage of people like her and her husband, pretending to be interested in their lives when they aren’t, for using them and spitting them out at the end of the process. This sequence is probably the dramatic high point of the film, and much of its power comes from the vivid performances of Stacy Keach as Burkett and Noni Hazlehurst as his wife Nicki.

The other reversal for Mapes was when Hodges finally did look at the Killian documents and gave his opinion that they were not genuine. He added that when Mapes first described their contents to him, he thought they were handwritten.

The obvious question is whether these later interviews were influenced by the initial misguided furor over the capabilities of Selectric typewriters and whether the political significance of the controversy affected what was said later. As Mapes wrote in her book, once her blood was in the water, it quickly became a maelstrom.

The Mapes Portrayal

In the movie, Mapes is portrayed by Australian actress Cate Blanchett, a versatile, technically sure actress who is always in control of what she does. Her best moment is when Mapes learns that her father, a Republican, has joined in the public pummeling of her by calling into a talk radio station. Blanchett/Mapes, in a desperate, plaintive request, begs him to stop participating in his daughter’s public humiliation.

In the movie, there are two other scenes that I thought were visually arresting. When Mapes and her lawyer are ushered into the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel’s office, the camera swirls quickly to show us just how large the panel is — so large that it takes up two levels of tables and chairs in front of the witness.

The second directorial flourish is when Rather played by Robert Redford calls Mapes to tell her that he is being removed as anchor of the CBS Evening News, a position he held for nearly a quarter of a century. He is calling her from the exterior balcony of his penthouse in New York and he gets to the point of the call circuitously. He recalls that CBS first understood that it could really make big money off the news department with the success of “60 Minutes” on Sunday evenings.

Mapes senses that something is wrong or why would he call her at night to tell her that. Then, Rather lets her in on his removal.

As the conversation ends, the camera pulls back to a panoramic shot of the New York skyline, as Redford/Rather slowly lowers his head. It’s a subtle visual strophe which epitomizes a man who has lost everything that is dear to him in the world.

Redford’s Two Roles

There is also poignancy in the choice of Robert Redford to play Dan Rather. Earlier in his career, Redford played Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men,” a rendition of The Washington Post’s famous Watergate investigation that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. That story, set mostly in 1972, represented a different moment for the mainstream news media, a brief period when U.S. journalism sought to hold powerful officials accountable and did a much better job of informing the American people about government wrongdoing.

Late in “All the President’s Men,” Woodward and his colleague, Carl Bernstein, make a mistake by assuming that a witness had mentioned a name before the Watergate grand jury when he hadn’t because he wasn’t asked. Yet, instead of throwing the two reporters to the wolves for this error, Post executive editor Ben Bradlee decides to stand behind his reporters.

The movie, “Truth,” is a counterpoint to that earlier, more heroic moment of American journalism. Instead of backing brave reporters who got the story right even if the process was imperfect and messy, the new generation of news executives simply protects the corporation, shields the powerful, and sacrifices the honest journalists.

It’s also interesting that “Truth” appears almost exactly a year after Jeremy Renner’s “Kill the Messenger,the account of how investigative journalist Gary Webb was destroyed by the mainstream press particularly The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times for disclosing the impact of cocaine trafficking by President Ronald Reagan’s beloved Nicaraguan Contras.

In this Contra-cocaine case, the major newspapers had largely ignored the scandal when it was first reported by AP reporters Robert Parry and Brian Barger in 1985 and even when it was the subject of a Senate investigative report by Sen. John Kerry in 1989.

When Webb revived the story in 1996 for the San Jose Mercury News focusing on how some Contra cocaine fed into the crack epidemic the MSM refused to reconsider its cowardly bad judgment of the 1980s and instead made Webb and some alleged shortcomings in his three-part series the issue.

The demonization of Webb continued even after the CIA’s Inspector General Frederick Hitz issued two reports confirming that the Contras had been deeply involved in the drug trade and that the CIA was aware of the problem but chose to protect its clients for geopolitical reasons rather than blow the whistle on their crimes. The blacklisting of Webb from his profession led to his suicide in 2004. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “How the Washington Press Turned Bad.”]

The two films have outwardly different subjects, but share a similar theme: how hard it is to tell the truth about difficult subjects in today’s corporate-controlled MSM news centers.

In both films, the central characters are remarkably successful news reporters who decide to pursue a subject that is anathema to the interests of the Establishment. They fail to understand the power of the forces arrayed against them, even when the counterattacks begin to pick up steam. They end up being victims of the corporate bureaucracies that they work for.

Although both stories are sad tales — no happy, triumphant endings — the fact that the films were made is encouraging because the public now can see how difficult it is to be an honest reporter in today’s environment. The powers available to stop serious investigative journalism in America are awesome and intimidating. Mary Mapes didn’t stand a chance.

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.




Reviving the ‘Liberal Media’ Myth

Exclusive: The Republicans and the Right have dragged out an old favorite whipping boy the “liberal media” to distract the voters from the failure of some GOP presidential candidates to answer a few tough questions, a tried-and-untrue exercise in political diversion, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

In the wake of last week’s CNBC-sponsored Republican presidential debate and its alleged “gotcha questions” the GOP and the Right are reviving their treasured myth of the “liberal media,” a claim that has been politically significant but almost entirely fictitious. There is not now nor really was there ever a “liberal media.”

Generations back, Americans understood that the major newspapers were owned by very rich men and generally represented their class interests. The wealthy owners would deploy their media properties to advance their mostly conservative and pro-business/anti-labor viewpoints.

There were always exceptions to this rule, but few Americans in the 1940s, for instance, would have considered the press “liberal,” with President Franklin Roosevelt garnering less than a quarter of newspaper endorsements in his last two races and President Harry Truman getting only about 15 percent in 1948.

The modern myth of the “liberal press” originated in the 1950s when many reporters in the national news media displayed sympathy for the idea that African-Americans deserved equal rights with white people.

Though some prominent journalists and many newspapers (especially but not solely in the South) supported racial segregation, many reporters (principally but not only from the North) wrote critically about Jim Crow laws and racist attitudes. A negative media spotlight was cast on the lynching of black men, brutality toward civil rights activists and violence by whites to keep black children out of previously all-white schools.

Northern reporters, for example, descended on Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, for the trial and acquittal of two white men for the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth who supposedly had flirted with a white woman. The critical coverage led the state’s whites to plaster their cars with bumper stickers reading, “Mississippi: The Most Lied About State in the Union.” [For more on the media’s coverage of the civil rights movement, see David Halberstam’s The Fifties. Or Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters.]

In the 1960s, the U.S. mainstream media largely favored the Vietnam War, but skeptical reporting about U.S. tactics from burning down villages and saturation bombing campaigns to the use of Agent Orange defoliants, assassinations under the CIA’s Operation Phoenix and the massacre at My Lai angered war supporters who viewed such journalism as undercutting the war effort.

By the late 1960s, the white backlash against racial integration gave rise to Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy and his Silent Majority’s resentment of critical coverage of the Vietnam War strengthened Nixon’s political hand. Nixon personally had a huge chip on his shoulder about what he regarded as hostile press coverage, so he helped infuse the Republican Party with contempt for the “liberal media.”

The 1970s and 1980s

The landmark media events of the 1970s the publication of the Pentagon Papers secret history of the Vietnam War, investigation of Nixon’s Watergate scandal, and revelations about the CIA’s “Family Jewels” secrets  pretty much sealed this image of a “liberal” press corps that would not reliably defend the actions of the U.S. government.

But this news coverage that so infuriated the Right and many Republicans was not “liberal”; it was accurate. It was a fleeting moment when American journalists were doing what the Founders had in mind with the First Amendment, informing the people about actions by their government so the people could have a meaningful say in controlling what the government was doing.

Nevertheless, the Right’s “liberal media” myth proved to be a powerful ideological weapon, wielded against reporters who uncovered unflattering information about right-wing policies and politicians. These reporters were deemed “unpatriotic,” “un-American,” a “blame-America-firster,” or just “liberal” for short.

