How Ecuador’s President Gave Up Assange

Lenin Moreno was desperate to ingratiate his government with Washington and distract the public from his mounting scandals, writes the Grayzone’s Denis Rogatyuk.

By Denis Rogatyuk
Grayzone

The images of six Metropolitan police officers dragging Julian Assange out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London have enraged citizens around the world. Many have warned that if he is extradited to the U.S. for trial on conspiracy charges – and possibly much more if federal prosecutors have their way – it will lead to the criminalization of many standard journalistic practices. These scenes were only possible thanks to the transformation of Ecuador’s government under the watch of President Lenin Moreno.

Since at least December 2018, Moreno has been working towards expelling the Wikileaks publisher from the embassy. The Ecuadorian president’s behavior represents a stunning reversal of the policies of his predecessor, Rafael Correa, the defiantly progressive leader who authorized Assange’s asylum back in 2012, and who now lives in exile.

While Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Jose Valencia blamed his government’s expulsion of Assange on the Australian journalist’s “rudeness,” the sellout is clearly a byproduct of Moreno’s right-leaning agenda.

Political instability has swept across Ecuador since revelations of widespread corruption in Moreno’s inner circle emerged. The scandal coincided with Moreno’s turn towards neoliberal economic reforms, from implementing a massive IMF loan package to the gradual and total embrace and support for U.S. foreign policy in the region. In his bid to satisfy Washington and deflect from his own problems, Moreno was all too eager to sacrifice Assange.

INA Papers Scandal

WikiLeaks’s decision to re-publish the details of Moreno’s use of off-shore bank accounts in Panama, titled “INA Papers” after the name of the shell corporation at the center of the scandal (INA Investment Corporation), appear to be the main cause for the president’s decision to expel Assange from the embassy.

Ecuadorian Communications Minister Andrés Michelena went as far as claiming that the INA Papers were a conspiracy plot between Julian Assange,  the former President Rafael Correa and the current Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

The INA Papers scandal has cast a long shadow on Moreno’s regime and shattered its pledge to fight against institutional corruption. The scandal reveals that a close associate of Moreno, Xavier Macias, lobbied for the contract of the Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric power plant (valued at $2.8 billion) as well as the ZAMORA 3000 MW plant to be awarded Sinohydro, a Chinese state-owned construction company.

The financial trail from the Chinese corporation passed through bank accounts in Panama belonging to INA Investment Corporation — a shell company originally founded in Belize, a notable tax haven, by Edwin Moreno Garcés, the brother of the current president. The most crucial pieces of evidence indicate that the INA Investment funds were used to purchase a large apartment in Alicante, Spain, and a number of luxury items for Moreno and his family in Geneva, during his time as a special envoy on disability rights for the United Nations.

As the pressure mounted on Moreno, the attorney general of Ecuador issued a statement on March 19th, indicating that it had commenced an investigation into the INA Papers scandal involving the president and his family. Next, on March 27th, the National Assembly of Ecuador approved a vote in favor of investigating Moreno’s alleged off-shore bank dealings in Panama. According to Ecuador Inmediato, 153 public service officials, along with all members of the National Assembly, were also included in the initial public hearing scheduled for April 1st.

The corruption scandal came amid a number of other prominent crises disrupting both the Moreno administration and the Ecuadorian economy. The local and regional elections of March 24th, as well as the election to the Council of Citizens’ Participation and Social Control (CPCCS) on March 24th, have been riddled with a series of controversies and irregularities with regards to vote counts and allegations of fraud, including the attempts to invalidate null votes, disqualify and smear the candidates endorsed by ex-President Rafael Correa. The stunning lack of transparency and legitimacy was highlighted by a report of the mission of electoral observers of the Organisation of American States.

In an unusual twist, the U.S. ambassador, Todd Chapman, was spotted visiting the headquarters of Ecuador’s National Electoral Council during the March 24th elections and allegedly participated as an official electoral observer in the elections. This display of interference was widely condemned on social media as illegal under the current electoral rules, which forbid foreign powers from playing any active role in the electoral process. But in Moreno’s Ecuador, it was a perfect symbol of the new status quo.

 IMF Deal

During the recent meeting of the executive board of the IMF, the financial body approved a loan package of $4.2 billion to the government of Lenin Moreno for what it called a “more dynamic, sustainable, and inclusive economy for the benefit of all Ecuadorians.” The agreement coincided with layoffs of over 10,000 public sector workers, in addition to the ongoing policy of slashing in public and social spending, a decrease in the minimum wage and the removal of secure work protections that marked the sharp neoliberal turn of the Ecuadorian government under Moreno.

The IMF deal coincided with the intensifying attempts by the Ecuadorian government to proceed with the expulsion of Julian Assange from its London embassy. His arrest therefore stands as a sign that Moreno is willing to give up any part of his country’s sovereignty – political, diplomatic, or economic – to comply with the demands of international finance.

The same pattern has been seen in Moreno’s increasing level of collaboration with the Trump administration and its foreign policy in Latin America. From holding private meetings with former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, to publicly hosting Vice President Mike Pence in the Ecuadorian presidential palace, to authorizing the opening of a new Security Cooperation Office in place of the old U.S. military base in Manta, Moreno’s embrace of Trump’s “Monroeist” policy towards Latin America has become all too apparent.

At the same time, Moreno has gone to great lengths to undo the progress of Latin American unity and integration initiated by his predecessor and other progressive leaders in the region.

On March 13th, Moreno announced that Ecuador would leave the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), founded in 2008 by leaders of South America’s so-called pink tide: Nestor Kirchner of Argentina, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Lula Da Silva of Brazil. The project was inspired by the long-standing vision of Simon Bolivar who envisaged South America as a federation of republics. UNASUR was meant to consolidate the growing economic and political integration among the increasingly progressive governments across the region, ultimately emulating the current structure of the European Union.

Moreno complained in his press release that UNASUR has been compromised by the lack of participation of the right-leaning governments in the region, as well as what he called, “irresponsible actions of certain leaders that replicated the worst vices of socialism of the 21st Century.”

In a manner similar to Francisco Santander and the project of Gran Colombia during the 1820s, Moreno has opted for a pro-U.S. foreign policy and commercial relations based on free trade and economic liberalization. He has also followed the path of other right-wing leaders in the region such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Argentina’s Mauricio Macri in officially recognizing Juan Guaidó as the president of Venezuela. Moreno was even among the attendees of the founding summit of Prosur, a newly convened regional bloc of U.S.-aligned neoliberal governments.

Moreno’s decision to silence Julian Assange and expel him enabled the president to gain the trust of the Trump administration while distracting the Ecuadorian public and international media from his mounting crises at home. From corrupt dealing in off-shore bank accounts, the fraudulent elections of March 24th and his mishandling of the Ecuadorian economy, Moreno is in a world of trouble.

This has not escaped the notice of Correa, Ecuador’s former president. After having his page blocked on Facebook, Correa stated that “In his hatred, because Wikileaks published corruption of INA papers, Moreno wanted to destroy Assange’s life. He probably did it, but he has also done a huge damage to the country. Who will trust in ECUADOR again?”

Overall, Ecuador has come to resemble the neoliberal regimes of the 1990s across the continent, with IMF-sanctioned austerity, increasingly unstable state institutions and an almost complete obedience to the U.S. foreign policy in the region becoming the new policy standard. Handing Assange over for possible extradition to the U.S. was the inevitable result of Moreno’s turn to the right, but it is hardly the end of his sell out.

Denis Rogatyuk is a Russian-Australian freelance writer, journalist and researcher. His articles, interviews and analysis have been published in a variety of media sources around the world including Jacobin, Le Vent Se Léve, Sputnik, Green Left Weekly, Links International Journal, Alborada and others.




PATRICK LAWRENCE: Trump & the Bolton-Pompeo Axis

Patrick Lawrence eyes the U.S. president’s difficulties with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton as he tries to resume peace talks with Pyongyang.

By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News

Moon Jae-in’s Oval Office meeting with President Donald Trump last Thursday marked an important step forward for both leaders. The South Korean president appears to have drawn Trump away from the all-or-nothing “big deal” he proposed when he last met Kim Jong-un — an offer we now know was intended to precipitate the North Korean leader’s rejection. Trump won, too: The encounter with Moon has effectively put the Dealmaker back on his feet after the calamitous collapse of the second Trump–Kim summit in Hanoi two months ago. A top-down agreement on the North’s denuclearization is once again within reach.

The importance of the Moon–Trump summit, while eclipsed by news of Julian Assange’s arrest in London the same day, is not be underestimated. Even before receiving Moon, Trump announced for the first time that he is willing to summit with Kim for a third time. While still stressing the North’s complete denuclearization as the U.S. objective, Trump also said he is open to the incremental diplomacy he precluded with his everything-at-once offer in Hanoi.

