Pardon Us, Snowden

The deep state likes it that way – the deeper the better, away from prying eyes, insolent questions, democratic digging. All the more alarm then when one of its own, Edward Snowden, released droves of classified material showing that the National Security Agency, center piece of the deep state, was unlawfully spying on millions of Americans – phone calls, emails – and using the information for political purposes.

Unforgivable. Snowden landed in Russia to avoid arrest under the rarely used Espionage Act, a relic of World War One. But President Trump may be forgiving. He says he is considering a pardon, and a US. appeals court has ruled that NSA’s mass surveillance is unlawful, as Snowden insisted. A few adventurous office holders have made a similar pitch. It could be good politics at a time of excessive acrimony in the U.S. Then, too, the President, himself an outsider, may have some affinity for another outsider like Snowden.

Edward Snowden

Not that he was an outsider at NSA . He was well integrated into the community and valued for his internet wizardry. He liked his job and had enormous ambition for the internet until he witnessed its misuse under the management of longtime NSA chief Keith Alexander who asked in some frustration: “Why can’t we collect all the signals all the time?” That confirmed Snowden’s fear that NSA was determined to erase all private communication in the U.S, maybe in the world. It would be a vast extension of human power, he said, without accountability – the antithesis of democracy.

Beyond that, how useful was it? A flood of facts from “all the signals” are difficult to put together in any meaningful way. Failure to connect the dots led to the surprise attack of 9/11. Bits and pieces of information had been on hand but not collated. When asked how many terror attacks had been averted by NSA, Alexander could come up with only one doubtful example

Snowden has been criticized for not going through proper channels before becoming a public whistle blower. But experience argued against it. One after another, previous whistle blowers had got into serious trouble for challenging policies however misguided. As a Congressional staffer charged with oversight of NSA, Diane Roark took her concerns about domestic spying to every official she could think of. To no avail. NSA Director Michael Haydn defended his program on the grounds that “we had the power.” While she was suffering from breast cancer, the FBI raided and ransacked her home. Refusing to plead guilty to any spurious charge, she was finally left alone with tattered body and reputation.

Snowden has asked the President to pardon other whistle blowers currently under fire, but Trump supporters remain divided on how to handle him. Neocon Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he should be executed for treason, while Republican Representative Matt Gaetz calls for his pardon. Coincidentally, Snowden’s antagonist, former NSA boss Alexander, has been named to the board of prospering Amazon. The issue of freedom vs. secrecy is very much alive.

World’s Worst Journalist

Walter Duranty was a glib, fun-loving playboy who regularly smoked opium for the “novelty of vision” it provided. He said his chief aim in life was to write consequential fiction, and that he achieved through journalism as Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times. He witnessed and privately acknowledged Stalin’s state-induced famine of the 1930’s with people dying from starvation – a particularly hideous form of death – at the rate of 25 thousand a day. But he reported in the Times there was only some “malnutrition” in the region.

There followed the massive purge of Stalin’s fellow communists and others who had obstructed his quest for absolute power. Duranty attended the contrived show trials with the obviously coerced confessions of the ragged prisoners in the dock. But he insisted they were all true. How could you not believe the Great Father? He airily dismissed any accounts that contradicted him as the work of unseasoned amateurs, definitely beneath him. To prove the point, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for what can only be called a decade of lies.

Walter Duranty (left) and Josef Stalin (right)

Yet Duranty was not a spy or a communist or even an ideologue. He could have easily passed a security screening or even a polygraph. He captivated people with his endless, witty chatter, occasionally with a flourish of his wooden leg, resulting from a train accident. He was always the center of attention in Moscow and elsewhere – just like Stalin. He ruled in a small pond while the man he most admired was master of a vast one. Stalin was sheer brute force, he explained, but that was needed to overcome the benighted “Russian soul,” immersed in ignorance. When commands don’t work, whips will do. He liked to say, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” These words serve as a finale for a new film about Duranty and a reporter who got the story right, “Mr. Jones.”

There was, to be sure, an element of society that welcomed his words. Communism had a much better press than Nazism, and when Stalin and Hitler split Poland to start the Second World War, most animosity was directed at Hitler. But it was one thing to welcome Stalin as an ally whose Russia eventually did the most and suffered the most to win the war; it was quite another to overlook his menacing ambitions. At the end of the war his troops overran and took control of the rest of Poland, all of Eastern Europe and a large chunk of Germany until the West came to its senses and called a halt, commencing the Cold War.

“Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda,” Walter Duranty

Duranty never seemed to regret his errors even when they had been clearly exposed. After all, he had achieved his goal becoming the most celebrated journalist of his time. No denying that. The New York Times eventually offered an apology for his work, as it did subsequently for its unstinting support of the false premises leading to the 2003 U.S war in Iraq. Walter Duranty remains an enduring lesson for journalists.

Trump, Biden and War

President Trump based his 2016 campaign on stopping wars, and he pledged at least not to start a new one in contrast to the Obama administration which had launched a series of them, large and small. He kept his word, but in place of the direct killing of war, he substituted the indirect killing of economic sanctions, applied abundantly to countries, companies and individuals that had offended.

These sanctions tend to hurt people but to spare rulers who are well insulated against them. Thus, policies seldom change under economic pressure, and a public may even rally in defense of its leader against foreign interference. As it’s said, carrots should accompany sticks in foreign policy, but so far we see mainly the sticks of sanctions.

A number one target is Iran, which is no threat to the U.S. but is a force in the region and an enemy of Israel. Thus, the purpose of sanctions seems rather nebulous. It’s not entirely clear what Iran must do to lift them. The sanctions on Syria that have led to intense suffering appear to be payback for its ruler Bashar al-Assad remaining in power despite U.S. efforts to remove him. Russia, which came to his defense, is also under U.S. sanctions.

Trump recently vetoed a Congressional resolution to stop U.S. support of Saudi Arabia’s war on neighboring Yemen. Yet his backers insist he means what he says, and in his second term he will end the wars. That means confronting an establishment quite solidly opposed to him and also, as he admits, his own White House staff. The neocons among them, especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are intent on war with Iran. Yet he appointed them. Others are available who could carry out his wishes as chief executive.

As a sign of the times, some neocons have jumped ship and joined the Biden campaign. That seems counter-intuitive since as Vice President Biden urged a rather peaceful course on Obama. He wanted to pare down the U.S commitment to Afghanistan and opposed the mindless Libya war. Among Obama advisers on foreign policy, he was considered the most realistic. But is the Biden of those years the less certain, more isolated Biden of today? That can be determined by serious press scrutiny and debates with Trump.

If elected, Biden would be caught between an increasingly divided Democratic Party. A sizable peace movement is growing within, illustrated by the recent primary victory of African American Jamaal Bowman over Eliot Engel, highest ranking Democrat on the House foreign relations committee. U.S Senator Bernie Sanders, runner up to the Presidential nomination, clearly identifies with peace and has a substantial following that will have influence in a Biden administration.

Off setting this is the arrival of a dozen new Democratic House members from defense and intelligence agencies who are more militantly inclined and can swell the ranks of the neocons. Then, too, the party fears being labeled soft on national security, thus providing ammunition to the Republicans. So it seems that no matter who wins in November, war may not be endangered.

Narcos Is News

The Drug Enforcement Administration, established by President Nixon in 1973, has been overshadowed by the more celebrated CIA and FBI. In the television series Narcos, two swaggering FBI agents taunt a DEA undercover: “Dogs at airports now do your work.” They picked on the wrong guy. The DEA agent helps bring down the notorious drug lord Miguel Ángel Felix Gallardo, now in prison, though that is hardly the end of the story of a battle that continues uninterrupted to this day.

The show pulls no punches as it tries to get to the heart of the matter. The drug villains are no cardboard creations but full bodied portrayals. Gallardo, elegantly played by Diego Luna, is a loving family man while perfectly vicious as a cartel boss. He dreams of creating an organization that mirrors any legitimate business, and he approves the hideous torture of a DEA agent who threatens that business.

The agent, real life Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, discovered a 2500 acre marijuana field in an obscure setting in Mexico. Gallardo’s cartel is enraged, but as one member notes, the field will be worthless once the U.S. legalizes marijuana, which implies a certain futility on the part of everyone. Suffering Camarena is drilled full of holes for a product that will soon be discarded for more profitable cocaine.

