Anything Learned from ‘Christmas Truce’?

As the U.S. Congress votes for a military confrontation with Russia over Ukraine and even “liberal” commentators cheer the economic pain being inflicted by U.S. policies, it is worth recalling how big-power arrogance sparked the conflagration called World War I and how it could start World War III, writes Greg Maybury.

By Greg Maybury

At this point in our history – and especially at this time of the year – it is perhaps instructive for us all to reflect on the following: Amid the apocalyptic destruction of the First World War which began a few months earlier, exactly 100 years ago this Christmas the combatants – all God fearin’ folks one and all – downed the tools of war for a few short, precious hours to break bread and exchange gifts with each other amid the blood, guts, smoke, fire, rubble and carnage of Hell on Earth.

It was time for them to remember when there wasn’t a war and to celebrate Christmas.

Along with being one of human history’s most jaw-dropping moments of irreducible, pitch-black, granite-thick irony, it was a singular pointer to the inarguable absurdity, futility, and ignobility of that war. Indeed, any war. The great satirist and literary misanthrope Jonathan Swift himself – he of Gulliver’s Travels – could not have dreamed this shit up. But one imagines it would not have surprised him.

Given that the war’s precipitators, promoters and the pundits infamously anticipated – and told anyone who would listen – the war would be done and dusted by Xmas, this itself adds an additional measure of tragically indelible poignancy to the proceedings. (Are there any better examples of the all too human propensity for hubris than when it comes to waging war?) With the possible exception of Armistice Day itself on Nov. 11, 1918, this was arguably the only time when it truly was All Quiet on the Western Front.

Now of course the top military brass on both sides took a dim view of these proceedings as this was not in the brochure. One suspects the same of those who were the principal yet wholly unprincipled drivers of this gargantuanly cynical, misguided – and utterly avoidable – conflict, the repercussions of which are still reverberating within and across the geopolitical sphere today in more ways than space herein allows one to recount.

Yet we don’t need a Ph.D in international relations and military history to appreciate this here and now. Indeed, the same mercenary motivations and malevolent machinations that sparked The War to End All Wars until the Next Got Here are exactly – repeat “exactly” – the same ones driving current events whichever direction we look. Same shit, different shovel.

And the folks who were the drivers of that war then were afflicted with exactly the same psychopathology as the ones driving current events. Same horse, different cowboy! Of course the stakes are much, much bigger today, something they will gloss over because they don’t want to scare the horses too much!

What these lunatics will tell us though is that it’s all about freedom, democracy, human rights, liberty, security, stability, the rule of law, self-determination, peaceful co-existence, sovereign independence, God, king and country, yada, yada, yada, you name it. They will tell us that right must and will prevail over wrong, freedom over slaverygood over evil, truth over lies. Bottom line though it is always – repeat, always – about them. Their wrongs, their slaveries, their evils, and their lies!

The Conclusions of Lunatics

The ideological forebears of the present power elites of the geopolitical world order told our forebears the same shit back then. As then, they will now tell us whatever they think we will swallow or make us feel good other than the real facts because their agenda is a long way removed from the average person who along with their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, cousins, nephews, nieces, aunts, uncles, grandchildren, in-laws, outlaws, neighbors, friends, acquaintances and colleagues are the ones almost exclusively called upon to fight these wretched, misbegotten wars on their behalf.

They will do this because they know that even if we were paying some attention in history class in school, we’ve forgotten all this shit. Or that this time “it’s different!” It’s always different!

And if we demonstrate any reluctance to swallow their delusions, they have ways of enforcing us to do so or punish us if we don’t, and are constantly working on new ways and means to achieve these objectives. This is already happening here in Australia, in Canada, in the UK and Europe, and in the country that is the imperial epicenter of it all, Uncle Sam’s Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free, where as the saying goes, folks are free to do whatever their government tells them to do. According to the prevailing dictates of the Agenda Benders.

Of course the key items on that “hidden in plain sight” agenda are as follows: energy and resources (oil & gas esp.); empire (global power & military supremacy); and last but decidedly not least: the Filthy Lucre (aka Mammon). These folks have sold their own souls and ours, and those of our descendants as well for the stuff, presumably believing Old Nick will honor his promise to allow them to bring it all with them on their final descent into Dante’s Ninth Circle of Eternal Damnation.

And whatever we learnt in school about the causes of the First World War (or any other war for that matter) is not worth the paper it was written on. I should know; I used to teach this nonsense. That is until I wised up and stopped drinking the Kool-Aid (the shit was giving me reflux), and learnt that history is not just written by the victors so as to gloat over the vanquished, it is done so with a future purpose in mind, one which probably does not need to be spelt out here.

Yet such are the stakes this time round, there are unlikely to be any ‘winners’ (think “nukes” aka WMDs), so it’s unsure as to who might actually get to write the next installment of history, much less study it for posterity. Or for that matter, teach it! As Einstein once opined, World War Three might be fought with nukes, but World War Four will be fought with sticks and stones. And oldie, but a goodie to be sure. With all this in mind, this has been a momentous, (ahem) tortuous year for the history of our species on the planet. For those reading this who don’t appreciate this reality, it may be time to get out more.

Especially if we care about the future of humanity after we are no longer on the right side of the grass. And if we are parents, we should care. If we are grandparents, then this applies even more so.

This “reality” I refer to is one that I and many other hugely concerned folks have attempted to shed some light on, admittedly with varying degrees of insight and success. And it is one we will never – repeat, never – get a handle on whilst we continue to rely on the mainstream (or corporate) media.

It’s anyone’s guess as to whether the forces that prevailed to set the world on fire in 1914 will repeat history. I hope not. At all events what may be worth considering is the message below – from a man who was ahead of his time both artistically and politically.

It is methinks highly appropriate in these dangerous times in which we live …. Fab Johnny Says: Give Peace a Fighting Chance MOFOs. Happy Christmas, War is Over. Well, Not Quite, But Some of us be Working on it John. Backatcha when we’re done!

Johnny, we hardly knew ye old son! Thanks for everything. In your own way you chose the peace of the grave not the security of the slave. Oh, and you wrote a half way decent tune or two every now and then. Bonus. Rest in Peace m’man. If you still be around, you blood be worth bottling.

John Lennon – Happy Xmas (War is Over): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yN4Uu0OlmTg

Greg Maybury is a freelance writer based in Perth, Western Australia.




Ayn Rand v. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

During the Red Scare of the late 1940s, novelist Ayn Rand and other right-wing zealots targeted Hollywood for supposedly subversive messages, like the criticism of bankers and the praise of community in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as Michael Winship recalls.

By Michael Winship

A number of years ago, I was telling a longtime city dweller friend of mine yet another story about the small, upstate New York town in which I grew up. Simultaneously baffled and captivated, he said, “I think you were born and raised in Bedford Falls,” the fictional burg at the center of Frank Capra’s classic Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Well, I wasn’t. Actually, I grew up about 27 miles west of there. Its real name is Seneca Falls, New York yes, the same place that’s also the birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement. While not absolutely certain, there’s a compelling body of circumstantial evidence that Capra had the town in mind when he created his cinematic version of Bedford Falls.

The steel bridge over the canal, for example, like the one from which the hero George Bailey contemplates jumping in a suicide attempt, only to dive in to save his guardian angel, Clarence. The old Victorian homes, the design of town streets, a large Italian population, mentions of nearby cities Rochester, Buffalo and Elmira are just a few of the other similarities. There’s even the perhaps apocryphal tale of Frank Capra finding inspiration after stopping in Seneca Falls for a haircut on his way to visit an aunt.

Enough coincidences abound that Seneca Falls now holds a yearly “It’s a Wonderful Life” festival, and although it may not draw as many visitors as the nearby Women’s Rights National Historical Park, there’s also an “It’s a Wonderful Life” museum.

Whatever the ultimate truth, there’s no denying that the movie is a storybook evocation of bygone small town America, places like Seneca Falls and my own hometown, right down to the underside of greed and malice that often lurks just around the corner from the film’s compassion and wholesome neighborliness.

As for Frank Capra, as he prepared to make the movie, he told the Los Angeles Times, “There are just two things that are important. One is to strengthen the individual’s belief in himself, and the other, even more important right now, is to combat a modern trend toward atheism.”

Which makes it all the crazier that when the movie first came out, it fell under suspicion from the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as Communist propaganda, part of the Red Scare that soon would lead to the blacklist and witch hunt that destroyed the careers of many talented screen and television writers, directors and actors.

Screenplay credits on “It’s a Wonderful Life” went to Frances Goodrich and her husband Albert Hackett, Capra and Jo Swerling, although a number of others took turns at different times, including Clifford Odets, Dalton Trumbo and Marc Connelly not an unusual situation in Hollywood.  But a 1947 FBI memorandum, part of a 13,533 page document, “Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry,” first went after the writers Goodrich and Hackett:

“According to Informants [REDACTED] in this picture the screen credits again fail to reflect the Communist support given to the screen writer. According to [REDACTED] the writers Frances Goodrick [sic] and Albert Hackett were very close to known Communists and on one occasion in the recent past while these two writers were doing a picture for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Goodrick [sic] and Hackett practically lived with known Communists and were observed eating luncheon daily with such Communists as Lester Cole, screen writer, and Earl Robinson, screen writer. Both of these individuals are identified in Section I of this memorandum as Communists.”

The memo goes on to cast doubt on the movie’s storyline, in which Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey and his struggling savings and loan fight on behalf of the good people of Bedford Falls against the avarice and power of banker and slumlord Henry Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore:

“With regard to the picture ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, [REDACTED] stated in substance that the film represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.

“In addition, [REDACTED] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters. [REDACTED] related that if he had made this picture portraying the banker, he would have shown this individual to have been following the rules as laid down by the State Bank Examiners in connection with making loans.

“Further, [REDACTED] stated that the scene wouldn’t have ‘suffered at all’ in portraying the banker as a man who was protecting funds put in his care by private individuals and adhering to the rules governing the loan of that money rather than portraying the part as it was shown. In summary, [REDACTED] stated that it was not necessary to make the banker such a mean character and ‘I would never have done it that way.’”

This was part of an FBI evaluation of several Hollywood movies others included “The Best Years of Our Lives” (which beat “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director), “Pride of the Marines,” and Abbott and Costello in “Buck Privates Come Home.”