“There are various smaller deals that maybe could happen,” Trump said before he and Moon withdrew to the Oval Office. “Things could happen. You can work out step-by-step pieces, but at this moment we are still talking about the big deal.”

New Stance

This new stance is a big deal in itself. Moon and Kim — with Chinese and Russian support — have advocated talks based on gradualist reciprocity from the first. “Action for action,” Moon calls it. This strategy is widely accepted at the other end of the Pacific as the only plausible path to a sustainable denuclearization agreement. The U.S. has been the only nation engaged on the Korean question to argue otherwise.  

In addition, Trump appeared to signal that Moon may get something he dearly wanted when he arrived in Washington: dispensation to proceed with inter–Korean economic projects — including transport links, an industrial park, and a joint-venture resort in the North — that are now blocked by a plethora of U.S. and UN–imposed sanctions. Moon views these as essential confidence-builders and the first steps toward integrating the North into a Northeast Asian economic hub that will also include South Korea, China, and the Russian Far East.

In Pyongyang, Kim responded to the events in Washington when he addressed the Supreme People’s Assembly last Friday. The speech was carefully balanced between optimism and caution, the latter reflecting Kim’s view that he was betrayed in Hanoi when Trump marshaled an offer he could not possibly embrace. “I am willing to accept if the United States proposes a third North Korea — United States summit,” Kim told North’s legislative body, “on condition that it has a right attitude and seeks a solution that we can share.”

Kim had other things to add. “We don’t like — and we are not interested in — the United States’ way of dialogue, in which it tries to unilaterally push through its demands,” he said. “We don’t welcome — and we have no intention of repeating—the kind of summit meetings like the one held in Hanoi.” The North Korean leader went on to set a year-end deadline “for the United States to make a bold decision.”

Honor Bob Parry’s legacy by donating  to our Spring Fund Drive.

While Washington and Pyongyang had sharply conflicting versions of what transpired in Hanoi — each blaming the other for the summit’s failure — there is now little question that the U.S. side was at fault. A post–Hanoi Reuters exclusive reports that, prior to their famously canceled lunch, Trump handed Kim a sheet of paper listing, in English and Korean, extensive U.S. conditions that began with “a blunt call for the transfer of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and bomb fuel to the United States,” according to the piece filed by Leslie Broughton and David Brunnstrom.

The English-language version of the letter, the Reuters team reports, went on to demand “fully dismantling North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure, chemical and biological warfare program and related dual-use capabilities; and ballistic missiles, launchers, and associated facilities.”

The Libya Model 

In simple terms, this was a kitchen-sink proposition — effectively a demand for unilateral disarmament — that was intended to prompt Kim to walk away. The Reuters reporters suggest that the fatal gambit was the work of John Bolton, Trump’s hyper-hawkish national security advisor. They quote North Korean officials as also implicating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another administration hawk, in what amounts to an act of diplomatic sabotage. The device used was Bolton’s “Libya model,” a laden reference if ever there was one. When Muammar Gaddafi gave up his chemical and nuclear weapons programs in 2003, he did so by sending Libya’s nuclear materials and equipment to the U.S. Eight years later, of course, he was assassinated in the wake of a NATO bombing campaign led by the U.S.

“The document appeared to represent Bolton’s long-held and hardline ‘Libya model’ of denuclearization that North Korea has rejected repeatedly,” Broughton and Brunnstrom report. “It probably would have been seen by Kim as insulting and provocative, analysts said.” One of those analysts was Jenny Town, a North Korea specialist at the Stimson Center in Washington. “‘This is what Bolton wanted from the beginning and it clearly wasn’t going to work,’” Reuters quotes Town as observing. “‘If the U.S. was really serious about negotiations, they would have learned already that this wasn’t an approach they could take.’”

Formidable Challenges

As this record of the Hanoi proceedings makes plain, Trump and Moon will assume formidable challenges to the extent they agree to work together toward a resolution of the Korea question on new terms. It is not clear why Trump — who went to Hanoi eager to cut his “big deal” with Kim — accepted the Bolton-inspired design and handed it on to the North Korean leader. But he has now set himself up for another in what appears to be a long line of conflicts with his foreign policy minders, Bolton and Pompeo chief among them.

The outlook in this connection is mixed at best. Trump was able to overrule new sanctions against North Korea that were announced several weeks after the Hanoi debacle. It is a matter of interpretation, but he effectively lost a battle with the Bolton–Pompeo axis when the administration designated the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization earlier this month. That move is understood widely to have pushed renewed negotiations with Tehran, for which Trump had been hoping, well beyond the point of no return.

For Moon, the challenges ahead are two. Most immediately, he must keep both Trump and Kim seated at the chess table between now and the end of the year. If no third summit is set by then, Kim has already signaled, he will consider this chapter in the long history of U.S.–North Korean negotiations closed — another story of failure. In such a case, the question facing Moon could hardly be more daunting: Can a South Korean leader determined to end nearly seven decades of enmity between the Koreas decisively wrest control of the diplomatic process from the U.S.?

That would amount to an unprecedented showdown between Seoul and Washington. Despite Moon’s admirable dedication, this is unlikely to materialize — not in the near term, in any case. Moon has formidable allies in Beijing and Moscow; Kim is plainly eager to break North Korea out of its isolation. But the U.S., perfectly satisfied to act as “spoiler” in Northeast Asia (as elsewhere), remains too powerful an obstacle despite the many signs that it is in the sunset phase of its global preeminence. 

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author, and lecturer. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is www.patricklawrence.us. Support his work via www.patreon.com/thefloutist.

Please honor the legacy of Bob Parry with a donation to our Spring Fund Drive.




Assange’s Judge a Disgrace to the Bench, Ex-UK Ambassador Says

Craig Murray asks you to imagine Western media reaction if a Russian opposition politician were dragged out by armed police, and within three hours convicted on a political charge by a patently biased judge.

By Craig Murray
CraigMurray.org.uk

Both Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange are now in jail, both over offenses related to the publication of materials specifying U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and both charged with nothing else at all. No matter what bullshit political and MSM liars try to feed you, that is the simple truth. Manning and Assange are true heroes of our time, and are suffering for it.

If a Russian opposition politician were dragged out by armed police, and within three hours had been convicted on a political charge by a patently biased judge with no jury, with a lengthy jail sentence to follow, can you imagine the Western media reaction to that kind of kangaroo court? Yet that is exactly what just happened in London.

District Judge Michael Snow is a disgrace to the bench who deserves to be infamous well beyond his death. He displayed the most plain and open prejudice against Assange in the 15 minutes it took for him to hear the case and declare Assange guilty last week, in a fashion which makes the dictators’ courts I had witnessed, in Ibrahim Babangida’s Nigeria or Isam Karimov’s Uzbekistan, look fair and reasonable, in comparison to the gross charade of justice conducted by Michael Snow.

One key fact gave away Snow’s enormous prejudice. Julian Assange said nothing during the whole brief proceedings, other than to say “Not guilty” twice, and to ask a one-sentence question about why the charges were changed midway through this sham “trial.” Yet Judge Michael Snow condemned Assange as “narcissistic.” There was nothing that happened in Snow’s brief court hearing that could conceivably have given rise to that opinion. It was plainly something he brought with him into the courtroom, and had read or heard in the mainstream media or picked up in his club. It was in short, the very definition of prejudice, and “Judge” Michael Snow and his summary judgement is a total disgrace.

I am part of the Wikileaks media and legal team and the whole team, including Julian, is energized rather than downhearted. At last there is no more hiding for the pretend liberals behind ludicrous Swedish allegations or bail jumping allegations, and the true motive – revenge for the Chelsea Manning revelations – is now completely in the open.

To support the persecution of Assange in these circumstances is to support absolute state censorship of the internet. It is to support the claim that any journalist who receives and publishes official material which indicates U.S. government wrongdoing, can be punished for its publication. Furthermore, this U.S. claim involves an astonishing boost to universal jurisdiction. Assange was nowhere near the USA when he published the documents, but nonetheless U.S. courts are willing to claim jurisdiction. This is a threat to press and internet freedom everywhere.

These are scary times. But those may also be the most inspiring of times.

Craig Murray is an author, broadcaster and human rights activist. He was British Ambassador to Uzbekistan from August 2002 to October 2004 and Rector of the University of Dundee from 2007 to 2010. This article first appeared on his website.




CHRIS HEDGES: The Martyrdom of Julian Assange

Assange and WikiLeaks allowed us to see the inner workings of empire — the most important role of a press — and for this they became empire’s prey, writes Chris Hedges of Truthdig.

