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Alfred McCoy: It’s About Blackmail, Not National Security

7:27 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.

Portrait of Snowden

Snowden brought spying home to the NSA, but the secrecy’s been with us for decades.

Spying has a history almost as ancient as humanity itself, but every now and then the rules of the game change.  This post-9/11 moment of surveillance is one of those game-changers and the National Security Agency (NSA) has been the deal-breaker and rule-maker.  The new rules it brought into existence are simple enough: you — whoever you are and wherever you live on Planet Earth — are a potential target.  Get used to it.  The most basic ground rule of the new system: no one is exempt from surveillance.

But then there’s human nature to take into account.  There’s the feeling of invulnerability that the powerful often have.  If you need an example, look no further than what key officials around New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were willing to commit to emails, even in this day and age, when it came to their scheme to tie up traffic on the George Washington Bridge.  Something similar has been true of the system NSA officials set up.  Its rules of the road were that no one was to be exempt from surveillance. (Call me Angela Merkel.)  They then plunged their creation into the deepest secrecy, in part because they couldn’t imagine a world without at least one categorical exemption: themselves.

As it happens, Edward Snowden’s revelations fit the logic of the system the NSA created to a T.  What the former agency contractor revealed, above all, was that the surveillance of anyone and everyone was the essence of our new world, and that not even the NSA would be exempt.  He made that agency his own object of surveillance and so opened it up to the scrutiny of the rest of the planet.  He gave its officials a dose of their own medicine.

Much of the ensuing outrage from the U.S. intelligence community, including the calls for his head, the cries of “treason,” the demands to bring him to “justice,” and so on, reflect outrage over the fact that the agency had gotten a full-scale dose of its own rules.  It turns out that you don’t have to be an ordinary citizen or a world leader to feel terrible when someone appropriates the right to surveil your life.  When it happened to agency honchos, they undoubtedly felt just like Merkel or Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff or so many other figures who discovered that their lives and communications weren’t private and weren’t their own.  In a perfectly human manner, reality being far too ugly for their taste, they wanted payback.

There’s humor in the fact that the key figures involved in creating the foundations of a new, all-encompassing global security state simply couldn’t imagine the obvious happening.  Unfortunately, as TomDispatch regular and historian of U.S. surveillance practices Alfred McCoy points out, what the NSA set up, despite the blowback it’s now causing, is irresistible to Washington.  Not surprisingly, as new information about the agency’s methods continues to ooze out, the president’s recent NSA speech makes it clear that genuine “change” or “reform” isn’t on the agenda, that little that matters will alter in the NSA’s methodology, and that nothing will be allowed to shake the system itself. Tom

Surveillance and Scandal
Time-Tested Weapons for U.S. Global Power
By Alfred McCoy

For more than six months, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) have been pouring out from the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel, and Brazil’s O Globo, among other places.  Yet no one has pointed out the combination of factors that made the NSA’s expanding programs to monitor the world seem like such a slam-dunk development in Washington.  The answer is remarkably simple.  For an imperial power losing its economic grip on the planet and heading into more austere times, the NSA’s latest technological breakthroughs look like a bargain basement deal when it comes to projecting power and keeping subordinate allies in line — like, in fact, the steal of the century.  Even when disaster turned out to be attached to them, the NSA’s surveillance programs have come with such a discounted price tag that no Washington elite was going to reject them.

For well over a century, from the pacification of the Philippines in 1898 to trade negotiations with the European Union today, surveillance and its kissing cousins, scandal and scurrilous information, have been key weapons in Washington’s search for global dominion. Not surprisingly, in a post-9/11 bipartisan exercise of executive power, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have presided over building the NSA step by secret step into a digital panopticon designed to monitor the communications of every American and foreign leaders worldwide.

What exactly was the aim of such an unprecedented program of massive domestic and planetary spying, which clearly carried the risk of controversy at home and abroad? Here, an awareness of the more than century-long history of U.S. surveillance can guide us through the billions of bytes swept up by the NSA to the strategic significance of such a program for the planet’s last superpower. What the past reveals is a long-term relationship between American state surveillance and political scandal that helps illuminate the unacknowledged reason why the NSA monitors America’s closest allies.

