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Pratap Chatterjee: The Jason Bourne Strategy

7:35 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note from Tom: A death can feel like an archive closing forever on some aspect of your life.  Such is the case for me with the death of Andre Schiffrin.  If you’ll all excuse me, I want to note his passing briefly here:

Secret Agent

Does the CIA think it’s in a Hollywood movie?

This won’t mean much to most of you, but Andre, publisher of Pantheon Books and my boss for 15 years, the person who, in 1976, hired me when there was really no obvious reason to do so and, more than anyone else, let me become what I am today, died last weekend. It’s a moment of genuine sadness for me, an indication that an era — my own in many ways, though he was nine years older than me — has ended. The world of books is unimaginable (to me) without him. Without him, Studs Terkel might never have done his oral histories and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the “first graphic novel,” might never have been published. (He let me do Spiegelman’s masterpiece when, in embryonic form, it had been turned down by every major publishing house in New York.)

I first spent time with Andre in 1971 after I had published an essay, “Ambush at Kamikaze Pass,” in the single most obscure journal on the planet, The Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars. He nonetheless read it and invited me to lunch to urge me to turn it into a book, something I couldn’t faintly imagine doing at the time. I did, however, finally come to agree with him and wrote that book, which was published in 1995 as The End of Victory Culture.  In other words, with my project as with so much else in the world of books, he was a man almost 25 years ahead of his time.

Ariel Dorfman, a writer whose work I published early on in my tenure at Pantheon, wrote me this after Andre’s death: “His existence changed our lives, just by giving you free rein at Pantheon to believe in a young exiled writer.” He couldn’t have been more on the mark. 
Andre’s New York Times obituary offered the gist of his life and the sense that he was a great one. It missed, however, his risk-taking nature and his radical view of what might matter to our world.  It also provided a less than satisfactory account of how the right-wing owner of the conglomerate that housed Pantheon made use of a politically inauspicious time for a small left-wing publishing outfit to push him out of his job (after which we, his loyal editors and employees, quit in protest). Still, no complaints here. The world and the man that made me are both history. What more is there to say at the moment?]

Someone should launch a feature somewhere on American foreign and war policy under the rubric: How could anything possibly go wrong?  Here are just two recent examples.

The Obama administration intervenes militarily in Libya, plays a significant role in overthrowing the autocrat who runs the country as a police state, and helps unleash chaos in its wake. The streets of Libyan cities fill with militias as the new government’s control of the situation fades to next to nil. Which brings us to our present moment, when a panicky Washington decides that what’s needed is yet another, different kind of intervention. The plan seems to be to compete with various local and Islamic militias by creating a government militia as the core of a new “national army.” Its members are to be drawn from already existing militias and they’ll be trained somewhere outside of Libya. What an idea! Honestly, what could possibly go wrong?

Or consider this: Washington begins to panic about heightening tensions between Japan and China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.  The problem, reports David Sanger of the New York Times, based on what Obama administration officials have told him, is that the conflict could escalate and so “derail their complex plan to manage China’s rise without overtly trying to contain it.”  Now, let’s get this straight: before things began to run off the rails in the East China Sea, the Obama administration was confidently planning to “manage” the rise of the next superpower on a planet already in such tumult that what being a new great power might even mean is open to question. And keep in mind that we’re talking about an administration that couldn’t manage the rollout of a website.  What could possibly go wrong?

Both examples highlight the strange combination of hubris and panic that, as TomDispatch regular Pratap Chatterjee points out today, seems to be the essence of so many of Washington’s plans and actions at the moment.  The urge to “manage” is invariably followed by shock at the unmanageability of this roiling globe of ours, followed by panic over plans gone desperately awry when things begin, utterly predictably, to happen unpredictably, followed of course by the next set of managerial plans.  Is there no learning curve in Washington? Tom

Hollywood Without the Happy Ending
How the CIA Bungled the War on Terror
By Pratap Chatterjee

Call it the Jason Bourne strategy.

Think of it as the CIA’s plunge into Hollywood — or into the absurd.  As recent revelations have made clear, that Agency’s moves couldn’t be have been more far-fetched or more real.  In its post-9/11 global shadow war, it has employed both private contractors and some of the world’s most notorious prisoners in ways that leave the latest episode of the Bourne films in the dust: hired gunmen trained to kill as well as former inmates who cashed in on the notoriety of having worn an orange jumpsuit in the world’s most infamous jail.

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Tom Engelhardt, Alone and Delusional on Planet Earth

6:00 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

And Then There Was One 

Delusional Thinking in the Age of the Single Superpower
By Tom Engelhardt

Tattered American Flag

Tom Engelhardt on the madness of the world’s lone superpower.