Wait it gets nuttier.  According to the media archival website Aphelis, “Among the group who produced the analytical tools that were used by the FBI in its analysis of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ was Ayn Rand.”

“Abbottt and Costello Meet Ayn Rand” what a comedy horror picture that would have made! Rand’s group told the FBI:

“The purpose of the Communists in Hollywood is not the production of political movies openly advocating Communism. Their purpose is to corrupt non-political movies, by introducing small, casual bits of propaganda into innocent stories and to make people absorb the basic principles of Collectivism by indirection and implication.

“Few people would take Communism straight, but a constant stream of hints, lines, touches and suggestions battering the public from the screen will act like drops of water that split a rock if continued long enough. The rock that they are trying to split is Americanism.”

But redemption of an odd sort came for “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the infamous October 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. Just days before the appearance there of the Hollywood 10 writers (and one director) who refused to testify and subsequently went to prison, a parade of “friendly witnesses” (including Ayn Rand, Gary Cooper, Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney) came before the committee to insinuate and weave dark tales of Communist infiltration and subversion in the movie business.

One of them was a former Communist and screenwriter named John Charles Moffitt. Aphelis reports: “When asked by HUAC Chief Investigator Robert E. Stripling if Hollywood is in the habit of portraying bankers as villainous characters, Moffitt takes the opportunity to try to clear the reputation of Frank Capra’s movie ‘It’s A Wonderful Life:’ he tries to argue that the film isn’t, in fact a Communist movie.”

STRIPLING. The term “heavy” has been used here as a designation of the part in which the person is a villain. Would you say that the banker has been often cast as a heavy, or consistently cast as a heavy, in pictures in Hollywood.

MOFFITT. Yes, sir. I think that due to Communist pressure he is overfrequently cast as a heavy. By that I do not mean that I think no picture should ever show a villainous banker. In fact, I would right now like to defend one picture that I think has been unjustly accused of communism. That picture is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The banker in that picture, played by Lionel Barrymore, was most certainly what we call a “dog heavy” in the business. He was a snarling, unsympathetic character. But the hero and his father, played by James Stewart and Samuel S. Hines, were businessmen, in the building and loan business, and they were shown as using money as a benevolent influence.

At this point, there was a bit of commotion in the hearing room.

THE CHAIRMAN. Just a minute. Come away. Everybody sit down. Will all you people who are standing up please sit down? And the photographers.

MR.MOFFITT. All right.

THE CHAIRMAN. Go ahead.

MOFFITT. Well, to summarize, I think Mr. Capra’s picture, though it had a banker as villain, could not be properly called a Communist picture. It showed that the power of money can be used oppressively and it can be used benevolently. I think that picture was unjustly accused of Communism.

Since then, the movie has been more than redeemed as it slowly became a sentimental and beloved holiday perennial. And if anything, its portrayal of a villainous banker has been vindicated a thousand fold as in the last seven years we’ve seen fraudulent mortgages and subsequent foreclosures, bankers unrepentant after an unprecedented taxpayer bailout and unpunished after a mindboggling spree of bad calls, profligacy and corkscrew investments that raked in billions while others suffered the consequences.

It’s a wonderful life, alright, but not if you’re homeless or unemployed tonight, not if your kids are hungry and you can’t pay for heat. There are still a lot of Mr. Potters in the world. We know who you are and we’ll keep calling you out. God rest ye merry, gentlemen.

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos.




Will ‘New Obama’ Bring Hope for Change?

President Obama has finally shown glimmers of the leader that many Americans thought they saw in 2008, as he displays some boldness in ending U.S. hostility toward Cuba and acting on global warming. But it remains unclear if this “new Obama” will offer more reasons to hope for change, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

“My presidency is entering the fourth quarter. Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter, and I’m looking forward to it.” — Barack Obama, Dec. 19. 2014

One should be careful about drawing conclusions concerning the intentions and state of mind of a president based on when he takes certain major actions. The background to almost any presidential action involves a bureaucratic process within the U.S. government and, with foreign policies, negotiations or consultations with other governments.

Sometimes a step is taken at a particular time because that’s when the processes and the negotiations happened to be completed. Sometimes timing is largely a matter of making room on a crowded plate with other issues demanding high-level attention. Nonetheless, President Obama’s actions over the past several weeks are consistent with the analysis that he has become a more politically liberated and thus more energized national leader since the mid-term elections, which were the last elections which will put anyone into national-level office while Mr. Obama remains president.

If the President really has made such a transition, any American who would rather see broader pursuit of the national interest take precedence over a narrow focus on the next election ought to be pleased about that.

Mr. Obama is putting the lie to accusations that he is a timid and indecisive leader, and revealing such accusations to be merely a combination of general Obama-bashing and specific preferred policies of the accuser. Many of his opponents who call for more assertive U.S. policies overseas equate assertiveness with bombing somebody rather than, say, asserting the right for the United States to practice diplomacy with anyone it wants or getting in front of efforts to keep Earth habitable.

Many who say that people and governments overseas yearn for more forceful U.S. action (whiny Gulf Arab monarchies with their sectarian objectives seem to be a favorite reference point in this regard) are merely pushing certain narrow agendas on salient topics such as the Syrian civil war, while refusing to recognize the far broader international approval that Mr. Obama’s recent actions have received.

Even if the President does not have any more elections to worry about, domestic politics still will have a lot to do with what he can or cannot achieve. That there will be continued obstructionism in Congress is a safe bet, especially given that the results of those same mid-term elections did not give the obstructionists any new incentive to change their ways.

One of Mr. Obama’s responses to this reality is to make the fullest possible use of his executive authority where constructive legislative action is unlikely. Another thing the President has going for him is that once he takes specific action, this clarifies the choices between those actions and the alternatives in a way that drains credibility from opponents who try to argue that the President’s actions are against the national interest, and also clarifies likely electoral costs for opponents who are focusing on the next election, even on subjects where obstructionists might fare better in a debate waged in more abstract terms.

Timothy Egan has made a similar observation this way: “Are Republicans really going to spend the first year of their new majority trying to undo everything the president has done, to roll back the clock? Will they defend isolation of Cuba against the wishes of most young Cuban-Americans? Will they restore a family-destroying deportation policy, when Obama’s de-emphasis on sending illegal immigrants home has already given him a 15-point boost among Latinos? Will they take away health insurance from millions who never had it before? Will they insist that nothing can be done on climate change, while an agreement is on the table for the world’s two biggest polluters, the United States and China, to do something significant?”

If Mr. Obama really is going to make things interesting as well as productive for U.S. interests in the first few months of his fourth quarter and not just in the closing weeks of the third, two decision points in particular will bear watching, in addition to watching whether the President keeps the heat on, so to speak, on the problem of climate change. Taking the correct course of action at each of these decision points would involve, like the opening to Cuba, a removal of outdated and damaging impediments to U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy.

One of the two decision points concerns whether the President will inject into the U.S. negotiating position the flexibility that will be needed to conclude an agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. Although these are multilateral negotiations, the most critical decisions will be made by the President of the United States and the Supreme Leader of Iran.

Of course there will be vigorous efforts from the same quarters that have been trying all along to undermine the negotiations to destroy whatever agreement may be reached, specifically through Congressional action. There will be cries about giving up the store and making too many concessions. But that will happen no matter what the terms of the agreement.

And once an agreement is in hand and the implications between upholding the agreement and discarding it become clearer than ever, the issue will become like the others on Egan’s list, with no reasonable case to be made in favor of discarding the deal, and discarding along with it any special restraints on, and monitoring of, the Iranian program.

The other issue to watch is the unresolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, where Mr. Obama’s actions so far have mostly been limited to giving John Kerry a pat on the back and wishing him luck. For American politicians this issue is the grandaddy of all contradictions between doing what is in U.S. interests and bending in another direction because of fear of what will happen at the next election.

If Barack Obama really does feel liberated by not having to think about the next election, this issue presents the toughest test of that proposition. And if anyone doubts what this festering conflict does not only to Palestinians but to Israel, and why it cannot be allowed to fester indefinitely, a good corrective read is Roger Cohen’s most recent column.

There may actually be several decision points that this subject will present to Mr. Obama over the next two years, but an immediate issue concerns a draft resolution introduced at the United Nations Security Council on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, calling for an end to the Israeli occupation and conclusion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement by a date certain sometime in the next couple of years.

The language of the resolution will undergo more discussion and change before it is put to a vote. But if it basically says that the 47-year occupation has to end and that there should be established within the next couple of years a Palestinian state with boundaries negotiated by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, such a resolution will be worth supporting. It certainly should not be vetoed.

No such resolution will, by itself, bring a Palestinian state an inch closer to realization on the ground. Nor will it provide shortcuts to the tough bargaining that still will be necessary between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. But for the United States not to veto such a resolution, and even more if it actively supports it, will be a salient and significant development, a much-noticed departure from past unfortunate practice, that will at least bring resolution of the conflict closer.

This gets to the standards that President Obama ought to apply in assessing where his leadership can accomplish things and thus where he should make bold moves on any topic. Accomplishment in most cases will not mean wrapping up a problem in the next two years. In most cases it will mean imparting new momentum to a necessarily longer term process.

This clearly is the case with the climate problem; the agreement with China on reduction of emissions is an accomplishment because it imparts momentum to a process that will require many years and broad multilateral participation.

Even most of the benefit of the initiative on Cuba will not materialize during the rest of Mr. Obama’s term. The old U.S. policy toward Cuba had over half a century to show that it does not work; the new one deserves more than two years to show that it does (especially if Congressional resistance undermines the new policy).

And as for the Palestinian problem, for the United States not to oppose a UN resolution that explicitly criticizes the Israeli occupation will spur processes that are necessary to resolve the problem, even if it is not resolved in the next two years. The change in the U.S. posture will send a strong message to the rest of the world, ranging from extremists who repeatedly cite the unresolved conflict and the U.S. role in it as a reason for their anti-U.S. violence, to Israeli voters who have to think long and hard about the path their country is on.

The message is that the United States realizes, and is willing to act on that realization, that indefinite continuation of this conflict on terms set by the right-wing rulers of Israel is contrary to U.S. interests, as well as being contrary to the interests of Palestinians and of Israel itself.