Not only does such surveillance help gain intelligence advantageous to U.S. diplomacy, trade relations, and war-making, but it also scoops up intimate information that can provide leverage — akin to blackmail — in sensitive global dealings and negotiations of every sort. The NSA’s global panopticon thus fulfills an ancient dream of empire. With a few computer key strokes, the agency has solved the problem that has bedeviled world powers since at least the time of Caesar Augustus: how to control unruly local leaders, who are the foundation for imperial rule, by ferreting out crucial, often scurrilous, information to make them more malleable.

A Cost-Savings Bonanza With a Downside

Once upon a time, such surveillance was both expensive and labor intensive. Today, however, unlike the U.S. Army’s shoe-leather surveillance during World War I or the FBI’s break-ins and phone bugs in the Cold War years, the NSA can monitor the entire world and its leaders with only 100-plus probes into the Internet’s fiber optic cables.

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Peter Van Buren: 10 NSA Myths Debunked

9:41 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.

Protest Sign: Thank you Mr. Snowden, you are a fucking HERO

Peter Van Buren busts the government’s NSA propaganda myths.

A new book, as well as the first account written by a participant, remind us that, in the world of the national security state, when it comes to pure and simple illegality in the monitoring of, spying on, and surveillance of American citizens, there really is nothing new under the sun.  In a late-night break-in and theft in March 1971, eight antiwar activists — the Edward Snowdens of their moment — made off with the files of an obscure FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania.  These proved to contain documents incriminating the Bureau for operations designed to breed paranoia in the anti-Vietnam War movement and for what turned out to be illegal spying on Americans.

The activists, who remained anonymous and whom the FBI never found, sent relevant documents to journalists.  While some papers returned the documents under FBI pressure, the Washington Post began publishing pieces about them.  In this way, in what was then still an all-paper world, a distinctly non-digital, quite illegal break-in, an act of conscience aimed at pulling back the curtain on government illegality, began the unraveling of a massive, secret counterintelligence, or COINTELPRO, operation against Americans.  It had targeted both the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, and involved the use of agents provocateurs and blackmail, among many other illegal acts.  Without that break-in by the Media 8, J. Edgar Hoover’s “shadow FBI,” a criminal conspiracy at the heart of a developing national security state, might never have been revealed.  (The CIA, officially banned from domestic spying on Americans, turned out to be involved in massive surveillance as well.)

As a reporter at the Washington Post, Betty Medsger received some of the stolen documents and helped break the story back in 1971.  Now, in her new book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, several of those involved in the Media 8 break-in have finally identified themselves. In her personal account in the Guardian, one of the eight, Bonnie Raines, writes this of her modern counterpart: “Snowden was in a position to reveal things that nobody could dispute. He has performed a legitimate, necessary service. Unlike us, he revealed his own identity, and as a result, he’s sacrificed a lot.”

In our own time, despite Snowden, count on one thing: we undoubtedly don’t yet know the worst or most illegal aspects of this era of “intelligence.”  After all, while Snowden “liberated” up to 1.7 million National Security Agency documents (many of them not yet looked at, analyzed, or written about), there have been no similar twenty-first-century break-ins at the FBI, the CIA, or other parts of the American intelligence community (or for that matter at the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security).  Massive and shocking as the NSA revelations have been, the curtain has only been pulled back on a corner of the new Washington world that we, the people, continue to fund, even if we aren’t considered important enough to know anything about it.

In the meantime, the defenders of that world have been out in their legions reassuring us that we need know no more, that it’s all for our own good, that NSA surveillance stopped untold terror plots, and that it’s — really and truly! — not such a big deal.  Former State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren begs to differ and so takes us through the labyrinth of NSA defenses, point by point, showing just what our favorite Constitution-shredders have to say and why it doesn’t hold water. Tom

You Can’t Opt Out
10 NSA Myths Debunked
By Peter Van Buren

The debate Edward Snowden envisioned when he revealed the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) spying on Americans has taken a bad turn. Instead of a careful examination of what the NSA does, the legality of its actions, what risks it takes for what gains, and how effective the agency has been in its stated mission of protecting Americans, we increasingly have government officials or retired versions of the same demanding — quite literally — Snowden’s head and engaging in the usual fear-mongering over 9/11. They have been aided by a chorus of pundits, columnists, and present as well as former officials offering bumper-sticker slogans like “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” all the while claiming our freedom is in direct conflict with our security.

