Nazi Roots of Ukraine’s Conflict

Exclusive: Few Americans understand the ugly history behind the Nazi-affiliated movements that have gained substantial power in today’s U.S.-backed Ukrainian regime. Western propaganda has made these right-wing extremists the “good guys” versus the Russian “bad guys,” as Jonathan Marshall explains.

By Jonathan Marshall

The latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine, one of the leading journals in its field, offers a two-page photo essay on “what to see, do, and buy” in Lviv, a picturesque city in the Western Ukraine. “Amid the turmoil that has rocked Ukraine over the past two years,” the article gushes, “Lviv has stood firmly as a stronghold of national culture, language, and identity.”

That’s one way of putting it. Another, less charitable way would be to note that Lviv has for nearly a century been a breeding ground of extreme Ukrainian nationalism, spawning terrorist movements, rabid anti-Semitism, and outright pro-Nazi political organizations that continue to pollute the country’s politics.

On the lovely cobblestone streets admired today by tourists flowed the blood of some 4,000 Jews who were massacred by locals in 1941, during the German occupation. They were egged on by the radical Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), whose founder and wartime leader is today a national hero to many of his countrymen.

On April 28, 2011, the 68th anniversary of the formation of a Ukrainian Waffen-SS division, hundreds of people marched through Lviv, with support from city council members, chanting slogans like “One race, one nation, one Fatherland!”

Two months later, residents celebrated the 70th anniversary of the German invasion “as a popular festival, where parents with small children waived flags to re-enactors in SS uniforms,” according to the noted Swedish-American historian Per Anders Rudling.

Later that year, extreme right-wing deputies at a nearby town in the Lviv district “renamed a street from the Soviet-era name Peace Street to instead carry the name of the Nachtigall [Nightingale] Battalion, a Ukrainian nationalist formation involved in the mass murder of Jews in 1941, arguing that ‘Peace’ is a holdover from Soviet stereotypes.’”

Such inconvenient truths rarely get aired in Western media, but they are important for at least two reasons. They help explain the recent violent, anti-democratic upheavals that have made Ukraine the battleground of a dangerous new cold war between NATO and Russia. And they should inspire Americans to reflect on our own country’s contribution to recent political extremism in the Ukraine, going back to the early post-World War II era, when the CIA funded former Nazi collaborators to help destabilize the Soviet Union.

The revolutionary, ultra-nationalist OUN was founded in 1929 to throw off Polish rule and establish Ukraine as an independent state. It burned the property of Polish landowners, raided government properties for funds, and assassinated dozens of intellectuals and officials, including the Polish interior minister in 1934.

A particularly radical faction, known as OUN-B, split off in 1940 under the leadership of the young firebrand Stepan Bandera, who studied in Lviv. It enjoyed support during World War II from a Gestapo-supported secret police official, Mykola Lebed. Lebed had earlier been convicted with Bandera by Polish authorities for the 1934 murder of their interior minister, and would become notorious for his involvement in the wartime torture and murder of Jews.

Bandera’s OUN-B collaborated closely with the German foreign intelligence service, the Abwehr, to form a German-led Ukrainian Legion. On June 30, 1941, just days after Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, OUN-B declared an independent Ukrainian state with Lviv as its capital. Lebed served as police minister of the collaborationist government.

In the days that followed, OUN-B’s Nachtigall Battalion and its civilian sympathizers apparently slaughtered several thousand Jews and Polish intellectuals before moving on to join German forces on the Eastern Front. Another 3,000 Jews in Lviv were soon murdered by an SS death squad outside the city. OUN publications called these “exhilarating days.”

Although the OUN, in a letter to Adolf Hitler, officially welcomed the “consolidation of the new ethnic order in Eastern Europe” and the “destruction of the seditious Jewish-Bolshevik influence,” the Nazi leader rejected their nationalist ambitions and eventually banned the OUN.

The Germans imprisoned Bandera. His organization went underground, forming the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). There were no neat sides in the violent conflict that ensued. UPA units clashed with the Nazis on occasion, fought the Red Army much more often, and engaged in “ethnic cleansing” of thousands of Poles and Jews. (More rarely, OUN members saved local Jews as well.)

They also killed tens of thousands of fellow Ukrainians in a bid to dictate the region’s political future. Many OUN members also directly joined police and militia groups sponsored by the Waffen-SS. Bandera himself was released by the Germans in 1944 and provided with arms to resist the advancing Red Army.

After the war, the OUN continued its losing battle for independence. Soviet forces killed, arrested, or deported several hundred thousand members, relatives or supporters of the UPA and OUN. Bandera was assassinated by the KGB in Munich in 1959. But right-wing nationalism enjoyed a resurgence after Ukraine won its independence in 1990-91, stoked by emigrés in the West who were loyal to OUN-B and to Bandera’s memory.

The city of Lviv in particular led the revival of Bandera worship. In 2006 it transferred his tomb to a special area of the town’s cemetery dedicated to victims of Ukraine’s national liberation struggles. It erected a statue dedicated to him and established an award in his honor.

Finally, in 2010, Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yushchenko (who came to power in the U.S.-backed Orange Revolution), named Bandera a Hero of Ukraine for “defending national ideas and battling for an independent Ukrainian state.” The Simon Wiesenthal Center and other anti-fascist groups condemned the honor, which was annulled a year later by a Ukrainian court.

One of Bandera’s legacies was the creation of the ultra-nationalist Social National Party in Lviv in 1991.

“As party symbol, it chose a mirror image of the so-called Wolfsangel, or Wolf’s hook, which was used by several SS divisions and, after the war, by neo-Nazi organizations,” notes Rudling. “It organized a paramilitary guard and recruited skinheads and football hooligans into its ranks.”

In 2004 it rebranded itself as Svoboda and dispensed with its SS imagery. Nonetheless, Svoboda’s new leader lauded the OUN and UPA for having resisted “Jews and other scum, who wanted to take away our Ukrainian state.” He was decorated by veterans of a Ukrainian Waffen-SS division and championed the cause of Ukrainian death camp guard Ivan Demjanjuk. His ideological adviser organized a think tank called the “Joseph Goebbels Political Research Center” in 2005.

Svoboda became the largest party in Lviv in 2010 and today enjoys strong influence at the national level. It has also extended its influence by allying itself with other far-right and fascist parties in Europe.

Most important for understanding today’s East-West crisis, Svoboda supplied many of the shock troops who turned the protests in Kiev’s Maidan Square into a violent confrontation with government forces and eventually precipitated the putsch against President Viktor Yanukovych in early 2014.  Svoboda leaders took important posts in the post-Yanukovych government, including the head of national security.

Svoboda militants from Lviv played an important role in the violent putsch. In a story for Consortiumnews.com, journalist Robert Parry cited a “human interest profile” in the New York Times of a Ukrainian protestor named Yuri Marchuk, a Svoboda leader from Lviv who was wounded at Maidan Square. Parry continued,

“Without providing . . . context, the Times does mention that Lviv militants plundered a government weapons depot and dispatched 600 militants a day to do battle in Kiev. Marchuk also described how these well-organized militants, consisting of paramilitary brigades of 100 fighters each, launched the fateful attack against the police on Feb. 20, the battle where Marchuk was wounded and where the death toll suddenly spiked into scores of protesters and about a dozen police.

“Marchuk later said he visited his comrades at the occupied City Hall. What the Times doesn’t mention is that City Hall was festooned with Nazi banners and even a Confederate battle flag as a tribute to white supremacy.”

Svoboda’s cause was championed during the Maidan protests by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who egged on the crowds while standing under banners celebrating Stepan Bandera. McCain’s appearance was no accident. Since World War II, the Republican Party has been closely allied with pro-Nazi exile leaders from Eastern Europe. Many of them were recruited and paid by the CIA, and given secret legal exemptions to emigrate to the United States despite their history of war crimes.

For example, the OUN-B Gestapo collaborator and mass murderer Mykola Lebed made his way incognito to the United States after World War II. The CIA, which valued his help in organizing resistance movements against the USSR, exercised its veto power over anti-Nazi immigration laws to legalize his residence.

The CIA provided similar assistance to General Pavlo Shandruk, described by historian Christopher Simpson as “the chief of the Ukrainian quisling ‘government-in-exile’ created by the Nazi Rosenberg ministry in 1944.” Despite his pro-Nazi past, he received large CIA stipends to help organize intelligence networks against the Soviet Union after the war.

The CIA and Pentagon also earmarked millions of dollars’ worth of arms and other military aid to anti-Soviet Ukrainian guerrillas in the late 1940s, despite their record of atrocities against Jews and other civilians.

As Simpson concludes in his 1988 book Blowback, “In hindsight, it is clear that the Ukrainian guerrilla option became the prototype for hundreds of CIA operations worldwide that have attempted to exploit indigenous discontent in order to make political gains for the United States.

“Instead of rallying to the new ‘democratic’ movement, there is every indication that many of the ordinary people of the Ukraine gave increased credence to the Soviet government’s message that the United States, too, was really Nazi at heart and capable of using any sort of deceit and violence to achieve its ends.”

Simpson also observes that CIA assistance to pro-Nazi Ukrainian and other East European ethnic leaders created powerful political lobbies in the United States that backed hard-line “liberationist” policies toward the Soviet Union and its “captive nations.” One such political group was the Ukrainian-dominated, neo-Nazi Anti-Bolshevik Bloc of Nations, which enjoyed support from Sen. Joseph McCarthy, among many other U.S. politicians.

“Before the decade of the 1950s was out,” Simpson writes, “the activities of extremist European emigre organizations combined with indigenous American anticommunism to produce seriously negative effects on U.S. foreign policy and domestic affairs under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

“U.S. clandestine operations employing Nazis never did produce the results that were desired when they were initiated, but they did contribute to the influence of some of the most reactionary trends in American political life. Working together with corporate-financed lobbies such as the pro-armament American Security Council, Captive Nations leaders have acted as influential spoilers capable of obstructing important East-West peace initiatives undertaken by both Republican and Democratic administrations. They continue, in fact, to play that role today.”

Simpson offered that powerful observation before the latest crisis in the Ukraine, precipitated in large measure by extreme rightists inspired by the OUN, plunged NATO and Russia into a series of military and economic confrontations that resemble the Cold War of old. But even today, the American political impulse to support anti-Russian agitation in the Ukraine reflects Cold War-era policies that forged an ugly alliance between the United States and Nazi mass murderers.

You won’t see that point made in the New York Times, or in a fluffy promotion for Lviv in Foreign Policy magazine. But it’s clearly written in history that Americans would do well to study.

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.” ]




Cheering a ‘Democratic’ Coup in Ukraine

From the Archive: After the 2014 coup ousting Ukraine’s elected President Yanukovych, the mainstream U.S. media hailed this unconstitutional move as a victory for “democracy” while ignoring the darker side, neo-Nazis coddled by the U.S. government since the Cold War, as Robert Parry wrote four days after the putsch.

By Robert Parry (Originally published on Feb. 26, 2014)

There was always a measure of hypocrisy but Official Washington used to at least pretend to stand for “democracy,” rather than taking such obvious pleasure in destabilizing elected governments, encouraging riots, overturning constitutional systems and then praising violent putsches.

But events in Ukraine and Venezuela in 2014 suggest that the idea of respecting the results of elections and working within legal, albeit flawed, political systems is no longer in vogue, unless the “U.S. side” happens to win, of course. If the “U.S. side” loses, then it’s time for some “shock doctrine.” And, of course, the usual demonizing of the “enemy” leader.

Ukraine’s ousted President Viktor Yanukovych was surely no one’s idea of a pristine politician, though it looks like there are few to none of those in Ukraine, a country essentially controlled by a collection of billionaire oligarchs who jockey for power and shift their allegiances among corrupt politicians.

But Yanukovych was elected in what was regarded as a reasonably fair election in 2010. Indeed, some international observers called the election an important step toward establishing an orderly political process in Ukraine.

But Yanukovych sought to maintain cordial relations with neighboring Russia, which apparently rubbed American neocons the wrong way. Official Washington’s still-influential neocons have been livid with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin because he cooperated with U.S. President Barack Obama in averting U.S. wars against Iran and Syria.

In both cases, the neocons thought they had maneuvered Obama into confrontations that could have advanced their long-term strategy of “regime change” across the Middle East, a process that started in 2003 with the U.S. invasion of Iraq but stalled with that disastrous war.

However, in 2013, prospects for more U.S. military interventions in two other target countries Iran and Syria were looking up, as Israel joined with Saudi Arabia in stoking regional crises that would give Obama no choice but to launch American air strikes, against Iran’s nuclear facilities and against Syrian government targets.

Putin’s Interference

That strategy was going swimmingly until Putin helped bring Iran to the negotiating table over guarantees that its nuclear program would not lead to a nuclear weapon. Putin also brokered a deal to avert threatened U.S. air strikes on Syria over disputed evidence regarding who launched a chemical attack on civilians outside Damascus. Putin got the Syrian government to agree to eliminate its chemical weapons arsenal.

So, Putin found himself in the center of the neocons’ bulls-eye and given some of his own unforced errors such as defending Russia’s intolerance toward gays and spending excessively on the Sochi Olympics he became the latest “designated villain,” denounced and ridiculed across the neocon-dominated op-ed pages of the Washington Post and other major news outlets.

Even NBC, from its treasured spot as the network of the Olympic Games, felt it had no choice but to denounce Putin in an extraordinary commentary delivered by anchor Bob Costas. Once the demonizing ball gets rolling everyone has to join in or risk getting run over, too.

All of which set the stage for Ukraine. The issue at hand was whether Yanukovych should accept a closer relationship with the European Union, which was demanding substantial economic “reforms,” including an austerity plan dictated by the International Monetary Fund. Yanukovych balked at the harsh terms and turned to Ukraine’s neighbor Russia, which was offering a $15 billion loan and was keeping Ukraine’s economy afloat with discounted natural gas.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether the EU was driving too hard a bargain or whether Ukraine should undertake such painful economic “reforms” or how Yanukovych should have balanced the interests of his divided country, with the east dominated by ethnic Russians and the west leaning toward Europe.

But protesters from western Ukraine, including far-right nationalists, sought to turn this policy dispute into a means for overthrowing the elected government. Police efforts to quell the disturbances turned violent, with the police not the only culprits. Police faced armed neo-Nazi storm troopers who attacked with firebombs and other weapons.

Though the U.S. news media did show scenes of these violent melees, the U.S. press almost universally blamed Yanukovych and took almost gleeful pleasure as his elected government collapsed and was replaced by thuggish right-wing militias “guarding” government buildings.

With Yanukovych and many of his supporters fleeing for their lives, the opposition parties seized control of parliament and began passing draconian new laws often unanimously, as neo-Nazi thugs patrolled the scene. Amazingly, the U.S. news media treated all this as uplifting, a popular uprising against a tyrant, not a case of a coup government operating in collusion with violent extremists.

In the upside-down world that has become the U.S. news media, the democratically elected president was a dictator and the coup makers who overthrew the popularly chosen leader were “pro-democracy” activists.

A Curious History

There’s also a curious history behind U.S. attitudes toward ethnically divided Ukraine. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency as he escalated Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union one of his propaganda services, Radio Liberty, began broadcasting commentaries into Ukraine from right-wing exiles.

Some of the commentaries praised Ukrainian nationalists who had sided with the Nazis in World War II as the SS waged its “final solution” against European Jews. The propaganda broadcasts provoked outrage from Jewish organizations, such as B’nai B’rith, and individuals including conservative academic Richard Pipes.

According to an internal memo dated May 4, 1984, and written by James Critchlow, a research officer at the Board of International Broadcasting, which managed Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, one RL broadcast in particular was viewed as “defending Ukrainians who fought in the ranks of the SS.”

Critchlow wrote, “An RL Ukrainian broadcast of Feb. 12, 1984 contains references to the Nazi-oriented Ukrainian-manned SS ‘Galicia’ Division of World War II which may have damaged RL’s reputation with Soviet listeners. The memoirs of a German diplomat are quoted in a way that seems to constitute endorsement by RL of praise for Ukrainian volunteers in the SS division, which during its existence fought side by side with the Germans against the Red Army.”

Harvard Professor Pipes, who was an adviser to the Reagan administration, also inveighed against the RL broadcasts, writing on Dec. 3, 1984 “the Russian and Ukrainian services of RL have been transmitting this year blatantly anti-Semitic material to the Soviet Union which may cause the whole enterprise irreparable harm.”

Though the Reagan administration publicly defended RL against some of the public criticism, privately some senior officials agreed with the critics, according to documents in the archives of the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. For instance, in a Jan. 4, 1985, memo, Walter Raymond Jr., a top official on the National Security Council, told his boss, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, that “I would believe much of what Dick [Pipes] says is right.”

This three-decade-old dispute over U.S.-sponsored radio broadcasts underscores the troubling political reality of Ukraine, which straddles a dividing line between people with cultural ties oriented toward the West and those with a cultural heritage more attuned to Russia. Though the capital Kiev sits in a region dominated by the western Ukrainians, the Russian-allied Ukrainians represent most of the population, explaining Yanukovych’s electoral victory.

Loving a Putsch

Now, right-wing militias, representing those historical resentments toward the Russians and hostility toward the Jews, have seized control of many government buildings in Kiev. Faced with this intimidation, the often-unanimous decisions by the remaining legislators would normally be viewed with extreme skepticism, including their demands for the capture and likely execution of Yanukovych.

But the U.S. press corps can’t get beyond its demonization of Putin and Yanukovych. The neocon Washington Post has been almost euphoric over the coup, as expressed in a Feb. 24 editorial:

“Ukraine has shaken off its corrupt president and the immediate prospect of domination by Russia, but at the risk of further conflict. The decision by Viktor Yanukovych to flee Kiev over the weekend triggered the disintegration of his administration and prompted parliament to replace him and schedule elections for May.

“The moves were democratic, members of Mr. Yanukovych’s party joined in the parliamentary votes, but they had the effect of nullifying an accord between the former government and opposition that had been brokered by the European Union and tacitly supported by Russia. Kiev is now controlled by pro-Western parties that say they will implement the association agreement with the European Union that Mr. Yanukovych turned away from three months ago, triggering the political crisis.

“There remain two big threats to this positive outcome. One is that Ukraine’s finances will collapse in the absence of a bailout from Russia or the West. The other is that the country will split along geographic lines as Russian speakers in the east of the country, perhaps supported by Moscow, reject the new political order.”

The Post continued, “What’s not clear is whether Mr. Putin would accept a Ukraine that is not under the Kremlin’s thumb. The first indications are not good: Though Mr. Putin has been publicly silent about Ukraine since Friday, the rhetoric emanating from his government has been angry and belligerent. A foreign ministry statement Monday alleged that ‘a course has been set to use dictatorial and sometimes terrorist methods to suppress dissenters in various regions.’”

So, the Washington Post’s editors consider the violent overthrow of a democratically elected president to be “democratic” and take comfort in “democratic” actions by a legislature, despite the curious lack of any no votes and the fact that this balloting has occurred under the watchful eye of neo-Nazi storm troopers patrolling government offices. And, according to the Post, the Russian government is unhinged to detect “dictatorial and sometimes terrorist methods.”

The New York Times editorial page was only slightly less celebratory, proclaiming: “The venal president of Ukraine is on the run and the bloodshed has stopped, but it is far too early to celebrate or to claim that the West has ‘won’ or that Russia has ‘lost.’ One incontrovertible lesson from the events in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, is that the deeply divided country will have to contend with dangerous problems that could reverberate beyond its borders.”