By Chris Hedges
Truthdig

The arrest Thursday of Julian Assange eviscerates all pretense of the rule of law and the rights of a free press. The illegalities, embraced by the Ecuadorian, British and U.S. governments, in the seizure of Assange are ominous. They presage a world where the internal workings, abuses, corruption, lies and crimes, especially war crimes, carried out by corporate states and the global ruling elite will be masked from the public. They presage a world where those with the courage and integrity to expose the misuse of power will be hunted down, tortured, subjected to sham trials and given lifetime prison terms in solitary confinement. They presage an Orwellian dystopia where news is replaced with propaganda, trivia and entertainment. The arrest of Assange, I fear, marks the official beginning of the corporate totalitarianism that will define our lives.

Under what law did Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno capriciously terminate Julian Assange’s rights of asylum as a political refugee? Under what law did Moreno authorize British police to enter the Ecuadorian Embassy — diplomatically sanctioned sovereign territory — to arrest a naturalized citizen of Ecuador? Under what law did Prime Minister Theresa May order the British police to grab Assange, who has never committed a crime? Under what law did President Donald Trump demand the extradition of Assange, who is not a U.S. citizen and whose news organization is not based in the United States?

I am sure government attorneys are skillfully doing what has become de rigueur for the corporate state, using specious legal arguments to eviscerate enshrined rights by judicial fiat. This is how we have the right to privacy with no privacy. This is how we have “free” elections funded by corporate money, covered by a compliant corporate media and under iron corporate control. This is how we have a legislative process in which corporate lobbyists write the legislation and corporate-indentured politicians vote it into law. This is how we have the right to due process with no due process. This is how we have a government — whose fundamental responsibility is to protect citizens — that orders and carries out the assassination of its own citizens such as the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son. This is how we have a press legally permitted to publish classified information and a publisher sitting in jail in Britain awaiting extradition to the United States and a whistleblower, Chelsea Manning, in a jail cell in the United States.

Britain will use as its legal cover for the arrest the extradition request from Washington based on conspiracy charges. This legal argument, in a functioning judiciary, would be thrown out of court. Unfortunately, we no longer have a functioning judiciary. We will soon know if Britain as well lacks one.

Refusing Safe Passage

Assange was granted asylum in the embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to answer questions about sexual offense allegations that were eventually dropped. Assange and his lawyers always argued that if he was put in Swedish custody he would be extradited to the United States. Once he was granted asylum and Ecuadorian citizenship the British government refused to grant Assange safe passage to the London airport, trapping him in the embassy for seven years as his health steadily deteriorated.

The Trump administration will seek to try Assange on charges that he conspired with Manning in 2010 to steal the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs obtained by WikiLeaks. The half a million internal documents leaked by Manning from the Pentagon and the State Department, along with the 2007 video of U.S. helicopter pilots nonchalantly gunning down Iraqi civilians, including children, and two Reuters journalists, provided copious evidence of the hypocrisy, indiscriminate violence, and routine use of torture, lies, bribery and crude tactics of intimidation by the U.S. government in its foreign relations and wars in the Middle East. Assange and WikiLeaks allowed us to see the inner workings of empire—the most important role of a press—and for this they became empire’s prey.

U.S. government lawyers will attempt to separate WikiLeaks and Assange from The New York Times and the British newspaper The Guardian, both of which also published the leaked material from Manning, by implicating Assange in the theft of the documents. Manning was repeatedly and often brutally pressured during her detention and trial to implicate Assange in the seizure of the material, something she steadfastly refused to do. She is currently in jail because of her refusal to testify, without her lawyer, in front of the grand jury assembled for the Assange case. President Barack Obama granted Manning, who was given a 35-year sentence, clemency after she served seven years in a military prison.

Once the documents and videos provided by Manning to Assange and WikiLeaks were published and disseminated by news organizations such as The New York Times and The Guardian, the press callously, and foolishly, turned on Assange. News organizations that had run WikiLeaks material over several days soon served as conduits in a black propaganda campaign to discredit Assange andWikiLeaks. This coordinated smear campaign was detailed in a leaked Pentagon document prepared by the Cyber Counterintelligence Assessments Branch and dated March 8, 2008. The document called on the U.S. to eradicate the “feeling of trust” that is WikiLeaks’ “center of gravity” and destroy Assange’s reputation.

Democrats’ Ire

Assange, who with the Manning leaks had exposed the war crimes, lies and criminal manipulations of the George W. Bush administration, soon earned the ire of the Democratic Party establishment by publishing 70,000 hacked emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and senior Democratic officials. The emails were copied from the accounts of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. The Podesta emails exposed the donation of millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two of the major funders of Islamic State, to the Clinton Foundation. It exposed the $657,000 that Goldman Sachs paid to Hillary Clinton to give talks, a sum so large it can only be considered a bribe. It exposed Clinton’s repeated mendacity. She was caught in the emails, for example, telling the financial elites that she wanted “open trade and open borders” and believed Wall Street executives were best positioned to manage the economy, a statement that contradicted her campaign statements. It exposed the Clinton campaign’s efforts to influence the Republican primaries to ensure that Trump was the Republican nominee. It exposed Clinton’s advance knowledge of questions in a primary debate. It exposed Clinton as the primary architect of the war in Libya, a war she believed would burnish her credentials as a presidential candidate. Journalists can argue that this information, like the war logs, should have remained hidden, but they can’t then call themselves journalists.

The Democratic leadership, intent on blaming Russia for its election loss, charges that the Podesta emails were obtained by Russian government hackers, although James Comey, the former FBI director, has conceded that the emails were probably delivered to WikiLeaks by an intermediary. Assange has said the emails were not provided by “state actors.”

WikiLeaks has done more to expose the abuses of power and crimes of the American Empire than any other news organization. In addition to the war logs and the Podesta emails, it made public the hacking tools used by the CIA and the National Security Agency and their interference in foreign elections, including in the French elections. It disclosed the internal conspiracy against British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn by Labour members of Parliament. It intervened to save Edward Snowden, who made public the wholesale surveillance of the American public by our intelligence agencies, from extradition to the United States by helping him flee from Hong Kong to Moscow. The Snowden leaks also revealed that Assange was on a U.S. “manhunt target list.”

A haggard-looking Assange, as he was dragged out of the embassy by British police, shook his finger and shouted: “The U.K. must resist this attempt by the Trump administration. … The U.K. must resist!”

We all must resist. We must, in every way possible, put pressure on the British government to halt the judicial lynching of Assange. If Assange is extradited and tried, it will create a legal precedent that will terminate the ability of the press, which Trump repeatedly has called “the enemy of the people,” to hold power accountable. The crimes of war and finance, the persecution of dissidents, minorities and immigrants, the pillaging by corporations of the nation and the ecosystem and the ruthless impoverishment of working men and women to swell the bank accounts of the rich and consolidate the global oligarchs’ total grip on power will not only expand, but will no longer be part of public debate. First Assange. Then us.

This article was originally published on Truthdig and is republished with permission.

Chris Hedges is a Truthdig columnist, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a New York Times best-selling author, a professor in the college degree program offered to New Jersey state prisoners by Rutgers University, and an ordained Presbyterian minister. Read more about him here. This column first appeared in Truthdig.




7 Years of Lies About Assange Won’t Stop Now

One of the few towering figures of our time was reduced to nothing more than a sex pest and scruffy bail-skipper, writes Jonathan Cook.

By Jonathan Cook
Jonathan-Cook.net

For seven years, from the moment Julian Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, they have been telling us we were wrong, that we were paranoid conspiracy theorists. We were told there was no real threat of Assange’s extradition to the United States, that it was all in our fevered imaginations.

For seven years, we have had to listen to a chorus of journalists, politicians and “experts” telling us that Assange was nothing more than a fugitive from justice, and that the British and Swedish legal systems could be relied on to handle his case in full accordance with the law. Barely a “mainstream” voice was raised in his defense in all that time.

From the moment he sought asylum, Assange was cast as an outlaw. His work as the founder of Wikileaks – a digital platform that for the first time in history gave ordinary people a glimpse into the darkest recesses of the most secure vaults in the deepest of Deep States – was erased from the record.

Assange was reduced from one of the few towering figures of our time – a man who will have a central place in history books, if we as a species live long enough to write those books – to nothing more than a sex pest, and a scruffy bail-skipper.

The political and media class crafted a narrative of half-truths about the sex charges Assange was under investigation for in Sweden. They overlooked the fact that Assange had been allowed to leave Sweden by the original investigator, who dropped the charges, only for them to be revived by another investigator with a well-documented political agenda.