In an increasingly phantasmagorical world, here’s my present fantasy of choice: someone from General Keith Alexander’s outfit, the National Security Agency, tracks down H.G. Wells’s time machine in the attic of an old house in London. Britain’s subservient Government Communications Headquarters, its version of the NSA, is paid off and the contraption is flown to Fort Meade, Maryland, where it’s put back in working order. Alexander then revs it up and heads not into the future like Wells to see how our world ends, but into the past to offer a warning to Americans about what’s to come.

He arrives in Washington on October 23, 1962, in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a day after President Kennedy has addressed the American people on national television to tell them that this planet might not be theirs — or anyone else’s — for long. (“We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced.”) Greeted with amazement by the Washington elite, Alexander, too, goes on television and informs the same public that, in 2013, the major enemy of the United States will no longer be the Soviet Union, but an outfit called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and that the headquarters of our country’s preeminent foe will be found somewhere in the rural backlands of… Yemen.

Yes, Yemen, a place most Americans, then and now, would be challenged to find on a world map. I guarantee you one thing: had such an announcement actually been made that day, most Americans would undoubtedly have dropped to their knees and thanked God for His blessings on the American nation. Though even then a nonbeliever, I would undoubtedly have been among them. After all, the 18-year-old Tom Engelhardt, on hearing Kennedy’s address, genuinely feared that he and the few pathetic dreams of a future he had been able to conjure up were toast.

Had Alexander added that, in the face of AQAP and similar minor jihadist enemies scattered in the backlands of parts of the planet, the U.S. had built up its military, intelligence, and surveillance powers beyond anything ever conceived of in the Cold War or possibly in the history of the planet, Americans of that time would undoubtedly have considered him delusional and committed him to an asylum.

Such, however, is our world more than two decades after Eastern Europe was liberated, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War definitively ended, and the Soviet Union disappeared.

Why Orwell Was Wrong

Now, let me mention another fantasy connected to the two-superpower Cold War era: George Orwell’s 1948 vision of the world of 1984 (or thereabouts, since the inhabitants of his novel of that title were unsure just what year they were living in). When the revelations of NSA contractor Edward Snowden began to hit the news and we suddenly found ourselves knee-deep in stories about Prism, XKeyscore, and other Big Brother-ish programs that make up the massive global surveillance network the National Security Agency has been building, I had a brilliant idea — reread 1984.

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Tom Engelhardt, Spying for Us

6:32 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here. 

I Only Regret That I Have But One Life to Give for My Country: Yours
The Crime of the Century
By Tom Engelhardt

Hey, let’s talk spying!  In Surveillance America, this land of spookery we all now inhabit, what else is there to talk about?

Nathan Hale

What would a Revolutionary War hero & spy think of today’s surveillance state?

Was there anyone growing up like me in the 1950s who didn’t know Revolutionary War hero and spy Nathan Hale’s last words before the British hanged him: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country”?  I doubt it. Even today that line, whether historically accurate or not, gives me a chill. Of course, it’s harder these days to imagine a use for such a heroically solitary statement — not in an America in which spying and surveillance are boom businesses, and our latest potential Nathan Hales are tens of thousands of corporately hired and trained private intelligence contractors, who often don’t get closer to the enemy than a computer terminal.

What would Nathan Hale think if you could tell him that the CIA, the preeminent spy agency in the country, has an estimated 20,000 employees (it won’t reveal the exact number, of course); or that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which monitors the nation’s spy satellites, has a cast of 16,000 housed in a post-9/11, almost $2 billion headquarters in Washington’s suburbs; or that our modern Nathan Hales, multiplying like so many jackrabbits, lack the equivalent of a Britain to spy on. In the old-fashioned sense, there really is no longer an enemy on the planet. The modern analog to the British of 1776 would assumedly be … al-Qaeda?

It’s true that powers friendly and less friendly still spy on the U.S.  Who doesn’t remember that ring of suburban-couples-cum-spies the Russians planted here?  It was a sophisticated operation that only lacked access to state secrets of any sort and that the FBI rolled up in 2010. But generally speaking, in a single-superpower world, the U.S., with no obvious enemy, has been building its own system of global spying and surveillance on a scale never before seen in an effort to keep track of just about everyone on the planet (as recently released NSA documents show).  In other words, Washington is now spy central.  It surveils not just potential future enemies, but also its closest allies as if they were enemies.  Increasingly, the structure built to do a significant part of that spying is aimed at Americans, too, and on a scale that is no less breathtaking.

Spies, Traitors, and Defectors in Twenty-First-Century America

Today, for America’s spies, Nathan Hale’s job comes with health and retirement benefits.  Top officials in that world have access to a revolving door into guaranteed lucrative employment at the highest levels of the corporate-surveillance complex and, of course, for the spy in need of escape, a golden parachute.  So when I think about Nathan Hale’s famed line, among those hundreds of thousands of American spies and corporate spylings just two Americans come to mind, both charged and one convicted under the draconian World War I Espionage Act.

