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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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Tomgram: Engelhardt, Advice from the Colonel

6:27 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 Etiquette of War and Surveillance
Letters to Colonel Manners (Ret.)
By Tom Engelhardt

[Editor’s Note: In the sequester and government-shutdown era, the classic military newspaper Stars and Stripes is facing some of the problems of its civilian brethren and so downsizing its print edition. Among the features to go: Dear Abby. As it happens, TomDispatch is ready to step into the breach.  We’ve called on an old and knowledgeable friend, Colonel Manners (ret.), whose experience in military and surveillance matters is evident from his impressive CV (unfortunately, a classified document). His assignment: to answer letters from Americans puzzled by the etiquette, manners, and language of the arcane national security world of Washington. Here is a first sampling from a column that, in syndication, could go global.]

Dear Col. Manners,

I’m an embattled newspaper editor.  Recently, I read a New Yorker piece by Ken Auletta that included this disturbing passage about the New York Times: “In early August, the Times was working on a story about an intercepted terror threat when James R. Clapper, the administration’s director of intelligence, asked the paper’s Washington bureau to withhold certain details. Clapper warned that, if the full version were made public, the Times ‘would have blood on our hands.’” The Times withheld those details.  However, with so many classified documents pouring out of Washington and the possibility that some might come into the possession of my paper, I worry about finding blood on my hands, too.  On a personal note, I’m extremely squeamish.  In college, I had to leave my biology class when the professor showed a film on Harvey’s discovery of the circulatory system.  While watching Grey’s Anatomy, I have to close my eyes whenever surgery comes on screen.  I grow faint if I get a paper cut.  Any suggestions?

Stressed and Bloody Anxious in Chicago

Dear Stressed and Bloody Anxious,

I see your problem.  Fortunately, I can assure you that it’s all in your head.  To understand why, you need to grasp a distinction that’s clear in Washington, but might be less so in Chicago.  When a government official suggests that an outsider might have “blood” on his or her hands — as happened repeatedly, for instance, during the Bradley Manning imbroglio – they are talking about prospective blood, future blood.  Negative reactions to blood, according to scientific studies, are due, in part, to its alarming red color.  Future blood, being metaphorical, is not red.  If it gets on your hands, you will not actually “see” it.

In Washington, this is similarly true of past blood.  Take National Intelligence Director Clapper.  From 2001-2006, he was the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, then undersecretary of defense for intelligence, before being nominated in the Obama years to head the office of national intelligence.  In other words, he has served in Washington throughout the Iraq and Afghan Wars, as well as the Global War on Terror.  Like many Washington officials, military and civilian, who supported the American global mission in those years, he might be said to have some responsibility for any number of deaths and so to have “blood on his hands.”  Think of the almost 4,500 Americans who died in Iraq or the nearly 2,300 who have, thus far, died in Afghanistan, or the tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans who died in those years.

Now, here’s the point: Washington is not disturbed by such blood.  The reason is simple.  It, too, can’t be seen.  I’ve met Clapper and I can assure you that, when he shakes your hand, there is not the slightest trace of a reddish tint anywhere on it.  (He’s got an impressively firm grip, by the way!)  This, I hope, will lighten your unnecessarily grim mood.  Like so many other stalwarts in our national security universe, Clapper is a model.  He is unfazed, and his “blood” is far more real than the highly speculative and metaphorical blood that might someday be on your hands for a killing related to the release of a classified document.  Note that, despite the appearance of startling numbers of such documents in recent years, there is no record of prospective blood actually being spilled.

Yours truly,
Col. Manners (ret.)  

***

Dear Col. Manners,

As the owner of a furniture store in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I’ve been worried about our competitors, especially IKEA, getting a step on us.  So here’s what I want to know: recently, speaking of Iran, President Obama said that he was keeping “all options on the table,” adding that “we will do anything to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon.”  I’ve noticed that this phrase has, since 9/11, grown ever more popular in Washington.  I was wondering about that table everyone is talking about.  Given that it seems to be reserved for major weapons systems of various sorts and nothing else (at least nothing else is ever mentioned), who manufactures such a table?  Can I order it somewhere?  Does it really exist or is it just an image meant to stand in for a future military assault on Iran (or wherever)?  Would it be too big to fit in my store?  I’m most appreciative for any information you could give me on the subject. 

Tabled in Kalamazoo

Dear Tabled in Kalamazoo,

That table is quite real.  I saw one once.  I obviously can’t say where, though it held a set of bunker-busting missiles.  I should add that it is not a table in the normal sense — i.e., one of those four-legged, flat-topped structures we tend to place in our dining rooms or kitchens.  Again, I can say no more.  Rest assured, however, that when the president says “all options are on the table,” he means it.  And you are quite accurate in pointing out that on such tables “all” the options are indeed military.  Though always referred to in the singular, in reality, there are a number of such tables for each country mentioned; the Syrian ones, for example, hold Tomahawk missiles and B-2 bombers; the Iranian ones, those bunker-busters, among other major weapons systems.