I witnessed how this phenomenon played out in the 1980s. Contrary to the “liberal media” myth, the senior executives of news organizations that I dealt with were almost universally conservative or neoconservative.

At the Associated Press, its most senior executive, general manager Keith Fuller, gave a 1982 speech in Worcester, Massachusetts, hailing Reagan’s election in 1980 as a worthy repudiation of the excesses of the 1960s and a necessary corrective to the nation’s lost prestige of the 1970s. Fuller cited Reagan’s Inauguration and the simultaneous release of 52 U.S. hostages in Iran on Jan. 20, 1981, as a national turning point in which Reagan had revived the American spirit.

“As we look back on the turbulent Sixties, we shudder with the memory of a time that seemed to tear at the very sinews of this country,” Fuller said, adding that Reagan’s election represented a nation “crying, ‘Enough.’

“We don’t believe that the union of Adam and Bruce is really the same as Adam and Eve in the eyes of Creation. We don’t believe that people should cash welfare checks and spend them on booze and narcotics. We don’t really believe that a simple prayer or a pledge of allegiance is against the national interest in the classroom.

“We’re sick of your social engineering. We’re fed up with your tolerance of crime, drugs and pornography. But most of all, we’re sick of your self-perpetuating, burdening bureaucracy weighing ever more heavily on our backs.”

Fuller’s sentiments were not uncommon in the executive suites of major news organizations, where Reagan’s reassertion of an aggressive U.S. foreign policy was especially welcomed. At The New York Times, executive editor Abe Rosenthal, an early neocon, vowed to steer his newspaper back “to the center,” by which he meant to the right.

There was also a social dimension to this journalistic retreat. For instance, The Washington Post’s longtime publisher Katharine Graham found the stresses of high-stakes adversarial journalism unpleasant. Plus, it was one thing to take on the socially inept Richard Nixon; it was quite another to challenge the socially adroit Ronald and Nancy Reagan, whom Mrs. Graham personally liked.

The Graham family embraced neoconservatism, too, favoring aggressive policies against Moscow and unquestioned support for Israel. Soon, The Washington Post and Newsweek editors were reflecting those family prejudices.

I encountered that reality when I moved from AP to Newsweek in 1987 and found executive editor Maynard Parker, in particular, hostile to journalism that put Reagan’s Cold War policies in a negative light. I had been involved in breaking much of the Iran-Contra scandal at the AP, but I was told at Newsweek that “we don’t want another Watergate.” The fear apparently was that the political stresses from another constitutional crisis around a Republican president might shatter the nation’s political cohesion and would not be “good for the country.”

Building a Right-Wing Media

Still, the notion of a “liberal media” persisted, getting even more absurd as the years went by. Under President Reagan, the recurring complaint on the Right about the “liberal media” gave rise to an overtly right-wing media a vertically integrated structure from newspapers, magazines and book publishing to talk radio, TV networks and later the Internet.

By the 1990s, this right-wing media was arguably the most important political force in the United States, with talk-show host Rush Limbaugh working as a national precinct chairman for the GOP, rallying conservatives behind various causes and candidates. When the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, they made Limbaugh an honorary member of the GOP caucus.

The same was true in the upper reaches of corporate media. Collaborating directly with Republican politicians since the 1980s, Rupert Murdoch built a massive media empire based on newspapers (including now the Wall Street Journal), magazines (such as The Weekly Standard), book publishing (HarperCollins) and TV (most notably Fox News).

But Murdoch was far from the only network chieftain to be an ardent Republican. On Election Night 2000, General Electric Chairman Jack Welch revealed a favoritism for George W. Bush while visiting the election desk of GE’s NBC News subsidiary. In front of the NBC staff, Welch rooted for a Bush victory, asking apparently in jest, “how much would I have to pay you to call the race for Bush?” according to witnesses.

Later, after Fox News declared Bush the winner, Welch allegedly asked the chief of the NBC election desk why NBC was not doing the same, a choice NBC did make and then retracted. Though premature, the pro-Bush calls colored the public impression of Bush’s entitlement to the presidency during the month-long Florida recount battle. Welch denied pressuring NBC to call the race for Bush and defended his other behavior as a reaction to younger NBC staffers who Welch thought were favoring Vice President Al Gore.

Pro-Republican bias did not stop with Murdoch and Welch, as columnist Joe Conason has noted. “So was Larry Tisch when he owned CBS. So are Richard Parsons and Steve Case of CNN (and Time Warner AOL),” Conason wrote at Salon.com. “Michael Eisner (Disney ABC) gave to Bill Bradley and Al Gore, but he gave more to Bush and [John] McCain and he supported Rick Lazio for the Senate against Hillary Clinton.”

Meanwhile, many of the publications that were denounced by the Right as “liberal” bastions (the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post) shifted fully into neoconservatism hawkish on foreign policy though more tolerant on cultural issues such as gay marriage and more accepting of science on topics like global warming.

Both the Times and Post advanced President George W. Bush’s bogus claims about Iraq’s WMD as a justification for invading Iraq in 2003. Today, both newspapers toe the neocon line when it comes to aggressive U.S. policies regarding Russia and Syria. Neither makes any effort to conceal their hostility toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and other foreign leaders who are singled out for U.S. demonization.

From the news columns to the op-ed pages, the Times and Post have presented deeply biased coverage that favors more aggressive U.S. interventions abroad. On economic issues, they are generally centrist, favoring “free trade” deals and “reform” of Social Security neither position shared by most “liberals” or “progressives.”

Most modern media is owned by large corporations or, in a few cases, wealthy families. So, it continues to make sense that these outlets would share the prejudices and interests of the rich, as in the old days of FDR and Truman. Indeed, CNBC, the cable network that has prompted the recent right-wing ire, is famously pro-business and anti-government.

CNBC is dedicated to the proposition that “the market” knows all, except when there is an urgent need for the U.S. government to bail out the major investment banks after they tanked the economy in 2008 and crashed Wall Street stock values. Then, the government’s trillions of dollars were deemed essential, though the bank executives still bristled at any political criticism or suggestions that their compensation should be restrained.

The Tea Party Rise

In the first month of Barack Obama’s presidency, CNBC was on the front lines of promoting this arrogance of the super rich, attacking the new president even as he was confronting the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, with millions of Americans losing their jobs and millions more losing their homes.

Yet, while the huge Wall Street bank bail-out under President George W. Bush was popular with the CNBC crowd all the better to reverse the plunge in stock prices there was a fury against Obama’s plans to restrict executive compensation and help stanch the surge in joblessness and home foreclosures.

On Feb. 19, 2009, CNBC reporter Rick Santelli took to the trading floor of the Chicago commodities exchange and fumed about Obama’s plan to help up to nine million Americans avoid foreclosure. Santelli suggested that Obama set up a Web site to get public feedback on whether “we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages.”

Then, gesturing to the wealthy traders in the pit, Santelli declared, “this is America” and asked “how many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills, raise their hand.” Amid a cacophony of boos aimed at Obama’s housing plan, Santelli turned back to the camera and said, “President Obama, are you listening?”

Though Santelli’s behavior in a different context say, a denunciation of George W. Bush near the start of his presidency would surely have resulted in a suspension or firing, Santelli’s anti-Obama rant was hailed as “the Chicago tea party,” made Santelli an instant hero across right-wing talk radio, and was featured proudly on NBC’s Nightly News.

Santelli’s rant against helping “losers” inspired the Tea Party movement, which tapped into the populist frustrations of many alienated whites but was largely funded by rich right-wingers, including the Koch Brothers, who viewed it as a way to advance their own anti-regulatory agenda and promote more tax cuts for the rich.

That CNBC would now be attacked as a bastion of the “liberal media” shows how far this myth has slid from reality. CNBC is now part of NBCUniversal, which is co-owned by Comcast (51 percent), a major international media conglomerate, and General Electric (49 percent), a founding member of what President Dwight Eisenhower called the Military-Industrial Complex.

