National Guard Filling Gaps in All-Volunteer Army

In the era of forever wars, recruits who are lured by substantial rewards can sign up for more than they realize, writes Rebecca Gordon.

By Rebecca Gordon
TomDispatch.com

A young friend is seriously considering joining her state’s National Guard. She’s a world-class athlete, but also a working-class woman from a rural background competing in a rich person’s sport. Between seasons, she works for a local farm and auctioneer to put together the money for equipment and travel.

Each season, raising the necessary money to compete is a touch-and-go proposition, so she’s now talking to the National Guard. If, after basic training, she joins the Army’s World Class Athletes Program as a reservist, her service will essentially consist of competing in her sport. She’ll get an annual salary, health care, college tuition — all to do what she loves and wants to do anyway. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, she could end up fighting in one of this country’s forever wars.

That’s what happened to thousands of National Guard troops and reservists when Washington discovered its all-volunteer forces were woefully inadequate for the project of occupying Iraq after the 2003 invasion. As then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously explained, Washington went to war with the Army it had, “not the Army you might wish you have.” So the National Guard filled in the gaps, supplying up to 41 percent  of the troops deployed there by 2005. By 2011, more than 300,000 Guards had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as well.

Real Soldiers Fighting Real Wars

Members of the National Guard sign on to train one weekend a month and two weeks a year in return for some substantial rewards, including (at the moment) a possible $20,000 signing bonus. But what many of them don’t realize is how likely it is that, somewhere along the line, they’ll be deployed for a lot more than two weeks.

The National Guard isn’t the only force whose members sign up for 12 weekends and two weeks a year. The regular armed forces also maintain reserves, soldiers who want to combine military service with civilian life. Unlike the National Guard, however, they answer only to federal, not to dual (state and federal), authority. Like the Guard, reservists can be deployed for much longer than a weekend. A photograph sent home from Iraq by a reservist classically summed up the situation encountered by both types of part-time soldiers, then and now. It shows a military vehicle with this signdisplayed across the windshield: “One Weekend a Month, My Ass!”

In fact, as the Guard explains, its “343,000 Soldiers, 8 division headquarters, 27 brigade combat teams, 55 functional support brigades, 42 multifunctional brigades, 8 combat aviation brigades and 2 Special Forces groups” make it an integral part of the U.S. armed forces. Today, it operates 42 percent of all military aircraft and supplies 39 percent of the Army’s operational forces — essentially the same proportion it provided during the early years of the Iraq War.

For example, although President Barack Obama officially ended Operation Enduring Freedom (the U.S.’s post-9/11 war in Afghanistan) in 2014, the Guard continues to deploy to that very war zone, with 400 Illinois reservists, another 400 from Wisconsin100 from Georgia, 50 from Colorado, and 46 from New York sent there as recently as this December and January. And not only are they being deployed to Afghanistan, but they’re still dying there. Among the 60 sent from Utah in November 2018, for instance, was Brent Taylor, the mayor of the town of North Ogden, who was killed during an “insider attack” at a base in Kabul. Given the provisional peace agreement reportedly now being negotiated between the U.S. and the Taliban, there is at least a modest hope that the deployments of such part-time soldiers to America’s longest war may end in some imaginable future.

As TomDispatch regular Nick Turse has observed, it’s difficult to get specifics from the U.S. military about much of anything, whether it’s foreign bases or deployment numbers. But it’s clear that the Guard now goes everywhere the regular Army and Air Force go. Its members have served in U.S. conflicts in SyriaYemen, and Libya, among other places. They are now deployed in at least 56 countries around the world, from Macedonia and Kosovo to Egypt, not to mention the Mexican border inside the U.S.

The Guard appreciates the special skills its members develop in civilian life, which is how the 50-year-old uncle of one of my students found himself deployed as a doctor in Iraq in 2005. Indeed, the soldiers who so infamously abused detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison back in 2004 also had special skills honed in their civilian jobs — as prison guards. In fact, Specialist Charles Graner, the torturers’ ringleader, wrote home at the time, “The Christian in me says it’s wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, ‘I love to make a grown man piss himself.’”

Protecting the Homeland

But wait! Aren’t the National Guard the troops who rescue us from fires and floods, the ones who are called out when there’s a natural disaster?

Indeed, they are mobilized for just that in times of peril, but responding to national disasters has never been the Guard’s main purpose, although recruitment efforts often emphasize that role. Today’s National Guard represents the evolution of the original state militias, created for military purposes — fighting enemies from Indian nations on this continent to rebels in the Philippines. The National Guard Bureau’s 2019 posture statement identifies “three core missions.” None of these involve supporting elite athletes, but neither is there any mention of the Guard’s well-known role in confronting fires or floods. Its stated core missions are “fighting America’s wars, securing the homeland, and building enduring partnerships.” Those “enduring partnerships” turn out to be arrangements with military forces in the 79 countries (just under a third of the world’s nations) where the National Guard has “strategic state partnerships,” or SSPs.

My friend tells me that the regular Army and Air Force look down on the Guard; they’re not real soldiers in the eyes of the full-time military. Maybe that’s why General Joseph Lengyel, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, whose photo and signature introduce that posture statement, is at pains to represent those forces not as the friendly folks in uniform who pull flooded-out Americans off their roofs, but as a full-on fighting force. In case there’s any doubt, illustrated with drawings and photos of a multicultural array of rifle-toting men and women, it says clearly: “Fighting America’s wars will always be the primary mission of the National Guard.”

But what about that second core mission, “securing the homeland”? Could that be where its natural disaster work comes in? Not according to the posture statement, which puts it this way:

“The homeland is part of the global battle space. In the past, America benefited from its favorable geography with friendly neighbors to the north and south and large oceans to our east and west as natural barriers. Today, we no longer enjoy this safe haven as a result of new technologies and weapons that can reach the heart of America with little or no warning.”

Touting its “dual-use nature and robust presence in 2,600 [U.S.] communities,” the document assures its readers that the Guard is here — in fact, just about everywhere — to protect us from the “[p]roliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and high-yield explosive devices” that “has increased the threat of a weapons of mass destruction… attack on the United States.”

In the spirit of being everywhere, it even dispatched 2,200 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border late last year, in response to President Donald Trump’s many election-time warnings about the approach of a caravan of desperate refugees and asylum-seekers from Central America. As far back as April 2018, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis authorized the deployment of up to 4,000 members of the National Guard, to stay there at least through August 2019 — in addition to the regular Army troops whose initial 45-day deployment has already been extended twice. In fact, at the end of January, Trump defended the expected deployment this month of yet another 3,500 regular troops “to stop the attempted Invasion of Illegals, through large Caravans, into our Country.”

Working jointly with the U.S. Border Patrol, Guard members are not deployed to police the border directly, but engaged in a variety of activities including stringing concertina wire, reviewing intelligence, and flying helicopter surveillance missions.

Dual Use, Dual Authority?

Who commands the National Guard? That’s a complicated question. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution recognized then-existing state militias and gave Congress the power to call them out “to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions.” From the beginning, those militias (which, with the passage of federal legislation in 1903, became the National Guard) were under the dual control of the federal and state governments. Congress was also given the power “to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress…”

Except when a state Guard has been “federalized” (called up by Congress or the president), each governor serves as the commander-in-chief of his or her state’s units. When they are federalized, however, the president is their commander-in-chief.

The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act forbids the use of Army troops for law enforcement purposes inside the United States (except for suppressing insurrections). Federal legislation in 1956 expanded the Act to cover the Air Force, while Department of Defense regulations also forbid the use of the Navy and Marines (but not the Coast Guard) for domestic policing.

The National Guard, on the other hand, is under no such prohibition and so its troops have often been deployed in response to events inside this country. An illustration of the Guard’s dual (and, in this case, dueling) command structure occurred in 1957, when nine black students attempted to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Governor Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas Guard to “preserve the peace” by preventing the students from entering the school. In response, President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the same forces and ordered them (along with soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division) to assist in the integration of Central High. (As the only “insurrection” in Little Rock then was the governor’s rejection of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring public school segregation unconstitutional, it’s quite possible that the use of regular Army troops violated the Posse Comitatus Act.)

Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, sent the Guard to Birmingham to oversee the integration of the University of Alabama and that state’s public schools (over the objections of then-Gov. George Wallace). In 1967, both the National Guard and federal troops were sent to Detroit at the request of Mayor Jerome Cavanagh to put down an urban insurrection there.

After the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., President Lyndon Johnson again ordered units in to quell riots in Chicago, Baltimore, and my hometown, Washington, D.C. I remember coming down my front steps one evening in April 1968 to be met by a pale, uniformed boy of about 18, who sternly warned me not to walk around in my calm, leafy neighborhood, because of the danger posed by “those people” from downtown. I’m afraid I laughed at him. My mother was dating one of those people and that evening she was helping distribute food in those very downtown neighborhoods, where grocery stores were closed and a pall of smoke hung in the air.

From Protecting the Union to Busting Unions

President Richard Nixon sent the National Guard into New York City in 1970 to try to break a postal workers’ strike. The Guardsmen may have been good soldiers, but they turned out to be less than efficient letter carriers, so the postal union got the raise it was demanding.

That strike was hardly the first time that the National Guard had been sent in to put down labor actions. Sadly, there’s a long history in which it’s acted on behalf of wealthy companies against striking workers. During an 1892 steelworkers’ strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania, for instance, the governor brought in the state militia to dislodge strikers occupying a steel plant that belonged to the Carnegie Corporation and help break the strike.