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Tom Engelhardt, Luck Was a Lady Last Week

6:36 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Now You See Him, Now You Don’t
Living in a One-Superpower World (or Edward Snowden vs. Robert Seldon Lady)
By Tom Engelhardt

Portrait of Snowden

Edward Snowden compared to CIA operative Robert Seldon Lady.

He came and he went: that was the joke that circulated in 1979 when 70-year-old former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller had a heart attack and died in his Manhattan townhouse in the presence of his evening-gown-clad 25-year-old assistant.  In a sense, the same might be said of retired CIA operative Robert Seldon Lady.

Recently, Lady proved a one-day wonder. After years in absentia — poof! — he reappeared out of nowhere on the border between Panama and Costa Rica, and made the news when Panamanian officials took him into custody on an Interpol warrant.  The CIA’s station chief in Milan back in 2003, he had achieved brief notoriety for overseeing a la dolce vita version of extraordinary rendition as part of Washington’s Global War on Terror.  His colleagues kidnapped Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, a radical Muslim cleric and terror suspect, off the streets of Milan, and rendered him via U.S. airbases in Italy and Germany to the torture chambers of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. Lady evidently rode shotgun on that transfer.

His Agency associates proved to be the crew that couldn’t spook straight.  They left behind such a traceable trail of five-star-hotel and restaurant bills, charges on false credit cards, and unencrypted cell phone calls that the Italian government tracked them down, identified them, and charged 23 of them, Lady included, with kidnapping.

Lady fled Italy, leaving behind a multimillion-dollar villa near Turin meant for his retirement.  (It was later confiscated and sold to make restitution payments to Nasr.)  Convicted in absentia in 2009, Lady received a nine-year sentence (later reduced to six).  He had by then essentially vanished after admitting to an Italian newspaper, “Of course it was an illegal operation. But that’s our job. We’re at war against terrorism.”

Last week, the Panamanians picked him up.  It was the real world equivalent of a magician’s trick.  He was nowhere, then suddenly in custody and in the news, and then — poof again! — he wasn’t.  Just 24 hours after the retired CIA official found himself under lock and key, he was flown out of Panama, evidently under the protection of Washington, and in mid-air, heading back to the United States, vanished a second time.

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters on July 19th, “It’s my understanding that he is in fact either en route or back in the United States.”  So there he was, possibly in mid-air heading for the homeland and, as far as we know, as far as reporting goes, nothing more.  Consider it the CIA version of a miracle.  Instead of landing, he just evaporated.

And that was that.  Not another news story here in the U.S.; no further information from government spokespeople on what happened to him, or why the administration decided to extricate him from Panama and protect him from Italian justice.  Nor, as far as I can tell, were there any further questions from the media.  When TomDispatch inquired of the State Department, all it got was this bit of stonewallese: “We understand that a U.S citizen was detained by Panamanian authorities, and that Panamanian immigration officials expelled him from Panama on July 19.  Panama’s actions are consistent with its rights to determine whether to admit or expel non-citizens from its territory.”

In other words, he came and he went.

Edward Snowden: The Opposite of a Magician’s Trick

When Lady was first detained, there was a little flurry of news stories and a little frisson of tension.  Would a retired CIA agent convicted of a serious crime involving kidnapping and torture be extradited to Italy to serve his sentence?  But that tension had no chance to build because (as anyone might have predicted) luck was a Lady that week.

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Alfred W. McCoy, Obama’s Expanding Surveillance Universe

6:59 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Nixon's resignation speech

A true history of the surveillance state would stretch back far beyond even Nixon’s spying on domestic “enemies.”

On the website of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services there is a list of rights belonging to all Americans. Chief among them: Freedom to express yourself. Abdiwali Warsame must have taken them literally. Two days after he became a U.S. citizen, he created a rollicking news and opinion website covering his native Somalia.  It became popular with many Somalis and Somali-Americans, but also attracted attention from other quarters.  As Craig Whitlock recently revealed in the Washington Post, Warsame was, according to public records and interviews, soon “caught up in a shadowy Defense Department counterpropaganda operation.”

Warsame’s website became a clearinghouse for articles from various points of view (including his own fundamentalist Muslim beliefs), but with emphasis on strong opposition to U.S.-backed military interventions in Somalia, and the contention that al-Shabab militants are freedom fighters, not terrorists. This, in turn, attracted the attention of the U.S.-based Navanti Group, which was “working as a subcontractor for the Special Operations Command to help conduct ‘information operations to engage local populations and counter nefarious influences’ in Africa and Europe.”  As part of a sophisticated military effort aimed at manipulating news stories and social media around the world, Navanti compiled a dossier on Warsame, even though the military is legally barred from carrying out psychological operations at home.  (Navanti claimed it believed Warsame was based overseas; Whitlock’s reporting indicates otherwise.)  The military contractor eventually sent a copy of its files to the FBI, whose agents soon showed up on Warsame’s doorstep.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website says Americans are bound by “the shared values of freedom [and] liberty” and that “naturalized citizens are… an important part of our democracy.”  Today, this rings about as true as a thump on the side of an empty dumpster.  Abdiwali Warsame is just one of millions of people — Americans and foreigners — who have found themselves monitored in some way by the U.S. military over the years.