So, the notion that CNBC is a hotbed of leftist journalism is delusional. But that is what the Republican Party and many of its top candidates are selling to their “base.”

‘Gotcha’ Complaints

The complaints from last Wednesday’s debate have focused on alleged “gotcha” questions, such as challenges to Dr. Ben Carson, one of the GOP frontrunners, about whether his budget proposals add up and what was his relationship with a shady nutritional supplement company called Mannatech.

While such queries would seem relevant to business reporters, the questions became the target of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and other candidates who won the audience’s cheers for lambasting the “liberal media.”

The “liberal media” accusations prompted the Republican National Committee to suspend its relationship with NBC regarding future debates. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, even added a button at his Internet site for his supporters to “stand against the liberal left media.”

That CNBC would become the new faux standard bearer for the “liberal left media” might be considered comical, but the furor is indicative of how millions of Americans have accepted the Right’s decoupling from the real world and have surrendered their political judgment to demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and corporate masters of the universe like Rupert Murdoch.

How this happened is, of course, complicated and includes the failure of the mainstream press to defend the times when it has fought on behalf of the American people to keep them informed with important information so they can do their job as citizens in a democracy.

Instead, the mainstream media seems significantly disengaged from the public, treating Americans like a commodity to be manipulated rather than the “We the People” owners of the democratic Republic to be respected and served.

Given the arrogance and elitism of many top news personalities, there is an understandable distrust and disdain for the major media. But that populist revulsion toward the overpaid talking heads has been exploited by skillful right-wing media figures who have rallied millions of confused Americans to become foot soldiers in an ideological army that marches to defend a wasteland of false and factually flimsy information.

The answer to this dilemma must be a recommitment among journalists to get back to the basics — providing citizens with information that they need to do their job — and to take on the powers-that-be in the name of the people.

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). You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.




Syria at a Crossroads

The Obama administration is finally making sounds about a reasonable peace deal for Syria accepting the principle that the Syrians should choose their own leaders but words are cheap and a Saudi official makes clear that “regime change” remains the obsession, as Nicolas J S Davies explains.

By Nicolas J S Davies

The Vienna Communique — issued on Friday by 17 countries, the United Nations and the European Union — provides a diplomatic framework for peace in Syria. In this document, the external powers who have poured weapons, fighters and money into a disastrous and failed “regime change” policy in Syria for more than four years have signed on to what could be a realistic basis for peace.

The agreement begins with a commitment to “Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity and secular character,” and then invites “the United Nations to convene representatives of the Government of Syria and the Syrian opposition for a political process leading to credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance, followed by a new constitution and elections.” Critically, the agreement stipulates that, “This political process will be Syrian led and Syrian owned, and the people of Syria will decide the future of Syria.”

But of course, that is exactly what nearly all these countries already agreed to in the Geneva Communique of June 30, 2012, under the leadership of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. That proved to be Annan’s final peace effort after the U.S. and its allies had rebuffed and undermined the peace plan he unveiled in April 2012 (see my October 2012 article).

Instead of pressuring their proxies in Syria to agree to the Annan peace plan, the U.S. and its allies organized what French officials called a “Plan B,” the Orwellian “Friends of Syria” meetings, where they pledged an unconditional flow of money, weapons and diplomatic support to their proxy forces in Syria.

Annan expected the Geneva Communique to be formalized in a UN Security Council resolution within weeks. Instead, when the parties reassembled in New York, the U.S. and its allies resurrected their demands for President Bashar al-Assad’s removal. In an echo of the Iraq debates in 2002-2003, they rejected a Russian resolution based on the Geneva Communique and drafted one of their own that included provisions designed to set the stage for a UN authorization for the use of force.

But after watching the destruction of Iraq and Libya, Russia and China would not let the authority of the UNSC be co-opted to give a veneer of legitimacy to yet another murderous and destabilizing U.S.-led regime change.

Annan resigned as UN envoy, and the war ground on to kill at least 250,000 people, destroy much of Syria and turn 11 million people into desperate and homeless refugees.

Haytham Manna is the Paris-based spokesman for Syria’s National Coordinating Body for Democratic Change (NCB), a coalition of the mainly leftist opposition groups who launched peaceful protests in Syria during the Arab Spring in 2011. The NCB opposes both the Assad regime and the foreign-backed rebels in Syria, and it has remained committed to three basic principles: non-violence; non-sectarianism; and opposition to foreign intervention.

Haytham Manna spoke to Le Vif, Belgium’s largest French-language news magazine, in 2013. “The Americans have cheated,” Manna told Le Vif. “Two or three times they have withdrawn at the very moment an agreement was in the works. … Everything is possible, but that will depend mainly on the Americans. The French are content to follow. A political solution is the only one that could save Syria.”

Despite conciliatory statements by Secretary of State John Kerry that President Assad need not be excluded from a political transition, it is not clear yet whether the U.S. and its allies have really changed their position since 2012.

On the morning of the Vienna meeting, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir reiterated the Saudi position on Assad to the BBC’s Lyse Doucet, “He will go. There is no doubt about it. He will go. He will go either through a political process or he will be removed by force. There is no doubt that he will go.”

Doucet suggested to Jubeir that the U.S. and U.K. were adopting a more conciliatory position, but Jubeir was adamant that he was expressing “the consensus among the allied countries”:

“I believe the position of the countries in the coalition is really a unanimous one. What we are saying is that, at the beginning of the process, it has to be clear to the Syrian people that Bashar Al-Assad will leave by a date certain. It can’t be probable, it can’t be possible, it has to be certain. And then that date will depend on how quickly one can transition power to the Governing Council and how quickly one can take over the security forces in Syria to ensure that the security forces don’t collapse and the civil institutions don’t collapse.”

Jubeir spoke in terms that U.S. officials would be careful not to use in public right now, but may well be using behind closed doors in discussions with allies like the Saudis. The picture he paints looks very much like post-invasion Iraq, complete with an unelected “Governing Council” and a plan to “take over” the security forces.

Such a plan, which Jubeir claims would prevent Syria’s collapse, reflects the self-serving and untested claims of U.S. neocons that the invasion of Iraq could have succeeded if only they hadn’t disbanded the Iraqi Army. A U.S.-Saudi attempt to “take over” the Syrian military, which has loyally defended Syria against their proxy forces for four years, weaves the neocons’ wishful thinking into a dangerous fantasy that could succeed only in igniting a further escalation of the war.

The apparent difference between the U.S. and Saudi positions raises difficult questions, ones on which the success or failure of the Vienna initiative may well depend. Veteran Middle East correspondent Charles Glass explained the analytical conundrum to Democracy Now last week,

“The U.S. seems to have lost some control over its allies in the region. On the surface, the United States is fighting against the Islamic State mainly because it went into Iraq. They didn’t seem to mind when they were just in Syria. But they’re still allowing Turkey to keep its border open for men and supplies to come into the Islamic State. And … they’re still allowing … the Islamic State and … other similar jihadist groups of al-Qaeda to receive weapons, including anti-tank weapons, from the Saudis. … (E)ither this is fine with American policy and consistent with it, or they’ve simply lost control over the course of events.”

So is this a case of the U.S. losing control over the course of events, or is the U.S. just playing “good cop” to the Saudis’ “bad cop” as part of a coordinated policy? Or are there elements of both at work? It is a U.S. priority to maintain its position as the leader of the Western and Arab royalist alliance in the Middle East, and that sometimes means positioning itself at the head of the parade rather than actually directing it.

But having staked its leadership on successfully removing President Assad from power, it has never before wavered on that ultimate goal, even as unanticipated events like the Islamic State’s move back into Iraq have made it much more complicated.

By fighting a “disguised, quiet, media-free” proxy war in Syria, U.S. officials have been able to invoke plausible deniability in the corrupt Western media. Many Americans see their government as guilty of inaction rather than of a murderous and destabilizing intervention in Syria.

