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Why We Need Fiercely Independent Media Critics

By: Norman Solomon Sunday April 13, 2014 4:03 pm

The most renowned media critics are usually superficial and craven. That’s because — as one of the greatest in the 20th century, George Seldes, put it — “the most sacred cow of the press is the press itself.”

Upton Sinclair

Society needs strong, independent media critics like Upton Sinclair.

No institutions are more image-conscious than big media outlets. The people running them know the crucial importance of spin, and they’ll be damned if they’re going to promote media criticism that undermines their own pretenses.

To reach the broad public, critics of the media establishment need amplification from . . . the media establishment. And that rarely happens unless the critique is shallow.

The exceptions can be valuable. The New York Times publishes articles by a “public editor” — an independent contractor whose “opinions and conclusions are her own” — and the person now in that role, Margaret Sullivan, provides some cogent scrutiny of the newspaper’s coverage.

But on the whole, the media critics boosted by big media — inward-facing ombudspersons and outward-facing journalists on a media beat — have been conformists who don’t step outside the shadows cast by the institutions paying their salaries. And they’re not inclined to question the corporate prerogatives of other media firms; people in glass skyscrapers don’t throw weighty stones.

A year ago, the Washington Post, then still under the ownership of the Graham family, abolished the ombudsperson job at the newspaper after four decades of filling the position with a rotating succession of seasoned — and conformist — journalists. The change was a new twist in a downward spiral, but it wasn’t much of a loss for readers.

The Post’s first ombudsman, who took the job in 1970, went on to many years of management roles for the Washington Post Company and then returned to being the ombudsman in the late 1980s. During his second act, he wrote columns denouncing the Newspaper Guild union that was in conflict with the company — while he praised the firm’s management.

In sharp contrast, the best media critics are truly independent. And so, they’re rarely seen or heard via large media outlets.

The death of Doug Ireland six months ago brought back vivid memories. Ireland was a first-rate media critic as well as a deft reporter, astute progressive strategist, path-breaking gay activist and incisive political analyst. Last fall, after he died, one moving tribute after another emerged.

Ireland’s work as a critic of U.S. news media shined fierce light on realities of propaganda systems in our midst. He was part of a precious continuum of media criticism from the political left over the last century. It’s a de facto tradition worth pondering, to grasp its historic vitality — and relevance in 2014.

A hundred years ago, Upton Sinclair made a pioneering jump that many others were to emulate in later decades. He was a writer who became an activist — including a media activist — as he realized that words on pages and volumes of books would not be enough to overcome the brutal greed of the era’s robber barons.

As a witness to atrocities against working people and their families, Sinclair launched a nonstop battle against the press lords and their most powerful wire service, the Associated Press. Sinclair’s 1919 book The Brass Check – self-published and widely read — was a manifesto against the entire capitalist media system of the day. If the prisoners of starvation and exploitation were to arise, they needed to overcome the weaponry of lies, distortions and omissions.

Into the footsteps of Upton Sinclair walked someone who came to media activism not as a novelist but as a journalist. The young reporter George Seldes had covered World War I for the Chicago Tribune and later became the paper’s Berlin bureau chief. Beginning in 1921, Seldes covered the nascent Soviet Union for two years before his stories about suppression of non-Bolshevik revolutionaries got him kicked out of the country.

The Feinstein Syndrome: “The Fourth Amendment for Me, But Not for Thee”

By: Norman Solomon Wednesday March 12, 2014 12:05 pm

Who knows, soon we might see headlines and cable TV shows asking: “Is Dianne Feinstein a whistleblower or a traitor?”

Mural: Hero Chelsea Manning

Don’t confuse Feinstein with real whistleblower heroes.

A truthful answer to that question could not possibly be “whistleblower.” It may already be a historic fact that Senator Feinstein’s speech on March 11, 2014 blew a whistle on CIA surveillance of the Senate intelligence committee, which she chairs. But if that makes her a whistleblower, then Colonel Sanders is a vegetarian evangelist.

In her blockbuster Tuesday speech on the Senate floor, Feinstein charged that the CIA’s intrusions on her committee’s computers quite possibly “violated the Fourth Amendment.” You know, that’s the precious amendment that Feinstein — more than any other senator — has powerfully treated like dirt, worthy only of sweeping under the congressional rug.

A tidy defender of the NSA’s Orwellian programs, Feinstein went on the attack against Edward Snowden from the outset of his revelations last June. Within days, she denounced his brave whistleblowing as “an act of treason” — a position she has maintained.

Snowden and other genuine whistleblowers actually take risks to defend the civil liberties and human rights of others, including the most vulnerable among us. Real whistleblowers choose to expose serious wrongdoing. And, if applicable, they renounce their own past complicity in doing those wrongs.

Dianne Feinstein remains in a very different place. She’s 180 degrees from a whistleblower orientation; her moral compass is magnetized with solipsism as a leading guardian of the surveillance state.

This week, Feinstein stepped forward to tweak her tap dance — insisting that intrusive surveillance, so vile when directed at her and colleagues with august stature, must only be directed at others.

A huge problem is that for the USA’s top movers and shakers in media and politics, nothing rises to the level of constitutional crisis unless their noble oxen start to get gored. It doesn’t seem to dawn on the likes of Senator Feinstein that Fourth Amendment protections for the few are not Fourth Amendment protections at all.

More than 40 years ago, under the Nixon administration — when the U.S. government was breaking into the offices of the Socialist Workers Party, busting into the homes of members of the Black Panther Party in the middle of night with guns firing, and widely shredding the civil liberties of anti-war activists — few among ruling elites seemed to give a damn. But when news emerged that one of the two big political parties had severely transgressed against the other with a break-in at the Watergate office of the Democratic National Committee on June 17, 1972, the Republican White House had gone too far.