They failed to mention that Assange was always willing to be questioned by Swedish prosecutors in London, as had occurred in dozens of other cases involving extradition proceedings to Sweden. It was almost as if Swedish officials did not want to test the evidence they claimed to have in their possession.

The media and political courtiers endlessly emphasized Assange’s bail violation in the U.K., ignoring the fact that asylum seekers fleeing legal and political persecution don’t usually honor bail conditions imposed by the very state authorities from which they are seeking asylum.

Ignoring Mounting Evidence

The political and media establishment ignored the mounting evidence of a secret grand jury in Virginia formulating charges against Assange, and ridiculed Wikileaks’ concerns that the Swedish case might be cover for a more sinister attempt by the U.S. to extradite Assange and lock him away in a high-security prison, as had happened to whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

They belittled the 2016 verdict of a panel of United Nations legal scholars that the U.K. was arbitrarily detaining Assange. The media were more interested in the welfare of his cat.

They ignored the fact that after Ecuador changed presidents – with the new one keen to win favor with Washington – Assange was placed under more and more severe forms of solitary confinement. He was denied access to visitors and basic means of communications, violating both his asylum status and his human rights, and threatening his mental and physical wellbeing.

Equally, they ignored the fact that Assange had been given diplomatic status by Ecuador, as well as Ecuadorean citizenship. Britain was obligated to allow him to leave the embassy, using his diplomatic immunity, to travel unhindered to Ecuador. No “mainstream” journalist or politician thought this significant either.

They turned a blind eye to the news that, after refusing to question Assange in the U.K., Swedish prosecutors had decided to quietly drop the case against him in 2015. Sweden had kept the decision under wraps for more than two years.

It was a freedom of information request by an ally of Assange, not a media outlet, that unearthed documents showing that Swedish investigators had, in fact, wanted to drop the case against Assange back in 2013. The UK, however, insisted that they carry on with the charade so that Assange could remain locked up. A British official emailed the Swedes: “Don’t you dare get cold feet!!!”

Documents Destroyed

Most of the other documents relating to these conversations were unavailable. They had been destroyed by the U.K.’s Crown Prosecution Service in violation of protocol. But no one in the political and media establishment cared, of course.

Similarly, they ignored the fact that Assange was forced to hole up for years in the embassy, under the most intense form of house arrest, even though he no longer had a case to answer in Sweden. They told us – apparently in all seriousness – that he had to be arrested for his bail infraction, something that would normally be dealt with by a fine.

And possibly most egregiously of all, most of the media refused to acknowledge that Assange was a journalist and publisher, even though by failing to do so they exposed themselves to the future use of the same draconian sanctions should they or their publications ever need to be silenced. They signed off on the right of the U.S. authorities to seize any foreign journalist, anywhere in the world, and lock him or her out of sight. They opened the door to a new, special form of rendition for journalists.

This was never about Sweden or bail violations, or even about the discredited Russia-gate narrative, as anyone who was paying the vaguest attention should have been able to work out. It was about the U.S. Deep State doing everything in its power to crush WikiLeaks and make an example of its founder.

It was about making sure there would never again be a leak like that of  “Collateral Murder,” the military video released by Wikileaks in 2007 that showed U.S. soldiers celebrating as they murdered Iraqi civilians. It was about making sure there would never again be a dump of U.S. diplomatic cables, like those released in 2010 that revealed the secret machinations of the U.S. empire to dominate the planet whatever the cost in human rights violations.

Now the pretense is over. The British police invaded the diplomatic territory of Ecuador – invited in by Ecuador after it tore up Assange’s asylum status – to smuggle him off to jail. Two vassal states cooperating to do the bidding of the U.S. empire. The arrest was not to help two women in Sweden or to enforce a minor bail infraction.

No, the British authorities were acting on an extradition warrant from the U.S. And the charges the U.S. authorities have concocted relate to Wikileaks’ earliest work exposing the U.S. military’s war crimes in Iraq – the stuff that we all once agreed was in the public interest, that British and U.S. media clamored to publish themselves.

Still the media and political class is turning a blind eye. Where is the outrage at the lies we have been served up for these past seven years? Where is the contrition at having been gulled for so long? Where is the fury at the most basic press freedom – the right to publish – being trashed to silence Assange? Where is the willingness finally to speak up in Assange’s defense?

It’s not there. There will be no indignation at the BBC, or the Guardian, or CNN. Just curious, impassive – even gently mocking – reporting of Assange’s fate.

And that is because these journalists, politicians and experts never really believed anything they said. They knew all along that the U.S. wanted to silence Assange and to crush Wikileaks. They knew that all along and they didn’t care. In fact, they happily conspired in paving the way for today’s kidnapping of Assange.

They did so because they are not there to represent the truth, or to stand up for ordinary people, or to protect a free press, or even to enforce the rule of law. They don’t care about any of that. They are there to protect their careers, and the system that rewards them with money and influence. They don’t want an upstart like Assange kicking over their applecart.

Now they will spin us a whole new set of deceptions and distractions about Assange to keep us anaesthetized, to keep us from being incensed as our rights are whittled away, and to prevent us from realizing that Assange’s rights and our own are indivisible. We stand or fall together.

Jonathan Cook is a freelance journalist based in Nazareth. He blogs at https://www.jonathan-cook.net/blog/.




Spanish Police Probe Extortion Scheme Involving Surveillance on Assange

UPDATED: Suspects are being investigated in Spain for having tried to extort €3 million from WikiLeaks in exchange for a huge cache of documents and surveillance videos of Assange inside Ecuador’s London embassy, including with his doctors and lawyers.

By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News

A Spanish judge is investigating an alleged extortion scheme in which suspects in Madrid offered video and audio surveillance to the editor of WikiLeaks in exchange for €3 million, WikiLeaks said on Wednesday.

The surveillance was taken over the past year inside the Ecuador embassy in London where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has legally been granted political asylum since 2012, said Kristinn Hrafnsson, the WikiLeaks editor, at a press conference in the British capital.  Included in the “trove” of material was a copy of a legal document regarding Assange’s defense strategy that was briefly left behind in a conference room in the embassy, Hrafnsson said.

“It is a grave and serious concern when legal meetings are being spied upon and legal documents are stolen,” he said. “That is something that not even prisoners have to endure.” 

Assange was also filmed being examined by his doctor in the embassy, Hrafnsson said. “Nobody expected that this was recorded and stored and found its way to some dubious individuals in Spain,” he said.

Jennifer Robinson, Assange’s lawyer, called it a breach of attorney-client privilege. “The documents you have seen [presented at the press conference] demonstrates just how much surveillance he has been under and it is a breach of confidence for us, his lawyers, and his doctors to provide medical care in the embassy,” Robinson said. “This is a severe breach of attorney-client privilege and fundamentally undermines our ability to defend and provide defense to Julian Assange.”

Hrafnsson communicated with the alleged extortioners and was given samples of what they possessed, the WikiLeaks editor said. He then traveled to Spain and secretly videotaped a meeting with “four individuals” in which Hrafnsson learned the extent of the material that they possessed. They told him that €3 million was “a good deal” as they had had offers of €9 million for the material. Hrafnsson then went to the Spanish police who opened an investigation. He said he knew the identity of one of the four who had a prior conviction on similar charges and was seen as the “ringleader.”

 Sting Operation

Aitor Martinez, the Assange lawyer who said he’d briefly left the legal document in the embassy conference room that was copied, then took part in a sting operation with the police. He wore a wire as he met with the alleged extortioners in Madrid, Hrafnsson said.  A full investigation by a special extortion team was then opened and the case is now in the hands of an investigative judge, he said.  

“Extortion is a serious matter,” Hrafnsson said, “but of greater concern to me is that this is material gathered by spying by the government of Lenin Moreno and officials who work on his behalf against an individual who was granted diplomatic protection by the Ecuadorian government.”

In an apparent reference to Moreno, Hrafnsson said: “We know from reports that this is the work of one person to service the interests of the United States government who want to indict and imprison a publisher for the crime of publishing truthful material.”  

Robinson said WikiLeaks would file a “fresh complaint” to the UN special rapporteur on privacy rights, who has said he will visit Assange on April 25.  The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer will also visit Assange that day, WikiLeaks said.

Robinson criticized the British government for being poised to arrest and extradite Assange to the United States. “That a government would cooperate with another state to extradite a publisher for publishing truthful information outside its territory sets a dangerous precedent here in the UK and elsewhere,” she said. “No one can deny that risk. That is why he sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy.”

Fidel Narváez, the former Ecuadorian consul at the embassy who said he saw Assange everyday for six years, told the press conference: “I very much hope that what we presented today will break the shield that currently the Ecuadorian government has built in my country…aided by the Ecuadorian press that is not doing what it should do to challenge and question the government.” He added: “There is lots of misinformation about Julian’s asylum but one thing is clear: the new government of Ecuador is not protecting Julian Assange anymore as it should.”