Although over 250,000 war deaths in Syria have been spread among soldiers, rebels and civilians, (as of June 2013, an estimated 43 percent of the dead were Syrian soldiers and militiamen) U.S. domestic propaganda blames the Syrian government, or President Assad personally, for all the violence. Few Americans blame their own government or themselves, despite the well-documented U.S. role in supporting, prolonging and escalating the bloodshed.

While a political transition that led to free and fair elections would very likely bring new and different leaders to power in Syria, President Assad is not as unpopular as we have been led to believe. The Syrian army has fought loyally for four years, and a Qatari-funded YouGov opinion poll in December 2011 found that 55 percent of Syrians wanted Assad to remain in power, even as NATO planes were already flying in fighters and weapons from Libya to Turkey to overthrow his government.

So the U.S. and its allies may reasonably fear that a political transition which genuinely followed the roadmap laid down in Geneva and Vienna might leave important elements of the existing government in place.

On the other hand, when Le Vif asked Haytham Manna of the NCB about President Assad’s future in 2013, he replied, “He won’t stay. If the negotiations succeed, they will lead to a parliamentary regime. … But let me say this: when we are talking about massacres of minorities, and the president is a member of a minority, how can you ask him to resign or not to resign?

“Today, Western policy has reinforced his position as the defender of Syrian unity and of minorities. But having said that, nobody will be able to claim victory: the violence has become so blind that it will take an expanded front of the opposition and the regime to end it.”

If there are real differences between the U.S. and Saudi positions, the U.S. surely has leverage as the Saudi kingdom’s main weapons supplier and most important military ally to prevent it from derailing a diplomatic process that other countries support. But it seems more likely that the U.S. and the Saudis are still working together, as Jubeir implied, to take charge of a political transition in Syria and to try to ensure that their proxies end up in control of the country.

If the involvement of Russia, China and Iran prevents the U.S. and its allies from hijacking a political transition in Syria, will our leaders simply opt for carrying on with the war, as they did in July 2012? To paraphrase Haytham Manna, will the Americans cheat again?

On the heels of the Iran nuclear agreement, we are entering the beginning of yet another historic and fateful showdown between war and diplomacy, with the future of Syria – and maybe the future of U.S. foreign policy – on the line.

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




Rubio Follows the Big Money

Exclusive: Sen. Marco Rubio is the new favorite of the Republican establishment, a shift away from Jeb Bush signaled by hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer’s embrace. But Rubio earned that affection by advancing Singer’s high-stakes financial fight with Argentina, Jonathan Marshall reports.

By Jonathan Marshall

On the morning of Halloween, the New York Times broke the scary news that Republican presidential contender Marco Rubio had won a big jackpot: the endorsement of billionaire hedge fund investor Paul Singer. But aside from citing Singer’s praise for Rubio’s “message of optimism” and “work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” the story offered little explanation of what could prove to be a decisive turning point in the GOP primary race.

On the policy front, Rubio clearly meets Singer’s requirement for a candidate who favors lower taxes on the rich and, even more important, a blank check for Israel’s right-wing government. With his hawkish stands on the Middle East, including fervent opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, Rubio had already won over another leading Republican “bundler,” New York attorney Phil Rosen, former chairman of American Friends of Likud and a believer that Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians “was, and will always be, a holy war.”

Rubio is a protégé of Florida billionaire Norman Braman, who has contributed at least six figures to support the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Rubio reportedly leads the all-important “Adelson primary,” the race to tap the virtually unlimited cash box of gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the single most prominent U.S. supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

All that is music to Singer’s ears, but Rubio’s “work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee” is about something else altogether: his political support for Singer’s efforts to drain more than $1.5 billion dollars from Argentina in payments on old bonds that lost most of their value after the country defaulted in 2001.

Singer’s Elliott Management bought that debt several years ago for less than $50 million, and then successfully sued in U.S. court to demand full recovery of the face amount, in the face of opposition from the Obama administration, most other bondholders, and, above all, Argentina’s government, led by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Singer, who is famous for his bare-knuckles tactics against foreign governments, has gone after Kirchner’s government on all fronts. Most strategically, he supported the highly questionable claims by an Argentine prosecutor that the Kirchner government tried to cover up the involvement of the Iranian government in the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people.

The issue was perfect for a smear campaign: targeting alleged Iranian terrorism and government anti-Semitism, Singer could undercut the legitimacy of the one entity standing between him and huge profits on his speculative bond purchases.

Singer’s Elliot Management is a major backer of American Task Force Argentina, which advocates for full repayment of the Argentine bonds and has spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress. It also spends big bucks to blacken Argentina’s reputation.

As Huffington Post reported in 2013, the group “has launched a broad attack on Argentina in its PR campaign. Politico ad, paid for by ATFA, slammed the country as a safe haven for narcotics traffickers. Another ATFA ad accuses Argentine President Cristina Kirchner of making a ‘pact with the Devil,’ pointing to a legal memo between her country and Iran involving Argentina’s effort to prosecute Iranian defendants in a terrorism case.”

As one of its lobbyists told Huffington Post, “We do whatever we can to get our government and media’s attention focused on what a bad actor Argentina is.”

An investigation by Charles Davis for Inter Press Service showed that employees of Singer’s Elliott Management contributed more than $95,000 to Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, who wrote a letter denouncing President Kirchner’s agreement with Iran to investigate the 1994 bombing.

Rep. Michael Grimm, R-NY, who received $38,000 from Elliott Management employees, co-sponsored legislation demanding that Argentina’s bondholders receive full compensation, and called for an investigation of Argentina’s ties with Iran. Other recipients of Singer’s largesse — including AIPAC, The Israel Project and the American Enterprise Institute — also hammered the Kirchner government, virtually accusing it of anti-Semitism.

Last year, another member of Congress got in on the act: Sen. Marco Rubio. While grilling President Obama’s nominee as U.S. ambassador to Argentina, Rubio complained that Buenos Aires “doesn’t pay bondholders, doesn’t work with our security operations. . . .  These aren’t the actions of an ally.”

Adding a dig at President Kirchner, he added, “We have this trend in Latin America of people who get elected but then don’t govern democratically. Argentina is an example of this.” His speech triggered an angry response from Kirchner’s Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, an Argentine Jew, calling Rubio an “extremist.”

This May, Rubio introduced a resolution in the Senate suggesting that Kirchner conspired to “cover up Iranian involvement in the 1994 terrorist bombing.” Rubio declared that the issues in the case “extend well beyond Argentina and involve the international community, and more importantly, U.S. national security.”

As Eli Clifton noted, “It turns out that Singer’s hedge fund, Elliott Management, was Rubio’s second largest source of campaign contributions between 2009 and 2014, providing the presidential hopeful with $122,620, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.”

When Kirchner herself had the temerity this spring to link Singer to various neoconservative attacks on her policies, citing a “global modus operandi” to coerce foreign states, the reliably neoconservative editorial page of the Washington Post published an editorial reply titled, “Argentina’s President Resorts to Anti-Semitic Conspiracy Theories.”

To which Jim Lobe and Charles Davis, citing a long list of Singer connections to Kirchner’s critics, replied, “follow the money.” That advice, made famous in the movie version of Watergate’s Deep Throat, remains the best guide to understanding billionaire funding of candidates in the 2016 election.

Jonathan Marshall is an independent researcher living in San Anselmo, California. Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” ]




The ‘Anti-Knowledge’ of the Elites

Exclusive: It’s fairly easy to spot the “anti-knowledge” spouted by the Tea Party and the Religious Right’s favorite candidates, but a more subtle form of reality-deprived “group think” pervades America’s elites though it is rarely noted in the polite circles of the mainstream media, writes Mike Lofgren.

By Mike Lofgren

In a previous piece, I described how the Republican Party and its ideological allies in the fundamentalist churches have confected a comprehensive media-entertainment complex to attract low-information Americans and turn them into partisans.

