The only difference, the only real change, that Barack Obama brings to the White House is the color of his skin. As I've said before, this racial factor does have symbolic significance (see below); but in substance, there is no real difference between Obama and any of the other run-of-the-mill greasy pole-climbers seeking temporary management of the imperial machinery, with all of the fleeting power -- and lifelong perks -- that comes with it. As Carl Ginsburg aptly notes in Counterpunch:
There is absolutely no doubt that soon after the conclusion of his presidency, Mr. Obama, like Bill Clinton, will have a hundred million bucks in the bank as a result of books, lectures and related appearances on the subject of responsibility. That’s what’s called the spoils of “today’s winner-take-all economy,” a quote from Audacity of Hope, here taken way out of context, I suppose. “Fill up the old coffers,” is the way George Bush put it, in his twisted but somehow unambiguous way.
Like the rest of the pole-climbers, Obama has come in to reward his cronies and backers, and protect the interests of a small, rapacious elite. And like his predecessors, he seems far more concerned with preserving and expanding the encroachments of executive power than with husbanding the liberties of the common people. Of course, anyone who looked beyond his skin color to the actual policies he was proposing during the campaign -- and especially at who his advisers, aides, and chief backers were -- will have seen all this long ago, and will not be surprised or "betrayed" by his conduct in office.
Still, in an age where the media whirlwind tears away at the facts and makes them harder and harder to retain, it is always salutary to be reminded of the grubby reality of our gilded Potomac geese. Scott Horton at Harper's shows yet another small but telling example of Obama's wretched "continuity" with his illustrious Oval Office forbears: his selling of ambassadorships. Indeed, as Horton notes, Obama is already outstripping the Texas Twerp in this regard:
As the Los Angeles Times noted in a recent editorial, the United States is the only major country that regularly hands out choice ambassadorships as a favor for campaign funding bundlers. The process cheapens our diplomatic relations and sends a bad message to the states to which these ambassadors are sent. And it’s getting cruder and greedier. A cynic studying the latest batch of nominees might conclude that the price of an ambassadorship has soared from roughly $200,000 under the Rovian regime to $500,000 under Rahm Emanuel.
Under Barack Obama, the process of political payoff through ambassadorial appointments has matched and appears poised to exceed the already extremely abusive system that Karl Rove put in place under the Bush Administration. In his first six months, Obama has forwarded 58 ambassadorial nominees to the Senate for confirmation. Retired career diplomat Dennis Jett reports in the Daily Beast that 32 of these nominees—55% of the total—are political appointees.
Political appointees are not per se objectionable. In fact, some of the most distinguished ambassadorial appointees in recent decades have been political appointees—not career diplomats... But the Obama political appointees are of a different caliber. What distinguishes them is not a career in public service or finance, much less foreign relations or foreign area expertise, but rather something far grubbier: raising substantial sums of money for the Obama campaign.
A prominent example is Louis Susman, named as Obama’s ambassador to the Court of St. James. Susman was John Kerry’s campaign fundraising chair in 2004, heading an effort that yielded $247 million for Democratic coffers; he was among the earliest fundraisers for Obama, and his zeal continued after the election, when he pulled together $300,000 for the inaugural festivities. (Susman thus dwarfs the fundraising power of Bush’s ambassador in London, California auto dealer Robert Tuttle, who raised a measly $100,000 for the 2004 campaign and $100,000 for the inauguration.) When queried on Susman’s qualifications for the post, a White House spokesman quipped that “he speaks the local language.”
Ha, ha, isn't that funny? But it is inadvertantly revealing. For Susman most definitely "speaks the local language" -- the language of the imperial Potomac court, that is: money. That's the only speech that matters in those exalted precincts, the only language that will get you a seat at the table and a piece of the action.
But Obama's pick for Germany was even more insulting. (See if you can guess which sliver of the rapacious elite this appointee comes from.):
Another is Phil Murphy, a Goldman Sachs executive who served as the Democratic Party’s national finance chairman, tapped to represent the United States in Berlin. The Murphy appointment so troubled German leaders that they held up agrément–the diplomatic process under which the receiving nation agrees to accept the ambassadorial designee–so that Chancellor Angela Merkel could press the case for a career diplomat or serious political figure. Merkel made her appeal at the G-8 meeting at L’Aquila, but Obama was unswayed. The Germans finally relented and grudgingly accepted the appointment.
For more on the constructive role that Goldman Sachs has played in American affairs, see the now-famous article by my old Moscow Times colleague, Matt Taibbi: "Inside the Great American Bubble Machine."
Again, none of this base venality is really news -- except, of course, to those millions who depend on "The News" (i.e., the corporate media) to tell them what's going on.
Regarding the abovementioned symbolic significance of Obama's election, here are some excerpts from a post I wrote after the 2008 vote, which itself excerpts a post I wrote following Obama's nomination:
As I write this at nearly 3 a.m. in England, it seems very likely that Barack Obama will be the next U.S. president. I have no great words of considered wisdom to offer on this development at the moment. However, having looked briefly at the right-wing reaction to the vote, I will venture one quick observation:
The outpouring of open, virulent racism that many feared would arise during the campaign -- and in the secrecy of the voting booth -- never really manifested itself. But I think that it will emerge much more strongly now, in the aftermath, as part of a carefully cultivated dolchstosslegende even now being perpetrated by the rightwing media machine. Fox News and Karl Rove are already pushing stories about "Black Panthers" intimidating voters and widespread vote fraud among the worthless darkies whose votes have propelled Obama to victory. (These would be the same worthless darkies whom the rightwingers also blame for the global economic catastrophe.) There will be much, much more of this in the days and weeks to come.
It will not hurt Obama, of course; he will have the power he has sought, and the upsurge of ugly, unrepentant racism on the Right will only make his "progressive" allies far less willing to criticize his actions -- especially those mysterious "highly unpopular policies" that Joe Biden has promised Obama will adopt in the face of a guaranteed foreign policy crisis sometime next year. (Not to mention the promised escalation of the quagmire in Afghanistan.] But ordinary African-Americans will bear the painful brunt of this pouring of old hatreds into new wineskins. As always, black people will be blamed for all the nation's ills by the overclass that actually controls the machinery of power, and has been grinding its bootheel on the neck of black Americans for centuries.
[From the nomation piece:] The symbolic significance of Obama Barack's nomination victory is not insubstantial. In a land where, not so long ago, having the slightest drop of "Negro blood" in your genetic inheritance was enough to bar you -- legally and formally -- from many jobs, educational opportunities, places of residence, medical care, full participation in society, etc. (and where these obstacles still persist, in practice if not in law, for many people), it is striking to see a man whose father was not only black but also a "full-blooded African" (cue the psychosexual "Mandingo" anxieties of generations of trembly white folk) on the doorstep of the White House. At the very least -- until the novelty wears off (and novelty wears off very, very quickly in America)-- if Obama wins the presidency, there will be some aesthetic relief in seeing a different kind of face on the tee-vee mouthing various pieties, refusing to take any options off the table, etc., in place of the long procession of pasty white males of Northern European descent.