There has been, of course, a long and inglorious history of the U.S. government supporting the overthrow of elected governments: Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, Allende in Chile in 1973, Aristide in Haiti twice, Chavez in Venezuela briefly in 2002, Zelaya in Honduras in 2009, Morsi in Egypt in 2013, and others. After Yanukovych, the next target of these U.S.-embraced “democratic” coups looks to be Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela.

In these cases, it is typical for the mainstream U.S. news media to obsess over perceived flaws in the ousted leaders. For instance, the New York Times made much of an unfinished presidential palace in Ukraine, calling it “a fugitive leader’s folly.” The idea seems to be to cement in the minds of impressionable Americans that it is okay for the U.S. government to support the overthrow of democratically elected presidents if they have flaws.

The outcomes for the people of these countries that are “saved” from their imperfect leaders, however, often tend to be quite ugly. Usually, they experience long periods of brutal repression at the hands of dictators, but that typically happens outside the frame of the U.S. news media’s focus or interest. Those unhappy countries fade from view almost as quickly as they were thrust to center stage, next to the demonization of their elected leaders.

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).




A Crazy Establishment Demands ‘Sanity’

Exclusive: As support grows for anti-Establishment candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, a frantic Establishment is demanding that Americans “stay sane” and vote for one of its approved candidates. But is it sane to follow advice that has led to endless wars and a disappearing middle class, asks Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

With ever-growing hysteria, the Establishment is begging, cajoling and warning American voters not to elect a rogue President from the Right or the Left, neither Donald Trump nor Bernie Sanders, but to accept instead one of the “sane” mainstream options. Yet, the unspoken truth is that the American Establishment has been off its rocker for decades.

It was, after all, Official Washington’s Establishment led by the neoconservatives and their sidekicks, the liberal interventionists that embraced President George W. Bush’s catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, as costly as that decision was in terms of blood and money and cascading chaos now destabilizing Europe the Wise Men and Women imposed virtually zero accountability on themselves or other chief culprits.

Indeed, many of the same neocons who architected the Iraq disaster are listed as top foreign policy advisers to the “sane” candidates, such as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. And Hillary Clinton not only voted for the Iraq War but seemed to learn no lessons from what she only grudgingly acknowledged was a “mistake.” As Secretary of State, she sided with Democratic “liberal interventionists” to engineer another “regime change” in Libya that has led to another failed state, further spreading chaos across the region.

A “sane” Establishment, one that truly cared about the interests of the American people, would have undertaken a serious self-examination after the Iraq War. Yet, there was none. Rather than cleaning house and banishing the neocons and liberal interventionists to the farthest reaches of national power, the Establishment rewarded these warmongers, ceding to them near-total control of American foreign policy thinking.

If anything, the neocons and liberal hawks consolidated their power after the Iraq War. By contrast, the foreign policy “realists” and anti-war progressives who warned against the invasion were the ones cast out of any positions of influence. How crazy is that!

It was as if supporting the Iraq War was the new initiation rite to join the Establishment’s elite fraternity of worthies, a kind of upside-down application of rewards and punishments that would only make sense at the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice’s Wonderland.

In a sane world, the publishers of The New York Times and The Washington Post would have purged their lead editorial writers who had advocated for the catastrophe. Instead, the Post retained its neocon editorial page editor Fred Hiatt and nearly all of its pro-war columnists and the Times even promoted liberal interventionist Bill Keller to the top job of executive editor after it became clear that he had been snookered about Iraq’s WMD.

Similar patterns were followed across the board, from The New Yorker on the Left to The Wall Street Journal on the Right. Pro-Iraq War writers and commentators continued on as if nothing untoward had happened. They remained the media big shots, rewarded with book contracts and TV appearances.

The same held true for the major think tanks. Instead of dumping neocons, the center-left Brookings Institution went off in search of neocon A-listers to sign, like Robert Kagan, a co-founder of the Project for the New American Century. The ultra-Establishment Council on Foreign Relations recruited its own neocon “stars,” Max Boot and Elliott Abrams.

And what did this year’s “sane” presidential candidates do as the deadly and dangerous consequences of neocon thinking spread from the Middle East into Europe? They pledged fealty to more neocon strategies. For instance, Establishment favorite, Sen. Marco Rubio, is advocating more “regime change” tough talk and more expansion of U.S. military power.

‘Stay Sane’

Nevertheless, when New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks urges Americans to “stay sane,” he is calling on them to support the likes of Rubio and reject the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had the sanity to vote against the Iraq War, and billionaire Donald Trump, who also questioned the wisdom of the war.

Brooks lamented that his favorite Rubio had resorted to some populist rhetoric of his own recently, but added: “Marco Rubio has had a bad month, darkening his tone and trying to sound like a cut-rate version of Trump and [Ted] Cruz. Before too long Rubio will realize his first task is to rally the voters who detest or fear those men. That means running as an optimistic American nationalist with specific proposals to reform Washington and lift the working class.”

Yet Rubio led the parade of dancing candidates who performed at the so-called “Adelson primary,” seeking to win the favors of gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson by vowing to fully sync U.S. policies in the Middle East with positions favored by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (whereas Trump refused to toe that line). And Rubio’s warmed-over right-wing, trickle-down economic orthodoxy is sure to do little to help working- and middle-class Americans.

Brooks offers some dubious history, too, writing “In every recent presidential election American voters have selected the candidate with the most secure pair of hands. They’ve elected the person who would be a stable presence and companion for the next four years. I believe they’re going to do that again.”

It’s unclear how far back in time Brooks is going. Is he acknowledging that the American voters actually favored Al Gore in Election 2000 although the Republican majority on the U.S. Supreme Court decided to give the White House to the untested and unreliable George W. Bush? Is Brooks saying that Bill Clinton had more “secure” hands than George H.W. Bush in 1992 and that the radical right-winger Ronald Reagan was more “stable” than Jimmy Carter in 1980?

Indeed, the rapid divide of the United States into a land of haves and have-nots can be traced back, in large part, to Reagan’s economic policies of massive tax cuts primarily favoring the rich and thus incentivizing greed and his disparaging the role of democratic governance, which is the only force that can truly counter the power of the wealthy elites.

Since Reagan’s presidency, Republican orthodoxy has been to enact ever more generous tax cuts for the rich while freeing them from government regulation or “red tape.” Republicans along with Establishment Democrats most notably President Bill Clinton also favored “free trade” that led major corporations to shift their industrial jobs to Third World low-wage countries.

This combination of tax cuts for the rich, “free trade” for multinational corporations and disdain for “big government” intervention to protect average citizens along with technological advances has savaged the Great American Middle Class, which was largely created by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and the major infrastructure investments after World War II. Under President Dwight Eisenhower, the top marginal tax rate for the richest Americans was 90 percent, essentially enforcing an American egalitarianism.

The abandonment of those hard-earned lessons from the Great Depression — a reversal accomplished  primarily by Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush — returned U.S. income inequality to levels not seen since the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

The Trump phenomenon can only be understood by factoring in the frustration and fear of the white working class that has shifted Republican since the 1960s because of anger over the Democrats supporting equal rights for blacks and other minorities. But those working-class whites now sense that the GOP leadership is selling them out, too, by favoring the ultra-rich donor class and willing to sacrifice their sons and daughters to implement unrealistic neocon foreign-policy schemes.

So these downwardly mobile white Americans are in rebellion and have embraced billionaire Trump, who rejects politics as usual and understands something of their blue-collar mindset because of his experience on popular reality TV shows.

Democratic Populism

Something similar is happening on the Democratic side through another imperfect vessel, Bernie Sanders. Democratic progressives see the consequences of a steady retreat by mainstream liberals on economic and foreign policy issues since Reagan’s election.

Rather than fight to convince the white working class about the need for democratic governance, Bill Clinton and other neo-liberals fashioned a strategy of catering to Wall Street and other rich donors by offering “free market” financial deregulation and “free trade” deals on manufacturing.

Sanders represents the first candidate for president in recent memory who has offered a full-throated defense of government as a necessary counter-balance to the power of the rich over both the economy and the electoral process (though President Obama has paid some lip service to those principles).

By contrast, Hillary Clinton represents a continuation of the cozy relations between the so-called New Democrats and the wealthy power centers of high finance and big corporations. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Clintons’ Paid-Speech Bonanza.”]

She also advocates foreign military interventions in line with what the neocons have sought as they demand U.S. fealty to Israeli interests. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Hillary Clinton Seeks Neocon Shelter.”]

As a senator, Clinton voted for the Iraq War and as Secretary of State, she sided with the neocons and their “liberal interventionist” allies in escalating the war in Afghanistan, in engineering a bloody “regime change” in Libya, and in pushing for a direct U.S. military intervention in the Syrian civil war (via the creation of so-called “safe zones”).

Though Sanders’s foreign policy positions can be something of a muddle, he is generally more skeptical about U.S. military adventures than Clinton.

So, who are the crazy ones here? Does it make more sense to follow Hillary Clinton’s Establishment-friendly positions on issues from Wall Street regulation to Syrian military intervention or to support Bernie Sanders’s more aggressive strategy against income inequality and less aggressive approach toward foreign conflicts?

Similarly, on the Republican side, is it nuttier to back Rubio and other Establishment favorites who would effectively let Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu set U.S. policy in the region, even if that means invading Syria and accepting permanent warfare  or Trump who suggests letting the Russians and Iranians share the burden of battling Islamic extremists?

Clearly, the Establishment would have a stronger case if it hadn’t led the United States into one catastrophe after another, while refusing to hold its own representatives accountable.

There is the old line about insanity being defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. What David Brooks and other Establishment figures are demanding is that the American voters keep electing the same system-approved neocon/neolib presidents again and again and expecting something better for the nation.

Is that “staying sane” or “staying insane”?

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).




Spinning US Voters to Stay Passive

As public anger toward America’s self-interested establishment bubbles into a boil, the mainstream media has grown frantic appealing to the masses to “stay sane,” reject populism — especially Bernie Sanders’s variety — and renew the establishment’s lease on the White House, as Norman Solomon notes.

By Norman Solomon

For a long time, as he campaigned for President, a wide spectrum of establishment media insisted that Bernie Sanders couldn’t win. Now they’re sounding the alarm that he might. And, just in case you haven’t gotten the media message yet — Sanders is “angry,” kind of like Donald Trump.

Elite media often blur distinctions between right-wing populism and progressive populism — as though there’s not all that much difference between appealing to xenophobia and racism on the one hand and appealing for social justice and humanistic solidarity on the other. Many journalists can’t resist lumping Trump and Sanders together as rabble-rousing outliers.

But in the real world, the differences are vast. Donald Trump is to Bernie Sanders as Archie Bunker is to Jon Stewart.

Among regular New York Times columnists, aversion to Bernie Sanders has become more pronounced in recent days at both ends of the newspaper’s ideological spectrum, such as it is. Republican Party aficionado David Brooks (whose idea of a good political time is Marco Rubio) has been freaking out in print, most recently with a Tuesday column headlined “Stay Sane America, Please!”

Brooks warned that his current nightmare for the nation is in triplicate — President Trump, President Cruz or President Sanders. For Brooks, all three contenders appear to be about equally awful; Trump is “one of the most loathed men in American public life,” while “America has never elected a candidate maximally extreme from the political center, the way Sanders and Cruz are.”

That “political center” of power sustains huge income inequality, perpetual war, scant action on climate change and reflexive support for the latest unhinged escalation of the nuclear arms race. In other words, what C. Wright Mills called “crackpot realism.”

Meanwhile, liberal Times columnist Paul Krugman (whose idea of a good political time is Hillary Clinton) keeps propounding a stand-on-head formula for social change — a kind of trickle-down theory of political power, in which “happy dreams” must yield to “hard thinking,” a euphemism for crackpot realism.

An excellent rejoinder has come from former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. “Krugman doesn’t get it,” Reich wrote. “I’ve been in and around Washington for almost fifty years, including a stint in the cabinet, and I’ve learned that real change happens only when a substantial share of the American public is mobilized, organized, energized, and determined to make it happen.”

And Reich added: “Political ‘pragmatism’ may require accepting ‘half loaves’ — but the full loaf has to be large and bold enough in the first place to make the half loaf meaningful. That’s why the movement must aim high — toward a single-payer universal health, free public higher education, and busting up the biggest banks, for example.”

But for mainline media, exploring such substance is low priority, much lower than facile labeling and horseracing, and riffing on how Bernie Sanders sounds “angry.”

On “Morning Edition,” this week began with NPR political reporter Mara Liasson telling listeners that “Bernie Sanders’ angry tirades against Wall Street have found a receptive audience.” (Meanwhile, without anger or tirades, “Hillary Clinton often talks about the fears and insecurities of ordinary voters.”)

The momentum of the Sanders campaign will soon provoke a lot more corporate media attacks along the lines of a Chicago Tribune editorial that appeared in print on Monday. The newspaper editorialized that nomination of Trump, Cruz or Sanders “could be politically disastrous,” and it declared: “Wise heads in both parties are verging on panic.”

Such panic has just begun, among party elites and media elites. Eager to undermine Sanders, the Tribune editorial warned that as a “self-declared democratic socialist,” Sanders “brandishes a label that, a Gallup poll found, would automatically make him unacceptable to nearly half the public.”

A strong critique of such commentaries has come from the media watch group FAIR, where Jim Naureckas pointed out that voters would not be asked to vote for “a socialist– they’d be asked to vote for Bernie Sanders. And while pollsters don’t include Sanders in general election matchups as often as they do Hillary Clinton, they have asked how the Vermont senator would do against various Republicans — and he generally does pretty well.

“In particular, against the candidate the Tribune says is ‘best positioned’ to ‘capture the broad, sensible center’ — Jeb Bush — Sanders leads in polls by an average of 3.0 percentage points, based on polling analysis by the website Real Clear Politics.”

In mass media, the conventional sensibilities of pundits like Brooks and Krugman, reporters like Liasson, and outlets like the Chicago Tribune routinely get the first and last words. Here, the last ones are from Naureckas:

“When pollsters match Sanders against the four top-polling Republican hopefuls, on average he does better than Clinton does against each of them — even though she, like Bush, is supposed to be “best positioned” to “capture the broad, sensible center,” according to the Tribune.

“Actually, the elements of Sanders’ platform that elite media are most likely to associate with ‘socialism’ — things like universal, publicly funded healthcare and eliminating tuition at public colleges — are quite popular with the public, and go a long way to explain his favorable poll numbers. But they are also the sort of proposals that make Sanders unacceptable to the nation’s wealthy elite — and to establishment media outlets.”

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




Assessing a Murder Case Against Putin

Once Western media demonizes a foreign leader it becomes hard to assess allegations because if you express doubt, you’re dubbed an “apologist.” But careful analysis is still crucial as Russia Insider editor Alexander Mercouris offers on the British claim that Russian President Putin “probably” ordered a murder in London.

By Alexander Mercouris

This analysis shows why the Litvinenko Inquiry was a farce and why its report is in the end worthless.

The Judge who headed the Inquiry was obsessed with proving the Russian state murdered Litvinenko.  In order to prove what he always believed he threw legal procedure out of the window and interpreted the evidence how he wanted.

In the end even he could not prove that the Russian state murdered Litvinenko, which is why he could only say they “probably” did.

In reality the facts – if looked at objectively – show the Russian state almost certainly did not murder Litvinenko and played no part in his death.

The Inquiry and its report actually say more about the pathological hostility to Russia of some sections of the British establishment than they do about the Litvinenko case.

The first point to grasp about the Public Inquiry that has now delivered its verdict in the Litvinenko case is that it should never have happened at all.

The second point is that Inquiry’s decision that the Russian authorities were “probably” behind Litvinenko’s murder is unsustainable and makes no sense.

A TRIAL NOT AN INQUIRY

The Public Inquiry was in all essentials a murder trial.  Any legal proceedings which examine a case of murder and which pronounce on the guilt or innocence of the individuals accused is in effect a trial.

The Public Inquiry into Litvinenko’s death has ended in a pronouncement of guilt for the crime of murder against two individuals: Lugovoi and Kovtun.  That makes it a trial of those two men, regardless of what it is called.

THE RIGHT TO FAIR TRIAL

In Britain a trial for murder is conducted in open court with the defendant present and represented by lawyers of his or her choice.

The defendant is entitled to cross-examine the witnesses and to look at – and challenge – all the evidence.

The final verdict of guilt and innocence is delivered by the jury – twelve citizens selected at random – after they receive directions on legal questions from the judge.

Strict rules apply on what evidence can be presented to the court and how the court is to decide how the evidence is proved.  As a general principle only evidence actually presented to the court at the trial can be considered, and only witnesses who physically come and give their evidence to the court – and are cross-examined on it – are heard, though it is now becoming more and more common for evidence to be given by video link.

A court cannot convict on the basis of evidence given anonymously by witnesses who do not disclose their identities to the defendants save in very exceptional circumstances.

The burden of proof lies on the prosecution to prove its case, and it must do so beyond reasonable doubt.

It is a fundamental legal principle that anyone accused of a crime is deemed by the law innocent until the verdict of the court is delivered.

Once the verdict is delivered, a defendant who is found guilty has a right to appeal.

VIOLATION OF THE RIGHT TO FAIR TRIAL

The Public Inquiry that has now delivered its verdict in the Litvinenko case has thrown all this out of the window.

There was no jury.

Part of the evidence was secret and the defendants and their lawyers were denied sight of it. Some of the witnesses gave their evidence to the Judge in secret and their identities were not disclosed to the defendants.

Since technically it was not a trial and the Public Inquiry is not a court there is no right of appeal.

Since the defendants – Lugovoi and Kovtun – were denied sight of part of the evidence, they refused to take part.  The judge who tried the case – Sir Robert Owen – commented at length in his judgment about their refusal to take part, but failed to state the reason for it.

The trial nonetheless proceeded in the absence of the defendants though that is almost unprecedented in Britain.  Moreover no lawyers were appointed to represent their interests in their absence as it is perfectly possible to do, and as happens from time to time in other kinds of proceedings.

The result is that the evidence of what we must call the prosecution went entirely unchallenged.

Moreover since what happened was technically speaking not a trial but a Public Inquiry, the Judge felt free to look at evidence that was not produced to the court, including especially the possible evidence of potential witnesses who did not attend the court, but which was provided to him at second hand, whilst engaging in all sorts of speculations on the evidence that he would not have been able to engage in in a proper trial.

Needless to say any notion that the guilt of the accused had to be proved beyond reasonable doubt went out of the window.

VIOLATION OF PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE

This extraordinary process has ended in a clearcut verdict of guilt.

With it any pretence of adherence to the principle of the presumption of innocence has gone out of the window.  Lugovoi and Kovtun have been declared guilty of murder by a judicial body set up by the British state despite the fact that there has been no proper trial.

This is the single most important thing to say about this Inquiry.

I hold no brief for Lugovoi or Kovtun.  There is a possibility they did murder Litvinenko.

However the procedure the British state has used to declare them guilty is profoundly and completely wrong, and has forever prejudiced the possibility of their having a fair trial in Britain  – or indeed anywhere else – on this charge in the future.

That is why this Public Inquiry should never have been set up in the first place.

ARE WE CLOSER TO THE TRUTH?

Do the findings of the Public Inquiry – for all the fundamental problems in how it carried its work – take us any further forward in establishing the truth about Litvinenko’s death?

In my opinion they do, though only to a very limited degree, and in ways that actually contradict the final conclusions of the Inquiry.

RUSSIAN REJECTION OF EXTRADITION REQUEST

Firstly, though it is not directly pertinent to the issue of Litvinenko’s death, an entirely overlooked fact is that the Inquiry has fully endorsed the reason the Russian authorities gave for refusing to extradite Lugovoi and Kovtun to Britain.