No one knows this long history of shadowy military surveillance better than TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy, author of Policing America’s Empire, among other works.  For decades, McCoy has been shedding light on some of the darkest aspects of government malfeasance from drug trafficking to spying to torture.  Today, he offers a chilling tour of military surveillance efforts from the turn of the twentieth century to a near future even more dystopian than our present — a world in which we’re all liable to end up like Abdiwali Warsame. Nick Turse

Surveillance Blowback
The Making of the U.S. Surveillance State, 1898-2020
By Alfred W. McCoy

The American surveillance state is now an omnipresent reality, but its deep history is little known and its future little grasped.  Edward Snowden’s leaked documents reveal that, in a post-9/11 state of war, the National Security Agency (NSA) was able to create a surveillance system that could secretly monitor the private communications of almost every American in the name of fighting foreign terrorists. The technology used is state of the art; the impulse, it turns out, is nothing new. For well over a century, what might be called “surveillance blowback” from America’s wars has ensured the creation of an ever more massive and omnipresent internal security and surveillance apparatus.  Its future (though not ours) looks bright indeed.

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Nick Turse, Blowback Central

6:57 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

An Africom soldier

Today’s US military operations in Africa set us up for tomorrow’s blowback.

The other day, Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-supported Afghan president who was once sardonically nicknamed “the mayor of Kabul,” had a few curious things to say about American policy in the Muslim world.  Karzai, of course, is a man whose opinions — whether on U.S. special operations forces and their (out of control) militias, U.S. night raids on Afghan homes, or U.S. air strikes on Afghan villages — Washington loves to ignore.  He is considered “volatile.”  Sometimes, however, it’s worth listening to what our subordinate allies, uncomfortable nationalists-cum-puppets, think and say about us.

As Josh Rogin reported at the Daily Beast, Karzai recently suggested that, starting in the early 1980s when the Reagan administration and the CIA buddied up with the Saudis and Pakistani intelligence and backed a set of extreme fundamentalist Afghan rebels against the Soviets, the U.S. has been, advertently or not, promoting Islamic radicalism in the Greater Middle East.  As Karzai said of that long-forgotten moment, “The more radical we looked and talked, the more we were called mujahedin. The consequence of that was a massive effort toward uprooting traditional Afghan values and culture and tolerance.”  In his speech at the 2013 U.S.-Islamic World Forum, he made a case for the ways in which Washington’s destabilization of the region has never ended, provoking ever more extreme blowback as it goes.

Without a doubt, the central event in the multi-decade fiasco that for a few years was known as the Global War on Terror was the invasion of Iraq, Washington’s preeminent act of folly so far in the twenty-first century.  Its disastrous effects have yet to be fully absorbed or assessed.  Yet without that invasion, it is hard to imagine a whole series of developments, including the present killing fields in Syria, the potential disintegration of Iraq itself, the Arab Spring, or the spread of extreme Islamic factions ever more widely in a vast region.  The irony, of course, is that the Bush administration and the neocon types who set so much of this in motion used to refer to the Greater Middle East from North Africa to the Chinese border disparagingly as “the arc of instability.”  Today, it increasingly looks like an arc of chaos and, as Nick Turse indicates, the process, far from ending, seems to be spreading — in this case, deep into Africa.

Turse, author of the recent bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, has been following the latest U.S. global command, AFRICOM, as it embeds American military power ever more fully on the African continent. (In the process, he has engaged in full-scale public debate with that command over the nature of what it is doing.) Today, he offers a magisterial overview of what can be known about the increasing American military presence in Africa and how it is continuing a now more than three-decade-old process of spurring destabilization, the growth of radical Islamic movements, and blowback in a new region of the planet. Tom

The Terror Diaspora
The U.S. Military and the Unraveling of Africa
By Nick Turse

The Gulf of Guinea. He said it without a hint of irony or embarrassment. This was one of U.S. Africa Command’s big success stories. The Gulf… of Guinea.

Never mind that most Americans couldn’t find it on a map and haven’t heard of the nations on its shores like Gabon, Benin, and Togo. Never mind that just five days before I talked with AFRICOM’s chief spokesman, the Economist had asked if the Gulf of Guinea was on the verge of becoming “another Somalia,” because piracy there had jumped 41% from 2011 to 2012 and was on track to be even worse in 2013.

The Gulf of Guinea was one of the primary areas in Africa where “stability,” the command spokesman assured me, had “improved significantly,” and the U.S. military had played a major role in bringing it about. But what did that say about so many other areas of the continent that, since AFRICOM was set up, had been wracked by coups, insurgencies, violence, and volatility?

