The first thing any thinking person learns about the Internet is not to trust everything you see there. While you can find much well-researched and reliable material, you’ll also encounter disinformation, spoofs, doctored photographs and crazy conspiracy theories. That would seem to be a basic rule of the Web – caveat emptor and be careful what you do with the information – unless you’re following a preferred neocon narrative. Then, nothing to worry about.
A devil-may-care approach to Internet-sourced material has been particularly striking when it comes to the case of the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. It has now become de rigueur on the part of the West’s mainstream news outlets to tout the dubious work of a British Internet outlet called Bellingcat, which bases its research on photographs and other stuff pulled off the Internet.
Bellingcat’s founder Eliot Higgins also has made journalistic errors that would have ended the careers of many true professionals, yet he continues to be cited and hailed by the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post, which have historically turned up their noses about Internet-based journalism.
The secret to Higgins’s success seems to be that he reinforces what the U.S. government’s propagandists want people to believe but lack the credibility to sell. It’s a great business model, marketing yourself as a hip “citizen journalist” who just happens to advance Official Washington’s “group thinks.”
We saw similar opportunism among many wannabe media stars in 2002-03 when U.S. commentators across the political spectrum expressed certitude about Iraq’s hidden stockpiles of WMD. Even the catastrophic consequences of that falsehood did little to dent the career advancements of the Iraq-WMD promoters. There was almost no accountability, proving that there truly is safety in numbers. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Through the US Media Lens Darkly.”]
But there’s always room for new recruits. Blogger Higgins made his first splash by purporting to prove the accuracy of U.S. government claims about the Syrian government firing rockets carrying sarin gas that killed hundreds of civilians on Aug. 21, 2013, outside Damascus, an incident that came close to precipitating a major U.S. bombing campaign against the Syrian military.
Those of us who noted the startling lack of evidence in the Syria-sarin case – much as we had questioned the Iraq-WMD claims in 2002-03 – were brushed aside by Big Media which rushed to embrace Higgins who claimed to have proved the U.S. government’s charges. Even The New York Times clambered onboard the Higgins bandwagon.
Higgins and others mocked legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh when he cited intelligence sources indicating that the attack appeared to be a provocation staged by Sunni extremists to draw the U.S. military into the war, not an attack by the Syrian military.
Despite Hersh’s long record for breaking major stories – including the My Lai massacre from the Vietnam War, the “Family Jewels” secrets of the CIA in the 1970s, and the Abu Ghraib torture during the Iraq War – The New Yorker and The Washington Post refused to run his articles, forcing Hersh to publish in the London Review of Books.
Hersh was then treated like the crazy uncle in the attic, while Higgins – an unemployed British bureaucrat operating from his home in Leicester, England – was the new golden boy. While Higgins was applauded, Hersh was shunned.
But Hersh’s work was buttressed by the findings of top aeronautical scientists who studied the one rocket that carried sarin into the Damascus suburb of Ghouta and concluded that it could have traveled only about two kilometers, far less distance than was assumed by Official Washington’s “group think,” which had traced the firing position to about nine kilometers away at a Syrian military base near the presidential palace of Bashar al-Assad.
“It’s clear and unambiguous this munition could not have come from Syrian government-controlled areas as the White House claimed,” Theodore Postol, a professor in the Science, Technology, and Global Security Working Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told MintPress News.
Postol published “Possible Implications of Faulty US Technical Intelligence in the Damascus Nerve Agent Attack of August 21st, 2013” in January 2014 along with Richard Lloyd, an analyst at the military contractor Tesla Laboratories who was a United Nations weapons inspector and has to his credit two books, 40 patents and more than 75 academic papers on weapons technology.
Postol added in the MintPress interview that Higgins “has done a very nice job collecting information on a website. As far as his analysis, it’s so lacking any analytical foundation it’s clear he has no idea what he’s talking about.”
In the wake of the Postol-Lloyd report, The New York Times ran what amounted to a grudging retraction of its earlier claims. Yet, to this day, the Obama administration has failed to withdraw its rush-to-judgment charges against the Syrian government or present any verifiable evidence to support them.
This unwillingness of the Obama administration to fess up has served Higgins well, in that there is still uncertainty regarding the facts of the case. After all, once a good propaganda club is forged for bludgeoning an adversary, it’s not something Official Washington lays down easily. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Collapsing Syria-Sarin Case.“]
The MH-17 Mystery
So, Higgins and Bellingcat moved on to the mystery surrounding MH-17, where again the Obama administration rushed to a judgment, pinning the blame on the Russians and ethnic Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine who were fighting the U.S.-backed regime in Kiev.
Though again hard evidence was lacking – at least publicly – Official Washington and its many minions around the world formed a new “group think” – Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was responsible for the 298 deaths.
On July 20, 2014, just three days after the MH-17 shoot-down in an article with the definitive title “U.S. official: Russia gave systems,” The Washington Post reported that an anonymous U.S. official said the U.S. government had “confirmed that Russia supplied sophisticated missile launchers to separatists in eastern Ukraine and that attempts were made to move them back across the Russian border.”
This official told the Post that there wasn’t just one Buk battery, but three. The supposed existence of these Buk systems in the rebels’ hands was central to the case blaming Putin, who indeed would have been highly irresponsible if he had delivered such powerful weapons – capable of hitting a commercial airliner flying at 33,000 feet as MH-17 was – to a ragtag rebel force of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.
But there were problems with this version, including the fact that – as reflected in a “government assessment” from the Director of National Intelligence released on July 22, 2014, (or five days after the crash) – U.S. intelligence listed other weapons allegedly provided by the Russians to the ethnic Russian rebels but not a Buk anti-aircraft missile system.
In other words, two days after the Post cited a U.S. official claiming that the Russians had given the rebels the Buks, the DNI’s “government assessment” made no reference to a delivery of one, let alone three powerful Buk batteries.
And that absence of evidence came in the context of the DNI larding the report with every possible innuendo to implicate the Russians, including references to “social media” entries. But there was no mention of a Buk delivery.
The significance of this missing link is hard to overstate. At the time eastern Ukraine was the focus of extraordinary U.S. intelligence collection because of the potential for the crisis to spin out of control and start World War III. Plus, a Buk missile battery is large and difficult to conceal. The missiles themselves are 16-feet-long and are usually pulled around by truck.
U.S. spy satellites, which supposedly can let you read a license plate in Moscow, surely would have picked up these images. And, if – for some inexplicable reason – a Buk battery was missed before July 17, 2014, it would surely have been spotted on an after-action review of the satellite imagery. But the U.S. government has released nothing of the kind – not three, not two, not one.
Instead, in the days after the MH-17 crash, I was told by a source that U.S. intelligence had spotted Buk systems in the area but they appeared to be under Ukrainian government control. The source who had been briefed by U.S. intelligence analysts said the likely missile battery that launched the fateful missile was manned by troops dressed in what looked like Ukrainian uniforms.
At that point in time, the source said CIA analysts were still not ruling out the possibility that the troops were actually eastern Ukrainian rebels in similar uniforms but the initial assessment was that the troops were Ukrainian soldiers. There also was the suggestion that the soldiers involved were undisciplined and possibly drunk, since the imagery showed what looked like beer bottles scattered around the site, the source said. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “What Did US Spy Satellites See in Ukraine?”]
Subsequently, the source said, these analysts reviewed other intelligence data, including recorded phone intercepts, and concluded that the shoot-down was carried out by a rogue element of the Ukrainian government, working with a rabidly anti-Russian oligarch, but that senior Ukrainian leaders, such as President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, were not implicated. However, I have not been able to determine if this assessment was a dissident opinion or a consensus within U.S. intelligence circles.
Another intelligence source told me that CIA analysts did brief Dutch authorities during the preparation of the Dutch Safety Board’s report but that the U.S. information remained classified and unavailable for public release. In the Dutch report, there is no reference to U.S.-supplied information although the report reflects sensitive details about Russian-made weapons systems, secrets declassified by Moscow for the investigation.
Into this propaganda-laced controversy stepped Eliot Higgins and Bellingcat with their “citizen journalism” and Internet-based investigation. The core of their project was to scour the Internet for images purportedly of a Buk missile system rumbling through the eastern Ukrainian countryside in the days before the MH-17 crash. After finding several such images, Bellingcat insistently linked the Buk missiles to the Russians and the rebels.
Supposedly, this investigative approach is better than what we traditional journalists do in such cases, which is to find sources with vetted intelligence information and get them to share it with us, while also testing it out against verifiable facts and the views of outside experts. Our approach is far from perfect – and often requires some gutsy whistle-blowing by honest officials – but it is how many important secrets have been revealed.
A central flaw in the Internet-based approach is that it is very easy for a skilled propagandist in a government dirty-tricks office or just some clever jerk with Photoshop software to manufacture realistic-looking images or documents and palm them off either directly to gullible people or through propaganda fronts that appear as non-governmental entities but are really bought-and-paid-for conduits of disinformation.
This idea of filtering propaganda through supposedly disinterested – and thus more credible – outlets has been part of the intelligence community’s playbook for many years. I was once told by Gen. Edward Lansdale, one of the pioneers of CIA psychological operations, that his preference always was to plant propaganda in news agencies that were perceived as objective, that way people were more believing.
After the Pentagon Papers and Watergate scandals of the 1970s, when the American people were suspicious of whatever they heard from the U.S. government, the Reagan administration in the 1980s organized inter-agency task forces to apply CIA-style techniques to manage the perceptions of the U.S. public about foreign events. The architect was the CIA’s top propaganda specialist, Walter Raymond Jr., who was transferred to the National Security Council staff to skirt legal prohibitions against the CIA manipulating Americans.
Raymond, who counseled his subordinates in the art of gluing black hats on U.S. adversaries and white hats on U.S. friends, recommended that U.S. propaganda be funneled through organizations that had “credibility in the political center.” Among his favorite outlets were Freedom House, a non-governmental “human rights” group that was discreetly funded by the U.S. government, and the Atlantic Council, a think tank led by former senior U.S. government officials and promoting strong NATO ties. [For more background, see “How Reagan’s Propaganda Succeeded.”]
The same process continues to this day with some of the same trusted outlets, such as Freedom House and Atlantic Council, but requiring some new fronts that have yet to be identified as propaganda conduits. Many receive discreet or backdoor funding from the U.S. government through the National Endowment for Democracy or other U.S. entities.
For instance, the U.S. Agency for International Development (along with billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Institute) funds the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which targets governments that have fallen into U.S. disfavor and which are then undermined by reporting that hypes alleged ties to organized crime and corruption. The USAID/Soros-funded OCCRP also collaborates with Bellingcat.
Higgins has become a favorite, too, of the Atlantic Council, which has partnered with him for a report about Russian involvement in the Ukraine conflict, and he wins praise from the Soros-financed Human Rights Watch, which has lobbied for U.S. military intervention against the Assad government in Syria. (Like Higgins, Human Rights Watch pushed discredited theories about where Syrian sarin-gas attack originated.)
Yet, because Higgins’s claims dovetail so neatly with U.S. government propaganda and neoconservative narratives, he is treated like an oracle by credulous journalists, the Oracle of Leicester. For instance, Australia’s “60 Minutes” dispatched a crew to Higgins’s house to get the supposed coordinates for where the so-called “Buk getaway video” was filmed – another curious scene that appeared mysteriously on the Internet.
When “60 Minutes” got to the spot near Luhansk in eastern Ukraine where Higgins sent them, the location did not match up with the video. Although there were some billboards in the video and at the site in Luhansk, they were different shapes and all the other landmarks were off, too. Still, the Australian news crew pretended that it was at the right place, using some video sleight-of-hand to snooker the viewers.
However, when I published screen grabs of the getaway video and the Luhansk location, it was clear to anyone that the scenes didn’t match up.
Yet, instead of simply admitting that they were in error, the “60 Minutes” host did a follow-up insulting me, asserting that he had gone to the place identified by Higgins and claiming that there was a utility pole in the video that looked something like a utility pole in Luhansk.
At this point, the Australian program went from committing an embarrassing error to engaging in journalistic fraud. Beyond the fact that utility poles tend to look alike, nothing else matched up and, indeed, the landmarks around the utility poles were markedly different, too. A house next to the pole in the video didn’t appear in the scene filmed by the Australian crew. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “A Reckless Stand-upper on MH-17.”]
An Enduring Aura
But Higgins’s aura was such that objective reality and logic no longer seemed to matter. That two utility poles looked somewhat alike when nothing else in a video matched up at all somehow proved you were at the right location simply because the Oracle of Leicester had sent you there.
I’ve known many excellent journalists who saw their careers ended because they were accused of minor slip-ups on difficult stories when they were clearly correct on the big picture. Think, for instance, of the harsh treatment meted out to Gary Webb on Nicaraguan Contra drug trafficking and Mary Mapes on George W. Bush’s shirking his National Guard duty. But different rules clearly apply if you make serious errors in line with U.S. propaganda. For example, think of virtually the entire mainstream news media buying into the false Iraq-WMD claims and facing almost no accountability at all.
The second set of rules apparently applies to Higgins and Bellingcat, who have the mainstream U.S. media on bended knee despite a record of journalistic misfeasance or malfeasance. In editorials about the Dutch Safety Board report last week , both The New York Times and The Washington Post hailed Bellingcat – as if they were recognizing that the old mainstream media had to rub shoulders with supposedly “new media” to have any credibility. It was a moment that would have made the CIA’s Lansdale and Raymond smile.
The Post’s neocon editorial writers, who have backed “regime change” in Iraq, Syria and other targeted countries, viewed the Dutch Safety Board report as vindicating the initial rush to judgment blaming the Russians and praised the work of Bellingcat – although the Dutch report pointedly did not say who was responsible or even where the fatal missile was launched.
“More forensic investigation will be necessary to identify precisely where the missile came from, but the safety board identified a 123-square-mile area mostly held by the separatists,” the Post wrote, although a different way of saying the same thing would be to note that the launch area identified by the report could suggest the firing by either Ukrainian forces or the rebels.
The Post did observe what has been one of my repeated complaints — that the Obama administration is withholding the U.S. intelligence evidence that Secretary of State John Kerry claimed three days after the shoot-down had identified the precise location of the launch.
Yet, the subsequent U.S. silence on that point has been the dog not barking. Why would the U.S. government, which has been trying to pin the shoot-down on the Russians, hide such crucial evidence – unless perhaps it doesn’t corroborate the desired anti-Putin propaganda theme?
Yet, the Post sought to turn this otherwise inexplicable U.S. silence into further condemnation of Putin, writing: “A Dutch criminal investigation is underway that may identify the individuals who ordered and carried out the shootdown. We hope the prosecutors will have access to precise data scooped up by U.S. technical means at the time of the shootdown, which made clear the responsibility of Russian-backed forces.”
So, the Post sees nothing suspicious about the U.S. government’s sudden reticence after its initial loud rush-to-judgment. Note also the Post’s lack of skepticism about what these “technical means” had scooped up. Though the U.S. government has refused to release this evidence – in effect, giving those responsible for the shoot-down a 15-month head start to get away and cover their tracks – the Post simply takes the official word that the Russians are responsible.
Then comes the praise for Bellingcat : “Already, outside investigations based on open sources and social media, such as by the citizen journalist group Bellingcat, have shown the Buk launcher was probably wheeled into Ukraine in June from the Russian 53rd Air Defense Brigade, based outside Kursk. The criminal probe should aim to determine whether Russian servicemen were operating the unit when it was fired or helping the separatists fire it.”
Again, the Post shows little skepticism about this version of events, leaving only the question of whether Russian soldiers fired the missile themselves or helped the rebels fire it. But there are obvious problems with this narrative. If, indeed, the one, two or three Russian Buk batteries were rumbling around eastern Ukraine the month before the shoot-down, why did neither U.S. intelligence nor Ukrainian intelligence notice this?
And, we know from the Dutch report that the Ukrainians were insisting up until the shoot-down that the rebels had no surface-to-air missiles that could threaten commercial airliners at 33,000 feet. However, the Ukrainians did have Buk systems that they were positioning toward the east, presumably to defend against possible Russian air incursions.