As spring 2014 gets underway, we might be nearing a pivotal moment when major sectors of the establishment feel compelled to recognize the arrival of a constitutional crisis. Consider how the New York Times editorialized in its Wednesday edition, declaring that Feinstein “has provided stark and convincing evidence that the CIA may have committed crimes to prevent the exposure of interrogations that she said were ‘far different and far more harsh’ than anything the agency had described to Congress.”

In the euphemism lexicon of official Washington, “far different and far more harsh” refers to outright torture by the U.S. government.

At the surveillance-state garrison known as the Washington Post, where cognitive dissonance must be something fierce right now, quickly out of the box was conventional-wisdom columnist Dana Milbank, who portrayed Feinstein as a savvy and angelic force to be reckoned with. The adulatory logic was classic for journalists who like to conflate complicity with credibility.

Noting Feinstein’s record as “an ally of Obama and a staunch defender of the administration during the controversy over the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs,” Milbank wrote: “So her credibility could not be questioned when she went public, reluctantly, to accuse Obama’s CIA of illegal and unconstitutional actions: violating the separation of powers by searching the committee’s computers and intimidating congressional staffers with bogus legal threats.”

News media accounts are filled with such statements right now. On the surface, they make sense — but there’s a pernicious undertow. With the underlying logic, the only time we could become sure that Wall Street malfeasance was a real problem would be if someone with the stature of Bernie Madoff stepped up to condemn it in no uncertain terms.

History tells us that we’d be deluded to depend on entrenched elites to opt for principle rather than continuity of the status quo. With few exceptions, what bonds those at peaks of power routinely trumps what divides them. It takes a massive and sustained uproar to really fracture the perversity of elite cohesion.

Consider the fact that the CIA, under the current Democratic administration, has gone to extraordinary lengths to transgress against a CIA-friendly Democratic-controlled Senate intelligence committee, in an effort to prevent anyone from being held accountable for crimes of torture committed under and by the Republican Bush administration.

While Dianne Feinstein has a long and putrid record as an enemy of civil liberties, transparency and accountability, it’s also true that thieves sometimes fall out — and so do violators of the most basic democratic safeguards in the Bill of Rights. Some powerful “intelligence” scoundrels are now at each other’s throats, even while continuing to brandish daggers at the heart of democracy with their contempt for such ideals as a free press, privacy and due process. The responsibility for all this goes to the very top: President Obama.

Photo by Timothy Krause released under a Creative Commons license.

Hillary Clinton: Playing a Dog-Eared “Hitler” Card

By: Norman Solomon Friday March 7, 2014 4:32 am

The frontrunner to become the next president of the United States is playing an old and dangerous political game — comparing a foreign leader to Adolf Hitler.

At a private charity event on Tuesday, in comments preserved on audio, Hillary Clinton talked about actions by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in the Crimea. “Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the ’30s,” she said.

The next day, Clinton gave the inflammatory story more oxygen when speaking at UCLA. She “largely stood by the remarks,” the Washington Post reported. Clinton “said she was merely noting parallels between Putin’s claim that he was protecting Russian-speaking minorities in Crimea and Hitler’s moves into Poland, Czechoslovakia and other parts of Europe to protect German minorities.”

Clinton denied that she was comparing Putin with Hitler even while she persisted in comparing Putin with Hitler. “I just want people to have a little historic perspective,” she said. “I’m not making a comparison certainly, but I am recommending that we perhaps can learn from this tactic that has been used before.”

Yes indeed. Let’s learn from this tactic that has been used before – the tactic of comparing overseas adversaries to Hitler. Such comparisons by U.S. political leaders have a long history of fueling momentum for war.

“Surrender in Vietnam” would not bring peace, President Lyndon Johnson said at a news conference on July 28, 1965 as he tried to justify escalating the war, “because we learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression.”

After Ho Chi Minh was gone, the Hitler analogy went to other leaders of countries in U.S. crosshairs. The tag was also useful when attached to governments facing U.S.-backed armies.

Three decades ago, while Washington funded the contra forces in Nicaragua, absurd efforts to smear the elected left-wing Sandinistas knew no rhetorical bounds. Secretary of State George Shultz said on February 15, 1984, at a speech in Boston: “I’ve had good friends who experienced Germany in the 1930s go there and come back and say, ‘I’ve visited many communist countries, but Nicaragua doesn’t feel like that. It feels like Nazi Germany.’”

Washington embraced Panama’s Gen. Manuel Noriega as an ally, and for a while he was a CIA collaborator. But there was a falling out, and tension spiked in the summer of 1989. Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said that drug trafficking by Noriega “is aggression as surely as Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland 50 years ago was aggression.” A U.S. invasion overthrew Noriega in December 1989.

In early August 1990, the sudden Iraqi invasion of Kuwait abruptly ended cordial relations between Washington and Baghdad. The two governments had a history of close cooperation during the 1980s. But President George H. W. Bush proclaimed that Saddam Hussein was “a little Hitler.” In January 1991, the U.S. government launched the Gulf War.

Near the end of the decade, Hillary Clinton got a close look at how useful it can be to conflate a foreign leader with Hitler, as President Bill Clinton and top aides repeatedly drew the parallel against Serbia’s president, Slobodan Milosevic. In late March 1999, the day before the bombing of Kosovo and Serbia began, President Clinton said in a speech: “And so I want to talk to you about Kosovo today but just remember this — it’s about our values. What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier?”