In 1894, the Illinois National Guard had a hand in putting down a national strike by railroad workers organized by the American Railroad Union. In 1914, the National Guard fired machine guns into a tent city of striking miners and their families in Ludlow, Colorado, killing more than 20 people. The mining company belonged to John D. Rockefeller Jr.

In more recent years, Guard members have been used less as violent strikebreakers than as scabs, replacing striking workers, especially in public-sector jobs. A 1982 study, for example, found that, over the previous decade, various units were called in 45 times to replace city or state employees, prison guards, mental health workers, community transit workers, and — infamously — under President Ronald Reagan, air traffic controllers.

In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker threatened to bring in the National Guard if public service workers went on strike. The Green Bay Packers football team responded with this statement:

“As a publicly owned team we wouldn’t have been able to win the Super Bowl without the support of our fans. It is the same dedication of our public workers every day that makes Wisconsin run. They are the teachers, nurses and child care workers who take care of us and our families. But now in an unprecedented political attack Governor Walker is trying to take away their right to have a voice and bargain at work. 

“The right to negotiate wages and benefits is a fundamental underpinning of our middle class. When workers join together it serves as a check on corporate power and helps ALL workers by raising community standards.”

Now that’s solidarity. And lest you think states have given up using the Guard as strikebreakers, as recently as last September, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder threatened to bring them in when a heavy equipment engineers’ strike delayed highway construction.

The National Guard in the Age of Trump

God help us all if Donald Trump figures out that he’s actually the commander-in-chief of a force that, unlike the U.S. military, can legally be deployed for law enforcement purposes inside the United States itself. He remains a flailing, failing president, with the sensibility of an autocrat who, from the beginning of his time in office, has conflated the protection of the country with the protection of Donald J. Trump and his obsessions. While I don’t expect him to call out the National Guard to put down anti-Trump demonstrations any time soon, I didn’t expect him to be elected president either.

He’s already sent the National Guard to the border to protect the country from a manufactured invasion threat. Once he gets the idea that the president can mobilize the Guard and send them anywhere, who knows how an increasingly embattled president might decide to use them?

My young friend was initially afraid to tell me that she was considering joining the National Guard. She knows what her “auntie” thinks about U.S. military interventions across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, not to mention the accompanying militarization of our world and culture here in the United States.

She doesn’t, in fact, disagree with me about such matters, but she hopes that she can use the military without being completely used by it. I’ve told her I support whatever her decision may be. She needs the money for herself and her family — and she’s done her research. She’s talked to more than 20 people who have joined the National Guard’s World Class Athlete Program. She knows that her state Guard is not among those that have established strategic state partnerships with repressive governments in places like Honduras, Azerbaijan, or the Philippines. But she also knows, as she said to me, that “it’s the military. They can do what they want with you.”

I just hope that I never have to face her, or someone like her, across a barricade.

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes.” Her previous books include “Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States” and “Letters from Nicaragua.”




The FBI Came Close to Staging a Coup

Andrew McCabe, a senior bureau official, provided the alarming evidence in a “60 Minutes” interview, writes John Kiriakou.

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

Former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, in an explosive interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” said that in early 2017,  in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey, he and other FBI officials discussed the possibility of recruiting a cabinet secretary to help push the president out of office by using the Constitution’s 25thAmendment 

McCabe further contended that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein offered to wear a wire when he was around Trump in order to gather evidence against him.  (Rosenstein

denies the allegation.)  McCabe said that Justice Department officials believed at the

time that Trump may have obstructed justice by firing Comey, and they worried that Trump was somehow under the influence of the Russian government.  In the end, nothing came of the plan. Regardless of one’s feelings toward President Trump and his

policies, what McCabe is describing is nothing less than a coup attempt. It’s something that happens in weak or nascent democracies, following interference by the CIA perhaps.  It should never happen here.

Trump has long had an antagonistic relationship with the FBI, the CIA and other elements of the intelligence community.  Indeed, in early 2017, when news of the FISA warrants and the private intelligence Steele dossier began to leak out, Trump began to tweet his disgust at news of impending investigations of him, his campaign, and his business dealings.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer responded almost immediately, saying “(The president) is being really dumb to do this.”  “This” was to take on the intelligence agencies, the so-called Deep State, in public.  A few days later, Schumer went on MSNBC to sharpen his warning to Trump, saying, “Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community—they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.”

But Trump was right.  The intelligence community—the FBI, CIA, the NSA and other three-letter agencies—are too powerful, too entrenched and two well-funded. And they have far too little oversight. They’re a threat to our democracy, not the saviors of it.  That is why it pains me to see Democrats lining up behind them to attack Trump.

Presidents Come and Go 

I was a member of that “Deep State” throughout my 15 years at the CIA.  I can tell you from first-hand experience that the CIA doesn’t care who the president is. Neither does the FBI.  Senior CIA and FBI officers are there for decades, while presidents come and go.  They know that they can outwait any president they don’t like.  At the very least, at the CIA, they could made administrative decisions that would hamstring a president:  Perhaps they don’t carry out that risky operation. Maybe they don’t target that well-placed source.  Maybe they ignore the president’s orders knowing that in four years or eight years he or she will just go away.

Even worse, these same organizations—the FBI and the CIA—are the ones that have sought to undermine our democracy over the years.  Don’t forget programs like COINTELPRO, the FBI’s operation to force Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide; the infiltration of peace groups; the CIA’s efforts to control the media with Operation Mockingbird; the CIA’s illegal spying on American citizens; the CIA hacking into the computers of the Senate Intelligence Committee; and the Agency’s extrajudicial assassination program; to name a few.

McCabe’s almost offhanded comments on “60 Minutes,” that the FBI actively considered deposing a sitting president should be cause for alarm.  Set partisan politics aside for a moment.  We’re talking about deposing a sitting president. We’re talking about wearing a wireto catch a sitting president saying something because you’re angry that he fired your boss.  Even the idea of it is unprecedented in American history.

The FBI is perfectly free to investigate collusion. That’s what they ought to be doing. But they ought not plot the overthrow of a president, no matter how quirky and offensive he may be.  That’s anti-democratic and illegal and it harkens back to the bad old days of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover and the CIA before the reforms of the Church Committee.

We have a way to depose presidents.  They’re called “elections.”  The FBI should familiarize itself with them.

John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

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The Most Dangerous Weapon Ever Rolls Off the Nuclear Assembly Line

An era-shaping threshold is being crossed at a weapons plant in the high plains country of the Texas Panhandle, writes James Carroll.

By James Carroll
TomDispatch.com

Last month, the National Nuclear Security Administration (formerly the Atomic Energy Commission) announced that the first of a new generation of strategic nuclear weapons had rolled off the assembly line at its Pantex nuclear weapons plant in the panhandle of Texas. That warhead, the W76-2, is designed to be fitted to a submarine-launched Trident missile, a weapon with a range of more than 7,500 miles. By September, an undisclosed number of warheads will be delivered to the Navy for deployment.

What makes this particular nuke new is the fact that it carries a far smaller destructive payload than the thermonuclear monsters the Trident has been hosting for decades — not the equivalent of about 100 kilotons of TNT as previously, but of five kilotons. According to Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the W76-2 will yield “only” about one-third of the devastating power of the weapon that the Enola Gay, an American B-29 bomber, dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Yet that very shrinkage of the power to devastate is precisely what makes this nuclear weapon potentially the most dangerous ever manufactured. Fulfilling the Trump administration’s quest for nuclear-war-fighting “flexibility,” it isn’t designed as a deterrent against another country launching its nukes; it’s designed to be used.  This is the weapon that could make the previously unthinkable thinkable.

There have long been “low-yield” nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the nuclear powers, including ones on cruise missiles, “air-drop bombs” (carried by planes), and even nuclear artillery shells — weapons designated as “tactical” and intended to be used in the confines of a specific battlefield or in a regional theater of war. The vast majority of them were, however, eliminated in the nuclear arms reductions that followed the end of the Cold War, a scaling-down by both the United States and Russia that would be quietly greeted with relief by battlefield commanders, those actually responsible for the potential use of such ordnance who understood its self-destructive absurdity.

Ranking some weapons as “low-yield” based on their destructive energy always depended on a distinction that reality made meaningless (once damage from radioactivity and atmospheric fallout was taken into account along with the unlikelihood that only one such weapon would be used). In fact, the elimination of tactical nukes represented a hard-boiled confrontation with the iron law of escalation, another commander’s insight — that any use of such a weapon against a similarly armed adversary would likely ignite an inevitable chain of nuclear escalation whose end point was barely imaginable. One side was never going to take a hit without responding in kind, launching a process that could rapidly spiral toward an apocalyptic exchange. “Limited nuclear war,” in other words, was a fool’s fantasy and gradually came to be universally acknowledged as such. No longer, unfortunately.

Unlike tactical weapons, intercontinental strategic nukes were designed to directly target the far-off homeland of an enemy. Until now, their extreme destructive power (so many times greater than that inflicted on Hiroshima) made it impossible to imagine genuine scenarios for their use that would be practically, not to mention morally, acceptable. It was exactly to remove that practical inhibition — the moral one seemed not to count — that the Trump administration recently began the process of withdrawing from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, while rolling a new “limited” weapon off the assembly line and so altering the Trident system. With these acts, there can be little question that humanity is entering a perilous second nuclear age.