As for the substantial significance of Obama's nomination win, there is none. The only thing that really matters is what the human being named Barack Obama will do with power (if he gets it), and not his skin color. Or to put it another way: What difference did Colin Powell's status as a non-white person in the highest cabinet office make when the question of aggressive war was on the line? None. He was later replaced not only by another non-white person, but by a non-white female, Condi Rice. What difference did Rice's ethnicity and gender make to her collusion with the Bush faction's brutal policies of aggressive war, torture, rendition, state terror, etc.? None.
....Will Obama -- in the White House or on the campaign trail -- denounce the "War on Terror" for what it really is: a war of state terror, waged almost entirely against civilian populations? He has not done so; indeed, on his website he calls for fighting the War on Terror in a "smarter way". (There will be no inefficient, cluttery state terrorism when Obama is on the job!) He wants an even bigger, more powerful, more "stealthy" military...
So here is the significance of Obama's nomination: More Terror War. More murder -- directly, by proxy, by remote control. More manufactured enemies. A continued military presence in Iraq (all "combat troops" withdrawn, eventually, maybe, but other troops left there to "target al Qaeda in Iraq"). No reparations. A bigger, faster, more far-reaching military wrapping the globe. No options taken off the table -- ever.
Hey, you know what? The novelty is wearing off already.
Arthur Silber has been silent for quite some time, and his last post spoke of horrific problems with his health -- which has been declining for a long time, and now seems to have taken a deep plunge.
I don't know his precise situation at the moment, but it is likely to be dire. I imagine too that in addition to the health problems, he is facing the usual crush of bills at the end of the month. He is one of our strongest and most thought-provoking voices, yet is forced to live at the margins of society, while witless poltroons and egregious time-servers swim in gravy.
I am not authorized to speak for him, and am not speaking for him -- but just on my own volition, I would urge you to go to his site and, if you have anything to give, give what you can to support Silber in this difficult time. We need his insight, we need his wit, we need the disturbing, productive fire in the mind that he can light.
And while you're there, avail yourself of some of the "Major Essays" listed on the side; this is powerful stuff, and you won't see anything like it anywhere else.
While dozens of innocent people continue to die each week in the
political and sectarian violence unleashed in Iraq by America's
invasion and continuing occupation, the main attention of the
bipartisan Terror Warriors in Washington – and their sycophantic
outriders in the corporate media – continues to be what they call, in
the imperial jargonizing that lumps the vast complexities of myriad
human communities into reductive, thought-killing soundbites, the
This, as we all know, is the "good war," the one
that most "serious" progressives touted for years as the healthy
alternative to the "bad war" that George W. Bush got us into in Iraq,
where his "incompetence" and "failures" tarnished the exalted ideal of
"humanitarian intervention." (Known in the trade by the acronym
"KTC-STC" – "Kill the Children to Save the Children.") . If only we
could get out the quagmire in Iraq, cried the serious progs, and do the
Terror War "right" in Afghanistan! Well, their wish has come true
(except of course for the 130,000 American troops and equal number of
mercenaries still prowling around in Iraq; but that's OK, because Obama
is in charge now, and what ser-progs once vehemently denounced as a
blatant, bloody war crime can now be described, in the immortal words
of the president himself, as "an extraordinary achievement"). The Obama
Administration is throwing billions of new dollars and thousands of
more troops into the eight-year-old conflict, while greatly expanding
the cross-border attacks on the sovereign soil of America's ally,
Pakistan. And while Obama has retained the core of the Terror War
directorate that Bush installed – notably Pentagon warlord Robert Gates
and the surgin' general, David Petraeus – he has now put his own man in
charge of the "good war": longtime "dirty war" and death squad maven
Stanley McChrystal. (Expertise in rubouts, snatches and "strenuous
interrogation" is obviously what you need to win "hearts and minds" in
So here we are, with the imperial
mind bent at last on the "Af-Pak" front. But where, exactly, are we?
What is the real situation on the "Af-Pak" ground? Two natives of the
Terror War targets give us a view from the ground. First, Malalai Joya, from Afghanistan:
2005, I was the youngest person elected to the new Afghan parliament.
Women like me, running for office, were held up as an example of how
the war in Afghanistan had liberated women. But this democracy was a
facade, and the so-called liberation a big lie....
years after the Taliban regime was toppled, our hopes for a truly
democratic and independent Afghanistan have been betrayed by the
continued domination of fundamentalists and by a brutal occupation that
ultimately serves only American strategic interests in the region.
must understand that the government headed by Hamid Karzai is full of
warlords and extremists who are brothers in creed of the Taliban. Many
of these men committed terrible crimes against the Afghan people during
the civil war of the 1990s.
For expressing my views I have been
expelled from my seat in parliament, and I have survived numerous
assassination attempts. The fact that I was kicked out of office while
brutal warlords enjoyed immunity from prosecution for their crimes
should tell you all you need to know about the "democracy" backed by
So far, Obama has pursued the same policy as
Bush in Afghanistan. Sending more troops and expanding the war into
Pakistan will only add fuel to the fire. Like many other Afghans, I
risked my life during the dark years of Taliban rule to teach at
underground schools for girls. Today the situation of women is as bad
as ever. Victims of abuse and rape find no justice because the
judiciary is dominated by fundamentalists. A growing number of women,
seeing no way out of the suffering in their lives, have taken to
suicide by self-immolation.
This week, US vice-president Joe
Biden asserted that "more loss of life [is] inevitable" in Afghanistan,
and that the ongoing occupation is in the "national interests" of both
the US and the UK.
I have a different message to the people of
Britain. I don't believe it is in your interests to see more young
people sent off to war, and to have more of your taxpayers' money going
to fund an occupation that keeps a gang of corrupt warlords and drug
lords in power in Kabul.
What's more, I don't believe it is
inevitable that this bloodshed continues forever. Some say that if
foreign troops leave Afghanistan will descend into civil war. But what
about the civil war and catastrophe of today? The longer this
occupation continues, the worse the civil war will be.
is a country whose fate is no longer in its own hands. I have never
known things so bad. The chief problems are the United States and its
requirements, the religious extremists, the military high command, and
corruption, not just on the part of President Zardari and his main
rivals, but spreading well beyond them.
This is now Obama’s war.
He campaigned to send more troops into Afghanistan and to extend the
war, if necessary, into Pakistan. These pledges are now being
fulfilled. On the day he publicly expressed his sadness at the death of
a young Iranian woman caught up in the repression in Tehran, US drones
killed 60 people in Pakistan. The dead included women and children,
whom even the BBC would find it difficult to describe as ‘militants’.
Their names mean nothing to the world; their images will not be seen on
TV networks. Their deaths are in a ‘good cause’....
In May this
year, Graham Fuller, a former CIA station chief in Kabul, published an
assessment of the crisis in the region in the Huffington Post. Ignored
by the White House, since he was challenging most of the assumptions on
which the escalation of the war was based, Fuller was speaking for many
in the intelligence community in his own country as well as in Europe.