The propaganda they are fed has become so disconnected from facts, evidence and logic that it is all too easy to laugh at people operating on demonstrably — and even ridiculously — false premises, such as the notion that Barack Obama, born in Hawaii, is not a natural-born American, or that the Sandy Hook school massacre was an elaborate fake designed to take away the firearms of patriotic Americans.

It would be comforting to believe that somewhere in the commanding heights of our permanent government, there are important players who are serious grownups who know what they are doing. That, at least, is the impression they seek to convey with their sober demeanors, credentials from think tanks or prestigious universities, and the measured, almost soporific testimony they deliver to congressional committees.

Think of Robert Gates, Ashton Carter, Timothy Geithner or Eric Holder. On the surface, they seem the very antithesis of the Tea Party fanatic, gibbering about ISIS training camps in America. The preferred pose of these establishment personages is that of the politically neutral technocrat offering well-considered advice based on their profound expertise.

That pose is nonsense. They are deeply dyed in the hue of the official ideology of the governing class, an ideology that is neither specifically Democrat nor Republican. Domestically, whatever they might privately believe about essentially diversionary social issues (“rube bait”) like abortion or gay marriage, they almost invariably believe in the “Washington Consensus”: financialization, outsourcing, privatization, deregulation and the commodification of labor.

Internationally, they espouse Twenty-first Century American Exceptionalism: the right and duty of the United States to meddle in every region of the world, coercive diplomacy, boots on the ground, and the right to ignore painfully-won international norms of civilized behavior. To paraphrase what Sir John Harrington said over 400 years ago about treason, now that the ideology of the Deep State has prospered, none dare call it ideology.

Let us consider some of the tenets of their faith:

–Almost a decade and a half later, it is now permissible to suggest that the invasion of Iraq was less than well considered. But to actually hold the authors of the invasion politically accountable is taboo and to suggest criminal culpability is to get oneself ejected from the salons of the Consensus.

–There is ample evidence of conscious criminal malfeasance, including selling investment instruments deliberately designed to fail, in the financial saturnalia leading, in 2008, to the greatest global economic collapse in 80 years. But our highest law enforcement official said maybe we shouldn’t prosecute the high-level instigators. Why? Just because.

–ISIS is seen in Washington as a grave terrorist threat with the potential to knock over the unpopular and unstable regimes of the Middle East (i.e., our client states) like bowling pins. Yet the Washington Consensus sees as the key to defeating ISIS the undermining of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, ISIS’s principal military enemy. If a U.S. general in 1942 declared the only way to defeat the Wehrmacht would be for us to fight Nazi Germany and the USSR simultaneously, he would have been committed to a lunatic asylum.

–Could widening income inequality just possibly have something to do with corporations and the rich inducing their bought-and-paid-for politicians to rewrite the tax code, trade laws, labor protections and pension rules in other words, rigging the system? Oh, no, it was all inevitable, say the “sensible centrists;” that’s just the way the world works. So maybe if the little people just got off their duffs, loaded up on student debt, and got educated, they’d be ready for the brave new world of the Washington Consensus.

–American International Group executives whose malfeasance or incompetence led to the company being bailed out (and nationalized in all but the name) by the American taxpayer are entitled to keep their stratospheric salaries and bonuses because of a holy principle called “sanctity of contract.” Do autoworkers, or pensioners of the City of Detroit, get to keep their previously agreed-to compensation? No, because that’s how a globalized economic system works.

These examples reveal a display of infantile logic or pernicious mendacity every bit as flagrant as Ben Carson’s mumblings or Donald Trump’s berserker rants. Yet, rather than selling snake-oil miracle health cures, as Carson and Mike Huckabee have done, the people who inflict this nonsense on us typically wind up teaching at the Kennedy School of Government, or serving as the president of a university or as a board member of a Fortune 500 company.

The imbecility of Tea Party dervishes is easy enough to detect, so why does the equally twisted reasoning of the bipartisan Wise Men (and women) escape public detection? Perhaps the reason is that democracy, or at least the oligarchically managed democracy that exists, is, in the words of H.L. Mencken, “based upon so childish a complex of fallacies that they must be protected by a rigid system of taboos, else even half-wits would argue it to pieces.”

The principal enforcer of those taboos is the prestige media. Their main method is to define “objectivity” to mean “a refusal to judge.”  But when the truth is accessible and corroberable, it would be silly to stage a debate in which proponents of a spherical earth and champions of a flat earth receive equal time, with the debate’s moderator expressing doubt as to the verdict until one side or the other triumphs with clever rhetoric. Yet that is the prestige press’ default position.

It is occasionally refreshing when outlandish characters like Trump refuse to play by the rules. For 14 years, whether and to what extent George W. Bush’s potential nonfeasance (or actual negligence) facilitated the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, has generally been an off-limits subject for the mainstream media.

Only when Trump broached the subject was the press free to jump on it. And the interviewer, Bloomberg’s Stephanie Ruhle, immediately interrupted Trump by blurting out, “Hold on, you can’t blame George Bush for that!” One wonders whether she was doubtful of the truth of his statement or worried about the potential blowback against her career.

As Josh Marshall, editor of Talking Points Memo, pointed out, the American media naively (or timidly) treated House Republicans’ interminable hearings on the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, as if it were a serious and judicious attempt to determine the facts in the case. It was only when Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-California, the House majority leader, committed a Freudian slip by saying that the hearings were designed to derail Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, that the press was “allowed” to judge the intent of the House Republicans’ investigation.

And sure enough the media have responded, with even Newsweek, normally a purveyor of conventional wisdom, publishing a sharp critique of the kangaroo-court aspect of the investigation. That said, one tack the media will not take on Benghazi is to look at the bigger picture: that the intervention in Libya was a massive, bipartisan failure of the Washington Consensus, with the Obama administration executing it and the House and Senate Republican leadership egging it on.

Normally free from criticism, much less accountability, the careerists of Washington enjoy a lucrative racket. Take General Keith Alexander, the former director of the National Security Agency. On his watch the most massive leak of government secrets in history occurred, and several members of Congress also claimed he misled them about the scope and legality of his agency’s collection of Americans’ private information.

Yet he managed to parlay those failures into a big payday. In 2014, Alexander set himself up as the head of a consulting boutique called IronNet Cybersecurity. His principal client is one of Wall Street’s largest lobbying groups, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), from which he receives $600,000 per month.

The money is often beyond the dreams of avarice, but that is not the only factor in play. All the big players have been sheep-dipped in a world view that becomes a reflex.

The anthropologist E. T. Hall, in “Beyond Culture,” put it this way: Everything man is and does is modified by learning and is therefore malleable. But once learned, these behavior patterns, these habitual responses, these ways of interacting gradually sink below the surface of the mind and, like the admiral of a submerged submarine fleet, control from the depths. The hidden controls are usually experienced as though they were innate simply because they are not only ubiquitous but habitual as well.”

The twin seductions of money and Washington “group think” have led our Wise Men into one disaster after another in both domestic and foreign policy. In view of their lamentable record over the last decade and a half, their advice and counsel is probably no better than that of a snake-handling shaman in the remotest hollow of West Virginia, and certainly a good deal more expensive.

Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His book about Congress, The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, appeared in paperback in August 2013. His new book, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, will be published in January 2016.




Fighting a Cultural Boycott of Israel

Cultural and economic boycotts helped isolate white-supremacist South Africa and encouraged a shift to multi-racial democracy — and a similar strategy has ratcheted up pressure on Israel to reach a peace deal with Palestinians — but there is a new pushback against that strategy, notes Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

There is a new British organization called Culture for Coexistence with the aim of ending the cultural boycott of Israel, which has been relatively effective in raising public awareness of oppressive Zionist policies, and replace it with “open dialogue” and “cultural engagement.“ A “galaxy of 150 British artists and authors” signed an open letter published in the Guardian newspaper on Oct. 22 announcing the group’s position:

“Cultural boycotts singling out Israel are divisive and discriminatory and will not further peace,” while “open dialogue and interaction promote greater understanding and mutual acceptance and it is through such understanding and acceptance that movement can be made towards a resolution of the conflict.”