When the British authorities in 2007 demanded Lugovoi’s and Kovtun’s extradition to Britain, the Russian authorities refused to extradite them on the grounds that this was contrary to Russia’s constitution.

The Russian government was widely ridiculed in Britain for saying this, and the British government imposed sanctions on Russia because of the Russian government’s refusal to extradite Lugovoi and Kovtun.

The Inquiry Judge has now said the Russians were right all along:

Refusal of extradition requests

Russia has refused requests made by the British authorities to extradite Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun to face criminal charges in the UK.  No inferences can be drawn from this. Article 61(1) of the Russian constitution provides that, “A citizen of the Russian Federation may not be deported from Russia or extradited to another state””.

Needless to say, in all the flood of commentary that has followed the verdict in Britain, no one has  admitted this or said that the sanctions Britain imposed on Russia in 2007 should not have been imposed because the Russians were right on this point all along.

LITVINENKO WAS KILLED BY POLONIUM POISONING

Secondly, it is now conclusively established Litvinenko was killed by polonium poisoning.

Whilst this may seem obvious, one of the unanswered mysteries of the case is why the British authorities delayed for so long to make the evidence of Litvinenko’s poisoning with polonium public.  They did not for example release the autopsy report until the Judge demanded it.

The evidence that was submitted to the Inquiry – including the autopsy report – has now put the question beyond doubt.  Litvinenko died from polonium poisoning and from no other cause.

LITVINENKO WAS MURDERED

Thirdly, the Inquiry has shown that Litvinenko was almost certainly murdered.

I have never found the various claims of polonium smuggling, accident and suicide various people have come up with to explain Litvinenko’s death very convincing.  There has never been anything that looked to me remotely like evidence to substantiate any of them.

The one part of the Inquiry report where I fully agree with the Judge – and find his reasoning convincing – is the section where he rejects these theories.

The only convincing explanation for Litvinenko’s death is that someone deliberately poisoned him with polonium.  That is why he died, and that makes his death murder.

THERE IS A CIRCUMSTANTIAL CASE AGAINST LUGOVOI AND KOVTUN

Fourthly and lastly, there is a circumstantial case that Lugovoi and Kovtun murdered Litvinenko.

Again this has been denied by many people – including of course by Lugovoi and Kovtun – but that there is a case against them on the basis of the traces of polonium they left behind them as they moved around London, and which were found in the Pine Bar at the Millennium Hotel where Litvinenko was probably poisoned, seems to me unarguable.

The case is however entirely circumstantial and is based wholly on the so-called polonium trail.  In the absence of a properly contested hearing in which lawyers acting for Lugovoi and Kovtun could challenge and test this evidence, it is impossible to say how strong the case against them is.

WHAT A FAIR DECISION BY THE INQUIRY WOULD HAVE BEEN

If the Inquiry had stopped at this point and had said that Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium, which caused his death, and that this polonium was administered to him intentionally and maliciously in order to cause his death, and that his death was therefore a murder, and that there is a circumstantial case that Lugovoi and Kovtun are the guilty parties, that would have been a good and proper result, and a worthwhile outcome to the Inquiry.

It would have resolved many of the doubts and speculations about the case, and might have set the scene for a future prosecution of Lugovoi and Kovtun in Russia (see below).

Unfortunately the Inquiry, or rather the Judge, did not stop at this point, and from this point on I am afraid it is downhill all the way.

SPECULATION AND DOUBTFUL EVIDENCE

Since the Inquiry ended with a finding that Lugovoi and Kovtun murdered Litvinenko despite their absence and lack of representation and despite the case against them being circumstantial, the obvious point to start in order to illustrate the problems is to look at the way the Judge handled the case against them in order to reach his verdict of guilty.

The Judge appears to have convinced himself of Lugovoi’s and Kovtun’s guilt right from the start of the Inquiry, and indeed practically from the moment when he was appointed the coroner to head the inquest which preceded the Inquiry.  The result is that in their absence he was unable to resist the temptation to ginger up the case against them by engaging in speculations and using evidence that in my opinion had no place in his report.

Here are some examples:

(1) The Judge places far too much reliance on the evidence of a German witness identified as D3.  This person told the German police that Kovtun asked him for help to find a cook whose help he needed to poison someone.  The Judge accepted the truth of this evidence, and treated what D3 told the police Kovtun had told him as an admission of guilt.

In my opinion D3’s evidence should never have been considered at all.  D3 refused to come to the Inquiry to give his evidence there.  The Judge only knew of what he had said to the German police from transcripts of his interviews provided by the police.

People tell all sorts of stories to the police to make themselves appear important, and it is surely possible that that is all that D3 was doing.  His refusal to come to the Inquiry to give evidence strongly suggests it.  Since he refused to give his evidence to the Inquiry, and since he obviously was not questioned by the Inquiry on it, no reliance should be placed on what he said.

I would add that the idea that a cold-blooded FSB assassin – which is what the Judge says Kovtun is – would ask a friend who was not a member of the FSB – which is what D3 is – to suggest someone else – also not a member of the FSB – to help him commit a high profile political murder in London seems to me frankly bizarre.

If Kovtun really did try to find a cook to help him poison Litvinenko then in my opinion it is evidence against FSB involvement.

In the event Kovtun did contact a cook in London.  There is no evidence he brought up the subject of poisoning with this person.  The Judge ridicules Kovtun’s claim he was looking for a cook to help him set up a restaurant in Moscow, which is what Kovtun claims.  Isn’t that however a far more likely reason to want a cook than to have his help to poison someone?

(2) The Judge admits Litvinenko did not initially think Lugovoi and Kovtun had poisoned him, and that it took him a very long time to come to that conclusion.  He explains this by saying Litvinenko felt professionally humiliated by the fact the murderers – who he supposedly always knew were Lugovoi and Kovtun – had got to him, and that he maintained his silence in order to lure them back to London.

Nothing Litvinenko ever said supports this theory.  I do not think it is right or proper to try to enter the mind of a dying man.  I also think this theory is farfetched.

I would add in passing that the Judge – rather grudgingly – has confirmed the truth of what the US journalist William Dunkerley has always said about Litvinenko’s famous death-bed statement.

It did not originate with Litvinenko but was put together by others who got him – as he was dying – to sign it.

The Judge has nothing to say about the ethics – or lack of them – of this behaviour, though they weighed on some of the people involved, including his widow.

The fact Litvinenko’s famous death-bed statement – long accepted as his own words – is in reality the concoction of someone else should make one especially wary of attempts to read Litvinenko’s mind as he lay dying.

(3) The Judge treats as evidence against Lugovoi the fact Lugovoi sent Berezovsky a provocatively worded T-shirt that referred to nuclear poisoning.  The Judge treats this as a threat and sees it as an admission of guilt.

Whilst that interpretation is possible, so are other interpretations.  The T-shirt could for example have been intended to taunt Berezovsky if Lugovoi thought Berezovsky was responsible for the crime and had set him up – as Lugovoi has claimed.  Without hearing from Lugovoi himself on this issue how is it possible to form a view?

(4) In Lugovoi’s and Kovtun’s absence the Judge reconstructed their answers to specific points on the basis of things they have said in media interviews.

He repeatedly cast doubt on the truth of things they have said and drew attention to various discrepancies he claims to have seen in their comments.

This is to elevate what Lugovoi and Kovtun have said to the media to the level of court testimony.

People speak more freely to the media than they do in court.  There is also always the worry the media is not reporting words properly.  When discussing the evidence of Dr. Yulia Svetlichnaya                 (see below) the Judge found the media had misreported some of the things she had told them.  Why might the same not be true of things Lugovoi and Kovtun have told the media as well?

If defendants or witnesses say things in court that contradict what they say to the media, it is right and proper to question them about the discrepancy.  In their absence it is wrong – and so far as I know unprecedented – to try to reconstruct what might have been their court testimony from what they have said on television and what the media say they have said.

(5) The Judge admits Lugovoi’s behaviour at the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel – the place where Litvinenko was probably poisoned – is not fully consistent with his being the poisoner.

Lugovoi showed indifference to whether Litvinenko drank the poisoned tea or not.  He also introduced to Litvinenko his young son, which he presumably would not have done if he thought there was danger to his son from the polonium.

The Judge gets round this by saying (1) Lugovoi would have felt under no time pressure to poison Litvinenko in the Pine Bar because – if the attempt failed – he could poison Litvinenko later somewhere else; and (2) Lugovoi probably hadn’t been told by his FSB controllers how dangerous the polonium was.

Perhaps so, but again these are pure guesses and it is easy to construct contrary arguments.

Would Lugovoi really feel happy chasing after Litvinenko in London with a vial of polonium in his pocket day after day?  Would he not be afraid he might be caught?  Would he not want the murder over and done with as quickly as possible so he could make his escape?

Would the FSB really send two agents on a secret assassination mission to London without briefing them about the dangers of the poison they were carrying?

Ultimately, since Lugovoi’s behaviour depends on his state of mind, how can one reconstruct it without hearing from him?

I don’t make these points to prove Lugovoi and Kovtun’s innocent.  However I think it is wholly wrong in their absence to say they are guilty on the strength of what can only be guesses and on the basis of “evidence”, which I don’t think is really evidence at all.

RUSSIAN STATE INVOLVEMENT

If the Judge’s conduct of the case against Lugovoi and Kovtun was troubling to say the least, the same was far more true of the part of the case where he decided the Russian authorities were “probably” guilty of Litvinenko’s murder, and that Lugovoi and Kovtun were acting on their behalf.

SECRET EVIDENCE

The evidence the Judge saw in secret, and which has not been disclosed to the public or the Russians, apparently bears mainly on this issue.  There is it seems a whole secret section of the Inquiry report about it, which has not been made public.

That it is wholly wrong for a Judge in what is actually a trial to say that someone or some people are guilty of a crime on the basis of evidence they are not allowed to see should by now be obvious.

It should be said that the British government is in a different position.  Since the British government has no judicial role, it is fully legitimate for it to say that on the basis of secret information in its possession, which it cannot disclose because that would compromise intelligence sources, it thinks the Russian authorities were probably involved in the murder of Litvinenko.

Others might wonder how strong that evidence really is, and might question whether the British government is right to form such a view, but that is another matter.

The Judge however, as is clear from the Inquiry report, was performing a judicial or at least a semi-judicial role.  His Inquiry not only looked into the facts of Litvinenko’s death in much the same way a court would do, but it ended in a clear verdict of guilty against the two men involved in the crime – Lugovoi and Kovtun.  That puts anything he says in a different position.

Since we do not know what the secret evidence is, it is impossible to comment on it.  However the Judge said in the Inquiry report that his conclusion that the Russian state was “probably” responsible for Litvinenko’s death is made out by the publicly disclosed evidence.

It is on that evidence therefore that his conclusions stand or fall, and it is to that evidence – and the Judge’s handling of it – that I shall now turn.

DID THE RUSSIAN AUTHORITIES OBSTRUCT THE INVESTIGATION

The British police were unhappy that the Russian authorities did not give them the full cooperation that it seems they wanted.  The Judge however was in the end unable to see in this evidence of actual obstruction, and decided that the Russian authorities’ guilt could not be inferred from it.

What the Judge does not say is that the reason the Russians have given for their lack of cooperation with the British investigation is that the British refused to cooperate with them.

Specifically the British refused to let the Russian investigators question Litvinenko’s friend, the exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky.

They also refused Russian requests for the polonium evidence and declined Russian suggestions that Lugovoi and Kovtun be tried in Russia on the basis of evidence provided by the British.

There are rumours that the Russians even suggested that Lugovoi and Kovtun be tried in Russia in a British court with a British Judge and jury that had been physically transported to Russia (there are actually precedents for this).

The reason the British gave for their refusal to consider a trial of Lugovoi and Kovtun in Russia was apparently that the prosecution witnesses would refuse to travel there.

This is to put the wishes of the witnesses above the rights of the defendants.  Besides it is not clear why the evidence of witnesses unwilling to travel to Russia could not have been given by video link.

The Russian offer of a trial of Lugovoi and Kovtun in Russia shows what might have happened if the British authorities had been willing to work with the Russian authorities – as opposed to criticising them and looking for ways to declare them guilty.  Since however the Judge made no inferences from any seeming lack of cooperation on the part of the Russian authorities, there is nothing more to say about this.

2006 RUSSIAN LAWS AUTHORISING LITVINENKO’S MURDER?

In 2006 – shortly before Litvinenko was killed – the Russian parliament passed two laws that authorise Russia’s security agencies to take action against persons involved in extremism and terrorist activities.

One of these laws gives legal authority to the Russian President to order the Russian security services to kill persons who are abroad beyond the reach of Russian justice and who are undertaking terrorist acts against Russia.

These two laws are commonly cited by believers in the theory of Russian state involvement as giving the FSB the legal authority it needed to kill Litvinenko.

Two experts on Russian law consulted by the Inquiry – one of them Russian – flatly contradicted this view, and the Judge accepted their advice:

“..

The only legal route to extra-territorial action against Mr Litvinenko was therefore under the Terrorism Law. However, action could only have been taken against Mr Litvinenko under this law had he been involved in, or no doubt suspected of involvement in, some form of terrorist activity. Article 3 of the Terrorism Law contains definitions of terrorism and terrorist acts that are broadly conventional, and certainly not as expansive as the definition of ‘extremism’ in the second of the 2006 laws. Mr Batmanov’s letter (above) states that, “Alexander Litvinenko did not make part of a terrorist organization and was not accused by Russian law enforcement bodies of having committed a terrorist crime.” That accords with my understanding of the evidence

On the basis of the evidence currently before me, and in light of the considerations set out above, I am therefore not persuaded that any action could have been taken by the FSB against Mr Litvinenko in 2006 under the terms of either of the 2006 laws.”

In other words the two laws have no bearing whatsoever on Litvinenko’s death.  They did not authorise it or give the green light for it, and they would not have made his killing legal under Russian law.

Though this is a useful finding, something must be said about the strange discussion that followed.

Having heard from two jurists expert on the interpretation of Russian law, and whose opinion ought to be final on such a subject, the Judge also solicited the opinion of Professor Robert Service, a historian who has written a book on Soviet history, and whose qualifications to give advice on how Russian law should be interpreted are not obvious.

I will have more to say later about the extraordinary role Professor Robert Service has played in the Inquiry.

Professor Service appears to be a believer in the theory that though the laws do not actually authorise the FSB to murder someone like Litvinenko, given the political atmosphere in Russia they could be interpreted by the FSB as giving it the green light to do so.

The Judge sets out Professor Service’s speculations on this point at length and without comment, giving the strong impression he agrees with them.

This theory is no more than a guess.  It is very unlikely to be true.

If the FSB really were the sort of criminal organisation that routinely murders its enemies why would it need the green light of two laws that do not in fact authorise it to take that action?  There is no logic here and the “green light” theory is absurd.

LUGOVOI’S AND KOVTUN’S BACKGROUNDS – A LINK TO THE RUSSIAN STATE?

The entire case of Russian state involvement in the murder of Litvinenko rests on either Lugovoi or Kovtun or preferably both of them being agents of the Russian state – specifically of the FSB.  If neither Lugovoi nor Kovtun are agents of the FSB the whole case for Russian state involvement collapses.

The Judge decided that Lugovoi’s and Kovtun’s backgrounds do show a link between them and the Russian state.

On the contrary, one of the most interesting things that came out of the Inquiry is what unlikely people Lugovoi and Kovtun are to be agents of the FSB, and what unlikely assassins they are for the FSB to employ.

The first and obvious is that there is no evidence – and no suggestion – that either man ever killed anyone before Litvinenko was killed.

Would the FSB send two inexperienced men to carry out a complicated high-profile assassination in a foreign capital?  Doesn’t the FSB have more professional and experienced people to carry out such a complicated killing?

The picture that emerges of Kovtun is of a shiftless character, characterised by his German family as a charming rogue with a fondness for gambling, women and drink.  His only known service for the Russian government was as a soldier in the Soviet army.

Since most Russian men serve in the Russian army nothing can be made of this.

More relevant is the fact Kovtun deserted from the army and fled to West Germany where he claimed asylum – a fact which in itself makes Kovtun a most unlikely person to be an FSB agent.

Life in West Germany was apparently not to Kovtun’s liking and he returned to Russia.  He has followed an erratic career as a sometime businessman ever since.

Though the Judge has nothing to say about it, there is in fact no evidence the FSB ever recruited Kovtun, no information he ever attended any of its special  schools where the FSB trains its operatives, no blank spaces in his life such as might be expected of a secret agent, no information he has ever carried out anything that looks remotely like a secret mission, and nothing to suggest that prior to meeting with Litvinenko he ever killed anyone.

As the Judge rather grudgingly admits, this hardly looks like the profile of a cold-blooded killer – much less of an FSB agent.

Lugovoi is a more impressive character.  He did join the KGB and did rise within its ranks to a senior position in its special protection unit, continuing in that unit after it was separated from the KGB right upon to his eventual retirement in 1996.

Though the Judge does not mention it in his report, it seems that whilst working for this unit Lugovoi provided bodyguard services for various senior Russian politicians.

After leaving the special bodyguard service Lugovoi set up various private security companies providing security and bodyguard services to various high-profile Russian individuals and companies – first and foremost the oligarch Boris Berezovsky.  At some point he seems to have become almost entirely dependent on Berezovsky, providing security services for Berezovsky’s television station ORT.

Lugovoi is now a successful businessman, as well as a member of Russia’s parliament for the opposition Liberal Democratic Party.

Lugovoi has however had no visible connection to the FSB at any time since it was established shortly after the KGB was disbanded in the early 1990s.  Contrary to some reports he has never been formally employed by the FSB.

Any claim Lugovoi was an FSB agent therefore requires him to have been recruited into the organisation or employed by it in a covert way.

There is no evidence of it and is it likely?

The fundamental problem with thinking the FSB might have sought to recruit Lugovoi is that his closest and most visible connections since the 1990s were not with the FSB but with the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, whose relations with the FSB were already very bad whilst Berezovsky was a major figure in the Russian politics in the 1990s (as the Judge notes, Berezovsky with Litvinenko’s support, at one point even accused the FSB of plotting to kill him).

After Berezovsky left Russia in 2000 he became an opponent and critic of the Russian government and of President Putin in particular.

A close associate of Berezovsky’s after this time is not someone one would naturally assume to be an FSB agent.  Lugovoi was such an associate.  The Judge admits Berezovsky continued to think of Lugovoi as his friend right up to the moment when Litvinenko was killed.

It also turns out that Lugovoi not only had a close association with Berezovsky right up to the moment of Litvinenko’s death, but was also convicted by a Russian court shortly after Berezovsky fled Russia of trying to arrange the escape of Nikolai Glushkov, one of Berezovsky’s close associates, from a hospital where he was in pre-trial detention on a fraud charge.  It seems that Lugovoi spent 15 months in prison for the crime.

These facts make it very unlikely Lugovoi was an FSB agent.

The Judge tries to cast doubt on Lugovoi’s prison sentence, citing Glushkov who says he knows nothing about it, and who also says his attempted escape – supposedly arranged by Lugovoi – was an FSB set-up.

Alternatively, the Judge refers to speculation the FSB might have recruited Lugovoi in prison.

In the absence of information from Russia’s prison records the Judge has no grounds to question the hereto publicly acknowledged fact of Lugovoi’s prison sentence.

Glushkov’s evidence anyway is open to challenge.  If he really thought the escape attempt had probably been an FSB set-up why did he not warn Berezovsky about Lugovoi who had arranged it?