It’s not often that I can agree with a recently retired CIA man, but
not only did Fuller say that Obama was ‘pressing down the same path of
failure in Pakistan marked out by George Bush’ and that military force
would not win the day, he also explained to readers of the Huffington
Post that the Taliban are all ethnic Pashtuns, that the Pashtuns ‘are
among the most fiercely nationalist, tribalised and xenophobic peoples
of the world, united only against the foreign invader’ and ‘in the end
probably more Pashtun than they are Islamist’. ‘It is a fantasy,’ he
said, ‘to think of ever sealing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.’ And I
don’t imagine he is the only retired CIA man to refer back to the days
when Cambodia was invaded ‘to save Vietnam’....
to Pakistan, Anne] Patterson can be disarmingly frank. Earlier this
year, she offered a mid-term assessment to a visiting Euro-intelligence
chief. While Musharraf had been unreliable, saying one thing in
Washington and doing its opposite back home, Zardari was perfect: ‘He
does everything we ask.’ What is disturbing here is not Patterson’s
candour, but her total lack of judgment. Zardari may be a willing
creature of Washington, but the intense hatred for him in Pakistan is
not confined to his political opponents. He is despised principally
because of his venality. He has carried on from where he left off as
minister of investment in his late wife’s second government. Within
weeks of occupying President’s House, his minions were ringing the
country’s top businessmen, demanding a share of their profits.
the case of Mr X, who owns one of the country’s largest banks. He got a
call. Apparently the president wanted to know why his bank had sacked a
PPP member soon after Benazir Bhutto’s fall in the late 1990s. X said
he would find out and let them know. It emerged that the sacked clerk
had been caught with his fingers literally in the till. President’s
House was informed. The explanation was rejected. The banker was told
that the clerk had been victimised for political reasons. The man had
to be reinstated and his salary over the last 18 years paid in full
together with the interest due. The PPP had also to be compensated and
would expect a cheque (the sum was specified) soon. Where the president
leads, his retainers follow. Many members of the cabinet and their
progeny are busy milking businessmen and foreign companies. ‘If they
can do it, so can we’ is a widely expressed view in Karachi, the
country’s largest city. Muggings, burglaries, murders, many of them
part of protection rackets linked to politicians, have made it the
Naples of the East....
These rumours came into the open at the
end of June, when the head of the Bhutto clan, Mumtaz Ali Bhutto,
chairman of the Sind National Front, publicly accused Zardari at a
press conference, alleging that ‘the killer of Murtaza Bhutto had also
murdered Benazir . . . Now I am his target. A hefty amount has been
paid to mercenaries to kill me.’ (Zardari is generally regarded as
having ordered his brother-in-law Murtaza’s death. Shoaib Suddle, the
police chief in Karachi, who organised the operation that led to
Murtaza Bhutto’s death, has now been promoted and is head of the
You should read both pieces in
their entirety to get the bigger, grimmer picture. So here we are -- in
bed with extremists, misogynists, kleptocrats and killers.
The New York Times tells us that the ongoing political crackdown in America's Terror War ally Kyrgyzstan is an example of the difficult "challenge" faced by the Obama administration as it seeks to "balance" its strategic needs with its "concerns" for human rights.
But of course this is not a "challenge" at all. It's remarkably simple. When you are conducting wars of imperial domination in far-flung, hard-to-access lands, you must keep the local satraps sweet -- unless or until you can replace them with your own hand-picked stooges. Everything else is just window dressing for the rubes back home.
In Kyrgyzstan, there is the added element of the local thug getting backing from another Great Gamester, the Kremlin. Theoretically, such a thing could complicate matters, but in this particular case, it does not, because Washington and Moscow are both backing the same side in Afghanistan's protracted civil war. Obama has already wrung new levels of cooperation from Russia's double-headed leadership in pushing his broad military escalation in Afghanistan. And in any case, the Kremlin is a hobbled gamester these days, concerned mostly with protecting its flanks against further encroachments on its historic hegemony – and protecting its own hand-picked stooges, such as the savage Chechen warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov, whose critics are being assassinated one by one. The Kremlin is also concerned with fending off the bristling missile bases the United States is installing around its frontiers, with the Obama Administration eagerly taking up and advancing the Bush Regime's aggressive provocation.
But back to Kyrgyzstan, where the oh-so-progressive peaceniks of Brand Obama have tossed that milksoppy 'human rights' jazz overboard and are lavishing love and largess on the increasingly brutal strongman, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Shall we be dull and mention "continuity" yet again? I'm afraid we must. For here, as elsewhere – everywhere – imperial concerns (known as "strategic issues" in our ever-obfuscating Beltway jargon) trump all others. As Scott Horton notes at Harper's, referring to the Times' account of brutal beatings doled out to Bakiyev's opponents:
In a recent description of challenges to his administration, he put the word “freedom” in first place. Is he concerned that the Kyrgyz have too much of it? Accounts like the one above suggest that he’s out to give “freedom” a good, sound thrashing. So how does the United States react? Since early 2002, the Kyrgyz Republic has had an important position in Washington’s view—it is home to Ganci Air Force Base. And maintaining that military installation has been the alpha and omega of U.S.-Kyrgyz relations. The collapse of the nation’s nascent democracy hardly seems to be given a second thought.
To sum up, it seems the government of Kyrgyzstan is repressive, undemocratic and corrupt. But because it's willing to offer a plot of land for yet another outpost in America's empire of military domination, all is forgiven.
Which suggests that if Iran wants to get past its little spot of bother with Washington that keeps cropping up – you know, where America's "chief diplomat" constantly declares her doubts that, er, diplomacy will resolve any of the Empire's problems with Iran, and warns that the "nuclear clock is ticking" toward some promised if unspecified unpleasantness if Tehran doesn't knuckle under – then the mullahs should consider hosting a couple of big ole American bases in the Persian hinterlands.
After that, the Iranians – like Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki, who is currently "hosting" more than a quarter of a million American forces (public and private) and signalling his willingness to keep them on indefinitely – could arrest, repress and torture who they please, without a discouraging word from Washington. A win-win situation all around!
Many, many years ago, when I was a young pup of a reporter on a small rural paper in the foothills of the Appalachians in East Tennessee, one of my very first assignments was to attend a court hearing on a murder case, then meet afterwards with one of the most senior law enforcement officers in the county, who would be giving testimony in the case. This officer frequently provided the paper with photographs of the latest drug raid or big arrest his force had made.
I went to the hearing, then met the officer. He was, literally, a towering figure, topping six-foot-five, and sporting a thin Errol Flynn moustache, perhaps to offset his thinning hair. He was a powerful, popular figure, and one of the top leaders in a statewide law enforcement association; indeed, he spent several weeks a year training his colleagues in the latest modern methods of crime-fighting and professional law enforcement management.
I'd never met the man, but when I introduced myself as the reporter from the Herald, he gave me a big smile, took my hand with a crushing grip, and sat me down on a bench in the old, antebellum courtroom. He pulled out a roll of 35mm film in its plastic canister and handed it to me. As he handed it over, he clamped his massive hand down hard on my thigh and gripped it tight. "Here's your pictures," he said in a low voice. "If you do right by me, we'll get along just fine. But if you try to screw me, you're fucked."