As the U.S.-led NATO bombing intensified, so did efforts to justify it with references to Hitler. “Clinton and his senior advisers harked repeatedly back to images of World War II and Nazism to give moral weight to the bombing,” the Washington Post reported. Vice President Al Gore chimed in for the war chorus, calling Milosevic “one of these junior-league Hitler types.”

Just a few years later, the George W. Bush administration cranked up a revival of Saddam-Hitler comparisons. They became commonplace.

Five months before the invasion of Iraq, it was nothing extraordinary when a leading congressional Democrat pulled out all the stops. “Had Hitler’s regime been taken out in a timely fashion,” said Rep. Tom Lantos, “the 51 million innocent people who lost their lives during the Second World War would have been able to finish their normal life cycles. Mr. Chairman, if we appease Saddam Hussein, we will stand humiliated before both humanity and history.”

From the Vietnam War to the Iraq War, facile and wildly inaccurate comparisons between foreign adversaries and Adolf Hitler have served the interests of politicians hell-bent on propelling the United States into war. Often, those politicians succeeded. The carnage and the endless suffering have been vast.

Now, Hillary Clinton is ratcheting up her own Hitler analogies. She knows as well as anyone the power they can generate for demonizing a targeted leader.

With the largest nuclear arsenals on the planet, the United States and Russia have the entire world on a horrific knife’s edge. Nuclear saber-rattling is implicit in what the prospective President Hillary Clinton has done in recent days, going out of her way to tar Russia’s president with a Hitler brush. Her eagerness to heighten tensions with Russia indicates that she is willing to risk war — and even nuclear holocaust — for the benefit of her political ambitions.

 

Heard the One About Obama Denouncing a Breach of International Law?

By: Norman Solomon Monday March 3, 2014 4:49 am

International law is suddenly very popular in Washington. President Obama responded to Russian military intervention in the Crimea by accusing Russia of a “breach of international law.” Secretary of State John Kerry followed up by declaring that Russia is “in direct, overt violation of international law.”

Unfortunately, during the last five years, no world leader has done more to undermine international law than Barack Obama. He treats it with rhetorical adulation and behavioral contempt, helping to further normalize a might-makes-right approach to global affairs that is the antithesis of international law.

Fifty years ago, another former law professor, Senator Wayne Morse, condemned such arrogance of power. “I don’t know why we think, just because we’re mighty, that we have the right to try to substitute might for right,” Morse said on national TV in 1964. “And that’s the American policy in Southeast Asia — just as unsound when we do it as when Russia does it.”

Today, Uncle Sam continues to preen as the globe’s big sheriff on the side of international law even while functioning as the world’s biggest outlaw.

Rather than striving for an evenhanded assessment of how “international law” has become so much coin of the hypocrisy realm, mainline U.S. media are now transfixed with Kremlin villainy.

On Sunday night, the top of the New York Times home page reported: “Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has pursued his strategy with subterfuge, propaganda and brazen military threat, taking aim as much at the United States and Europe as Ukraine itself.” That was news coverage.

Following close behind, a Times editorial appeared in print Monday morning, headlined “Russia’s Aggression,” condemning “Putin’s cynical and outrageous exploitation of the Ukrainian crisis to seize control of Crimea.” The liberal newspaper’s editorial board said that the United States and the European Union “must make clear to him that he has stepped far outside the bounds of civilized behavior.”

Such demands are righteous — but lack integrity and credibility when the same standards are not applied to President Obama, whose continuation of the Bush “war on terror” under revamped rhetoric has bypassed international law as well as “civilized behavior.”

In these circumstances, major U.S. media coverage rarely extends to delving into deviational irony or spotlighting White House hypocrisy. Yet it’s not as if large media outlets have entirely excluded key information and tough criticism.

For instance, last October the McClatchy news service reported that “the Obama administration violated international law with top-secret targeted-killing operations that claimed dozens of civilian lives in Yemen and Pakistan,” according to reports released by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Last week, just before Obama leapt to high dudgeon with condemnation of Putin for his “breach of international law,” the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed piece that provided illuminating context for such presidential righteousness.

“Despite the president’s insistence on placing limits on war, and on the defense budget, his brand of warfare has helped lay the basis for a permanent state of global warfare via ‘low footprint’ drone campaigns and special forces operations aimed at an ever-morphing enemy usually identified as some form of Al Qaeda,” wrote Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University’s law school.

Greenberg went on to indicate the scope of the U.S. government’s ongoing contempt for international law: “According to Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the Obama administration has killed 4,700 individuals in numerous countries, including Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Obama has successfully embedded the process of drone killings into the executive branch in such a way that any future president will inherit it, along with the White House ‘kill list’ and its ‘terror Tuesday’ meetings. Unbounded global war is now part of what it means to be president.”

But especially in times of crisis, as with the current Ukraine situation, such inconvenient contradictions go out the mass-media window. What remains is an Orwellian baseline, melding conformist ideology and nationalism into red-white-and-blue doublethink.

Why Amazon’s Collaboration with the CIA Is So Ominous — and Vulnerable

By: Norman Solomon Thursday February 20, 2014 1:41 pm

As the world’s biggest online retailer, Amazon wants a benevolent image to encourage trust from customers. Obtaining vast quantities of their personal information has been central to the firm’s business model. But Amazon is diversifying — and a few months ago the company signed a $600 million contract with the Central Intelligence Agency to provide “cloud computing” services.

The CIA Seal

A collaboration between the CIA and Amazon.com could have far-reaching consequences.

Amazon now has the means, motive and opportunity to provide huge amounts of customer information to its new business partner. An official statement from Amazon headquarters last fall declared: “We look forward to a successful relationship with the CIA.”