On July 16, 2014, one day before MH-17 was hit, a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter-jet was shot down by what Ukrainian authorities said was an air-to-air missile, according to the Dutch report. Presumably the missile was fired by a Russian fighter patrolling the nearby border.
So, if the Ukrainians already believed that Russian warplanes were attacking along the border, it would make sense that Ukrainian air defense units would be on a hair-trigger about shooting down Russian jets entering or leaving Ukrainian airspace.
Even if you don’t want to believe what I was told about U.S. intelligence analysts suspecting that a rogue Ukrainian military operation targeted MH-17, doesn’t it make sense that an undisciplined Ukrainian anti-aircraft battery might have mistakenly identified MH-17 as a Russian military aircraft leaving Ukrainian airspace? The Ukrainians had the means and the opportunity and possibly a motive – after the shoot-down of the SU-25 just one day earlier.
The Dutch Safety Board report is silent, too, on the question raised by Russian officials as to why the Ukrainians had turned on their radar used to guide Buk missiles in the days before MH-17 was shot down. That allegation is neither confirmed nor denied.
Regarding Bellingcat’s reliance on Internet-based photos to support its theories, there is the additional problem of Der Spiegel’s report last October revealing that the German intelligence agency, the BND, challenged some of the images provided by the Ukrainian government as “manipulated.” According to Der Spiegel, the BND blamed the rebels for firing the fateful Buk but said the missile battery came not from the Russians but from Ukrainian government stockpiles. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Germans Clear Russia in MH-17 Case.”]
However, a European source told me that the BND’s information was not as categorical as Der Spiegel reported. And, according to the Dutch report, the Ukrainian government reported that a Buk system that the rebels captured from a Ukrainian air base was not operational, a point where the rebels are in agreement. They also say they had no working Buks.
Yet, even without the BND’s warning, great caution should be shown when using evidence deposited often anonymously on the Internet. The idea of “crowd-sourcing” these investigations also raises the possibility that a skillful disinformationist could phony up a photograph and then direct an unwitting or collaborating reporter to the image.
Though I am no expert in the art of doctoring photographs, my journalism training has taught me to approach every possible flaw in the evidence skeptically. That’s especially true when some anonymous blogger directs you to an image or article whose bona fides cannot be established.
One of the strengths of old-fashioned journalism was that you could generally count on the professional integrity of the news agencies distributing photographs. Even then, however, there have been infamous cases of misrepresentations and hoaxes. Those possibilities multiply when images of dubious provenance pop up on the Internet.
In the case of MH-17, some photo analysts have raised specific questions about the authenticity of images used by Bellingcat and others among the “Russia-did-it” true-believers. We have already seen in the case of the “Buk-getaway video” how Higgins sent a reporting team from Australia’s “60 Minutes” halfway around the world to end up at the wrong spot (but then to use video fakery to deceive the viewers).
So, the chances of getting duped must be taken into account when dealing with unverifiable sources of information, a risk that rises exponentially when there’s also the possibility of clever intelligence operatives salting the Internet with disinformation. For the likes of psy-ops innovator Lansdale and propaganda specialist Raymond, the Internet would have been a devil’s playground.
Which is one more reason why President Barack Obama should release as much of the intelligence evidence as he can that pinpoints where the fateful MH-17 missile was fired and who fired it. [For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Plays Games with MH-17 Tragedy.”]
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
In this age of pervasive media, the primary method of social control is through the creation of narratives delivered to the public through newspapers, TV, radio, computers, cell phones and any other gadget that can convey information. This reality has given rise to an obsession among the power elite to control as much of this messaging as possible.
So, regarding U.S. relations toward the world, we see the State Department, the White House, Pentagon, NATO and other agencies pushing various narratives to sell the American people and other populations on how they should view U.S. policies, rivals and allies. The current hot phrase for this practice is “strategic communications” or Stratcom, which blends psychological operations, propaganda and P.R. into one mind-bending smoothie.
I have been following this process since the early 1980s when the Reagan administration sought to override “the Vietnam Syndrome,” a public aversion to foreign military interventions that followed the Vietnam War. To get Americans to “kick” this syndrome, Reagan’s team developed “themes” about overseas events that would push American “hot buttons.”
Tapping into the Central Intelligence Agency’s experience in psy-ops targeted at foreign audiences, President Ronald Reagan and CIA Director William J. Casey assembled a skilled team inside the White House led by CIA propaganda specialist Walter Raymond Jr.
From his new perch on the National Security Council staff, Raymond oversaw inter-agency task forces to sell interventionist policies in Central America and other trouble spots. The game, as Raymond explained it in numerous memos to his underlings, was to glue black hats on adversaries and white hats on allies, whatever the truth really was.
The fact that many of the U.S.-backed forces – from the Nicaraguan Contras to the Guatemalan military – were little more than corrupt death squads couldn’t be true, at least according to psy-ops doctrine. They had to be presented to the American public as wearing white hats. Thus, the Contras became the “moral equals of our Founding Fathers” and Guatemala’s murderous leader Efrain Rios Montt was getting a “bum rap” on human rights, according to the words scripted for President Reagan.
The scheme also required that anyone – say, a journalist, a human rights activist or a congressional investigator – who contradicted this white-hat mandate must be discredited, marginalized or destroyed, a routine of killing any honest messenger.
But it turned out that the most effective part of this propaganda strategy was to glue black hats on adversaries. Since nearly all foreign leaders have serious flaws, it proved much easier to demonize them – and work the American people into war frenzies – than it was to persuade the public that Washington’s favored foreign leaders were actually paragons of virtue.
An Unflattering Hat
Once the black hat was jammed on a foreign leader’s head, you could say whatever you wanted about him and disparage any American who questioned the extreme depiction as a “fill-in-the-blank apologist” or a “stooge” or some other ugly identifier that would either silence the dissenter or place him or her outside the bounds of acceptable debate.
Given the careerist conformity of Washington, nearly everyone fell into line, including news outlets and human rights groups. If you wanted to retain your “respectability” and “influence,” you agreed with the conventional wisdom. So, with every foreign controversy, we got a new “group think” about the new “enemy.” The permissible boundary of each debate was set mostly by the neoconservatives and their “liberal interventionist” sidekicks.
That this conformity has not served American national interests is obvious. Take, for example, the disastrous Iraq War, which has cost the U.S. taxpayers an estimated $1 trillion, led to the deaths of some 4,500 American soldiers, killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and unleashed chaos across the strategic Middle East and now into Europe.
Most Americans now agree that the Iraq War “wasn’t worth it.” But it turns out that Official Washington’s catastrophic “group thinks” don’t just die well-deserved deaths. Like a mutating virus, they alter shape as the outside conditions change and survive in a new form.
So, when the public caught on to the Iraq War deceptions, the neocon/liberal-hawk pundits just came up with a new theme to justify their catastrophic Iraq strategy, i.e., “the successful surge,” the dispatch of 30,000 more U.S. troops to the war zone. This theme was as bogus as the WMD lies but the upbeat storyline was embraced as the new “group think” in 2007-2008.
The “successful surge” was a myth, in part, because many of its alleged “accomplishments” actually predated the “surge.” The program to pay off Sunnis to stop shooting at Americans and the killing of “Al Qaeda in Iraq” leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi both occurred in 2006, before the surge even began. And its principal goal of resolving sectarian grievances between Sunni and Shiite was never accomplished.
But Official Washington wrapped the “surge” in the bloody flag of “honoring the troops,” who were credited with eventually reducing the level of Iraqi violence by carrying out the “heroic” surge strategy as ordered by President Bush and devised by the neocons. Anyone who noted the holes in this story was dismissed as disrespecting “the troops.”
The cruel irony was that the neocon pundits, who had promoted the Iraq War and then covered their failure by hailing the “surge,” had little or no regard for “the troops” who mostly came for lower socio-economic classes and were largely abstractions to the well-dressed, well-schooled and well-paid talking heads who populate the think tanks and op-ed pages.
Safely ensconced behind the “successful surge” myth, the Iraq War devotees largely escaped any accountability for the chaos and bloodshed they helped cause. Thus, the same “smart people” were in place for the Obama presidency and just as ready to buy into new interventionist “group thinks” – gluing black hats on old and new adversaries, such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and, most significantly, Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
In 2011, led this time by the liberal interventionists – the likes of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and White House aide Samantha Power – the U.S. military and some NATO allies took aim at Libya, scoffing at Gaddafi’s claim that his country was threatened by Islamic terrorists. It was not until Gaddafi’s military was destroyed by Western airstrikes (and he was tortured and murdered) that it became clear that he wasn’t entirely wrong about the Islamic extremists.
The jihadists seized large swaths of Libyan territory, killed the U.S. ambassador and three other diplomatic personnel in Benghazi, and forced the closing of U.S. and other Western embassies in Tripoli. For good measure, Islamic State terrorists forced captured Coptic Christians to kneel on a Libyan beach before beheading them.
Amid this state of anarchy, Libya has been the source of hundreds of thousands of migrants trying to reach Europe by boat. Thousands have drowned in the Mediterranean. But, again, the leading U.S. interventionists faced no accountability. Clinton is the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Power is now U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Also, in 2011, a similar uprising occurred in Syria against the secular regime headed by President Assad, with nearly identical one-sided reporting about the “white-hatted” opposition and the “black-hatted” government. Though many protesters indeed appear to have been well-meaning opponents of Assad, Sunni terrorists penetrated the opposition from the beginning.
This gray reality was almost completely ignored in the Western press, which almost universally denounced the government when it retaliated against opposition forces for killing police and soldiers. The West depicted the government response as unprovoked attacks on “peaceful protesters.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.”]
This one-sided narrative nearly brought the U.S. military to the point of another intervention after Aug. 21, 2013, when a mysterious sarin gas attack killed hundreds in a suburb of Damascus. Official Washington’s neocons and the pro-interventionists in the State Department immediately blamed Assad’s forces for the atrocity and demanded a bombing campaign.
But some U.S. intelligence analysts suspected a “false-flag” provocation by Islamic terrorists seeking to get the U.S. air force to destroy Assad’s army for them. At the last minute, President Obama steered away from that cliff and – with the help of President Putin – got Assad to surrender Syria’s chemical arsenal, while Assad continued to deny a role in the sarin attack. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Collapsing Syria-Sarin Case.”]
Upset over Iran
Putin also assisted Obama on another front with another demonized “enemy,” Iran. In late 2013, the two leaders collaborated in getting Iran to make significant concessions on its nuclear program, clearing the way for negotiations that eventually led to stringent international controls.
These two diplomatic initiatives alarmed the neocons and their right-wing Israeli friends. Since the mid-1990s, the neocons had worked closely with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in plotting a “regime change” strategy for countries that were viewed as troublesome to Israel, with Iraq, Syria and Iran topping the list.
Putin’s interference with that agenda – by preventing U.S. bombing campaigns against Syria and Iran – was viewed as a threat to this longstanding Israeli/neocon strategy. There was also fear that the Obama-Putin teamwork could lead to renewed pressure on Israel to recognize a Palestinian state. So, that relationship had to be blown up.
The detonation occurred in early 2014 when a neocon-orchestrated coup overthrew elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and replaced him with a fiercely anti-Russian regime which included neo-Nazi and other ultra-nationalist elements as well as free-market extremists.
Ukraine had been on the neocon radar at least since September 2013, just after Putin undercut plans for bombing Syria. Neocon Carl Gershman, president of the U.S.-government-funded National Endowment for Democracy, wrote a Washington Post op-ed deeming Ukraine “the biggest prize” and a key steppingstone toward another regime change in Moscow, removing the troublesome Putin.
Gershman’s op-ed was followed by prominent neocons, such as Sen. John McCain and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, urging on violent protests that involved firebombing the police. But the State Department and the mainstream media glued white hats on the Maidan protesters and black hats on the police and the government.
Then, on Feb. 20, 2014, a mysterious sniper attack killed both police and demonstrators, leading to more clashes and the deaths of scores of people. The U.S. government and press corps blamed Yanukovych and – despite his signing an agreement for early elections on Feb. 21 – the Maidan “self-defense forces,” spearheaded by neo-Nazi goons, overran government buildings on Feb. 22 and installed a coup regime, quickly recognized by the State Department as “legitimate.”
Though the fault for the Feb. 20 sniper attack was never resolved – the new Ukrainian regime showed little interest in getting to the bottom of it – other independent investigations pointed toward a provocation by right-wing gunmen who targeted police and protesters with the goal of deepening the crisis and blaming Yanukovych, which is exactly what happened.
These field reports, including one from the BBC, indicated that the snipers likely were associated with the Maidan uprising, not the Yanukovych government. [Another worthwhile documentary on this mystery is “Maidan Massacre.”]
Yet, during the Ukrainian coup, The New York Times and most other mainstream media outlets played a role similar to what they had done prior to the Iraq War when they hyped false and misleading stories about WMD. By 2014, the U.S. press corps no longer seemed to even pause before undertaking its expected propaganda role.
So, after Yanukovych’s ouster, when ethnic Russians in Crimea and eastern Ukraine rose up against the new anti-Russian order in Kiev, the only acceptable frame for the U.S. media was to blame the resistance on Putin. It must be “Russian aggression” or a “Russian invasion.”
When a referendum in Crimea overwhelmingly favored secession from Ukraine and rejoining Russia, the U.S. media denounced the 96 percent vote as a “sham” imposed by Russian guns. Similarly, resistance in eastern Ukraine could not have reflected popular sentiment unless it came from mass delusions induced by “Russian propaganda.”
Meanwhile, evidence of a U.S.-backed coup, such as the intercepted phone call of a pre-coup discussion between Assistant Secretary Nuland and U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt on how “to midwife this thing” and who to install in the new government (“Yats is the guy”), disappeared into the memory hole, not helpful for the desired narrative. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Still Pretends No Coup in Ukraine.”]
When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, the blame machine immediately roared into gear again, accusing Putin and the ethnic Russian rebels. But some U.S. intelligence analysts reportedly saw the evidence going in a different direction, implicating a rogue element of the Ukrainian regime.
Again, the mainstream media showed little skepticism toward the official story blaming Putin, even though the U.S. government and other Western nations refused to make public any hard evidence supporting the Putin-did-it case, even now more than a year later. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “MH-17 Mystery: A New Tonkin Gulf Case.”]
The pattern that we have seen over and over is that once a propaganda point is scored against one of the neocon/liberal-hawk “enemies,” the failure to actually prove the allegation is not seen as suspicious, at least not inside the mainstream media, which usually just repeats the old narrative again and again, whether its casting blame on Putin for MH-17, or on Yanukovych for the sniper attack, or on Assad for the sarin gas attack.
Instead of skepticism, it’s always the same sort of “group think,” with nothing learned from the disaster of the Iraq War because there was virtually no accountability for those responsible.
Yet, while the U.S. press corps deserves a great deal of blame for this failure to investigate important controversies independently, President Obama and his administration have been the driving force in this manipulation of public opinion over the past six-plus years. Instead of the transparent government that Obama promised, he has run one of the most opaque, if not the most secretive, administrations in American history.
Besides refusing to release the U.S. government’s evidence on pivotal events in these international crises, Obama has prosecuted more national security whistleblowers than all past presidents combined.
That repression, including a 35-year prison term for Pvt. Bradley/Chelsea Manning and the forced exile of indicted National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, has intimidated current intelligence analysts who know about the manipulation of public opinion but don’t dare tell the truth to reporters for fear of imprisonment.
Most of the “leaked” information that you still see in the mainstream media is what’s approved by Obama or his top aides to serve their interests. In other words, the “leaks” are part of the propaganda, made to seem more trustworthy because they’re coming from an unidentified “source” rather than a named government spokesman.
At this late stage in Obama’s presidency, his administration seems drunk on the power of “perception management” with the new hot phrase, “strategic communications” which boils psychological operations, propaganda and P.R. into one intoxicating brew.
From NATO’s Gen. Philip Breedlove to the State Department’s Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel, the manipulation of information is viewed as a potent “soft power” weapon. It’s a way to isolate and damage an “enemy,” especially Russia and Putin.