That peril lies in the way a 70-year-old inhibition that undoubtedly saved the planet is potentially being shelved in a new world of supposedly usable nukes. Of course, a weapon with one-third the destructive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, where as many as 150,000 died, might kill 50,000 people in a similar attack before escalation even began. Of such nukes, former Secretary of State George Shultz, who was at President Ronald Reagan’s elbow when Cold War-ending arms control negotiations climaxed, said, “A nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon. You use a small one, then you go to a bigger one. I think nuclear weapons are nuclear weapons and we need to draw the line there.”

How Close to Midnight?

Until now, it’s been an anomaly of the nuclear age that some of the fiercest critics of such weaponry were drawn from among the very people who created it. The emblem of that is the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a bimonthly journal founded after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by veteran scientists from the Manhattan Project, which created the first nuclear weapons. (Today, that magazine’s sponsors include 14 Nobel Laureates.) Beginning in 1947, the Bulletin’s cover has functioned annually as a kind of nuclear alarm, featuring a so-called Doomsday Clock, its minute hand always approaching “midnight” (defined as the moment of nuclear catastrophe).

In that first year, the hand was positioned at seven minutes to midnight. In 1949, after the Soviet Union acquired its first atomic bomb, it inched up to three minutes before midnight. Over the years, it has been reset every January to register waxing and waning levels of nuclear jeopardy. In 1991, after the end of the Cold War, it was set back to 17 minutes and then, for a few hope-filled years, the clock disappeared altogether.

It came back in 2005 at seven minutes to midnight. In 2007, the scientists began factoring climate degradation into the assessment and the hands moved inexorably forward. By 2018, after a year of President Donald Trump, it clocked in at two minutes to midnight, a shrill alarm meant to signal a return to the greatest peril ever: the two-minute level reached only once before, 65 years earlier. Last month, within days of the announced manufacture of the first W76-2, the Bulletin’scover for 2019 was unveiled, still at that desperate two-minute mark, aka the edge of doom.

To fully appreciate how precarious our situation is today, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists implicitly invites us to return to that other two-minutes-before-midnight moment. If the manufacture of a new low-yield nuclear weapon marks a decisive pivot back toward jeopardy, consider it an irony that the last such moment involved the manufacture of the extreme opposite sort of nuke: a “super” weapon, as it was then called, or a hydrogen bomb. That was in 1953 and what may have been the most fateful turn in the nuclear story until now had just occurred.

After the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb in 1949, the United States embarked on a crash program to build a far more powerful nuclear weapon. Having been decommissioned after World War II, the Pantex plant was reactivated and has been the main source of American nukes ever since.

The atomic bomb is a fission weapon, meaning the nuclei of atoms are split into parts whose sum total weighs less than the original atoms, the difference having been transformed into energy. A hydrogen bomb uses the intense heat generated by that “fission” (hence thermonuclear) as a trigger for a vastly more powerful “fusion,” or combining, of elements, which results in an even larger loss of mass being transformed into explosive energy of a previously unimagined sort. One H-bomb generates explosive force 100 to 1,000 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb.

Given a kind of power that humans once only imagined in the hands of the gods, key former Manhattan Project scientists, including Enrico Fermi, James Conant, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, firmly opposed the development of such a new weapon as a potential threat to the human species. The Super Bomb would be, in Conant’s word, “genocidal.” Following the lead of those scientists, members of the Atomic Energy Commission recommended — by a vote of three to two — against developing such a fusion weapon, but President Truman ordered it done anyway.

In 1952, as the first H-bomb test approached, still-concerned atomic scientists proposed that the test be indefinitely postponed to avert a catastrophic “super” competition with the Soviets. They suggested that an approach be made to Moscow to mutually limit thermonuclear development only to research on, not actual testing of, such weaponry, especially since none of this could truly be done in secret. A fusion bomb’s test explosion would be readily detectable by the other side, which could then proceed with its own testing program. The scientists urged Moscow and Washington to draw just the sort of arms control line that the two nations would indeed agree to many years later.

At the time, the United States had the initiative. An out-of-control arms race with the potential accumulation of thousands of such weapons on both sides had not yet really begun. In 1952, the United States numbered its atomic arsenal in the low hundreds; the Soviet Union in the dozens. (Even those numbers, of course, already offered a vision of an Armageddon-like global war.) President Harry Truman considered the proposal to indefinitely postpone the test. It was then backed by figures like Vannevar Bush, who headed the Office of Scientific Research and Development, which had overseen the wartime Manhattan Protect. Scientists like him already grasped the lesson that would only slowly dawn on policymakers — that every advance in the atomic capability of one of the superpowers would inexorably lead the other to match it, ad infinitum. The title of the bestselling James Jones novel of that moment caught the feeling perfectly: “From Here to Eternity.”

In the last days of his presidency, however, Truman decided against such an indefinite postponement of the test — against, that is, a break in the nuke-accumulation momentum that might well have changed history. On November 1, 1952, the first H-bomb — “Mike” — was detonated on an island in the Pacific. It had 500 times more lethal force than the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima. With a fireball more than three miles wide, not only did it destroy the three-story structure built to house it but also the entire island of Elugelab, as well as parts of several nearby islands.

In this way, the thermonuclear age began and the assembly line at that same Pantex plant really started to purr.  Less than 10 years later, the United States had 20,000 nukes, mostly H-bombs; Moscow, fewer than 2,000. And three months after that first test, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved that hand on its still new clock to two minutes before midnight.

A Madman-Theory Version of the World

It may seem counterintuitive to compare the manufacture of what’s called a “mini-nuke” to the creation of the “super” almost six decades ago, but honestly, what meaning can “mini” really have when we’re talking about nuclear war? The point is that, as in 1952, so in 2019 another era-shaping threshold is being crossed at the very same weapons plant in the high plains country of the Texas Panhandle, where so many instruments of mayhem have been created. Ironically, because the H-bomb was eventually understood to be precisely what the dissenting scientists had claimed it was — a genocidal weapon — pressures against its use proved insurmountable during almost four decades of savage East-West hostility. Today, the Trident-mounted W76-2 could well have quite a different effect — its first act of destruction potentially being the obliteration of the long-standing, post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki taboo against nuclear use. In other words, so many years after the island of Elugelab was wiped from the face of the Earth, the “absolute weapon” is finally being normalized.

With Trump expunging the theoretical from Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” — that former president’s conviction that an opponent should fear an American leader was so unstable he might actually push the nuclear button — what is to be done? Once again, nuke-skeptical scientists, who have grasped the essential problems in the nuclear conundrum with crystal clarity for three quarters of a century, are pointing the way. In 2017, the Union of Concerned Scientists, together with Physicians for Social Responsibility, launched Back from the Brink: The Call to Prevent Nuclear War, “a national grassroots initiative seeking to fundamentally change U.S. nuclear weapons policy and lead us away from the dangerous path we are on.”

Engaging a broad coalition of civic organizations, municipalities, religious groups, educators, and scientists, it aims to lobby government bodies at every level, to raise the nuclear issue in every forum, and to engage an ever-wider group of citizens in pressing for change in American nuclear policy. Back from the Brink makes five demands, much needed in a world in which the U.S. and Russia are withdrawing from a key Cold-War-era nuclear treaty with more potentially to come, including the New START pact that expires two years from now. The five demands are:

  • No to first use of nukes. (Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Adam Smith only recently introduced a No First Use Act in both houses of Congress to stop Trump and future presidents from launching a nuclear war.)
  • End the unchecked launch-authority of the president. (Last month, Sen. Edward Markey and Rep. Ted Lieu reintroduced a bill that would do just that.)
  • No to nuclear hair-triggers.
  • No to endlessly renewing and replacing the arsenal (as the U.S. is now doing to the tune of perhaps $1.6 trillion over three decades).
  • Yes to an abolition agreement among nuclear-armed states.

These demands range from the near-term achievable to the long-term hoped for, but as a group they define what clear-eyed realism should be in Donald Trump’s new version of our never-ending nuclear age.

In the upcoming season of presidential politics, the nuclear question belongs at the top of every candidate’s agenda. It belongs at the center of every forum and at the heart of every voter’s decision. Action is needed before the W76-2 and its successors teach a post-Hiroshima planet what nuclear war is truly all about.

James Carroll, TomDispatch regular and former Boston Globe columnist, is the author of 20 books, most recently the novel The Cloister (Doubleday). His history of the Pentagon, House of War,” won the PEN-Galbraith Award. His memoir, “An American Requiem,” won the National Book Award. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.




The Notable Silence of Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill

In a strangely old-school, Catholic, sense, they chose not to look back or question the assassinations of the 1960s, writes Edward Curtin.

By Edward Curtin
edwardcurtin.com 

Growing up Irish-Catholic in the Bronx in the 1960s, I was an avid reader of the powerful columns of Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill in the New York newspapers. 

These guys were extraordinary wordsmiths. They would grab you by the collar and drag you into the places and faces of those they wrote about. Passion infused their reports.  They were never boring. They made you laugh and cry as they transported you into the lives of real people.  You knew they had actually gone out into the streets of the city and talked to people. All kinds of people: poor, rich, black, white, high-rollers, lowlifes, politicians, athletes, mobsters — they ran the gamut. You could sense they loved their work, that it enlivened them as it enlivened you the reader. Their words sung and crackled and breathed across the page. They left you always wanting more, wondering sometimes how true it all was, so captivating were their storytelling abilities. 

They cut through abstractions to connect individuals to major events such as the Vietnam War, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, the Central Park jogger case, AIDS.  They were spokesmen for the underdogs, the abused, the confused and the bereft. They relentlessly attacked the abuses and hypocrisies of the powerful.