Then he let go, stood up, and went off, smiling and back-slapping his way through the citizens milling in the hallway. Well, he got good coverage during the time that I was at the paper. He was very cooperative with the press; I went on several drug raids with his forces as they turned houses inside out -- the officers were particularly tickled when they found sex Polaroids the suspects had taken of themselves; although these were not germane to the charges at hand, they were examined far more closely than the actual evidence. I even went on what must surely have been one of the last moonshine raids in the Tennessee hills, after a long trek deep into the backwoods, where some nostalgic old-timer had set up a still -- even though the county, which was still nominally "dry," was ringed with numerous package liquor stores; you were never more than ten minutes' drive from all the hard liquor you could want.
But the "press" -- such as we were -- never had the time, or the resources, or the publishers' blessing to pursue the more troubling rumors that floated around the law enforcement star and several other bigwigs in the area. These chiefly involved cooperation between law enforcement, top financial entrepreneurs and criminal organizations to facilitate the transport of illegal drugs into the area, chiefly through private airstrips set up in far corners on palatial estates.
This was, oddly enough, the same basic set-up that I encountered, or heard credible tales of, in every American newspaper where I worked -- in East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee and down in Mississippi. In every case, there was prima facie evidence (and sometimes more than that) of a local worthy -- banker, music star, famous evangelical -- providing the facilities for drug-running while the law looked the other way. And in every case, there was a lack of resources -- and institutional will -- to pursue the allegations further. In the one instance where there was an effort to follow one of these trails, a top editor and I were set to drive to New Orleans, where a televangelist's planes were allegedly being used to fly in dope from Central America. But the night before we were to leave, I got a call at home from the editor: "Our sources tell us we'd better not meet with [the man who would corroborate the allegations.]" Why not, I asked. "They say we'll never make it out of New Orleans alive." So we didn't go.
I was reminded of all this ancient personal history by the recent story in the New York Times about the latest round of corruption arrests in New Jersey. Mayors, councilmen, city, county and state officials, rabbis -- all are alleged to be operating a crime network ranging from international money-laundering to good, old-fashioned cash in an envelope (or even a cereal box) in exchange for government favors. This was not the case of a "few bad eggs," but a veritable platoon of community leaders.
It was, in other words, another brief glimpse behind the curtain of how the world really works a good deal of time, at every level. There is always some powerful person somewhere clamping their hands down on somebody's thigh and muttering, "Play ball, and it's jake; screw me and you're fucked." Every now and then, someone will make a play too large for the pull they can muster to cover themselves; or maybe someone with bigger pull wants to muscle in on their patch, and brings the heat -- or, occasionally, a straight-up unit or prosecutor will get the goods and somehow run the gauntlet of protective barriers that hedge in the powerful.
But the fact is, many, many, many people in power whom we are incessantly told -- even ordered -- to respect and obey are dirty. They lie, they cheat, they steal, they commit or countenance heinous crimes. Sometimes the corruption comes in the form of a wad of cash passed under the table at a diner; sometimes it comes in the form of "bundled contributions" to a national campaign or arcane legal entity designed to receive, process -- and launder -- cash for politicians dripping with piety; or, even more often, in the form of the golden revolving door between government service and corporate sinecures. Sometimes the crime is looking the other way when a plane comes in loaded with dope; sometimes the crime is sending the planes in loaded with bombs.
A few years after I left the Appalachian foothills, my old thigh-clamping pal was convicted on felony gambling charges (as always, its the venial sins of the flesh that bring you down, not the pay-offs, strong-arming, commission of war crimes, etc.). But today he is once again a prominent, popular politician in the area. The evangelist whose drug-laden planes were allegedly landing in Louisiana is still a prominent, popular evangelist, despite a couple of highly publicized falls from grace with sultry jezebels. And the music star whose private airstrip on his vast rural manor was allegedly used to ferry dope is still a music star, noted now for his fierce Christian piety and rock-ribbed patriotism.
To lift the immortal words of the Angry Arab, "for those who care and do not care," there are some new songs up at the MySpace site: rough sketches as usual, but there are some hopes of doing a few of them up right with some talented collaborators a little ways down the line. Anyway, they're there, if you care to bend an ear -- or even cut a rug.
In a new piece for Salon.com, Jeff Sharlet has more on the domestic side of the militarist-fundamentalist drive to devour the state, which we wrote about here yesterday. Sharlet writes of "The Family" -- the self-described "Christian Mafia" centered on the "C Street House" in Washington -- which for decades has spread its invisible, insidious influence throughout the U.S. government, while supporting mass-murdering dictators, rapacious crony capitalism -- and providing convenient cover and absolution for the high crimes and sexual misdemeanors of its members.
Sharlet has written of The Family for years, in articles for Harper's and in his book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. He has described in great detail -- and from the inside -- a disturbing, decades-old network of big-time power players guided by cranks who push Pol Pot, Osama bin Laden, and Stalin as worthy role models in the pursuit of the Family's ultimate goal: a militarized, unfettered "totalitarianism of God." You would think that Sharlet's earlier revelations would have brought intensive, horrified scrutiny to bear on this nest of democracy-hating accomplices of atrocity and corruption -- but the stories never gained much traction in the corporate media. Who cares about all that boring stuff?
But now that several of The Family's members and associates have found themselves caught in good old juicy sex scandals, suddenly the media has "re-discovered" the C Street House, and shined at least a little more light on that dark corner. Because as we all know, the only offense that an American politician must ever pay for is a sexual indiscretion. When it comes to murder, torture, oppression, war crimes, military aggression, tyranny, etc -- well, it's always best to "move on" from such unseemly doings, and stay "focused on the future, not the past."
Although truth to tell, even sexual indiscretions are increasingly unpaid for by our coddled, unaccountable elites. Look at Bill Clinton, swanning around the world like a rock star, swimming in his millions. And of course, all rightwing pols caught with their pants down can always play the "fallen sinner redeemed by God" card, and start all over again. Clinton also played this card for all it was worth, of course; recall his hilarious "counseling sessions" with various high-profile religious leaders, who, we are to believe, sat down with the President of the United States and gave him earnest, prayerful counsel on how to keep his pecker in his pants.
Even so, messing around in the sexual cellarage still causes a politician more of a spot of bother than, say, authorizing a drone strike (i.e., "targeted assassination," i.e., "extrajudicial assassination," i.e., "act of mass murder") that kills dozens of innocent people. The irony, of course, as Magnificent Valor points out, is that these sexual indiscretions are often the only interesting and vaguely human thing these time-serving, box-ticking, elitist automatons have ever done.
In any case, the wanton willy-waggling of Mark Sanford, John Ensign, Chip Pickering and other "Family" stalwarts has provided us with yet another glimpse at the truly strange and deranged power structure that governs our lives. You should read Sharlet's piece in full, but here are a few choice bits:
The Family likes to call itself a "Christian Mafia," but it began 74 years ago as an anti-New Deal coalition of businessmen convinced that organized labor was under the sway of Satan. The Great Depression, they believed, was a punishment from God for what they viewed as FDR's socialism. The Family's goal was the "consecration" of America to God, first through the repeal of New Deal reforms, then through the aggressive expansion of American power during the Cold War...
Historically, the Family has been strongly Republican [Sharlet includes a copious list of current power-players in the Family ranks], but it includes Democrats, too. There's Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, for instance, a vocal defender of putting the Ten Commandments in public places, and Sen. Mark Pryor, the pro-war Arkansas Democrat responsible for scuttling Obama's labor agenda. Sen. Pryor explained to me the meaning of bipartisanship he'd learned through the Family: "Jesus didn't come to take sides. He came to take over." And by Jesus, the Family means the Family.