This demonization of Putin makes cooperation between him and Obama difficult, such as Russia’s recent military buildup in Syria as part of a commitment to prevent a victory by the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Though one might think that Russian help in fighting terrorism would be welcomed, Nuland’s State Department office responded with a bizarre and futile attempt to build an aerial blockade of Russian aid flying to Syria across eastern Europe.
Nuland and other neocons apparently would prefer having the black flag of Sunni terrorism flying over Damascus than to work with Putin to block such a catastrophe. The hysteria over Russia’s assistance in Syria is a textbook example of how people can begin believing their own propaganda and letting it dictate misguided actions.
On Thursday, Obama’s White House sank to a new low by having Press Secretary Josh Earnest depict Putin as “desperate” to land a meeting with Obama. Earnest then demeaned Putin’s appearance during an earlier sit-down session with Netanyahu in Moscow. “President Putin was striking a now-familiar pose of less-than-perfect posture and unbuttoned jacket and, you know, knees spread far apart to convey a particular image,’ Earnest said.
But the meeting photos actually showed both men with their suit coats open and both sitting with their legs apart at least for part of the time. Responding to Earnest’s insults, the Russians denied that Putin was “desperate” for a meeting with Obama and added that the Obama administration had proposed the meeting to coincide with Putin’s appearance at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Monday.
“We do not refuse contacts that are proposed,” said Yuri Ushakov, a top foreign policy adviser to Putin. “We support maintaining constant dialogue at the highest level.” The Kremlin also included no insults about Obama’s appearance in the statement.
However, inside Official Washington, there appears to be little thought that the endless spinning, lying and ridiculing might dangerously corrode American democracy and erode any remaining trust the world’s public has in the word of the U.S. government. Instead, there seems to be great confidence that skilled propagandists can discredit anyone who dares note that the naked empire has wrapped itself in the sheerest of see-through deceptions.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
The neoconservatives arguably have damaged American national interests more than any group in modern history. They have done more harm than the marginal Communists pursued by Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, more than the Yippies of the 1960s, more than Richard Nixon’s Watergate burglars in the 1970s or the Iran-Contra conspirators in the 1980s.
The neocons have plunged the U.S. government into extraordinarily ill-considered wars wasting trillions of dollars, killing hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, and destabilizing large swaths of the planet including the Middle East, much of Africa and now Europe. Those costs include a swelling hatred against America and a deformed U.S. foreign policy elite that is no longer capable of formulating coherent strategies.
Yet, the neocons have remained immune from the consequences of their catastrophes. They still dominate Washington’s major think tanks as well as the op-ed pages of virtually all the leading newspapers, including The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and New York Times. They hold down key positions in the State Department, and their “liberal interventionist” pals have the ear of President Barack Obama.
Clearly, the neocons are skilled operatives, knowing how to arrange a steady stream of funding for themselves, from military contractors donating to think tanks, from U.S. taxpayers footing the bill for organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, and from ideological billionaires set on aligning U.S. foreign policy with hard-line Israeli desires.
The neocons are adept at writing op-ed articles that twist any set of facts into support for their ideological cause; they supply just the right quote that fits into the news cycle’s latest narrative; and they host policy conferences that attract powerful politicians and fawning media coverage.
But are the neocons a force that can coexist with the American Republic? Have they become an existential threat not only to the constitutional structure crafted in 1787 but to continued life on the planet? Are they locked on a course of action that could lead to a nuclear holocaust?
Clearly, the neocons’ commitment to Israeli interests violates a key principle established by the nation’s early presidents who all warned against “foreign entangling alliances” as a fundamental threat to a citizens’ republic that would transform America into a warrior state that would inevitably sap the nation’s liberties.
That loss of liberty has surely happened. Not only is there now bipartisan support for a surveillance state that can spy on the personal lives of American citizens, but the U.S. government has wedded itself to the concept of “strategic communications,” a catch-phrase that merges psychological operations, propaganda and P.R. into a seamless approach toward managing public perceptions at home and abroad.
When information is systematically pushed through a filter designed to ensure consent, the core democratic concept of an informed electorate has been turned on its head: The people no longer oversee the government; the government manipulates the people.
All this has been part of the neocon approach dating back to the 1980s when key operatives, such as Robert Kagan and Elliott Abrams, were part of inter-agency task forces designed to whip the American people into line behind the government’s aggressive war policies. Guided by seasoned CIA propagandists, such as Walter Raymond Jr., the neocons learned their lessons well.
But the neocons are no longer just threatening the existence of the Republic; they are now endangering the continuation of life itself. They have decided to launch a new Cold War against Russia that will push the world toward the brink of thermo-nuclear war.
Of course, the neocons will frame their doomsday strategy as all Vladimir Putin’s fault. They will insist that they are just standing up to “Russian aggression” and that anyone who doesn’t join them is a “stooge of Moscow” or “weak.” They will dictate the shape of the debate just as they have in countless other situations, such as guiding Americans to war in Iraq over non-existent WMD stockpiles.
The neocon pundits will write seemingly authoritative op-eds about devious Kremlin strategies which will glue black hats on the Russians and white hats on whomever is on the other side, whether the neo-Nazis in Ukraine or the Islamic State/Al Qaeda terrorists in Syria. Americans will be whipped up into a frenzy that will demand a direct clash with the “Russ-kies” or “regime change” in Moscow.
There will be little or no concern about the risks. With the neocons, there never is. The assumption is that if “Amur-ika” is tough, the other side will back down. Then, with U.S.-led economic sanctions from the outside and U.S.-funded NGOs stirring up trouble from the inside, “regime change” becomes the cure-all.
Everyone who’s important in Official Washington – everyone on the talk shows and op-ed pages – knows that these disruptive situations always play out just the way they’re diagramed inside the top think tanks. A hand-picked “democratic reformer” who’s traveled the think-tank circuit and gotten the seal of approval – the likes of Iraq’s Ahmed Chalabi – will easily be installed and then the target country will do whatever the neocons dictate. After all, that approach worked so well in Iraq. The neocons always know best.
Raising the Stakes
Yet, with Russia, the stakes are even higher than with Iraq. Yes, it’s easy to find fault with Vladimir Putin. I myself have a personal rule that men over 40 should keep their shirts on when out in public (unless maybe they’re actors in a Bond film or going for a swim at the beach).
But Putin at least is a rational player in global affairs. Indeed, he has tried to cooperate with President Obama on a variety of key issues, including convincing Syria to surrender its chemical weapons and getting Iran to make concessions in the nuclear deal – two contributions to world peace that infuriated the neocons who favored bomb-bomb-bombing both Syria and Iran.
At a dinner party in Europe this summer, I was asked by a well-informed British woman what should be done with Putin. My answer was that Putin doesn’t frighten me; it’s the guy who comes after Putin who frightens me – because despite the neocons’ confidence that their “regime change” plans for Moscow will install a malleable moderate, the more likely result would be a much harder-line Russian nationalist than Putin.
The idea of the nuclear codes being handed to someone determined to defend the honor of Mother Russia is what scares me. Then, the clumsily aggressive neocons in Washington would have their reckless counterpart in Moscow, with neither side having the wisdom of a John F. Kennedy or a Nikita Khrushchev as displayed during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Would American neocons or a Russian super-nationalist have the wisdom and courage to back down, to compromise, to make the concessions necessary to avoid plunging over the edge? Or would they assume that the other guy would blink first and that they would “win” the showdown?
I recall what William R. Polk, one of Kennedy’s mid-level aides during the Cuban Missile Crisis, wrote recently about what happens to the human mind under such stress.
“Since human beings make the decisions, we must be aware of decision makers’ vulnerabilities,” Polk wrote. “During the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was one of about 25 civilians fully engaged in the events. I was not at the center but in the second or third ‘echelon.’ So I did not feel the full strain, but by the Thursday of the Crisis, I was thoroughly exhausted. My judgment must have been impaired even though I was not aware of it.
“I do remember, however, a terrible episode – fortunately lasting only a few minutes – at which I thought to myself, ‘let’s just get it over with.’ When later I met with my Soviet counterparts, I got the impression, although they denied it, that my feelings were not unique. How the strain impacted on the inner group I can only guess.”
If someone as stable and serious as Bill Polk had such thoughts – “let’s just get it over with” – what might happen when American neocons or hyped-up Russian nationalists are inserted into the decision process? That is an existential question that I don’t want to even contemplate.
And, if you doubt that the neocons will engage in over-the-top Cold War-style Putin bashing, you should read the op-ed by The Washington Post’s neocon deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl on Monday, entitled “Putin shifts fronts: With a move into Syria, he continues his in-your-face maneuvers.”
Diehl delves into Putin’s psyche – a process that is so much easier than doing real reporting – and concludes that Putin’s decision to join the fight in Syria against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda is just another attempt to stick his finger in the eye of the righteous but clueless United States.
Diehl, of course, starts off with the neocon-approved narrative of the Ukraine crisis, ignoring the key role of neocon Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland (Robert Kagan’s wife) in midwifing the Feb. 22, 2014 coup that overthrew democratically elected President Viktor Yanukovych and installed an intensely anti-Russian regime on Russia’s border. Nuland even handpicked the new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, telling U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt in a phone call several weeks before the coup that “Yats is the guy.”
The coup-makers then dispatched neo-Nazi militias (and Islamist militants) to wage a bloody “anti-terrorism operation” against ethnic Russian Ukrainians who resisted the “regime change.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Ukraine Merges Nazis and Islamists.”]
But all that complexity is neatly boiled down by American neocons and the mainstream U.S. media as “Russian aggression.” Regarding the Syrian civil war, some neocons have even joined with senior Israeli officials in claiming that a victory by Al Qaeda is preferable to the continuation of Assad’s secular regime. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Syria’s Nightmarish Narrative.”]
Yet, however the story goes, the biggest bad guy is Putin, always with sinister motives and evil intent. So, in explaining the situation in Ukraine and Syria, Diehl writes:
“Throughout the summer, Russia’s forces in eastern Ukraine kept up a daily drumbeat of attacks on the Ukrainian army, inflicting significant casualties while avoiding a response by Western governments. On Sept. 1, following a new cease-fire, the guns suddenly fell silent. Optimists speculated that Vladimir Putin was backing down.
“Then came the reports from Syria: Russian warplanes were overflying the rebel-held province of Idlib. Barracks were under construction at a new base. Ships were unloading new armored vehicles. Putin, it turns out, wasn’t retreating, but shifting fronts — and executing another of the in-your-face maneuvers that have repeatedly caught the Obama administration flat-footed.”
The rest of the op-ed is similarly didactic and one-sided: Putin is the villain and Obama is the rube. In Diehl’s world, only he and other neocons have what it takes to take on Putin and put Russia down.
Any alternative explanation for Russia’s action in Syria is brushed aside, such as Putin deciding that a victory by either Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front – as favored by Israel – or the even more bloodthirsty Islamic State is unacceptable and thus Assad’s regime must be stabilized to avert a major geopolitical catastrophe.
Typically, the neocons breeze past the frightening logic of what the collapse of Assad’s military would mean for the Middle East, Europe and the world. After all, once Israeli leaders decided to throw in their lot with Al Qaeda in Syria, the die was cast as far as the neocons were concerned.
But the notion that the neocons can micromanage the outcome in Syria, with “moderate” Al Qaeda taking Damascus rather than the more “radical” Islamic State, reflects the arrogant know-nothing-ism of these U.S. opinion leaders. More likely, Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front would coordinate with their former allies in the Islamic State and share in the Sunni revenge against Syria’s Christian, Alawite, Shiite and other minorities.
So, while the Islamic State would busy itself chopping off heads of “heretics,” Al Qaeda could use its new headquarters in Damascus to plot the next round of terror attacks against the West. And, as destabilizing as the current refugee flow into Europe has been, it would multiply astronomically as the survivors of the Islamic State/Al Qaeda bloodletting flee Syria.
With Europe in chaos and the neocons still insisting that the real enemy is Russia, the possible consequences would be frightening to contemplate. Yet, this is the course that the neocons have set for the world – and nearly all the Republican candidates for president have signed on for the journey along with Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
In 2014, arch-neocon Robert Kagan, whom Secretary of State Clinton selected as one of her advisers while also promoting his wife, Victoria Nuland, told The New York Times that he could embrace a Clinton presidency: “If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue … it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else.” [For more, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Is Hillary Clinton a Neocon-Lite?” and “Obama’s True Foreign Policy ‘Weakness.’“]
So far, virtually no one in the 2016 presidential race or in the mainstream U.S. news media is seriously addressing the reality of the neocons’ “regime change” chaos spreading across the Middle East and the prospect of a destabilized Europe. What limited discussion there is on the campaign trail mostly echoes Jackson Diehl’s Putin-bashing.
No one dares confront the existential question of whether the United States and the world can continue to tolerate and accommodate the neoconservatives.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
U.S. and Cuban delegations met in Havana Friday to “focus on setting priorities for the next steps in the normalization process,” according to the Miami Herald. They set up a “steering committee in the rapprochement process” expected to hold regular meetings. The process was laid out last month after the American flag was raised at the newly-opened U.S. embassy in Havana. Secretary of State John Kerry noted on the occasion that “the road of mutual isolation that the United States and Cuba have been travelling is not the right one, and that the time has come for us to move in a more promising direction.” The Obama administration has since announced loosening of restrictions that would permit American citizens to travel to Cuba on both commercial flights and cruise ships.
Superficially, it would seem that U.S. policy has moved away from a half-century of economic warfare, terrorism, subversion, and interference in the internal affairs of the nation American politicians have long considered a “natural appendage” of the United States, which would fall into the U.S. orbit like an apple from a tree, as John Quincy Adams once said.
If U.S. policy makers had indeed abandoned this attitude and actually moved in a more promising direction, it would mean they finally decided to engage their counterpart as Cuban Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez stated his government was willing to with the United States itself: “through a dialogue based on mutual respect and sovereign equality, to a civilized coexistence, even despite the differences that exist between both governments, which makes it possible to solve bilateral problems and promote cooperation and development of mutually beneficial relations, just as both peoples desire and deserve.”
But despite extending formal diplomatic courtesies and speaking in a more conciliatory tone, the Obama administration has demonstrated behind the scenes that it does not intend to demonstrate mutual respect or recognize sovereign equality.
As the delegations met on Friday, Obama quietly renewed Cuba’s status as an “enemy” under the Trading With the Enemy Act (TWEA) of 1917. Under this Act, utilized against Cuba by every President since John F. Kennedy in 1962, the government issues the Cuban Assets Control Regulations to set the terms of the embargo (more accurately described by Cuba and the United Nations as a blockade).
By extending this enemy designation, the Obama administration is reserving the right to dictate the terms of the embargo, rather than allowing Congress to do so under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. While Obama has shown himself more willing than Congress to relax some punitive and illegal aspects of the embargo than the current Congress, by continuing to define Cuba as an enemy he is both sending an hostile signal to Cuba and employing a transparent legal fiction.
An “enemy” in the TWEA is specified as a government with which the U.S. is at war, as declared by Congress. Congress has never declared war on Cuba. They have not declared war on any country since Japan in 1941.
While it may be true that renewing the TWEA against Cuba may be more beneficial to Cuba by granting the executive branch greater flexibility, the fraudulent nature of the continued imposition of legal sanctions against Cuba should be emphasized. Though Obama has said U.S. policy against Cuba “has been rooted in the best of intentions,” it has in reality been rooted in vindictiveness and shrouded in legal distortions that continue to this day.
At the same time, the flood of U.S. taxpayer dollars earmarked with the express purpose of regime change in Havana continues unabated. The fiscal year 2016 budget contains $30 million for this purpose.
One use of these funds is for a US propaganda agency to hire mercenaries to denigrate Cuban civil and political personalities. As Tracey Eaton notes in his blog Along the Malecón : “The U.S. government wants to hire entertainers who would produce ‘uniquely funny, ironic, satirical and entertaining’ comedy shows targeting Cuban officials, politicians and others on the island. The Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which runs Radio & TV Martí, is looking for a team that would produce 10 30-minute comedy sketch shows.”