It’s time to face these arguments directly. So here are ten myths about NSA surveillance that need debunking. Let’s sort them out.

1) NSA surveillance is legal.

True, if perhaps you put “legal” in quotes. After all, so was slavery once upon a time in the U.S. and apartheid in South Africa. Laws represent what a government and sometimes perhaps even a majority of the people want at a given point in time. They change and are changeable; what once was a potential felony in Colorado is now a tourist draw.

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Nick Turse: Special Ops Goes Global

7:44 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Map of US Special Forces Around the World

US Special Forces stationed worldwide. Click for larger version. See bottom of post for map key.

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

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So consider the actions of the U.S. Special Operations Command flattering indeed to the larger U.S. military. After all, over recent decades the Pentagon has done something that once would have been inconceivable.  It has divided the whole globe, just about every inch of it, like a giant pie, into six command slices: U.S. European Command, or EUCOM (for Europe and Russia), U.S. Pacific Command, or PACOM (Asia), U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM (the Greater Middle East and part of North Africa), U.S. Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM (Latin America), and in this century, U.S. Northern Command, or NORTHCOM (the United States, Canada, and Mexico), and starting in 2007, U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM (most of Africa).

The ambitiousness of the creeping decision to bring every inch of the planet under the watchful eyes of U.S. military commanders should take anyone’s breath away.  It’s the sort of thing that once might only have been imaginable in movies where some truly malign and evil force planned to “conquer the world” and dominate Planet Earth for an eternity.  (And don’t forget that the Pentagon’s ambitions hardly stop at Earth’s boundaries. There are also commands for the heavens, U.S. Strategic Command, or STRATCOM, into which the U.S. Space Command was merged, and, most recent of all, the Internet, where U.S. Cyber Command, or CYBERCOM rules.)

Now, unnoticed and unreported, the process is being repeated.  Since 9/11, a secret military has been gestating inside the U.S. military.  It’s called U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).  At TomDispatch, both Nick Turse and Andrew Bacevich have covered its startling growth in these years.  Now, in a new post, Turse explores the way that command’s dreams of expansion on a global scale have led it to follow in the footsteps of the larger institution that houses it.

The special ops guys are, it seems, taking their own pie-cutter to the planet and slicing and dicing it into a similar set of commands, including most recently a NORTHCOM-style command for the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Once could be an anomaly or a mistake. Twice and you have a pattern, which catches a Washington urge to control planet Earth, an urge that, as the twenty-first century has already shown many times over, can only be frustrated. That this urge is playing out again in what, back in the Cold War days, used to be called “the shadows,” without publicity or attention of any sort, is notable in itself and makes Turse’s latest post all the more important. Tom

America’s Black-Ops Blackout
Unraveling the Secrets of the Military’s Secret Military
By Nick Turse

“Dude, I don’t need to play these stupid games. I know what you’re trying to do.”  With that, Major Matthew Robert Bockholt hung up on me.

More than a month before, I had called U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) with a series of basic questions: In how many countries were U.S. Special Operations Forces deployed in 2013? Are manpower levels set to expand to 72,000 in 2014?  Is SOCOM still aiming for growth rates of 3%-5% per year?  How many training exercises did the command carry out in 2013?  Basic stuff.

And for more than a month, I waited for answers.  I called.  I left messages.  I emailed.  I waited some more.  I started to get the feeling that Special Operations Command didn’t want me to know what its Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs and Delta Force commandos — the men who operate in the hottest of hotspots and most remote locales around the world — were doing.

Then, at the last moment, just before my filing deadline, Special Operations Command got back to me with an answer so incongruous, confusing, and contradictory that I was glad I had given up on SOCOM and tried to figure things out for myself.

I started with a blank map that quickly turned into a global pincushion.  It didn’t take long before every continent but Antarctica was bristling with markers indicating special operations forces’ missions, deployments, and interactions with foreign military forces in 2012-2013.  With that, the true size and scope of the U.S. military’s secret military began to come into focus.  It was, to say the least, vast.

A review of open source information reveals that in 2012 and 2013, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) were likely deployed to — or training, advising, or operating with the personnel of — more than 100 foreign countries.   And that’s probably an undercount.  In 2011, then-SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told TomDispatch that Special Operations personnel were annually sent to 120 countries around the world. They were in, that is, about 60% of the nations on the planet.  “We’re deployed in a number of locations,” was as specific as Bockholt would ever get when I talked to him in the waning days of 2013. And when SOCOM did finally get back to me with an eleventh hour answer, the number offered made almost no sense.