Family leaders consider their political network to be Christ's avant garde, an elite that transcends not just conventional morality but also earthly laws regulating lobbying. ... Founder Abraham Vereide decided that the group could be more effective by working personally with politicians. "The more invisible you can make your organization," Vereide's successor, current leader Doug Coe preaches, "the more influence you can have."
...I met [David Coe, Doug Coe's son and heir apparent], when I lived for several weeks as a member of the Family... Attempting to explain what it means to be chosen for leadership like King David was -- or Mark Sanford, according to his own estimate -- he asked a young man who'd put himself, body and soul, under the Family's authority, "Let's say I hear you raped three little girls. What would I think of you?" The man guessed that Coe would probably think that he was a monster. "No," answered Coe, "I wouldn't." Why? Because, as a member of the Family, he's among what Family leaders refer to as the "new chosen." If you're chosen, the normal rules don't apply.
If that doesn't tell you all you need to know about our nation's rulers, then I don't know what will. And of course, this "three rapes--so what?" philosophy of unaccountability is not confined to members of "The Family": it permeates the entire power structure.
And as we noted yesterday, this drive toward "Christian totalitarianism" seeks to use the military as one of its primary vehicles of subversion:
Christian right leader -- and Watergate felon -- Chuck Colson, converted through the efforts of the Family, has boasted of it as a "veritable underground of Christ's men all through government." What do they do? Rep. Zach Wamp, one of Ensign's fellow C Streeters who's been in the news for defending the Family's secrecy, has teamed up with Family-linked Reps. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., and John R. Carter, R-Texas, on an obscure appropriations committee to help greenlight tens of millions in federal funds for new megachurch-style chapels on military bases around the country.
But of course, one of the main thrusts of The Family's business has been succoring murderous dictators around the world:
One needn't be a Marxist to find fault with the Family's mash-up of New Testament and unfettered capitalism -- Adam Smith himself would have recognized that theology as a disingenuous form of self-interest by proxy. Such interests have led the Family into some strange alliances over the years. Seduced by the Indonesian dictator Suharto's militant anti-communism, they described the murder of hundreds of thousands that brought him to power as a "spiritual revolution," and sent delegations of congressmen and oil executives to pray to Jesus with the Muslim leader. In Africa, they anointed the Somali killer Siad Barre as God's man and sent Sen. Grassley and a defense contractor as emissaries. Barre described himself as a "Koranic Marxist," but he agreed to pray to Grassley's American Christ in return for American military aid, which he then used to wreak a biblical terror on his nation. It has not yet recovered.
Needless to say, while this group of gilded sectarians leave mounds of corpses in their political gaming around the world, their main business is -- what else? -- business:
[In their Family-paid junkets, members are] representing "Jesus plus nothing," as Doug Coe puts it, the "totalitarianism of God," in the words of an early Family leader, a vision that encompasses not just social issues but also the kind of free-market fundamentalism that is the real object of devotion for Ensign, Coburn, Pickering, Wamp and Sanford, along with Family insiders such as Sens. DeMint, Sam Brownback and Chuck Grassley. At the heart of the Family's spiritual advice for its proxies in Congress is the conviction that the market's invisible hand represents the guidance of God, and that God wants his "new chosen" to look out for one another.
As we all know, one of the most dangerous creatures on earth is the bullshitter who believes his own bullshit. There is absolutely no doubt that Adolf Hitler went to his death thinking he was a swell guy, a worthy, righteous man more sinned against than sinning. The self-absolution -- and self-hypnosis -- of fanatical certitude is a deadly toxin; not just for the individual, but for the world. We see the fruits of Family-style fundamentalism all around us today, in the blood-soaked ruin of the Terror Wars, in the collapse of communities, families, individuals -- and the world economy -- from the rapine of "godly" market extremism, even down to the rise in teen pregnancies and sexual disease, which are, of course, most prevalent and growing in the very areas dominated by the Dominationists' wilfully ignorant, sexually obsessed sectarianism, as the Guardian reports. These are real lives, of real people, blighted -- or blotted out -- by the divinely-robed barbarism of their leaders.
What the elites reserve for themselves -- security, assistance, wealth, power, personal license -- they deny to others. Indeed, this denial is essential to their identity as the "chosen;" if others have what they have, how can they be exalted, set apart, special? Thus they must be implacable enemies of the very idea of the common good -- at home, abroad, at every level of life. It is, at its heart, a sinister vision of life -- yet it has become the unspoken, unquestioned ruling assumption underlying our society today.
A remarkable story in Haaretz (via Antiwar.com) reveals that Orthodox Jewish extremists in the United States have, with the help of radical sectarians in Israel, distributed booklets to Israeli soldiers and officers claiming that the Vatican is organizing "tours of Auschwitz for Hezbollah members to teach them how to wipe out Jews."
As Haaretz notes, the booklets -- published by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America -- has been given to Israeli soldiers "for months." The booklet is purportedly written by a former Hezbollah insider who converted to Judaism. He writes of Pope Benedict XVI's personal direction of a wide-ranging program among "European elites" to train Hezbollah cadres in genocide, while also paying huge fees to journalists, academics and politicians who are critical of Israeli policies. What's more, the booklet asserts that Israeli critics of government policy are also funded by the Vatican-led effort to exterminate Jews. "Every real Arab, deep inside, is kind of a fan of the Nazis," the purported author declares.
The American extremists used the chief rabbi of Safed, Rabbi Shmuel Eliahu, to distribute the tracts to Israeli soldiers. Eliahu's spokesman, David Menahemov, defended the booklet -- which in its deranged orgasm of paranoid fear and racial hatred rivals the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the Tsarist police concoction (taken from a 1864 satirical novel about French tyrant Louis Napoleon) about a Jewish conspiracy to rule the world. The Protocols were given worldwide prominence in the 20th century by Henry Ford and Adolf Hitler, then got a new boost in the 21st century by America's staunch allies (and Israel's silent partner in Middle East power-gaming), the Saudi royals, who produced a 30-part TV miniseries based on the Protocols in 2001.
[Iranian TV, of course, recently produced a wildly popular TV mini-series depicting an Iranian diplomat in Paris trying to save Jews from the Holocaust. But it is the Iranians who are depicted as maniacal, monolithic anti-Semites, not the Saudis. One might also note here that the West's new favorite Palestinian, Mahmoud Abbas -- the sort-of president of the Palestinian Authority whose term expired months ago but who still somehow remains in office with America and Israel's full backing -- wrote a doctoral thesis declaring that the Holocaust was "a Zionist fantasy," a "fantastic lie", and that the "few hundred thousand" Jews who did die at Nazi hands were only killed because "Zionist" fanatics provoked the Germans: "The Zionist movement led a broad campaign of incitement against the Jews living under Nazi rule to arouse the government's hatred of them." But Abbas is a useful tool of Israeli domination, so his genuinely horrific revisionism is whitewashed, while outrageous falsehoods -- like a Vatican-Hezbollah genocide plan -- are used to stoke the hatred of soldiers sent to wage war on civilians in Gaza. Funny old world, ain't it?]