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




US Democracy’s Failure at Racial Justice

The unprovoked murder of two New York policemen has prompted understandable outrage, but the larger context remains the U.S. failure to address legacies of slavery and segregation, compounded by recent police violence targeting young black men, as Dustin Axe explains.

By Dustin Axe

Many people might be shocked and even appalled to see such a fervent national reaction to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. There have not only been weeks of demonstrations and marches around the nation but Ferguson itself experienced days of rioting.

Corporate media outlets have covered protests in places like New York, Boston, Chicago, and Oakland with enthusiasm, and Attor

ney General Eric Holder and President Obama have each spoken extensively about it. Media coverage and national outrage have also brought to light other killings of black people at the hands of police, events that might not otherwise get attention. The choke hold death of Eric Garner and the shooting death of Tamir Rice have each received considerable amount of coverage.

Why did the killing of one black man by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, trigger such a severe reaction? After all, events like this are regular occurrences.

Anarchist Alexander Berkman (1870-1936) offers insight to this question in his essay entitled “The Idea Is the Thing.” He wrote: “The social revolution . . . is not an accident, not a sudden happening. There is nothing sudden about it, for ideas don’t change suddenly. They grow slowly, gradually, like the plant or flower.

“Hence the social revolution is a result, a development, which means that it is evolutionary. It develops to the point when considerable numbers of people have embraced the new ideas and are determined to put them into practice. When they attempt to do so and meet with opposition, then the slow, quiet, and peaceful social evolution becomes quick, militant, and violent. Evolution becomes revolution.”

This is true today as it was in the early 1900’s when Berkman wrote it. Social movements and revolutions do not start with singular events. They are the result of gradual accumulation of injustices experienced by many people for a really long time.

Nobody knows when a social revolution is coming and nobody can control it, least of all those in power. The beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s is often attributed to Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her bus seat that was reserved for whites only. This was a transformative event, one that ignited a social movement unlike any other in the history of the United States, but what followed, boycotts, rallies, marches, riots, etc., was the result of decades and centuries of oppression, not one occurrence.

Likewise, the outrage over the shooting death of Michael Brown is the effect of years, decades, and even centuries of oppression of black people.

Legacy of Injustice

We are witnessing the legacy of both slavery and segregation, and we are experiencing a well established new racial caste system. Africans were bought and sold by the millions to work on colonial plantations, and our nation’s founding documents preserved slavery as an institution.

When the Constitution was ratified black people were considered to be three-fifth of a person (for the purpose of representation), not real human beings. When the Civil War ended and slavery was outlawed, it was not entirely clear socially, politically or economically what would happen to the 4 million newly freed slaves. The answer was Jim Crow.

Black people were free from chains but they were not free from a racial caste system that segregated them from whites. A considerable amount of equality was gained because of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, however, widespread discrimination and segregation continue today in a new form.

Michelle Alexander’s book, entitled The New Jim Crow, details the reality millions of black people experience as a result of the War on Drugs, three strike laws, maximum minimum sentencing, stop and frisk, and mass incarceration. She states being a criminal is what it means to be black today.

There are more black people in jail, on probation, or on parole than were enslaved in 1850. In all, one in 30 black people are involved in the justice system one way or another. And once in the criminal justice system, a label renders a person obsolete by limiting their ability to get housing, employment, higher education, food stamps, and it even limits one’s ability to vote. This is effectively legal discrimination against black people, which ultimately renders them second-class citizens.

Alexander explains that while the tactics of social control have changed from slavery to segregation to mass incarceration, the overall goal has not. The only difference is the language used. She writes: “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.”

Indeed, draconian laws are enforced by a paramilitary police who use brutal tactics in the name of “law and order.” The result is police brutality and violence. A ProPublica analysis of killings by police reveals that black people are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white people. In addition, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement found in the 2012 Annual Report on extrajudicial killing that a black person is killed every 28 hours by police, security guards, or vigilantes.

Thus, we should try to understand the response in Ferguson and across the nation in this context. When we learn about the extent to which black people are targeted by laws and by the police we can appreciate their frustration. And we now see where Alexander Berkman was right. He argues that social revolution is an evolutionary process, one that involves many people who embrace the same frustrations.

This is how a seemingly small event, like the refusal to give up one’s bus seat or the killing of an unarmed person in the middle of the street, erupts into a quick, sometime violent revolution.

Ferguson and Democracy

It is easy to look at rioting in Ferguson and dismiss it. Many people see astonishing images of police cars on fire and hear interviews of store owners who had their businesses destroyed and think violence is wrong and wag their finger at the citizens of Ferguson. I want to offer a different perspective.

I suggest we look beyond the fire and looted stores, and even beyond the particular details of the Michael Brown case, which no one truly knows. We should instead focus on the context of the events in Ferguson and try to understand it as a part of democracy.

I am not justifying rioting by any means. I am the first person to criticize violence, including America’s use of violence in empire-building abroad. Violence is never the answer, it is always wrong. I am arguing that race riots should be understood as part of a larger, democratic process for change.

Anger in Ferguson is an accurate representation of what happens when peaceful channels for change are too slow or entirely absent. Violence erupts when people do not have avenues to enact peaceful change. If we had a transparent democratic system, one that gave citizens the opportunity to have their voices heard, there would not be rioting

Understood this way, riots can be a useful barometer that reveals just how ineffective our democracy is. Howard Zinn (1922-2010) makes this argument in his 1973 book, Disobedience and Democracy. If citizens turn to unorganized violence to enact change rather than working peacefully through the “system” then you know your government is ineffectual.

It proves the slowness it has in solving problems, such as poverty, racism and police brutality. Zinn says we must remember that social disorder, whether it is violent or nonviolent, is the result of problems, not the cause. In other words, the real problem is not a riot, but rather the unsolved grievances of the people.

In Ferguson, we are seeing what happens when large numbers of oppressed people are entirely marginalized and left with no political power whatsoever. In order to have a political voice in the United States you must have money. Our elections, debates, and political parties are entirely run by corporate elites and billionaires, not poor people.

This means large numbers of Ferguson citizens, as well as tens of thousands of poor people all across America, including you and me, are entirely disenfranchised from the democratic process. They simply cannot change draconian laws that directly affect them in negative ways. Therefore, it is only a matter of time before an event, some sort of trigger, such as the shooting of Michael Brown, gets people in the street, yelling and rioting.

Broken Economic System

What we are really seeing is the effects of vast amount of inequality and poverty. The issue at hand is a broken economic system, one that criminalizes the poor and people of color. Laws, police, and prisons do not function as instruments of crime control, but rather social control. The unprecedented power police departments have and the expansion of their arsenal started decades ago, and it directly correlates with the upsurge of inequality.

I am not alone in my analysis. In a 1968 speech, Martin Luther King said this about riots: “It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

Race riots in the 1960’s were effective in starting national conversations and debates about voting rights and equality. They themselves were not instruments of change, because violence leads to violence and it never guarantees positive change; however, they were part of the process for change.

Today, people are already discussing solutions to police brutality like better training and more cameras for police officers. President Obama announced a $75 million proposal to make 50,000 body cameras available to police officers. Cameras will not solve the underline problems of inequality and racism, but they might at least reduce incidents of police brutality.

Why look down our noses at poor people who are fed up with being treated as second-class citizens? We should not wag our finger at rioters in Ferguson, just as we should not dismiss terrorists who want to attack the United States, or a person who storms a school with an assault rifle. Doing so ignores the broader context at hand, and thus limits any opportunity to learn from such events. Instead, we should identify the root cause and ask tough questions. Why are poor people angry? Why are black people angry?

As King suggested, if we do not denounce those who have all the wealth and power and who have gained it mostly through terror and war, then it is unfair to denounce poor black people who have nothing. Again, I am not condoning violence. I am suggesting we approach the events in Ferguson from a different perspective. No one ever said democracy was easy!

Ferguson and Empire

In an interview with Laura Flanders, Chris Hedges explains it perfectly. He says all empires show signs of decline when they start using ruthless tactics and weapons (that are normally used abroad) on its own citizens at home. In other words, things are bad when the barrel of the gun is aimed at home. This is clearly happening in America.

Missouri just deployed its National Guard in St. Louis to disperse protesters and quell a rioting, but soldiers and tanks are being used nationwide for lesser offensives. We are seeing police officers being deployed on the streets with full military gear, machine guns, tanks, and drones.

The same weapons used in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen are being deployed on American streets to control local disturbances. The distribution of military supplies to police departments, such as sniper rifles, silencers, tanks, and M-16’s, is at a record high, and it is overwhelming to see how quickly these things can be deployed.

The signs are everywhere. In 2013, the Boston Police Department quarantined a significant part of the city and systematically when door to door in full military gear to search for a suspect. An early morning warrant being issued in Oakland by SWAT police in armored vehicles is no different than a night raid in Pakistan.

Is it too hard to imagine drones being used one day to take down suspects in Detroit like they are in Yemen? And there have been an increasing number of enemies being identified at home just like they are abroad. We are witnessing an intensification of security at the border and record-breaking deportation of immigrants.

The mechanisms of control used in Gaza are the same used at home. Chicago Police Department Superintendent Garry McCarthy traveled to Israel last month to lead a delegation of law enforcement officials from 60 nations. It was Israel’s 3rd Annual International Homeland Security Conference, and its goal was to discuss best practices and strategies for fighting crime and preventing insurrection.

McCarthy shared Chicago’s experience of controlling protesters during the 2012 NATO summit. Speaking from firsthand experience, I can tell you that the police presence during the NATO summit was completely extravagant and unnecessary. The city was swamped with cops, many of which were bused in from other states. Mayor Rahm Emanuel used the event as an excuse to further militarize the police and to increase surveillance.

Berkman said social revolutions do not happen by accident, but the same can be said of empires. They are forged out of the deliberate use of greed, theft, deceit, imperialism and ruthless terror. The American Empire is no different.

Yet the vast majority of Americans prefer to ignore it; foreign affairs are not something most people pay attention to. However, if you pay attention to the weapons and tactics being used by the American Empire for social control at home, you are seeing exactly what it does abroad, as well. This is a sign that our empire is imploding.

We do not know for sure if the death of Michael Brown is the event that will ignited a social revolution, but we do know it started a considerable amount of unrest and dissent. I believe many people wonder how one event could do such a thing because they are not fully aware or sensitive to the amount of oppression black people experience.