It is unlikely Glushkov did warn Berezovsky about Lugovoi.  As the Judge admits, Berezovsky continued to trust Lugovoi right up to the moment when Litvinenko was killed.  Would he have done so if Glushkov had warned him that he was involved with the FSB in setting up a fake escape attempt?

Glushkov is a former friend of Berezovsky’s, is a critic of the Russian government and is a believer in the theory of Russian state involvement In Litvinenko’s murder.  Given that this theory requires Lugovoi to be an FSB agent, that is a good reason to treat with caution his evidence that the escape attempt was a probably fake.

As for Glushkov’s doubts about whether Lugovoi ever went to prison, how would Glushkov know whether Lugovoi had been to prison or not given that he presumably has no access to Russia’s prison records?

As for the suggestion Lugovoi might have been recruited by the FSB whilst in prison, that again is no more than a guess and there is no evidence for it whatsoever.

There is in fact no evidence Lugovoi was ever an FSB agent, and on the face of it, it is very unlikely.

What of the possibility that Lugovoi might have been turned and become an FSB informer?

 

There is no evidence for that either.  The fact Berezovsky continued to trust Lugovoi right up to the moment of Litvinenko’s death argues against it.

Here perhaps it is worth pointing out that if Lugovoi really had been turned he would have been a priceless intelligence asset for the FSB at the heart of Berezovsky’s organisation.

Would the FSB have risked blowing the cover of such an asset by having Lugovoi murder a secondary character like Litvinenko?  If they really had resolved to kill Litvinenko would they not have sought to protect Lugovoi’s cover by employing someone else?

In the absence of any actual evidence Lugovoi was an FSB agent, the Judge was forced to fall back on cliches (“once a KGB man, always a KGB man”), and the fact Lugovoi has frequently appeared on television in Russia, has been elected to parliament, has received a state decoration, and has had a successful business career.

The Judge sees in all this evidence that “Putin backs him”.  Is this however really true?

One of the big problems of the Inquiry is the Judge’s obvious and profound ignorance of Russia, and here we have a good example.

The media in Russia – including the television media – are nowhere near as controlled as the Judge thinks they are.  It is in fact normal for all sorts of people – including opponents of President Putin – to appear on it.

The fact Lugovoi had a known connection to Berezovsky and had served a prison sentence would not have prevented him from having a successful business career in Russia.  Many other associates of Berezovsky still live in Russia and their businesses thrive.

Lugovoi’s expertise in bodyguard services – obtained whilst serving in the KGB – would have made him an obvious person for wealthy Russians seeking such services, and it is not difficult to see why despite his prison term and his connection to Berezovsky his security business might have prospered.

Given Lugovoi’s extraordinary celebrity after the British authorities accused him of murdering Litvinenko with polonium, it is completely understandable the Russian media queued up to interview him.

It is also completely understandable – and entirely unsurprising – that Lugovoi has revelled in the attention, and has cashed in on his celebrity by getting himself elected to parliament and wangling for himself a state decoration.  Russia is hardly the only country where such things happen.

The fact Lugovoi appears so regularly on Russian television, and gives so many unscripted interviews – including to the foreign media – is in fact a strong reason to doubt he is an FSB agent.

Would the FSB really let an agent who has carried out a top secret assassination mission loose to roam freely the television studios and meet the media – including the foreign media – telling them whatever he wants to say?

Would any secret service anywhere in the world allow that sort of behaviour by one of its agents?

There is a circumstantial case Lugovoi and Kovtun murdered Litvinenko.

The case that either man is an FSB agent is in Kovtun’s case non-existent and in Lugovoi’s case threadbare.  The facts if anything argue against it.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that the reason the Judge thinks Lugovoi and Kovtun are FSB agents is not because there is any evidence that they actually are, but because that is the only way the FSB could have been involved in the murder of Litvinenko.

In truth the improbability Lugovoi or Kovtun are FSB agents is so great that – if they really did kill Litvinenko – it is actually a strong reason to doubt the FSB or the Russian state were involved.

THE POLONIUM EVIDENCE – SOURCE OF THE POLONIUM

The single strongest reason up to now for thinking the Russian authorities might have been responsible for Litvinenko’s murder is that he was poisoned with polonium.

The story as it is usually told is that polonium comes exclusively from Russia where it is produced at a single tightly controlled government facility.  It has been claimed it contains a trace element that enables it be traced back to this facility.

It has also been said that polonium is extremely expensive.  The lawyer representing Litvinenko’s widow claimed the cost of the amount used to kill Litvinenko would have run into millions of dollars.

Moreover it has been claimed that the history of Lugovoi’s and Kovtun’s movements in London made it impossible for them to have polonium in their possession unless they brought it with them from Russia.

If all these claims were true then the case for Russian state involvement in Litvinenko’s murder would be compelling.

It turns out that none of them are true.

It seems polonium can be produced – and probably is being produced – in any number of facilities outside Russia.

It turns out that commercially produced polonium contains no trace elements such as would make it possible to identify the facility it comes from – be that facility in Russia or anywhere else.

It turns out polonium is not expensive at all, with a police officer telling the Inquiry that an amount of polonium much greater than the amount used to poison Litvinenko sold in New York for just $20,000.

Lastly the Judge himself decided that there is simply insufficient information about Lugovoi’s and Kovtun’s movements in London to say definitely that they must have brought the polonium with them from Russia and could not have obtained it in London.

All this information demolishes the keystone of the case for Russian state involvement.

It turns out that it was not solely the Russian state that could have provided the polonium to murder Litvinenko.  Anyone with the right contacts and a few thousand dollars to spare could have obtained it.

The Judge’s frustration and disappointment is all too obvious from this truly remarkable comment:

“Although it cannot be said that the polonium 210 with which Mr Litvinenko was poisoned must have come from the Avangard facility in Russia, it certainly could have come from there.”  (Underlining in the original)

Of course in a sense this statement is true.  The polonium could have come from Russia.  It could also however just as well have come from any of the other places where it is being produced.  This comment is neither here nor there and I at this point register my surprise to see a Judge saying it.

Even if the polonium did come from Russia what does that prove?  Given how inexpensive polonium turns out to be there is no reason why it could not have passed through any number of different hands before it poisoned Litvinenko.

The case for Russian state involvement because Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium simply cannot be made, and this part of the case – the part that has attracted the most attention – has collapsed.

The way it has collapsed shows something else.

The polonium evidence collapsed because the Inquiry heard the advice of more than one expert.

One expert – Professor Dombey – was instructed by the supporters of the theory of Russian state involvement.  Unsurprisingly he supported the claim the polonium could only have come from a single closely guarded facility in Russia and could be traced back there.

The other expert – identified only as A1 – flatly contradicted this advice.  Her view is that it is impossible to trace the source of the polonium and that it could have been produced in any one of various facilities around the world.

It is quite clear that A1 – whoever she is – is the more senior scientist, and the Judge was obliged to defer to her.

This gives a glimpse of what might have happened in a proper trial if all the evidence and not just the polonium evidence had been contested in the same way.

MOTIVE – DID THE RUSSIAN STATE HAVE A MOTIVE TO KILL LITVINENKO?

Given the collapse of the polonium evidence, and the lack of any evidence definitely linking Lugovoi or Kovtun to the FSB, the only evidence the Russian authorities were involved in Litvinenko’s murder is that they supposedly were the only party with a motive to kill him.

It is because the case against the Russian authorities ultimately depends on motive that the Judge was only able to say that the Russian authorities were “probably” involved.

This has been widely – and rightly – ridiculed.

However it was the only thing the Judge could say given his determination to say the Russian authorities killed Litvinenko, and the absence of any evidence – apart from motive – to show that they did.

It is in fact impossible to the read the text of the Inquiry report without being struck by the extent to which the Judge has absorbed and internalised the typically negative Western view of Russia.

Thus the Judge refers to the Russian government as “Putin’s regime”.  He calls a book of Litvinenko’s placing responsibility for the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings “well-researched”.  He reels off Litvinenko’s allegations that President Putin is a paedophile, a criminal associate of the Tambov gang, and a heroin smuggler, without comment.  He repeats Litvinenko’s claim the FSB has supplied arms to Al-Qaeda, also without comment.  He casts doubt on the reality of Lugovoi’s prison sentence purely on the strength of the testimony of an accomplice in the crime.  Whilst he admits the claim the Russian government was involved in the murder of various of its opponents has not been proved, he claims nonetheless to see a pattern and says Litvinenko’s murder must be considered in the context of that pattern.

Amazingly, he uses the killing of known or suspected terrorists like the notorious jihadi terrorist Ibn Khattab and the Chechen militant Zelimkhan Yandarbiev to draw inferences about Russian state involvement in the killing of Litvinenko, who was not a terrorist.

As we have seen, he also believes the Russian government tightly controls Russian television and that Lugovoi’s various appearances on Russian television could not have happened without the Russian government’s consent.

In this deeply negative view of Russia he meets his match in Professor Robert Service, the expert the Inquiry consulted about the Russian political scene, who not only shares the Judge’s bleak view of today’s Russia but who actually lends his weight to it.

Professor Service is a historian and well-recognised authority on Soviet history.  However his strongly negative view of contemporary Russian realities is not one everyone would share.  I can think of various equally well-regarded scholars of Russian affairs who might for example take issue with his claims that Litvinenko’s book on the Moscow apartment bombings is “credible” and “well-researched”, that the Russian government has become more secretive since President Putin came to power (for the record I think the opposite), or that Berezovsky’s former associate Alex Goldfarb is a generally reliable witness.

The trouble however is not so much that the Inquiry heard from Professor Service.  It is that on the gigantic subject of the state of politics and society in today’s Russia it didn’t hear from anyone else.

In saying this I should say that I do not know whether the Inquiry solicited alternative opinions about this subject from other people.  Perhaps it did, and perhaps they declined to come.  It is however troubling that on this key issue only one view was heard, and one which moreover is not Russian.

The Judge decided that Litvinenko’s association with Berezovsky, the circumstances of his leaving the FSB (after supposedly exposing an FSB plot to have Berezovsky killed), his opposition activity in London, his two books about the supposedly criminal practices of the FSB – including its alleged role in the Moscow apartment bombings and in arming Al-Qaeda, and his relentless personal attacks on Putin – whom he has variously called a paedophile, a gangster and a heroin smuggler – would have made him a traitor in FSB eyes, and would have given the Russian authorities the motive to kill him.

An alternative and arguably much better informed view, is that Putin has had to put up with an enormous of criticism – much of it highly personal – ever since he became President, both in Russia and outside, and that the wild and wholly unsubstantiated allegations made by Litvinenko together with his well-known connection to Berezovsky meant that scarcely anyone in Russia took Litvinenko seriously until he was killed.

An alternative view might also question whether the FSB really is the vengeful and ruthless organisation the Judge – and apparently Professor Service – think it is.  There are after all any number of former KGB and FSB defectors critical of the Russian government alive and active both in Russia and the West.  One of them actually gave evidence to the Inquiry.

An alternative view might also question the degree to which Litvinenko within the FSB was regarded as a traitor.

Litvinenko’s work for the FSB was crime investigation.  He was – as his family has said – essentially a policeman.  He was not a spy or an intelligence or counter-intelligence officer, and he does not seem to have had access to classified material.  He was not in possession of any information that might compromise Russian security or an intelligence asset.  He was hardly in a position to be a traitor.

The Judge made much of Litvinenko’s role in supposedly exposing an FSB plot to kill Berezovsky.  The Judge appears to think that exposing this plot would have made Litvinenko a traitor in the eyes of his colleagues in the FSB.

Litvinenko was involved in a bizarre rumpus in 1998 when he accused his colleagues in the FSB of plotting to have Berezovsky killed.  Contrary to what the Judge – and some other people – appear to believe, this murder plot was almost certainly an invention of Berezovsky’s intended to discredit the new Primakov government that had just come to power in Russia.

Primakov was a known enemy of Berezovsky’s who made no secret of his wish to have Berezovsky arrested.  He was also a person with a long background in intelligence work who had headed Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, the SVR. It suited Berezovsky’s purposes at the time to play up Primakov’s connections to Russia’s intelligence and security establishment by hinting that Primakov was planning to use to them in order to have him killed.

Though some members of the FSB have subsequently claimed that there was indeed some talk in the organisation of having Berezovsky killed, it is clear that there was no formal order, and the gossip of former operatives should be treated with caution.

The whole episode was farcical and embarrassing, but was hardly unusual in the baroque politics of 1990s Russia.

Though Litvinenko’s involvement would undoubtedly have annoyed many people within the FSB – and led directly to his dismissal – the problem in seeing in it a motive for his murder is that Litvinenko was under the FSB’s control until he eventually left Russia in 2000.  No attempt to murder him was made in that time, and nor was such an attempt in the six years he lived afterwards in Britain.  It is not obvious why if the FSB considered Litvinenko a traitor because of this episode it waited for so long.

It is in fact most unlikely that this episode did cause Litvinenko’s death.  In the end it did no damage to the FSB and by 2006 it was receding into the past and was almost forgotten.

No doubt Litvinenko was unpopular with his former comrades in the FSB, but if they thought him a traitor the facts suggest they can’t have thought him a very important one.

As for the idea the FSB systematically murders opponents of the Russian government, an alternative view might question whether this is true, and might say that the evidence in the trials of the murderers of Sergey Yushenkov and Anna Politkovskaya – whose killings were mentioned by the Judge – does not implicate the Russian authorities, whilst the facts of the death of Yuri Shchekochikhin – whose death was also mentioned by the Judge –  suggest a violent allergic reaction to drugs mistakenly given during medical treatment for a viral infection.

VIKTOR IVANOV AND THE ‘DUE DILIGENCE’ REPORT – THE MOTIVE AT LAST?

Perhaps because of doubts Litvinenko’s public activities really were sufficiently damning to provoke his murder, a theory was floated in December 2006 – shortly after his death – that he was killed in revenge for a Due Diligence report he had provided which was highly critical of Viktor Ivanov, a senior Russian official who now heads Russia’s anti-drugs force.

The theory is that Litvinenko showed or gave the report to Lugovoi who passed it on to Ivanov and the Kremlin, who were in turn so furious they ordered Litvinenko killed.

As with so many other theories that have floated around the Litvinenko case, this theory is exactly that: just a theory with no evidence behind it.

The Inquiry report shows that there is some evidence from some things Litvinenko is reported to have said that he showed or gave the report to Lugovoi, who had helped him with other Due Diligence reports.

There is no evidence however that Lugovoi passed the report on to Ivanov or the Kremlin or told them about it or that they in response ordered Litvinenko killed.

In the end the Judge was reluctant to place much reliance on this theory.  The fact Lugovoi could only have forwarded the report – or news of it – to Ivanov and the Kremlin a few short weeks before Litvinenko was killed – leaving them very little time to arrange Litvinenko’s murder – argues strongly against this theory – a fact the Judge admitted.

Without hearing from Lugovoi or Ivanov this is all just anyway just a line of speculation, and claiming to see in it a motive for the Russian authorities to want Litvinenko killed is unwarranted.

For the record, Viktor Ivanov has categorically denied any role in Litvinenko’s case.  Everything I have heard about him suggests he is telling the truth.

BEREZOVSKY – NO MOTIVE TO KILL LITVINENKO?

What of the Judge’s argument that it must have been the Russian authorities who killed Litvinenko because only they – and no one else – had any motive for wanting him killed.

The short answer to that is that though the Judge argues otherwise, the facts show if anything an over-abundance of motive on the part of lots of other people to want to have Litvinenko killed.

Though the Judge tries to downplay the fact, it is clear for example that Litvinenko and Berezovsky had a major quarrel shortly before Litvinenko was killed.

There is some dispute about what this quarrel was about – despite what some of the witnesses said it was probably about money – but that the quarrel happened is beyond doubt.

The Judge tries to get round this by saying that Berezovsky and Litvinenko had patched up their quarrel before Litvinenko was killed.

Possibly, but the evidence for that is hardly compelling.  Besides might not Berezovsky – if he had decided to have Lugovoi killed – want to appear to have made up with him, if only to give himself an alibi and to draw attention away from himself?

Here it is worth saying that though the Judge – backed by Professor Service – apparently believes the FSB routinely murders people, and that Lugovoi is an FSB agent, the evidence that Berezovsky was involved in political killings and that Lugovoi – the presumed assassin – was his agent, is actually far more compelling.

Berezovsky for example admitted financing elements of the Chechen insurgency against the Russian government, whilst Lugovoi’s long and close association with Berezovsky is a matter of public record.

BLACKMAIL

Then there is the well-substantiated fact that in the months before his death Litvinenko was talking about blackmailing people.

This evidence of this was provided by Dr. Yulia Svetlichnaya, a postgraduate student at Westminster University, who interviewed Litvinenko no fewer than 6 times before he was killed.  She says that during these meetings Litvinenko harped on continuously about the blackmail he was going to carry out.

This evidence provides a good example of the way in which investigation of Litvinenko’s murder has been thrown off-course by the obsession with Russian state involvement.

Though Dr. Svetlichnaya’s evidence has been known about since just after Litvinenko’s death, her evidence has been largely ignored, with some casting doubt on the truth of it.

The Inquiry report shows that Dr. Svetlichnaya was closely questioned by the Inquiry, and it is clear from the report that she came through the cross-examination well.  The Judge never casts doubt on her truthfulness, and there is no reason to doubt therefore that her story is true.

We know therefore that in the months leading up to his death Litvinenko was talking about blackmailing someone.

Unlike the nebulous claims of motive that have been made against the Russian authorities, blackmail is a classic motive for murder.  If one chooses to use motive as a guide to the solution of a murder, then the obvious thing to do in Litvinenko’s case would be to try to identify the person or persons he was blackmailing or intending to blackmail.

The obsession with the issue of Russian state involvement means this has not been done.

The Judge in the end decided that Dr. Svetlichnaya’s evidence is irrelevant since Litvinenko’s talk of blackmail cannot explain his murder.  The reason the Judge gave for this is that Litvinenko’s words show he never put his threat to blackmail someone into practice.

The Judge also rejected the theory the person Litvinenko was intending to blackmail was Berezovsky on the grounds that Litvinenko gave the impression that more than one person was involved and that those persons had some connection to the Kremlin, which Berezovsky at the time did not.

Again it is very easy to construct contrary arguments.

Would Litvinenko really tell Dr. Svetlichnaya that he was actually blackmailing someone – as opposed to just intending to do so?  It is already astonishing that he told Dr. Svetlichnaya that he was intending to blackmail someone.  Would he have taken her so far into his confidence as to tell her he was actually doing it?

The Judge said that at the time he was killed Litvinenko was looking for alternative sources of income following a reduction of the funds he was getting from Berezovsky.  Might that not give him a motive to blackmail someone?  Might that not mean he was actually doing it?

As for Berezovsky, given that it was Berezovsky who had put Dr. Svetlichnaya in touch with him, would Litvinenko have told her it was Berezovsky he was blackmailing?  Might he not have tried to disguise the fact it was Berezovsky he was blackmailing by hinting that he was blackmailing more than one person?

As for Berezovsky having no connection to the Kremlin, a book was published which called him “The Godfather of the Kremlin” (its author – the US journalist Paul Khlebnikov – was subsequently killed).

As it happens, if one wants to construct a theory it was Berezovsky Litvinenko was blackmailing, the timing of some of the events in the last months of Litvinenko’s life might actually support it.

Litvinenko appears to have first told Dr. Svetlichnaya that he intended to blackmail someone in April 2006.  At some point that spring or summer he had a major row with Berezovsky.  Might that have been because he was blackmailing Berezovsky – as he might have been hinting to Dr. Svetlichnaya that he was?