A careful examination of the security situation in Africa suggests that it is in the process of becoming Ground Zero for a veritable terror diaspora set in motion in the wake of 9/11 that has only accelerated in the Obama years.  Recent history indicates that as U.S. “stability” operations in Africa have increased, militancy has spread, insurgent groups have proliferated, allies have faltered or committed abuses, terrorism has increased, the number of failed states has risen, and the continent has become more unsettled.

The signal event in this tsunami of blowback was the U.S. participation in a war to fell Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi that helped send neighboring Mali, a U.S.-supported bulwark against regional terrorism, into a downward spiral, prompting the intervention of the French military with U.S. backing.  The situation could still worsen as the U.S. armed forces grow ever more involved.  They are already expanding air operations across the continent, engaging in spy missions for the French military, and utilizing other previously undisclosed sites in Africa.

The Terror Diaspora

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Engelhardt: An Obit for the General

8:24 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The Fall of the American Empire (Writ Small) 
History, Farce, and David Petraeus 
By Tom Engelhardt

Official Portrait of Petraeus

David Petraeus

History, it is said, arrives first as tragedy, then as farce.  First as Karl Marx, then as the Marx Brothers.  In the case of twenty-first century America, history arrived first as George W. Bush (and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith and the Project for a New America — a shadow government masquerading as a think tank — and an assorted crew of ambitious neocons and neo-pundits); only later did David Petraeus make it onto the scene.

It couldn’t be clearer now that, from the shirtless FBI agent to the “embedded biographer and the “other other woman,” the “fall” of David Petraeus is playing out as farce of the first order.  What’s less obvious is that Petraeus, America’s military golden boy and Caesar of celebrity, was always smoke and mirrors, always the farce, even if the denizens of Washington didn’t know it.

Until recently, here was the open secret of Petraeus’s life: he may not have understood Iraqis or Afghans, but no military man in generations more intuitively grasped how to flatter and charm American reporters, pundits, and politicians into praising him.  This was, after all, the general who got his first Newsweek cover (“Can This Man Save Iraq?”) in 2004 while he was making a mess of a training program for Iraqi security forces, and two more before that magazine, too, took the fall.  In 2007, he was a runner-up to Vladimir Putin for TIME’s “Person of the Year.”  And long before Paula Broadwell’s aptly named biography, All In, was published to hosannas from the usual elite crew, that was par for the course.

You didn’t need special insider’s access to know that Broadwell wasn’t the only one with whom the general did calisthenics.  The FBI didn’t need to investigate.  Even before she came on the scene, scads of columnists, pundits, reporters, and politicians were in bed with him.  And weirdly enough, many of them still are.  (Typical was NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams mournfully discussing the “painful” resignation of “Dave” — “the most prominent and best known general of the modern era.”)  Adoring media people treated him like the next military Messiah, a combination of Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Ulysses S. Grant rolled into one fabulous piñata.  It’s a safe bet that no general of our era, perhaps of any American era, has had so many glowing adjectives attached to his name.

Perhaps Petraeus’s single most insightful moment, capturing both the tragedy and the farce to come, occurred during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  He was commanding the 101st Airborne on its drive to Baghdad, and even then was inviting reporters to spend time with him.  At some point, he said to journalist Rick Atkinson, “Tell me how this ends.”  Now, of course, we know: in farce and not well.

For weeks, the news has been filled with his ever-expanding story, including private rivalries, pirate-themed parties, conspiracy theories run wild, and investigations inside investigations inside investigations.  It’s lacked nothing an all-American twenty-first-century media needs to glue eyeballs.  Jill Kelley, the Tampa socialite whose online life started the ball rolling and ended up embroiling two American four-star generals in Internet hell, evidently wrote enough emails a day to stagger the imagination.  But she was a piker compared to the millions of words that followed from reporters, pundits, observers, retired military figures, everyone and anyone who had ever had an encounter with or a thought about Petraeus, his biographer-cum-lover Paula Broadwell, Afghan War Commander General John Allen, and the rest of an ever-expanding cast of characters.  Think of it as the Fall of the House of Gusher.

Here was the odd thing: none of David Petraeus’s “achievements” outlasted his presence on the scene.  Still, give him credit.  He was a prodigious campaigner and a thoroughly modern general.  From Baghdad to Kabul, no one was better at rolling out a media blitzkrieg back in the U.S. in which he himself would guide Americans through the fine points of his own war-making.

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Peter Van Buren: Our 9/11 Torturers

7:03 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

John Kiriakou

John Kiriakou (Photo: truthout.org/flickr)

I hope you know that, on the 11th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, you live in a country so exceptional it’s blessed by God; that, in fact, it’s — no point in pulling punches — “the greatest nation on earth.”  If you don’t believe me, just listen to President Obama, who used the last words of his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention to say exactly that.  And depending on your political druthers, you don’t have to believe him either.  After all, the stages of the Republican and Democratic conventions were filled with politicos insisting on the same thing.  (Who says there’s no bipartisanship in America?)