We should not be surprised when victims of the New Jim Crow spill into the streets full of anger. And if proper channels for peaceful change do not exist, we should not be surprise if that anger becomes violent. When inequality, unjust laws, mass incarceration, racism and police brutality among other things, are not addressed then the result is insurrection.

Some may see rioting in Ferguson as just that, rioting. I see an empire in decline, seeds of revolution, and a struggle to preserve democracy.

Dustin Axe is a teacher and activist from Chicago, Illinois.  He can be contacted at dustinaxe@gmail.com.




The Liberal Idiocy on Russia/Ukraine

Exclusive: American pundits are often more interested in scoring points against their partisan rivals than in the pain that U.S. policies inflict on people in faraway lands, as columnists Paul Krugman and Thomas L. Friedman are showing regarding Russia and Ukraine, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Among honest and knowledgeable people, there really isn’t much doubt about what happened in Ukraine last winter. There was a U.S.-backed coup which ousted a constitutionally elected president and replaced him with a regime more in line with U.S. interests. Even some smart people who agree with the policy of going on the offensive against Russia recognize this reality.

For instance, George Friedman, the founder of the global intelligence firm Stratfor, was quoted in an interview with the Russian liberal business publication Kommersant as saying what happened on Feb. 22 in Kiev the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych “really was the most blatant coup in history.”

Brushing aside the righteous indignation and self-serving propaganda, Stratfor’s Friedman recognized that both Russia and the United States were operating in what they perceived to be their own interests. “The bottom line is that the strategic interests of the United States are to prevent Russia from becoming a hegemon,” he said. “And the strategic interests of Russia are not to allow the U.S. close to its borders.”

Another relative voice of reason, at least on this topic, has been former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who in an interview with Der Spiegel dismissed Official Washington’s conventional wisdom that Russian President Vladimir Putin provoked the crisis and then annexed Crimea as part of some diabolical scheme to reclaim territory lost when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

“The annexation of Crimea was not a move toward global conquest,” the 91-year-old Kissinger said. “It was not Hitler moving into Czechoslovakia” as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had suggested.

Kissinger noted that Putin had no intention of instigating a crisis in Ukraine: “Putin spent tens of billions of dollars on the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The theme of the Olympics was that Russia is a progressive state tied to the West through its culture and, therefore, it presumably wants to be part of it. So it doesn’t make any sense that a week after the close of the Olympics, Putin would take Crimea and start a war over Ukraine.”

Instead Kissinger argued that the West with its strategy of pulling Ukraine into the orbit of the European Union was responsible for the crisis by failing to understand Russian sensitivity over Ukraine and making the grave mistake of quickly pushing the confrontation beyond dialogue.

While the comments by Henry Kissinger and Stratfor’s Friedman reflect the reality of what demonstrably happened in Ukraine, an entirely different “reality” exists in Official Washington. (Note that both interviews were carried in foreign, not U.S. publications.) In the United States, across the ideological spectrum, the only permitted viewpoint is that a crazed Putin launched a war of aggression against his neighbors and must be stopped.

Facts, such as the declaration in September 2013 from a leading neocon, National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman, that Ukraine was “the biggest prize” and an important step toward ousting Putin in Russia, do not fit into this story frame. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “A Shadow U.S. Foreign Policy.”]

Nor do the comments of neocon Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, who was caught in a pre-coup phone call, handpicking Ukraine’s future leaders and discussing how to “glue this thing.” Nor her public statements about the United States investing $5 billion in Ukraine’s “European aspirations.”

White Hats, Black Hats

Instead of dealing with what actually happened in Ukraine, U.S. pundits and politicians from conservative to liberal have bought into a fantasy version of events in which the coup-makers all wore white hats and the elected president and his eastern Ukrainian supporters along with Putin all wore black hats.

But there are, as always, rhetorical differences across the U.S. partisan liberal-conservative divide. On Ukraine, the American Right urges an escalation of military tensions against Russia while chiding President Barack Obama for weakness (when compared with Putin’s toughness) and liberals cheer on Obama’s supposed success in driving the Russian economy into a painful recession while accusing the Right of having a man-crush on Putin.

This liberal “theme” of jabbing the Right for its alleged love of Putin takes the Right’s comments about his forcefulness out of context, simply to score a political point. But the Right-loves-Putin charge has become all the rage with the likes of Paul Krugman, Thomas L. Friedman and other liberals who are bubbling with joy over the economic suffering being inflicted on the people of Russia and presumably eastern Ukraine.

Krugman, who is quickly jettisoning his reputation for thoughtfulness, published a second column on this topic in a row, showing that he has fully bought into all the propaganda “themes” emanating from the U.S. State Department and the compliant U.S. mainstream news media.

In Krugman’s mind, it was Putin who instigated the crisis with the goal of plundering Ukraine. Operating from that false hypothesis, Krugman then spins off this question: “why did Mr. Putin do something so stupid? The answer is obvious if you think about Mr. Putin’s background. Remember, he’s an ex-K.G.B. man, which is to say, he spent his formative years as a professional thug. Violence and threats of violence, supplemented with bribery and corruption, are what he knows.

“And for years he had no incentive to learn anything else: High oil prices made Russia rich, and like everyone who presides over a bubble, he surely convinced himself that he was responsible for his own success. At a guess, he didn’t realize until a few days ago that he has no idea how to function in the 21st century.”

But Krugman is not only operating from a false hypothesis the reality was that the Ukraine crisis was forced on Putin, not that he went seeking it Krugman also has a simplistic view of the KGB, which, like the American CIA, certainly had its share of thugs but also had a significant number of smart analysts. Some of those KGB analysts were in the forefront of recognizing the need for the Soviet Union to reform its economy and to reach out to the West.

Putin was generally allied with the KGB faction which favored “convergence” with the West, a Russian attitude that dates back to Peter the Great, seeking Russia’s acceptance as part of Europe rather than being shunned by Europe as part of Asia.

Putin himself pined for the day when Russia would be accepted as a part of the First World with G-8 status and other big-power accoutrements. I’m told he took great pride in his success helping President Obama in 2013 resolve crises with Syria over the mysterious sarin-gas attack and with Iran over its nuclear program.

As Kissinger noted, Putin’s hunger for Western acceptance was the reason he obsessed so much over the Sochi Olympics and even neglected the festering political crisis in neighboring Ukraine.

In other words, Paul Krugman doesn’t know what he’s talking about regarding Ukraine. His stab at offering a geopolitical analysis suffers from what an economist should recognize as “garbage in, garbage out.” [See also Consortiumnews.com’s “Krugman Joins the Anti-Putin Pack.”]

A Spreading Idiocy

Still, this liberal mindlessness appears to be catching. On Sunday, the New York Times’ star columnist Thomas L. Friedman weighed in with his own upside-down analysis, smirking about the economic suffering now being felt by average Russians because of the U.S.-led sanctions and the Saudi-spurred collapse of oil prices.

Friedman wrote: “In March, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Mike Rogers, was asked on ‘Fox News Sunday’ how he thought President Obama was handling relations with Russia versus how President Vladimir Putin had been handling relations with the United States. Rogers responded: ‘Well, I think Putin is playing chess, and I think we’re playing marbles. And I don’t think it’s even close.’

“Hmmm. Marbles. That’s an interesting metaphor. Actually, it turns out that Obama was the one playing chess and Putin was the one playing marbles, and it wouldn’t be wrong to say today that Putin’s lost most of his, in both senses of the word.”

Ha-ha-ha. Putin has lost his marbles! So clever! Perhaps it also wouldn’t be wrong to say that Tom Friedman has lost any credibility that he ever had by getting pretty much every international crisis wrong, most notably the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 when he was just as smarmy in paving the way for that bloody catastrophe.

Washington Post liberal columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. also joined in the “group think” on Monday, writing “even some of [Obama’s] older bets were paying off. The Russian economy is reeling from sanctions imposed in response to its invasion of Ukraine (and from low oil prices). An approach seen by its critics as not tough enough is beginning to show its teeth.”

Beyond the propagandistic quality of these columns refusing to recognize the complex reality of what actually happened in Ukraine, including the overwhelming referendum by the voters of Crimea to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia there is this disturbingly smug pleasure at how the U.S. actions are hurting the people of Russia.

Whatever you think of Putin, a key reason why he has remained so popular is that he brought some stability to the Russian economy after the “shock therapy” days of plunder under Boris Yeltsin when many Russians were pushed to the brink of starvation. Putin pushed back against some of the corrupt oligarchs who had amassed vast power under Yeltsin (while also striking alliances with others).

But the cumulative effect of a more stable Russian economy was that a fragile middle class was taking shape in a country that has notoriously failed to generate one over the centuries. Because of the U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine, which essentially forced Putin’s response and then led to Obama’s sanctions, the Russian middle class is losing its modest savings as the ruble’s value collapses.

In other words, the part of Russia’s population that could best propel Russia toward a more democratic and progressive future is being dismantled, in part, by punitive U.S. policies while liberals Krugman, Friedman and Dionne celebrate.

Insider Rivalries

What really seems to matter to these pundits is getting a shot in at their conservative rivals, not the fate of average Russians. This attitude reminded me of an earlier phase of these mindless liberal-conservative food fights  in 1990 when conservative Robert Novak looked for ways to resolve Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait by accepting Saddam Hussein’s private offers to withdraw rather than resorting to war.

Yet, when Novak appeared on CNN’s “Capital Gang,” Al Hunt, a centrist who played the role of liberal pundit on the show, ridiculed the old “Prince of Darkness” for his uncharacteristic peaceful bent. Hunt hung the nickname “Neville Novak” around Novak’s neck, comparing him to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who sought to appease Adolf Hitler before World War II.

When I later asked Hunt why he had derided Novak for looking at more peaceful solutions to an international crisis, Hunt defended the “Neville Novak” line by noting all the times that Novak had baited opponents for their softness against communism. “After years of battling Novak from the left, to have gotten to his right, I enjoyed that,” Hunt said.

Yet, the human consequences from the failure to resolve the Kuwait crisis peacefully have been almost incalculable. Beyond the hundreds of U.S. and coalition deaths and the tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians killed, the Persian Gulf War set the stage for a decade of harsh economic sanctions against Iraq and marked a turning point for Saudi Osama bin Laden to begin targeting the United States.