They became celebrities as a result of their writing.  Breslin ran for New York City Council president along with Norman Mailer for mayor with the slogan “No More Bullshit.” Breslin appeared in beer and cereal commercials. Hamill dated Jacqueline Kennedy and the actress Shirley MacLaine.  Coming out of poor and struggling Irish-Catholic families in Queens and Brooklyn respectively, they became acclaimed in NYC and around the country. As a result, they were befriended by the rich and powerful with whom they hobnobbed.

HBO has recently released a fascinating documentary about the pair: “Breslin and Hamill.” It brings them back in all their gritty glory to the days when New York was another city, a city of newspapers and typewriters and young passion still hopeful that despite the problems and national tragedies, there were still fighters who would bang out a message of hope and defiance in the mainstream press.  It was a time before money and propaganda devoured journalism and a deadly pall descended on the country as the economic elites expanded their obscene control over people’s lives and the media.

Irish Wake

So, it is also fitting that this documentary feels like an Irish wake with two wheelchair-bound old men musing on the past and all that has been lost and what approaching death has in store for them and all they love.  While not a word is spoken about the Catholic faith of their childhoods with its death-defying consolation, it sits between them like a skeleton. We watch and listen to two men, once big in all ways, shrink before our eyes. I was reminded of a novel Breslin wrote long ago: “World Without End, Amen,” a title taken directly from a well-known Catholic prayer. Endings, the past receding, a lost world, aching hearts and the unspoken yearning for more life.

Hamill, especially, wrote columns that were beautifully elegiac, and his words in this documentary also sound that sense despite his efforts to remain hopeful.   The film is a nostalgia trip.  Breslin, who died in 2017, tries hard to maintain the bravado that was his hallmark, but a deep sadness and bewilderment seeps through his face, the mask of indomitability that once served him well gone in the end.

So, while young people need to know about these two old-school reporters and their great work in this age of insipidity and pseudo-objectivity, this film is probably not a good introduction.  Their writing would serve this purpose better.

Assassination Investigations

This documentary is appearing at an interesting time when a large group of prominent Americans, including Robert Kennedy Jr. and his sister Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, are calling for new investigations into the assassinations of the 1960s, murders that Breslin and Hamill covered and wrote about. Both men were in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel when  Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.  They were friends of the senator and it was Hamill who wrote to RFK and helped persuade him to run.   

Breslin was in the Audubon Ballroom when Malcolm X was assassinated.  He wrote an iconic and highly original article about the JFK assassination. Hamill wrote a hard-hitting piece about RFK’s murder, describing Sirhan Sirhan quite harshly, while presuming his guilt.  They covered and wrote about all the assassinations of that era.  Breslin also wrote a famous piece about John Lennon’s murder.  They wrote these articles quickly, in the heat of the moment, on deadline.

But they did not question the official versions of these assassinations. Not then, nor in the 50-plus years since.  Nor in this documentary. In fact, in the film Hamill talks about five shots being fired at RFK from the front by Sirhan Sirhan who was standing there.  Breslin utters not a word. Yet it is well known that RFK was shot from the rear at point-blank range and that no bullets hit him from the front. The official autopsy confirmed this. Robert Kennedy Jr. asserts that his father was not shot by Sirhan but by a second gunmen.  It’s as though Hamill is stuck in time and his personal memories of the event; as though he were too close to things and never stepped back and studied the evidence that has emerged.  Why, only he could say.

Too Close to the Events

Perhaps both men were too close to the events and the people they covered. Their words always took you to the scene and made you feel the passion of it all, the shock, the drama, the tragedy, the pain, the confusion, and all that was irretrievably lost in murders that changed this country forever, killings that haunt the present in incalculable ways.  Jimmy and Pete made us feel the deep pain and shock of being overwhelmed with grief.  They were masters of this art.

But the view from the street is not that of history.  Deadlines are one thing; analysis and research another. Breslin and Hamill wrote for the moment, but they have lived a half century after those moments, decades during which the evidence for these crimes has accumulated to indict powerful forces in the U.S. government.  No doubt this evidence came to their attention, but they have chosen to ignore it, whatever their reasons.  Why these champions of the afflicted have disregarded this evidence is perplexing.  As one who greatly admires their work, I am disappointed by this failure.

Street journalism has its limitations.  It needs to be placed in a larger context. Our world is indeed without end and the heat of the moment needs the coolness of time.  The bird that dives to the ground to seize a crumb of bread returns to the treetop to survey the larger scene.  Breslin and Hamill stuck to the ground where the bread lay.

At one point in “Breslin and Hamill,” the two good friends talk about how well they were taught to write by the nuns in their Catholic grammar schools.  “Subject, verb, object, that was the story of the whole thing,” says Breslin.  Hamill replies, “Concrete nouns, active verbs.” “It was pretty good teaching,” adds Breslin. And although neither went to college (probably a saving grace), they learned those lessons well and gifted us with so much gritty and beautiful writing and reporting.

Yet like the nuns who taught them, they had their limitations, and what was written once was not revisited and updated.  In a strange, very old-school Catholic sense, it was the eternal truth, rock solid, and not to be questioned.  Unspeakable and anathema: the real killers of the Kennedys and the others.  The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 as well.

When my mother was very old, she published her only piece of writing.  It was very Breslin and Hamill-like and was published in a Catholic magazine.  She wrote how, when she was a young girl and the streets of New York were filled with horse-drawn wagons, the nuns in her grammar school chose her to leave school before lunch and go to a neighboring bakery to buy rolls for their lunch.  It was considered a big honor and she was happy to get out of school for the walk to the bakery she chose a few streets away. She got the rolls and was walking back with them when some boys jostled her and all the rolls fell into the street, rolling through horse shit.  She panicked, but picked up the rolls and cleaned them off.  Shaking with fear, she then brought them to the convent and handed them to a nun.  After lunch, she was called to the front of the room by her teacher, the nun who had chosen her to buy them.  She felt like she would faint with fear.  The nun sternly looked at her.  “Where did buy those rolls?” she asked.  In a halting voice she told her the name of the bakery.  The sister said, “They were delicious.  We must always shop in that bakery.”

Of course, the magazine wouldn’t publish the words “horse shit.” The editor found a nice way to avoid the truth and eliminate horse shit.  And the nuns were happy.

Yet bullshit seems much harder to erase, despite slogans and careful editors, or perhaps because of them.  Sometimes silence is the real bullshit, and how do you eliminate that?

Ed Curtin teaches sociology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. His writing on varied topics has appeared widely over many years. He states: “I write as a public intellectual for the general public, not as a specialist for a narrow readership. I believe a noncommittal sociology is an impossibility and therefore see all my work as an effort to enhance human freedom through understanding.”   His website is http://edwardcurtin.com.

 




Why a Bernie 2020 Campaign is Drawing Fire

Sanders is in step with most Americans, says Norman Solomon, and that bothers the defenders of oligarchy.

By Norman Solomon
NormanSolomon.com

With a launch of the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign on the near horizon, efforts to block his trajectory to the Democratic presidential nomination are intensifying. The lines of attack are already aggressive — and often contradictory.

One media meme says that the senator from Vermont made so much headway in moving the Democratic Party leftward with his 2016 presidential bid that he’s no longer anything special. We’re supposed to believe that candidates who’ve adjusted their sails to the latest political wind are just as good as the candidate who generated the wind in the first place.

Bloomberg News supplied the typical spin in a Feb. 8 article headlined Sanders Risks Getting Crowded Out in 2020 Field of Progressives.” The piece laid out the narrative: “Sanders may find himself a victim of his own success in driving the party to the left with his 2016 run. The field of Democratic presidential hopefuls includes at least a half-dozen candidates who’ve adopted in whole or in part the platform that helped Sanders build a loyal following . . .”

Yet Bernie is also being targeted as too marginal. The same Bloomberg article quoted Howard Dean, a long-ago liberal favorite who has become a hawkish lobbyist and corporate mouthpiece: “There will be hardcore, hard left progressives who will have nobody but Bernie, but there won’t be many.”

So, is Bernie now too much like other Democratic presidential candidates, or is he too much of an outlier? In the mass media, both seem to be true. In the real world, neither are true.

Last week, Business Insider reported on new polling about Sanders’ proposal “to increase the estate tax, the tax paid by heirs on assets passed down by the deceased. Sanders’ idea would lower the threshold to qualify for the tax to $3.5 million in assets, down from the current $11 million. The plan would also introduce a graduating scale of tax rates for the estates of wealthier Americans, eventually reaching a 77 percent marginal rate for assets over $1 billion.”

Here are the poll results: “When presented with the details of the proposal, 37 percent of respondents supported Sanders’ policy while 26 percent opposed, according to Insider’s survey.” (The rest had no opinion.)

Giving Voice to Majority Views

That kind of response from the public is a far cry from claims that Sanders is somehow fringe. In fact, the ferocity of media attacks on him often indicates that corporate power brokers are afraid his strong progressive populism is giving effective voice to majority views of the public.

A vast range of grassroots organizing — outside and inside of electoral arenas — has created the current leftward momentum. “As a progressive, it is heartening to see so many other candidates voice support for Senator Sanders’ policies,” said Alan Minsky, executive director at Progressive Democrats of America. “However, I’ve been around the block enough times to know that politicians who adopt positions in tune with the fashion of the moment are not as trustworthy as those rare few, like Bernie Sanders, who have held firm to a powerful social justice vision through his entire long career.”