Like the defenders of the repeatedly and thoroughly debunked Protocols, Menahemov declared every word of the new hate booklet was true, and that the author is a real person. "I know the guy personally," he told Haaretz. "He's an Arab, who even though he converted still acts like an Arab." Still "acts like an Arab," does he? What, he swings from trees, grubs for roots, crawls on his belly like a reptile? No racism there then.
Israeli military brass say that although they had distributed the booklet "in good faith," they have since been "alerted to the sensitivity" of the document and stopped passing it out to their soldiers. (Didn't anyone read it before approving its distribution?) But of course the tract is still out there -- and the damage has already been done. As Haaretz notes:
"The book is distributed regularly and everyone reads it and believes it," said one soldier. "It's filled with made-up details but is presented as a true story. A whole company of soldiers, adults, told me: 'Read this and you'll understand who the Arabs are.'"
The savagery of the Israeli assault on Gaza becomes clearer all the time. The American-made booklet was just one part of a wide campaign among radical extremists to incite implacable hatred among the attacking forces -- much like American soldiers going into Iraq in 2003 were encouraged to believe that the act of aggression was "payback for 9/11" against those "who attacked our country."
The Orthodox Union's new 'Protocols of the Elders of Palestine' is also part and parcel of a more widespread phenomenon: the attempted takeover of secular military forces by religious extremists. Like the general rise of militant, wilfully ignorant fundamentalism that swept several world religions -- Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism -- over the past few decades, the "holy warrior" movement crosses sectarian boundaries. It is not only rife in Israel, but is growing more and more powerful in the American military as well. This is outlined in stark and disturbing detail in Jeff Sharlet's report in Harper's earlier this year, "Jesus Kills Mohammed" -- taken from a logo painted on the front of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle by a group of Christian soldiers who, gung-ho with viewings of Mel Gibson's torture-porn, "The Passion," conducted scattershot armed raids through civilian areas in Baghdad. As Sharlet reports on the "small but powerful movement of Christian soldiers concentrated in the officer corps":
What men such as these have fomented is a quiet coup within the armed forces: not of generals encroaching on civilian rule but of religious authority displacing the military’s once staunchly secular code. Not a conspiracy but a cultural transformation, achieved gradually through promotions and prayer meetings, with personal faith replacing protocol according to the best intentions of commanders who conflate God with country. They see themselves not as subversives but as spiritual warriors—“ambassadors for Christ in uniform,” according to Officers’ Christian Fellowship; “government paid missionaries,” according to Campus Crusade’s Military Ministry.
...Within the fundamentalist front in the officer corps, the best organized group is Officers’ Christian Fellowship, with 15,000 members active at 80 percent of military bases... [An] OCF Bible study, “Mission Accomplished,” warns that victory abroad does not mean the war is won at home. “If Satan cannot succeed with threats from the outside, he will seek to destroy from within,” asserts the study, a reference to “fellow countrymen” both in biblical times and today who practice “spiritual adultery.” “Mission Accomplished” takes as its text Nehemiah 1–6, the story of the “wallbuilder” who rebuilt the fortifications around Jerusalem. An outsider might misinterpret the wall metaphor as a sign of respect for separation of church and state, but in contemporary fundamentalist thinking the story stands for just the opposite: a wall within which church and state are one. “With the wall completed the people could live an integrated life,” the study argues. “God was to be Lord of all or not Lord at all.” So it is today, “Mission Accomplished” continues, proposing that before military Christians can complete their wall, they must bring this “Lord of all” to the entire armed forces. “We will need to press ahead obediently,” the study concludes, “not allowing the opposition, all of which is spearheaded by Satan, to keep us from the mission of reclaiming territory for Christ in the military.”
Sharlet notes that the works of Rick Warren, the beefy, suburban Christianist whom Obama picked to bless his inauguration, is featured heavily by the military sectarians. For example:
In March 2008, a chaplain at Lakenheath, a U.S. Air Force–operated base in England, used a mandatory suicide-prevention assembly under Lieutenant General Rod Bishop as an opportunity to promote the principles of The Purpose-Driven Life to roughly 1,000 airmen. In a PowerPoint diagram depicting two family trees, the chaplain contrasted the likely future of a non-religious family, characterized by “Hopelessness” and “Death,” and that of a religious one. The secular family will, according to the diagram, spawn 300 convicts, 190 prostitutes, and 680 alcoholics. Purpose-driven breeding, meanwhile, will result in at least 430 ministers, seven congressmen, and one vice-president.
Sharlet ends with a chilling vignette of the fundamentalist (Christian, Jewish, Muslim) mindset in action -- a conversation he had with an Air Force cadet:
What if he was ordered to bomb a building in which terrorists were hiding, even though there were civilians in the way?
He shook his head. “Who are you to question why God builds up nations just to destroy them, so that those who are in grace can see that they’re in grace?” A smile lit up half his face, an expression that might be taken for sarcastic if Hrabak wasn’t a man committed to being in earnest at all times. What he’d just said—a paraphrase from Romans—might be something like a Word of Knowledge, a gift of wisdom from God. It blew his mind so much he had to repeat it, his voice picking up a speed and enthusiasm that bordered on joy. “He”—the Lord—“builds up an entire nation”—Iraq or Vietnam, Afghanistan or Pakistan, who are you to question why?—“just to destroy them! To show somebody else”—America, a young man guided to college by God, distrustful of his own choices—“that they’re in grace.”
In this, the cadet was echoing one of his comrades quoted earlier:
“How,” he asked, “in the midst of pulling a trigger and watching somebody die, in that instant are you going to be confident that that’s something God told you to do?” His answer was stark. “In this world, there are forces of good and evil. There’s angels and there’s demons, you know? And Satan hates what’s holy.”
The armies of the world are being filled up with soldiers -- and even more so, with officers -- on fire with the deranged certitudes of violent fundamentalism. Their enemies -- both heathenish foreigners and the "spiritual terrorists" among their own ranks, their own families and fellow citizens -- are agents of absolute evil. And there is no such thing as "collateral damage," no killing of innocents in their holy war -- for God Himself has targeted them for destruction, just to prove how righteous His warriors are.
Of course, militarism is itself a virulent cult; without any need for divine sanction, a vast war machine will seek to follow the logic of its construction and do what it was created for: make war. It takes a tremendous -- and ever-failing -- effort to restrain the machine even under the best circumstances. Stoking it with religious extremists committed to blind obedience and violence in the name of God is an unbelievably dangerous and stupid thing to do; yet, as Sharlet and others make clear, the Pentagon's top brass -- including the generals appointed or "continued" by Obama, such as David Petraeus, are deliberately choosing this course, giving their implicit -- and sometimes explicit -- approval to the growth of fanaticism in the ranks. Why not? It's easier to fight wars of imperial domination with soldiers who, in their slavish, unthinking submission, identify their superiors' agenda with God's will.
But our cynical generals are meddling with a volatile material that they cannot control in the long run -- just as they and our security apparatchiks did in cultivating violent Islamic extremists to fight the West's secular agenda in Afghanistan. The "blowback" from the unholy marriage of militarism and militant fundamentalism is certain to bring forth monstrous fruit.