Diplomat Fired 

On Friday WikiLeaks tweeted that a “high-level” source in the Ecuador government told WikiLeaks that Assange’s expulsion and arrest would come in “hours to days.” That set off a worldwide reaction of Assange supporters as well as by UN special rapporteurs. Heavily armed police have roamed the environs of the embassy, and people in unmarked cars have been parked outside, either as a form of intimidation or on standby waiting for orders to move in.

 “The only reason it hasn’t happened yet is because of the international shame that will be attached to Ecuador if it does so,” Narváez said.  “The government is clearly building a case to end the asylum and what we’ve seen here is the basis for that.”   

WikiLeaks on Tuesday said that Ecuador had fired a diplomat from the embassy, accusing him of being “close” to Assange. The tweet implied that the diplomat may have been WikiLeak’s source about Assange’s imminent expulsion and arrest.

The central question that remains is who had access to the surveillance material and then transferred it to the alleged extortioners. “I don’t know very much about that,” Hrafnsson said. “I assume that will be part of the investigation by the Spanish police authorities and by the Spanish lawyers. However we do have more material that I recorded in Spain and it will possibly cast more light on that chain—how it ended up in Spain. We will make it available online shortly. [But] I don’t want to speculate how that came about.”

The Ecuadorian government had prime possession of surveillance and the British and U.S. governments could have also obtained it, given their close contacts with Ecuador on Assange.   However there would be little apparent motive for these governments to have made the surveillance known.

“Let’s remember that Julian Assange is not serving a sentence, he doesn’t have charges,” Narváez said. “He is a political refugee. Political refugees do not lose rights. On the contrary, they should have their rights protected.”

The following is the full video of the one-hour press conference held in London on Wednesday:

Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston GlobeSunday Times of London and numerous other newspapers. He can be reached at joelauria@consortiumnews.com and followed on Twitter @unjoe .




Russia-gate’s Successor Gambit

Now the propaganda crusade has been initiated to defame the AG, writes James Howard Kunstler.

By James Howard Kunstler
Clusterfuck Nation

James Howard KunstlerHaving disgraced themselves with full immersion in the barren Russia-gate “narrative,” the Resistance is now tripling down on Russia-gate’s successor gambit: obstruction of justice where there was no crime in the first place. What exactly was that bit of mischief Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller inserted in his final report, saying that “…while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him?”

It’s this simple: prosecutors are charged with finding crimes. If there is insufficient evidence to bring a case, then that is the end of the matter. Prosecutors, special or otherwise, are not authorized to offer hypothetical accounts where they can’t bring a criminal case. But Mueller produced a brief of arguments pro-and-con about obstruction for others to decide upon. In doing that, he was out of order, and maliciously so.

Of course, Attorney General William Barr took up the offer and declared the case closed, as he properly should where the prosecutor could not conclude that a crime was committed. One hopes that the AG also instructed Mueller and his staff to shut the f… up vis-à-vis further ex post facto “anonymous source” speculation in the news media. But, of course, the Mueller staff — which inexplicably included lawyers who worked for the Clinton Foundation and the Democratic National Committee — at once started insinuating to New York Times reporters that the full report would contain an arsenal of bombshells reigniting enough suspicion to fuel several congressional committee investigations.

The objective apparently is to keep President Donald Trump burdened, hobbled, and disabled for the remainder of his term, and especially in preparation for the 2020 election against whomever emerges from the crowd of lightweights and geriatric cases now roistering through the primary states. It also leaves the door open for the Resistance to prosecute an impeachment case, since that is a political matter, not a law enforcement action.

Setting up the AG 

This blog is not associated with any court other than public opinion, and I am free to hypothesize on the meaning of Mueller’s curious gambit, so here goes: Barr, long before being considered for his current job, published his opinion that there was no case for obstruction of justice in the Russia-gate affair. By punting the decision to Barr, Mueller sets up the AG for being accused of prejudice in the matter — and, more to the point, has managed to generate a new brushfire in the press.

Barr could see this coming from a thousand miles away. I suspect he’s pissed off about being set up like this. I suspect further that he knows this brushfire is intended to produce a smokescreen to obscure the rash of grand jury referrals coming down in the weeks and months ahead against the many government employees who concocted the Russia-gate scandal. Personally, I think Mueller himself deserves to be in that roundup for destroying evidence (the Strzok / Page cell phones) and for malicious prosecution against General Michael Flynn, among other things.

The reason Mueller did not bring an obstruction-of-justice charge against Trump is that the evidence didn’t support it. He didn’t have a case. In a trial — say, after Trump was impeached or left office — the discovery process could bring to light evidence that might embarrass and even incriminate Mueller and his staff, and cast further opprobrium on the federal justice agencies. For instance: why did Mueller drag out his inquiry for two years when he must have known by at least the summer of 2017 that the Steele dossier was a fraud perpetrated by the Clinton campaign?

Now the propaganda crusade has been initiated to defame Barr. The idiots running the budding new congressional inquiries are going to pile on him, with the help of the news media. Though he is said to be an “old friend” of Robert Mueller’s, I believe they have become adversaries, perhaps even enemies. Mueller is not in a position of strength in this battle. He has now officially exited the stage as his mandate expires, so he has no standing to oppose further consequences in the aftermath of Russia-gate. What remains is a dastardly and seditious hoax as yet un-adjudicated and an evidence trail a mile wide, and no amount of jumping up and down crying “woo woo woo” by Democratic lawmakers Jerrold Nadler, Maxine Waters, and Adam Schiff is going to derail that choo-choo train a’chuggin’ down the tracks.

James Howard Kunstler is author of “The Geography of Nowhere,” which he says he wrote “Because I believe a lot of people share my feelings about the tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside that makes up the everyday environment where most Americans live and work.” He has written several other works of nonfiction and fiction. Read more about him here. This article first appeared on his blog, ClusterfuckNation.

.




The Tale of a ‘Deep State Target’

Daniel Lazare reviews George Papadopoulos’s book about his misadventures with a nest of intelligence agents.

By Daniel Lazare
Special to Consortium News

Now that Russian collusion is dead and buried thanks to Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, the big question is how and why such charges arose.  George Papadopoulos’s “Deep State Target: How I Got Caught in the Crosshairs of the Plot to Bring Down President Trump” doesn’t tell the whole story.  But this account by one of the crusade’s first victims pulls the covers off a few important aspects.

It describes a lengthy entrapment scheme that began when Papadopoulos told co-workers that presidential candidate Donald Trump was about to appoint him to his foreign-policy advisory team.

The time was March 2016, the place the London Centre of International Law Practice, where Papadopoulos was working as an energy consultant, a job that mainly involves meeting with diplomats and going out for a dinner and drinks.  Regarding the LCILP, he recalls it as a “strange operation” where there’s “no actual law practice going on that I can see” and which he later suspects is an intelligent front.

The reaction to his announcement was not good.  “You should not be working with Trump,” one of Papadopoulos’s bosses tells him. “He’s a threat to society.  He’s a racist.  He’s anti-Muslim.”

But the tone changes when another LCILP director insists that he join him for a three-day conference at Link Campus University, a privately-owned educational center in Rome.  There he is introduced to a well-dressed Maltese academic in his mid-fifties named Joseph Mifsud.

“He asks about my background,” Papadopoulos writes. “He asks if I have Russian contacts. I shake my head.  ‘I heard you have connections,’ I say.  ‘And that you might be able to help me with the campaign.’”

“Oh yes, absolutely,” Mifsud replies.  “Let’s talk tonight.  Let’s go to dinner.”

Into the Rabbit Hole

With that, the author enters into a rabbit hole filled with twists and turns in which he found himself in the middle of a deep-state intelligence war over Trump’s alleged Kremlin ties and by the end of which he had served a 12-day sentence in a medium-security federal prison.

 

Please make your tax-deductible donation to our Spring Fund Drive today!

In late April, Mifsud takes him to breakfast at a London hotel and informs him that he had just returned from Russia where officials say they have “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.  “Emails of Clinton,” Mifsud says.  “They have thousands of emails.”  Papadopoulos writes it off as idle chitchat by a dubious diplomatic networker whom he has come to see as all talk and no action.

A friend from the Australian embassy introduces him to a top Aussie diplomat named Alexander Downer, who tells him over gin-and-tonics that his foreign-policy ideas are all wet.

A British foreign-ministry official takes him out for still more drinks and grills him about Russia.

Stefan Halper, an old CIA hand turned Cambridge academic, contacts him out of the blue and pesters him about Russia as well.