The infamous Radio Martí has been broadcasting John Birch Society type propaganda from Miami into Cuba since the 1980s. The U.S. has continued to fund the station, despite its being declared illegal by the Cuban government. One wonders how the U.S. government itself would react if the Russian or Chinese government financed a program lambasting Obama, Kerry, and other Americans for political gain while disguising it as organically developed entertainment? It is not likely they would view a strategic attack created and financed abroad, rather than being a homegrown political expression of dissent, as protected free speech.
USAID, after being exposed for its subversive Cuban Twitter program “ZunZuneo“, which sought to sow discontent and stir unrest among the Cuban population, and its effort to co-opt Cuban hip hop artists, announced last week that it is seeking three program managers to be awarded six-figure salaries.
Eaton writes that the job description calls for “experience in the areas of democracy promotion, human rights, civil society development” and that candidates must obtain a “secret” security clearance. It is not hard to imagine that these highly compensated program managers would likely be implementing similar covert programs to destabilize Cuban society and attempt to turn its citizens away from the Revolution.
The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) – an arm of US foreign policy that overtly carries out programs that previously were undertaken covertly by the CIA – is also hiring a Program Officer to work on NED’s “Cuba grants program” and “developing the Endowment’s strategy for Cuba.” Unlike the USAID positions, which are indicated to be in Washington, this position would require “regular field visits.”
Cuban blogger and former State Security Agent Percy Francisco Alvarado Godoy writes that the position is for “someone in charge of mounting all types of subversion against the Cuban government on behalf of the NED… completely illegal, meddlesome, and violative of our sovereignty and, therefore, will not admit any of his activity in our territory.”
It is clear that the U.S. continues to act towards Cuba with utter disregard for mutual respect and sovereign equality despite the formalities uncritically accepted by mainstream media as true normalization. By looking beyond the face value of the words of American officials, one can’t help but recognize that relations are anything but normal. Until the U.S. government recognizes that normal cannot include sanctioning, illegally occupying, and spending tens of millions of dollars on subversion and interference in another country’s internal affairs, “normalization” remains nothing more than a vacuous abstraction.
The refugee chaos that is now pushing deep into Europe – dramatized by gut-wrenching photos of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey – started with the cavalier ambitions of American neocons and their liberal-interventionist sidekicks who planned to remake the Middle East and other parts of the world through “regime change.”
Instead of the promised wonders of “democracy promotion” and “human rights,” what these “anti-realists” have accomplished is to spread death, destruction and destabilization across the Middle East and parts of Africa and now into Ukraine and the heart of Europe. Yet, since these neocon forces still control the Official Narrative, their explanations get top billing – such as that there hasn’t been enough “regime change.”
For instance, The Washington Post’s neocon editorial page editor Fred Hiatt on Monday blamed “realists” for the cascading catastrophes. Hiatt castigated them and President Barack Obama for not intervening more aggressively in Syria to depose President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime neocon target for “regime change.” But the truth is that this accelerating spread of human suffering can be traced back directly to the unchecked influence of the neocons and their liberal fellow-travelers who have resisted political compromise and, in the case of Syria, blocked any realistic efforts to work out a power-sharing agreement between Assad and his political opponents, those who are not terrorists.
In early 2014, the neocons and liberal hawks sabotaged Syrian peace talks in Geneva by blocking Iran’s participation and turning the peace conference into a one-sided shouting match where U.S.-funded opposition leaders yelled at Assad’s representatives who then went home. All the while, the Post’s editors and their friends kept egging Obama to start bombing Assad’s forces.
The madness of this neocon approach grew more obvious in the summer of 2014 when the Islamic State, an Al Qaeda spin-off which had been slaughtering suspected pro-government people in Syria, expanded its bloody campaign of beheadings back into Iraq where this hyper-brutal movement first emerged as “Al Qaeda in Iraq” in response to the 2003 U.S. invasion.
It should have been clear by mid-2014 that if the neocons had gotten their way and Obama had conducted a massive U.S. bombing campaign to devastate Assad’s military, the black flag of Sunni terrorism might well be flying above the Syrian capital of Damascus while its streets would run red with blood.
But now a year later, the likes of Hiatt still have not absorbed that lesson — and the spreading chaos from neocon strategies is destabilizing Europe. As shocking and disturbing as that is, none of it should have come as much of a surprise, since the neocons have always brought chaos and dislocations in their wake.
When I first encountered the neocons in the 1980s, they had been given Central America to play with. President Ronald Reagan had credentialed many of them, bringing into the U.S. government neocon luminaries such as Elliott Abrams and Robert Kagan. But Reagan mostly kept them out of the big-power realms: the Mideast and Europe.
Those strategic areas went to the “adults,” people like James Baker, George Shultz, Philip Habib and Brent Scowcroft. The poor Central Americans, as they tried to shed generations of repression and backwardness imposed by brutal right-wing oligarchies, faced U.S. neocon ideologues who unleashed death squads and even genocide against peasants, students and workers.
The result – not surprisingly – was a flood of refugees, especially from El Salvador and Guatemala, northward to the United States. The neocon “success” in the 1980s, crushing progressive social movements and reinforcing the oligarchic controls, left most countries of Central America in the grip of corrupt regimes and crime syndicates, periodically driving more waves of what Reagan called “feet people” through Mexico to the southern U.S. border.
Messing Up the Mideast
But the neocons weren’t satisfied sitting at the kids’ table. Even during the Reagan administration, they tried to squeeze themselves among the “adults” at the grown-ups’ table. For instance, neocons, such as Robert McFarlane and Paul Wolfowitz, pushed Israel-friendly policies toward Iran, which the Israelis then saw as a counterweight to Iraq. That strategy led eventually to the Iran-Contra Affair, the worst scandal of the Reagan administration. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “When Israel /Neocons Favored Iran.”]
However, the right-wing and mainstream U.S. media never liked the complex Iran-Contra story and thus exposure of the many levels of the scandal’s criminality was avoided. Democrats also preferred compromise to confrontation. So, most of the key neocons survived the Iran-Contra fallout, leaving their ranks still firmly in place for the next phase of their rise to power.
In the 1990s, the neocons built up a well-funded infrastructure of think tanks and media outlets, benefiting from both the largesse of military contractors donating to think tanks and government-funded operations like the National Endowment for Democracy, headed by neocon Carl Gershman.
The neocons gained more political momentum from the U.S. military might displayed during the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. Many Americans began to see war as fun, almost like a video game in which “enemy” forces get obliterated from afar. On TV news shows, tough-talking pundits were all the rage. If you wanted to be taken seriously, you couldn’t go wrong taking the most macho position, what I sometimes call the “er-er-er” growling effect.
Combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the notion that U.S. military supremacy was unmatched and unchallengeable gave rise to neocon theories about turning “diplomacy” into nothing more than the delivery of U.S. ultimatums. In the Middle East, that was a view shared by Israeli hardliners, who had grown tired of negotiating with the Palestinians and other Arabs.
Instead of talk, there would be “regime change” for any government that would not fall into line. This strategy was articulated in 1996 when a group of American neocons, including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, went to work for Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign in Israel and compiled a strategy paper, called “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.”
Iraq was first on the neocon hit list, but next came Syria and Iran. The overriding idea was that once the regimes assisting the Palestinians and Hezbollah were removed or neutralized, then Israel could dictate peace terms to the Palestinians who would have no choice but to accept what was on the table.
In 1998, the neocon Project for the New American Century, founded by neocons Robert Kagan and William Kristol, called for a U.S. invasion of Iraq, but President Bill Clinton balked at something that extreme. The situation changed, however, when President George W. Bush took office and the 9/11 attacks terrified and infuriated the American public.
Suddenly, the neocons had a Commander-in-Chief who agreed with the need to eliminate Iraq’s Saddam Hussein – and Americans were easily persuaded although Iraq and Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Mysterious Why of the Iraq War.”]
The Death of ‘Realism’
The 2003 Iraq invasion sounded the death knell for foreign policy “realism” in Official Washington. Aging or dead, the old adult voices were silent or ignored. From Congress and the Executive Branch to the think tanks and the mainstream news media, almost all the “opinion leaders” were neocons and many liberals fell into line behind Bush’s case for war.
And, even though the Iraq War “group think” was almost entirely wrong, both on the WMD justifications for war and the “cakewalk” expectations for remaking Iraq, almost no one who promoted the fiasco suffered punishment for either the illegality of the invasion or the absence of sanity in promoting such a harebrained scheme.
Instead of negative repercussions, the Iraq War backers – the neocons and their liberal-hawk accomplices – essentially solidified their control over U.S. foreign policy and the major news media. From The New York Times and The Washington Post to the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, the “regime change” agenda continued to hold sway.
It didn’t even matter when the sectarian warfare unleashed in Iraq left hundreds of thousands dead, displaced millions and gave rise to Al Qaeda’s ruthless Iraq affiliate. Not even the 2008 election of Barack Obama, an Iraq War opponent, changed this overall dynamic.
Rather than standing up to this new foreign policy establishment, Obama bowed to it, retaining key players from President Bush’s national security team, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus, and by hiring hawkish Democrats, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, who became Secretary of State, and Samantha Power at the National Security Council.
Thus, the cult of “regime change” did not just survive the Iraq disaster; it thrived. Whenever a difficult foreign problem emerged, the go-to solution was still “regime change,” accompanied by the usual demonizing of a targeted leader, support for the “democratic opposition” and calls for military intervention. President Obama, arguably a “closet realist,” found himself as the foot-dragger-in-chief as he reluctantly was pulled along on one “regime change” crusade after another.
In 2011, for instance, Secretary of State Clinton and National Security Council aide Power persuaded Obama to join with some hot-for-war European leaders to achieve “regime change” in Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi had gone on the offensive against groups in eastern Libya that he identified as Islamic terrorists.
But Clinton and Power saw the case as a test for their theories of “humanitarian warfare” – or “regime change” to remove a “bad guy” like Gaddafi from power. Obama soon signed on and, with the U.S. military providing crucial technological support, a devastating bombing campaign destroyed Gaddafi’s army, drove him from Tripoli, and ultimately led to his torture-murder.
‘We Came, We Saw, He Died’
Secretary Clinton scurried to secure credit for this “regime change.” According to one email chain in August 2011, her longtime friend and personal adviser Sidney Blumenthal praised the bombing campaign to destroy Gaddafi’s army and hailed the dictator’s impending ouster.
“First, brava! This is a historic moment and you will be credited for realizing it,” Blumenthal wrote on Aug. 22, 2011. “When Qaddafi himself is finally removed, you should of course make a public statement before the cameras wherever you are, even in the driveway of your vacation home. … You must go on camera. You must establish yourself in the historical record at this moment. … The most important phrase is: ‘successful strategy.’”
Clinton forwarded Blumenthal’s advice to Jake Sullivan, a close State Department aide. “Pls read below,” she wrote. “Sid makes a good case for what I should say, but it’s premised on being said after Q[addafi] goes, which will make it more dramatic. That’s my hesitancy, since I’m not sure how many chances I’ll get.”
Sullivan responded, saying “it might make sense for you to do an op-ed to run right after he falls, making this point. … You can reinforce the op-ed in all your appearances, but it makes sense to lay down something definitive, almost like the Clinton Doctrine.”
However, when Gaddafi abandoned Tripoli that day, President Obama seized the moment to make a triumphant announcement. Clinton’s opportunity to highlight her joy at the Libyan “regime change” had to wait until Oct. 20, 2011, when Gaddafi was captured, tortured and murdered.
In a TV interview, Clinton celebrated the news when it appeared on her cell phone and paraphrased Julius Caesar’s famous line after Roman forces achieved a resounding victory in 46 B.C. and he declared, “veni, vidi, vici” – “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Clinton’s reprise of Caesar’s boast went: “We came; we saw; he died.” She then laughed and clapped her hands.
Presumably, the “Clinton Doctrine” would have been a policy of “liberal interventionism” to achieve “regime change” in countries where there is some crisis in which the leader seeks to put down an internal security threat and where the United States objects to the action.
But the problem with Clinton’s boasting about the “Clinton Doctrine” was that the Libyan adventure quickly turned sour with the Islamic terrorists, whom Gaddafi had warned about, seizing wide swaths of territory and turning it into another Iraq-like badlands.
On Sept. 11, 2012, this reality hit home when the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was overrun and U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other American diplomatic personnel were killed. It turned out that Gaddafi wasn’t entirely wrong about the nature of his opposition.
Eventually, the extremist violence in Libya grew so out of control that the United States and European countries abandoned their embassies in Tripoli. Since then, Islamic State terrorists have begun decapitating Coptic Christians on Libyan beaches and slaughtering other “heretics.” Amid the anarchy, Libya has become a route for desperate migrants seeking passage across the Mediterranean to Europe.
A War on Assad
Parallel to the “regime change” in Libya was a similar enterprise in Syria in which the neocons and liberal interventionists pressed for the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad, whose government in 2011 cracked down on what had quickly become a violent rebellion led by extremist elements, though the Western propaganda portrayed the opposition as “moderate” and “peaceful.”
For the first years of the Syrian civil war, the pretense remained that these “moderate” rebels were facing unjustified repression and the only answer was “regime change” in Damascus. Assad’s claim that the opposition included many Islamic extremists was largely dismissed as were Gaddafi’s alarms in Libya.
On Aug. 21, 2013, a sarin gas attack outside Damascus killed hundreds of civilians and the U.S. State Department and the mainstream news media immediately blamed Assad’s forces amid demands for military retaliation against the Syrian army.
Despite doubts within the U.S. intelligence community about Assad’s responsibility for the sarin attack, which some analysts saw instead as a provocation by anti-Assad terrorists, the clamor from Official Washington’s neocons and liberal interventionists for war was intense and any doubts were brushed aside.
But President Obama, aware of the uncertainty within the U.S. intelligence community, held back from a military strike and eventually worked out a deal, brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which Assad agreed to surrender his entire chemical-weapons arsenal while still denying any role in the sarin attack.
Though the case pinning the sarin attack on the Syrian government eventually fell apart – with evidence pointing to a “false flag” operation by Sunni radicals to trick the United States into intervening on their side – Official Washington’s “group think” refused to reconsider the initial rush to judgment. In Monday’s column, Hiatt still references Assad’s “savagery of chemical weapons.”
Any suggestion that the only realistic option in Syria is a power-sharing compromise that would include Assad – who is viewed as the protector of Syria’s Christian, Shiite and Alawite minorities – is rejected out of hand with the slogan, “Assad must go!”
The neocons have created a conventional wisdom which holds that the Syrian crisis would have been prevented if only Obama had followed the neocons’ 2011 prescription of another U.S. intervention to force another “regime change.” Yet, the far more likely outcome would have been either another indefinite and bloody U.S. military occupation of Syria or the black flag of Islamic terrorism flying over Damascus.
Another villain who emerged from the 2013 failure to bomb Syria was Russian President Putin, who infuriated the neocons by his work with Obama on Syria’s surrender of its chemical weapons and who further annoyed the neocons by helping to get the Iranians to negotiate seriously on constraining their nuclear program. Despite the “regime change” disasters in Iraq and Libya, the neocons wanted to wave the “regime change” wand again over Syria and Iran.
Putin got his comeuppance when U.S. neocons, including NED President Carl Gershman and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland (Robert Kagan’s wife), helped orchestrate a “regime change” in Ukraine on Feb. 22, 2014, overthrowing elected President Viktor Yanukovych and putting in a fiercely anti-Russian regime on Russia’s border.
As thrilled as the neocons were with their “victory” in Kiev and their success in demonizing Putin in the mainstream U.S. news media, Ukraine followed the now-predictable post-regime-change descent into a vicious civil war. Western Ukrainians waged a brutal “anti-terrorist operation” against ethnic Russians in the east who resisted the U.S.-backed coup.
Thousands of Ukrainians died and millions were displaced as Ukraine’s national economy teetered toward collapse. Yet, the neocons and their liberal-hawk friends again showed their propaganda skills by pinning the blame for everything on “Russian aggression” and Putin.
Though Obama was apparently caught off-guard by the Ukrainian “regime change,” he soon joined in denouncing Putin and Russia. The European Union also got behind U.S.-demanded sanctions against Russia despite the harm those sanctions also inflicted on Europe’s already shaky economy. Europe’s stability is now under additional strain because of the flows of refugees from the war zones of the Middle East.