OTHER POSSIBLE SUSPECTS

Alternatively, if it was not Berezovsky Litvinenko was blackmailing, he might have been blackmailing any number of other people, any one of whom might have wanted him killed.  Litvinenko’s previous work as a policeman might have given him knowledge about all sorts of people he might try to blackmail.

One possibility is the now destroyed Tambov gang in St. Petersburg, whose activities Litvinenko had investigated in the 1990s.  If he was trying to blackmail them then their reputation suggests they would not have hesitated to kill him.

In 2004 – two years before Litvinenko was killed – a St. Petersburg businessman called Roman Tsepov with a shady reputation and alleged links to organised crime died suddenly showing symptoms that seem suspiciously like polonium poisoning.  As in Litvinenko’s case Tsepov’s postmortem found he had died from poisoning by a radioactive material, which might have been polonium.

Contrary to claims that are sometimes made Tsepov was not close to Putin, and there is no reason to think the Russian authorities killed him.  Though Tsepov’s case has never been solved, it seems likely he was killed by some of his criminal associates in St. Petersburg.

If Tsepov was killed with polonium, then that might suggest polonium poisoning was a favoured method for eliminating enemies in the mid 2000s in the underworld in St. Petersburg, the city where the Tambov gang was based.  That might connect Litvinenko’s murder to St. Petersburg and to his previous work there.

The Judge also mentioned work Litvinenko carried out – or was in the process of carrying out – preparing Due Diligence reports that touched on individuals like the alleged Russian gangster Semion Mogilevich (an individual also without links to Putin despite numerous claims to the contrary).  On the eve of his death Litvinenko was also helping the British and Spanish authorities investigate various Russian gangsters or alleged gangsters in Spain.

The Judge doubts these people could have known anything about this work because none of the people Litvinenko was working for would have leaked it to them.

The obvious answer to that is that of course they would have known about it if Litvinenko had told them about it because he was blackmailing them.

Then there is the Chechen connection.  As the Judge himself admits Litvinenko had got very close to the Chechen independence movement, which he was actively supporting for some years before his death.  Supposedly he even converted to Islam just before he died.

The Chechens have a reputation for ruthless action against people they fall out with.  If Litvinenko was unwise enough to try to blackmail them – or betray them in some other way – then it is not difficult to believe they might have taken steps to put him out of the way.

Last but not least there is Lugovoi himself.

The Judge dismissed the possibility that Lugovoi – the presumed killer – might have been acting on his own behalf, saying Lugovoi had no possible motive to kill Litvinenko.

Again it is difficult to understand how the Judge can be so sure.

Lugovoi has a long history of close association with Litvinenko, who would have presumably known a great deal about him.  Lugovoi’s background is shady and he has a criminal past.  He has a record of providing bodyguard services to senior Russian politicians so to say he is connected to the Kremlin might not be too much of a stretch. Lastly, at the time of Litvinenko’s death he was a successful businessman and a wealthy man.

On the face of it Lugovoi seems to fit rather well the profile of the persons Litvinenko told Dr. Svetlichnaya he was blackmailing.

Lugovoi’s trips to London to meet with Litvinenko might in that case have been to discuss the blackmail.  If so that might explain why he brought his trusted friend and sidekick Kovtun with him – to support him in the meetings with Litvinenko where they discussed the blackmail.

The Judge was baffled at what went on at the various meetings Lugovoi and Litvinenko had together – many of which appear to have been rather aimless.  He also questioned the reasons for Kovtun’s trips to London.

If Litvinenko was blackmailing Lugovoi at these meetings that might explain why they happened and why there is so little information about them and why Kovtun was coming to London and attending some of these meetings.

As it happens Lugovoi’s meetings with Litvinenko in London do have the look of a negotiation about them.  If Lugovoi was not being blackmailed at these meetings, then it is not impossible he was acting as the representative of someone else who was.

If Lugovoi was being blackmailed by Litvinenko, then his wealth and security connections might have made it possible for him to get hold of the polonium he needed to get Litvinenko out of the way.  If he was representing someone else, then presumably that person could have obtained it.

All this of course is sheer speculation.  How is it more so however than the speculation the Judge has himself indulged in to prove Russian state involvement?

As speculation goes, I would suggest that any one of my speculations is altogether more plausible than the Judge’s speculations that Litvinenko was killed because he said some bad things about Putin and the FSB – things which were said and repeated by lots of other people many other times both in Russia and elsewhere before Litvinenko was killed.

I do not know whether Litvinenko was blackmailing anyone, or if he was blackmailing someone whether the person or persons he was blackmailing were any of the persons I have mentioned.

Perhaps Litvinenko was killed for some completely different reason unconnected to blackmail at the behest of somebody whose identity is completely unknown.

The point is that the Judge was wrong to say only the Russian authorities had a possible motive for Litvinenko’s murder, just as he was wrong to use motive as a means to identify his killer.

Motive can only be used safely as a guide to the identity of the killer in very straightforward cases.  As should by now be obvious, this is not a straightforward case.

SHOULD THE RUSSIANS HAVE COOPERATED WITH THE INQUIRY DESPITE ITS FLAWS?

All this begs the question whether anything could have been done to make the outcome of the Inquiry different?

Throughout the Inquiry report the Judge repeatedly laments Lugovoi’s, Kovtun’s and the Russian authorities’ refusal to participate in the Inquiry.  Might the outcome have been different if they had participated as the Judge says he wanted them to?

Unfortunately the short answer is almost certainly no.  If Lugovoi, Kovtun and the Russian authorities had been present, they might have been able to challenge the evidence.  It is well-nigh impossible however to believe they would have changed the outcome.

The US journalist William Dunkerley has described Sir Robert Owen – the Judge in the case – as a “man with a mission” and in the light of how he conducted the Inquiry it is impossible to disagree.

The mission the Judge set himself – obvious to anyone observing him from the moment he was first appointed coroner – was to do, as he saw it, justice to Litvinenko’s widow by exposing the murderers of her husband – who it is quite clear he always believed were the Russian authorities acting through Lugovoi and Kovtun.

The Judge has pursued this objective with a single-mindedness worthy of a better cause, despite the British government’s attempts to rein him him.

It was the Judge – not the British government – who decided to convert what was originally an Inquest into a Public Inquiry, and who then converted the Public Inquiry into what amounts to a trial.

It was the Judge – not the British government – who insisted on looking at the secret evidence – denying it to Lugovoi, Kovtun and the Russians – in order to help him decide that they were guilty.

I have already spoken of the extent to which his report shows the Judge has internalised the typically bleak Western view of Russia.

What is perhaps even more striking is his extreme partiality towards anyone who believes in the theory of Russian state involvement.

Thus the extraordinary action of presenting a concocted death-bed statement to a dying man goes by without censure.  The evidence of people like Goldfarb, Glushkov and Shvets is accepted uncritically and called reliable despite their obvious interest as opponents of the Russian government in a finding that the Russian state was responsible for Litvinenko’s death.

Theories about Litvinenko’s and Lugovoi’s state of mind coming from these people are eagerly seized on when they offer ways out of evidential difficulties that stand in the way of what the Judge believe is the truth.  Even Berezovsky – a person whom the Judge admits Mrs. Justice Gloster in the High Court found had no regard for truth – receives posthumous recognition as a reliable witness.

As for Litvinenko himself, he can do no wrong.

His history of moonlighting for Berezovsky whilst working for the FSB, his bizarre claims that Putin is a paedophile, a heroin smuggler and a gangster, his peculiar death-bed conversion to Islam, and his repeatedly stated intentions to blackmail people (explained away as just wild talk) count for nothing.

In the Judge’s eyes he is a truth-teller (his book on the subject of the Moscow apartment bombings is “not just a political tract” but is “well-researched”), a man “remarkable for his devotion to his adopted country” (ie. Britain) and someone who the Judge clearly thinks is a fearless fighter against crime and tyranny who has paid a fearsome price for his ideals.

The Judge even repeats with seeming approval the claim of a witness that Litvinenko was not financially acquisitive – a comment which in light of Litvinenko’s longstanding association with Berezovsky would in Russia raise a hollow laugh.

Given such opinions it is completely understandable that Lugovoi, Kovtun and the Russian authorities decided to have nothing to do with the Inquiry fearing that their presence would simply legitimise a process that was fundamentally flawed and which was predestined to find them guilty.

THE WAY FORWARD FROM HERE?

Since the Inquiry is not a court there is no appeal against its findings.

Lugovoi and Kovtun might conceivably try to get the European Court of Human Rights to set the findings of the Inquiry aside on the grounds that the Inquiry has violated the presumption of innocence and was conducted in a way that has violated their rights to a fair trial.

The problems involved in doing that seem to me overwhelming, and if I was them I wouldn’t bother.

Having said that one should not overstate the political importance of what has happened.

Far from welcoming the Inquiry’s report the British government is deeply embarrassed by it, as the tepid tone of the statement from Home Secretary Theresa May purporting to welcome it shows.

Though there has been a predictable flood of angry commentary in the British and US media, the only action the British government has taken is to protest to the Russian ambassador, and to impose asset freezes on Lugovoi’s and Kovtun’s non-existent assets in Britain.

As for the British public – now hardened by US and British drone attacks to state sponsored killings – the Litvinenko affair is for them simply a real life James Bond story.  It has if anything enhanced their cynical but nonetheless real respect for Putin and Russia as a man and a country not to be trifled with.

The Russian government for its part has simply shrugged its shoulders at an outcome it always expected.

That does not mean that the Litvinenko affair is entirely without significance.

What it has revealed – not for the first time – is the pathological Russophobia of a large part of the British establishment – including not just the media and the political class but as it turns out a part of the British judiciary and legal establishment, which has willingly set aside some of its most cherished principles in order to find Russia guilty of the murder of a single man.

It is in fact the British legal system which has come out worst from this affair.

As for who murdered Litvinenko, I am fairly sure the Russian authorities by now know the truth, though I doubt the British authorities do.

One day we may find out from the Russian archives what the truth is.  I suspect that will be a long time in the future, when it will only be of interest to historians.

Until then the only thing we can say with reasonable confidence is that the Russian authorities almost certainly had nothing to do with Litvinenko’s murder, even if Lugovoi and possibly Kovtun perhaps did.

That is not perhaps a very satisfactory conclusion to this case, but it is the most we can say as we finally draw down the curtain on the whole affair.

Alexander Mercouris is a writer on international affairs with a special interest in Russia and law. He has written extensively on the legal aspects of NSA spying and events in Ukraine in terms of human rights, constitutionality and international law. He worked for 12 years in the Royal Courts of Justice in London as a lawyer, specializing in human rights and constitutional law. [This story originally appeared at Russia Insider.]




The Iraq War’s Known Unknowns

Exclusive: In September 2002, as the Bush-43 administration was rolling out its ad campaign for invading Iraq because of alleged WMD, the Joint Chiefs of Staff received a briefing about the paucity of WMD evidence. But the report was shelved and the war went on, as ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern explains.

By Ray McGovern

There is a lot more than meets the eye in the newly revealed Joint Chiefs of Staff intelligence briefing of Sept. 5, 2002, which showed there was a lack of evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) just as President George W. Bush’s administration was launching its sales job for the Iraq War.

The briefing report and its quick demise amount to an indictment not only of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld but also of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Richard Myers, who is exposed once again as a Rumsfeld patsy who put politics ahead of his responsibility to American soldiers and to the nation as a whole.

In a Jan. 24 report at Politico entitled “What Donald Rumsfeld Knew We Didn’t Know About Iraq,” journalist John Walcott presents a wealth of detail about the JCS intelligence report of Sept. 5, 2002, offering additional corroboration that the Bush administration lied to the American people about the evidence of WMD in Iraq.

The JCS briefing noted, for example: “Our knowledge of the Iraqi (nuclear) weapons program is based largely perhaps 90% on analysis of imprecise intelligence.”

Small wonder that the briefing report was dead on arrival in Rumsfeld’s in-box. After all, it proved that the intelligence evidence justifying war was, in Rumsfeldian terms, a “known unknown.” When he received it on Sept. 5 or 6, the Defense Secretary deep-sixed it but not before sending it on Sept. 9 to Gen. Richard Myers (who he already knew had a copy) with a transparently disingenuous CYA note: “Please take a look at this material as to what we don’t know about WMD. It is big. Thanks.”

Absent was any notation such as “I guess we should tell the White House to call off its pro-war sales campaign based on Iraq possessing WMD since we don’t got the goods.” Without such a direct instruction, Rumsfeld could be sure that Gen. Myers would not take the matter further.

Myers had already proven his “company man” mettle by scotching a legal inquiry that he had just authorized to provide the armed forces with guidance on permitted interrogation techniques. All that it took to ensure a hasty Myers retreat was a verbal slap-down from Rumsfeld’s general counsel, William James Haynes II, as soon as Haynes got wind of the inquiry in November 2002. (More on that below.)

The more interesting story, in my view, is not that Rumsfeld was corrupt (yawn, yawn), but that so was his patsy, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, the country’s top uniformed military officer at the time. Myers has sported a well-worn coat of blue Teflon up until now.

Even John Walcott, a member of the Knight-Ridder team that did the most responsible pre-Iraq-War reporting, lets the hapless Myers too easily off the hook in writing: “Myers, who knew as well as anyone the significance of the report, did not distribute it beyond his immediate military colleagues and civilian boss, which a former aide said was consistent with the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.”

Principal Military Adviser to the President

That “former aide” is dead wrong on the last point, and this is key. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs works directly for two bosses: the President of the United States, whom he serves as the principal military adviser, and the Secretary of Defense. The JCS Chairman has the statutory authority indeed, the duty to seek direct access to the President to advise him in such circumstances, bearing on war or peace.

Indeed, in his 2009 memoir, Eyes on the Horizon, Gen. Myers himself writes, “I was legally obligated to provide the President my best military advice, not the best advice as approved by the Secretary of Defense.”

But in reality, Myers wouldn’t and he didn’t. And that quite simply is why Rumsfeld picked him and others like him for leading supporting roles in the Pentagon. And so the Iraq War came and, with it, catastrophe for the Middle East (with related disorder now spreading into Europe).

Could Gen. Myers have headed off the war had he had the courage to assert his prerogative to go directly to President Bush and tell him the truth? Sad to say, with Bush onboard as an eager “war president” and with Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld intimidating the timid Secretary of State Colin Powell and with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director George Tenet fully compliant, it is not likely that Myers could have put the brakes on the rush to invade Iraq simply by appealing to the President.

After all, the JCS briefing coincided with the start of the big sales pitch for the Iraq War based on alarming claims about Iraq possessing WMD and possibly developing a nuclear bomb. As White House chief of staff Andrew Card explained the September timing of the ad campaign, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.”

Just three days after the date of the JCS intelligence report depicting the shallowness of the intelligence on the issue of WMD in Iraq, the White House, with the help of The New York Times and other “mainstream media,” launched a major propaganda offensive.

On Sept. 8, 2002, a New York Times front-pager headlined “US Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts” by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon got the juggernaut rolling downhill to war. Their piece featured some aluminum tubes that they mistakenly thought could be used only for nuclear centrifuges (when they were actually for conventional artillery). Iraq’s provocative behavior, wrote the Times, has “brought Iraq and the United States to the brink of war.”

Or as NSC Advisor Rice summed it up on the Sunday talk shows later that day, “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

But it was clear the fix was in even earlier. The British “Downing Street Minutes” of July 23, 2002, show that Tenet told his British counterpart, Richard Dearlove, that as Dearlove described the message to Prime Minister Tony Blair that “Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

However, despite the obstacles, Richard Myers, like so many of us, took a solemn oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. For many of us who wore the uniform and took “duty, honor, country” seriously, it is hard to give Myers a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to blame for the Iraq War.

No matter the odds against success, his duty was to go directly to the President and make the case. If he was rebuffed, he should have quit and gone public, in my view. (How long has it been since anyone of high rank has quit on principle?)

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs quitting over plans for an unnecessary war? Not even The New York Times and The Washington Post as fully in the tank as they were for the Iraq War would have been able to suppress that story in 2002. And, had Myers gone public he might have succeeded in injecting slippery grease under the rollout of Card’s “new product.”

Imagine what might have happened had Myers gone public at that point. It is all too easy to assume that Bush and Cheney would have gotten their war anyway. But who can tell for sure? Sometimes it takes just one senior official with integrity to spark a hemorrhage of honesty. However the outcome would have turned out at least Myers would been spared the pain of looking into the mirror every morning and thinking back on what might have been.

A Modern Rumsfeld General

This was not the first time that Myers, who served as JCS chairman from 2001 to 2005, was derelict in duty by playing the toady. He had acquiesced in Bush’s and Rumsfeld’s approval of torture in February 2002, even before going along with a gross violation of international law launching the attack on Iraq absent any imminent threat and without the required approval by the UN Security Council.

On torture, the seldom mentioned smoking gun was a two-page executive memorandum signed by George W. Bush on Feb. 7, 2002, in which the President declared that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions did not apply to Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees. Instead, they would be treated “humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva,” the memo said, using vague and permissive language that, in effect, opened the door to torture and other abuses. Gen. Myers was one of eight addressees.

On May 11, 2009 Myers was in Washington peddling his memoir Eyes on the Horizon and spoke at a Harvard Business School Alumni dinner. I seldom go to such affairs, but in this case I was glad I had paid my dues, for here was a unique opportunity to quiz Myers. I began by thanking him for acknowledging in his book “the Geneva Conventions were a fundamental part of our military culture.” Then I asked what he had done when he received Bush’s Feb. 7, 2002 memorandum unilaterally creating exceptions to Geneva.

“Just read my book,” Myers said. I told him I had, and cited a couple of sentences from my copy: “You write that you told a senior Pentagon official, Douglas Feith, ‘I feel very strongly about this. And if Rumsfeld doesn’t defend the Geneva Conventions, I’ll contradict him in front of the President.’ Did you?”

Myers claimed that he had fought the good fight before the President decided. But there was no tinge of regret. The sense the general left with us was this: if the President wanted to bend Geneva out of shape, what was a mere Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to do?

Pushing my luck, I noted that a Senate Armed Services Committee report, “Inquiry Into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody,” had been issued just two weeks earlier (on April 23, 2009). It found that Myers had abruptly aborted an in-depth legal review of interrogation techniques that all four armed services had urgently requested and that he authorized in the fall of 2002. They were eager to get an authoritative ruling on the lawfulness of various interrogation techniques some of which were already being used at Guantanamo.

Accordingly, Myers’s legal counsel, Navy Captain Jane Dalton, had directed her staff to initiate a thorough legal and policy review of interrogation techniques. It had just gotten under way in November 2002 when Rumsfeld’s general counsel, William James Haynes II, ordered Myers to stop the review.

Haynes “wanted to keep it much more close-hold,” Dalton told the Senate committee, so she ordered her staff to stop the legal analysis. She testified that this was the only time in her career that she had been asked to stop working on a request that came to her for review.

I asked Gen. Myers why he halted the in-depth legal review. “I stopped the broad review,” Myers replied, “but I asked Dalton to do her personal review and keep me advised.” When Senate committee members asked him about stopping the review, Myers could not remember.

On Nov. 27, 2002, shortly after Haynes told Myers to stop Dalton’s review despite persisting legal concerns in the military services Haynes sent Rumsfeld a one-page memo recommending that he approve all but three of 18 techniques requested by the interrogators in Guantanamo.