Arguably, if Novak had been listened to if Hussein’s peace feelers had been taken seriously history might have taken a very different and less violent course. However, among Washington’s insiders, it seems that nothing is more important than their sparring with each other, in television and in print.

Now, these liberal columnists are enjoying bashing conservatives over their supposed love of Putin and their tolerance for Putin’s “invasion” of Ukraine. Not only are the likes of Paul Krugman, Thomas L. Friedman and E.J. Dionne Jr. spreading dangerous propaganda, they are setting the stage for a new Cold War and possibly even a nuclear confrontation.

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




The ‘Exceptionalism’ of US Torture

Americans like to think of themselves as the ultimate “good guys” and anyone who gets in their way as a “bad guy.” Under this theory of U.S. “exceptionalism,” whatever “we” do must be moral or at least morally defensible, from sponsoring coups around the world to torture, as William Blum describes.

By William Blum

In 1964, the Brazilian military, in a U.S.-designed coup, overthrew a liberal (not more to the left than that) government and proceeded to rule with an iron fist for the next 21 years. In 1979 the military regime passed an amnesty law blocking the prosecution of its members for torture and other crimes. The amnesty still holds.

That’s how they handle such matters in what used to be called The Third World. In the First World, however, they have no need for such legal niceties. In the United States, military torturers and their political godfathers are granted amnesty automatically, simply for being American, solely for belonging to the “Good Guys Club.”

So now, with the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, we have further depressing revelations about U.S. foreign policy. But do Americans and the world need yet another reminder that the United States is a leading practitioner of torture? Yes. The message cannot be broadcast too often because the indoctrination of the American people and Americophiles all around the world is so deeply embedded that it takes repeated shocks to the system to dislodge it.

No one does brainwashing like the good ol’ Yankee inventors of advertising and public relations. And there is always a new generation just coming of age with stars (and stripes) in their eyes.

The public also has to be reminded yet again that contrary to what most of the media and Barack Obama would have us all believe the President has never actually banned torture per se, despite saying recently that he had “unequivocally banned torture” after taking office.

Shortly after Obama’s first inauguration, both he and Leon Panetta, the new Director of the CIA, explicitly stated that “rendition” was not being ended. As the Los Angeles Times reported at the time: “Under executive orders issued by Obama recently, the CIA still has authority to carry out what are known as renditions, secret abductions and transfers of prisoners to countries that cooperate with the United States.”

The English translation of “cooperate” is “torture.” Rendition is simply outsourcing torture. There was no other reason to take prisoners to Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Egypt, Jordan, Kenya, Somalia, Kosovo, or the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, amongst other torture centers employed by the United States. Kosovo and Diego Garcia both of which house large and very secretive American military bases if not some of the other locations, may well still be open for torture business, as is the Guantánamo Base in Cuba.

Moreover, the key Executive Order referred to, number 13491, issued Jan. 22, 2009, “Ensuring Lawful Interrogations,” leaves a major loophole. It states repeatedly that humane treatment, including the absence of torture, is applicable only to prisoners detained in an “armed conflict.” Thus, torture by Americans outside an environment of “armed conflict” is not explicitly prohibited. But what about torture within an environment of “counter-terrorism”?

The Executive Order required the CIA to use only the interrogation methods outlined in a revised Army Field Manual. However, using the Army Field Manual as a guide to prisoner treatment and interrogation still allows solitary confinement, perceptual or sensory deprivation, sensory overload, sleep deprivation, the induction of fear and hopelessness, mind-altering drugs, environmental manipulation such as temperature and noise, and stress positions, amongst other charming examples of American Exceptionalism.

After Panetta was questioned by a Senate panel, the New York Times wrote that he had “left open the possibility that the agency could seek permission to use interrogation methods more aggressive than the limited menu that President Obama authorized under new rules Mr. Panetta also said the agency would continue the Bush administration practice of ‘rendition’ But he said the agency would refuse to deliver a suspect into the hands of a country known for torture or other actions ‘that violate our human values’.”

The last sentence is of course childishly absurd. The countries chosen to receive rendition prisoners were chosen precisely and solely because they were willing and able to torture them. Four months after Obama and Panetta took office, the New York Times could report that renditions had reached new heights.

The present news reports indicate that Washington’s obsession with torture stems from 9/11, to prevent a repetition. The President speaks of “the fearful excesses of the post-9/11 era.” There’s something to that idea, but not a great deal. Torture in America is actually as old as the country.

What government has been intimately involved with that horror more than the United States? Teaching it, supplying the manuals, supplying the equipment, creation of international torture centers, kidnapping people to these places, solitary confinement, forced feeding, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Chicago Lord forgive us!

In 2011, Brazil instituted a National Truth Commission to officially investigate the crimes of the military government, which came to an end in 1985. But Mr. Obama has in fact rejected calls for a truth commission concerning CIA torture.

On June 17 of this year, however, when Vice President Joseph Biden was in Brazil, he gave the Truth Commission 43 State Department cables and reports concerning the Brazilian military regime, including one entitled “Widespread Arrests and Psychophysical Interrogation of Suspected Subversives.”

Thus it is that once again the United States of America will not be subjected to any accountability for having broken U.S. laws, international laws, and the fundamental laws of human decency. Obama can expect the same kindness from his successor as he has extended to George W.

“One of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better.” Barack Obama, written statement issued moments after the Senate report was made public.

And if that pile of hypocrisy is not big enough or smelly enough, try adding to it Biden’s remark regard his visit to Brazil: “I hope that in taking steps to come to grips with our past we can find a way to focus on the immense promise of the future.”

If the torturers of the Bush and Obama administrations are not held accountable in the United States they must be pursued internationally under the principles of universal jurisdiction.

In 1984, an historic step was taken by the United Nations with the drafting of the “Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” (came into force in 1987, ratified by the United States in 1994). Article 2, section 2 of the Convention states: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

Such marvelously clear, unequivocal and principled language, to set a single standard for a world that makes it increasingly difficult for one to feel proud of humanity. We cannot slide back. If today it’s deemed acceptable to torture the person who supposedly has the vital “ticking-bomb” information needed to save lives, tomorrow it will be acceptable to torture him to learn the identities of his alleged co-conspirators. Would we allow slavery to resume for just a short while to serve some “national emergency” or some other “higher purpose”?

If you open the window of torture, even just a crack, the cold air of the Dark Ages will fill the whole room.

William Blum is an author, historian, and renowned critic of U.S. foreign policy. He is the author of Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II and Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, among others. [This article originally appeared at the Anti-Empire Report,  http://williamblum.org/ .]




Is Torture a ‘Conservative’ Value?

Conservatives who usually hail individual liberties are leading the televised defense of the U.S. government’s torture of terror suspects, including many who were completely innocent. But some conservatives are troubled by this knee-jerk defense of the Bush administration, as Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland explains.

By Ivan Eland

On the news talk shows, everyone is talking about torture — mostly defending the Bush administration’s hysterical actions after the 9/11 attacks. Granted, 9/11 was a searing experience for the general public, which wanted action in retaliation. However, it is the duty of wise political leaders to reason with the public to dampen the desire for any rash, counterproductive actions.

Instead, Bush administration officials used such public fear and anger from 9/11 to fuel public support for their own unrelated policy agenda that made the Islamist terrorism problem worse. Torture was one aspect of that policy agenda.

Even after 9/11, terrorism was a rare event, as it was before, and government terrorism experts should have known that the resources of a small group, such as al Qaeda, were not great enough to necessitate excesses in response, such as torture and other government usurpation of American constitutionally-guaranteed civil liberties.

When prisoner abuse and torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were exposed, guerrilla violence following in the wake of Bush’s trumped-up post-9/11 invasion and occupation of Iraq worsened. Now torture at CIA secret prisons around the world after 9/11, already well-known but highlighted and detailed by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, could similarly fan the flames of anti-American Islamism.

Yet news programs gave more air time to the defenders of Bush’s clearly illegal and counterproductive policy than they did to opponents of torture — such as committee members and human rights organizations. The reason is that the media is in the habit of focusing in on Executive Branch officials as authoritative sources on policy (because the Executive Branch, contrary to the country’s Founders’ vision, now is by far the most powerful arm of government).

Also, the media likes to fan controversy and ex-officials defending lurid, outrageous, and frankly “un-American” policy is well … great television. I say un-American because secret imprisonment and torture clearly violate U.S. law, official U.S. policy prior to the Bush administration, the international convention on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment signed by Ronald Reagan and ratified by Congress, and long-standing international standards of human rights.

Finally, Obama administration officials, who discontinued torture when Barack Obama came into office, have been ducking the issue, because they don’t want to adversely affect the morale of the CIA bureaucracy.

However, maybe if some CIA personnel who tortured people or destroyed videos of it were prosecuted, the agency would learn to avoid such illegalities in the future. People going to jail would have a more searing effect than apparently the Church Committee hearings in the mid-1970s had on illegal and unconstitutional practices by intelligence agencies.

In fact, perhaps Congress should pass a law that prohibits the CIA (and the NSA) from doing any activities other than lawful intelligence collecting on foreigners. Both agencies would be much better off and have better morale in the long-term if they stuck to this vital mission.

Yet, since its inception, the CIA has been distracted by more glamorous missions than the drudgery of painstaking intelligence collection — first covert action against unfriendly countries and more recently the management of the secret prisons where the torture occurred.

As well as being un-American — we should be better than our adversaries, such as ISIS or al Qaeda, who kidnap people and mistreat and gruesomely kill prisoners, but were not — torture theretofore had been clearly regarded as counterproductive, even by the U.S. government itself. The FBI and U.S. military initially blanched at the idea of U.S. personnel torturing people, because bad information is usually produced by the victim just to get the pain to stop.

The CIA during the Bush administration forgot its own report concluding the same in 1989. Moreover, the U.S. military — especially its lawyers — has never been keen on the practice because it gives future enemies an excuse to torture American service personnel in retaliation and makes it more likely that any enemy will fight to the death rather than be taken prisoner by the Americans. Both effects can result in more deaths to U.S. military personnel in any war.

But in the wake of 9/11, did Bush and Cheney listen to the experts in the military and the FBI on the counterproductivity of torture? No, instead these avoiders of combat during the Vietnam era had to pose as macho and pretend to do something to vanquish evil everywhere in lieu of focusing on capturing al Qaeda members that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks (not on overthrowing and capturing Saddam Hussein), interrogating them with FBI and military interrogators using legal tried-and-true methods, and trying them as criminals in perfectly capable civilian courts.