At the Republican convention, Mitt Romney, speaking in his acceptance speech of Neil Armstrong’s first footfall on the moon, said: “Like all Americans we went to bed that night knowing we lived in the greatest country in the history of the world.” Chris Christie in his keynote speech drove home this point: “Standing strong for freedom will make the next century as great an American century as the last one.” Michelle Obama praising her husband as a great dad wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to say: “Every day [the people I meet] remind me how blessed we are to live in the greatest nation on earth”; and Condoleezza Rice, the former national security adviser and secretary of state (she of double-hulled oil tanker fame) gave the Republicans a primer on foreign policy for the Romney era, and this was her version of it: “Because it just has to be — that the most compassionate and freest country on the face of the earth — will continue to be the most powerful!”  And that’s just to name a few among a bevy of American exceptionalists from whom you certainly wouldn’t want to exclude Vice President Joe Biden.  After all, leaving Mongol horsemen, Apache warriors, Roman legionnaires, Napoleon’s Army, and every other war-fighter twitching in the dust, he claimed President Obama was well aware that our special forces are “the finest warriors the world has ever known.”

Think of all this as a kind of exceptional post-9/11 fever.  The more ordinary Americans worry about their country being on the “wrong track” or “in decline,” the more loudly, emphatically, aggressively (and yet defensively) politicians seem to insist, against all evidence, that we are and always will be (unless my opponent gets into office) the greatest, finest, freest etc. around. By the way, tell that to Peter Van Buren or John Kiriakou.  Both were government officials who told the truth about bad things happening inside the government of the greatest country the universe has ever seen.  One wrote the book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People about just what a laughable mess the State Department’s “reconstruction of Iraq” turned out to be and, for doing that with remarkable honesty and wit, he is being forced into early retirement by the bureaucrats of the greatest State Department in the history of the world.  The other, a CIA agent, told reporters the truth about some of the practices of the greatest spy agency in the history of the galaxy, including acts of torture by operatives in his own agency, and he’s going to celebrate the 9/11 anniversary with a court date the following day.

These are indications of the real state of affairs in this country 11 years after they attacked us because they “hated our freedoms.”  Now, on September 11, 2012, the national security complex is, as Peter Van Buren indicates below, beyond accountability for any crimes it may commit.  It exists in a post-legal America not available to 99% of us.  As for our freedoms, a lack of the slightest urge to prosecute anyone who committed a crime on Washington time means that our governmental officials now have extraordinary new freedoms — more license than 007 ever did — to kidnap, torture, abuse, murder, surveil, and assassinate (including American citizens).  That’s a record to ponder as another September 11th rolls around and, living in the greatest nation on earth, you ask yourself: Who really won, them or us? Tom

The Persecution of John Kiriakou
Torture and the Myth of Never Again
By Peter Van Buren

Here is what military briefers like to call BLUF, the Bottom Line Up Front: no one except John Kiriakou is being held accountable for America’s torture policy. And John Kiriakou didn’t torture anyone, he just blew the whistle on it.

In a Galaxy Far, Far Away
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Tomgram: Michael Schwartz, Weapons of Mass Disruption

8:30 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch

Memo to President Obama: Given the absence of intelligent intelligence and the inadequacy of your advisers’ advice, it’s not surprising that your handling of the Egyptian uprising has set new standards for foreign policy incoherence and incompetence.  Perhaps a primer on how to judge the power that can be wielded by mass protest will prepare you better for the next round of political upheavals.

Remember the uprising in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989?  That was also a huge, peaceful protest for democracy, but it was crushed with savage violence.  Maybe the memory of that event convinced you and your team that, as Secretary of State Clinton announced when the protests began, the Mubarak regime was “stable” and in “no danger of falling.” Or maybe your confidence rested on the fact that it featured a disciplined modern army trained and supplied by the USA.

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But it fell, and you should have known that it was in grave danger.  You should have known that the prognosis for this uprising was far better than the one that ended in a massacre in Tiananmen Square; that it was more likely to follow the pattern of people power in Tunisia, where only weeks before another autocrat had been driven from power, or Iran in 1979 and Poland in 1989.

Since your intelligence people, including the CIA, obviously didn’t tell you, let me offer you an explanation for why the Egyptian protesters proved so much more successful in fighting off the threat and reality of violence than their Chinese compatriots, and why they were so much better equipped to deter an attack by a standing army.  Most importantly, let me fill you in on why, by simply staying in the streets and adhering to their commitment to nonviolence, they were able to topple a tyrant with 30 years seniority and the backing of the United States from the pinnacle of power, sweeping him into the dustbin of history.  

When Does an Army Choose to Be Nonviolent?

One possible answer — a subtext of mainstream media coverage — is that the Egyptian military, unlike its Chinese counterpart, decided not to crush the rebellion, and that this forbearance enabled the protest to succeed.  However, this apparently reasonable argument actually explains nothing unless we can answer two intertwined questions that flow from it.