Techniques like stress positions, nudity, exploitation of phobias (like fear of dogs), deprivation of light, and auditory stimuli were all recommended for approval. On Dec. 2, 2002, Rumsfeld signed Haynes’s recommendation, adding a handwritten note referring to the use of stress positions: “I stand for 8-10 hours a day.  Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”

A Different JCS Chairman

Other JCS chairmen have not been as compliant as Myers was. For instance, a decade after Myers acceded to Bush’s rush to war in Iraq, JSC Chairman Martin Dempsey smelled a rat when Secretary of State John Kerry along with neocons, liberal hawks and the mainstream media rushed toward full-scale war on Syria by pinning the blame on President Bashar al-Assad for the fatal sarin gas attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013.

Comparisons can be invidious, but Dempsey is bright, principled, and no one’s patsy. It did not take him long to realize that another “regime change” scheme was in play with plans to get the U.S. directly involved in a shooting war with Syria. As more intelligence came in, the sarin attack increasingly looked like a false-flag attack carried out by radical jihadists to draw the U.S. military in on their side.

This new war could have started by syllogism: (a) get President Barack Obama to draw a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria; (b) stage a chemical attack that would be quickly blamed on Assad for violating the red line; and (c) mousetrapping Obama into making good on his threat of “enormous consequences.”

That Obama pulled back at the last minute was a shock to those who felt sure they had found a way to destroy the Syrian army and clear the way for Assad’s violent removal even if the result would have been a likely victory for Al Qaeda and/or the Islamic State. After all, neocon/liberal-hawk thinking has long favored “regime change” whatever the consequences, as the wars in Iraq and Libya have demonstrated.

But Gen. Dempsey became a fly in the regime-changers’ ointment. In contrast to Myers, Dempsey apparently saw the need to go directly to the President to head off another unnecessary war. The evidence suggests that this is precisely what he did and that he probably bypassed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in the process since time was of the essence.

Dempsey had already told Congress that a major attack on Syria should require congressional authorization and he was aware that the “evidence” adduced to implicate the Syrian government was shaky at best. Besides, according to investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, British intelligence told the JCS that they had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the Aug. 21 attack and it did not match the sarin known to be in Syrian army stocks.

Actually, it is no secret that Dempsey helped change President Obama’s mind between when Kerry spoke on the afternoon of Aug. 30, accusing Damascus of responsibility and all but promising an imminent U.S. attack on Syria, and when Obama announced less than a day later that he would not attack but rather would seek authorization from Congress.

On the early afternoon of Aug. 31, Obama was unusually explicit in citing Dempsey as indicating why there was no need to rush into another war. Obama said, “the [JCS] Chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive: it will be effective tomorrow, next week, or one month from now.”

The failure to stampede Obama and the U.S. military into a bombing campaign against Syria was a major defeat for those who wanted another shot at a Mideast “regime change,” primarily the neocons and their “liberal interventionist” allies who still hold sway inside the State Department as well as Washington’s top think tanks and the mainstream U.S. news media not to mention the Israelis, Saudis, Turks and others who insist that “Assad must go.”

Not surprisingly, on Sept. 1, 2013, as the plans to bomb, bomb, bomb Syria were shoved into a drawer at the Pentagon, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham were in high dudgeon particularly at Dempsey’s audacity in putting the kibosh on their clearly expressed desire to attack Syria post-haste.

(By happenstance, I was given a personal window into the widespread distress over the outbreak of peace, when I found myself sharing a “green room” with some of the most senior neocons at CNN’s main studio in Washington. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “How War on Syria Lost Its Way.”])

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing ministry of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He served as an Army infantry/intelligence officer in the Sixties and then for 27 years as a CIA analyst. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).




Betting on the Wall Street Crash

Exclusive: The 2008 Wall Street crash resulted from a combination of unrestrained greed and political contempt for government regulators who might have prevented the devastation. In The Big Short, the tale is told from the perspective of a few players who saw the inevitable and made money on the crash, writes James DiEugenio.

By James DiEugenio

If you read Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short or see the movie by the same name, you won’t find much about how the financial crisis of 2008 was set in motion more than two decades earlier. You won’t learn much about the roles of Ronald Reagan and his disdain for big government or about Bill Clinton’s faith in neo-liberalism, trusting that the modern markets and the supposedly sophisticated investors would keep excesses in check.

Nor will you find much about economist-turned-politician Phil Gramm who incorporated many of Reagan’s and Clinton’s beliefs into legislative actions, slashing taxes on the rich in the 1980s (and thus incentivizing greed) and, in the 1990s, brushing aside Franklin Roosevelt’s painfully learned lessons from the Great Depression about the need for firewalls between the speculation of Wall Street and the hard-earned savings of Main Street.

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Also out of Lewis’s narrative frame is Brooksley Born, the federal commodities regulator who foresaw the looming danger from the exotic new financial instruments that sliced and diced risky subprime mortgages and packaged them in bonds with ratings far above what they deserved and the even riskier tendency to lay bets on how the bonds would perform.

But Born was out-muscled by bigger financial stars with larger egos, the esteemed Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan (originally a Reagan appointee) and Clinton’s brash Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, a rising star in the neo-liberal establishment which treated the market’s “invisible hand” as a new-age god.

Michael Lewis’s Treatment

These names and that background are not mentioned because Michael Lewis did not write The Big Short as an overview of the economic meltdown. It is not remotely a historical chronicle of the crisis. Lewis chose to write about six characters who were not on the main stage of the crisis. But each knew that Brooksley Born’s grim prophecies would be fulfilled and they devised a scheme for profiting from the collapse.

They figured out that buying credit default swaps one of Wall Street’s new financial instruments and betting against subprime loans was a very good wager. In fact, the more they examined it, the more they thought it was a sure thing. It was not a matter of if the housing market would collapse, but precisely when it would fail.

That latter point created a concern for them: When the market collapsed, would the investment banks still be around to let them collect on their wagers?

Lewis’s book has two main protagonists, one on each coast. The one in New York City is named Steve Eisman, a hedge fund manager whose firm was housed at Morgan Stanley on Wall Street. The other was Michael Burry, who ran a private investment firm in Cupertino, California, called Scion Capital.

There are four supporting characters: Greg Lippmann, a trader at Deutsche Bank who accidentally gets in contact with Eisman and sells him on the idea of betting against the housing market; a Berkeley, California contingent made up of two young and relatively inexperienced investors, Charlie Lealey and Jamie Mai, who run their own investment company called Cornwall Capital; and a retired veteran of Wall Street named Ben Hockett.

Although this choice of a cast seems random, it really was not because, as Lewis notes in his book, there was a small group of people who understood what was happening as early as 2005. They were not famous at the time, neither were they well established as towering Wall Street figures, but they had taken the time to really examine what was going on with derivatives and CDO’s. And none of them liked what they saw.

As Burry told New York Magazine, he felt like he was watching a plane crash. On the last night of 2007, New Year’s Eve, he e-mailed his wife and said he was so filled with dread he couldn’t come home. He would spoil their holiday.

Weaving a Narrative  

Lewis skillfully weaves the differing strands of the book largely through the eyes and ears of these six men, but stays away from what is going on at the top levels of Wall Street finance. Lewis apparently felt the view was more informative and dramatic from the ground up.

As the narrative unfolds, a friend of Lealey who worked at Deutsch Bank sends him a presentation that Lippmann had made, saying that the mortgages in the lower-level tranches were almost worthless and it would be profitable to bet against them with credit default swaps.

Lealey thought to himself, “How can this even be possible. Why isn’t someone smarter than us doing this.” [Lewis, e-book version, p. 108]

Another link between the characters was their attendance at the American Securitization Forum in Las Vegas in January 2007, a giant convention of 7,000 subprime lenders and managers of mortgage-backed securities. [ibid, p. 150]

Lippmann invited Eisman there so Eisman could fully understand the people he was betting against. Hockett, Lealey and Mai were there to conclude a deal for the purchase of large amounts of credit default swaps from Bear Stearns (another investment bank that would soon capsize). It is here that Lewis created two memorable scenes.

The first was when Eisman met a manager of mortgage-backed securities, a man named Wing Chau, who explained to Eisman that he sold not just double-A and triple-A backed mortgage bonds, but something else called a CDO, the acronym for collateralized debt obligation. As Wing Chau explained, these were bonds made up of lower-rated mortgage securities, ones that did not sell the first time around. Or as Eisman put it, “The equivalent of three levels of dog shit lower than the original bonds.” [Lewis, p. 139]

Insuring the Collapse

The insurance giant American International Group (AIG) had been the main buyer of these bonds up to the beginning of 2006. (AIG would later be bailed out by the government to the tune of $180 billion.) But when Frank Cassano of AIG’s London office finally got out of the market, smaller brokers like Harding Advisory’s Wing Chau took his place. Chau managed $15 billion worth of CDO’s, with a large amount placed with Merrill Lynch [ibid, pgs. 140-41]

Chau then explained to Eisman something called the synthetic CDO, a creation made out of all the side bets on the original bonds, i.e. those betting the bonds would fail or succeed. As Eisman put it, “They weren’t satisfied getting lots of unqualified borrowers to borrow money to buy a house they couldn’t afford. They were creating them out of whole cloth. One hundred times overI was like: This is allowed?” [ibid, p. 143]

Eisman wondered who was looking out for the investors? Did they know what was in those bonds? He concluded that Chau didn’t really care. After all, a few years earlier, Chau had been making $140,000  a year managing a portfolio for New York Life. In 2006, he would make $26 million. [ibid, p. 141]

The second memorable scene took place in Las Vegas at a talk given in an auditorium by the CEO of a company called Option One, which had had some problems the previous year due to its investment in subprime loans. He assured the audience that was a thing of the past. In the future, he expected no more than a 5 percent default rate on the loans in their portfolio.

Eisman asked the man if that figure was a possibility or a probability. The reply was that it was a probability, to which Eisman raised his hand and made a circle with his thumb and index finger. The CEO asked if he had another question. Eisman said, “No, it’s a zero. There is zero probability that your default rate will be five percent.” Eisman figured it would be much higher. [ibid, p. 153]

After this conference, Eisman decided to bet against the housing market in a big way, realizing that the market was based on a collective illusion. Or as one of the traders on his team declared, “That was the moment when we said, ‘Holy shit, this isn’t just credit.  This is a fictitious Ponzi scheme.’” [ibid, p. 157]

Brad Pitt’s Interest

Brad Pitt had purchased another Michael Lewis book called Moneyball, which he had starred in and produced as a movie. Therefore, Pitt had the inside track on making a film of The Big Short. But as Pitt told New York Magazine, “the plain truth of it all is that these kinds of movies are hard to make. The studios don’t want to make them because it doesn’t fit the business model anymore.” [11/29/15]

So to give the film marquee value, Pitt had to sign on to play Hockett, and that in turn attracted Christian Bale to play Burry, Steve Carell to play Eisman, and Ryan Gosling to play Lippmann (although the last two characters have their names changed in the film.) With that many big stars, the picture was sure to be made.

But the most surprising thing about the film is that the major force behind its success as a movie is Adam McKay, who co-wrote the script with Charles Randolph and directed the film. McKay started with the famous improv group Second City in Chicago and then became a writer for Saturday Night Live. McKay accompanied SNL star Will Farrell to Hollywood and directed films like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys. With The Big Short, McKay’s direction and writing summoned up the best of his past career in comedy.

Not since the heyday of British director Richard Lester in the 1960s and 1970s have I seen such daring inventiveness in a comedy film. Frequently, McKay will have an actor talk directly to the audience. Indeed, half the main cast breaks the so-called Fourth Wall.

In a scene in the lobby of a huge bank, the actors who play Lealey and Mai address the audience. After their meeting with the bank representative ends, they pick up Lippmann’s presentation off a table and tell the audience that in real life, that isn’t the way it happened. Someone actually mailed them the presentation. Surprisingly, it works and doesn’t break the flow of the film, perhaps because the matters we are viewing are so absurd to begin with.

But McKay goes beyond that. Realizing that some of the terms he is using in the film, like CDS or “credit default swap,” are not easy for the audience to assimilate quickly, he will have the narrator, Gosling, cut in on the soundtrack and announce that some celebrity who is not playing a role in the film will now explain what this term means.

Explaining the Complexities

The first time its actress Margaret Robbie talking to us from an indoor pool loaded with bubble bath as she drinks champagne. The second time, from a restaurant kitchen, master chef Anthony Bourdain explains a CDO or “collateralized debt obligation” in terms of putting together a stew from leftovers.

The third time, it’s economist Richard Thaler and singer-actress Selena Gomez at a craps table with hundreds of extras behind them, explaining what a synthetic CDO is.

Another reason these scenes worked is because McKay and his editor Hank Corwin have spliced in quick montages showing rappers, dancers, sometimes bag people sitting under a bridge or living in a tent colony. This gives ballast to the “real life” demonstrations of these concepts that caused tent colonies and other depredations to happen. It also gives the film a fast-paced, almost headlong tempo with the specter of surprise lurking ahead.

But the film needed an anchor because although it’s amusing and sometimes laugh-aloud funny, the subject it deals with is a serious one, the biggest American economic blowout since 1929. The film’s anchor is provided by its strong ensemble cast.

Christian Bale as Burry delivers his usual disciplined, dedicated method-acting performance. And considering that Burry has a glass eye and Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, Bale was taking on a technically difficult and unglamorous part. Steve Carell does a nice job playing the worrywart Eisman, the Wall Street shark with a conscience. With his hair dyed black and waved, Gosling is in command as Eisman’s antithesis, the slick trader.

Pitt plays Ben Rickert (Ben Hockett in the book) as something of an eccentric, the man who walked away from a millionaire’s job in Tokyo with Deutsche Bank and now lives in Berkeley and just enjoys walking his dog and playing with his child.

In Las Vegas, after Pitt’s character and the two young traders close their big deal for $15 million in credit default swaps, the two youngsters cannot contain their joy and start whooping and celebrating. Rickert/Hockett turns on them abruptly and tells them to knock it off: “Do you have any idea what you just did? You bet against the American economy. If you win, people lose their homes, their jobs, their retirement funds, their pensions.” Pitt has the quiet authority to make it real.

There is one element of the Lewis book that the film leaves out. At the end of the book, Lewis meets with his former boss John Gutfreund, former chairman of Salomon Brothers where Lewis worked for three years, an unpleasant experience that became the topic of Liar’s Poker published in 1989.

A couple of decades later, for The Big Short, Lewis asked to meet with his retired old boss. Lewis wanted to meet with Gutfreund because Salomon Brothers was the first major investment bank to go public in 1981, a decision that Gutfreund made. Lewis is convinced that shifting ownership of banks from the partners to the public encouraged the collapse of Wall Street because the losses could be passed on to shareholders. Otherwise, the owners/partners would never have seriously entertained such nonsense as subprime loans, CDOs and synthetic CDOs. No owner/partner would have allowed his investment bank to be leveraged at a rate of 35-1.

Yet, after Salomon Brothers went public, every major trading house did the same and made quick killings in the short run.

An Ironic Ending

McKay ends the film with a fantasy sequence: Gosling says that dozens of people went to jail and all the banks were broken up. He then corrects himself and says the opposite was true.

It is an ironic ending reflecting how the 1980s and 1990s marked a time when greed became good and the pain that Wall Street had inflicted on earlier generations was forgotten in the rush of speculators to amass great fortunes and the hunger of politicians and economists to share in the loot.

So, the lessons of an earlier time were deemed outdated, no longer relevant to the modern era when there was supposedly more transparency in the markets and when investors were allegedly much more sophisticated than in days gone by.

The memories of the Great Depression and the New Deal were so faded, just black-and-white relics from a distant past. Yet, it was from the ashes of the stock market crash of 1929 and bitter years of the Great Depression that President Franklin Roosevelt laid the foundations for decades of American prosperity. He applied a combination of Keynesian economic policies and institutional reforms of Wall Street. After World War II, Roosevelt’s reforms helped create the Great American Middle Class, sharing prosperity at levels never before seen while the American economy became the juggernaut that ruled the world.

To put it mildly, that is not the case today. As Paul Krugman and other economists have written, American economic performance has been unraveling in large part because the checks and balances that FDR installed to control rapacious greed and malpractice on Wall Street were, step by step, removed.

What replaced them was a pretty much “anything goes” ethos involving speculative inventions and risky ventures. For the first time, many investors did not actually own stocks, bonds or mortgages. Often they owned bets on whether or not someone else’s investments, such as a basket of sliced and diced mortgages, would fail. Wall Street investment banks were turned into giant Las Vegas-style casinos.

Busting the House

But there was one big difference. In a casino, it is almost impossible to beat the house, at least for large sums since the house has installed firewalls against such a thing happening. In 2008, however, because of the growth of wild, speculative instruments of credit and the government’s lack of supervision of these unsound vessels the Wall Street house collapsed.

And if not for a colossal intervention by both the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Board, virtually every investment bank on Wall Street would have fallen along with the entire American economy and possibly the world’s.

The same Wall Street voices that disdained and ridiculed government regulation on the ride up suddenly insisted on massive government intervention to avert a large thud on the spiral down.

When everything was rosy, these masters of the universe explained why they deserved their Manhattan penthouses and their Hampton mansions. It was simply a case of them being rewarded for their personal excellence, the result of being the best and brightest in a “meritocracy.”

Yet their catastrophic collapse had to be stopped by the federal government and paid for by average taxpayers intervening with an exercise in socialism. If not, the Wall Street warnings went, there would be another Great Depression or worse.

After the 2007-08 real estate/Wall Street crash, many authors wrote that it had been a long time coming with many warning signs along the way. The American economy had sustained a string of internal failures based on speculation and, at times, outright fraud. This trend traced back to the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan embraced a culture of “free enterprise” to an almost metaphysical degree. The pattern continued into the 1990s and into the new century with the anti-regulatory neo-liberalism of President Bill Clinton.

Launching Greed

It was during Reagan’s presidency followed by George H.W. Bush’s and Clinton’s White House years when a long string of domestic economic scandals (and frauds) surfaced: the savings-and-loan crisis, which lasted from 1986 to 1995; the leveraged buyouts of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky which used insider trading to maximize profits; the collapse of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management, in which the government intervened and forced other investment banks to cover billions of dollars in losses; the dot.com bubble, where financial analysts completely threw out traditional standards like P/E ratios for the allure of Silicon Valley; and, of  course, the Enron collapse (under President George W. Bush), when it was revealed that the high-flying energy company’s profits were largely based on illegal accounting tricks.

Taken as a whole, there were many books written about these and other related scandals, such as Den of Thieves by James B. Stewart, Pigs at the Trough by Arianna Huffington, When Genius Failed by Roger Lowenstein, Enron: The Rise and Fall by Loren Fox, The Predator’s Ball by Connie Bruck. There were also films and documentaries made about some of these episodes, e.g. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room directed by Alex Gibney and Barbarians at the Gate, directed by Glenn Jordan. Those two films were based on best-selling books.

So it’s not as if the media and the public were unaware that, recurrently, something was going wrong with Wall Street and corporate America. By all indications, certain people in high positions were repeatedly at work on evading and violating the legal code, such as insider trading, the looting of savings-and-loan assets, or the defrauding and manipulation of company funds. On all these counts and more, a culture of corruption had been gaming the system for two decades.

It got so bad and so endemic that the illustrious attorney and bank regulator William K. Black was forced to invent a new criminal term to describe it: “control fraud.” This is when a person with great authority inside an institution subverts the organization and engages in extensive fraud for personal gain. Typical fraud usually referred to some lower-ranking person within the institution cheating the organization. But now the plunder was coming from the top.