I also asked for a comment from Pia Gallegos, former chair of the Adeline Progressive Caucus of the New Mexico Democratic Party. “Bernie’s competitors lack his track record on economic security for all American workers, Medicare for All, free public college education, taxing the rich and opposing bloated military budgets,” she said. “Those are long-standing positions that — more than ever — resonate with grassroots activists and voters. Other Democratic presidential candidates will try to imitate this populist agenda, but only Bernie can speak with the vision, clarity and moral authority that the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate needs to defeat the incumbent.”

The overarching fear that defenders of oligarchy have about Bernie Sanders is not that he’s out of step with most Americans — it’s that he’s in step with them. For corporate elites determined to retain undemocratic power, a successful Bernie 2020 campaign would be the worst possible outcome of the election.

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.

 




The Real Motive Behind the FBI Plan to Investigate Trump as a Russian Agent

Coverage of this episode by The New York Times and CNN further stigmatizes any dissent from new Cold War policy toward Russia, writes Gareth Porter.

By Gareth Porter
Special to Consortium News

The New York Times and CNN led media coverage last month of discussions among senior FBI officials in May 2017 of a possible national security investigation of President Donald Trump himself, on the premise that he may have acted as an agent of Russia.

The episode has potentially profound political fallout, because the Times and CNN stories suggested that Trump may indeed have acted like a Russian agent. The New York Times story on Jan. 11 was headlined, “F.B.I. Opened Inquiry into Whether Trump Was Secretly Working on Behalf of Russia.” CNN followed three days later with: “Transcripts detail how FBI debated whether Trump was ‘following directions’ of Russia.”

By reporting that Russia may have been able to suborn the president of the United States, these stories have added an even more extreme layer to the dominant national political narrative of a serious Russian threat to destroy U.S. democracy. An analysis of the FBI’s idea of Trump as possible Russian agent reveals, moreover, that it is based on a devious concept of “unwitting” service to Russian interests that can be traced back to former CIA director John O. Brennan.

The Proposal That Fell Apart

The FBI discussions that drove these stories could have led to the first known investigation of a U.S. president as a suspected national security risk. It ended only a few days after the deliberations  among the senior FBI officials when on May 19, 2017, the Justice Department chose Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, to be special counsel. That put control over the Trump-Russia investigation into the hands of Mueller rather than the FBI.

Peter Strzok, who led the bureau’s counter-espionage section, was, along with former FBI General Counsel James A. Baker, one of those involved in the May 2017 discussions about investigating Trump. Strzok initially joined Mueller’s team but was fired after a couple of months when text messages that he had written came to light exposing a deep animosity towards Trump that cast doubt over his  impartiality.

The other FBI officials behind the proposed investigation of Trump have also since left the FBI; either fired or retired.

The entirety of what was said at the meetings of five or six senior FBI officials in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s firing of James Comey as FBI director on May 9, 2017, remains a mystery.

Closed-door Testimony

The CNN and Times stories were based on transcripts either obtained or, in the case of the Times, on portions read to it, of private testimony given to the House Judiciary and Government Oversight and Reform committees last October by Baker, one of the participants in the discussions of Trump as a possible Russian agent.

Excerpts of Baker’s testimony published by CNN make it clear that the group spoke about Trump’s policy toward Russia as a basis for a counter-intelligence investigation. Baker said they “discussed as [a] theoretical possibility” that Trump was “acting at the behest of [Russia] and somehow following directions, somehow executing their will.”

Baker went on to explain that this theoretical possibility was only “one extreme” in a range of possibilities discussed and that “the other extreme” was that “the President is completely innocent.” 

He thus made it clear that there was no actual evidence for the idea that he was acting on behalf of Russia.

Baker also offered a simpler rationale for such an investigation of Trump: the president’s firing of FBI Director Comey. “Not only would [firing Comey] be an issue of obstructing an investigation,” he said, “but the obstruction itself would hurt our ability to figure what the Russians had done, and that is what would be the threat to national security.”

But the idea that Comey’s firing had triggered the FBI’s discussions had already been refuted by a text message that Strzok, who had been leading the FBI’s probe into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians, sent immediately after the firing to Lisa Page, then legal counsel to Andrew McCabe, formerly the bureau’s deputy director who was then acting director.

“We need to open the case we’ve been waiting on now while Andy is acting,” Strzok wrote, referring to McCabe.

As Page later confirmed to congressional investigators, according to the CNN story, Strzok’s message referred to their desire to launch an investigation into possible collusion between Trump and the Russians.  Strzok’s message also makes clear he, and others intent on the investigation, were anxious to get McCabe to approve the proposed probe before Trump named someone less sympathetic to the project as the new FBI director.

Why the FBI Wanted to Investigate

The New York Times story argued that the senior FBI officials’ interest in a counter-intelligence investigation of Trump and the Russians sprang from their knowledge of the sensational charges in the opposition research dossier assembled by British ex-spy Christopher Steele (paid for by the DNC and the Clinton campaign) that the Putin government had “tried to obtain influence over Mr. Trump by preparing to blackmail and bribe him.” 

But the Times writers must have known that Bruce Ohr, former associate deputy attorney general, had already given McCabe, Page and Strzok information about Steele and his dossier that raised fundamental questions about its reliability.

Ohr’s first contacts at FBI headquarters regarding Steele and his dossier came Aug. 3, 2016, with Page and her boss McCabe. Ohr later met with Strzok. 

Ohr said he told them that Steele’s work on the dossier had been financed by the Clinton campaign through the Perkins-Cole law firm.  He also told them that Steele, in a July 30, 2016 meeting, told him he was “desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president,” according to Ohr’s contemporaneous notes of the meeting. 

So, key figures in the discussion of Trump and Russia in May 2017 knew that Steele was acting out of both political and business motives to come up with sensational material. 

Strzok and Page may have started out as true believers in the idea that the Russians were using Trump campaign officials to manipulate Trump administration policy.  However, by May 2017, Strzok had evidently concluded that there was no real evidence.

In a text message to Page on May 19, 2017, Strzok said he was reluctant to join the Mueller investigation, because of his “gut sense and concern” that “there’s no big there there.”

Why, then, were Strzok, Page, McCabe and others so determined to launch an investigation of Trump at about the same time in May 2017? 

CNN article about the immediate aftermath of the Comey firing reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and senior FBI officials “viewed Trump as a leader who needed to be reined in, according to two sources describing the sentiment of the time.”

That description by anti-Trump law enforcement officials suggests that the proposed counter-intelligence investigation of Trump served as a means to maintain some leverage over his treatment of the FBI in regard to the Russia issue.

That motivation would be consistent with the decision by McCabe on May 15, 2017 – a few days after the discussions in question among the senior FBI officials – to resume the bureau’s relationship with Steele. 

The FBI had hired Steele as a paid source when it had earlier launched its investigation of Trump campaign official’s contacts with Russians in July 2016. But it had suspended and then terminated the relationship over Steele’s  unauthorized disclosure of the investigation to David Corn of Mother Jones magazine in October 2016. So, the decision to resume the relationship with Steele suggests that the group behind the new investigation were thinking of seizing an opportunity to take off the gloves against Trump.

The ‘Unwitting Collaboration’ Ploy

The discussion by senior FBI officials of a counter-intelligence investigation of Trump has become part of the political struggle over Trump mainly because of the stories in the Times and CNN.

The role of the authors of those stories illustrates how corporate journalists casually embraced the ultimate conspiracy theory – that the president of the United States was acting as a Russian stooge.

The reporters of the CNN story — Jeremy Herb, Pamela Brown and Laura Jarrett — wrote that the FBI officials were “trying to understand why [Trump] was acting in ways that seemed to benefit Russia.” 

The New York Times story was more explicit.  Co-authors Adam Goldman, Michael S. Schmidt and Nicholas Fandos wrote that the FBI officials “sought to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence.”

The same day the Times story was published, the lead author on the piece, Adam Goldman, was interviewed by CNN. Goldman referred to Trump’s interview with NBC’s Lester Holt in the days after the Comey firing as something that supposedly pushed the FBI officials over the edge.  Goldman declared, “The FBI is watching him say this, and they say he’s telling us why he did this.  He did it on behalf of Russia.”

But Trump said nothing of kind. What he actually said — as the Times itself quoted Trump, from the NBC interview —was: “[W]hen I decided just to do it, I said to myself – I said, you know this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.” The Times article continued: “Mr. Trump’s aides have said that a fuller examination of his comments demonstrates that he did not fire Mr. Comey to end the Russia inquiry. ‘I might even lengthen out the investigation, but I have to do the right thing for the American people,” Mr. Trump added. ‘He’s the wrong man for that position.’ ” Goldman was evidently trying to sell the idea of Trump as a suspected agent of Russia.

Goldman also gave an interview to The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, in which the interviewer pressed him on the weakest point of the Trump-as-Russian-agent theory.  “What would that look like if the President was an unwitting agent of a foreign power?” asked Chotiner.

The Times correspondent, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the alleged Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election, responded:  “It is hard to say what that would look like.” Goldman then reiterated the concept. “People were very careful to tell me that: ‘It is wittingly or unwittingly.’” And in answer to a follow-up question, Goldman referred to evidence he suggested might be held by the FBI that “perhaps suggests that the President himself may be acting as a foreign agent, either wittingly or unwittingly….”

The idea that American citizens were somehow at risk of being led by an agent of the Russian government “wittingly or unwittingly” did not appear spontaneously. It had been pushed aggressively by former CIA Director John O. Brennan both during and after his role in pressing for the original investigation.