Sorry that service continues to be interrupted, but the problems are being worked on, and I hope we will be able to be less intermittent in transmission soon.
As we have noted before, if you find the site down for a long period of time, you might check out our former stomping grounds, now known as Empire Burlesque 1.0. If I have some burning word to say to the world but this site is down, I will post at the old homeplace.
Meanwhile, here's a glimpse of a man who sure enough has a burning word to say to the world -- and enough fire to keep saying it with power and moxie even in the lengthening shadows.
Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes
I'll say this, I don't give a damn about your dreams
You want to climb to the top of this seething pit,
You got to walk and talk real nice.
But the secret price of power here is
Yesterday we wrote about the sudden-onset amnesia of our media-political class concerning the officially confirmed operations of American death squads. As we noted, official Washington is in a minor flutter at the moment over reports that Dick Cheney ordered and then concealed the existence of a planned program of targeted assassinations -- a program which was supposedly never implemented and was then supposedly cancelled by Obama CIA chief Leon Panetta. We merely pointed out the well-known fact -- supported by copious reportage in mainstream journals in the past eight years, not to mention proud public admissions by top government officials, including the president -- that the CIA (and other agents of the United States government) had indeed been murdering people in "extrajudicial assassinations" throughout the Bush Administration.
I concentrated on state murder during the Bush years because that is the ostensible focus of the current, manufactured controversy over the alleged existence of one allegedly non-operational program. However, as Jeremy Scahill points out, the Bush-Cheney murder racket was not created ex nihilo, but was a continuation and refinement of murder programs initiated by Bill Clinton. Scahill also makes the pertinent observation that "extrajudicial assassination" -- known quaintly in the old days as murder most foul -- is continuing unabated under Barack Obama.
The deep-dyed complicity of Democratic leaders, executive and congressional, in official murder sprees is the main reason we will never see a genuine investigation of America's death squads, as Scahill points out. Imperial crime is thoroughly bipartisan; neither faction dares push too far in such matters, because both are smeared and caked with blood.
Scahill's piece should be read in its entirety, but here are a few choice bits:
The fact is that many of Bush’s worst policies (now being highlighted by leading Democrats) were based in some form or another in a Clinton-initiated policy or were supported by the Democrats in Congress with their votes. To name a few: the USA PATRIOT Act, the invasion of Iraq, the attack against Afghanistan, the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, the widespread use of mercenaries and other private contractors in US war zones and warrant-less wire-tapping...
As [the Democrats now pretending to be scandalized by the recent Cheney allegations] well know, President Obama has continued the Bush targeted assassination program using weaponized drones and special forces teams hunting "high value targets." As former CIA Counter-terrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro and others have pointed out, "The CIA runs drones and targets al-Qaeda safe houses all the time." Cannistraro told Talking Points Memo that there is no important difference between those kinds of attacks and "assassinations" with a gun or a knife.
...It is pretty clear that when the Bush administration took over, it picked up the Clinton administration’s policy on assassination and ran with it — albeit with more of a missionary zeal for killing and a removal of some of the layers of lawyering. In short, the Bush team expanded and streamlined the longstanding U.S. government assassination program.
Throughout the 1990s, the question of covert assassinations was a source of major discussion within the Clinton White House and it is clear assassinations were attempted with presidential approval. Newsweek magazine reported on how, in 1995, U.S. Special Forces facilitated the assassination of a Libyan "terrorist" in Bosnia, saying, "American authorities justified the assassination under a little-known 1993 ‘lethal finding’ signed by President Bill Clinton that gave permission to target terrorists." A former senior Clinton official speaking shortly after 9/11 called on the Bush administration not to escalate the U.S. assassination program, saying "We have a war on drugs, too, but we don’t kill drug lords." But then, with no apparent sense of contradiction, the official added, "we have proxies who do."
...The truth is, under Clinton, it wasn’t just proxies authorized to do the assassinations. ... Clinton did authorize what amounted to assassination squads to hunt down and kill bin Laden and other "al-Qaeda leaders." That happened officially in 1998 with Clinton’s signing of a Memorandum of Notification authorizing the CIA to carry out covert assassinations. George W. Bush was not the president and Dick Cheney was not the vice president. Of course, current CIA Director Leon Panetta was Clinton’s chief of staff from 1994 to 1997 and would have been party to years worth of discussion on this issue when Clinton was president. Under Clinton, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued secret rulings stating that the Ford/Reagan ban on assassinations did not apply to "military targets" or "to attacks carried out in preemptive self-defense," according to Steve Coll, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Ghost Wars.
Shortly after 9/11, Clinton stated this position publicly, supporting the Bush administration’s "war on terror" targeted assassination policy, saying on NBC News, "The ban that was put in effect under President Ford only applies to heads of state. It doesn’t apply to terrorists." That is a stunning statement that is a true legal stretch given the explicit language of the ban. Moreover, Clinton did, in fact, try to kill a head of state on April 22, 1999, when he ordered a NATO airstrike on the home of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Clinton and Gen. Wesley Clark also authorized an assassination attempt on Serbian Information Minister, Aleksander Vucic, bombing Radio Television Serbia when Vucic was scheduled to appear via satellite on CNN’s "Larry King Live." Vucic was not killed, but 16 media workers were.
Clinton also publicly acknowledged his own administration’s attempt to assassinate bin Laden. "I worked hard to try to kill him," Clinton said. "I authorized a finding for the CIA to kill him. We contracted with people to kill him. I got closer to killing him than anybody has gotten since." Clinton’s National Security Advisor Sandy Berger said after Clinton issued his 1998 "lethal finding," U.S. operatives worked with Afghan rebels for two years in an attempt to kill bin Laden. "There were a few points when the pulse quickened, when we thought we were close," Berger later recalled. Among the alleged attempts on bin Laden’s life taken by Clinton was the 1998 bombing of Afghanistan (which was coupled with a massive strike on the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan).
As Coll observed of the Clinton policy: "Clinton had demonstrated his willingness to kill bin Laden, without any pretense of seeking his arrest."
Scahill has much more on the macabre history -- and the reeking hypocrisy -- behind the current "controversy.
The unreality that has long pervaded American politics, policy-making and media reportage is by now almost totally impenetrable. Both action and analysis in the most powerful nation in history now take place in a fantasy world, a simulacrum, a state of permanent amnesia in which facts -- established, confirmed, published -- vanish almost in the very moment of their appearance. Anyone who tries to reason their way through this feverish hallucination is bound to fail -- or succumb to the madness themselves.
This hallucinatory quality of American public life has been on vivid display in recent days, with stories in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Newsweek and elsewhere about a secret CIA program to develop death squads to exterminate "top al Qaeda leaders" in Israeli-style "targeted assassinations." We are told that Dick Cheney was responsible for drawing up these plans -- and for illegally keeping them secret from Congressional oversight. We are also assured that these plans, promulgated by a presidential directive in 2001, "hadn't become fully operational" by the time that new CIA Director Leon Panetta terminated them after taking up his post earlier this year. The plans were developed, we're told, but never implemented. Still, the very fact of their existence is considered by some commentators as a grave scandal, one made even worse by Cheney's cover-up.