Demeaning the Bureaucrats

Another syndrome common to all of these scandals was that the civil servants in charge of regulating these fields arrived well after the fires were raging. And, in each case, that tardiness cost hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions.

For instance, when the fraud of telecommunications giant WorldCom was finally exposed, the collapse represented the largest bankruptcy in history up to that time, about $100 billion; an example of Black’s “control fraud” since the phony accounting practices meant to hide the corporation’s financial shortcomings were instituted from the top down.

The collapse of Enron put 20,000 people out of work. And, since Arthur Anderson LLP signed off on the accounting of both Worldcom and Enron, regulators forced the firm to close it doors in 2002, costing another 85,000 jobs.

In retrospect, all of this sordid history extending from about 1985 to 2005 seemed to prove the famous adage of George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Though some accounting procedures were tightened up, there was another financial scandal right around the corner. And it would dwarf all of the previous ones put together.

With political hostility still running high toward “government bureaucrats” and their “red tape” and with Wall Street banks lavishing millions of dollars on politicians and their campaigns there was little interest in regulating areas that had not yet blown up.

But the situation was worse than a lack of prescience. The dominant political forces of Washington actively helped pave the way for the 2007-08 real estate/stock market crash.

A Crucial Politician

A key player was Phil Gramm, a former Texas A&M economics professor who first became a congressman and then a senator from the Lone Star state. As a Democratic congressman, he pushed through the 1981 Gramm-Latta bill, which essentially implemented Reagan’s budget and fiscal policy, including lower taxes (mostly benefiting the rich), social program cuts and higher military spending. After clashing with the Democratic leadership, Gramm switched parties and then ran successfully as a Republican for the House and later the Senate.

As a senator, Gramm was instrumental in passing two epochal bills which proved central to the future economic disasters. The first was the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, which repealed much of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 Glass-Steagall Act separating commercial banks from investment banks and insurance companies.

Along with providing government insurance for Main Street savings deposits, Roosevelt wanted to get neighborhood banks out of riskier investment strategies. The idea was that if too many local banks were involved with speculative investments, and the bubble burst, the contagion that brought down Wall Street would also bring down Main Street with it, which is what happened in 1929.

Thanks to Gramm and his fellow anti-regulatory Republican along with neo-liberal Democrats including President Bill Clinton FDR’s New Deal lessons were deemed outmoded. Glass-Steagall was largely neutered.

There were, however, some prophets who foresaw the doom. For instance, Democratic Congressman John Dingell said that the bill would create large financial superstructures that the Federal Reserve would have to protect since they would be “too big to fail.”

The other bill that Gramm sponsored was probably even more destructive to the economy, the Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000. This act deregulated some of the more exotic inventions that Wall Street had originated in the 1990s in order to spread risk. For instance, after Lewis Ranieri invented Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS), they evolved into Collateralized Debt Obligations (CBOs). Roughly speaking, these were a collection of mortgage bonds that were then bought by either a government agency like Fannie Mae or an investment bank like Ranieri’s Salomon Brothers.

These collectivized bonds were then divided into tranches, different levels inside the bond as classified by the ratings houses, Standard and Poor’s, Moody’s or Fitch. The lower the rating, the higher the return; but also the higher the risk if the bond went bust.

Spreading the Risk

To limit the chance of such a thing happening, J. P. Morgan created a derivative called the Credit Default Swap (CDS), which was advertised as a form of insurance premium, which the buyer paid to the holder of the bond as long as the bond was afloat. But if the bond collapsed, the buyer who was paying premiums gained a lot of money and the holder of the bond assumed the asset.

With a CDS, the buyer does not actually own anything.  He is really a gambler who is betting on a large payoff if the asset fails. (The entire story of how derivatives originated and then contaminated Wall Street was neatly told by Gillian Tett in her book Fool’s Gold.)

As derivative products became commonplace on Wall Street, there began to be a debate about their regulation. Stanford lawyer Brooksley Born, chief of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, realized that companies were using derivatives to mask investments from normal accounting practices. [All the Devils are Here, by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera, p. 101] That was because, though their use had spread exponentially, they were not yet standardized as products for regulation purposes, which she proposed doing.

But Sen. Gramm wanted the least amount of regulation possible. And, he was joined by Clinton’s Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. (ibid, p. 105) Outgunned by such powerful figures, Born lost this key battle. She was, of course, correct.

If, for example, an investment bank sold billions of credit default swaps on a poorly credited tranche of a mortgage bond, what if the bond capsized? The bank would have not just a negative performing asset on its books, but it would be out the payment to the holder of the CDS.

But, as Born suspected, it was even worse than that.  Because the derivatives market was not formally regulated, traders at the large investment banks could hide them from the asset ledger, so even the Risk Manager officer and the Chief Executive Officer would not know the full extent of how much money the bank had invested on derivatives based upon Triple B rated subprime loans. No one paid much attention because everyone was making lots of money. But the music was about to stop.

Facing the Music

At Merrill Lynch, CEO Stan O’Neal called Risk Manager John Breit in September 2007 because O’Neal had heard rumors that Breit was afraid that their potential losses in the upcoming third quarter report would be much larger than O’Neal anticipated. Those losses would mostly be due to derivatives based upon subprime loan packages.

The CEO thought they would lose a figure in the hundreds of millions of dollars. But Breit had belatedly found out that the figure was much larger. When O’Neal asked Breit how much larger, Breit replied, “Six billion” and quickly added that it could be much worse. [McLean and Nocera, p. 3] O’Neal looked physically ill.  He could not believe his employees had acted so recklessly.

And, Breit was correct. It was even worse. The quarterly loss was later billed as $8 billion, leading to O’Neal’s departure a month later. From July 2007 to July 2008, Merrill Lynch lost nearly $20 billion. By the fall of 2008, the once proud company had lost nearly $52 billion on mortgage-backed securities. [Bloomberg News, Sept. 5, 2008]

But the collapse of fellow investment bank Lehman Brothers was much larger. It ended up being the largest bankruptcy in history, eventually valued at over $600 billion.

To this day, no one knows how much the total private and public loss was in that economic meltdown.  Respected conservative economist Charles Morris pegged it at $2 trillion. Others think it was at least twice as large. Because Born had lost her battle with Gramm, Summers and Greenspan, it was almost impossible to get an accurate figure on the total losses because the accounting for many of the derivative wagers on top of the subprime loans was woefully inadequate.

In the end as The Big Short describes none of the key villains goes to jail and the big banks are not broken up. After all, President George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who designed the bail-out plan for Wall Street, had worked at Goldman Sachs for 30 years. We should all have friends like that in Washington.

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.




Encountering a Sophisticated Putin

Pretty much all that Americans and much of the West get to hear about Russian President Putin is heavy-handed propaganda often read over images of him riding shirtless on a horse. He’s either a bully or a buffoon. But editors of a popular German newspaper encountered a much more sophisticated figure, writes Gilbert Doctorow.

By Gilbert Doctorow

I was hesitant to write about Vladimir Putin’s recent interview in Germany’s mass-circulation Bild newspaper because I have published many analytical essays of Putin’s speeches and public appearances over the past couple of years and do not wish to provide further justification for those who would view me as a composer for one string violin, an inveterate apologist for the Russian president.

Moreover, when a fellow member of the anti-war movement, Alexander Mercouris, published an appreciation of the interview in Russia Insider under the heading “Congrats Germans! This Is How You Do a Putin Interview,” it seemed churlish to go against his take on the subject.

However, a couple of additional articles on the Bild interview subsequently published in Russia Insider have challenged Mercouris’s kindly view of the German journalists as being “well-informed and intelligent.”

“Putin Schools Top German Journalist Who Smeared Him” makes it clear that Bild’s chief political editor Nikolaus Blome, formerly with Der Spiegel, would never have consciously done Putin a favor. And the latest RI article, a translation from Sputnik Deutschland entitled “How Putin Turned the Tables on German Magazine ‘Bild’” delivers what I had from the beginning considered to be the reality of this interview: that Putin’s impressive showing came in spite of and not because of the journalists’ predisposition to him and Russia generally.

The Russia expert Alexander Rahr explains here the logic of Putin agreeing to enter the lion’s den for the sake of reaching the tabloid’s multi-million readership who, by their demographics, are not easily accessible via the internet and electronic media.

To this I would add something that Rahr seems to have overlooked: the German press is incestuous and newspapers regularly give space to articles coming from their “competitors.” Thus, the saucier chunks of the Putin interview also appeared on the front page of the Frankfurter Allgemeine and other leading newspapers read by the German elites.

In particular, none could ignore the tantalizing message from Putin that Russia was ready to give asylum to Bashar Assad, if necessary, and that it would be less disruptive of relations with the U.S. and other powers than the asylum it had granted to Edward Snowden.

By the same token, excerpts from the televised segments of interview shown on Russian state television also appeared on Euronews in Germany and across the Continent, so that the audience that Putin reached with his calm and well-considered statements on the thinking guiding Russian foreign policy was still greater.

Now that I have been drawn into the discussion of the Bild interview, I propose to reconsider it using a research tool that no one so far seems to have used: textual analysis. I have compared the transcript published in the German daily with the transcript published by the Russians on kremlin.ru. There were cuts in the German publication as one might well expect given that it is a tabloid with racy photos and a readership having limited patience for serious material.

Insofar as I could tell, the cuts were fairly administered and did not affect the quality of Putin’s responses to questions. That, all by itself, is quite extraordinary in our age of dirty tricks. I contrast this upright behavior of the Bild editors with Foreign Affairs magazine’s gutting an article offered in spring 2007 by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in response to the article by Yulia Tymoshenko “Containing Russia,” cuts explained at the time with reference to limited space in the journal.

What one might not have expected from Bild was the publishers’ addition to the transcript of explanatory remarks (not carried in kremlin.ru) which reveal something important about the personal dynamics between interviewee and interviewers, and in passing illustrate why Vladimir Putin is where he is, at the apex of international politics.

Namely, the editors note repeatedly where Putin slipped into German. This made the strongest impression on them when, towards the end of the interview, the interpreter could not keep up and was given some moments to rest. In that pause, we are told: “Putin begins to spontaneously recite in German the beginning of Heinrich Heine’s ‘Lorelei,’ written in 1824, a German classic. Then Putin abruptly and impassively continues in Russian.”

Coincidentally, in an article entitled “This is What Impressed Bild During Its Interview With Putin” published by Sputnik International we find Bild’s chief political editor Blome acknowledging: “Although I was aware of that, I was still surprised by how well [Putin] speaks German and understands the subtleties of the language.” Here, too, Blome mentioned the recitation from “Lorelei.”

As Alexander Mercouris observed, Vladimir Putin came to the interview with fresh archival material relating to the meetings that senior SPD politician, and author of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik policy Egon Bahr had in Moscow in 1990, when the two countries were still feeling their way towards a post-Cold War security architecture for Europe.

He also came to the meeting fully briefed on a wide range of other important issues including details of the Minsk II accords and the obligations of all parties. From the transcript, it is clear that in question after question Putin was better prepared than the journalists and dealt calmly and authoritatively with each in succession.

But cold intellectual superiority would not have had the effect on his interlocutors that his going the extra mile and reaching out to them in German did, all the more so in an area of high culture that revealed his respect. This was in counterpoint to his critical words at the start of the interview about the unconstructive role played by Bild and the German media generally in the conduct of bilateral relations. With Heine, he touched them in a human way and won them over, despite themselves.

It is precisely this combination of intellectual rigor and ability to adapt his message to the mentality of his interlocutors that sets Putin apart as a consummate politician.

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




Panicked Over the Trump Phenomenon

America’s conservative establishment is in panic mode as renegade billionaire Donald Trump continues to dominate the Republican presidential race and thumb his nose at the GOP donor class, which is alarmed that all its money might not dictate the outcome this time, as Bill Moyers and Michael Winship write.

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

David Brooks is a worried man. Like many establishment Republicans, the conservative columnist for The New York Times sees the barbarians pouring through the gates and fears for both his party and the republic. Hail, Trump! Hail, Cruz! It’s enough to send a sober centrist dashing through the Forum in search of a cudgel.

There was Brooks on a recent edition of the PBS NewsHour, his angst spilling out across the airwaves like fog from a nightmare: “I wish we had gray men in suits,” he told Judy Woodruff, conjuring in some nostalgia-minded the courtly cabal of well-heeled businessmen who drafted war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for president as a Republican.

“We don’t have that,” Brooks continued. “But the donor class could do something.”

Ah, yes. The donor class! Those deep pockets flung open even wider by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision just six years ago, permitting the richest of the rich to pour even more of their fortunes into control of our electoral process. Brooks was saying openly what many of them are thinking privately: Only we can save the party from the megalomania of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and protect our precious status quo.

How best to do this? Brooks suggested that panicked “state legislators who are Republicans, congressmen, senators, local committeemen” should join with the donors “so they don’t send the party into suicide.”

Makes sense, many of those very same folks already are deep in hock to the donors, their contributions often laundered via entities with high-falutin’ names ALEC, for one, the American Legislative Exchange Council that lends a helping corporate hand to legislators eager to write favorable laws, provide tax breaks, dismember public employee unions and privatize government services.

As Brooks’ vision of a coup unfolded, the donors and their allies would handpick their candidate, “winnowing the field.” He reiterated his NewsHour lamentations with a New York Times column headlined “Time for a Republican Conspiracy!

So let’s get this straight: One of the most prominent of Republican elites in the country, who has even been touted as President Obama’s “favorite pundit” (we’re not making this up!), is calling on the donor class to rescue the party from the rabble. Game’s over, voters: The oligarchs will decide this election.

For that’s what they are: a small, unbelievably wealthy group of the powerful and privileged who already have a tighter grip on our nation, its government, politics and economy than the rapacious robber barons of our first Gilded Age. Brooks and like-minded elites believe they must be trusted to do the right thing. Let them be the Deciderers.

Count billionaire Charles Koch among them. He recently told Stephen Foley of the Financial Times that he was “disappointed” by the current crop of Republican presidential candidates and especially critical of Trump and Cruz. “It is hard for me to get a high level of enthusiasm,” he said, “because the things I’m passionate about and I think this country urgently needs aren’t being addressed.”

Koch said that he and his well-oiled machine had given each of the candidates a list of issues it wants addressed but “it doesn’t seem to faze them much. You’d think we could have more influence.” In other words, if you’re going to spend $900 million on this election, as Koch and his cronies plan to do, shouldn’t you get what you paid for?

Yes, we know: money can’t always buy an election. If it could, Mitt Romney would just be finishing his first term as president. Or Jeb! Bush, whose super PAC runneth over with $100 million in cash, would be leading the pack. So far he’s not even been able to get his silver foot on the first rung of the ladder.

But to the oligarchs, bankrolling an election campaign isn’t all that it’s about. They contribute now for the day when the electioneering is over and the governing resumes. That’s when their investment really begins to pay off.

In the words of the veteran Washington insider Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and former chief economic advisor to Joe Biden, “There’s this notion that the wealthy use their money to buy politicians; more accurately, it’s that they can buy policy.”

Environmental policy, for example, when it comes to energy moguls like the Kochs. And tax policy. Especially tax policy.

Bernstein was quoted in one of the most important stories of 2015 an investigation by The New York Times into how tax policy gets written. Unfortunately, this complex but essential report appeared between Christmas and New Year’s and failed to get the attention it deserves. Here’s the heart of it:

“With inequality at its highest levels in nearly a century and public debate rising over whether the government should respond to it through higher taxes on the wealthy, the very richest Americans have financed a sophisticated and astonishingly effective apparatus for shielding their fortunes. Some call it the ‘income defense industry,’ consisting of a high-priced phalanx of lawyers, estate planners, lobbyists and anti-tax activists who exploit and defend a dizzying array of tax maneuvers, virtually none of them available to taxpayers of more modest means.

“Operating largely out of public view, in tax court, through arcane legislative provisions and in private negotiations with the Internal Revenue Service, the wealthy have used their influence to steadily whittle away at the government’s ability to tax them. The effect has been to create a kind of private tax system, catering to only several thousand Americans.”

That “private tax system” couldn’t have happened without compliant politicians elected to office by generous support from the donor class. As the right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife put it: “Isn’t it grand how tax law gets written?”

Sam Pizzigati knows how it happens. He’s been watching the process for years from his perch as editor of the monthly newsletter Too Much! Reminding us in a recent report that “America’s 20 richest people, a group that could fit nicely in a Gulfstream luxury private jet, now own more wealth than the bottom half of the American population combined, a total of 152 million people,” Pizzigati concludes that one reason these and other of America’s rich have amassed such large fortunes is that “the federal tax rate on income in the top tax bracket has sunk sharply over recent decades.”

So here’s the real value of all that campaign cash and lobbying largesse: underwriting a willingness among legislators and government officials to bend the rules, slip in the necessary loopholes and look the other way when it comes time for the rich to hide their fortunes.

This is the status quo to which the donors cling so tightly and clutch their pearls at the prospect of losing. But now, with Trump seemingly ascendant, some of those who might have been relied on to support a donor revolt are betraying Brooks’s call for a coup, weakening in their resolve and beginning to think that maybe the short-fingered vulgarian isn’t such a bad idea. Despite his populist brayings, they hope, he might well be brought into their alliance.

Which brings to mind a line from the movie version of the musical Cabaret. In pre-Third Reich Germany, the decadent Baron Maximilian von Heune is talking with the British writer Brian Roberts, explaining why the elite have allowed this Hitler fellow to get a jackboot in the door.

“The Nazis are just a gang of stupid hooligans, but they do serve a purpose,” he says. “Let them get rid of the Communists. Later we’ll be able to control them.”

We all know how well that turned out.

Bill Moyers is the managing editor of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com. Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship. [This story originally appeared at http://billmoyers.com/story/money-men-say-voters-move-over-its-not-your-election/]




Hillary Clinton Seeks Neocon Shelter

Special Report: Stunned by falling poll numbers, Hillary Clinton is hoping that Democrats will rally to her neocon-oriented foreign policy and break with Bernie Sanders as insufficiently devoted to Israel. But will that hawkish strategy work this time, asks Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry 

In seeking to put Sen. Bernie Sanders on the defensive over his foreign policy positions, ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is embracing a neoconservative stance on the Middle East and gambling that her more hawkish approach will win over Democratic voters.

Losing ground in Iowa and New Hampshire in recent polls, the Clinton campaign has counterattacked against Sanders, targeting his sometimes muddled comments on the Mideast crisis, but Clinton’s attack line suggests that Sanders isn’t adequately committed to the positions of Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his American neocon acolytes.

Clinton’s strategy is to hit Sanders for seeking a gradual normalization of relations with Iran, while Clinton has opted for the neocon position of demonizing Iran and siding with Israel and its quiet alliance with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states that share Israel’s animosity toward Shiite-ruled Iran.

By attaching herself to this neocon approach of hyping every conceivable offense by Iran while largely excusing the human rights crimes of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Sunni-run states, Clinton is betting that most Democratic voters share the neocon-dominated “group think” of Official Washington: “Iran-our-enemy, Israel/Saudi Arabia-our-friends.”

She made similar calculations when she voted for and supported President George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq; when she sided with the neocons in pushing President Barack Obama to escalate the war in Afghanistan; and when she instigated “regime change” in Libya all policies that had dubious and dangerous outcomes. But she seems to still believe that she will benefit politically if she continues siding with the neocons and their “liberal interventionist” side-kicks.

On Thursday, the Clinton campaign put Sanders’s suggestion of eventual diplomatic relations with Iran in the context of his lack of ardor toward defending Israel.