Despite the lack of official cooperation, an analysis by TomDispatch reveals SOCOM to be a command on the make with an already sprawling reach. As Special Operations Command chief Admiral William McRaven put it in SOCOM 2020, his blueprint for the future, it has ambitious aspirations to create “a Global SOF network of like-minded interagency allies and partners.”  In other words, in that future now only six years off, it wants to be everywhere.

The Rise of the Military’s Secret Military

Born of a failed 1980 raid to rescue American hostages in Iran (in which eight U.S. service members died), U.S. Special Operations Command was established in 1987.  Made up of units from all the service branches, SOCOM is tasked with carrying out Washington’s most specialized and secret missions, including assassinations, counterterrorist raids, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, psychological operations, foreign troop training, and weapons of mass destruction counter-proliferation operations.

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A Ripley’s Believe It or Not National Security State

7:17 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.

American Jihad 2014
The New Fundamentalists
By Tom Engelhardt

White House Tilt Shift

What would aliens think of our national security state?

In a 1950s civics textbook of mine, I can remember a Martian landing on Main Street, U.S.A., to be instructed in the glories of our political system.  You know, our tripartite government, checks and balances, miraculous set of rights, and vibrant democracy.  There was, Americans then thought, much to be proud of, and so for that generation of children, many Martians were instructed in the American way of life.  These days, I suspect, not so many.

Still, I wondered just what lessons might be offered to such a Martian crash-landing in Washington as 2014 begins.  Certainly checks, balances, rights, and democracy wouldn’t top any New Year’s list.  Since my childhood, in fact, that tripartite government has grown a fourth part, a national security state that is remarkably unchecked and unbalanced.  In recent times, that labyrinthine structure of intelligence agencies morphing into war-fighting outfits, the U.S. military (with its own secret military, the special operations forces, gestating inside it), and the Department of Homeland Security, a monster conglomeration of agencies that is an actual “defense department,” as well as a vast contingent of weapons makers, contractors, and profiteers bolstered by an army of lobbyists, has never stopped growing.  It has won the undying fealty of Congress, embraced the power of the presidency, made itself into a jobs program for the American people, and been largely free to do as it pleased with almost unlimited taxpayer dollars.

The expansion of Washington’s national security state — let’s call it the NSS — to gargantuan proportions has historically met little opposition.  In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, however, some resistance has arisen, especially when it comes to the “right” of one part of the NSS to turn the world into a listening post and gather, in particular, American communications of every sort.  The debate about this — invariably framed within the boundaries of whether or not we should have more security or more privacy and how exactly to balance the two — has been reasonably vigorous.  The problem is: it doesn’t begin to get at the real nature of the NSS or the problems it poses.

If I were to instruct that stray Martian lost in the nation’s capital, I might choose another framework entirely for my lesson.  After all, the focus of the NSS, which has like an incubus grown to monumental proportions inside the body of the political system, would seem distinctly monomaniacal, if only we could step outside our normal way of thinking for a moment.  At a cost of nearly a trillion dollars a year, its main global enemy consists of thousands of lightly armed jihadis and wannabe jihadis scattered mainly across the backlands of the planet.  They are capable of causing genuine damage — though far less to the United States than numerous other countries — but not of shaking our way of life.  And yet for the leaders, bureaucrats, corporate cronies, rank and file, and acolytes of the NSS, it’s a focus that can never be intense enough on behalf of a system that can never grow large enough or be well funded enough.

None of the frameworks we normally call on to understand the national security state capture the irrationality, genuine inanity, and actual madness that lie at its heart.  Perhaps reimagining what has developed in these last decades as a faith-based system — a new national religion — would help.  This, at least, is the way I would explain the new Washington to that wayward Martian.

Holy Warriors

Imagine what we call “national security” as, at heart, a proselytizing warrior religion.  It has its holy orders.  It has its sacred texts (classified).  It has its dogma and its warrior priests.  It has its sanctified promised land, known as “the homeland.”  It has its seminaries, which we call think tanks.  It is a monotheistic faith in that it broaches no alternatives to itself.  It is Manichaean in its view of the world.  As with so many religions, its god is an eye in the sky, an all-seeing Being who knows your secrets.