The Central Intelligence Agency has plenty of money to throw around. Thanks to documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, we know that the CIA’s annual budget is $14.7 billion; the NSA’s is $10.8 billion.

The founder and CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, is bullish on the company’s prospects for building on its initial contract with the CIA. As you might expect from a gung-ho capitalist with about $25 billion in personal wealth, Bezos figures he’s just getting started.

Bezos publicly savors the fact that Amazon has proven its digital prowess — aggregating, safeguarding and analyzing many billions of factoids about human beings — to the satisfaction of the CIA.

The company’s Amazon Web Services division is “the leader in infrastructure cloud computing,” Bezos boasted at a September 2013 meeting with journalists at the Washington Post (shortly after he bought the newspaper). He lauded the high “rate of invention” of Amazon’s technical web team, adding: “Their product offering is far ahead of anyone else.”

Apparently the CIA agrees. The agency gave Amazon the contract for $600 million even though it wasn’t the lowest bid.

Amazon’s trajectory into the CIA’s spooky arms may be a bit more than just corporate eagerness to land a lucrative contract. In late 2010 — amid intense public interest in documents that WikiLeaks was posting to illuminate U.S. actions overseas — Amazon took a notable step. As the Guardian reported at the time, Amazon “pulled the plug on hosting the whistleblowing website in reaction to heavy political pressure.”

It didn’t take much for Amazon to cave. “The company announced it was cutting WikiLeaks off … only 24 hours after being contacted by the staff of Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate’s committee on homeland security,” the Guardian noted.

In view of Amazon’s eagerness to dump the WikiLeaks site at the behest of U.S. government officials, what else might the Amazon hierarchy be willing to do? Amazon maintains a humongous trove of detailed information about hundreds of millions of people. Are we to believe that the CIA and other intelligence agencies have no interest in Amazon’s data?

Even at face value, Amazon’s “Privacy Notice” has loopholes big enough to fly a drone through. It says: “We release account and other personal information when we believe release is appropriate to comply with the law; enforce or apply our Conditions of Use and other agreements; or protect the rights, property, or safety of Amazon.com, our users, or others.”

Amazon now averages 162 million unique visitors to its sites every month. Meanwhile, the CIA depends on gathering and analyzing data to serve U.S. military interventions overseas. During the last dozen years, the CIA has conducted ongoing drone strikes and covert lethal missions in many countries. At the same time, U.S. agencies like the CIA and NSA have flattened many previous obstacles to Big Brother behavior.

And now, Amazon is hosting a huge computing cloud for the CIA’s secrets — a digital place where data for mass surveillance and perpetual war are converging.

If Obama Orders the CIA to Kill a U.S. Citizen, Amazon Will Be a Partner in Assassination

By: Norman Solomon Wednesday February 12, 2014 2:37 pm

 

President Obama is now considering whether to order the Central Intelligence Agency to kill a U.S. citizen in Pakistan. That’s big news this week. But hidden in plain sight is the fact that Amazon would be an accessory to the assassination.

Amazon has a $600 million contract with the CIA to provide the agency with “cloud” computing services. After final confirmation of the deal several months ago, Amazon declared: “We look forward to a successful relationship with the CIA.”

The relationship means that Amazon — logoed with a smiley-face arrow from A to Z, selling products to millions of people every week — is responsible for keeping the CIA’s secrets and aggregating data to help the agency do its work. Including drone strikes.

Drone attacks in Pakistan are “an entirely CIA operation,” New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti said Tuesday night in an interview on the PBS NewsHour. He added that “the Pakistani government will not allow the [U.S.] military to take over the mission because they want to still have the sort of veneer of secrecy that the CIA provides.”

The sinister implications of Amazon’s new CIA role have received scant public attention so far.

As the largest Web retailer in the world, Amazon has built its business model on the secure accumulation and analysis of massive personal data. The firm’s Amazon Web Services division gained the CIA contract amid fervent hopes that the collaboration will open up vast new vistas for the further melding of surveillance and warfare.

Notably, Amazon did not submit the low bid for the $600 million contract. The firm won the deal after persuading the CIA of its superior technical capacities in digital realms.

Amazon is now integral to the U.S. government’s foreign policy of threatening and killing.

Any presidential decision to take the life of an American citizen is a subset of a much larger grave problem. Whatever the nationality of those who hear the menacing buzz of a drone overhead, the hijacking of skies to threaten and kill those below is unconscionable. And, as presently implemented, unconstitutional.

On Feb. 11 the Times reported that the Obama administration “is debating whether to authorize a lethal strike against an American citizen living in Pakistan who some believe is actively plotting terrorist attacks.” In effect, at issue is whether the president should order a summary execution — an assassination — on his say-so.

The American way isn’t supposed to be that way. The “due process of law” required by the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution is not supposed to be whatever the president decides to do.

A free and independent press is crucial for confronting such dire trends. But structural factors of corporate power continue to undermine the potential of journalism. The Washington Post is a grim case in point.

Six months ago, Jeff Bezos — the CEO and main stakeholder of Amazon — bought the Post. But the newspaper’s ongoing CIA-related coverage does not inform readers that the CIA’s big contract with Amazon is adding to the personal wealth of the Post’s sole owner.

This refusal to make such conflict-of-interest disclosures is much more than journalistic evasion for the sake of appearances. It’s a marker for more consolidation of corporate mega-media power with government power. The leverage from such convergence is becoming ever-less acknowledged or conspicuous as it becomes ever-more routine and dominant.