When Brennan testified before the House Intelligence Committee in May 2017, he was asked whether he had intelligence indicating that anyone in the Trump campaign was “colluding with Moscow.”  Instead of answering the question directly, Brennan said he knew from past experience that “the Russians try to suborn individuals, and they try get them to act on their behalf either wittingly or unwittingly.” And he recalled that he had left the government with “unresolved questions” about whether the Russians had been successful in doing so in regard to unidentified individuals in the case of the 2016 elections.

Brennan’s notion of “unwitting collaboration” with Russian subversion is illogical.  Although a political actor might accidentally reveal information to a foreign government that is valuable, real “collaboration” must be mutually agreeable. A policy position or action that may benefit a foreign government, but is also in the interest of one’s own government, does not constitute “unwitting collaboration.”

The real purpose of that concept is to confer on national security officials and their media allies the power to cast suspicion on individuals on the basis of undesirable policy views of Russia rather than on any evidence of actual collaboration with the Russian government. 

The “witting or unwitting” ploy has its origins in the unsavory history of extreme right-wing anti-communism during the Cold War. For example, when the House Un-American Activities Committee was at its height in 1956, Chairman Francis E. Walter declared that “people who are not actually Communist Party members are witting or unwitting servants of the Communist cause.”  

The same logic – without explicit reference to the phrase — has been used to impugn the independence and loyalty of people who have contacts with Russia. 

It has also been used to portray some independent media as part of a supposedly all-powerful Russian media system.

The revelation that it was turned against a sitting president, however briefly, is a warning signal that national security bureaucrats and their media allies are now moving more aggressively to delegitimize any opposition to the new Cold War.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian writing on U.S. national security policy. His latest book, “Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare,” was published in 2014. Follow him on Twitter: @GarethPorter.

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Regime Change Made in the USA

Trump’s backing of Juan Guaidó’s shadow government could weaken the opposition’s longstanding support among the majority of Venezuelans, writes Steve Ellner.

By Steve Ellner
NACLA

Since its outset, the Trump administration has ratcheted up pressure on Venezuela and radicalized its positions. In the process, the Venezuelan opposition has become more and more associated with—and dependent on—Washington and its allies. An example is the opposition protests that occurred last week. The actions were timed to coincide with the European Union’s ultimatum,” which stated they would recognize the shadow government of Juan Guaidó if President Nicolás Maduro had not called elections within a week’s time.

The opposition’s most radical sectors, which include Guaidó’s Voluntad Popular party (VP) along with former presidential candidate María Corina Machado, have always had close ties with the United States. Guaidó, as well as VP head Leopoldo López and the VP’s Carlos Vecchio, who is the shadow government’s chargé d’affaires in Washington, were educated in prestigious U.S. universities—not uncommon among Latin American economic and political elites. The ties between the opposition and international actors are strong: last weekend, Vecchio called the campaign to unseat Maduro “an international effort.” At the same time, Guaidó, referring to opposition-called protests, stated “today, February 2, we are going to meet again in the streets to show our gratitude to the support that the European Parliament has given us.” In doing so, Guaidó explicitly connected the authority of outside countries to his own assumption of leadership.

The outcome of Washington’s actions is bound to be unfavorable in a number of ways, regardless of whether or not they achieve regime change. Most importantly, a government headed by Guaidó will be perceived both by Venezuelans and international observers as “made in U.S.A.” Further, the opposition’s association with foreign powers has enabled the Maduro leadership to keep discontented members of the Chavista movement in their ranks.

Furthermore, Venezuelans will perceive any sign of economic recovery under a Guaidó government as made possible by aid, if not handouts, from Washington, designed to discredit Maduro’s socialist government, though such assistance will undoubtedly be used to further U.S. economic and political interests. In fact, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton has indicated that he is already calling on oil companies to opt for investments in Venezuela once Maduro is overthrown. As he told Fox News, “we’re in conversation with major American companies now… It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.”

Washington Dictating Strategy

Either explicitly or implicitly, Washington is dictating strategy, or at least providing input into its formulation. One of the challenges the opposition faces is the need to demonstrate to rank-and-file Venezuelans that the current offensive against Maduro will be different from the disastrous attempts of 2014 and 2017, when anti-government leaders assured protesters that the president would be toppled in a matter of days. The opposition leadership claims that this time is different for two reasons. First, the regional Right turn has deepened, and the opposition is more able than ever to rely on decisive support from Washington and other governments, regardless of how democratic they are—see the neofascist credentials of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Second, the opposition is counting on the backing of military officers, particularly lower-ranking ones who have allegedly lost patience with Maduro. In addition to some defections, junior officers attempted to stage a military coup just two days before mass opposition protests on Jan. 23 when Guaidó declared himself president. Previously, the Venezuelan opposition expressed a degree of contempt for military officers for their unwillingness to defy the Chavista government. The opposition’s new perspective dates back to Trump’s three meetings with military rebels and his statement, made alongside President Iván Duque of Colombia in September of last year, that the Maduro government “could be toppled very quickly by the military if the military decides to do that.” The U.S. effort to encourage the military to step in was again made evident on Wednesday in a tweet by John Bolton.

Recently, Guaidó made a similar offer to military officers, implying continuity and closeness between Washington and the shadow government.

Also noteworthy is that Guaidó and other VP leaders are closer to Washington than the rest of the opposition. The Wall Street Journal reported that Guaidó consulted Vice President Mike Pence the night before his self-proclamation as president on Jan. 23. According to ex-presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski the majority of the opposition parties were not aware of Guaidó’s intentions and in fact did not support the idea.

Calling on Military

To make matters worse, the VP-led opposition is openly working hand-in-glove with Washington. Last week Guaidó announced that he would attempt to transport humanitarian aid the United States has deposited on the Colombian and Brazilian borders into Venezuela. He called on the Venezuelan military to disobey orders from the Maduro government by facilitating the passage of goods, while Maduro ordered it blocked. While playing political benefactor, Washington was clearly manipulating the optics of the situation to discredit Maduro and rally more international support for Guaído. In an apparent rebuke to Washington and Guaidó, UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric on Wednesday insisted that the humanitarian aid be depoliticized.

Opposition leaders and the Trump government are also working together to isolate Venezuela economically throughout the world. Julio Borges, a leading member of the opposition, has campaigned to convince international financial institutions to shun Venezuelan transactions and has urged Great Britain to refuse to repatriate Venezuelan gold stored in London. President Maduro has responded by calling on the attorney general to open judicial proceedings against Borges on grounds of treason. Along similar lines, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross are currently attempting to convince international business interests to deny the Venezuelan government access to national assets in their possession.

The Trump administration’s blatant and undisguised interventionism may in fact backfire and help Maduro counter his sagging poll numbers, which last October the polling firm Datanálisis reported was 23 percent. Maduro recently lashed out on Twitter at the close nexus between Washington and the opposition, saying “Aren’t you embarrassed at yourselves, ashamed at the way every day by Twitter Mike Pence, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo tell you what you should do.”

Cornerstone of Chavista Movement

Anti-imperialism is, of course, a major cornerstone of the Chavista movement, born from resentment of U.S. interventionism and heavy-handedness that had for decades controlled many of Venezuela’s resources and dictated its economic policies. The maneuvers of the Trump administration and its allies only double down on this narrative, and are counterproductive at best when it comes to solving the crisis. Their actions also risk fanning the flames of anti-Americanism throughout the continent. It wouldn’t be the first time: In 1958, then-Vice President Richard Nixon was attacked by a riotous crowd in Caracas, and a decade later Nelson Rockefeller’s fact-finding tour arranged by then-President Nixon faced off with angry disruptive protests. Both incidents were responses to Washington’s self-serving support for regimes that came to power through undemocratic means, in some cases with U.S. involvement.

In its strategy towards Venezuela, Washington is invoking not only its Cold War policy but the Monroe Doctrine and its view of Latin America as the U.S.’ “backyard,”—a claim that is especially anathema throughout the region. Indeed, Pence told Fox News, in answering a question about why Trump is withdrawing troops from Syria and Afghanistan while intervening in Venezuela: “President Trump has always had a very different view of our hemisphere. He’s long understood that the United States has a special responsibility to support and nurture democracy and freedom in this hemisphere and that’s a longstanding tradition.”

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump appointed neocon Elliott Abrams as special envoy to Venezuela. As a longtime U.S. diplomat, Abrams has in many ways personified the application of the Monroe Doctrine with his blatant disregard for human rights violations and the principle of non-intervention in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador in the 1980s and his alleged involvement in the 2002 coup against Hugo Chávez.

Finally, Trump’s decision regarding CITGO, a U.S.-based company owned by Venezuela’s state oil company, speaks to a dangerous precedent. Last week he declared that jurisdiction over CITGO would be turned over to the shadow government, and appealed to other countries to follow similar steps. While condemning anti-democratic actions and fraudulent elections in Venezuela, these sanctions ignore the rule of law. The Maduro government was never given the opportunity to defend itself and legal procedures were not followed. 

It is always a dubious exercise to guess at Trump’s intentions. His actions in Venezuela could be designed to divert attention from the multiple probes into his own unethical behavior, or they may be a way to draw attention away from the utter fiasco of U.S. interventions in the Middle East, from Libya to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Trump may also view his Venezuela policy as a quick fix to Make America Great Again. Along similar lines, Trump evidently sees the downfall of the Maduro government as the ultimate proof that socialism doesn’t work. He indicated as much in his State of the Union address when he used the topic of Venezuela as a springboard for declaring: “We are born free, and we will stay free… America will never be a socialist country.”