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Col. Manners Explains It All

8:18 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.

Soldier drinking tea

Etiquette for warfare and occupation with Col. Manners

[Note to TomDispatch Readers: News about the first original Dispatch Book, Ann Jones's They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars -- The Untold Story, continues to spread!  The Nation magazine has just published a particularly moving excerpt from it: "The Colonel, the Soldier, and the Caregiver: How the War Changed Charlie."  The book itself is a remarkable act of witness and a unique accounting of the true costs of war, up close and personal.  I urge you to pick up a copy.  And while we’re at it, on our return from Thanksgiving, we’re bringing back our good friend “Colonel Manners” to offer another TomDispatch-style satiric take on Washington and war. Tom]

The American Way of Manners
Col. Manners Answers Your Questions on the Etiquette of War, Nuclear Threats, and Surveillance
By Colonel Manners (with a helping hand from Tom Engelhardt)

[Editor’s Note: Many publications have advice columnists, but none has our old 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 questions from Americans puzzled by the abstruse intricacies of the American way of war and by the etiquette, manners, and language of the arcane national security world of Washington. Here is a sampling of his recent correspondence.]

Dear Col. Manners,

I’m a 17-year-old high school student with an interest in American records.  After college, I’m hoping to land a job with Guinness World Records.  So here’s my question: I notice that news reports regularly refer to the Afghan War as the “longest in American history.”  How is that possible?  The war began in October 2001 and it’s now December 2013.  Counting on my fingers, I get 12 years.  The Vietnam War began in 1961 and didn’t end until 1975 (with those famous images of helicopters going over the side of an aircraft carrier).  That’s 14 years by my count.  I’m proud of American records of every sort, but this doesn’t seem like one.  What am I doing wrong?

Proud in Toledo

Dear Proud,

You have a lot to be proud of and, as far as I can tell, you have just the right number of fingers.  It’s true that, historically, we’ve been numero uno among record-breaking countries.  Still, sometimes we get a little overeager.  This is one of those cases.  Clearly, those claiming the much desired “longest” title for Afghanistan are cheating by counting the Vietnam War as starting in 1964 with Congress’s Gulf of Tonkin resolution, or 1965 when the first official U.S. combat troops entered that country, not in 1961, when significant numbers of armed “advisors” initially arrived.

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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

Pratap Chatterjee: Big Bro Wants You

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.

Smartphone

NSA: Thanks for building our database.

Sometimes, the world sends you back to school. These last months have offered us a crash course — call it Surveillance 101 — in how Washington, enveloped in a penumbra of extreme secrecy, went to work creating a global surveillance state on a scale almost beyond the imagination. It was certainly beyond the imaginations, not to say the technological capabilities, of the grim totalitarian states of the previous century, whose efforts were overwhelmingly focused on surveiling and locking down their own citizens, not those outside their borders.

In this schooling process, an unknown 29-year-old, hired by a private contractor to work for the National Security Agency (NSA), became a global figure and most recently a nominee for the European Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov prize, that continent’s leading human rights award — and a rare European slap in the face to Washington. In the process, a journalist (Glenn Greenwald), a filmmaker (Laura Poitras), and the British Guardian, along with a host of bit players, created a global drama out of the documents Edward Snowden had liberated from the NSA’s secret universe. From Brazil to India, Belgium to China, the man chased implacably across the globe by the Obama administration has opened a genuine debate on the far-reaching nature of surveillance in our world and seems to be changing the mood of the planet.

Every few days now, yet more stories wash out of the crevasses of that secret world. Last week, there was the dramatic tale of Lavabit, a small email encryption site; a court made documents on the case public and so ungagged the owner, who had closed his own business rather than turn over the encryption keys to the kingdom to the government. Then there was Tor, a “tool designed to protect online anonymity” that most people (myself included) will never have heard of, but that the NSA targeted and attacked. And don’t forget that critique by the New York Times public editor: she took out after a front-page story in her own paper that accepted the unverified word of anonymous U.S. government sources on the significance of a piece the McClatchy news service had written about American “communications intercepts” of the online messages of al-Qaeda honchos.