Instead, Bush and Cheney thought it would be really cool to let the CIA hire bozo contractors, who had no interrogation experience, to run a keystone cops program to kidnap and manhandle captives in CIA secret prisons. According to CIA admission, either implicitly or explicitly in CIA documents, this policy led to a shocking outcome: Almost a quarter (at least) of detainees in CIA prisons weren’t guilty of anything at all, were held for years in dungeon-style prisons, and some were tortured.

It is amazing that in an America that is becoming politically correct on everything else, so many defenders of a heinous and clearly illegal practice can be found. They are mostly Republicans defending what was an outlaw Bush administration — the exception being John McCain, who represents the military’s view on the subject.

Since Dick Cheney, the most dangerous American politician in recent times, has publicly declared that he would support torture if he had it to do over again, maybe this blatant in-your-face attitude will cause some country overseas that has signed the torture convention, or has had American torture done on its territory, will prosecute him; certainly the Obama administration, which overall has not been that much better than the Bush administration in safeguarding American civil liberties, will not.

At minimum, maybe former Bush administration officials will fear to travel overseas for fear of being shanghaied for prosecution and jailing. Alberto Gonzalez, Bush’s Attorney General, recently expressed some personal fear of this outcome on a news program.

Since Bush started all of the U.S. government torture rolling by his “wink and nudge” declaration in February 2002 that al Qaeda fighters would not be held under the safeguards of the Geneva Conventions and has crowed about the necessity of using torture during his tenure, maybe he should just stay at home on the Texas ranch too.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy. [This story originally was published as a blog post at HuffingtonPost.]




Torture’s Time for Accountability

Exclusive: America’s reputation for cognitive dissonance is being tested by the Senate report documenting the U.S. government’s torture of detainees and the fact that nothing is happening to those responsible. Ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern says the nation must choose between crossing the Delaware or the Rubicon.

By Ray McGovern

I trust I was not alone in seeing irony in President Barack Obama’s public chiding of Sony on Friday for caving in to hacker demands to cancel distribution of its comedy “The Interview” about a fictional CIA plot to assassinate North Korea’s real-life leader Kim Jong-Un after a retaliatory cyber attack blamed on North Korea.

Rather than questioning Sony’s wisdom in producing a film that jokes about something as serious as assassinating a nation’s leader, Obama upbraided Sony’s producers for the decision to pull the movie from theaters. “I wish they had spoken to me first,” said Obama, warning them not to ”get into a pattern in which you’re intimidated.”

The irony that I saw was in Obama’s “tough-guy” advice just after he had been so intimidated by the real-life CIA that he could not muster the courage to fire those who managed and carried out a quite-unfunny policy of torture on an industrial scale much less try to find some way to hold senior officials of the Bush/Cheney administration accountable. However great the financial loss to Sony’s bottom line, the costs attributable to Obama’s timidity are incalculably more damaging to the United States.

Of course, the common thread between assassinations and torture is Official Washington’s disdain for international law at least as it pertains to the “exceptional” U.S. government. I suppose it might have been even more ironic if President Obama, who has overseen an actual targeted assassination program for six years, would have voiced concern about a movie making light of a made-up assassination plot.

(There was a time, especially after the 1960s, when Americans didn’t find the notion of murdering political leaders very amusing.)

Anyway, veteran UPI editor Arnaud de Borchgrave had it right on Friday when he noted that the CIA torture abuses revealed in the report released by Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein on Dec. 9 have “given the U.S. a geopolitical black eye of worldwide dimensions. For the average Russian, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, African, Arab, Iranian, or any other race or nationality, America is now no better or worse than any other global scoundrel.”

Not amused by the U.S. government’s we’re-above-the-law arrogance, North Korea’s U.N. ambassador has called on the world body to investigate the CIA for subjecting captured al-Qaeda operatives to “brutal, medieval” forms of torture. (No, that is not a joke. North Korea is lecturing Washington on barbaric behavior.) It seems clear that the damage done by the CIA’s officially sanctioned torture and equally important Obama’s decision to hold the torturers harmless, leave an incalculably large, indelible stain on the U.S. reputation for defending human rights.

Crossing Our Delaware

So what happens next, after America now acknowledges having crossed the Rubicon into the practice of torture a decade ago? What to do after these abhorrent “techniques,” such as waterboarding and “rectal rehydration,” have been exposed in a redacted Senate Intelligence Committee report based on CIA cables, emails and other original documents?  (I find myself wondering whether even more sadistic outrages would be detailed in the un-redacted text of the Senate report.)

The question remains: Will the top torture criminals and their obedient lackeys from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney down to those CIA personnel and contractors “just following orders” in the CIA’s secret prisons continue to escape accountability? As things now stand, the sad answer seems to be, “Yes, unless.”

At this point, those responsible will continue to enjoy de facto immunity unless (1) they travel abroad and are apprehended and brought to justice under the principle of “universal jurisdiction” by governments more committed to enforcing international law than our own; or (2) unless we citizens summon the kind of courage shown by the “winter soldiers” of George Washington’s army who crossed the Delaware and turned the tide of battle at Christmastime 1776, leading four cold Christmases later to American freedom from British rule.

Worth noting in this connection is that Gen. George Washington imposed strong strictures against abuse of captured British and Hessian prisoners, strictures not observed by the English forces who deemed the American soldiers “traitors” and often confined them to appalling conditions aboard prison ships and in other unsanitary locations where more than 10,000 died of neglect.

Thomas Paine, one of the stalwart soldiers in Washington’s army, famously wrote during that difficult winter of 1776-77: “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of all men and women.”

It might well be said of us that “Now is the winter of our discontent,” a time when rock-ribbed American ideals have been trampled beneath the boot of thuggish behavior and all that seems left is a swaggering haughtiness more fitting the British officer corps than our courageous “rabble in arms.”

Today’s question is whether we will be discontented enough to expose ourselves to the elements, as those “winter soldiers” were exposed, albeit “elements” of a different kind, risks to our reputations, impositions on our time, commitment of our talents and resources. But it may be our turn to repay the debt to those soldiers who overcame great odds and great hardships to create a nation based on the rule of law, not the whim of men.

Though the Founders were flawed individuals themselves and the early United States should not be idealized as a place without grave injustices there was wisdom in many of their principles, including a prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments” in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

They also made wise observations about America’s proper place in the world as a beacon of liberty, not as the world’s policeman. Recognizing the dangers and corruption that could come from excessive involvement in foreign conflicts, the first three presidents George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson all warned against “entangling alliances.” And years later, President John Quincy Adams, who had watched the new nation from its birth, warned that America “goes not abroad seeking monsters to destroy.”

In my view, we dishonor the memory of those courageous patriots if we leave it to other countries to do our justice for us regarding the torturers so vividly depicted in the CIA cables revealed by the Senate report. Rather, our generation is being called on to rise up against the practice of torture and other abuses drone killings, for example in such a way as to force a timid President to stop calling felons “patriots” and, instead, do his duty in holding them accountable. Stern enforcement of both U.S. and international law is the only deterrent against this kind of unconscionable abuse happening again.

During the Watergate scandal, senior officials went to jail for lying and obstructing justice. Many other politicians have faced stiff prison time for relatively petty corruption. So why should government leaders and their subordinates get a walk on such a severe crime of state as torture?

Presidential Timidity

Left to his own devices, President Obama is likely to keep putting the White House stamp on the stay-out-of-jail-free cards that he issued to the torturers when he came into office six years ago, wanting to “look forward, not backward.”

I believed then as I do now that it was because he feared for his own hide (physically as well as politically) that he carved out an exemption for the torturers. So much for discharging his Constitutional duty to “take care that the laws are faithfully executed.”

Righting this wrong will require the kind of moral courage Obama seems to lack. True, his politically risky rapprochement with Cuba announced earlier this week provided a glimmer of hope that he can finally be his own man. But let’s take him at his word that his brand of leadership comes into play only when we citizens light a fire under him. Let us gather the kindling, start the fire, and respond to his challenge to make him do the right thing.

As is painfully obvious by this stage, the battle will be uphill, largely because our supine media provide such thin gruel that, as a result, most Americans are malnourished on the truth. I suppose one can get used to virtually any indignity. Nonetheless, for me it remains highly disturbing to watch “mainstream media” give the lion’s share of air time to charlatans like Dick Cheney who, 13 years after 9/11, continue to play on the trauma of that fateful day to elicit the kind of vengeful spirit that can in far too many minds justify the unspeakable.

No matter that ethicists have traditionally placed torture, like rape or slavery, in the moral category of intrinsic evil always wrong a premise embedded in the UN Convention Against Torture to which the United States is a signatory. No matter that torture does not yield reliable intelligence. No matter that CIA documents show how CIA directors Michael Hayden and Leon Panetta lied when they told us that information from “enhanced interrogation techniques” led to the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden. [See Gareth Porter’s “How the CIA Covered Up Its Lie on Torture and bin Laden.”]

The first (and, so far as I know, the last) time Obama showed any spine dealing with the CIA was just before he became president in January 2009, when he demonstrably dissed then-CIA Director Michael Hayden. Hayden had been going around town telling folks that he warned the president-elect “personally and forcefully” that if Obama authorized an investigation into controversial activities like waterboarding, “no one in Langley will ever take a risk again.” (My source for this is what we former intelligence officers used to call an “A-1 source” completely reliable with excellent access to the information).

Consequently, Hayden did not merit a mention on Jan. 9, 2009, when President-elect Obama formally introduced Leon Panetta as his choice to replace Hayden as CIA director and Dennis Blair as director of national intelligence. Obama did announce that Mike McConnell, whom Blair replaced, had been given a sinecure/consolation prize, a seat on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. McConnell got the obligatory thank you; but not Hayden.

It was not only cheeky, but more than a little disingenuous that Hayden should think to advise Obama “personally and forcefully” against investigating the illegal activities authorized by President George W. Bush, since Hayden’s role in torture was already clear from publicly available information.

Hayden had loudly defended what he liked to call “high-end” interrogation techniques like waterboarding. (And last week, just three days after the Senate report was released, Georgetown law professor David Cole drew from it to recount “just three examples” of false and unsupported testimony” by Hayden.)