Yet regardless of short-term results of U.S. support for Guaidó, the final outcome will be negative. There are a number of reasons why: first, it bolsters the position of the most radical elements of the opposition led by the VP party, thus contributing to the fragmentation of the anti-Chavista movement. Second, it attaches a “made in U.S.A.” label to those positioned to govern should Maduro fall. The stigma would undoubtedly scuttle their chances of maintaining longstanding majority support and in doing so would undermine their authority and ability to govern. Third, the appeal to the military to save Venezuela has terrifying implications for a continent with a long history of military rule. And finally, the seizure of Venezuelan assets, which have then been turned over to a political ally, violates sacred norms of property rights, and in the process erodes confidence in the system of private property. These four considerations are an indication of the multiple adverse impacts that the Trump administration’s rash approach to the Maduro government will have on the United States, Venezuela, and the rest of the region.

Steve Ellner is a retired professor from Venezuela’s University of the East, a long-time contributor to NACLA: Report on the Americas, and currently associate managing editor of Latin American Perspectives. Among his over a dozen books on Latin America is his edited “The Pink Tide Experiences: Breakthroughs and Shortcomings in Twenty-First Century Latin America” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).




Solidarity & Seattle’s General Strike of 1919

This story of seeming failure is surprisingly hopeful for the future of labor, writes Steven C. Beda.

File 20190205 86233 1fiy76b.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Seattle shipyard workers in 1919 as they walk off the job.
(Museum of History & Industry, CC BY)

By Steven C. Beda, University of Oregon
The Conversation

It shut down a major U.S. city, inspired a rock opera, led to decades of labor unrest and provoked fears Russian Bolsheviks were trying to overthrow American capitalism. It was the Seattle General Strike of 1919, which began on Feb. 6 and lasted just five days.

By many measures, the strike was a failure. It didn’t achieve the higher wages that the 35,000 shipyard workers who first walked off their jobs sought – even after 25,000 other union members joined the strike in solidarity. Altogether, striking workers represented about half of the workforce and almost a fifth of Seattle’s 315,000 residents.

Usually, as a historian of the American labor movement, I have the unfortunate job of telling difficult stories about the decline of unions. However, in my view, the story of this particular strike is surprisingly hopeful for the future of labor.

And I believe it holds lessons for today’s labor activists – whether they’re striking teachers in West Virginia or Arizona, mental health workers in California or Google activists in offices across the world.

Low Wages, Soaring Living Costs

The Seattle General Strike had its origins in the city’s many shipyards.

During World War I, workers flocked to Seattle to take jobs as welders, pipefitters, riveters and other dozens of jobs in the early-20th century shipyard. In 1918, there were about 16,000 shipyard workers in Seattle. Just a year later, their numbers had swelled to 35,000.

While work in the shipyards was plentiful, it wasn’t exactly lucrative. Throughout World War I, workers continually demanded wage increases, and employers routinely ignored them. As rents and the cost of living climbed, the workers finally announced that, absent higher wages, they were going on strike on Feb. 6.

Many blamed Russian Bolsheviks for the strike.
(Tothebarricades.tk, CC BY)

A few days before the deadline, the shipyard unions made a then-unprecedented request: They asked the Seattle Central Labor Council – which oversaw most of the city’s unions – to issue orders for a general strike, which brought out 25,000 cooks, waitresses, factory workers, store clerks and many others to join the 35,000 shipyard workers already striking.

Despite the usual divisions within unions along lines of race, gender, skill and citizenship, the majority of the locals belonging to the council voted to join the strike.

‘No One Knows Where’

Perhaps it was the rising cost of living that motivated workers across the city to walk off their jobs. Maybe it was a new culture of working-class solidarity emerging in post-World War I America.

Most certainly, it had much to do with the words of Anna Louise Strong.

A pacifist, feminist and welfare advocate, Strong made a name for herself reporting for Seattle’s Union Record, the major union newspaper in the city.

An editorial she authored on Nov. 4 encouraged Seattle’s workers to put aside their differences and embrace a new future in which all workers were united. Her editorial ended with what would become iconic lines in American labor history: “We are starting on a road that leads – NO ONE KNOWS WHERE!”

Strong’s point was to promote unity among Seattle’s workers, not advocate revolution, though that’s not how many politicians interpreted it. The Russian Revolution two years earlier still weighed on the minds of the city’s elite and many worried that Strong’s editorial was the opening salvo in a war to overthrow American capitalism.

Police set up a mounted machine gun during the strike.
(The Town Crier Newspaper, CC BY)

The Violence That Never Came

Fearing violence, anti-labor organizations and the city’s politicians peppered the streets with pamphlets warning that Bolsheviks were behind the strike. Newspapers as far away as New York picked up Strong’s editorial and ran sensational stories of the strike that stoked alarm over a rising tide of radicalism.

While Seattle did lurch to a halt, the violence that Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson and others feared never came. Hanson called on the police force to maintain order in the city, through violence if necessary, and asked the governor to mobilize the National Guard. He even paid students from the University of Washington to patrol the streets.

But in the words of Earl George, a striking dockworker who went on to became the first African-American president of Seattle’s longshoremen’s union, “Nothing moved but the tide.

What George and workers remembered as they walked away from their jobs was the peacefulness of the city. And with shops and restaurants closed due to the strike, the workers themselves pitched in to provide essential services, such as stocking food banks and washing sheets at hospitals.

A teacher at a public school in Denver participates in a march in January.
(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Power of Solidarity

What ultimately ended the strike, on Feb. 11, was the very thing Strong warned against in her editorial: divisions among workers.

Unions representing skilled workers began to fear that the general strike was undermining their prestige and began ordering members back to work. Other unions succumbed to the threats being made by Hanson and returned to their jobs.

In purely material terms, the strike was a failure. It also directly contributed to a new wave of repression and the “red scare” of the post-World War I era.

Yet, the strike was not without meaning. It’d proven to workers, both in Seattle and elsewhere, that there was power in unity, however fleeting. For five days, workers had shut down the city and then run it themselves.

For today’s workers tired of decades of wage stagnation and fleeting benefits in the gig economy, the Seattle General Strike offers an important lesson about the power of organized laborers: When united, workers can take on the most powerful foes.

Striking teachers, activists at Google and participants in the Women’s March, to name just a few examples, are today standing on the same road that Anna Louise Strong described 100 years ago.The Conversation

Steven C. Beda is assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.




The Problem of International Law

Modern institutions that hold back the rise of barbarism are being weakened, writes Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson 
To the Point Analysis.com

Several recent events suggest that global warming is not the only thing threatening our future. As if they are running on parallel tracks, some of the modern institutions that help make for stable societies — the ones that hold back the rise of barbarism — are being weakened even as the atmosphere is heating up and the oceans swell. In pursuit of short-term state or personal interests, some national leaders are violating or ignoring international law and, by doing so, putting us all at long-term risk.

The first example is the subverting of the International Criminal Court.

One of the most hopeful developments to follow the catastrophe that was World War II — the war that brought the world the Holocaust, the Blitzkrieg, the carpet bombing of Europe and the use of nuclear bombs against large cities — was the extension and strengthening of international law. In 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations, seeking to give such laws real force, called for the establishment of an international criminal court. That call triggered resistance because such a court would necessarily impinge on nation-state sovereignty. It took 54 years before the court was finally convened in order to enforce laws against the committing of war crimes and other evils, such as genocide. 

Still, there are some nations that refuse to recognize the court’s jurisdiction. Often these are the states most addicted to the barbaric behavior that came close to destroying a good part of the globe during the 20th century. These governments now threaten the very workability of the court. Thus, on Jan. 28 it was reported that “A senior judge has resigned from one of the international courts in The Hague” due to interference and threats coming from both the U.S. and Turkey. The judge’s name is Christoph Flügge.

In the case of the United States, the problem began when the International Criminal Court at the Hague decided to investigate allegations of war crimes, specifically the use of torture, committed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

At that point President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton (who reminds one of a modern Savonarola when it comes to ideological enforcement), publicly threatened the court’s judges. “If these judges ever interfere in the domestic concerns of the U.S. or investigate an American citizen,” he said, “the American government would do all it could to ensure that these judges would no longer be allowed to travel to the United States — and that they would perhaps even be criminally prosecuted.”

It must be said that (a) torturing Afghanis is not a “domestic concern of the U.S.” And, all too obviously, (b) Bolton is a deplorable one-dimensional thinker. Bound tightly by a lifelong rightwing perspective, he has never been able to get past the concept of nation-state supremacy. This means his perspective is untouched by those lessons of history which have shown the nation-state to be a threat to civilization itself. Thus, when in 2005, President George W. Bush appointed John Bolton ambassador to the United Nations, it was with the prior knowledge that the man felt nothing but contempt for this international organization and would disparage it at every turn. At present Bolton has turned out to be just the kind of fellow who fits into the reactionary White House run by Donald Trump. 

Turkey Ignores Diplomatic Immunity 

The leaders of the United States are not the only ones who can purposely undermine international courts. Christoph Flügge tells of another incident wherein the government of Turkey arrested one of its own nationals, Aydin Sefa Akay, who was a judge on the international court at the Hague. At the time, Akay had diplomatic immunity by virtue of his position, a fact that the increasingly statist government in Istanbul ignored.

Akay’s crime was to be judged insufficiently loyal to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Flügge and his fellow judges strongly protested the Turkish actions, but they were not supported by the present UN secretary general, António Guterres (who is a former prime minister of Portugal). And, without that support, Akay lost his position as judge and was, so to speak, thrown to the dogs of nation-state arrogance.