And yet for all that we now know, and all that has been released but we have yet to absorb, it’s clear that we’re nowhere near fathoming the depths of the U.S. surveillance phenomenon. As Corpwatch’s Pratap Chatterjee shows today, for example, we still know remarkably little about the private surveillance outfits that are providing the NSA and other government agencies with the ability to know us far too well. Tom

The Data Hackers
Mining Your Information for Big Brother
By Pratap Chatterjee

Big Bro is watching you. Inside your mobile phone and hidden behind your web browser are little known software products marketed by contractors to the government that can follow you around anywhere. No longer the wide-eyed fantasies of conspiracy theorists, these technologies are routinely installed in all of our data devices by companies that sell them to Washington for a profit.

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David Vine: The Pentagon’s Italian Spending Spree

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.

Aerial Photo

The Pentagon, launching tomorrow’s wars today.

This may be a propitious moment to offer an up-to-date version of a classic riddle: Which came first, the chicken or the terrorist?  For many in this country, the Kenyan mall horror arrived out of the blue, out of nowhere, out of a place and a time without context. Next thing you know, it’s all 24/7-ing on your TV set. You can’t avoid it. The grim news, the slaughter, the four-day stand-off, the “exclusive” video of destruction and death, the teary faces, the dramatic tales, the cruelty and the killing, the collapse of part of the building and scenes of utter desolation, the shifting casualty counts, and suddenly, scores of FBI agents — from what once upon a time was a U.S. domestic law enforcement agency — on the ground in distant Nairobi checking out biometric data in the rubble, and you’re being told about a “direct threat” to “the homeland” from a scary Somali terror group called al-Shabab whose killers in Kenya may (or may not) have included recruited Somali-Americans and even a British woman known as “the white widow.”

The idea that there was some history to all of this, that it involved Washington and the U.S. military, secret CIA prisons and covert drone strikes, the funding, supplying, and organizing of proxy African troops, and the thorough destabilizing of Somalia because Washington feared an Islamic group that was actually unifying the country — out of which al-Shabab (“the youth”) emerged — seems unbelievable, though it is simple fact.  And here’s a reality that you won’t see on your TV screen 24/7: if al-Shabab is a nightmare, history has joined it to Washington at the hip.  The particular kind of destabilization that gripped Somalia in the post-9/11 years, including a U.S.-inspired Ethiopian invasion and years later a Kenyan version of the same, has now spread to Kenya itself.  As Nick Turse has argued at this site, this sort of destabilization is now happening across the African continent.  The U.S. military, along with the CIA and U.S. intelligence, is moving more deeply into Africa, and in the process, from Libya to the Central African Republic, it is helping to turn the continent into Terror Central.

Those scores of FBI agents combing the ruins in Nairobi (as well as the beefed up CIA contingent now dealing with the situation) aren’t the answer to a sudden crisis.  They are signs of a long-term problem; they are the chicken to the terrorist egg — and which came first almost doesn’t matter anymore.  If you decide that anyone, anywhere, on Earth can be an imminent “danger” to the homeland and you’ve already transformed the very idea of “national” defense into international defense, and nowhere is too far to go to “defend” yourself, then you are always going to be stirring things up in distant places in ways you don’t understand and with a hatful of unintended consequences.

And don’t think that all of this is just so much seat-of-the-pants happenstance either.  The planning for America’s militarized African presence has been going on for years, even if beyond the sight of most Americans, as this site has repeatedly reported.  Today, TomDispatch regular David Vine explores another previously unnoted aspect of Washington’s preparations for future wars in a destabilizing Africa: a startling traffic jam of U.S. military bases in Italy.  Someday, in some unexpected way, the Italian base story will suddenly break big-time in the mainstream and, once again, it will seem to arrive out of the blue, out of nowhere, without any context, and everyone will be shocked, shocked (unless, of course, you read it first at TomDispatch). Tom

The Italian Job
How the Pentagon Is Using Your Tax Dollars to Turn Italy into a Launching Pad for the Wars of Today and Tomorrow
By David Vine

The Pentagon has spent the last two decades plowing hundreds of millions of tax dollars into military bases in Italy, turning the country into an increasingly important center for U.S. military power. Especially since the start of the Global War on Terror in 2001, the military has been shifting its European center of gravity south from Germany, where the overwhelming majority of U.S. forces in the region have been stationed since the end of World War II. In the process, the Pentagon has turned the Italian peninsula into a launching pad for future wars in Africa, the Middle East, and beyond.