The first is: Why was the military so restrained this time around, when for 50 years, “it has stood at the core of a repressive police state.”  The second is: Why couldn’t the government, even without a military ready to turn its guns on the demonstrators, endure a few more days, weeks, or months of protest, while waiting for the uprising to exhaust itself, and — as the BBC put it — “have the whole thing fizzle out.”

The answer to both questions lies in the remarkable impact that the protest had on the Egyptian economy. Mubarak and his cohort (as well as the military, which is the country’s economic powerhouse) were alarmed that the business “paralysis induced by the protests” was “having a huge impact on the creaking economy” of Egypt.  As Finance Minister Samir Radwin said two weeks into the uprising, the economic situation was “very serious” and that “the longer the stalemate continues, the more damaging it is.”

From their inception, the huge protests threatened the billions of dollars that the leaders and chief beneficiaries of the Mubarak regime had acquired during their 30 year reign of terror, corruption, and accumulation.  To the generals in particular, it was surely apparent that the massive acts of brutality necessary to suppress the uprising would have caused perhaps irreparable harm, threatening its vast economic interests. In other words, either trying to outwait the revolutionaries or imposing the Tiananmen solution risked the downfall of the economic empires of Egypt’s ruling groups.

But why would either of those responses destroy the economy?

Squeezing the Life Out of the Mubarak Regime

Put simply, from the beginning, the Egyptian uprising had the effect of a general strike.  Starting on January 25th, the first day of the protest, tourism — the largest industry in the country, which had just begun its high season — went into free fall.  After two weeks, the industry had simply “ground to a halt,” leaving a significant portion of the two million workers it supported with reduced wages or none at all, and the few remaining tourists rattling around empty hotels, catching the pyramids, if at all, on television.

Since pyramids and other Egyptian sites attract more than a million visitors a month and account for at least 5% of the Egyptian economy, tourism alone (given the standard multiplier effect) may account for over 15% of the country’s cash flow. Not surprisingly, then, news reports soon began mentioning revenue losses of up to $310 million per day. In an economy with an annual gross domestic product (GDP) of well over $200 billion, each day that Mubarak clung to office produced a tangible and growing decline in it.  After two weeks of this ticking time bomb, Crédit Agricole, the largest banking group in France, lowered its growth estimate for the country’s economy by 32%.

The initial devastating losses in the tourist, hotel, and travel sectors of the Egyptian economy hit industries dominated by huge multinational corporations and major Egyptian business groups dependent on a constant flow of revenues.  When cash flow dies, loan payments must still be made, hotels heated, airline schedules kept, and many employees, especially executives, paid.  In such a situation, losses start mounting fast, and even the largest companies can face a crisis quickly. The situation was especially ominous because it was known that skittish travelers would be unlikely to return until they were confident that no further disruptions would occur.

The largest of businesses, local and multinational, are not normally prone to inactivity.  They are the ones likely to move most quickly to stem a tide of red ink by agitating the government to suppress such a protest, hopefully yesterday. But the staggering size of even the early demonstrations, the face of a mobilizing civil society visibly shedding 30 years of passivity, proved stunning.  The fiercely brave response to police attacks, in which repression was met by masses of new demonstrators pouring into the streets, made it clear that brutal suppression would not quickly silence these protests.  Such acts were more likely to prolong the disruptions and possibly amplify the uprising.

Even if Washington was slow on the uptake, it didn’t take long for the relentlessly repressive Egyptian ruling clique to grasp the fact that large-scale, violent suppression was an impossible-to-implement strategy.  Once the demonstrations involved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Egyptians, a huge and bloody suppression guaranteed long-term economic paralysis and ensured that the tourist trade wasn’t going to rebound for months or longer.

The paralysis of the tourism industry was, in itself, an economic time bomb that threatened the viability of the core of the Egyptian capitalist class, as long as the demonstrations continued.  Recovery could only begin after a “return to normal life,” a phrase that became synonymous with the end of the protests in the rhetoric of the government, the military, and the mainstream media. With so many fortunes at stake, the business classes, foreign and domestic, soon enough began entertaining the most obvious and least disruptive solution: Mubarak’s departure.

Strangling the Mubarak Regime

The attack on tourism, however, was just the first blow in what rapidly became the protestors’ true weapon of mass disruption, its increasing stranglehold on the economy. The crucial communications and transportation industries were quickly engulfed in chaos and disrupted by the demonstrations.  The government at first shut down the Internet and mobile phone service in an effort to deny the protestors their means of communication and organization, including Facebook and Twitter.  When they were reopened, these services operated imperfectly, in part because of the increasingly rebellious behavior of their own employees.

Similar effects were seen in transportation, which became unreliable and sporadic, either because of government shutdowns aimed at crippling the protests or because the protests interfered with normal operations.  And such disruptions quickly rippled outward to the many sectors of the economy, from banking to foreign trade, for which communication and/or transportation was crucial.