Enrique “Kiki” Camarena

The series shows that the problem is far larger than just trafficking. Politics are involved at the highest level. Outfitted in a tuxedo that seems as comfortable to him as working clothes, Gallardo attends sumptuous dinners as a ranking member of the Mexican elite. The president returns his calls, may even call him. Billions of dollars of drug money, thanks to American consumers, keep everyone content. Only unrelenting DEA pressure brings Gallardo to justice. But in the show’s final scene, Gallardo tells his DEA antagonist that by putting him out of action, you have splintered the cartels into various parts that will be even bloodier and more dangerous.

Miguel Ángel Felix Gallardo

And what of U.S. involvement? The film doesn’t go there except to note accurately that American drug consumers finance the cartels that run and ruin Mexico. Without the demand there would be no supply. But are there powers beyond consumers that keep the drug trade going? Is there a culpable American establishment akin to Mexico’s? “Narcos” producers, why not take a look?

Inequality in America

On a Fox TV news broadcast Tucker Carlson noted that the coronavirus shutdowns have crushed huge parts of the economy. “Millions of Americans are out of work. But at least one person has become extremely rich, richer than any man in history. Just yesterday Jeff Bezos made $13 billion in a single day” – from a stock market surge. That’s to be expected, replied Sean Hannity: “People who make money provide goods and services that people need and desire. It’s called freedom, capitalism.”

The on-air exchange illustrates a difference of opinion on the vast gap between the very rich one per cent and the less affluent and struggling ninety-nine per cent, an inequality beyond any other in U.S. history. Today’s top salaries would defy belief even a generation ago. It’s hard to keep track of the climbing salaries, but it looks as if Safra Catz, CEO of Oracle (computer services), is on top, at least until tomorrow, with an annual $103 million.

Current CEO’s make as much as 1000 times what their employees earn, leading to questions of both fairness and good business. Abigail Disney of the founding Disney family raised the issue of Disney CEO Robert Iger’s $65.6 million salary. Surely half of that could be distributed to employees, she advised, without harming the company. Iger took the hint. He settled for a more modest $47.5million.

Today’s CEO’s are worth it, claims an article in Time magazine. There’s a blossoming of innovative firms with a global reach that needs leaders to match. Would that include Dennis Muilenberg, CEO of Boeing, who presided over the launching of the poorly designed 737 Max aircraft that resulted in two crashes and the loss of 346 lives? Families of the victims were outraged that he was removed from his job but left with a tidy $30 million in compensation.

Economic inequality leads to political inequality, supposedly the antithesis of democracy. In its wisdom the U.S. Supreme Court has decreed that money is the equivalent of speech to be used as freely as words in politics. But a greater amount of money buys a greater number of words in political campaigns and also buys more influence with candidates. An example is billionaire Sheldon Adelson, President Trump’s biggest donor, who insisted on a U.S. withdrawal from an agreement with Iran that limited its nuclear activities and offered relief from economic sanctions. Trump obliged, adding more sanctions alongside.

Billionaire Gorge Soros adroitly shifted his funding from national politics to local, putting $52 million into races for sheriff, mayor or district attorney in various parts of the country. Some of his successful candidates then implemented his radical policies that abetted or ignored the rioting in targeted cities.

William Jennings Bryan, 1908 Democratic National Convention

The so-called Gilded Age in the late 1800’s was also a time of great inequality, though not as extensive as today’s. Labor strife, a struggle among classes led to the Populist and Progressive reform movements and notable leaders like William Jennings Bryan and Teddy Roosevelt, later U.S. President. Inequality was reduced by opening up the political system and providing more help for working people.

Today’s one per cent have managed to avoid serious challenge because their potential opposition is divided on issues involving race and social change. They are thus distracted from the most important cause of all. So the one per cent rest content and if anything, inequality increases.

Toppling the Buddhas

Two giant stone Buddhas towered majestically over the Afghan terrain, marking the thriving Buddhist community below. In time, Islam replaced Buddhism, and the mighty carvings were less revered, in fact occasionally threatened. But it took the fiercely dogmatic Taliban to decide their time had come. From their perspective the figures were an affront to Islam.

But driving out this last symbol of Buddhism was no easy task. Chains or ropes would hardly do, considering one statue was 180 feet high, the other 125. The job was entrusted to the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which normally dealt with human executions but was ready to take on Buddhism. For fire power, it assembled artillery, tanks and anti-aircraft weapons, but the combined assault only produced a few chips.