All of this is very curious. For the established, confirmed, published fact of the matter is that a CIA assassination program run by the White House on direct orders from the president was put into operation in late 2001. It was operative for many years (and might still be operative; we of course do not know what program Panetta actually terminated -- or if he really has terminated any program). Nor was this assassination program aimed solely at "top al Qaeda leaders": it targeted any number of "suspected" terrorists, whose guilt -- and sentence of death -- was arbitrary decided by the president, or by the agents in the field to whom Bush issued a literal license to kill. The first known victim of this CIA death squad was an American citizen, killed by a CIA-fired drone missile in Yemen. By Bush's own public admission -- in a nationally televised appearance before both houses of Congress in 2003 -- many "suspected terrorists" (his own description) had been killed by American agents.
None of this was secret. All of the above facts were reported in reputable, mainstream newspapers and journals -- the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the New Yorker, etc. -- beginning in October 2001. And these stories themselves were based on statements by Administration officials, who in many instances were eager to brag about "taking the gloves off" and other macho locutions. Or as one CIA operative in Afghanistan told the Boston Globe in 2002: "We are doing things I never believed we would do -- and I mean killing people."
For more than half a decade, it has been an open, easily established, easily confirmable fact that the White House used the CIA as a death squad to kill people that it "suspected" of being terrorists. (The use of such death squads was not limited to the CIA, of course. For example, in January 2003, the Pentagon's Special Operations Command was given the power "to kill and capture al Qaeda operatives and other terrorists," as the Washington Times reported. Stanley McChrystal, the man appointed by Barack Obama to command the war in Afghanistan, was the commander of these Special Ops forces in Iraq for several years.)
And yet here we are, in July 2009, wringing our hands over the alleged existence of "unrealized" plans to perhaps set up some kind of CIA death squad on the orders of Dick Cheney! And even this hallucination is riddled with unreality of its own: witness the emphasis on Cheney's involvement when even the new stories make clear that Cheney was acting on the authority of a presidential directive. George W. Bush is being written out of the picture; evidently he is to remain untainted even by the current spate of fantasy stories, which not only ignore the proven, acknowledged existence of actual, active CIA death squads but also Bush's central role in actually signing the directives that made the killings possible. Even if one buys the notion that Bush was a dimbulb who simply signed whatever the wily Cheney shoved under his nose, that does not absolve Bush of the moral and legal responsibility for these state-sanctioned murders.
But as I say, it looks as if even some of the most forthright Bush critics are not only writing Bush out of the equation with their focus on Cheney, they are also writing the death squads themselves out of existence, by taking the new set of stories at face value and pretending -- or forgetting? -- what these same newspapers reported just a few years ago.
And so the "controversy" over a non-actuated program whose non-actuality was covered up by Cheney rolls on, obscuring the blood-soaked reality of the real programme whose deadly effects were openly reported -- and, again, championed on the broadest possible public stage by the president himself.
It is, by any measure, a very strange, mind-bending state of affairs. Yet this is the way our world works now; and almost every earnest disquisition on politics and policy that we read -- from left, right or center -- is based on just this sort of hallucination.
Below is an excerpt of a column I wrote in 2005, summarizing some of the known facts about the death squads at the time:
On September 17, 2001,
George W. Bush signed an executive order authorizing the use of "lethal
measures" against anyone in the world whom he or his minions designated
an "enemy combatant." This order remains in force today. No judicial
evidence, no hearing, no charges are required for these killings; no
law, no border, no oversight restrains them. Bush has also given agents
in the field carte blanche to designate "enemies" on their own
initiative and kill them as they see fit.
The existence of this universal death squad
– and the total obliteration of human liberty it represents – has not
provoked so much as a crumb, an atom, a quantum particle of controversy
in the American Establishment, although it's no secret. The executive
order was first bruited in the Washington Post in October 2001. I first wrote of it in my Moscow Times column in November 2001. The New York Times added further details in December 2002.
That same month, Bush officials made clear that the dread edict also
applied to American citizens, as the Associated Press reported.
The first officially confirmed use of this power was the killing of an American citizen in Yemen by a CIA drone missile on November 3, 2002. A similar strike occurred in Pakistan this month,
when a CIA missile destroyed a house and purportedly killed Abu Hamza
Rabia, a suspected al Qaeda figure. But the only bodies found at the
site were those of two children, the houseowner's son and nephew,
Reuters reports. The grieving father denied any connection to
terrorism. An earlier CIA strike on another house missed Rabia but
killed his wife and children, Pakistani officials reported.
But most of the
assassinations are carried out in secret, quietly, professionally, like
a contract killing for the mob. As a Pentagon document unearthed by the New Yorker in December 2002 put
it, the death squads must be "small and agile," and "able to operate
clandestinely, using a full range of official and non-official cover
arrangements to…enter countries surreptitiously."
The dangers of this policy are obvious, as a UN report on "extrajudicial killings" noted in December 2004:
" Empowering governments to identify and kill 'known terrorists' places
no verifiable obligation upon them to demonstrate in any way that those
against whom lethal force is used are indeed terrorists… While it is
portrayed as a limited 'exception' to international norms, it actually
creates the potential for an endless expansion of the relevant category
to include any enemies of the State, social misfits, political
opponents, or others."
It's hard to believe
that any genuine democracy would accept a claim by its leader that he
could have anyone killed simply by labeling them an "enemy." It's hard
to believe that any adult with even the slightest knowledge of history
or human nature could countenance such unlimited, arbitrary power,
knowing the evil it is bound to produce. Yet this is what the great and
good in America have done. Like the boyars of old, they not only countenance but celebrate their enslavement to the ruler.
This was vividly demonstrated in one of the revolting scenes in recent American history: Bush's State of the Union address in
January 2003, delivered to Congress and televised nationwide during the
final frenzy of war-drum beating before the assault on Iraq. Trumpeting
his successes in the Terror War, Bush claimed that "more than 3,000
suspected terrorists" had been arrested worldwide – "and many others
have met a different fate." His face then took on the characteristic
leer, the strange, sickly half-smile it acquires whenever he speaks of
killing people: "Let's put it this way. They are no longer a problem."
In other words, the
suspects – and even Bush acknowledged they were only suspects – had
been murdered. Lynched. Killed by agents operating unsupervised in that
shadow world where intelligence, terrorism, politics, finance and
organized crime meld together in one amorphous, impenetrable mass.
Killed on the word of a dubious informer,
perhaps: a tortured captive willing to say anything to end his torment,
a business rival, a personal foe, a bureaucrat looking to impress his
superiors, a paid snitch in need of cash, a zealous crank pursuing
ethnic, tribal or religious hatreds – or any other purveyor of the
garbage data that is coin of the realm in the shadow world.
Bush proudly held up
this hideous system as an example of what he called "the meaning of
American justice." And the assembled legislators…applauded. Oh, how
they applauded! They roared with glee at the leering little man's
bloodthirsty, B-movie machismo. They shared his sneering contempt for
law – our only shield, however imperfect, against the blind, brute,
ignorant, ape-like force of raw power. Not a single voice among them
was raised in protest against this tyrannical machtpolitik: not that night, not the next day, not ever.