Upon resigning, Flügge had some seminal words of warning about the fate of international law. “Every incident in which judicial independence is breached is one too many.” The cases of Turkish and U.S. interference with the International Criminal Court set a fatal precedent, he continued,  “and everyone can invoke it in the future. Everyone can say: ‘But you let Turkey get its way.’ This is an original sin. It can’t be fixed.”

Commenting on the threat leveled by Bolton, Flügge said, “the American threats against international judges clearly show the new political climate. … The judges on the court were stunned.” Yet, this behavior was quite in accord with nation-state aggrandizement and American exceptionalism; national sovereignty stands above international law.

Suborning of Interpol

It is not only the world’s international laws and international court that are being undermined, but also Interpol, the world’s international police force. Nation-state leaders, particularly the dictators who place their interests and preferences above even their own domestic law, now seek to suborn Interpol and use it as a weapon to silence their critics.

The latest example of this comes out of Bahrain, a wealthy monarchical dictatorship in the Persian Gulf. It is run by a Sunni elite minority which systematically represses the country’s Shiite majority. By doing so, its major “achievement” to date has been to give the religion of Islam a bad name. It is also a staunch U.S. ally, and the U.S. 5th fleet is based in that country. If you want to know where much of the U.S. naval forces supporting the Saudi destruction of Yemen come from, it is Bahrain. 

So how is the dictatorship in Bahrain corrupting the world’s international police force? One of the players on Bahrain’s national soccer team, Hakeem al-Araibi, vocally expressed his dissent over the way Bahrain is run. He was then framed for “vandalizing a police station” even though he was playing in a soccer match, broadcast on TV, at the time of the incident. He was arrested, beaten up in jail, yet still managed to escape to Australia, where he was granted asylum.

At this point Bahrain managed to have Interpol issue a fraudulent arrest warrant. When al-Araibi showed up in Thailand on his honeymoon, he was taken into custody and now awaits possible extradition back to Bahrain, where he may well face torture. By the way, it is a violation of international law to extradite someone to a country where he or she risks being tortured. So far Thailand has not taken advantage of this legal and moral reason to defy the Bahraini monarchy. 

This is not an isolated problem. The watchdog organization Fair Trials has documented multiple cases of the corruption and abuse of Interpol by “governments” which do not feel themselves bound by the rule of law. 

21stCentury Assaults

There is little doubt that the 21st century has begun with an assault on both the climatic and legal atmosphere that underpins the world’s stability. 

Before 1946 the world was a mess: one hot war after another, economic recessions and depressions, imperialism, colonialism, and racism galore. All of this was grounded in the nation state and its claim of sacred sovereignty. The world experienced a sort of climax to this horror show in the form of Nazi racism and the Holocaust, the use of nuclear weapons, and Stalinist Russia’s purges, mass starvations and Gulag exiles. 

After World War II, things got better in a slow sort of way. The trauma of the recent past spurred on the formation of international laws, international courts, a universal declaration of human rights, civil rights movements and the like. We also got the Cold War, which, for all its tensions, was a big improvement on hot wars.

Now things are falling apart again, and rest assured that U.S. leaders and their less-savory allies abroad are doing their part in the devolution of peace and justice. Shall we name just a few U.S. names? Well, there is Donald Trump and his minion Bolton. They go gaga over thugs passing themselves off as presidents in such nation-states as Egypt, the Philippines and that pseudo-democracy, Israel. There is also Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has turned into the U.S. version of Cardinal Richelieu when it comes to Washington’s South America foreign policy. He is the one pushing for the overthrow of the legitimate government in Venezuela while simultaneously calling for close relations with the new fascist president of Brazil. 

And the list goes on. How do we do this to ourselves? Is it short memories of the wretched past or almost no historical memory at all? Is it some sort of perverse liking for group violence? This is an important question and a perennial one. But now, with global warming upon us and lifestyles soon to be under threat, things are going to get even messier—and messy social and economic situations are usually good news for barbarians. More than ever, we are going to need uncorrupted international laws, courts and police.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history emeritus at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He has been publishing his analyses of topics in U.S. domestic and foreign policy, international and humanitarian law and Israel/Zionist practices and policies since 2010.




How to Legalize Cannabis Throughout US

The process that ended Prohibition provides a template, writes former Senator Mike Gravel.

By Senator Mike Gravel
Special to Consortium News

In the interest of full disclosure, I have been on the board of Cannabis Sativa, Inc., for five years, including four years as CEO.  I presently serve as CEO of THC Pharmaceuticals, Inc.  My earlier professional life included being speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives and two terms representing Alaska in the U.S. Senate.  These combined experiences equip me to address some of the problems caused by the U.S. anti-drug campaign.

One of the great domestic political tragedies since the last century is the war on drugs initiated by President Richard Nixon, part of which placed cannabis (marijuana) on the list of Schedule 1 drugs under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

Nixon, seeking to shore up his position opposing cannabis, appointed Raymond Shafer, the recently retired governor of Pennsylvania, to head a commission to study the negative effects of marijuana on the American populace.  Nixon was incensed when the Shafer Commission’s 1972 report showed no negative effects from the use of marijuana on society and called for it to be decriminalized

The report was promptly shelved; and Nixon, supported by his religious backers, executed his plan of drug prohibition, interdiction and punishment without the slightest medical or legal rationale, to punish young Americans protesting his continuation of the Vietnam War.

A Failed ‘War’  

The war on drugs has not ended drug use or trafficking. Instead it has ravaged the lives of untold Americans and bloated our prison system.  It has fostered massive illegality over the decades.

But in 1996 the citizens of California passed Proposition 215 authorizing the use of cannabis for medical purposes, finally breaching the barriers of ignorance and prejudice about cannabis.

Other states followed California’s lead, some via a grassroots initiative process and others by the vote of courageous legislatures.  This state-by-state development of the cannabis industry has created inconsistencies that are further complicated by the illegality that the federal government casts over the industry. This is most obvious where the cannabis industry is denied the banking services vital to any economic enterprise for fear of federal prosecution.

On a recent visit to Sacramento to express my support for public banking, which would offer a solution, I met with Fiona Ma, California’s newly elected state treasurer. She invited me to discuss various concepts using public banking and the state’s private banking system. She asked me to critique a recent study addressing cannabis banking and public banking.

My experience with the cannabis industry and my knowledge of the Constitution led me to set aside the industry’s banking problems at this time and focus on the fundamental problem — the federal government’s war on drugs. The plan I propose to finally end it is based upon a strong precedent.

The federal government’s prohibitions of alcohol and of cannabis have both been abject failures, severely damaging American society. The prohibition of alcohol lasted 13 years, while the prohibition of cannabis has endured a little more than six decades.  

The process that ended alcohol prohibition is the template for the way we can now end the prohibition of cannabis — with a constitutional amendment.  Since prohibition of alcohol was put in place by the 18th Amendment, it required an amendment to repeal it.  This had never been done before — repealing one amendment with another amendment.

Section of Article V

There was another first. The nation was in a hurry to repeal prohibition, so to ratify their repeal of the 18th Amendment it chose a never-before used section of Article V: 

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress.

The section “… by Conventions in three fourths thereof …” of Article V,  above, was used for the first time to repeal the 18thAmendment, which was enacted on Jan. 16, 1919, by a two-thirds majority of both Houses of Congress and “… the Legislatures of three fourths of the several states.”   

The Amendment to prohibit the sale of alcohol went into effect on Jan. 17, 1920. During the 1920s Americans increasingly came to see Prohibition as unenforceable.

In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt, as a presidential candidate, called for the repeal of Prohibition.  On Feb. 20, 1933, two-thirds of both Houses of Congress voted to repeal the 18th  Amendment, including the repeal of certain elements of the Volstead Act, which enabled federal enforcement. However, rather than submit the resolution to three-fourths of the state legislatures, it was submitted to ratifying conventions in three-fourths of the states, a process noted in Article V: “… by Conventions in three fourths thereof …”

This process had never been used before or since and substantially shortened the time for ratification to a little more than eight months when ratified by the requisite number of state conventions on Dec. 5, 1933.

In 1932 the country had 48 states. Therefore, after two-thirds of the Congress voted for the resolution, it took three-fourths, or 35 state conventions, to ratify the 21stAmendment.

With today’s 50 states, it would require 38 states –– three-fourths –– to ratify the two-thirds resolution enacted by the Congress to repeal the designation of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug.

Since 33 states have legalized some form of cannabis and additional states are looking at legalization, it is highly likely that five more states would join an effort to remove cannabis from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

I believe an amendment to repeal the war on drugs could easily secure the two-thirds vote in the House. However, if blocked by the majority leader in the Senate or if Vice President Mike Pence refused to sign the resolution, another section of Article V could be used:  “… on theApplication of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several states …” 

A national campaign initiated by the political leadership of California and the cannabis industry would already be securing agreements of three-fourths (38 states) to ratify the resolution.  A simultaneous effort could approach the same 33 states (two-thirds) to approve the resolution.

California legislators and its officials, having led the nation in 1996 with Proposition 215, can now lead the nation in securing the ratification of an amendment to remove cannabis from Schedule 1.  I am convinced that the ratification of an Amendment can be secured within a year.

Mike Gravel, an author and businessman, served in the U.S. Senate from 1969 through 1981. In 1972, at the request of Dan Ellsberg, he read the “Pentagon Papers” into the Congressional Record during a subcommittee hearing that he chaired.