After e-mail correspondence with me about the non-disclosure issue in early January, the executive editor of the Washington Post, Martin Baron, declined to answer questions from media outlets on the subject. On Jan. 15 — when I delivered a RootsAction.org petition under the heading “Washington Post: Readers Deserve Full Disclosure in Coverage of CIA,” signed by 30,000 people, to the newspaper’s headquarters — Baron declined to meet with me or designate any employee to receive the petition. Clearly the Post management wants this issue to go away.

But, as I wrote to Baron last month, it’s all too convenient — and implausible — for the Washington Post to claim that there would be “no direct relevance of the [Amazon-CIA] cloud services contract to coverage of such matters as CIA involvement in rendition of prisoners to regimes for torture; or in targeting for drone strikes; or in data aggregation for counterinsurgency.”

The surveillance state and the warfare state continue to converge. The Washington Post does not want us to insist on journalistic disclosure. Amazon does not want us to insist on moral accountability. President Obama does not want us to insist on basic constitutionality. It would be a shame to oblige any of them.

Norman Solomon is co-founder of RootsAction.org.

Cut Off the NSA’s Juice

By: Norman Solomon Monday January 27, 2014 12:56 pm

The National Security Agency depends on huge computers that guzzle electricity in the service of the surveillance state. For the NSA’s top executives, maintaining a vast flow of juice to keep Big Brother nourished is essential — and any interference with that flow is unthinkable.

Cut the Power

But interference isn’t unthinkable. And in fact, it may be doable.

Grassroots activists have begun to realize the potential to put the NSA on the defensive in nearly a dozen states where the agency is known to be running surveillance facilities, integral to its worldwide snoop operations.

Organizers have begun to push for action by state legislatures to impede the electric, water and other services that sustain the NSA’s secretive outposts.

Those efforts are farthest along in the state of Washington, where a new bill in the legislature — the Fourth Amendment Protection Act — is a statutory nightmare for the NSA. The agency has a listening post in Yakima, in the south-central part of the state.

The bill throws down a challenge to the NSA, seeking to block all state support for NSA activities violating the Fourth Amendment. For instance, that could mean a cutoff of electricity or water or other state-government services to the NSA site. And the measure also provides for withholding other forms of support, such as research and partnerships with state universities.

Here’s the crux of the bill:

It is the policy of this state to refuse material support, participation, or assistance to any federal agency which claims the power, or with any federal law, rule, regulation, or order which purports to authorize, the collection of electronic data or metadata of any person pursuant to any action not based on a warrant that particularly describes the person, place, and thing to be searched or seized.

If the windup of that long sentence has a familiar ring, it should. The final dozen words are almost identical to key phrases in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In recent days, more than 15,000 people have signed a petition expressing support for the legislation. Launched by RootsAction.org, the petition is addressed to the bill’s two sponsors in the Washington legislature — Republican Rep. David Taylor, whose district includes the NSA facility in Yakima, and Democrat Luis Moscoso from the Seattle area.

Meanwhile, a similar bill with the same title has just been introduced in the Tennessee legislature — taking aim at the NSA’s center based in Oak Ridge, Tenn. That NSA facility is a doozy: with several hundred scientists and computer specialists working to push supercomputers into new realms of mega-surveillance capacities.

A new coalition, OffNow, is sharing information about model legislation. The group also points to known NSA locations in other states including Utah (in Bluffdale), Texas (San Antonio), Georgia (Augusta), Colorado (Aurora), Hawaii (Oahu) and West Virginia (Sugar Grove), along with the NSA’s massive headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland. Grassroots action and legislative measures are also stirring in several of those states.

One of the key organizations in such efforts is the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, where legal fellow Matthew Kellegrew told me that the OffNow coalition “represents the discontent of average people with … business-as-usual failure to rein in out-of-control domestic spying by the NSA and other federal departments like the FBI. It is a direct, unambiguous response to a direct, unambiguous threat to our civil liberties.”

In the process — working to counter the bipartisan surveillance-state leadership coming from the likes of President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, the House Intelligence Committee’s chair Mike Rogers and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s chair Dianne Feinstein — activists urging a halt to state-level support for the NSA include people who disagree on other matters but are determined to undermine the Big Brother hierarchies of both parties.

“By working together to tackle the erosion of the Fourth Amendment presented by bulk data collection,” Kellegrew said, “people from across partisan divides are resurrecting the lost art of collaboration and in the process, rehabilitating the possibility of a functional American political dialogue denied to the people by dysfunction majority partisan hackery.”

From another vantage point, this is an emerging faceoff between reliance on cynical violence and engagement in civic nonviolence.

Serving the warfare state and overall agendas for U.S. global dominance to the benefit of corporate elites, the NSA persists in doing violence to the Constitution’s civil-liberties amendments — chilling the First, smashing the Fourth and end-running the Fifth.

Meanwhile, a nascent constellation of movements is striving to thwart the surveillance state, the shadowy companion of perpetual war.

This is a struggle for power over what kind of future can be created for humanity.

It’s time to stop giving juice to Big Brother.

Norman Solomon is co-founder of RootsAction.org.

The Blind Alley of J Street and Liberal American Zionism

By: Norman Solomon Wednesday January 22, 2014 11:12 am

[This article was co-written by Abba A. Solomon and Norman Solomon.]

Since its founding six years ago, J Street has emerged as a major Jewish organization under the banner “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace.” By now J Street is able to be a partial counterweight to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The contrast between the two U.S. groups is sometimes stark. J Street applauds diplomacy with Iran, while AIPAC works to undermine it. J Street encourages U.S. support for “the peace process” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, while AIPAC opposes any meaningful Israeli concessions. In the pressure cooker of Washington politics, J Street’s emergence has been mostly positive. But what does its motto “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” really mean?