I don’t know if you noticed, but on the night before the recent government shutdown, the Pentagon went on a buying spree, dumping $5 billion into the accounts of major weapons makers (and others).  According to someone I trust in Washington, the intelligence community similarly dipped into its black budget accounts and bought a number of things, including at least three back-up “option tables” at a cost of millions of dollars.  (Again, I can’t tell you exactly how much.)  Unfortunately, you cannot purchase such products for your store.  The good news is that neither can IKEA.

Sincerely,
Col. Manners (ret.)

***

Dear Col. Manners,

I have to ask for your discretion, for reasons that will quickly become apparent.  There are 12 documented cases in which a National Security Agency employee used NSA surveillance programs to hack into a partner’s, lover’s, or romantic interest’s email or listen in on his or her phone calls.  And this is generally considered just “the tip of the iceberg.”  I am a civilian employee of the NSA.  Consider me the unlucky thirteenth case.  I know that such acts are sardonically known as LoveINT, but in my case that wasn’t it.  As I’ve told my former partner, I just wanted to know if she and a friend of ours were planning a surprise birthday party for me.  (I’m one of those people who doesn’t like to be caught off-guard.)

The Agency took no action against me, but my partner has never forgiven me.  (She’s now living with our former mutual friend.)  She still insists that I should apologize. I consider this irrational.  I say that no harm was done.  I’ve pointed out to her that the NSA hacked into the emails and phone calls of Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president, and the president of the United States has refused to apologize.  His only response was to launch a many months-long “broad review” of NSA practices.  (Believe me, there’s nothing to investigate.  We did it.)  As far as I can see, there’s an equivalency in the two cases: like my partner, Rousseff responded in an overly emotional way, calling off a long planned trip to Washington and later denouncing the U.S. at the United Nations.  Here’s my question: if the president doesn’t have to apologize, why should I?  Who’s in the right here?  Please settle this dispute for me.

Unlucky 13

Dear Unlucky 13,

I’m afraid that the rules of etiquette are different in the two cases you cite.  While I regret to tell you this, you are in the wrong and should apologize.  In our personal lives, it is important to say we’re sorry to those we treat badly, and hacking into your partner’s email is, by definition, bad manners. 

Similarly, on a global scale, if, say, the Argentinean government had hacked into President Rousseff’s email, an apology would indeed be in order.  It’s clearly not a good neighborly thing to do.  But I hardly need to add the obvious: the United States is not a normal nation.  It’s the planet’s sole superpower.  It goes by a different rulebook, which it writes itself, and that is as it should be.  So if we Americans have been playing by house rules in the case of the NSA and Rousseff, then what is there to apologize for?

It’s common knowledge that an American president does not apologize for the acts of his hackers or his soldiers or his spies or his officials or his drones.  In addition, it’s obvious that such an apology would be impractical and set this country on the road to hell.  After all, once a president stopped playing by the superpower rulebook and started apologizing, just consider the Pandora’s box he would open (without a hint of hope at the bottom).  If we were a normal nation, there would be a vast list of things he would have to apologize for, including, just in the last decade, kidnappings, torture, abuse, murder, imprisonment in black sites, assassination, and so on and so forth.

So, Unlucky 13, swallow your bad luck and say you’re sorry, but don’t ask the president to do the same.

Confidentially yours,
Col. Manners (ret.)

***

Dear Col. Manners,

I’m a housewife in Tulsa and I had a question for you about the president’s plan for a Syrian intervention.  I know that, in the end, it didn’t happen, and I hope you won’t think it’s frivolous of me to bring it up a month later, but I simply couldn’t get it out of my mind.  Here’s what I’ve been wondering about: Why is it called “humanitarian intervention” when the president’s (and Pentagon’s) plan, as best I understood it, was to loose Tomahawk missiles and bombers on Damascus?  I don’t see anything “human” or “humanitarian” in that.  And here’s another related question: why are such strikes always referred to as “surgical” and “precise” when, as far as I can tell, they invariably kill civilians?

Oklahoma Gal

Dear Oklahoma Gal,

Nothing frivolous about your thinking!  Let me start with that “surgically precise.”  The answer is: American weapons makers are the best in the world and so all of our latest weapons are indeed surgical and precise in their impact.  Keep in mind, however, that, as studies have shown, “surgically precise” is a term with significant latitude.  Consider, for instance, that, according to a report published in the Archives of Surgery, in a six-and-a-half-year period, Colorado doctors operated on the wrong patient at least 25 times, and another 107 times on the wrong body part.  So, surgically precise — yes, indeed!