While concepts such as open dialogue and cultural interaction are, in principle, hard to disagree with, their efficacy as agents of conflict resolution has to be judged within a historical context. In other words, such approaches are effective when circumstances dictate that all parties seriously dialogue and interact meaningfully – in a manner that actually promotes “mutual acceptance.”

Is this the case when it comes to Israel? The burden of proof here is on Culture for Coexistence because they are the ones asking the Palestinians and their supporters to put aside a strategy (boycott) that is actually putting pressure on Israel to negotiate seriously.

The Culture for Coexistence signatories do not address this question of efficacy. Instead they make the simple assertion that cultural boycotts are bad and won’t help resolve the conflict while cultural interaction is good and will work to that end. How do they know this? Without evidence of its workability, such an assertion is merely an idealization of cultural engagement that ignores that pursuit’s historical futility during a nearly century long conflict.

 

Do Israeli Leaders Want a Just Peace?

Cultural interaction with Israel went on for decades before the boycott effort got going. It had no impact on the issue of conflict resolution. Such cultural activity certainly did not change the fact that Israel’s leaders have never shown interest in negotiating a resolution with the Palestinians except solely on Israeli terms.

And, that stubbornness is a major part of the reason why peace talks (and also the Oslo agreements) never worked. There is a whole set of histories, written by Israelis and based on archival research that support the claim that Israel has not sought a just resolution to the conflict. Here I would recommend the Culture for Coexistence signatories read the books of the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe.

Given this historical Zionist attitude, what sort of “greater understanding and mutual acceptance” does Culture and Coexistence expect to accomplish by swapping the boycott for “cultural engagement”? It is a question the signatories of the open letter might address to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who just recently was reported to have proclaimed that Israel will control all Palestinian land indefinitely.

The “galaxy of British artists and authors” aligned with Culture for Coexistence seems oblivious to all these contextual issues. Of course, there is a good chance that some of them are more interested in undermining the boycott of Israel than in the alleged promotion of peace through “cultural engagement.”

As the Guardian article discussing the group notes, “Some of the network’s supporters are closely aligned with Israel,” including individuals associated with Conservative Friends of Israel and Labour Friends of Israel.

Does Cultural Contact Lead to Peace?

There is another, more generic misunderstanding exhibited in the group’s statement. It is found in the letter’s closing assertion that “cultural engagement builds bridges, nurtures freedom and positive movement for change” – a position reiterated when Loraine da Costa, chairperson of the new organization, told the Guardian that “culture has a unique ability to bring people together and bridge division.”

No matter how you want to define culture, high or low, there is no evidence for this position except on the level of individuals or small groups. On the level of larger or whole populations, the assertion that “cultural engagement builds bridges” is another naive idealization that is belied by historical practice. Historically, culture has always divided people (both across borders and across classes) and acted as a barrier to understanding. At a popular level, most people are uninterested in, or suspicious of, foreign cultures and are unwilling to try to pursue cultural interaction.

Israel is a very good example of this cultural xenophobia. Historically, the European Jews who established the state despised Arab culture. They tried to eradicate it among the Mizrahi Jews who came to Israel from Arab lands. This intra-Jewish Israeli prejudice is still a problem today. What aspects of Arab culture (mostly having to do with cuisine) Israeli Jews are attracted to they try to repackage as “Israeli.”

There are two final considerations here: First is the need to be serious and clear in the use of language. One can, of course, say “culture has a unique ability to bring people together” but is this a statement that has any real meaning or is it just a platitude?

And second: If you are going to give advice about a century-old conflict you should know enough about its history to be sensible in your offering. Thus, in this case, if you know that high or low cultural intercourse with Israel (and, as suggested above, there has been plenty of it since the founding of the state in 1948), has actually improved the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace, you should lay out the evidence. However, if one is just offering a banal cliche, well, only the ignorant can take that seriously.

Those who first proposed the cultural boycott did not do it out of some anti-Semitic dislike for Israeli artworks, music, literature or theater. They did it because cultural interaction with Israel had not only failed to promote an equitable peace, but in fact camouflaged the policies of a nation-state that practices ethnic cleansing and other destructive policies against non-Jews.

The logical conclusion was drawn that if you want to pressure the Israelis to change their ways, you withdraw from cultural contact and make any reconnection a condition of their getting serious about conflict resolution.

How is it that the 150 artists and authors who signed the Culture for Coexistence open letter do not know the relevant facts? Setting aside the confirmed Zionists, whose ulterior motive is pretty clear, do these people take this stand because it “feels right” – that is, because they believe cultural interaction ought to, or even must, promote conflict resolution? Alas, this is wishful thinking and, taking history seriously, Palestine may go extinct before such an approach actually helps lead to a just peace.

 

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.




GOP and the Rise of Anti-Knowledge

Ben Carson’s rise to the top of the Republican presidential field shows that many Republicans, especially Christian fundamentalists, have decoupled from the real world — and are proud of it. The more that GOP candidates embrace “anti-knowledge” the more popular they become, as Mike Lofgren explains.

By Mike Lofgren

In the realm of physics, the opposite of matter is not nothingness, but antimatter. In the realm of practical epistemology, the opposite of knowledge is not ignorance but anti-knowledge. This seldom recognized fact is one of the prime forces behind the decay of political and civic culture in America.

Some common-sense philosophers have observed this point over the years. “Genuine ignorance is . . . profitable because it is likely to be accompanied by humility, curiosity, and open mindedness; whereas ability to repeat catch-phrases, cant terms, familiar propositions, gives the conceit of learning and coats the mind with varnish waterproof to new ideas,” observed psychologist John Dewey.

Or, as humorist Josh Billings put it, “The trouble with people is not that they don’t know, but that they know so much that ain’t so.”

Fifty years ago, if a person did not know who the prime minister of Great Britain was, what the conflict in Vietnam was about, or the barest rudiments of how a nuclear reaction worked, he would shrug his shoulders and move on. And if he didn’t bother to know those things, he was in all likelihood politically apathetic and confined his passionate arguing to topics like sports or the attributes of the opposite sex.

There were exceptions, like the Birchers’ theory that fluoridation was a monstrous communist conspiracy, but they were mostly confined to the fringes. Certainly, political candidates with national aspirations steered clear of such balderdash.

At present, however, a person can be blissfully ignorant of how to locate Kenya on a map, but know to a metaphysical certitude that Barack Obama was born there, because he learned it from Fox News. Likewise, he can be unable to differentiate a species from a phylum but be confident from viewing the 700 Club that evolution is “politically correct” hooey and that the earth is 6,000 years old.

And he may never have read the Constitution and have no clue about the Commerce Clause, but believe with an angry righteousness that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional.

This brings us inevitably to celebrity presidential candidate Ben Carson. The man is anti-knowledge incarnated, a walking compendium of every imbecility ever uttered during the last three decades. Obamacare is worse than chattel slavery. Women who have abortions are like slave owners. If Jews had firearms they could have stopped the Holocaust (author’s note: they obtained at least some weapons during the Warsaw Ghetto rising, and no, it didn’t). Victims of a mass shooting in Oregon enabled their own deaths by their behavior. And so on, ad nauseam.

It is highly revealing that, according to a Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll of likely Republican caucus attendees, the stolid Iowa burghers liked Carson all the more for such moronic utterances. And sure enough, the New York Times tells us that Carson has pulled ahead of Donald Trump in a national poll of Republican voters. Apparently, Trump was just not crazy enough for their tastes.

Why the Ignorance?

Journalist Michael Tomasky has attempted to answer the question as to what Ben Carson’s popularity tells us about the American people after making a detour into asking a question about the man himself: why is an accomplished neurosurgeon such a nincompoop in another field? “Because usually, if a man (or woman) is a good and knowledgeable and sure-footed doctor, or lawyer or department chair or any other position that could have been attained only through repeated displays of excellence and probity, then that person will also be a pretty solid human being across the board.”