It was for services rendered that Bush and Cheney picked Hayden to head the CIA. As Director of NSA (1999 to 2005) he saluted sharply when Cheney told him to redact the words “probable cause” from the Fourth Amendment.

In sum, Hayden’s transgressions are book-length, but as with Professor Cole’s article space limitations prevent anything close to a complete rendering, so to speak. Apparently fearful of going beyond sending Hayden to the showers, Obama hired Leon Panetta to replace Hayden to be nominally CIA director but, in actuality, its well-connected protector.

Initially, with Panetta there seemed to be reason to expect hope and change; that expectation was short-lived. A year before Obama picked him, Panetta had written:

“We cannot simply suspend [American ideals of human rights] in the name of national security. Those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values. But that is a false compromise.

“We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don’t. There is no middle ground. We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.”

Sadly, it turns out we were not, in fact, “better than that” and neither was Panetta. For his part, Panetta discharged his assigned role to defend CIA torturers with enthusiasm even overreaching in making false claims about the efficacy of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

On that key issue, CIA Director John Brennan, speaking on Dec. 11, 2014, was more cautious, claiming the effectiveness of “enhanced interrogation techniques” was “unknowable.” At which point Sen. Feinstein moved immediately to set the record straight, tweeting that, on the contrary, it was well known that the useful intelligence from interrogation was gained from traditional interrogation approaches, well BEFORE “enhancements” were applied.

On the day after the Senate Intelligence Community report was released, lame-duck committee member Mark Udall sharply criticized Brennan for “lying” about the efficacy of torture. Udall’s parting shot was to decry the President for his permissive attitude toward Brennan and the CIA and for “making no effort at all to rein it in.”

This appraisal has been seconded by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, who openly complained last Saturday that “Brennan has gotten away with frustrating congressional oversight. He shouldn’t have gotten away with it, but so far he has.”

Obama Agonistes

Will the President continue to do his best to hold harmless those involved in torture? I expect he will out of the fear for the consequences if he tried to “rein in” the CIA. In other words, although Obama came into office determined not to allow himself to be intimidated by Hayden, he nonetheless seem to have taken Hayden’s threat seriously.

Whether Obama’s fateful decision only to “look forward” on the issue of torture was the result of simple cowardice or a naive calculation that shoving torture under the rug would help him work out a modus vivendi with Republican leaders is, at this point, academic.

The reality is that Obama blew his chance to deal with this profoundly moral, as well as legal, issue of torture at a time when this was widely expected of him. As for the Republicans whose cooperation he so patently craved, they appear to have seen in his unmistakable reluctance to expose and pursue the major crimes of Bush and Cheney a welcome sign of weakness.

Now, despite his transparent attempts to keep his distance from the horrid disclosures in the Senate committee report, Obama is enmeshed in a wide web of consequential lies. He is, ipso facto, part of a cover-up that is poisoning the minds of too-trusting Americans, while putting a big hole in what’s left of America’s reputation as a force for good in the world. He could not do this without the help of an enabling media.

What are we to make of the media? Decades ago, in an unusual moment of candor, former CIA Director William Colby was quoted as saying the CIA “owns everyone of any significance in the major media.” How much truth continues to lie beneath Colby’s hyperbole? Why is it so easy to simply mention 9/11 to evoke an attitude of vengeance? Why does that include acquiescence in horrid torture techniques, and a predisposition to believe Cheney’s lies, rather than accept the reality that our leaders ordered and conducted heinous crimes?

In my view, the polls show an acceptance on the part of most Americans for torture mostly because so many Americans simply do not read. And this is precisely why Sen. Feinstein and Sen. John McCain both appealed plaintively for us to “just read the report.”

In her trademark perceptive way, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer laments that, when the awful facts about CIA torture came out last week, President Obama shied away from the chance given him to set the record straight. She explained it this way:

“It appeared that Obama and Brennan had a single purpose, which was to not ‘lose Langley,’ … meaning that they didn’t want to alienate those still working at the C.I.A. This calculation that C.I.A. officers … are too fragile for criticism, too valuable to fire, and too patriotic to prosecute somehow tied the Obama Administration in knots.” Mayer might have added that CIA operatives seem to be, in Obama’s ken, “too dangerous to get crosswise with.”

Similar insights jump out of a Dec. 15 article by Peter Baker and Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times. They write that when Brennan was working at the White House, neither Obama nor Brennan was eager to take on the C.I.A. very often. “The C.I.A. gets what it needs,” Obama declared at one early meeting, according to people there. “He didn’t want them to feel like he was an enemy,” said a former aide.

Brennan, for his part, was protective of CIA interests. When Panetta negotiated an agreement with the Senate Intelligence Committee for an inquiry into torture, Brennan erupted. “It did not take long to get ugly,” Panetta recalled in his memoir. “Brennan and I even exchanged sharp words.”

Brennan recognized at once that such an inquiry could well become a very large fly in the ointment. He was right about that, but he was unable to renege on the deal. After becoming CIA director last year, though, Brennan fought constantly with Democrats on the committee over the torture report and attempted to redact it to a fare-thee-well.

Relations worsened when senators accused the CIA of penetrating a computer network designated for the committee’s use, a charge that Brennan initially denied. In the end, though, the CIA inspector general admonished five agency officers and Brennan apologized. Relations remained raw; Obama stayed above the fray.

On Saturday, the New York Times reported that the panel appointed by Brennan to investigate the CIA’s search of a computer network used by the Senate staffers investigating CIA’s use of torture will (surprise, surprise) return a verdict of not guilty. Brennan’s panel reportedly has decided to defend the CIA searchers’ actions as lawful and, in some cases, done at Brennan’s behest, in effect reversing the most significant conclusions of an earlier investigation by CIA’s own inspector general.

On the issue of torture’s effectiveness, according to Baker and Mazzetti, the President’s advisers doubt that he believes the interrogation program yielded useful intelligence, but that he was unwilling to contradict Brennan.

A Natural Ally in McCain

Does the fact that Sen. John McCain was tortured as a POW, after his aircraft was downed over North Vietnam, give him unusual credibility on the issue of torture? You bet it does. Breaking ranks with fellow Republicans, defensive CIA directors and a media (including Hollywood) enamored of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” McCain followed Sen. Feinstein to the Senate floor after she introduced and distributed the report on CIA torture. He was very supportive.

More in sorrow than in anger, he conceded, “The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. … But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless. …

“There was considerable misinformation … about what was and wasn’t achieved using these [enhanced interrogation] methods … There was a good amount of misinformation used in 2011 to credit the use of these methods with the death of Osama bin Laden. And there is, I fear, misinformation being used today to prevent the release of this report, disputing its findings and warning about the security consequences of their public disclosure. …

“What might come as a surprise … is how little these practices did to aid our efforts to bring 9/11 culprits to justice and to find and prevent terrorist attacks today and tomorrow. That could be a real surprise, since it contradicts the many assurances provided by intelligence officials on the record and in private that enhanced interrogation techniques were indispensable in the war against terrorism. And I suspect the objection of those same officials to the release of this report is really focused on that disclosure torture’s ineffectiveness because we gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer. Too much.

“Obviously, we need intelligence to defeat our enemies, but we need reliable intelligence. Torture produces more misleading information than actionable intelligence. And what the advocates of harsh and cruel interrogation methods have never established is that we couldn’t have gathered as good or more reliable intelligence from using humane methods.

“The most important lead we got in the search for bin Laden came from using conventional interrogation methods. I think it is an insult to the many intelligence officers who have acquired good intelligence without hurting or degrading prisoners to assert we can’t win this war without such methods. Yes, we can and we will.”

Thus, Obama would not be without powerful allies were he to summon the courage to bring CIA torturers to account. It appears, however, that the President still lives in fear of the shady characters at Langley.

Hence, it is up to us to mobilize the kind of action needed to change Obama’s mind. Op-eds, speeches, interviews are fine, but without action, nothing is going to happen. We need to figure out how best to confront this issue and what action(s) seem appropriate. And then we must act like winter soldiers.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His experience, both as an Army Infantry/Intelligence officer and as a CIA analyst spanned 27 years. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).




Torture’s Fallacies — and Criminality

In America’s fascination with fictional entertainment, torture has been a popular plot device as some tough-guy “hero” extracts a clue from a hardened “bad guy,” most famously with Jack Bauer in “24.” But real-world torture elicits false information and is a grave crime of state, as Lawrence Davidson explains.

By Lawrence Davidson

It has long been known that torture does not work. One can go back to the Age of Enlightenment. In 1764, Cesare Beccaria published his groundbreaking work, On Crimes and Punishments, in which he examined all the evidence available at that time and concluded that individuals under torture will tell their interrogators anything they want to hear, true or not, just to get the pain to stop. Beccaria’s book led to a temporary waning of the state-ordered torture.

Nonetheless, the United States has used torture repeatedly. Indeed, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s release of its report (five years in the making) on the George W. Bush administration’s use of torture testifies to only the most recent in a long line of such incidents.

For instance, torture was used against prisoners during and immediately following the Spanish-American War, particularly in the Philippines. More recently, the U.S. (and its adversary) used torture during the Vietnam War. Confirming Beccaria’s judgment, the consensus among U.S. military personnel, who examined the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (the latest euphemism for torture) against Viet Cong and North Vietnamese prisoners, was that it did not work.

This conclusion has been supported by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for over five years. He has repeatedly said that he knows, from personal experience, that “victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it.”

Who in the Executive Branch of the U.S. government remembers, or even cares, about this history? President Barack Obama gave his blessings to the Dec. 11 television appearance of CIA Director John O. Brennan so that Brennan could tell the nation that, following the 9/11 tragedy, tortured prisoners provided “useful and valuable” information. The Senate Intelligence Committee report calls such claims “exaggerated if not utterly false.” Based on the evidence from Beccaria’s time to the present, the committee report’s position in this regard is the one to go with.

Illegality of Torture

Torture was made illegal in 1950 under the Third Geneva Convention, and this was reaffirmed in 1985 by the United Nations Convention against Torture. Both of these conventions were signed and ratified by the United States, making them the law of the land. Torture is also illegal under U.S. domestic laws such as the War Crimes Act of 1996.