A mysterious Belorussian-American name Sergei Millian offers him a secret $30,000-a-month PR job but only if he continues working for Trump.

An Israeli-American businessman named Charles Tawil buys him lunch at a steakhouse in Skokie, Ill. Later, in Greece, they go clubbing together in Mykonos, and then Tawil flies Papadopoulos to Israel where he presents him with $10,000 in cash – money that a wary Papadopoulos leaves with a lawyer in Thessaloniki.

While flying back to the U.S. in July 2017, Papadopoulos runs into a squad of FBI agents as he is changing planes.  “And then, finally, it dawns on me as they are going through my bags,” he writes.  “Charles Tawil and the money.  They are looking for $10,000 in undeclared cash!  That fucking guy was setting me up.”

“I’ve barely slept in two days,” he goes on after appearing before a judge.  “I’m wearing the same shirt that I left Athens in.  I smell like garbage.  I look like garbage.  I’m disoriented – because while I’ve just finally heard the charges, I still don’t really understand any of it.” To his horror, he learns that he is facing 25 years in prison on charges of obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI.

What was going on?  Although Papadopoulos doesn’t go into the pre-history, we know from other sources that, by late 2015, intelligence agencies were buzzing over reports that Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin were reaching out to one another behind the scenes.

Three Mood-Setting Events 

Spooks are paranoid by profession, but three recent events had put them particularly on edge.  One was the Euromaidan uprising in Kiev in early 2014, which, by driving out an allegedly pro-Russian president, sparked a parallel revolt among Russian speakers in the east.  Another was in Syria where U.S. backing of Islamist rebels had prompted Russia to intervene in support of President Bashar al-Assad.  The third was on the U.S. campaign trail where Trump was thoroughly shocking foreign-policy “experts” by sounding off against regime change and making friendly noises toward Putin.

“But I think that I would probably get along with him very well,” Trump said of the Russian president in October 2015.  When CNN host John Dickerson asked about Russian air assaults, he replied: “And as far as him attacking ISIS, I’m all for it. If he wants to be bombing the hell out of ISIS, which he’s starting to do, if he wants to be bombing ISIS, let him bomb them, John.  Let him bomb them.  I think we [can] probably work together much more so than right now.”

Intelligence agencies might have conceded that the U.S. was wrong to encourage far-right elements in Kiev and that it was equally mistaken in giving backhanded support to Al Qaeda and ISIS in the Middle East. They might have granted that Trump, for all his reality-TV bluster, had a point.  But western intelligence agencies don’t do self-criticism.  What they did was blame Putin for messing up their plans for a clean coup in Kiev and an equally neat ouster of Assad and then blamed Trump for arguing in his behalf. From there, it was a very short step to concluding that Trump was not only siding with Putin, but conspiring with him.

Individual intelligence assets went into action to prove this  theory correct and, if need be, to invent a conspiracy where none existed. Joseph Mifsud was apparently among them.  “Deep State Target” devotes a fair amount of space to his background.  Although Mueller’s indictment says Mifsud had “substantial connections to Russian government officials,” a wealth of data indicates the opposite. 

‘Only One Master’

Stephan Roh, a Swiss-German lawyer who employed Mifsud as a consultant, writes in a self-published book that he has “only one master: the Western Political, Diplomatic, and Intelligence World, his only home, of which he is still deeply dependent.” Mifsud has been photographed with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and veteran diplomat Claire Smith, a top British intelligence official. Indeed, Mifsud taught a course with Smith for Italian military and law-enforcement personnel at the same Link Campus where he’d met Papadopolous.

Mifsuds’s ties with western intelligence are thus multifarious and deep.  The same goes for the other people with whom ran Papadopoulos had contact.

Alexander Downer, the Aussie diplomat with whom he had drinks, turns out to be a director of a London private intelligence firm known as Hakluyt & Co., which counts among its close associates Halper, the Cambridge academic who was ex-CIA, and Sir Richard Dearlove, ex-director of MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA.  These two — Dearlove and Halper — ran an intelligence seminar at Cambridge and are also partners in a private venture calling itself “The Cambridge Security Initiative.”  (See Spooks Spooking Themselves,Consortium News, May 31, 2018.) 

Millian, the man who offered Papadopoulos $30,000 a month, turns out to be a source for the notorious Steele Dossier, compiled by ex-MI6 agent Christopher Steele.  Steele, in turn, sought counsel at one point from fellow Cambridge man Dearlove on how to spread his findings.  According to one of Willian’s buddies, Millian works for the FBI as well.

All of which is enough to get anyone’s conspiratorial juices flowing.

As for Charles Tawil, he arouses Papadopoulos’s fears of an intelligence link once he arrives in Mykonos by boasting of his friendship with Uganda President Yoweri Museveni and then-South African President Jacob Zuma, and declaring of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, “it wasn’t our fault he got caught.”  In Israel, he brags about helping to wiretap Syrian strong man Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president.  “We could have killed him at any time,” he says.  Finally, Papadopoulos reveals a private diplomatic cable citing Tawil as a U.S. intelligence asset back in 2006.

Five intelligence assets were thus hounding Papadopoulos at every turn while a sixth was compiling the dossier that would send Russia-gate into overdrive. It added up to the greatest propaganda campaign since the furor over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and, like those nonexistent WMDs, turns out to have been manufactured out of thin air.

Full-Court Press

“Deep State Target” is vague about many details and Papadopoulos doesn’t have all the answers about Russia-gate.  No one at this point does.  But his book leaves little doubt that he was the victim of a full-court press by intelligence assets in and around the FBI, CIA, and MI6.

Like everyone, Mifsud knew about Clinton’s emails – the ones she stored on her private server, not those that Wikileaks would later release – and fed Papadopoulos tidbits about a supposed Russia connection in the hope, no doubt, that he would pass them along to the Trump campaign.  When he didn’t, Downer nonetheless reported back to Canberra that Papadopoulos had told him something along those lines. (Papadopoulos does not remember saying any such thing.) Once Canberra told Washington, the FBI investigation, dubbed Crossfire Hurricane, was on.

Halper tried to get him to admit to working with Russia: “It’s great that Russia is helping you and the campaign, right, George? George, you and your campaign are involved in hacking and working with Russia, right?  It seems like you are a middleman for Trump and Russia, right?  I know you know about the emails.”

Millian sends him an email shortly before the election telling him to “[p]lease be very cautious these last few days.  Even to the point of not leaving your food and drinks out of eye sight.”

“Obviously a Greek Orthodox guy like you has close ties to Russia,” Charles Tawil, observes, leaving it to Papadopoulos to fill in the blanks.

Diehard Russia-truthers will point out that, even though the charge that Papadopoulos obstructed justice by misleading the FBI was dropped, Papadopoulos is still a convicted liar who pled guilty to misleading the FBI about the exact timing of his meetings with Mifsud.  But he says that he was frightened and nervous and didn’t have his lawyer present and that he didn’t even remember what he had said until he read it in the indictment.

He also says he now regrets taking his then-lawyers’ advice to cop a plea: “There was never any pre-trial discovery.  We never saw – or at least I hadn’t seen – the transcript of my interview, so all we had was the prosecutor’s word regarding what I had said.  And we caved.” But he was an amateur running out of money while doing battle with a prosecutor with a $25-million budget.  He had little choice.  Russia-gate was unstoppable – until the collusion theory finally collapsed.

Daniel Lazare is the author of “The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy” (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics.  He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nation to Le Monde diplomatiqueand blogs about the Constitution and related matters at Daniellazare.com.

If you value this original article, please consider making a donation to Consortium News’s Spring Fundraising Drive so we can bring you more stories like this one. 




1% Politics and the New Gilded Age

Rajan Menon looks at two recent scandals and what they show about the nexus between wealth and power in America. 

By Rajan Menon
TomDispatch.com

Despair about the state of our politics pervades the political spectrum, from left to right. One source of it, the narrative of fairness offered in basic civics textbooks — we all have an equal opportunity to succeed if we work hard and play by the rules; citizens can truly shape our politics — no longer rings true to most Americans. Recent surveys indicate that substantial numbers of them believe that the economy and political system are both rigged. They also think that money has an outsized influence on politics. Ninety percent of Democrats hold this view, but so do 80 percent of Republicans. And careful studies confirm what the public believes.

None of this should be surprising given the stark economic inequality that now marks our society. The richest 1 percent of American households currently account for 40 percent of the country’s wealth, more than the bottom 90 percent of families possess. Worse yet, the top 0.1 percent has cornered about 20 percent of it, up from 7 percent in the mid-1970s. By contrast, the share of the bottom 90 percent has since then fallen from 35 percent to 25 percent. To put such figures in a personal light, in 2017, three men — Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates — possessed more wealth ($248.5 billion) than the bottom 50 percent of Americans.