A Dozen Years of Chaos
So, we can now look at the consequences and costs of the past dozen years under the spell of neocon/liberal-hawk “regime change” strategies. According to many estimates, the death toll in Iraq, Syria and Libya has exceeded one million with several million more refugees flooding into – and stretching the resources – of fragile Mideast countries.
Hundreds of thousands of other refugees and migrants have fled to Europe, putting major strains on the Continent’s social structures already stressed by the severe recession that followed the 2008 Wall Street crash. Even without the refugee crisis, Greece and other southern European countries would be struggling to meet their citizens’ needs.
Stepping back for a moment and assessing the full impact of neoconservative policies, you might be amazed at how widely they have spread chaos across a large swath of the globe. Who would have thought that the neocons would have succeeded in destabilizing not only the Mideast but Europe as well.
And, as Europe struggles, the export markets of China are squeezed, spreading economic instability to that crucial economy and, with its market shocks, the reverberations rumbling back to the United States, too.
We now see the human tragedies of neocon/liberal-hawk ideologies captured in the suffering of the Syrians and other refugees flooding Europe and the death of children drowning as their desperate families flee the chaos created by “regime change.” But will the neocon/liberal-hawk grip on Official Washington finally be broken? Will a debate even be allowed about the dangers of “regime change” prescriptions in the future?
Not if the likes of The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt have anything to say about it. The truth is that Hiatt and other neocons retain their dominance of the mainstream U.S. news media, so all that one can expect from the various MSM outlets is more neocon propaganda, blaming the chaos not on their policy of “regime change” but on the failure to undertake even more “regime change.”
The one hope is that many Americans will not be fooled this time and that a belated “realism” will finally return to U.S. geopolitical strategies that will look for obtainable compromises to restore some political order to places such as Syria, Libya and Ukraine. Rather than more and more tough-guy/gal confrontations, maybe there will finally be some serious efforts at reconciliation.
But the other reality is that the interventionist forces have rooted themselves deeply in Official Washington, inside NATO, within the mainstream news media and even in European institutions. It will not be easy to rid the world of the grave dangers created by neocon policies.
The Washington Post’s descent into the depths of neoconservative propaganda – willfully misleading its readers on matters of grave importance – apparently knows no bounds as was demonstrated with two deceptive articles regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin and why his government is cracking down on “foreign agents.”
If you read the Post’s editorial on Wednesday and a companion op-ed by National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman, you would have been led to believe that Putin is delusional, paranoid and “power mad” in his concern that outside money funneled into non-governmental organizations represents a threat to Russian sovereignty.
The Post and Gershman were especially outraged that the Russians have enacted laws requiring NGOs financed from abroad and seeking to influence Russian policies to register as “foreign agents” – and that one of the first funding operations to fall prey to these tightened rules was Gershman’s NED.
The Post’s editors wrote that Putin’s “latest move, announced Tuesday, is to declare the NED an ‘undesirable’ organization under the terms of a law that Mr. Putin signed in May. The law bans groups from abroad who are deemed a ‘threat to the foundations of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation, its defense capabilities and its national security.’
“The charge against the NED is patently ridiculous. The NED’s grantees in Russia last year ran the gamut of civil society. They advocated transparency in public affairs, fought corruption and promoted human rights, freedom of information and freedom of association, among other things. All these activities make for a healthy democracy but are seen as threatening from the Kremlin’s ramparts. …
“The new law on ‘undesirables’ comes in addition to one signed in 2012 that gave authorities the power to declare organizations ‘foreign agents’ if they engaged in any kind of politics and receive money from abroad. The designation, from the Stalin era, implies espionage.”
But there are several salient facts that the Post’s editors surely know but don’t want you to know. The first is that NED is a U.S. government-funded organization created in 1983 to do what the Central Intelligence Agency previously had done in financing organizations inside target countries to advance U.S. policy interests and, if needed, help in “regime change.”
The secret hand behind NED’s creation was CIA Director William J. Casey who worked with senior CIA covert operation specialist Walter Raymond Jr. to establish NED in 1983. Casey – from the CIA – and Raymond – from his assignment inside President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council – focused on creating a funding mechanism to support groups inside foreign countries that would engage in propaganda and political action that the CIA had historically organized and paid for covertly. To partially replace that CIA role, the idea emerged for a congressionally funded entity that would serve as a conduit for this money.
But Casey recognized the need to hide the strings being pulled by the CIA. “Obviously we here [at CIA] should not get out front in the development of such an organization, nor should we appear to be a sponsor or advocate,” Casey said in one undated letter to then-White House counselor Edwin Meese III – as Casey urged creation of a “National Endowment.”
NED Is Born
The National Endowment for Democracy took shape in late 1983 as Congress decided to also set aside pots of money — within NED — for the Republican and Democratic parties and for organized labor, creating enough bipartisan largesse that passage was assured. But some in Congress thought it was important to wall the NED off from any association with the CIA, so a provision was included to bar the participation of any current or former CIA official, according to one congressional aide who helped write the legislation.
This aide told me that one night late in the 1983 session, as the bill was about to go to the House floor, the CIA’s congressional liaison came pounding at the door to the office of Rep. Dante Fascell, a senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a chief sponsor of the bill. The frantic CIA official conveyed a single message from CIA Director Casey: the language barring the participation of CIA personnel must be struck from the bill, the aide recalled, noting that Fascell consented, not fully recognizing the significance of the demand.
The aide said Fascell also consented to the Reagan administration’s choice of Carl Gershman to head the National Endowment for Democracy, again not recognizing how this decision would affect the future of the new entity and American foreign policy. Gershman, who had followed the classic neoconservative path from youthful socialism to fierce anticommunism, became NED’s first (and, to this day, only) president.
Though NED is technically independent of U.S. foreign policy, Gershman in the early years coordinated decisions on grants with Raymond at the NSC. For instance, on Jan. 2, 1985, Raymond wrote to two NSC Asian experts that “Carl Gershman has called concerning a possible grant to the Chinese Alliance for Democracy (CAD). I am concerned about the political dimension to this request. We should not find ourselves in a position where we have to respond to pressure, but this request poses a real problem to Carl.”
Currently, Gershman’s NED dispenses more than $100 million a year in U.S. government funds to various NGOs, media outlets and activists around the world. The NED also has found itself in the middle of political destabilization campaigns against governments that have gotten on the wrong side of U.S. foreign policy. For instance, prior to the February 2014 coup in Ukraine, overthrowing elected President Viktor Yanukovych and installing an anti-Russian regime in Kiev, NED was funding scores of projects.
A second point left out of the Post’s editorial was the fact that Gershman took a personal hand in the Ukraine crisis and recognized it as an interim step toward regime change in Moscow. On Sept. 26, 2013, Gershman published an op-ed in the Washington Post that called Ukraine “the biggest prize” and explained how pulling it into the Western camp could contribute to the ultimate defeat of Russian President Putin.
“Ukraine’s choice to join Europe will accelerate the demise of the ideology of Russian imperialism that Putin represents,” Gershman wrote. “Russians, too, face a choice, and Putin may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.” In other words, NED is a U.S. government-financed entity that has set its sights on ousting Russia’s current government.
A third point that the Post ignored is that the Russian law requiring outside-funded political organizations to register as “foreign agents” was modeled on a U.S. law, the Foreign Agent Registration Act. In other words, the U.S. government also requires individuals and entities working for foreign interests and seeking to influence U.S. policies to disclose those relationships with the U.S. Justice Department or face prison.
If the Post’s editors had included any or all of these three relevant factors, you would have come away with a more balanced understanding of why Russia is acting as it is. You might still object but at least you would be aware of the full story. By concealing all three points, the Post’s editors were tricking you and other readers into accepting a propagandistic viewpoint – that the Russian actions were crazy and that Putin was, according to the Post’s headline, “power mad.”
But you might think that Gershman would at least acknowledge some of these points in his Post op-ed, surely admitting that NED is financed by the U.S. government. But Gershman didn’t. He simply portrayed Russia’s actions as despicable and desperate.
“Russia’s newest anti-NGO law, under which the National Endowment for Democracy on Tuesday was declared an “undesirable organization” prohibited from operating in Russia, is the latest evidence that the regime of President Vladimir Putin faces a worsening crisis of political legitimacy,” Gershman wrote, adding:
“This is the context in which Russia has passed the law prohibiting Russian democrats from getting any international assistance to promote freedom of expression, the rule of law and a democratic political system. Significantly, democrats have not backed down. They have not been deterred by the criminal penalties contained in the ‘foreign agents’ law and other repressive laws. They know that these laws contradict international law, which allows for such aid, and that the laws are meant to block a better future for Russia.”
The reference to how a “foreign agents” registration law conflicts with international law might have been a good place for Gershman to explain why what is good for the goose in the United States isn’t good for the gander in Russia. But hypocrisy is a hard thing to rationalize and would have undermined the propagandistic impact of the op-ed.
So would an acknowledgement of where NED’s money comes from. How many governments would allow a hostile foreign power to sponsor politicians and civic organizations whose mission is to undermine and overthrow the existing government and put in someone who would be compliant to that foreign power?
Not surprisingly, Gershman couldn’t find the space to include any balance in his op-ed – and the Post’s editors didn’t insist on any.
In a brazen move, designed to ensure that Russia is ruled by Russians, the Duma has passed laws limiting the powers of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to operate inside Russia. The first target being the National Endowment for Democracy. This is a terrible blow for freedom around the world, according to The Guardian, because the NED is simply an oasis of decency in Putin’s Empire of Evil:
The National Endowment for Democracy, a Washington-based nonprofit funded largely by the US Congress, has become the first group to be banned in Russia under a law against “undesirable” international nongovernmental organisations.
According to its website, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is “dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world” and has funded local non-governmental organisations in more than 90 countries. But in a statement on Tuesday, the prosecutor general’s office said it “poses a threat to the constitutional order of the Russian Federation and the defensive capability and security of the government”. [our emphasis]
Really? Really Guardian ? In order to inform us about what the NED is you just went to their own website and did copy/paste? Even the HuffPo, which is no one’s idea of hard-hitting investigative journalism can do better than that. Here’s an article it published by Mark Taliano about the NED:
Democracy is usually the first victim of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a U.S. agency that promotes the U.S Empire’s foreign policy beneath the false guise of “promoting democracy”.
Considered a “soft” tool of Empire, NED and its subsidiaries work to transform societal fissures in target countries into gaping holes, through which covert agendas can metastize before exploding into illegal regime changes.
Funding flows from the congressional budget of USAID, to NED and its subsidiaries, and finally to factions within target countries whose political economies do not align with globalized economic models of monopoly capitalism.
Beneath NED’s democratic veneer is a Board of Directors replete with members who also represent Fortune 500 companies. Additionally, board members include signatories to the pro-war, pro-corporatocracy think tank Project For A New American Century: Francis Fukuyama, Zalmay Khalizad, Will Marshall, and Vin Weber.
You’ll notice they don’t say whose freedom.
Which makes the Russian Duma’s decision to boot these guys out a tad more understandable, no?
Since the Graun apparently doesn’t do its own research any more, maybe it could at least copy/paste the Huff’s article in place of the contents from NED’s own About page? Or will that conflict with their GCHQ brief?
China has recently taken an important step in more tightly regulating foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) inside the country. Despite condemnation from so called human rights groups in the West, China’s move should be understood as a critical decision to assert sovereignty over its own political space. Naturally, the shrill cries of “repression” and “hostility toward civil society” from western NGOs have done little to shake the resolve of Beijing as the government has recognized the critical importance of cutting off all avenues for political and social destabilization.
The predictable argument, once again being made against China’s Overseas NGO Management Law, is that it is a restriction on freedom of association and expression, and a means of stifling the burgeoning civil society sector in China. The NGO advocates portray this proposed legislation as another example of the violation of human rights in China, and further evidence of Beijing’s lack of commitment to them. They posit that China is moving to further entrench an authoritarian government by closing off the democratic space which has emerged in recent years.
However, amid all the hand-wringing about human rights and democracy, what is conveniently left out of the narrative is the simple fact that foreign NGOs, and domestic ones funded by foreign money, are, to a large extent, agents of foreign interests, and are quite used as soft power weapons for destabilization. And this is no mere conspiracy theory as the documented record of the role of NGOs in recent political unrest in China is voluminous. It would not be a stretch to say that Beijing has finally recognized, just as Russia has before it, that in order to maintain political stability and true sovereignty, it must be able to control the civil society space otherwise manipulated by the US and its allies.
‘Soft Power’ and the Destabilization of China
Joseph Nye famously defined ‘soft power’ as the ability of a country to persuade others and/or manipulate events without force or coercion in order to achieve politically desirable outcomes. And one of the main tools of modern soft power is civil society and the NGOs that dominate it. With financial backing from some of the most powerful individuals and institutions in the world, these NGOs use the cover of “democracy promotion” and human rights to further the agenda of their patrons. And China has been particularly victimized by precisely this sort of strategy.
Human Rights Watch, and the NGO complex at large, has condemned China’s Overseas NGO Management Law because they quite rightly believe that it will severely hamper their efforts to act independently of Beijing. However, contrary to the irreproachable expression of innocence that such organizations masquerade behind, the reality is that they act as a de facto arm of western intelligence agencies and governments, and they have played a central role in the destabilization of China in recent years.
Undoubtedly the most highly publicized example of just such political meddling took place in 2014 with the much hyped “Occupy Central” movement in Hong Kong, also known as the Umbrella Movement. The Western media fed uninformed news consumers story after story about a “pro-democracy” movement seeking to give voice to, as White House spokesman Josh Earnest cynically articulated, “…the aspirations of the Hong Kong people.” But such vacuous rhetoric was only part of the story.
What the corporate media in the West failed to mention were the deeply rooted connections between the Occupy Central movement and key organs of US soft power. The oft touted leader of Occupy Central was a pro-Western academic named Benny Tai, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. Though he presented himself as the leader of a grassroots mass movement, Mr. Tai has for years been partnered with the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a nominal NGO which is actually directly funded by the US State Department via the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). In fact, the NDI has been one of the leading advocates (and financial backers presumably) of the Center for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong, a program with which Benny Tai has been intimately connected, including as a board member since 2006. So, far from being merely an emerging leader, Tai was a carefully selected point person for a US-sponsored color revolution-style movement.
Two other high profile figures involved with Occupy Central were Audrey Eu, founder of the Civic Party in Hong Kong, and Martin Lee, founding chairman of the Democrat Party of Hong Kong. Both Eu and Lee have long-standing ties to the US government through the NED and NDI, with Eu having been a frequent contributor to NDI sponsored panels and programs, and Lee having the glorious distinction of having both been a recipient of awards from NED and NDI, as well as meeting with US Vice President Joe Biden in 2014 along with anti-Beijing advocate Anson Chan.
It does not take exceptional powers of deduction to see that, to varying degrees, Tai, Eu, Lee, and Chan each act as the public face of a US Government-sponsored initiative to destabilize the political situation in Hong Kong, one of China’s most economically and politically important regions. Through the intermediary of the NGO, Washington is able to promote an anti-Beijing line under the auspices of “democracy promotion,” just as it has done everywhere from Ukraine to Venezuela. Luckily for China, the movement was not supported by either the bulk of the working class in Hong Kong and China, or even by many of the middle class who saw it as little more than an inconvenience at best. However, it required swift government action to contain the public relations and media fiasco that could have resulted from the movement, a fact of which Beijing, no doubt, took note.
As a spokesperson for the National People’s Congress explained in April, the NGO law is necessary for “safeguarding national security and maintaining social stability.” Indeed, in late 2014, in the wake of the Occupy Central protests, Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Macau and spoke of the need to ensure that Macau walked on the “right path.” In a thinly veiled reference to Hong Kong, Xi praised Macau for continuing to follow the “one country, two systems” policy under which the special administrative regions of Macau and Hong Kong have greater autonomy but are still subject to Chinese law. Essentially, Xi made it quite clear that, despite the foreign NGO-manufactured movement in Hong Kong, Beijing remained firmly in control. And this is precisely the issue: control.