Unfortunately, these laws and treaty obligations were called into question in 2002 by the Bush administration. To create a counter-position to them, the Bush’s Justice Department produced what are now known as the “torture memos.” These postulated that the war against terrorism that followed 9/11 was a unique situation that nullified all the standing laws preventing torture.

These memos were self-serving interpretations of the president’s powers during war and time of emergency. Contrived as they were, they served as Bush’s legal justification for his administration’s policy of waterboarding, “rectal rehydration,” sleep deprivation, and other forms of physical abuse. As Dick Cheney, Bush’s pugnacious vice president, recently said, this was no rogue operation. “This program was authorized” by the memos, Cheney said.

The question of how one legitimately “authorizes” what has already been determined to be illegal, immoral and degrading seems never to have occurred to Cheney.

When we weigh the authority of the “torture memos” against international law, treaty obligations, and indeed U.S. domestic law, we must conclude that Bush’s policy of torture was illegal. Let me put the consequences of that reasonable conclusion in plain English: President George W. Bush and everyone else in his administration involved in formulating, justifying and carrying out the policy of torture are criminals. So why hasn’t Mr. Bush (to say nothing of the rest of this gang) been brought to trial for his crimes?

One possible reason harkens back to 1972-73, when the infamous Watergate scandal was revealing President Richard Nixon’s criminality. At that time the main line of argument was that you don’t want an American president going to jail. This would constitute just too much of a national embarrassment. Therefore, the pardon that Nixon received was the best solution to a messy problem. Being of a contrary nature even back then, this writer went about saying that it was precisely because Nixon was the president that you wanted him on trial and, when convicted, put in jail. You wanted that precedent set because it would shape, for the better, the behavior of future presidents.

Of course, this course of action was never followed, and so when it came to George W. Bush, there was no such precedent to provoke any second thoughts. Perhaps he would not have hesitated in any case. We will never know.

The Present Debate

At present, the debate within the Beltway is not over the Bush administration’s culpability for illegal acts, but rather over the wisdom of releasing the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report detailing the CIA use of torture on the president’s orders. In other words, the wisdom of making public the evidence of Bush’s criminality. Many feel that the report will make some foreigners so angry that they will attack Americans abroad. But then those folks already knew about U.S. torture and don’t need the details to make them angry.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, the present chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is the one who decided to release the report on torture. She did so because she is determined to “foreclose any prospect that the United States might contemplate such tactics again.” She did not believe arguing about the morality of torture would achieve that goal and so she “set out to prove [through the released report] that they [techniques of torture] did not work.” There are two things wrong with Feinstein’s reasoning in this regard:

First, Feinstein, too, appears ignorant of the fact that the futility of torture has been established for hundreds of years. And, just because torture has long been demonstrated not to work, what is the probability that a restatement of this fact will prevent the U.S. from using it again in the future?

As was the case in the Philippines, Vietnam, and in the war on terror, future American leaders will remain ignorant of or just forget about torture’s futility. The groundwork for this is already being laid. The incoming Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, says he will not hold hearings on what the report reveals or follow up on it in any way.

“Put this report down to a footnote in history,” he said. Burr also dismisses the torture revelations as an attempt to “smear the Bush administration” – as if the facts of the matter were just contrived by political enemies to provoke a scandal.

Second, as former CIA analyst Ray McGovern suggests, it is quite possible that most in the Bush administration did not care whether torture really worked or not. McGovern tells us that what the White House wanted was a justification for an invasion of Iraq. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “What’s the Next Step to Stop Torture.”]

“Evidence” suggesting a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda would do just fine here. The pressure was on the CIA to produce that link and so they tortured al-Qaeda prisoners until they told them what President Bush wanted to hear. This seems a tempting gambit for use by future presidents who might share George W. Bush’s character.

Thus, if Dianne Feinstein wants to make sure that the U.S. government will not use torture in the future, just demonstrating (once more) that it does not work won’t do. The only thing that has a chance of achieving her goal is the strict enforcement the law against torture – take Bush and his accomplices and put them on trial for the crimes we all know they committed. Then, put the whole gang in jail for long enough to make a deep impression. With that precedent set, you have a shot at preventing U.S.-sanctioned torture in the future.

President Obama actually had an opportunity to set this precedent but, as we all know, he has declined to do so. One can imagine his advisers telling him that all presidents break the law in one way or another and to charge Bush with a crime would open Pandora’s Box – from that point on it would be open season on every future president. Yet, is it necessarily true that all presidents must go around breaking the law? And, if so, why should any of us find this acceptable?

Despite the revelations of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, the chances are pretty good that Bush and his operatives will get away with their crimes. And that means that chances are just as good that it will all happen again. The public’s awareness of the facts is at best unreliable.

According to a Pew poll reported on Dec. 15, half of the American public even now believes that the use of torture was both justified and provided worthwhile intelligence. It is probable that the opinion of most elected officials is no different.

No one has yet been able to secure a meaningful place for relevant and accurate historical knowledge either in the mind of the general public or in the deliberations of policy makers. However, in both cases, ignorance and false assumptions seem secure in their positions of influence.

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




Obama’s Belated Realism on Cuba

President Obama has been what you might call a “closet realist,” favoring pragmatic approaches to world problems but afraid to buck Official Washington’s dominant “tough-guy-ism.” But he came out of the closet at least briefly in ending the Cuban embargo, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar writes.

By Paul R. Pillar

China wasn’t available to open up to, because Richard Nixon already did that over four decades ago, in a process that was completed when full diplomatic relations were established with the People’s Republic during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Neither was the old enemy Vietnam available, given that full and even cordial relations with Hanoi came about through diplomacy during the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

And Cuba pales in importance, of course, compared with China in particular. But President Obama’s move toward a more normal relationship with Cuba is a significant blow in favor of good sense, reality as well as realism, and rational pursuit of U.S. interests.

Having a normal relationship with the Caribbean nation is significant and newsworthy, and this week’s step is a major accomplishment for Mr. Obama, only because of the major tendency in American politics, readily evident in the Congress and responsible for much that has been misguided in U.S. foreign policy, that sees foreign policy not as the calculated pursuit of national interests but instead as a series of postures in which we pronounce on what we like and what we don’t like.

The postures do not have to be consistent in what standards are applied to different countries, and there need not be more than the slightest pretense that our posture will make what we don’t like any better. Much of this tendency is a reflection of domestic politics and the influence of particularly vocal constituencies. But for the politicians who exhibit it, there often seems to be something more emotional and reflexive that takes hold of them, beyond a careful counting of votes.

Cuba has long been one of the prime targets for this kind of reflexive and unproductive animosity among American politicians. Iran has been another major target in recent years. And there are worthwhile comparisons to be made between such cases; just as ostracism and rejection of the normal give-and-take of diplomacy has been utterly unproductive in the case of Cuba, so too has been the case with Iran, with positive results having been obtained only when real diplomacy began under the current U.S. administration.

There has been some similar atavistic animosity, harking back to the Cold War, in attitudes toward Russia since the Ukraine crisis heated up this year, but at least in that case, amid a more dynamic situation and a crisis in the oil-driven Russian economy, there is a genuine basis for talking about possible prospects for sanctions helping to achieve some worthwhile changes.

What most distinguishes the case of Cuba is the sheer length of time during which the futile posture of attempted isolation and embargo has been sustained. We long, long ago passed the point where we can say with finality and high confidence that the policy does not work.

It is hard to come up with a better example of how the longevity of futility has made such a conclusive case that a course of action is an unmitigated failure. Even if there were no basis for expecting that a different course would yield improvement, in fact, there is considerable basis for expecting it would, along lines the president mentioned in his statement, it would make sense to try a different course even just on the off-chance it would get some results.

Against this background, some of the quick criticism of the President’s action is astounding. The lead editorial in the Washington Post closes by saying that the action gives the Cuban regime, a regime that has lasted more than half a century and has demonstrated its ability to endure the end of the Cold War and loss of its Soviet patron, the debility and resignation of its founder, and many other challenges, a “new lease on life.” It is hard to believe that whoever on the Post‘s editorial staff wrote that sentence did so with a straight face.

Or take the statement of former Florida governor and current presidential hopeful Jeb Bush that Mr. Obama’s actions “undermine America’s credibility.” Credibility with respect to what, exactly? The President is making good on his earlier statements and campaign promises on the subject. The most serious lack of credibility involved is what has inhered in the inconsistencies involved in the policy of isolation and punishment.

This has been conspicuously true of keeping Cuba on the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, even though the Cuban regime hasn’t come close to sponsoring international terrorism for many years. The people at the State Department who have the job of preparing the annual country reports on terrorism have to say something to try to justify the continued listing of Cuba, and so they mention, and they must also have trouble keeping a straight face as they write, that a few retirees from the Basque group ETA and the Colombian group known as the FARC have lived in Cuba.

Half of the very short write-up on Cuba is about how the Cuban government has worked in cooperation with the government of Colombia to facilitate the latter government’s peace negotiations with the FARC. That’s not sponsoring terrorism; that’s helping to reduce it. Given how much the United States government talks about states sponsoring terrorism, it is a credibility-destroying joke to have Cuba still on the U.S. list on the subject.

Most of the other instant critics have been just stumbling for words, bereft of any real arguments. As Robert Golan-Vilella points out, Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham were reduced to reciting anti-Obama buzzwords with no reference at all to Cuba. Sen. Marco Rubio was reduced to emotional blithering.

Rubio and other habitual critics no doubt were thrown off-balance by the President acting decisively with real effect, carrying through on earlier statements and commitments, and in a direction welcomed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which runs counter to the anti-Obama script that depicts the President as weak, indecisive and reactive. That and the usual reflexive response of opposing anything that would count as an achievement for Mr. Obama underlay Rubio’s threats to try to use any Congressional tools available to kill the move to full diplomatic relations.

If Congress in the next session does that, and if it sustains the embargo that gets condemned annually at the United Nations by votes of laughingstock proportions, we ought to think about (although it probably is too much to expect those who sustain such policies to think about it) how the rest of the world is going to interpret that.

A common pattern in much of the world with respect to many different issues is to like and admire America but to dislike U.S. policies. But now we would have a policy from the White House that has received universal praise from abroad for a long-overdue step, but which might get stymied by the U.S. Congress.

Foreigners will be left to wonder what it is about the United States that lets some Little Havana small-mindedness take over U.S. foreign policy to the extent of persisting in a half-century of failure.

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