To get serious, the Taliban rounded up a couple dozen prisoners who were told to bring in the dynamite. One of them, Mirza Hussein, years later told BBC: “We were chosen because there was nobody else. We could be disposed of at any time” – like the Buddhas. One in fact was shot because a bad leg kept him from hauling explosives. For twenty-five days they painstakingly stuffed the dynamite into every available crevice, sometimes drilling holes to make room. Protests from outside were unavailing.

When the statues were finally reduced to rubble, the Taliban rejoiced, dancing, firing their weapons into the air and slaughtering nine cows as a sacrifice. But Hussein was not happy with what he had done. Nor was most of Afghanistan and for that matter the rest of the world. Not just a religion had been obliterated but a crucial part of Afghan heritage. How much did the Taliban care for the country they were intent on ruling?

Giant standing Buddhas of Bamiyan still cast shadows, Sgt. Ken Scar, 17 June 2012

Was the demolition also a signal? Taliban chief Mullah Omar liked to explain that the statues were destroyed to keep the U.S. from threatening his country. If he had no qualms about obliterating a major monument in Afghanistan, why hesitate to do the same to America via bin Laden? Despite the Afghan blast heard round the world and the warnings of dissident Taliban leaders, Washington was not listening. Six months later on 9/11 the World Trade Center at massive human cost joined the Buddhas.

Fighting But Not To Win

Hawkish members of Congress and the media have seized on possible intelligence indicating that Russia is paying bonuses to Taliban who kill Americans. Even if it’s true – and it may not be – it’s a pittance compared to the resources the U.S poured into the effort to overthrow the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the l980’s by aiding the rebel Mujahideen. It’s a policy that worked and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There’s no possibility of Russia coming back or even wanting to. Putin, a strict nationalist, hardly compares to the communist Soviet regime spreading a murderous ideology around the world. Yet he has been elevated to the status of foreign devil of the moment by Washingtonians yearning for battle at least from the armchair. Chief among these are the so-called neoconservatives who have managed to play a central role in the foreign policy of the last four Presidencies – Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump – exhibiting a knack for political survival while promoting a series of misguided wars.

It began with Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack. The perpetrator Osama bin Laden had been harbored by the Taliban in Afghanistan. So the U.S. made a crushing attack on the Taliban and bin Laden was within easy reach. But under neocon pressure, troops were not supplied to keep him from escaping across the border to Pakistan. Instead they were diverted to Bush’s main preoccupation Iraq, where a war was launched on a variety of false pretexts.

With bin Laden still at large, the Bush White House felt free to take on Afghanistan. It was only a matter of weeks, a top anti-terrorism adviser told the Russians: “We’re going to kill them We’re going to put their heads on sticks. We’re going to rock their world.” But as the Russians found out and before them Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and the British, nobody successfully invades Afghanistan. That now includes the U.S., which today faces an enemy as strong as ever.

The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck, 1842, by William Barnes Wollen (1898).

Early on Bush proclaimed, “You’re for us or against us.” There was nothing in between, which includes most of humanity, and at the time two top Taliban leaders who were seeking to overthrow the harsh rule of Mullah Omar and form a government that would be true to Islam and also acceptable to the outside world. They spoke the language of moderation.

Mullah Mohammed Khaksar had been a founder of the Taliban but at great personal risk he went to Pakistan in 1999 on the pretext of receiving medical treatment. In fact, he was there to meet CIA agents to seek U.S. help for the new government he envisioned. He had over a thousand police at his disposal and an alliance with the forces of a top anti-Taliban commander.

But he spoke in vain, as did Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, who warned the U.S. of an upcoming bin Laden attack. On arriving in Kabul, the Americans continued to ignore both well-placed defectors. Muttawakil was sent to prison for eighteen months and underwent mild torture. Khaksar asked for protection. It was denied and he was killed by his Taliban enemies. If aided, could they have succeeded and spared the U.S. its longest war?

There’s a tendency to conflate the wars before and after 9/11, but they’re not the same. Judge them as you will, the pre-9/11 conflicts all had a clear purpose: escaping British rule, ending slavery, expanding America, defeating a bellicose Germany, stopping the spread of Soviet communism. Post 9/11 wars, while ceaseless, have only a cloudy or shifting purpose, Afghanistan being the prime example. Its unpopularity rivals that of the Vietnam War with this difference: there’s no draft. U.S. combat deaths remain limited while Afghan casualties, military and civilian. continue to climb. So popular outrage is muted and the war goes on.