Well, not necessarily. English unfortunately doesn’t have a precise word for the German “Fachidiot,” a narrowly specialized person accomplished in his own field but a blithering idiot outside it. In any case, a surgeon is basically a skilled auto mechanic who is not bothered by the sight of blood and palpitating organs (and an owner of a high-dollar ride like a Porsche knows that a specialized mechanic commands labor rates roughly comparable to a doctor).

We need the surgeon’s skills on pain of agonizing death, and reward him commensurately, but that does not make him a Voltaire. Still, it makes one wonder: if Carson the surgeon believes evolution is a hoax, where does he think the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that plague hospitals come from?

Tomasky expresses astonishment that Carson’s jaw-dropping comments make him more popular among Republican voters, but he concludes without fully answering the question he posed. It is an important question: what has happened to the American people, or at least a significant portion of them?

Anti-knowledge is a subset of anti-intellectualism, and as Richard Hofstadter has pointed out, anti-intellectualism has been a recurrent feature in American life, generally rising and receding in synchronism with fundamentalist revivalism.

The current wave, which now threatens to swamp our political culture, began in a similar fashion with the rise to prominence in the 1970s of fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. But to a far greater degree than previous outbreaks, fundamentalism has merged its personnel, its policies, its tactics and its fate with a major American political party, the Republicans.

An Infrastructure of Know-Nothing-ism

Buttressing this merger is a vast support structure of media, foundations, pressure groups and even a thriving cottage industry of fake historians and phony scientists. From Fox News to the Discovery Institute (which exists solely to “disprove” evolution), and from the Heritage Foundation (which propagandizes that tax cuts increase revenue despite massive empirical evidence to the contrary) to bogus “historians” like David Barton (who confected a fraudulent biography of a piously devout Thomas Jefferson that had to be withdrawn by the publisher), the anti-knowledge crowd has created an immense ecosystem of political disinformation.

Thanks to publishing houses like Regnery and the conservative boutique imprints of more respectable houses like Simon & Schuster (a division of CBS), America has been flooded with cut-and-paste rants by Michelle Malkin and Mark Levin, Parson Weems-style ghosted biographies allegedly by Bill O’Reilly, and the inimitable stream of consciousness hallucinating of Glenn Beck.

Whether retail customers actually buy all these screeds, or whether foundations and rich conservative donors buy them in bulk and give them out as door prizes at right-wing clambakes, anti-knowledge infects the political bloodstream in the United States.

Thanks to these overlapping and mutually reinforcing segments of the right-wing media-entertainment-“educational” complex, it is now possible for the true believer to sail on an ocean of political, historical, and scientific disinformation without ever sighting the dry land of empirical fact. This effect is fortified by the substantial overlap between conservative Republicans and fundamentalist Christians.

The latter group begins with the core belief that truth is revealed in a subjective process involving the will to believe (“faith”) rather than discovered by objectively corroberable means. Likewise, there is a baseline opposition to the prevailing secular culture, and adherents are frequently warned by church authority figures against succumbing to the snares and temptations of “the world.” Consequently, they retreat into the echo chamber of their own counterculture: if they didn’t hear it on Fox News or from a televangelist, it never happened.

For these culture warriors, belief in demonstrably false propositions is no longer a stigma of ignorance, but a defiantly worn badge of political resistance.

We saw this mindset on display during the Republican debate in Boulder, Colorado, on Wednesday night. Even though it was moderated by Wall Street-friendly CNBC, which exists solely to talk up the stock market, the candidates were uniformly upset that the moderators would presume to ask difficult questions of people aspiring to be president. They were clearly outside their comfort zone of the Fox News studio.

The candidates drew cheers from the hard-core believers in the audience, however, by attacking the media, as if moderators Lawrence Kudlow and Rick Santelli, both notorious shills for Wall Street, were I.F. Stone and Noam Chomsky. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus nearly had an aneurism over the candidates’ alleged harsh treatment.

State-Sponsored Stupidity

It is when these forces of anti-knowledge seize the power of government that the real damage gets done. Under Virginia’s Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Virginia government harassed with subpoenas a University of Virginia professor whose academic views contradicted Cuccinelli’s political agenda.

Numerous states like Louisiana now mandate that public schools teach the wholly imaginary “controversy” about evolution. A school textbook in Texas, whose state school board has long been infested with reactionary kooks, referred to chattel slaves as “workers”  (the implication was obvious: neo-Confederate elements in the South have been trying to minimize slavery for a century and a half, to the point of insinuating it had nothing to do with the Civil War).

This brings us back to Ben Carson. He now suggests that, rather than abolishing the Department of Education, a perennial Republican goal, the department should be used to investigate professors who say something he doesn’t agree with. The mechanism to bring these heretics to the government’s attention should be denunciations from students, a technique once in vogue in the old Soviet Union.

It is not surprising that Carson, himself a Seventh Day Adventist, should receive his core support from Republicans who identify as fundamentalists. Among the rest of the GOP pack, it is noteworthy that it is precisely those seeking the fundamentalist vote, like Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who are also notorious for making inflammatory and unhinged comments that sound like little more than deliberate trolling to those who haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid (Donald Trump is sui generis).

In all probability, Carson will flame out like Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and all the other former panjandrums of a theological movement conservatism that revels in anti-knowledge. But he will have left his mark, as they did, on a Republican Party that inexorably moves further to the right, and the eventual nominee will have to tailor his campaign to a base that gets ever more intransigent as each new messiah of the month promises to lead them into a New Jerusalem unmoored to a stubborn and profane thing called facts.

Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His book about Congress, The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, appeared in paperback in August 2013. His new book, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, will be published in January 2016.




A Glimmer of Hope for Syria

Exclusive: With new negotiations starting in Vienna and with Iran now allowed to participate there is finally a glimmer of hope that the Syrian slaughter might end. But that will require concessions from all sides and President Obama standing up to the neocons who put “regime change” ahead of peace, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Despite all the ranting from armchair-warriors across Official Washington urging attacks on the Syrian military and even Russian warplanes inside Syria cooler heads may have finally prevailed with Secretary of State John Kerry agreeing to a formula that will let Iran participate in Syrian peace talks set to begin Friday in Geneva.

The point here is that Iran and Russia, as allies of the Syrian government, are in a strong position to urge concessions from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, much as Russian President Vladimir Putin did in 2013 when he pressured Assad to surrender Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. Also, in late 2013, Putin helped wrest concessions from Iran over its nuclear program.

Assuming Kerry shows corresponding flexibility by relenting on the U.S. demand that “Assad must go” as a precondition to negotiations and puts pressure on the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition to accept some compromise with Assad perhaps this humanitarian catastrophe can be brought under some measure of control.

It is way past time for sanity and realism to replace the endless “tough guy/gal” posturing that has consumed Official Washington since 2011 as a quarter million Syrians have been killed and millions have fled as refugees across the Mideast and into Europe.

The only narrative that’s been allowed in the mainstream U.S. press is that Assad is responsible for nearly every bad thing that’s happened, ignoring the support that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and even Israel have provided to jihadist fighters, including Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and Al Qaeda’s spinoff, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh).

President Barack Obama has been part of the problem, too, as he has bent to the “regime change” demands of “liberal interventionists” and their close cousins, the neoconservatives.

To appease those political/media voices, Obama has “covertly” intervened in the Syrian conflict by arming and training some rebel forces. Though the administration insists that it has armed and trained only “moderate” rebels, the reality is that such a “moderate” force is largely mythical, with many of the CIA’s recruits later joining Islamist armies and surrendering U.S.-supplied weapons to these extremists.

How U.S. officials have defined “moderate” is also in question. A source briefed on this strategy told me that the CIA supplied 500 TOW anti-tank missiles to Ahrah ash-Sham, an Islamist force founded, in part, by Al Qaeda veterans. Ahrah ash-Sham collaborates with Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front as the two leading militias in the Saudi-backed Army of Conquest.