As for that term “humanitarian intervention,” as you probably know, the Supreme Court long ago turned the corporation into a “person” for matters of law.  The Pentagon has functionally done the same thing for weapons like the Tomahawk missile for matters of war.  That transformation may not have the force of law, but it does have force, so to speak.  Because the Tomahawk is an American missile (produced by the Raytheon corporation, a genuine American outfit), and because, by definition, what we Americans do always comes from the best of intentions and an essential goodness of heart, because, that is, we are as exceptional, as one of a kind, in war as in peace, a missile attack on Syria (or elsewhere) would, by definition, be both “human” and “humanitarian” — and to complete the phrase in question, no one could deny that, had it happened, it would also have been an “intervention.”  After all, Washington’s record on interventions speaks for itself.  No country in memory has been as prolific an interventionist as the U.S.A. — and it’s a record, like all records, worth taking some pride in.

Yours definitionally,
Col. Manners (ret.)

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (now also in a Kindle edition), runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt

How to Build a National Security Blowback Machine

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.

Letter to an Unknown Whistleblower 
How the Security State’s Mania for Secrecy Will Create You 
By Tom Engelhardt

Dear Whistleblower,

Protest against NSA surveillance

Protest against NSA surveillance

I don’t know who you are or what you do or how old you may be. I just know that you exist somewhere in our future as surely as does tomorrow or next year. You may be young and computer-savvy or a career federal employee well along in years. You might be someone who entered government service filled with idealism or who signed on to “the bureaucracy” just to make a living. You may be a libertarian, a closet left-winger, or as mainstream and down-the-center as it’s possible to be.

I don’t know much, but I know one thing that you may not yet know yourself. I know that you’re there. I know that, just as Edward Snowden and Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning did, you will, for reasons of your own, feel compelled to take radical action, to put yourself in danger.  When the time comes, you will know that this is what you must do, that this is why you find yourself where you are, and then you’re going to tell us plenty that has been kept from us about how our government really operates. You are going to shock us to the core.

And how exactly do I know this? Because despite our striking inability to predict the future, it’s a no-brainer that the national security state is already building you into its labyrinthine systems.  In the urge of its officials to control all of us and every situation, in their mania for all-encompassing secrecy, in their classification not just of the millions of documents they generate, but essentially all their operations as “secret” or “top secret,” in their all-encompassing urge to shut off the most essential workings of the government from the eyes of its citizenry, in their escalating urge to punish anyone who would bring their secret activities to light, in their urge to see or read or listen in on or peer into the lives of you (every “you” on the planet), in their urge to build a global surveillance state and a military that will dominate everything in or out of its path, in their urge to drop bombs on Pakistan and fire missiles at Syria, in their urge to be able to assassinate just about anyone just about anywhere robotically, they are birthing you.

In every action, a reaction. So they say, no?

Give our national security managers credit, though: they may prove to be the master builders of the early twenty-first century. Their ambitions have been breathtaking and their ability to commandeer staggering amounts of our taxpayer dollars to pay for those projects hardly less so.  Their monuments to themselves, their version of pyramids and ziggurats — like the vast data storage center the National Security Agency is building for almost $2 billion in Bluffdale, Utah, to keep a yottabyte of private information about all of us, or the new post-9/11 headquarters the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency built, again for almost $2 billion, so that its 16,000 employees could monitor our system of satellites monitoring every square inch of the planet — are in their own way unique. In their urge to control everything, to see everything from your Facebook chatter to the emails of the Brazilian president, they are creating a system built to blowback, and not just from the outside or distant lands.

Chalmers Johnson, who took “blowback,” an obscure term of CIA tradecraft, and embedded it in our everyday language, would have instantly recognized what they’re doing: creating a blowback machine whose “unintended consequences” (another term of his) are guaranteed, like the effects of the Snowden revelations, to stun us all in a myriad of ways.

They have built their system so elaborately, so expansively, and their ambitions have been so grandiose that they have had no choice but to embed you in their developing global security state, deep in the entrails of their secret world — tens of thousands of possible you’s, in fact.  You’s galore, all of whom see some part, some corner, of the world that is curtained off from the rest of us.  And because they have built using the power of tomorrow, they have created a situation in which the prospective whistleblower, the leaker of tomorrow, has access not just to a few pieces of paper but to files beyond imagination.  They, not you, have prepared the way for future mass document dumps, for staggering releases, of a sort that once upon time in a far more modest system based largely on paper would have been inconceivable.

They have, that is, paved the way for everything that you are one day guaranteed to do.  They have created the means by which their mania for secrecy will repeatedly come a cropper.  They have created you.

Worse yet (for them), they have created a world populated with tens of thousands of people, often young, often nomadic in job terms, and often with remarkable computer skills who have access to parts of their vast system, to unknown numbers of secret programs and documents, and the many things from phone calls to emails to credit card transactions to social media interactions to biometric data that they so helpfully store away.
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