Over the last four decades, economic disparities in the U.S. increased substantially and are now greater than those in other wealthy democracies. The political consequence has been that a tiny minority of extremely wealthy Americans wields disproportionate influence, leaving so many others feeling disempowered.

What Money Sounds Like

Two recent headline-producing scandals highlight money’s power in society and politics.

The first involved super-affluent parents who used their wealth to get their manifestly unqualified children into highly selective colleges and universities that previously had reputations (whatever the reality) for weighing the merits of applicants above their parents’ wealth or influence.

The second concerned Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s reported failure to reveal, as election laws require, more than $1 million in low-interest loans that he received for his 2012 Senate campaign. (For that lapse, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) fined Senator Cruz a modest $35,000.) The funds came from Citibank and Goldman Sachs, the latter his wife’s longtime employer. News of those undisclosed loans, which also cast doubt on Cruz’s claim that he had funded his campaign in part by liquidating the couple’s assets, only added to the sense that favoritism now suffuses the politics of a country that once prided itself on being the world’s model democracy. (Journalists covering the story couldn’t resist pointing out that the senator had often lambasted Wall Street’s crony capitalism and excessive political influence.)

The Cruz controversy is just one reflection of the coming of 1 percent politics and 1 percent elections to America at a moment when the first billionaire has been ensconced in the Oval Office for more than two years, posing as a populist no less.

Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, money has poured into politics as never before. That’s because the Court ruled that no limits could be placed on corporate and union spending aimed at boosting or attacking candidates running for political office. Doing so, the justices determined in a 5-4 vote, would be tantamount to restricting individuals’ right to free speech, protected by the First Amendment. Then came the Court’s 2014 McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision (again 5-4), which only increased money’s influence in politics by removing the aggregate limit on an individual’s contribution to candidates and to national party committees.

In an age when money drives politics, even ex-presidents are cashing in. Fifteen years after Bill Clinton departed the White House, he and Hillary had amassed a net worth of $75 million — a 6,150 percent increase in their wealth. Barack and Michelle Obama’s similarly soared from $1.3 million in 2000 to $40 million last year — and they’re just warming up. Key sources of these staggering increases include sky-high speaking fees (often paid by large corporations), including $153 million for the Clintons between February 2001 and May 2016. George W. Bush also made tens of millions of dollars in this fashion and, in 2017, Obama received $400,000 for a single speech to a Wall Street firm.

No wonder average Americans believe that the political class is disconnected from their day-to-day lives and that ours is, in practice, a democracy of the rich in which money counts (and counts and counts).

Cash for College

Now let’s turn to what those two recent scandals tell us about the nexus between wealth and power in America.

First, the school scam. Parents have long hired pricey tutors to coach their children for the college admissions tests, sometimes paying them hundreds of dollars an hour, even $1,500 for 90 minutes of high-class prep. They’ve also long tapped their exclusive social and political connections to gin up razzle-dazzle internships to embellish those college applications. Anyone who has spent as much time in academia as I have knows that this sort of thing has been going on for a long time. So has the practice of legacy admissions — access to elite schools especially for the kids of alumni of substantial means who are, or might prove to be, donors. The same is true of privileged access to elite schools for the kids of mega-donors. Consider, for instance, that $2.5 million donation Charles Kushner made to Harvard in 1998, not long before his son Jared applied. Some of the folks who ran Jared’s high school noted that he wasn’t exactly a whiz-bang student or someone with sky-high SAT scores, but — surprise! — he was accepted anyway.

What’s new about the recent revelations is that they show the extent to which today’s deep-pocketed helicopter parents have gone into overdrive, using brazen schemes to corrupt the college admissions process yet more. One unnamed parent spent a cool $6.5 million to ensure the right college admitted his or her child. Others paid hefty amounts to get their kids’ college admissions test scores falsified or even hired proxies to take the tests for them. Famous actors and financial titans made huge payments to university sports coaches, who then lied to admissions officers, claiming that the young applicants were champions they had recruited in sports like water polo, crew, or tennis. (The kids may have known how to swim, row, or play tennis, but star athletes they were not.)

Of course, as figures on the growing economic inequality in this country since the 1970s indicate, the overwhelming majority of Americans lack the connections or the cash to stack the deck in such ways, even assuming they would do so. Hence, the public outrage, even though parents generally understand that not every aspirant can get into a top school — there aren’t enough spots — just as many know that their children’s future happiness and sense of fulfillment won’t depend on whether they attend a prestigious college or university.

Still, the unfairness and chicanery highlighted by the admissions scandal proved galling, the more so as the growing crew of fat cats corrupting the admissions process doubtless also preach the gospel of American meritocracy. Worse, most of their kids will undoubtedly present their fancy degrees as proof that quality wins out in our society, never mind that their starting blocks were placed so far ahead of the competition.

To add insult to injury, the same parents and children may even portray admissions policies designed to help students who lack wealth or come from underrepresented communities as violations of the principles of equal opportunity and fairness, democracy’s bedrock. In reality, students from low-income families, or even those of modest means, are startlingly less likely to be admitted to top private universities than those from households in the top 10 percent. In fact, applicants from families in the top 1 percent are now 77 times more likely than in the bottom 20 percent to land in an elite college, and 38 of those schools admit more kids from families in that top percentage than from the bottom 60 percent.

Buying Politics (and Politicians), American-Style

Now, let’s return to the political version of the same — the world in which Ted Cruz swims so comfortably. There, too, money talks, which means that those wealthy enough to gain access to, and the attention of, lawmakers have huge advantages over others. If you want political influence, whether as a person or a corporation, having the wealth needed to make big campaign contributions — to individuals or groups — and to hire top-drawer lobbyists makes a world of difference.

Official data on the distribution of family income in the United States show that the overwhelming majority of Americans can’t play that game, which remains the preserve of a tiny super-rich minority. In 2015, even with taxes and government-provided benefits included, households in the lowest 20 percent accounted for only about 5 percent of total income. Their average income — not counting taxes and government-provided assistance — was only $20,000. The share of the bottom 50 percent — families making $61,372 or less — dropped from 20 percent to 12 percent between 1978 and 2015.  By contrast, families in the top 1 percent earned nearly 50 percent of total income, averaging $215,000 a year — and that’s only income, not wealth. The super-rich have plenty of the latter, those in the bottom 20 percent next to none.

Before we proceed, a couple of caveats about money and political clout. Money doesn’t always prevail. Candidates with more campaign funds aren’t guaranteed victory, though the time politicians spend raising cash leaves no doubt that they believe it makes a striking difference. In addition, money in politics doesn’t operate the way simple bribery does. The use of it in pursuit of political influence works more subtly, and often — in the new era opened by the Supreme Court — without the slightest need to violate the law.

Still, in Donald Trump’s America, who would claim that money doesn’t talk? If nothing else, from inaugural events — for Trump’s inaugural $107 million was raised from a host of wealthy donors with no limits on individual payments, 30 of which totaled $1 million or more — to gala fundraisers, big donors get numerous opportunities to schmooze with those whose campaigns they’ve helped bankroll. Yes, there’s a limit — currently $5,600 — on how much any individual can officially give to a single election campaign, but the ultra-wealthy can simply put their money into organizations formed solely to influence elections as well as into various party committees.

Individuals, companies, and organizations can, for instance, give money to political action committees (PACs) and Super PACs. Though bound by rules, both entities still have lots of leeway. PACs face no monetary limits on their independent efforts to shape elections, though they can’t accept corporate or union money or take more than $5,000 from individuals. They can provide up to $5,000 to individual election campaigns and $15,000 per party committee, but there’s no limit on what they can contribute in the aggregate. Super PACs have far more running room. They can rake in unlimited amounts from a variety of sources (as long as they’re not foreign) and, like PACs, can spend limitless sums to shape elections, providing they don’t give money directly to candidates’ campaigns.

Then there are the dark money groups, which can receive financial contributions from any source, American or foreign. Though their primary purpose is to push policies, not individual campaigns, they can engage in election-related work, provided that no more than half their funds are devoted to it. Though barred from donating to individual campaigns, they can pour unlimited money into Super PACs and, unlike PACs and Super PACs, don’t have to disclose who gave them the money or how much. Between 2008 and 2018, dark money groups spent $1 billion to influence elections.

In 2018, 2,395 Super PACs were working their magic in this country. They raised $1.6 billion and spent nearly $809 million. Nearly 78 percent of the money they received came from 100 donors. They, in turn, belonged to the wealthiest 1 percent, who provided 95 percent of what those Super PACs took in.