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Ann Jones: Americans Can’t Remember, Afghans Will Never Forget

6:40 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.

US Army soldier in Afghanistan

Ann Jones on the ongoing, forgotten US war in Afghanistan.

The Afghan War is officially winding down. American casualties, generally from towns and suburbs you’ve never heard of unless you were born there, are still coming in. Though far fewer American troops are in the field with Afghan forces, devastating “insider attacks” in which a soldier or policeman turns his gun on his American allies, trainers, or mentors still periodically occur. Civilian casualties continue to rise. “Surgically precise” U.S. air and drone strikes still mysteriously kill Afghan civilians. And as U.S. combat troops withdraw, Afghan-on-Afghan fighting is actually increasing, with the U.S.-trained army taking almost Vietnam-level, possibly unsustainable casualties (100 or more dead a week), while the police are similarly hit hard.

Meanwhile, as TomDispatch regular Ann Jones points out, our second longest war has already played Houdini, doing a remarkable disappearing job in “the homeland.” Almost 12 years after it began, no one here, it seems, is considering how to assess American “success” on that distant battlefield. But were we to do so, what possible gauge might we use? Here’s a suggestion: how about opium production? In 1979, the year America’s first Afghan war (against the Soviets) began, that country was producing just 250 tons of opium; by the early years of the post-9/11 American occupation of the country, that figure had hit 3,400 tons. Between 2006 and the present, it’s ranged from a 2007 high of 8,200 tons to a low of just under 5,000 tons. Officials of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service now claim that 40,000 tons of illicit opiates have been stockpiled in Afghanistan, mostly to be marketed abroad. As of 2012, it was the world’s leading supplier of opium, with 74% of the global market, a figure that was expected to hit 90% as U.S. combat troops leave (and foreign aid flees). In other words, success in an endless war in that country has meant creating the world’s first true narco-state. It’s a record to consider. Not for nothing, it seems, were all those billons of dollars expended, not without accomplishments do we leave (if we are actually leaving).

Today, Ann Jones, who spent years in Afghanistan working with Afghan women and wrote a striking book, Kabul in Winter, based on her experiences, considers the Afghan end game and what to make of it. In 2010-2011, she put on her combat boots and headed back to that country, embedding with U.S. troops. Then, having previously focused on the toll the war had taken on Afghan civilians, she decided to see for herself, up close and personal, what that war’s cost was for American soldiers. The result, I believe, is a signal achievement and one of the best pieces of reportage from that war. She followed American war-wounded from a trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to medical facilities in Germany, then on to Walter Reed Hospital, and — for those who made it — finally back to their homes. The result is the first original offering from this website’s publishing arm, Dispatch Books: They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — the Untold Story. Believe me, it’s groundbreaking, it’s breathtaking, and I’m proud that, in conjunction with Haymarket Books, we will be publishing it this November 7th.

Nothing like her account exists. Of it, Jonathan Schell, no stranger to the costs of war, wrote: “For a decade, the independent journalist Ann Jones has, through her firsthand reporting of war and life on the ground in Afghanistan, given us more of the reality of that conflict than any dozen of her well-connected colleagues in the established media, attuned as they have been to the cant and spin pouring out of official mouths. Now, she has turned her shrewd, wise, compassionate, reality-bound eye to some of the bitterest facts of all: the almost unimaginable suffering of the American soldiers wounded and otherwise impaired in the conflict. The result is a harrowing and compelling tale that is hard to bear but must be borne if we are to understand the rolling disaster this country unleashed in Afghanistan more than a decade ago.” Tom

The Forgotten War 
12 Years in Afghanistan Down the Memory Hole 
By Ann Jones

Will the U.S. still be meddling in Afghanistan 30 years from now? If history is any guide, the answer is yes. And if history is any guide, three decades from now most Americans will have only the haziest idea why.

Since the 1950s, the U.S. has been trying to mold that remote land to its own desires, first through an aid “war” in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union; then, starting as the 1970s ended, an increasingly bitter and brutally hot proxy war with the Soviets meant to pay them back for supporting America’s enemies during the war in Vietnam. One bad war leads to another.

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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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