NGOs, Soft Power, and Terror in Xinjiang
The NGO ‘soft power’ weapon is not relegated solely to Hong Kong however. In fact, the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, one of the most volatile regions in the country, has seen active destabilization and subversion by soft power elements consistently over recent years. Home to the majority Muslim Uighur ethnic group, Xinjiang has been repeatedly attacked both with terrorism and vile propaganda that has sought to paint to China as the oppressor and enemy of Uighurs, and Muslims generally.
Xinjiang has been victim to a number of deadly terrorist attacks in recent years, including the heinous drive-by bombings that killed dozens and injured over 100 people in May 2014, the mass stabbings and bombings of November 2014, and the deadly attack by Uighur terrorists on a traffic checkpoint just last month which left 18 people dead. Were such attacks, which claimed the lives of scores of innocent Chinese citizens, to have been carried out against, say, Americans, the western media would be all but declaring holy jihad against the entire world. However, since they’ve happened in China, these are merely isolated incidents that are due to the “marginalization” and “oppression” of the Uighur people by the big bad Chinese authorities.
Such a sickeningly biased narrative is in no small part due to the NGO penetration of the Uighur community and a vast public relations network funded directly by the US Government. The same National Endowment for Democracy (NED) which has disbursed funds to the NDI and other organizations involved in the Hong Kong destabilization of “Occupy Central,” has been a primary funder of the Uighur NGO complex.
The following organizations have each received significant financial support from the NED through the years: World Uighur Congress, Uighur American Association, International Uighur Human rights and Democracy Foundation, and the International Uighur PEN Club, among others. These NGOs are quite often the sources cited by western media for comments on anything related to Xinjiang and are almost always quick to demonize Beijing for all problems in the region, including terrorism.
Perhaps the best example of just such propaganda and dishonesty came in the last few weeks as western media was flooded with stories making the spurious allegation that China had banned the observance of Ramadan in Xinjiang. Indeed, there were literally hundreds of articles condemning China for this “restriction of religious freedom,” portraying the Chinese government as repressive and a violator of human rights. Interestingly, the primary source for the claim was none other than the NED-funded World Uighur Congress.
Moreover, in mid July, on the day of Eid al-Fitr (the final day of Ramadan), the Wall Street Journal ran a story covering the media push-back from China which has sought in recent weeks to publicize the fact that Xinjiang, and all of China, has celebrated openly for Ramadan. And, as one should come to expect, the anti-China source cited is, as usual, a representative of the World Uighur Congress. It seems that this organization, far from being merely a human rights advocate, is in fact a mouthpiece for US propaganda against China. And when the propaganda is challenged and discredited by China, well that just invites new and more blistering propaganda.
The Geopolitical Footprints
All of this demonization has taken on a clear geopolitical and strategic significance as Turkey has stepped into the fray condemning China for its alleged “persecution” of Uighur Muslims, whom Ankara sees as Turks from its neo-Ottoman revanchist perspective. The Turkish Foreign ministry said in a statement that “Our people have been saddened over the news that Uighur Turks have been banned from fasting or carrying out other religious duties in the Xinjiang region… Our deep concern over these reports have been conveyed to China’s ambassador in Ankara.”
China responded to what it deemed to be inappropriate comments from Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, especially in light of Turkey’s absurd characterization of the Uighurs (who are Chinese citizens) as “Turks.” China’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying stated, “China has already demanded that Turkey clarify these reports and we have expressed concern about the statement from the Turkish foreign ministry… You should know that all the people of Xinjiang enjoy the freedom of religious belief accorded to them by the Chinese constitution.”
While the Chinese government, as it almost always does, used decidedly muted language to express its displeasure, the implications of the statement were not lost on keen political observers with some understanding of the China-Turkey relationship. Although the two countries have many aligned interests, as evidenced by Turkey’s repeatedly expressed desire to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the little known fact is that Turkey is one of the major facilitators of terrorism in China.
Though it received almost no fanfare from international media, in January 2015 Chinese authorities arrested at least ten Turkish suspects alleged to have organized and facilitated the illegal border crossings of a number of Uighur extremists. It has further been revealed that these extremists were planning to travel to Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to train and fight with fellow jihadis.
The story is still further evidence of a well-funded, well-organized international terror network operated and/or facilitated by Turkish intelligence. According to the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the ten Turkish citizens were arrested in Shanghai on November 17, 2014 for facilitating illegal immigration. While the formal charges against them range from forging documents to actually aiding illegal migration, it is the larger question of international terrorism that lurks beneath the surface. Because of course, as the evidence seems to indicate, these Uighur immigrants were not merely traveling to see loved ones in another country. On the contrary, they were likely part of a previously documented trend of Uighur extremists traveling to the Middle East to train and fight with the Islamic State or other terror groups.
It is these same extremist networks that carried out the aforementioned deadly bombing in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang. In fact, precisely this trend was exposed two months earlier in September 2014 when Reuters reported that Beijing formally accused militant Uighurs from Xinjiang of having traveled to Islamic State-controlled territory to receive training. Further corroborating these accusations, the Jakarta Post of Indonesia reported that four Chinese Uighur jihadists had been arrested in Indonesia after having travelled from Xinjiang through Malaysia. Other, similar reports have also surfaced in recent months, painting a picture of a concerted campaign to help Uighur extremists travel throughout Asia, communicating and collaborating with transnational terror groups such as the Islamic State.
So, Uighur terrorists with forged documents provided by sources inside Turkey are implicated as being part of the same terror networks that carried out a series of deadly attacks on Chinese citizens and police. No wonder China is not exactly bending over backwards to dry Erdogan’s and the Turkish government’s crocodile tears. And yet, despite the terror war, the US-funded Uighur NGOs continue to portray China as responsible for the terrorism.
The destabilization of China takes many forms. From a manufactured protest movement in Hong Kong sponsored by NGOs connected to the US government, to a fabricated propaganda war peddled by other NGOs sponsored by the US government, to a terror war fomented by a NATO member, China is a nation under assault by soft and hard power. That Beijing is finally taking steps to curb the pernicious influence of such NGOs, and the forces they represent, is not only a positive step, it’s an absolutely necessary one. The national security and national sovereignty of the People’s Republic of China requires nothing less.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the U.S. government’s plunge into Cold War II would bring back the one-sided propaganda themes that dominated Cold War I, but it’s still unsettling to see how quickly the major U.S. news media has returned to the old ways, especially the New York Times, which has emerged as Official Washington’s propaganda vehicle of choice.
What has been most striking in the behavior of the Times and most other U.S. mainstream media outlets is their utter lack of self-awareness, for instance, accusing Russia of engaging in propaganda and alliance-building that are a pale shadow of what the U.S. government routinely does. Yet, the Times and the rest of the MSM act as if these actions are unique to Moscow.
A case in point is Monday’s front-page story in the Times entitled “Russia Wields Aid and Ideology Against West to Fight Sanctions,” which warns: “Moscow has brought to bear different kinds of weapons, according to American and European officials: money, ideology and disinformation.”
The article by Peter Baker and Steven Erlanger portrays the U.S. government as largely defenseless in the face of this unprincipled Russian onslaught: “Even as the Obama administration and its European allies try to counter Russia’s military intervention across its border, they have found themselves struggling at home against what they see as a concerted drive by Moscow to leverage its economic power, finance European political parties and movements, and spread alternative accounts of the conflict.”
Like many of the Times’ recent articles, this one relies on one-sided accusations from U.S. and European officials and is short on both hard evidence of actual Russian payments – and a response from the Russian government to the charges. At the end of the long story, the writers do include one comment from Brookings Institution scholar, Fiona Hill, a former U.S. national intelligence officer on Russia, noting the shortage of proof.
“The question is how much hard evidence does anyone have?” she asked. But that’s about all a Times’ reader will get if he or she is looking for some balanced reporting.
Missing the Obvious
Still, the more remarkable aspect of the article is how it ignores the much more substantial evidence of the U.S. government and its allies themselves financing propaganda operations and supporting “non-governmental organizations” that promote the favored U.S. policies in countries around the world.
Plus, there’s the failure to recognize that many of Official Washington’s own accounts of global problems have been riddled with propaganda and outright disinformation.
For instance, much of the State Department’s account of the Aug. 21, 2013 sarin attack in Syria turned out to be false or misleading. United Nations inspectors discovered only one rocket carrying sarin – not the barrage that U.S. officials had originally alleged – and the rocket had a much shorter range than the U.S. government (and the New York Times ) claimed. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Backs Off Its Syria-Sarin Analysis.”]
Then, after the Feb. 22, 2014 U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine, the U.S. government and the Times became veritable founts of propaganda and disinformation. Beyond refusing to acknowledge the key role played by neo-Nazi and other right-wing militias in the coup and subsequent violence, the State Department disseminated information to the Times that later was acknowledged to be false.
In April 2014, the Times published a lead story based on photographs of purported Russian soldiers in Ukraine but had to retract it two days later because it turned out that the State Department had misrepresented where a key photo was taken, destroying the premise of the article. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Retracts Ukraine Photo Scoop.”]
And sometimes the propaganda came directly from senior U.S. government officials. For instance, on April 29, 2014, Richard Stengel, under secretary of state for public diplomacy, issued a “Dipnote” that leveled accusations that the Russian network RT was painting “a dangerous and false picture of Ukraine’s legitimate government,” i.e., the post-coup regime that took power after elected President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from office. In this context, Stengel denounced RT as “a distortion machine, not a news organization.”
Though he offered no specific dates and times for the offending RT programs, Stengel did complain about “the unquestioning repetition of the ludicrous assertion … that the United States has invested $5 billion in regime change in Ukraine. These are not facts, and they are not opinions. They are false claims, and when propaganda poses as news it creates real dangers and gives a green light to violence.”
However, RT’s “ludicrous assertion” about the U.S. investing $5 billion was a clear reference to a public speech by Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland to U.S. and Ukrainian business leaders on Dec. 13, 2013, in which she told them that “we have invested more than $5 billion” in what was needed for Ukraine to achieve its “European aspirations.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Who’s the Propagandist: US or RT?”]
One could go on and on about the U.S. government making false or misleading claims about these and other international crises. But it should be clear that Official Washington doesn’t have clean hands when it comes to propaganda mud-slinging, though you wouldn’t know that from the Times’ article on Monday.
And, beyond the U.S. government’s direct dissemination of disinformation, the U.S. government also has spread around hundreds of millions of dollars to finance “journalism” organizations, political activists and “non-governmental organizations” that promote U.S. policy goals inside targeted countries. Before the Feb. 22, 2014 coup in Ukraine, there were scores of such operations in the country financed by the National Endowment for Democracy. NED’s budget from Congress exceeds $100 million a year.
But NED, which has been run by neocon Carl Gershman since its founding in 1983, is only part of the picture. You have many other propaganda fronts operating under the umbrella of the U.S. State Department and its U.S. Agency for International Development. Last May 1, USAID issued a fact sheet summarizing its work financing friendly journalists around the world, including “journalism education, media business development, capacity building for supportive institutions, and strengthening legal-regulatory environments for free media.”
USAID estimated its budget for “media strengthening programs in over 30 countries” at $40 million annually, including aiding “independent media organizations and bloggers in over a dozen countries,” In Ukraine before the coup, USAID offered training in “mobile phone and website security.”
USAID, working with billionaire George Soros’s Open Society, also funds the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which engages in “investigative journalism” that usually goes after governments that have fallen into disfavor with the United States and then are singled out for accusations of corruption. The USAID-funded OCCRP also collaborates with Bellingcat, an online investigative website founded by blogger Eliot Higgins.
Higgins has spread misinformation on the Internet, including discredited claims implicating the Syrian government in the sarin attack in 2013 and directing an Australian TV news crew to what appeared to be the wrong location for a video of a BUK anti-aircraft battery as it supposedly made its getaway to Russia after the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014.
Despite his dubious record of accuracy, Higgins has gained mainstream acclaim, in part, because his “findings” always match up with the propaganda theme that the U.S. government and its Western allies are peddling. Though most genuinely independent bloggers are ignored by the mainstream media, Higgins has found his work touted.
In other words, whatever Russia is doing to promote its side of the story in Europe and elsewhere is more than matched by the U.S. government through its direct and indirect agents of influence. Indeed, during the original Cold War, the CIA and the old U.S. Information Agency refined the art of “information warfare,” including pioneering some of its current features like having ostensibly “independent” entities and cut-outs present the propaganda to a cynical public that rejects much of what it hears from government but may trust “citizen journalists” and “bloggers.”
To top off this modern propaganda structure, we now have the paper-of-record New York Times coming along to suggest that anyone who isn’t disseminating U.S. propaganda must be in Moscow’s pocket. The implication is that now that we have Cold War II, we can expect to have McCarthyism II as well.
In the 1980s, CIA propaganda experts and military psy-war specialists oversaw the creation of special programs aimed at managing public perceptions in both targeted foreign countries and the United States, according to declassified documents at Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Library.
These documents – discovered in 2010 – buttress previously disclosed evidence that President Reagan’s CIA Director William J. Casey played a key behind-the-scenes role in pushing this political action initiative, which recruited well-heeled private-sector conservatives to subsidize the secretive government operations.
The documents show that Casey used a senior CIA propaganda and disinformation specialist named Walter Raymond Jr., who was placed inside the National Security Council in 1982, to oversee the project and to circumvent legal prohibitions against the CIA engaging in propaganda that might influence U.S. public opinion or politics.
Though Raymond formally quit the CIA after going to the NSC, documents from Raymond’s personal NSC files reveal that he often passed on recommendations regarding the propaganda initiative after meetings at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, or after conversations with Casey himself.
In one Nov. 4, 1982, “secret” memo, Raymond described Casey reaching out to right-wing mogul Richard Mellon Scaife, who was already working with other conservative foundation executives to fund right-wing publications, think tanks and activist groups seeking to shift U.S. politics to the Right.
Raymond told then NSC advisor William P. Clark that “Bill Casey asked me to pass on the following thought concerning your [scheduled] meeting with Dick Scaife, Dave Abshire [then a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board], and Co.
“Casey had lunch with them today and discussed the need to get moving in the general area of supporting our friends around the world.”
Besides a desire to “invigorate international media programs,” Casey wanted to help U.S.-based organizations, such as Freedom House, that could influence American attitudes about foreign challenges, Raymond said.
“The DCI [Director of Central Intelligence] is also concerned about strengthening public information organizations in the United States such as Freedom House,” Raymond told Clark. “To do this we have identified three overt tracks:
“–enhanced federal funding;
“–the Democracy Project study (although publicly funded this will be independently managed);
“A critical piece of the puzzle is a serious effort to raise private funds to generate momentum. Casey’s talk with Scaife and Co. suggests they would be very willing to cooperate.”
(In the following years, Freedom House emerged as a major recipient of funding from the U.S. government’s National Endowment for Democracy, which was founded in 1983. Freedom House became a fierce critic of Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government, which Reagan and Casey were seeking to overthrow by covertly supporting Contra rebels.)
Returning from Langley
A Dec. 2 note addressed to “Bud,” apparently senior NSC official Robert “Bud” McFarlane, described a request from Raymond for a brief meeting. “When he [Raymond] returned from Langley, he had a proposed draft letter … re $100 M democ[racy] proj[ect],” the note said.
While Raymond passed on Casey’s instructions, the CIA director told White House officials to play down or conceal the CIA’s role.
“Obviously we here [at CIA] should not get out front in the development of such an organization, nor should we appear to be a sponsor or advocate,” Casey said in one undated letter to then-White House counselor Edwin Meese III, urging creation of a “National Endowment” that would support “free institutions throughout the world.”
On Jan. 21, 1983, Raymond updated Clark about the project, which also was reaching out to representatives from other conservative foundations, including Les Lenkowsky of Smith-Richardson, Michael Joyce of Olin and Dan McMichael of Mellon-Scaife.
“This is designed to develop a broader group of people who will support parallel initiatives consistent with Administration needs and desires,” Raymond wrote.
In the late 1970s and through the 1980s, those and other conservative foundations poured millions of dollars into right-wing think tanks, media outlets and anti-journalism attack groups that targeted American reporters who challenged the Reagan administration’s propaganda.