That question calls for grasping the context of Zionism among Jews in the United States — aspects of history, largely obscured and left to archives, that can shed light on J Street’s current political role. Extolling President Obama’s policies while urging him to intensify efforts to resolve Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, the organization has staked out positions apt to sound humanistic and fresh. Yet J Street’s leaders are far from the first prominent American Jews who have struggled to square the circles of the moral contradictions of a “Jewish state” in Palestine.

Our research in the archives of the American Jewish Committee in New York City, Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere shows that J Street is adhering to — and working to reinforce — limits that major Jewish organizations adopted midway through the 20th century. Momentum for creation of the State of Israel required some hard choices for groups such as the influential AJC, which adjusted to the triumph of an ideology — militant Jewish nationalism — that it did not share. Such accommodation meant acceding to an outward consensus while suppressing debate on its implications within Jewish communities in the United States.

In 1945, AJC staff had discussed the probability of increased bloodshed in Palestine — and a likelihood of “Judaism, as a whole, being held morally responsible for the fallacies of Zionism.” In exchange for AJC support in 1947 for UN partition of Palestine, the AJC extracted this promise from the Jewish Agency: “The so-called Jewish State is not to be called by that name but will bear some appropriate geographical designation. It will be Jewish only in the sense that the Jews will form a majority of the population.”

A January 1948 position paper in AJC records spoke of “extreme Zionists” then ascendant among Jews in Palestine and the United States: The paper warned that they served “no less monstrosity than the idol of the State as the complete master not only over its own immediate subjects but also over every living Jewish body and soul the world over, beyond any consideration of good or evil. This mentality and program is the diametrical opposite to that of the American Jewish Committee.” The confidential document warned of “moral and political repercussions which may deeply affect both the Jewish position outside Palestine, and the character of the Jewish state in Palestine.” Such worries became more furtive after Israel became a nation later in 1948.

Privately, some leaders held out hope that constraints on public debate could coexist with continuing debate inside Jewish institutions. In 1950 the president of the American Jewish Committee, Jacob Blaustein, wrote in a letter to the head of an anti-Zionist organization, the American Council for Judaism, that the silencing of public dissent would not preclude discussion within the Yiddish-language and Jewish press. In effect, Blaustein contended that vigorous dialogue could continue among Jews but should be inaudible to gentiles. However, the mask of American Jewry would soon become its face. Concerns about growing Jewish nationalism became marginal, then unmentionable.

The recent dispute in the Jewish student group Hillel — whether its leadership can ban Hillel chapters on U.S. college campuses from hosting severe critics of Israeli policies — emerged from a long history of pressure on American Jews to accept Zionism and a “Jewish state” as integral to Judaism. The Jewish students now pushing to widen the bounds of acceptable discourse are challenging powerful legacies of conformity.

During the 1950s and later decades, the solution for avoiding an ugly rift was a kind of preventive surgery. Universalist, prophetic Judaism became a phantom limb of American Jewry, after an amputation in service of the ideology of an ethnic state in the Middle East. Pressures for conformity became overwhelming among American Jews, whose success had been predicated on the American ideal of equal rights regardless of ethnic group origin.

Generally flourishing in a country founded on the separation of religion and state, American Zionists dedicated themselves to an Israeli state based on the prerogatives of Jews. That Mobius strip could only be navigated by twisting logic into special endless dispensations for Jewish people. Narratives of historic Jewish vulnerability and horrific realities of the Holocaust became all-purpose justifications.

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As decades passed after the June 1967 war, while the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza wore on, younger American Jews slowly became less inclined to automatically support Israeli policies. Now, 65 years after the founding of Israel, the historic realities of displacement — traumatic for Palestinians while triumphant for many Jewish Israelis — haunt the territorial present that J Street seeks to navigate.

The organization’s avowed goal is an equitable peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians. But J Street’s pragmatic, organization-building strength is tied into its real-world moral liability: continuing to accept extremely skewed power relations in Palestine. The J Street leadership withholds from the range of prospective solutions the alternative of truly ending the legally and militarily enforced Jewish leverage over Palestinians, replete with the advantages of dominance (in sharp contrast to the precept of abandoning white privilege that was a requirement in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa).

Every conceptual lane of J Street equates being “pro-Israel” with maintaining the doctrine of a state where Jews are more equal than others. Looking to the past, that approach requires treating the historic Zionist conquest as somewhere between necessary and immaculate. Looking at the present and the future, that approach sees forthright opposition to the preeminence of Jewish rights as extreme or otherwise beyond the pale. And not “pro-Israel.”

Like the Obama administration, J Street is steadfast in advocating a “two-state solution” while trying to thwart the right-wing forces led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A goal is to reduce his leverage by altering the political environment he encounters in the United States, where AIPAC — riding high astride much of the U.S. Congress — is aligned with the hard right of Israeli politics. In contrast, J Street is aligned with a fuzzy center that copes with cognitive dissonance by embracing humane rhetoric about Palestinians while upholding subjugation of Palestinians’ rights.

At J Street’s 2011 conference, Rabbi David Saperstein congratulated the organization: “When the Jewish community needed someone to speak for them at the Presbyterian Convention against the divestment resolution, the community turned to J Street, who had the pro-peace credibility to stunt the efforts of the anti-Israeli forces, and they were compellingly effective. They did so at Berkeley on the bus ad fights, debating Jewish Voice for Peace.” Saperstein — a Reform Judaism leader described by Newsweek as the USA’s most influential rabbi — lauded J Street for its special function among “the strongly pro-Israel peace groups that have the credibility to stand before strongly dovish non-Jewish groups and guide them away from delegitimization efforts.”