As the 2018 congressional elections kicked off, the four wealthiest Super PACs alone had $113.4 million on hand to support candidates they favored, thanks in substantial measure to business world donors. In that election cycle, 31 individuals ponied up more than $5 million apiece, while contributions from the top four among them ranged from almost $40 million to $123 million.

The upshot: if you’re running for office and advocate policies disliked by wealthy individuals or by companies and organizations with lots of cash to drop into politics, you know from the get-go that you now have a problem.

Wealth also influences political outcomes through the lobbying industry. Here again, there are rules, but even so, vast numbers of lobbyists and eye-popping amounts of lobbying money now are at the heart of the American political system. In 2018 alone, the 50 biggest lobbying outfits, largely representing big companies, business associations, and banks, spent $540 million, and the grand total for lobbying that year alone was $3.4 billion.

Nearly 350 of those lobbyists were former legislators from Congress. Officials departing from senior positions in the executive branch have also found artful ways to circumvent presidential directives that prohibit them from working as lobbyists for a certain number of years.

Do unions and public interest groups also lobby? Sure, but there’s no contest between them and corporations. Lee Drutman of the New America think tank notes that, for every dollar the former spent in 2015, corporate donors spent $34. Unsurprisingly, only one of the top 20 spenders on lobbying last year was a union or a public-interest organization.

The sums spent by individual companies to gain political influence can be breathtaking. Take now-embattled Boeing. It devoted $15 million to lobbying in 2018 — and that’s not counting its campaign contributions, using various channels. Those added another $8.4 million in the last two-and-a-half years. Yet Boeing only placed 11th among the top 20 corporate spenders on lobbying last year. Leading the pack: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at $94.8 million.

Defenders of the status quo will warn that substantially reducing money’s role in American politics is sure to threaten democracy and civil liberties by ceding undue power to the state and, horror of horrors, putting us on the road to “socialism,” the right wing’s bogeyman du jour. This is ludicrous. Other democracies have taken strong steps to prevent economic inequality from subverting their politics and haven’t become less free as a result. Even those democracies that don’t limit political contributions have adopted measures to curb the power of money, including bans on television ads (a huge expense for candidates in American elections: $3 billion in 2018 alone just for access to local stations), free airtime to allow competitors to disseminate their messages, and public funds to ease the financial burden of election campaigns. Compared to other democracies, the United States appears to be in a league of its own when it comes to money’s prominence in politics.

Those who favor continuing business as usual like to point out that federal “matching funds” exist to help presidential candidates not be steamrolled by competitors who’ve raised mounds of money. Those funds, however, do no such thing because they come with stringent limits on total spending. Candidates who accept matching funds for a general election cannot accept contributions from individuals. Moreover, matching funds are capped at $20 million, which is a joke considering that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent a combined $1.2 billion in individual contributions alone during the 2012 presidential election. (Super PACs spent another $350 million to help Romney and $100 million to back Obama.)

A New American Tradition?

Rising income inequalitywage stagnation, and slowing social mobility hurt ordinary Americans economically, even as they confer massive social and political advantages on the mega-rich — and not just when it comes to college admissions and politics either.

Even the Economist, a publication that can’t be charged with sympathy for left-wing ideas, warned recently of the threat economic inequality poses to the political agency of American citizens. The magazine cited studies showing that, despite everything you’ve heard about the power of small donations in recent political campaigns, 1 percent of the population actually provides a quarter of all the money spent on politics by individuals and 80 percent of what the two major political parties raise. Thanks to their wealth, a minuscule economic elite as well as big corporations now shape policies, notably on taxation and expenditure, to their advantage on an unprecedented scale. Polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans support stricter laws to prevent wealth from hijacking politics and want the Citizens United ruling overturned. But then just how much does the voice of the majority matter? Judging from the many failed efforts to pass such laws, not much.

Rajan Menon, a TomDispatch regular, is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York, and Senior Research Fellow at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. His latest book is The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention.”




Pelosi and McConnell Crank Up NATO Madness

Norman Solomon calls for all forms of pushback against a militarized political culture welcoming a NATO chief to Congress this week.  

By Norman Solomon
NormanSolomon.com

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell teamed up to invite NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to address a joint session of Congress, they had every reason to expect the April 3 speech to be a big hit with U.S. media and political elites. The establishment is eager to affirm the sanctity of support for the transatlantic military alliance.

Huge reverence for NATO is matched by how dangerous NATO has become. NATO’s continual expansion — all the way to Russia’s borders — has significantly increased the chances that the world’s two nuclear superpowers will get into direct military conflict.

But in the United States, when anyone challenges the continued expansion of NATO, innuendos or outright smears are likely.

Two years ago, when the Senate debated whether to approve bringing Montenegro into NATO, the mud flew at Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky after he showed up to object. An infuriated Sen. John McCain declared on the Senate floor: “I have no idea why anyone would object to this, except that I will say — if they object, they are now carrying out the desires and ambitions of Vladimir Putin, and I do not say that lightly.”

Moments later, when Paul said “I object,” McCain proclaimed: “The senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin.”

With those words, McCain conveyed the common madness of reverence for NATO — and the common intolerance for anything that might approach a rational debate on whether it’s a good idea to keep expanding an American-led military alliance to, in effect, push Russia into a corner. Doing so is understandably viewed from Russia as a dire threat. (Imagine a Russian-led military alliance expanding to Canada and Mexico, complete with some of the latest missile systems on the planet.)

Closing in on Russia

Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall — and the quickly broken promises by the U.S. in 1990 that NATO would move “not one inch eastward” — NATO has been closing in on Russia’s borders while bringing one nation after another into full military membership. During the last three decades, NATO has added 13 countries — and it’s not done yet.

NATO members “have clearly stated that Georgia will become a member of NATO,” Stoltenberg asserted days ago while visiting the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. He added: “We will continue working together to prepare for Georgia’s NATO membership.” For good measure, he took to Twitter on March 25:

Very few members of Congress can be heard raising any concerns about such reckless expansion. The Senate is key, because adding a country to full NATO membership requires Senate approval.

My colleagues at RootsAction.org have just launched a constituent email campaign on this issue. In every state, people are contacting their senators with individual emails urging them to oppose NATO expansion. Such constituent pressure needs to escalate.

Lobbying is only part of what’s needed. As NATO marks its 70th anniversary next week with a range of activities — including a White House welcome for Stoltenberg on Tuesday, his speech to Congress the next day and an official “celebration” on April 4 — counter-actions including forums and protests as part of a “No to NATO” week will be happening in Washington.

statement from the campaign says:

“NATO and a just, peaceful and sustainable world are incompatible…. It is an unjust, undemocratic, violent and aggressive alliance trying to shape the world for the benefit of a few.”

Such evaluations of NATO in the real world are a far cry from the adulation that will be coming from mass media next week.

President Donald Trump’s decision to roll out the White House red carpet for NATO’s secretary general is consistent with the administration’s actions during the last two years. Media narratives that fixate on occasional warm rhetoric from Trump about Russian President Vladimir Putin have fueled illusions that Trump isn’t pursuing aggressive anti-Russian policies.

While many Democratic politicians and U.S. media outlets have portrayed Trump as soft on Russia and uncommitted to Western militarism, such claims don’t hold up to facts. Trump and his top deputies have repeatedly affirmed a commitment to NATO, while his overall policies (if not always his rhetoric) have been dangerously bellicose toward Russia.

In an email message to the D.C. area encouraging participation in No to NATO events next week, RootsAction points out:

“Trump has evicted Russian diplomats, sanctioned Russian officials, put missiles practically on Russia’s border, sent weapons into Ukraine, lobbied European nations to drop Russian energy deals, left the Iran agreement, torn up the INF Treaty, rejected Russia’s offers on banning weapons in space and banning cyberwar, expanded NATO eastward, added a NATO partner in Colombia, proposed adding Brazil, demanded and successfully moved most NATO members to buy significantly more weapons, splurged on more nukes, bombed Russians in Syria, overseen the largest war rehearsals in Europe in half a century, condemned all proposals for a European military and insisted that Europe stick with NATO.”

When NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg gives his speech to the assembled members of Congress next Wednesday, you can count on the House speaker and Senate majority leader to be right behind him. The bipartisan enthusiasm will be obvious — in tribute to a militarized political culture that is vastly profitable for a few, while vastly destructive in countless ways. Only public education, activism, protests and a wide range of political organizing have the potential to disrupt and end the reflexive support for NATO in Washington.

Norman Solomon is cofounder and national coordinator of RootsAction.org. He was a Bernie Sanders delegate from California to the 2016 Democratic National Convention and is currently a coordinator of the relaunched Bernie Delegates Network. Solomon is the author of a dozen books, including “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” He is the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.