The early planning papers also indicated a desire to use this relatively overt system to funnel money to pro-U.S. trade unions in Asia, Africa and Latin America in support of a variety of political operations, including setting up television stations and funding print publications.
Some examples were $150,000 to a Bolivian trade union; $50,000 to Peru as a “direct counter to Soviet funding”; $50,000 to Grenada “to the only organized opposition to the Marxist government of Maurice Bishop (The Seaman and Waterfront Workers Union). A supplemental to support free TV activity outside Grenada”; $750,000 to Nicaragua “to support an array of independent trade union activity, agricultural cooperatives”; and $500,000 for “Central America labor publishing house and distribution center for printed materials – TV materials, cooperatives, land reform, etc. – to counter Marxist literature.”
The document’s reference to money being spent to counter Bishop’s government in Grenada adds weight to long-held suspicions that the Reagan administration engaged in propaganda and destabilization campaigns against Bishop, who was ousted by internal rivals and killed in October 1983, setting the stage for the U.S. invasion of the tiny Caribbean island.
The invasion of Grenada, though condemned by much of the world as an act of U.S. aggression, proved popular in the United States, an important step in readying the American people for larger military adventures ahead.
Eventually, Casey’s concept of a global initiative led to the founding of the National Endowment for Democracy in 1983 ostensibly for the purpose of promoting foreign democratic institutions. But the NED also created a cover for the United States to funnel money to pro-U.S. groups in hostile countries. And it subsidized Washington’s growing community of neoconservatives who wrote op-ed articles in leading newspapers and went on TV news shows advocating an aggressive U.S. foreign policy.
Since 1983, NED has been involved in numerous controversies, including allegations that it helped buy the Nicaraguan election in 1990 by spending some $9 million, including $4 million poured into the campaign of U.S.-backed candidate Violeta Chamorro.
NED’s hand also has been detected in “velvet revolutions” staged in Ukraine, Georgia and other eastern European nations. NED has been active, too, in Iran, fueling government suspicions there that its opposition, which took to the streets after the June 2009 presidential election, represented another U.S.-backed scheme to achieve regime change.
Though many of Raymond’s documents at Reagan’s Library in Simi Valley, California, remain secret, the material discovered in 2010 – and some of the previously released documents – offer a panorama of how the administration’s perception management campaigns evolved, from the early days of Casey prodding the process forward to later years when Raymond’s apparatus grew increasingly powerful and even paranoid.
According to a secret action proposal that Raymond submitted on Dec. 20, 1984, to then national security adviser McFarlane, Raymond wanted an even greater commitment of manpower.
“I have attempted to proceed forward with a whole range of political and information activities,” Raymond wrote. “There are a raft of ties to private organizations which are working in tandem with the government in a number of areas ranging from the American Security Council to the Atlantic Council, to the nascent idea of a ‘Peace Institute.’”
Among the examples of his “specific activities,” Raymond listed “significant expansion of our ability to utilize book publication and distribution as a public diplomacy tool. (This is based on an integrated public-private strategy). … The development of an active PSYOP strategy. … Meetings (ad hoc) with selected CIA operational people to coordinate and clarify lines between overt/covert political operations on key areas. Examples: Afghanistan, Central America, USSR-EE [Eastern Europe] and Grenada.”
Another part of Raymond’s domain was “the Soviet Political Action Working Group.” This group discussed what it regarded as “Soviet active measures” and worked on “themes” that soon resonated through Washington, such as the argument regarding “moral equivalents.”
Raymond reported that the “moral equivalents” theme was discussed at the working group’s Dec. 15, 1983, meeting. The idea of “moral equivalents” involved U.S. government officials upbraiding journalists and opinion leaders who tried to apply common moral standards to pro- and anti-U.S. groups.
Reagan administration officials would insist that human rights crimes by the pro-U.S. side of a conflict should not be criticized as severely as similar crimes by the anti-U.S. side because that would apply a “false moral equivalence,” suggesting that the United States was no better than its enemies. To take such a position was regarded as unpatriotic or disloyal.
Along those lines, one of Raymond’s sub-groups, “the Active Measures Working Group,” met “to develop an action plan to turn Soviet active measures back onto the Soviets, i.e. take the offensive.”
Attendees included Raymond and another CIA operations veteran, Ray Warren, a Casey favorite who was placed inside the Pentagon; Herb Romerstein, a former investigator for the House Committee on Un-American Activities; and Robert Kagan, a prominent neoconservative who was an aide to Elliott Abrams at the State Department and later led the Office of Public Diplomacy on Latin America.
The Active Measures Working Group brought in from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and U.S. Special Forces, personnel who specialized in psychological operations, such as a “Col. Paddock (OSD/PSYOP),” a “Mr. Hunter (1st PSYOP Bn)”; a “Colonel Dunbar (1st PYSOP Bn),” and “Lieutenant Colonel Jacobowitz (DOD/PSYOP).”
In previously disclosed documents, Lt. Col. Daniel “Jake” Jacobowitz was listed as the executive officer inside the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy on Latin America, where the White House also placed five psychological warfare specialists from the 4th Psychological Operations Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The main job of these psy-ops specialists was to pick out incidents in Central America that would rile the U.S. public. In a memo dated May 30, 1985, Jacobowitz explained that the military men were scouring embassy cables “looking for exploitable themes and trends, and [would] inform us of possible areas for our exploitation.”
The June 19, 1986, minutes of the working group stated that “Colonel Paddock reported that OSD/PSYOP has been working on some unclassified publications, mainly on Central American issues, in cooperation with State’s Office of Latin American Public Diplomacy.”
At the working group meeting on July 31, 1986, Col. Paddock passed out copies of a joint Pentagon/State Department publication, “The Challenge to Democracy in Central America,” which was then being disseminated to members of Congress, the Washington press corps and the American public.
The publication sought to portray Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government as a state sponsor of terrorism, a major propaganda theme that the Reagan administration was using to justify its covert support of the contra rebels, who themselves were infamous for acts of terrorism, including extra-judicial executions and attacks on civilian targets.
Chastising the Enemy
Despite the evidence that it was the Reagan administration that was knee-deep in propaganda, the psyop official, “Mr. Hunter” – whose fuller identity remained classified in the meeting’s minutes – briefed the group on what he described as anti-U.S. “disinformation campaigns,” including “charges of immoral conduct by US troops in Honduras.”
In the world of Raymond’s psyop meetings, nearly every negative piece of news about U.S. activities in the world was dismissed as “Soviet active measures,” presumably even the fact that some U.S. troops operating in Honduras engaged in what surely could be called “immoral conduct.”
Bureaucratic deception was also part of the secret operations inside the NSC. In the mid-1980s, I was told by one senior NSC official that a key early document laying the groundwork for raising money for the contra war in defiance of a congressional prohibition was marked as a “non-paper,” so it would not be regarded as an official document (even though it clearly was).
Similarly, Raymond sent one Nov. 28, 1986, memo to an unnamed CIA officer reminding him to attend what Raymond called “the next non-group meeting.” So it appears that Reagan’s NSC sought to get around requirements for safeguarding historical records by circulating “non-papers” and meeting in “non-groups.”
Raymond’s domestic propaganda activities were explored by congressional Iran-Contra investigators in 1987. However, their findings faced fierce internal opposition from House and Senate Republicans.
In a bid for bipartisanship, House Democratic committee chairman Lee Hamilton agreed to a compromise in which a chapter on Raymond’s operation was dropped while a few segments were inserted elsewhere in the final report.
That meant, however, that the American people never got to read the chapter’s stunning conclusion: that the Reagan administration had built a domestic covert propaganda apparatus managed by a CIA disinformation specialist working out of the National Security Council.
“One of the CIA’s most senior covert action operators was sent to the NSC in 1983 by CIA Director [William] Casey where he participated in the creation of an inter-agency public diplomacy mechanism that included the use of seasoned intelligence specialists,” the chapter’s conclusion stated.
“This public/private network set out to accomplish what a covert CIA operation in a foreign country might attempt – to sway the media, the Congress, and American public opinion in the direction of the Reagan administration’s policies.”
Tracing the Origins
The 84-page “lost” chapter, entitled “Launching the Private Network,” traced the origins of the propaganda network to President Reagan’s “National Security Decision Directive 77” in January 1983 as his administration sought to promote its foreign policy, especially its desire to oust Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government. [There appear to have been several versions of this “lost chapter.” This one I found in congressional files.]
The chapter also cited a Jan. 13, 1983, memo by then-NSC Advisor Clark regarding the need for non-governmental money to advance the cause. “We will develop a scenario for obtaining private funding,” Clark wrote.
However, what the newly discovered documents from Raymond’s files make clear is that the initiative dated back to 1982 and was pushed more by Casey and his CIA associates than by the NSC advisor.
The “lost chapter” does explain how Reagan administration officials soon began crossing lines that separated an overseas propaganda program from a domestic propaganda operation aimed at U.S. public opinion, the American press and congressional Democrats who opposed contra funding.
“An elaborate system of inter-agency committees was eventually formed and charged with the task of working closely with private groups and individuals involved in fundraising, lobbying campaigns and propagandistic activities aimed at influencing public opinion and governmental action,” the draft chapter said.
The draft chapter doesn’t initially use Raymond’s name – presumably because his work at the CIA remained classified – but its description of the CIA officer in charge of the NSC-run propaganda operation clearly refers to Raymond.
According to the draft report, the CIA officer [Raymond] had served as Director of the Covert Action Staff at the CIA from 1978 to 1982 and was a “specialist in propaganda and disinformation.”
“The CIA official discussed the transfer with [CIA Director] Casey and NSC Advisor William Clark that he be assigned to the NSC [in June 1982] and received approval for his involvement in setting up the public diplomacy program along with his intelligence responsibilities,” the chapter said.
“In the early part of 1983, documents obtained by the Select [Iran-Contra] Committees indicate that the Director of the Intelligence Staff of the NSC [Raymond] successfully recommended the establishment of an inter-governmental network to promote and manage a public diplomacy plan designed to create support for Reagan Administration policies at home and abroad.”
Raymond “helped to set up an elaborate system of inter-agency committees,” the draft chapter said, adding:
“In the Spring of 1983, the network began to turn its attention toward beefing up the Administration’s capacity to promote American support for the Democratic Resistance in Nicaragua [the contras] and the fledgling democracy in El Salvador.
“This effort resulted in the creation of the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean in the Department of State (S/LPD), headed by Otto Reich,” a right-wing Cuban exile from Miami.
Though Secretary of State George Shultz wanted the office under his control, President Reagan insisted that Reich “report directly to the NSC,” where Raymond oversaw the operations as a special assistant to the President and the NSC’s director of international communications, the chapter said.
“At least for several months after he assumed this position, Raymond also worked on intelligence matters at the NSC, including drafting a Presidential Finding for Covert Action in Nicaragua in mid-September” 1983, the chapter said.
In other words, although Raymond was shifted to the NSC staff in part to evade prohibitions on the CIA influencing U.S. public opinion, his intelligence and propaganda duties overlapped for a time as he was in the process of retiring from the spy agency.
And despite Raymond’s formal separation from the CIA, he acted toward the U.S. public much like a CIA officer would in directing a propaganda operation in a hostile foreign country. He was the go-to guy to keep this political action operation on track.
“Reich relied heavily on Raymond to secure personnel transfers from other government agencies to beef up the limited resources made available to S/LPD by the Department of State,” the chapter said.
“Personnel made available to the new office included intelligence specialists from the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army. On one occasion, five intelligence experts from the Army’s 4th Psychological Operations Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, were assigned to work with Reich’s fast-growing operation. …
“White House documents also indicate that CIA Director Casey had more than a passing interest in the Central American public diplomacy campaign.”
The chapter cited an Aug. 9, 1983, memo written by Raymond describing Casey’s participation in a meeting with public relations specialists to brainstorm how “to sell a ‘new product’ – Central America – by generating interest across-the-spectrum.”
In an Aug. 29, 1983, memo, Raymond recounted a call from Casey pushing his P.R. ideas. Alarmed at a CIA director participating so brazenly in domestic propaganda, Raymond wrote that “I philosophized a bit with Bill Casey (in an effort to get him out of the loop)” but with little success.
The chapter added: “Casey’s involvement in the public diplomacy effort apparently continued throughout the period under investigation by the Committees,” including a 1985 role in pressuring Congress to renew contra aid and a 1986 hand in further shielding S/LPD from the oversight of Shultz.
Casey even monitored personnel changes. A Raymond-authored memo to Casey in August 1986 described the shift of S/LPD – then run by neoconservative theorist Kagan who had replaced Reich – to the control of the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, which was headed by Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, another prominent neoconservative.
Oliver North and Friends
Another important figure in the pro-contra propaganda was NSC staffer Oliver North, who spent a great deal of his time on the Nicaraguan public diplomacy operation even though he is better known for arranging secret arms shipments to the contras and to Iran’s radical Islamic government, leading to the Iran-Contra scandal.
The draft chapter cited a March 10, 1985, memo from North describing his assistance to CIA Director Casey in timing the disclosures of pro-contra news “aimed at securing Congressional approval for renewed support to the Nicaraguan Resistance Forces.”
However, the discarding of the draft chapter and the ultimate failure of the Iran-Contra report to fully explain the danger of CIA-style propaganda intruding into the U.S. political process had profound future consequences. Indeed, the evidence suggests that the Casey-Raymond media operations of the 1980s helped bring the Washington press corps to its knees, where it has remained most of the time through today.
To soften up the Washington press corps, Reich’s S/LPD targeted U.S. journalists who reported information that undermined the administration’s propaganda themes. Reich sent his teams out to lobby news executives to remove or punish out-of-step reporters – with a disturbing degree of success.
In March 1986, Reich reported that his office was taking “a very aggressive posture vis-à-vis a sometimes hostile press” and “did not give the critics of the policy any quarter in the debate.” [For details, see Parry’s Lost History.]
Though Casey died in 1987 and Raymond in 2003, some U.S. officials implicated in the propaganda operations remain important Washington figures, bringing the lessons of the 1980s into the new century.
For instance, Elliott Abrams – though convicted of misleading Congress in the Iran-Contra Affair and later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush – returned as deputy advisor to George W. Bush’s NSC, where Abrams oversaw U.S.-Middle East policy. Oliver North landed a show on Fox News. Otto Reich was an adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 (and was a foreign policy spokesman for Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012).
Kagan writes influential op-eds for the Washington Post and was a senior associate at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace (before moving to the Brookings Institution. Kagan also co-founded the Project for the New American Century, which advocated for the invasion of Iraq, and he is the husband of Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, who oversaw the U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine in February 2014). [See Consortiumnews.com’s “A Family Business of Perpetual War.”]
Oliver North landed a show on Fox News. Otto Reich was an adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 (and was a foreign policy spokesman for Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012).
Beyond the individuals, the manipulative techniques that were refined in the 1980s – especially the skill of exaggerating foreign threats – have proved durable. Such scare tactics brought large segments of the American population into line behind the Iraq War in 2002-03.
It took years and many thousands of deaths before Americans realized they had been manipulated by deceptive propaganda, that their perceptions had been managed.
In his book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, Bush’s former White House press secretary Scott McClellan described Iraq War propaganda tactics that would have been familiar to Casey and Raymond.
From his insider vantage point, McClellan cited the White House’s “carefully orchestrated campaign to shape and manipulate sources of public approval” – and he called the Washington press corps “complicit enablers.”
The documents in Raymond’s files at the Reagan Library offer a glimpse at how these manipulative techniques took root.
[For more recent document discoveries at the Reagan Library, including the recruitment of publisher Rupert Murdoch, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Murdoch, Scaife and CIA Propaganda” and “How Roy Cohn Helped Rupert Murdoch.”]
The news that Lyudmila Alekseyeva, head of the Russian Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) the Moscow-Helsinki Group, will be returning to the Presidential Council for Human Rights, has been heralded by many in the liberal establishment in Russia as a victory for their cause. Indeed, as an adversary of President Putin on numerous occasions, Alekseyeva has been held as a symbol of the pro-Western, pro-US orientation of Russian liberals who see in Russia not a power seeking independence and sovereignty from the global hegemon in Washington, but rather a repressive and reactionary country bent on aggression and imperial revanchism.