Such praise for being a bulwark against “delegitimization” is a high compliment for J Street. And it is surely gratifying for its founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami. When he reaffirms “our commitment to and support for the people and the state of Israel,” he frames it in these terms: “We believe that the Jewish people — like all other people in the world — have the right to a national home of their own, and we celebrate its rebirth after thousands of years.” His official J Street bio says that “Ben-Ami’s family connection to Israel goes back 130 years to the first aliyah when his great-grandparents were among the first settlers in Petah Tikva [near present-day Tel Aviv]. His grandparents were one of the founding families of Tel Aviv, and his father was an activist and leader in the Irgun, working for Israel’s independence and on the rescue of European Jews before and during World War II.” Readers are left to ponder the reference to leadership of the ultranationalist Irgun, given its undisputed terrorist violence.

Whatever its differences with the Likudnik stances of AIPAC and Netanyahu, J Street joins in decrying the danger of the “delegitimization” of Israel — a word often deployed against questioning of Jewish privileges in Palestine maintained by armed force. In sync with U.S. foreign policy, J Street is enmeshed in assuming the validity of prerogatives that are embedded in Netanyahu’s demand for unequivocal support of Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” In the process, the secular USA massively supports a government that is using weapons of war emblazoned with symbols of the Jewish religion, while the U.S. Congress continues to designate Israel as a “strategic ally.” An AIPAC official was famously quoted by Jeffrey Goldberg as boasting, “You see this napkin? In 24 hours, we could have the signatures of 70 senators on this napkin.”

J Street is aligned with more “moderate” personalities in Israeli politics, but what is considered moderate Zionism in Israel may not match sensibilities outside Israel. On a J Street-sponsored U.S. speaking tour, Knesset member Adi Koll said she is pleased that Palestinian refugees from 1948 are dying off, which she portrayed as good for peace: “This is what we have been waiting for, for more and more of them to die,” to finalize the War of Independence expulsion of Palestinians. J Street’s Ben-Ami has warned of “the ‘one state nightmare’ — a minority of Jewish Israelis in a state with a majority of non-Jewish residents.” For J Street, an embrace of perpetual Jewish dominance as imperative seems to be a litmus test before any criticism of the occupation is to be deemed legitimate.

A human rights lawyer active with Jewish Voice for Peace, David L. Mandel, sees a double standard at work. “Too many progressives on everything else still are not progressive about Israel and Palestine,” he told us. “And J Street, by making it easier for them to appear to be critical, in fact serves as a roadblock on the path to a consistent, human rights and international law-based position.”

Covering J Street’s annual conference in September 2013, Mondoweiss.net editor Philip Weiss pointed out: “J Street still can claim to be a liberal Zionist organization that wants to pressure Israel to leave the settlements. But more than that it wants access to the Israeli establishment, and it is not going to alienate that establishment by advocating any measure that will isolate Israel or put real pressure on it.”

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While evocations of the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel may sound uplifting, J Street ultimately lets the Israeli government off the hook by declaring that relationship sacrosanct, no matter what. The organization insists that political candidates funded by J StreetPAC “must demonstrate that they support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, active U.S. leadership to help end the conflict, the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel, continued aid to the Palestinian Authority and opposition to the Boycott/Divestment/Sanction movement.”

The sanctity of the proviso about “the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel” became evident to one of us (Norman Solomon) while running for Congress in 2012 in California. After notification that J Street had decided to confer “On the Street” status on Solomon and another Democratic candidate in the primary race, the group’s leadership suddenly withdrew the stamp of approval — after discovering a Solomon op-ed piece written in July 2006 that criticized Washington’s support for the Israeli bombing of Lebanon then underway. In a specially convened conference call, J Street’s top leaders told the candidate that one statement in the op-ed was especially egregious: “The United States and Israel. Right now, it’s the most dangerous alliance in the world.”

In December 2013, while visiting Israel, Secretary of State John Kerry affirmed that “the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable.” He added that — despite occasional “tactical” differences — “we do not have a difference about the fundamental strategy that we both seek with respect to the security of Israel and the long-term peace of this region.”

Two days later, on Dec. 7 at a Saban Center gathering in Washington, Kerry joined with President Obama in paying tribute to the idea of a nation for Jews. Obama endorsed the goal of protecting “Israel as a Jewish state.” (He sat for an interview with billionaire Zionist Haim Saban, who joked: “Very obedient president I have here today!”) For his part, Kerry addressed Israeli ethnic anxiety by urging that Israel heed U.S. advice for withdrawal from some territory, to defuse what he called the “demographic time bomb” — non-Jewish births — threatening the existence of a “Jewish and democratic” state.

Although “militant Islam” is common coin in U.S. discourse about the Middle East, militant Jewish nationalism lacks a place in the conversation. This absence occurs despite — and perhaps because of — the fact that militant Jewish nationalism is such a powerful ideology in the United States, especially in Congress. Yet recent erosion of the taboo has caused some alarm. In May 2011 the Reut Institute, well-connected to the Israeli establishment, held a joint conference with the American Jewish Committee and met with smaller organizations to formalize a policy of  “establishing red-lines with regards to the discourse about Israel between legitimate criticism and acts of delegitimization.”