“Normal relations with Iran right now?” said Jake Sullivan, the campaign’s senior policy adviser. “President Obama doesn’t support that idea. And it’s not at all clear why it is that Senator Sanders is suggesting it. Many of you know Iran has pledged the destruction of Israel.”

Actually, the Clinton campaign is mischaracterizing Sanders’s position as expressed in last Sunday’s debate. Sanders opposed immediate diplomatic relations with Tehran.

“Understanding that Iran’s behavior in so many ways is something that we disagree with; their support of terrorism, the anti-American rhetoric that we’re hearing from their leadership is something that is not acceptable,” Sanders said. “Can I tell you that we should open an embassy in Tehran tomorrow? No, I don’t think we should.”

Standing with the Establishment

But the Clinton campaign’s distortions aside, there is the question of whether or not the Democratic base has begun to reject Official Washington’s whatever-Israel-wants orthodoxy.

Hillary Clinton seems to be betting that rank-and-file Democrats remain enthralled to Israel and afraid to challenge the powerful neocon propaganda machine that controls the U.S. establishment’s foreign policy by dominating major op-ed pages, TV political chat shows and leading think tanks. The neocons also maintain close ties to the “liberal interventionists” who hold down key jobs in the Obama administration.

Clinton’s gamble assumes that progressives and foreign-policy “realists” have failed to develop their own infrastructure for examining and debunking many of the neocon/liberal-hawk propaganda themes and thus any politician who deviates too far from those “group thinks” risks getting marginalized.

In other words, Clinton is counting on the establishment structure holding through Election 2016 despite the populist anger that is evident from the surge of support for democratic socialist Bernie Sanders on the left and for billionaire nativist Donald Trump on the right.

In effect, this election is asking American voters if they want incremental changes to the current system represented by establishment candidates such as Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush or if they want to shake the system up with insurgent candidates like Sanders and Trump.

Though most neocons are supporting Republican establishment candidates who have sworn allegiance to the Israeli/neocon cause, the likes of Sen. Marco Rubio, some prominent neocons have made clear that they would be happy with Hillary Clinton as president.

For instance, neocon superstar Robert Kagan told The New York Times in 2014 that he hoped that his neocon views which he now prefers to call “liberal interventionist” would prevail in a possible Hillary Clinton administration. After all, Secretary of State Clinton named Kagan to one of her State Department advisory boards and promoted his wife, neocon Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, who oversaw the provocative “regime change” in Ukraine in 2014.

According to the Times’ article, Clinton “remains the vessel into which many interventionists are pouring their hopes.”

Kagan is quoted as saying: “I feel comfortable with her on foreign policy.   If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else.”

Though Clinton recently has sought to portray herself as an Obama loyalist especially in South Carolina where she is counting on strong African-American support she actually has adopted far more hawkish positions than the President, both when she was a senator and as Obama’s first secretary of state.

‘Team of Rivals’ Debacle

Arguably, Obama’s most fateful decision of his presidency occurred shortly after the 2008 election when he opted for the trendy idea of a “team of rivals” to run his foreign policy. He left Bush family loyalist Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, retained a neocon-dominated senior officer corps led by the likes of Gen. David Petraeus, and picked hawkish Sen. Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State. Thus, Obama never took control of his own foreign policy.

The troika of Clinton-Gates-Petraeus challenged Obama over his desire to wind down the Afghan War, bureaucratically mouse-trapping him into an ill-advised “surge” that accomplished little other than getting another 1,750 U.S. soldiers killed along with many more Afghans. Nearly three-quarters of the 2,380 U.S. soldiers who died in Afghanistan were killed on Obama’s watch.

Ironically, it was Gates who shed the most light on Clinton’s neocon-oriented positions in his memoir, Duty, written after he left the Pentagon in 2011. While generally flattering Clinton for her like-minded positions, Gates also portrays Clinton as a pedestrian foreign policy thinker who is easily duped and leans toward military solutions.

Indeed, for thoughtful and/or progressive Democrats, the prospect of a President Hillary Clinton could represent a step back from some of President Barack Obama’s more innovative foreign policy strategies, particularly his readiness to cooperate with the Russians and Iranians to defuse Middle East tensions and his willingness to face down the Israel Lobby when it is pushing for heightened confrontations and war.

Based on her public record and Gates’s insider account, Clinton could be expected to favor a neoconservative approach to the Mideast, one more in line with the dominant thinking of Official Washington and the belligerent dictates of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Standing with Israeli Bigots

As a U.S. senator and as Secretary of State, Clinton rarely challenged the conventional wisdom on the Mideast or resisted the use of military force to solve problems. She famously voted for the Iraq War in 2002 falling for President George W. Bush’s bogus WMD case and remained a war supporter until her position became politically untenable during Campaign 2008.

Representing New York, Clinton avoided criticizing Israeli actions. In summer 2006, as Israeli warplanes pounded southern Lebanon, killing more than 1,000 Lebanese, Sen. Clinton shared a stage with Israel’s bigoted Ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman who had said, “While it may be true and probably is that not all Muslims are terrorists, it also happens to be true that nearly all terrorists are Muslim.”

At a pro-Israel rally with Clinton in New York on July 17, 2006, Gillerman proudly defended Israel’s massive violence against targets in Lebanon. “Let us finish the job,” Gillerman told the crowd. “We will excise the cancer in Lebanon” and “cut off the fingers” of Hezbollah.

Responding to international concerns that Israel was using “disproportionate” force in bombing Lebanon and killing hundreds of civilians, Gillerman said, “You’re damn right we are.” [NYT, July 18, 2006]

Sen. Clinton did not protest Gillerman’s remarks, since doing so would presumably have offended an important pro-Israel constituency, which she has continued to cultivate.

In November 2006, when President Bush nominated Gates to be Defense Secretary, Clinton gullibly misread the significance of the move. She interpreted it as a signal that the Iraq War was being wound down when it actually presaged the opposite, that an escalation or “surge” was coming.

From her seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Clinton failed to penetrate the smokescreen around Gates’s selection. The reality was that Bush had ousted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in part, because he had sided with Generals John Abizaid and George Casey who favored shrinking the U.S. military footprint in Iraq. Gates was privately onboard for replacing those generals and expanding the U.S. footprint.

On with the Surge

After getting blindsided by Gates over what became a “surge” of 30,000 additional U.S. troops, Sen. Clinton sided with Democrats who objected to the escalation, but Gates quotes her in his memoir as later telling President Obama that she did so only for political reasons.

Gates recalled a meeting on Oct. 26, 2009, to discuss whether to authorize a similar “surge” in Afghanistan, a position favored by both Defense Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Clinton, who supported an even higher number of troops than Gates did. But the Afghan “surge” faced skepticism from Vice President Joe Biden and other White House staffers.

Gates wrote that he and Clinton “were the only outsiders in the session, considerably outnumbered by White House insiders. Obama said at the outset to Hillary and me, ‘It’s time to lay our cards on the table, Bob, what do you think?’ I repeated a number of the main points I had made in my memo to him [urging three brigades].

“Hillary agreed with my overall proposal but urged the president to consider approving the fourth brigade combat team if the allies wouldn’t come up with the troops.”

In Duty, Gates cited his collaboration with Clinton as crucial to his success in getting Obama to agree to the Afghan troop escalation and the expanded goal of counterinsurgency. Referring to Clinton, Gates wrote, “we would develop a very strong partnership, in part because it turned out we agreed on almost every important issue.”

The hawkish Gates-Clinton tandem helped counter the more dovish team including Vice President Biden, several members of the National Security Council staff and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, who tried to steer President Obama away from this deeper involvement.

Gates wrote, “I was confident that Hillary and I would be able to work closely together. Indeed, before too long, commentators were observing that in an administration where all power and decision making were gravitating to the White House, Clinton and I represented the only independent ‘power center,’ not least because, for very different reasons, we were both seen as ‘un-fireable.’”

Political Expediency

Gates also reported on what he regarded as a stunning admission by Clinton, writing: “The exchange that followed was remarkable. In strongly supporting the surge in Afghanistan, Hillary told the president that her opposition to the surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary [in 2008]. She went on to say, ‘The Iraq surge worked.’

“The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.” (Obama’s aides disputed Gates’s suggestion that the President indicated that his opposition to the Iraq “surge” was political, noting that he had always opposed the Iraq War. The Clinton team did not challenge Gates’s account.)

But the exchange, as recounted by Gates, indicates that Clinton not only let her political needs dictate her position on an important national security issue, but that she accepts as true the superficial conventional wisdom about the “successful surge” in Iraq.

While that is indeed Official Washington’s beloved interpretation in part because influential neocons believe the “surge” rehabilitated their standing after the WMD fiasco and the disastrous Iraq War the reality is that the Iraq “surge” never achieved its stated goal of buying time to reconcile the country’s sectarian divides, which remain bloody to this day and helped create the conditions for the emergence of the Islamic State, which began as “Al Qaeda in Iraq.”

The truth that Hillary Clinton apparently doesn’t recognize is that the “surge” was only “successful” in that it delayed the ultimate American defeat until President Bush and his neocon cohorts had vacated the White House and the blame for the failure could be shifted, at least partly, to President Obama.

Other than sparing “war president” Bush the humiliation of having to admit defeat, the dispatching of 30,000 additional U.S. troops in early 2007 did little more than get nearly 1,000 additional Americans killed almost one-quarter of the war’s total U.S. deaths along with what certainly was a much higher number of Iraqis.

For example, WikiLeaks’s “Collateral Murder.” video depicted one 2007 scene during the “surge” in which U.S. firepower mowed down a group of Iraqi men, including two Reuters news staffers, walking down a street in Baghdad. The attack helicopters then killed a Good Samaritan, when he stopped his van to take survivors to a hospital, and severely wounded two children in the van.

The Unsuccessful Surge

A more rigorous analysis of what happened in Iraq in 2007-08 apparently beyond Hillary Clinton’s abilities or inclination would trace the decline in Iraqi sectarian violence mostly to strategies that predated the “surge” and were implemented in 2006 by Generals Casey and Abizaid.

Among their initiatives, Casey and Abizaid deployed a highly classified operation to eliminate key Al Qaeda leaders, most notably the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006. Casey and Abizaid also exploited growing Sunni animosities toward Al Qaeda extremists by paying off Sunni militants to join the so-called “Awakening” in Anbar Province.

And, as the Sunni-Shiite sectarian killings reached horrendous levels in 2006, the U.S. military assisted in the de facto ethnic cleansing of mixed neighborhoods by helping Sunnis and Shiites move into separate enclaves, thus making the targeting of ethnic enemies more difficult. In other words, the flames of violence were likely to have abated whether Bush ordered the “surge” or not.

Radical Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr also helped by issuing a unilateral cease-fire, reportedly at the urging of his patrons in Iran who were interested in cooling down regional tensions and speeding up the U.S. withdrawal. By 2008, another factor in the declining violence was the growing awareness among Iraqis that the U.S. military’s occupation indeed was coming to an end. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki insisted on and got a firm timetable for American withdrawal from Bush.

Even author Bob Woodward, who had published best-sellers that praised Bush’s early war judgments, concluded that the “surge” was only one factor and possibly not even a major one in the declining violence.

In his book, The War Within, Woodward wrote, “In Washington, conventional wisdom translated these events into a simple view: The surge had worked. But the full story was more complicated. At least three other factors were as important as, or even more important than, the surge.”

Woodward, whose book drew heavily from Pentagon insiders, listed the Sunni rejection of Al Qaeda extremists in Anbar province and the surprise decision of al-Sadr to order a cease-fire as two important factors. A third factor, which Woodward argued may have been the most significant, was the use of new highly classified U.S. intelligence tactics that allowed for rapid targeting and killing of insurgent leaders.

However, in Washington, where the neocons remained very influential, the myth grew that Bush’s “surge” had brought the violence under control. Gen. Petraeus, who took command of Iraq after Bush yanked Casey and Abizaid, was elevated into hero status as the military genius who achieved “victory at last” in Iraq (as Newsweek declared).

Buying Fallacies

Even the inconvenient truths that the United States was unceremoniously ushered out of Iraq in 2011 and that Iraq’s Shiite-Sunni divide widened into a chasm that has since spread divisions into Syria and even into Europe did not dent the cherished conventional wisdom about the “successful surge.”

Yet, it is one thing for neocon pundits to promote such fallacies; it is another thing for the alleged Democratic front-runner for President in 2016 to believe this nonsense. And to say that she only opposed the “surge” out of a political calculation could border on disqualifying.

But the pattern fits with Clinton’s previous decisions. She belatedly broke with the Iraq War during Campaign 2008 only when she realized that her hawkish stance was damaging her political chances against Obama, who had opposed the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Yet, as Secretary of State, Clinton sought to purge officials seen as insufficiently hawkish. After Obama hesitantly approved the Afghan “surge” and reportedly immediately regretted his decision Clinton took aim at Eikenberry, a retired general who had served in Afghanistan before being named ambassador.

Pressing for his removal, “Hillary had come to the meeting loaded for bear,” Gates wrote. “She gave a number of specific examples of Eikenberry’s insubordination to herself and her deputy. She said, ‘He’s a huge problem.’

“She went after the NSS [national security staff] and the White House staff, expressing anger at their direct dealings with Eikenberry and offering a number of examples of what she termed their arrogance, their efforts to control the civilian side of the war effort, their refusal to accommodate requests for meetings.

“As she talked, she became more forceful. ‘I’ve had it,’ she said, ‘You want it [control of the civilian side of the war], I’ll turn it all over to you and wash my hands of it. I’ll not be held accountable for something I cannot manage because of White House and NSS interference.’”

However, when the protests failed to get Eikenberry and General Douglas Lute, a deputy national security adviser, fired, Gates concluded that they had the protection of President Obama and reflected his doubts about the Afghan War policy:

“It had become clear that Eikenberry and Lute, whatever their shortcomings, were under an umbrella of protection at the White House. With Hillary and me so adamant that the two should leave, that protection could come only from the president.”

The Libya Fiasco

In 2011, Secretary of State Clinton also was a hawk on military intervention in Libya to oust (and ultimately kill) Muammar Gaddafi. However, on Libya, Defense Secretary Gates sided with the doves, feeling that the U.S. military was already overextended in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and another intervention risked further alienating the Muslim world.

This time, Gates found himself lined up with Biden “urging caution,” while Clinton joined with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and NSC aides Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power in “urging aggressive U.S. action to prevent an anticipated massacre of the rebels as Qaddafi fought to remain in power,” Gates wrote. “In the final phase of the internal debate, Hillary threw her considerable clout behind Rice, Rhodes and Power.”

President Obama again ceded to Clinton’s advocacy for war and supported a Western bombing campaign that enabled the rebels, including Islamic extremists with ties to Al Qaeda, to seize control of Tripoli and hunt down Gaddafi, who was tortured and executed on Oct. 20, 2011.

Clinton expressed, delight when she received the news of Gaddafi’s murder. “We came. We saw. He died,” she chortled, paraphrasing Julius Caesar’s boast after a victory by Imperial Rome.

After Clinton’s “victory,” Libya became a major source for regional instability, including an assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. personnel, an incident that Clinton has called the worst moment in her four years as Secretary of State. The Islamic State also gained a foothold inside Libya, chopping off the heads of Coptic Christians.

Gates retired from the Pentagon on July 1, 2011; Petraeus resigned as CIA director on Nov. 9, 2012, amid a sex-and-secrets scandal; and Clinton stepped down at the State Department on Feb. 1, 2013, after Obama’s reelection.

In 2013, with Clinton gone, Obama charted a more innovative foreign policy course, collaborating with Russian President Vladimir Putin to achieve diplomatic breakthroughs on Syria and Iran, rather than seeking military solutions. In both cases, Obama had to face down hawkish sentiments in his own administration and in Congress, as well as Israeli and Saudi opposition.

But the neocon empire struck back in 2014, with Assistant Secretary Nuland orchestrating a “regime change” in Ukraine on Russia’s border and with the neocon-dominated opinion circles of Official Washington placing the blame for the Ukraine crisis on President Putin’s “aggression.”

Faced with this new “group think” and still influenced by liberal interventionist advisers such as Susan Rice and Samantha Power Obama joined the chorus of hate-talk against Putin, ratcheting up tensions with Russia and agreeing to escalate covert U.S. support for Syrian rebels seeking the long-held neocon goal of “regime change” in Syria.

However, Obama continued to collaborate behind the scenes with Russia to achieve an agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear program — to the dismay of the neocons who wanted instead to bomb-bomb-bomb Iran on their way to seeking another “regime change.”

Bashing Iran

As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was a hawk on the Iranian nuclear issue. In 2009-2010, when Iran first indicated a willingness to compromise, she led the opposition to any negotiated settlement and pushed for punishing sanctions.

To clear the route for sanctions, Clinton helped sink agreements tentatively negotiated with Iran to ship most of its low-enriched uranium out of the country. In 2009, Iran was refining uranium only to the level of about 3-4 percent, as needed for energy production. Its negotiators offered to swap much of that for nuclear isotopes for medical research.

But the Obama administration and the West rebuffed the Iranian gesture because it would have left Iran with enough enriched uranium to theoretically refine much higher up to 90 percent for potential use in a single bomb, though Iran insisted it had no such intention and U.S. intelligence agencies agreed.

Then, in spring 2010, Iran accepted another version of the uranium swap proposed by the leaders of Brazil and Turkey, with the apparent backing of President Obama. But that arrangement came under fierce attack by Secretary Clinton and was derided by leading U.S. news outlets, including editorial writers at the New York Times who mocked Brazil and Turkey as being “played by Tehran.”

The ridicule of Brazil and Turkey as bumbling understudies on the world stage continued even after Brazil released Obama’s private letter to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva encouraging Brazil and Turkey to work out the deal. Despite the letter’s release, Obama didn’t publicly defend the swap and instead joined in scuttling the deal, another moment when Clinton and administration hardliners got their way.

That set the world on the course for tightened economic sanctions on Iran and heightened tensions that brought the region close to another war. As Israel threatened to attack, Iran expanded its nuclear capabilities by increasing enrichment to 20 percent to fill its research needs, moving closer to the level necessary for building a bomb.

Clinton’s Course

Ironically, the nuclear deal reached in late 2013 and solidified in 2015 essentially accepts Iran’s low-enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes, pretty much where matters stood in 2009-2010. But the Israel Lobby quickly set to work, again, trying to torpedo the new Iran agreements by getting Congress to approve new sanctions on Iran.

Clinton remained noncommittal for several weeks as momentum for the sanctions bill grew, but she finally declared her support for President Obama’s opposition to the new sanctions. In a Jan. 26, 2014 letter to Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, she wrote:

“Now that serious negotiations are finally under way, we should do everything we can to test whether they can advance a permanent solution. As President Obama said, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed, while keeping all options on the table. The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that imposing new unilateral sanctions now ‘would undermine the prospects for a successful comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.’ I share that view.”

One key question for a Clinton presidential candidacy has been whether she would build on the diplomatic foundation that Obama has laid regarding Iran and Russia, or dismantle it and return to a neocon foreign policy focused on “regime change” and catering to the views of Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In her campaign’s latest comments, Hillary Clinton has made clear that she has little interest in deviating further from the Israeli-neocon prescribed hostility toward Iran by letting her campaign accuse Sanders of softness on Tehran.

So, with her once-solid polls numbers softening, she has decided to appeal to hawkish Democrats and the muscular support of the Israel Lobby to help her fend off the Sanders surge.

Clinton is rolling the dice in the belief that most Democrats won’t think through the fallacious “group thinks” of Official Washington or will at least be scared and confused enough to steer away from Sanders. That way, Clinton believes she can still win the nomination.

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).