The sophisticated TOW missiles have been “credited” with enabling the Army of Conquest to make major advances around the city of Idlib and block counter-offenses by the Syrian army. In other words, U.S. support for “moderate” rebels has strengthened the military position of Al Qaeda, even if the administration can technically argue that it isn’t giving weapons to Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front.

A Grave Danger

The grave danger of such U.S. calibrations about ratcheting up the war pressure on the Assad government just enough for Assad to leave but not for his government to collapse is the high probability of a miscalculation that could lead to a disintegrating Syrian army and open a path for Al Qaeda and/or the Islamic State to capture Damascus, raising the black flag of Sunni terrorism over a major city in the Middle East.

As grim as the human rights situation in Syria is now, a victory by the Sunni terrorists would very possibly lead to genocide against the Alawites, Christians, Shiites and other “infidels.” Millions more Syrians would flee the slaughter, destabilizing not only Turkey and other Mideast nations but Europe as well.

Then, Official Washington’s “regime change” tough-talkers would surely demand a full-scale U.S. military invasion and occupation of Syria, an extraordinarily costly and likely futile attempt to restore some semblance of order in the region.

So, any sign that President Obama and Secretary Kerry have gotten down off their “Assad must go” high horses represents a glimmer of hope that a political solution may finally be possible. But a deal would also require Obama and Kerry getting tough with Sunni “allies” and aggressively clamping down on the continued flow of money and weapons to the Islamist rebels.

If a political power-sharing arrangement between Assad’s side and the U.S.-backed “moderate” Sunni politicians can be arranged and if the borders can be sealed off to prevent resupply of the extremists then Syria might eventually restore enough order to conduct elections so the Syrians themselves can decide who they want as their leaders.

But Official Washington’s neocons/liberal interventionists seem determined to wreck any possible peace deal. These influential opinion leaders bolstered by the “human rights” community continue to insist on “regime change” in Syria, a top neocon goal since the 1990s. The Assad family’s ouster was expected to be the quick follow-on to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, except that the Iraq operation didn’t turn out exactly as the neocons had drawn it up at their think tanks.

The neocons also wanted to bomb-bomb-bomb Iran and force another “regime change” there. But their fuzzy dreams of installing their favorite Iraqi/Syrian/Iranian puppets were dashed by the hard realities of the Middle East. Still, the dreams did not die. They were just put on hold until a more advantageous moment presented itself.

That moment almost came on Aug. 21, 2013, when a sarin gas attack outside Damascus killed hundreds of civilians. Though the whodunit was never clear, U.S. officials and mainstream media rushed to pin the blame on Assad and demand that Obama launch a major military strike to punish Assad for crossing a U.S. “red line” against using chemical weapons.

That dangerous plan was only averted at the last minute because of growing doubts among intelligence analysts that Assad was responsible, with later evidence suggesting a “false flag” attack by extremist rebels trying to draw the U.S. military into the war on their side. The bombing plans were also derailed because Russian President Putin came up with a compromise in which Assad gave up all his chemical weapons while still denying any role in the sarin attack.

The Putin-Obama Team

Later in 2013, Putin also teamed up with Obama to work on a tentative agreement to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb, a move that derailed neocon hopes for a military strike by U.S. or Israeli warplanes against Iran. In other words, the neocons were again thwarted in their plans for violently remaking the Middle East.

By January 2014, it also seemed possible that this Putin-Obama collaboration could make progress on Syrian peace talks in Geneva with Iran invited to join the negotiations, holding out the prospect that Russia and Iran could extract concessions from Assad while the Obama administration could twist the arms of its Syrian proxies.

But Official Washington’s neocons rose up in fury over the idea of Iran in the negotiations. After all, Iran was still Israel’s bête noire and the neocons had not given up their hopes for a bombing campaign. Faced with this political/media fury, Obama and Kerry buckled under the pressure and insisted that United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon disinvite Iran from the talks, which then degenerated into a shouting match, with the U.S. side demanding that “Assad must go” and the Assad side leaving in a huff.

It also became clear to the neocons that the Obama-Putin collaboration presented another danger. It carried the possibility of the two major powers pressing Israel and the Palestinians into an agreement on a Palestinian state, another prospect that upset the neocons who prefer giving Israel free rein over the Palestinian territories.

So, this Obama-Putin cooperation itself had to be blown up and it was. In February 2014, U.S. neocons including Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, Sen. John McCain and National Endowment for Democracy president Carl Gershman helped orchestrate a coup in Ukraine, ousting a democratically elected government friendly with Moscow and replacing it with a fiercely anti-Russian regime that even deployed neo-Nazis to help put down resistance among Ukraine’s ethnic Russians.

When the people of Crimea many of them ethnic Russians voted by 96 percent to leave Ukraine and rejoin Russia, the neocon-dominated U.S. news media pronounced the referendum a “sham” and detected a Russian “invasion,” although Russian troops were already in Crimea under an agreement for the Russian naval base at Sevastopol.

As the Ukraine crisis worsened, a wave of Putin bashing swept through U.S. and European political and media circles. Rather than resist this “group think,” President Obama joined it. He agreed that Putin and Russia had to be frozen out of polite international society. The neocons and the liberal interventionists were again riding high.

But the situation in Syria continued to worsen. In summer 2014, the Islamic State, which had begun a decade earlier as “Al Qaeda in Iraq” fighting the U.S. occupation of Iraq, suddenly emerged as a potent force, seizing large swaths of Syria and then Iraq. The Islamic State’s lightning military strikes and its gruesome videos of beheading Westerners and other “infidels” shocked the world and prompted Obama to hit back both in Iraq and Syria.

Half-Hearted Campaign

Yet, the U.S. alliance of anti-Islamic State forces was half-hearted, since Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states had been supporting Sunni jihadists in Syria, including elements of the Islamic State. Thus, many Sunni participants in the U.S.-led alliance were less than enthusiastic partners, with their principal goal still the ouster of Assad, an Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

The ineffectual campaign against the Islamic State and the embarrassing results of Obama’s $500 million plan to train “moderate” Syrian rebels, which ended up inserting only about five fighters into the field, helped convince Putin that stronger measures were needed to prevent the eventual collapse of the Syrian military and a victory for Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Since Putin had already been turned into an international pariah over Ukraine, there was also less downside for his acting more assertively in Syria. With the permission of the Assad government and Iran’s help on the ground, Russia launched an ambitious air campaign, hitting a variety of “terrorist” targets, including Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State.

Howls went up from the neocons, liberal interventionists and much of the mainstream U.S. media that Putin’s air offensive was killing “our guys.” In an extraordinary interview aired Oct. 11 on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” correspondent Steve Kroft baited President Obama to do something to stop Putin.

“[Putin’s] bombing the people that we are supporting,” Kroft wailed. “He’s challenging your leadership, Mr. President. He’s challenging your leadership. [People] say you’re projecting a weakness.”

Though Obama had gone along with the demonization of Putin even listing Russia along with Ebola and the Islamic State as the three top threats to the world he appears belatedly to have recognized that the only solution to the Syrian conflict is a political compromise in which all sides make concessions and Russia and Iran play key roles in assuring more give from Assad.

Thus, with negotiations resuming in Vienna on Friday, it appears there is finally the possibility of progress toward ending the horrific war in Syria. But that result will not come easily. Secretary Kerry will have to demand significant concessions from both the U.S.-funded Syrian “moderates” and from the regional Sunni powers to get serious about cutting off their “covert” assistance to the Sunni jihadists inside Syria.

If some stability can be restored in Syria, the ultimate solution might be an election that will let the Syrian people decide who their leaders should be.

But President Obama will have to contend with Official Washington’s neocons, liberal interventionists and “human rights” community which will continue to put their “regime change” agenda ahead of a pragmatic effort to end the slaughter and to stanch the destabilizing flow of refugees across the Mideast and into Europe.

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). You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.