In its own way, J Street has laid down red-line markers along the left perimeter of American Zionism. For instance, some of the most telling moments of J Street’s existence came during the November 2012 Gaza crisis. As the conflict escalated, Israel threatened a ground invasion. J Street urged Israeli restraint but did not oppose the ongoing intense bombardment of Gaza. Instead, echoing President Obama, the organization endorsed Israel’s “right and obligation to defend itself against rocket fire and against those who refuse to recognize its right to exist and inexcusably use terror and violence to achieve their ends.”

J Street’s statement, titled “Enough of Silence,” eerily mirrored the brutal asymmetry of the warfare then raging — and, for that matter, the asymmetry of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While far more Palestinians than Israelis were dying (87 Palestinian and four Israeli noncombatants lost their lives, according to a report from the human-rights group B’Tselem), J Street condemned the killing by Palestinians but merely questioned the ultimate efficacy of the killing by Israelis. While J Street was appropriately repulsed by the bloodshed, it could not plead for reversal of the underlying, continuing injustice beyond its advocacy of a two-state solution. During the years ahead, J Street is likely to be instrumental in establishing and reinforcing such red lines.

A rare instance when J Street has not endorsed President Obama’s approach in the Middle East came in September 2013, when the administration pressed for U.S. missile strikes on Syria following claims that the Bashar al-Assad regime had used chemical weapons. J Street remained officially silent on the issue; Jeremy Ben-Ami reportedly pushed for endorsement of an attack, but many others in the organization were opposed. The Forward newspaper quoted a J Street activist: “Jeremy is a pragmatist. He wants to keep us as progressive as possible without going too far from the mainstream.”

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J Street is striving to support Israel differently than AIPAC: by fostering the more peaceful, humane streams of Zionism. But among new generations of U.S. Jews, the Zionist rationales for Israel as a whole are losing ground. In a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 93 percent of American Jews state they are proud of being part of the Jewish people — but only 43 percent say that “caring about” the State of Israel is essential to being a Jew, and the figure drops to 32 percent of respondents under 30 years old.

The Jewish establishment has always represented those Jews choosing to affiliate with institutionalized Judaism. More and more, this leaves out large numbers who don’t believe that blood-and-soil Jewish nationalism should crowd out their Jewish and universalist values. As the Pew survey shows, American Jews are less sympathetic than American Jewish organizations to enforcing Jewish political nationalism with armed force.

Last summer, Ben-Ami told the New Republic: “We are advocating for a balance between the security needs of Israel and the human rights of the Palestinians. It is by definition a moderate, centrist place.” Ben-Ami highlighted his strategy for practicality: “We have the ear of the White House; we have the ear of a very large segment of Congress at this point; we have very good relations with top communal leadership in the Jewish community. If you want to have a voice in those corridors of power, then get involved with J Street.”

We recently submitted three questions to Ben-Ami. Asked about the historic concerns that a “democratic Jewish state” would be self-contradictory, he replied: “J Street believes it is possible to reconcile the essence of Zionism, that Israel must be the national homeland of the Jewish people, and the key principles of its democracy, namely, that the state must provide justice and equal rights for all its citizens. In the long run, Israel can only manage the tension between these two principles if there is a homeland for the Palestinian people alongside Israel.”

Asked whether relations with non-Jewish Palestinians would be better now if Jewish leaders who favored creation of a non-ethnically-based state had prevailed, Ben-Ami did not respond directly. Instead, he affirmed support for a two-state solution and commented: “History has sadly and repeatedly proven the necessity of a nation-state for the Jewish people. J Street today is focused on building support in the American Jewish community for the creation of a nation-state for the Palestinian people alongside Israel — precisely because it is so necessary if Israel is to continue to be the national home of the Jewish people.”

The shortest — and perhaps the most significant — reply came when we asked: “Do you believe it is fair to say that the Israeli government has engaged in ethnic cleansing?”

Ben-Ami responded with one word. “No.”

“They have destroyed and are destroying … and do not know it and do not want to know it,” James Baldwin wrote several decades ago. “But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” Those who have seen to the devastation of “others” — and have even celebrated overall results of the process — cannot begin to atone or make amends without some genuine remorse. With a pose of innocence, in the absence of remorse, the foundation of J Street’s position is denial of the ethnic cleansing that necessarily enabled Israel to become what it is now, officially calling itself a “Jewish and democratic state.”

Population transfer of Arabs was part of the planning of Zionist leadership, and it was implemented. Benny Morris, the pioneering Israeli historian of the ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Israel, said: “Ben-Gurion was right. If he had not done what he did, a state would not have come into being. That has to be clear. It is impossible to evade it. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here.”

In a talk five decades ago at Hillel House at the University of Chicago, philosopher Leo Strauss mentioned that Leon Pinsker’s Zionist manifesto “Autoemancipation,” published in 1882, quotes the classic Hillel statement “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if not now, when?” — but leaves out the middle of the sequence, “If I am only for myself, what am I?”

“The omission of these words,” Strauss said, “is the definition of pureblooded political Zionism.”

The full integrity of Rabbi Hillel’s complete statement — urging Jews not to be “only for myself” — is explicit in the avowed mission of J Street. But there is unintended symbolism in the organization’s name, which partly serves as an inside Washington joke. The absence of an actual J Street between I and K Streets is, so to speak, a fact on the ground. And sadly, the group’s political vision of “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” is as much a phantom as the nonexistent lettered street between I and K in the Nation’s Capital; unless “peace” is to be understood along the lines of the observation by Carl von Clausewitz that “a conqueror is always a lover of peace.” 

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Abba A. Solomon is the author of “The Speech, and Its Context: Jacob Blaustein’s Speech ‘The Meaning of Palestine Partition to American Jews.’” Norman Solomon is the founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, cofounder of RootsAction.org and the author of “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.”