As the demonstrations grew, employees, customers, and suppliers of various businesses were ever more consumed with preparations for, participation in, or recovery from the latest protest, or protecting homes from looters and criminals after the government called the police force off the streets.  On Fridays especially, many people left work to join the protest during noon prayers, abandoning their offices as the country immersed itself in the next big demonstration — and then the one after.

As long as the protests were sustained, as long as each new crescendo matched or exceeded the last, the economy continued to die while business and political elites became ever more desperate for a solution to the crisis.

The Rats Leave the Sinking Ship of State

After each upsurge in protest, Mubarak and his cronies offered new concessions aimed at quieting the crowds.  These, in turn, were taken as signs of weakness by the protestors, only convincing them of their strength, amplifying the movement, and driving it into the heart of the Egyptian working class and the various professional guilds.  By the start of the third week of demonstrations, protests began to hit critical institutions directly.

On February 9th, reports of a widening wave of strikes in major industries around the country began pouring in, as lawyers, medical workers, and other professionals also took to the streets with their grievances.  In a single day, tens of thousands of employees in textile factories, newspapers and other media companies, government agencies (including the post office), sanitation workers and bus drivers, and — most significant of all — workers at the Suez Canal began demanding economic concessions as well as the departure of Mubarak.

Since the Suez Canal is second only to tourism as a source of income for the country, a sit-in there, involving up to 6,000 workers, was particularly ominous.  Though the protestors made no effort to close the canal, the threat to its operation was self-evident.

A shutdown of the canal would have been not just an Egyptian but a world calamity: a significant proportion of the globe’s oil flows through that canal, especially critical for energy-starved Europe.  A substantial shipping slowdown, no less a shutdown, threatened a possible renewal of the worldwide recession of 2008-2009, even as it would choke off the Egyptian government’s major source of steady income.

As if this weren’t enough, the demonstrators turned their attention to various government institutions, attempting to render them “nonfunctional.” The day after the president’s third refusal to step down, protestors claimed that many regional capitals, including Suez, Mahalla, Mansoura, Ismailia, Port Said, and even Alexandria (the country’s major Mediterranean port), were “free of the regime” — purged of Mubarak officials, state-controlled communications, and the hated police and security forces.  In Cairo, the national capital, demonstrators began to surround the parliament, the state TV building, and other centers critical to the national government.  Alaa Abd El Fattah, an activist and well known political blogger in Cairo, told Democracy Now that the crowd “could continue to escalate, either by claiming more places or by actually moving inside these buildings, if the need comes.” With the economy choking to death, the demonstrators were now moving to put a hammerlock on the government apparatus itself.

At that point, a rats-leaving-a-sinking-ship-of-state phenomenon burst into public visibility as “several large companies took out adverts in local newspapers putting distance between themselves and the regime.”  Guardian reporter Jack Shenker affirmed this public display by quoting informed sources describing widespread “nervousness among the business community” about the viability of the regime, and that “a lot of people you might think are in bed with Mubarak have privately lost patience.”

It was this tightening noose around the neck of the Mubarak regime that made the remarkable protests of these last weeks so different from those in Tiananmen Square.  In China, the demonstrators had negligible economic and political leverage.  In Egypt, the option of a brutal military attack, even if “successful” in driving them off the streets, seemed to all but guarantee the deepening of an already dire economic crisis, subjecting ever widening realms of the economy — and so the wealth of the military — to the risk of irreparable calamity.

Perhaps Mubarak would have been willing to sacrifice all this to stay in power.  As it happened, a growing crew of movers and shakers, including the military leadership, major businessmen, foreign investors, and interested foreign governments saw a far more appealing alternative solution.

Weil Ziada, head of research for a major Egyptian financial firm, spoke for the business and political class when he told Guardian reporter Jack Shenker on February 11th:

“Anti-government sentiment is not calming down, it is gaining momentum…This latest wave is putting a lot more pressure on not just the government but the entire regime; protesters have made their demands clear and there’s no rowing back now. Everything is going down one route. There are two or three scenarios, but all involve the same thing: Mubarak stepping down — and the business community is adjusting its expectations accordingly.”

The next day, President Hosni Mubarak resigned and left Cairo.

President Obama, remember this lesson: If you want to avoid future foreign policy Obaminations, be aware that nonviolent protest has the potential to strangle even the most brutal regime, if it can definitively threaten the viability of its core industries. In these circumstances, a mass movement equipped with fearsome weapons of mass disruption can topple a tyrant equipped with fearsome weapons of mass destruction.

A professor of sociology at Stony Brook State University, Michael Schwartz is the author of War Without End: The Iraq War in Context (Haymarket Press). Schwartz’s work on protest movements, contentious politics, and the arc of U.S. imperialism has appeared in numerous academic and popular outlets over the past 40 years. He is a TomDispatch regular. His email address is ms42@optonline.net. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Schwartz discusses the Egyptian revolution and the power of nonviolent disruption, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 Michael Schwartz