While this view is not one shared by the vast majority of Russians – Putin’s approval rating continues to hover somewhere in the mid 80s – it is most certainly in line with the political and foreign policy establishment of the US, and the West generally. And this is precisely the reason that Alekseyeva and her fellow liberal colleagues are so close to key figures in Washington whose overriding goal is the return of Western hegemony in Russia, and throughout the Eurasian space broadly. For them, the return of Alekseyeva is the return of a champion of Western interests into the halls of power in Moscow.
Washington and Moscow: Competing Agendas, Divergent Interests
Perhaps one should not overstate the significance of Alekseyeva as an individual. This Russian ‘babushka’ approaching 90 years old is certainly still relevant, though clearly not as active as she once was. Nevertheless, one cannot help but admire her spirit and desire to engage in political issues at the highest levels. However, taking the pragmatic perspective, Alekseyeva is likely more a figurehead, a symbol for the pro-Western liberal class, rather than truly a militant leader of it. Instead, she represents the matriarchal public face of a cohesive, well-constructed, though relatively marginal, liberal intelligentsia in Russia that is both anti-Putin, and pro-Western.
There could be no better illustration of this point than Alekseyeva’s recent meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland while Ms. Nuland was in Moscow for talks with her Russian counterparts. Alekseyeva noted that much of the meeting was focused on anti-US perception and public relations in Russia, as well as the reining in of foreign-sponsored NGOs, explaining that, “[US officials] are also very concerned about the anti-American propaganda. I said we are very concerned about the law on foreign agents, which sharply reduced the effectiveness of the human rights community.”
There are two distinctly different, yet intimately linked issues being addressed here. On the one hand is the fact that Russia has taken a decidedly more aggressive stance to US-NATO machinations throughout its traditional sphere of influence, which has led to demonization of Russia in the West, and the entirely predictable backlash against that in Russia. According to the Levada Center, nearly 60 percent of Russians believe that Russia has reasons to fear the US, with nearly 50 percent saying that the US represents an obstacle to Russia’s development. While US officials and corporate media mouthpieces like to chalk this up to “Russian propaganda,” the reality is that these public opinion numbers reflect Washington and NATO’s actions, not their image, especially since the US-backed coup in Ukraine; Victoria Nuland herself having played the pivotal role in instigating the coup and setting the stage for the current conflict.
So while Nuland meets with Alekseyeva and talks of the anti-US perception, most Russians correctly see Nuland and her clique as anti-Russian. In this way, Alekseyeva, fairly or unfairly, represents a decidedly anti-Russian position in the eyes of her countrymen, cozying up to Russia’s enemies while acting as a bulwark against Putin and the government.
And then of course there is the question of the foreign agents law. The law, enacted in 2012, is designed to make transparent the financial backing of NGOs and other organizations operating in Russia with the financial assistance of foreign states. While critics accuse Moscow of using the law for political persecution, the undeniable fact is that Washington has for years used such organizations as part of its soft power apparatus to be able to project power and exert influence without ever having to be directly involved in the internal affairs of the targeted country.
From the perspective of Alekseyeva, the law is unjust and unfairly targets her organization, the Moscow-Helsinki Group, and many others. Alekseyeva noted that, “We are very concerned about the law on foreign agents, which sharply reduced the effectiveness of the human rights community… [and] the fact the authorities in some localities are trying more than enough on some human rights organizations and declare as foreign agents those who have not received any foreign money or engaged in politics.”
While any abuse of the law should rightly be investigated, there is a critical point that Alekseyeva conveniently leaves out of the narrative: the Moscow-Helsinki Group (MHG) and myriad other so-called “human rights” organizations are directly supported by the US State Department through its National Endowment for Democracy, among other sources. As the NED’s own website noted, the NED provided significant financial grants “To support [MHG’s] networking and public outreach programs. Endowment funds will be used primarily to pay for MHG staff salaries and rental of a building in downtown Moscow. Part of the office space rented will be made available at a reduced rate to NGOs that are closely affiliated with MHG, including other Endowment grantees.” The salient point here is that the salary of MHG staff, the rent for their office space, and other critical operating expenses are directly funded by the US Government. For this reason, one cannot doubt that the term “foreign agent” directly and unequivocally applies to Alekseyeva’s organization.
But of course, the Moscow-Helsinki Group is not alone as more than fifty organizations have now registered as foreign agents, each of which having received significant amounts from the US or other foreign sources. So, an objective analysis would indicate that while there may be abuses of the law, as there are of all laws everywhere, by and large it has been applied across the board to all organizations in receipt of foreign financial backing.
It is clear that the US agenda, under the cover of “democracy promotion” and “NGO strengthening” is to weaken the political establishment in Russia through various soft power means, with Alekseyeva as the symbolic matriarch of the human rights complex in Russia. But what of Putin’s government? Why should they acquiesce to the demands of Russian liberals and allow Alekseyeva onto the Presidential Council for Human Rights?
The Russian Strategy
Moscow is clearly playing politics and the public perception game. The government is very conscious of the fact that part of the Western propaganda campaign is to demonize Putin and his government as “authoritarian” and “violators of human rights.” So by allowing the figurehead of the movement onto the most influential human rights-oriented body, Moscow intends to alleviate some of that pressure, and take away one of the principal pieces of ammunition for the anti-Russia propagandists.
But there is yet another, and far more significant and politically savvy reason for doing this: accountability. Putin is confident in his position and popularity with Russians so he is not at all concerned about what Alekseyeva or her colleagues might say or do on the Council. On the other hand, Putin can now hold Russian liberals accountable for turning a blind eye to the systematic violations of human rights by the Kiev regime, particularly in Donbass.
One of the primary issues taken up by the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights in 2014 was the situation in Ukraine. In October 2014, President Putin, addressing the Council stated:
[The developments in Ukraine] have revealed a large-scale crisis in terms of international law, the basic norms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. We see numerous violations of Articles 3, 4, 5, 7 and 11 of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of Article 3 of the Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of December 9, 1948. We are witnessing the application of double standards in the assessment of crimes against the civilian population of southeastern Ukraine, violations of the fundamental human rights to life and personal integrity. People are subjected to torture, to cruel and humiliating punishment, discrimination and illegal rulings. Unfortunately, many international human rights organisations close their eyes to what is going on there, hypocritically turning away.
With these and other statements, Putin placed the issue of Ukraine and human rights abuses squarely in the lap of the council and any NGOs and ostensible “human rights” representatives on it. With broader NGO representation, it only makes it all the more apparent. It will now be up to Alekseyeva and Co. to either pursue the issues, or discredit themselves as hypocrites only interested in subjects deemed politically damaging to Moscow, and thus advantageous to Washington. This is a critical point because for years Russians have argued that these Western-funded NGOs only exist to demonize Russia and to serve the Western agenda; the issue of Ukraine could hammer that point home beyond dispute.
And so, the return of Alekseyeva, far from being a victory for the NGO/human rights complex in Russia, might finally force them to take the issue of human rights and justice seriously, rather than using it as a convenient political club to bash Russians over the head with. Perhaps Russian speakers in Donetsk and Lugansk might actually get some of the humanitarian attention they so rightfully deserve from the liberals who, despite their rhetoric, have shown nothing but contempt for the bleeding of Donbass, seeing it as not a humanitarian catastrophe, but a political opportunity. Needless to say, with Putin and the Russian government in control, the millions invested in these organizations by Washington have turned out to be a bad investment.
The historic meeting between President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba at the Summit of the Americas in Panama over the weekend could be interpreted as a steppingstone toward the end of U.S. subversion and economic warfare relentlessly carried out since the success of the Cuban revolution 55 years ago. But it is questionable whether President Obama intends to transform relations, treating the government of Cuba as a sovereign equal and recognizing their right to choose different political and economic models, or merely to continue the same decades-old policy with a more palatable sales pitch – the way he has done with drones and extrajudicial surveillance. U.S. media, however, appear to have fully embraced the idea that Washington is acting in the best interests of the Cuban people to liberate them from political repression. The New York Times weighed in the day before the Summit by claiming that most Cubans identify not with the sociopolitical goals advanced by their country’s government, but rather with those supported by Washington.
In an editorial titled “Cuban Expectations in a New Era” (4/7/2015), the New York Times advances the proposition that engagement between the two governments will lead to Cuba’s integration (at least partially) into the global capitalist economy. This in turn will create increased financial prosperity as Cuba grows its private sector and turns away from the failed model the government has imposed since the start of the revolution.
The New York Times portrays the Cuban government as intransigent, stubbornly holding its citizens back from the inevitable progress that would result from aligning itself with Washington. The Times claims that the Cuban government maintains a “historically tight grip on Cuban society.” They may be alluding to a Cuban version of the U.S.’s political police, the FBI, who for decades spied on nonviolent activists representing African Americans, Puerto Rican nationalists, the anti-war movement, animal rights and environmental groups to prevent social change through political activities. Many of the activists illegally targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program still remain incarcerated as political prisoners. But the Times doesn’t mention any such Cuban equivalent.
The fault of Cuba’s financial situation is placed squarely on the country’s government. The Times editorial only mentions the 51-year-old embargo by stating that “untangling the web of sanctions the United States imposes on Cuba will take years because many are codified into law.” Yet they then claim “the Obama administration’s gamble on engaging with Cuba has made it increasingly hard for [Cuba’s] leaders to blame their economic problems and isolation on the United States.”
They might have mentioned the embargo against Cuba cost the country $3.9 billion in foreign trade last year, bringing the inflation-adjusted total to $1.1 trillion since the policy was implemented. The embargo is still directly harming the Cuban economy and public health sector. The administrative measures implemented by Obama will provide, at most, minor relief. Extraterritorial provisions of the Helms-Burton Act that prevent Cuba from trading with 3rd countries remain firmly in place.
But the Times seems to believe the Cuban government is doing nothing more than making excuses when they complain about the devastating affects of the embargo on their economy and their population. They don’t mention that in October 187 other nations voted in the UN for the 23rd straight year to condemn the U.S. embargo against Cuba as illegal and demand that it end.
In her study “Unexpected Cuba,” economist Emily Morris rejects the argument that Cuba’s leaders have damaged their country’s economic performance and put its social progress at risk by failing to adopt capitalist reforms like privatization and liberalization.
“The problem with this account is that reality has conspicuously failed to comply with its predictions,” Morris writes. “Although Cuba faced exceptionally severe conditions – it suffered the worst exogenous shock of any of the Soviet-bloc members and, thanks to the long-standing US trade embargo, has confronted a uniquely hostile international environment – its economy has performed in line with the other ex-Comecon countries, ranking thirteenth out of the 27 for which the World Bank has full data.”
The New York Times then claims that the Cuban dissidents attending sideline events at the Panama Summit deserve to have regional leaders “amplify their voices.” They claim that such dissidents “have struggled for years to be heard in their own country, where those critical of the Communist system have faced repression.”
There is no evidence that the dissidents have struggled in Cuba because they have been repressed rather than that most of the population simply does not agree with their ideas or sympathize with them. In a presumptuous attempt to delegitimize the Cuban government, the Times claims it is actually the dissident contra-revolution that represents the majority of the Cuban people. “The government will have to reckon with the fact that many of the dissidents’ aspirations are shared by most Cubans,” the Times editorial states.
Again, there is no evidence that this is actually the case anywhere other than in Washington’s fantasies. The dissidents’ aspirations are not even stated. One assumes this refers to the objective of repealing socialism and instituting capitalism, which is also the official policy of the U.S. government. Mere changes to Cuba’s economy within the socialist structure is not a dissident position. Such changes and improvements are proposed and debated at all levels of Cuban politics, and have been openly embraced by Raúl Castro since he assumed the Presidency.
That the majority of the Cuban people share dissidents’ desire for capitalism is a bold claim. It infers that the Cuban government is not representative of its people, but rather forcibly imposes a socioeconomic system they oppose.
People familiar with Cuba have reached the opposite conclusion. Victor Rodriguez, a professor in the Ethnic Studies department of California State University Long Beach, recently returned from a visit to Cuba and had a different outlook.
“I spoke with at least 50 Cubans of all ages and walks of life,” he said. “Themes were that sovereignty, health care, and education are non-negotiable.” Rodriguez said that Cubans did have complaints about their system, with many stressing the need for higher salaries.
But the three areas he cites as resoundingly popular are the most basic hallmarks of the revolution. If Cuba were to abandon its socialist economic system – either willingly or under pressure from the United States – these would be the first areas to be sacrificed on the neoliberal altar. Dozens of countries in the global South from Africa, Latin America to Asia that now find themselves in the vice grip of suffocating debt can surely attest to this fact.
It is worth examining who are the voices that the New York Times claim deserve to be amplified. Among the “dissidents” are Guillermo Fariñas and Manuel Cuesta Morúa. Fariñas had fought in Angola against the racist South African apartheid regime and had supported Cuba’s revolutionary movement until a sudden change, notes Salim Lamrani, a French professor who specializes in Cuba-USA relations.
“It was only in 2003 that Fariñas made a 180 degree ideological switch and turned his back on the ideas he had defended in years past,” Lamrani writes. Contrary to representation in Western media, Fariñas had been sentenced to prison for crimes such as assaulting a colleague and an old man who had to have his spleen removed because of his injuries. Lamrani notes that Fariñas was admittedly financed by the US Interests Section in Havana. Perhaps not coincidentally, Fariñas became an outspoken critic of the Castro regime. Yet he was still permitted to speak freely with foreign media. His decision to express his political views, which happen to coincide with those of the interests that finance him, has paid handsomely.
“Guillermo Fariñas has chosen, as have those Cuban dissidents sensationalized by the western press, to live off his dissident activities, which offer undeniable financial opportunities and a standard of living much higher than other Cubans living in a context marked by economic difficulties and material scarcity,” Lamrani writes.
Cuesta Morúa is likewise a dissident who considers the Cuban revolution an abject failure, and who downplays any U.S. responsibility for the economic conditions Cuba faces.
Unlike dissidents in the United States, who cannot start a political organization or journalistic enterprise without concerning themselves with how it will impact their ability to pay for health care, a mortgage, food for their family or education, dissidents in Cuba do not have any of these worries. They enjoy a robust safety net that covers every single citizen, regardless of their view of the Cuban political system.
Many Cubans in attendance at the Summit in Panama had a different view of the dissidents than that espoused by the New York Times. They referred to the dissidents as mercenaries because of their financial links to a hostile foreign regime and coziness with anti-Castro exiles such as Luis Posada Carriles, the “Cuban bin Laden,” who has been implicated in numerous terrorist activities including the downing of a civilian airline and a string of hotel bombings in Havana.
The Cuban Web site Juventud Rebelde noted that the Cuban delegation, which represents more than 2,000 associations and Non-Governmental Organizations from the island, denounced the presence of people who are paid by interests seeking to destabilize Cuban society and the Cuban government.
Liaena Hernandez Martinez, of the National Committee of the Federation of Cuban Women, which represents more than 4 million Cubans said that: “For the Cuba dignified and sovereign that has resisted more than five decades of blockade it is inadmissible that people are here of such low moral character.”
The Times predictably aligns itself on the side of the U.S. government regarding their opinion of the true political aspirations of Cuban people. The idea that the U.S. is a disinterested observer nudging the Cuban government in the direction of greater democracy and human rights is nothing but pure propaganda, contradicted by more than half a century of history. The U.S. has always been the aggressor against Cuba, coercing it to become a neo-colony that could be exploited by the U.S. military and corporate interests from the time of the Platt amendment until the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista was ousted in 1959.
It should be no surprise that the U.S. government and corporations like the New York Times still presumptuously attempt to delegitimize the Cuban revolution and pretend that the Cuban politics are best understood and articulated by those either outside Cuba or in their service as paid agents. The notion that a population can create a socioeconomic system representing the will of its people that starkly rejects the Washington Consensus is simply unthinkable. Anyone who agrees with the government’s official line, regardless of their questionable motives or failure to resonate inside the country, is seen as Cuba’s true political representative class. It may take another 55 years to realize this is simply not the case.