Tom Engelhardt: Knowledge is crime

Why kidnapping, torture, assassination, and perjury are no longer crimes in Washington
By Tom Engelhardt

How the mighty have fallen.  Once known as “Obama’s favorite general,” James Cartwright will soon don a prison uniform and, thanks to a plea deal, spend 13 months behind bars.  Involved in setting up the earliest military cyberforce inside U.S. Strategic Command, which he led from 2004 to 2007, Cartwright also played a role in launching the first cyberwar in history — the release of the Stuxnet virus against Iran’s nuclear program.  A Justice Department investigation found that, in 2012, he leaked information on the development of that virus to David Sanger of the New York Times. The result: a front-page piece revealing its existence, and so the American cyber-campaign against Iran, to the American public.  It was considered a serious breach of national security.  On Thursday, the retired four-star general stood in front of a U.S. district judge who told him that his “criminal act” was “a very serious one” and had been “committed by a national security expert who lost his moral compass.” It was a remarkable ending for a man who nearly reached the heights of Pentagon power, was almost appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and had the president’s ear.

In fact, Gen. James Cartwright has not gone to jail and the above paragraph remains — as yet — a grim Washington fairy tale.  There is indeed a Justice Department investigation open against the president’s “favorite general” (as Washington scribe to the stars Bob Woodward once labeled him) for the possible leaking of information on that virus to the New York Times, but that’s all.  He remains quite active in private life, holding the Harold Brown Chair in Defense Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as a consultant to ABC News, and on the board of Raytheon, among other things. He has suffered but a single penalty so far: he was stripped of his security clearance.

A different leaker actually agreed to that plea deal for the 13-month jail term.  Nearly three weeks ago, ex-State Department intelligence analyst Stephen E. Kim pled guilty to “an unauthorized disclosure of national defense information.”  He stood before U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who offered those stern words of admonition, and took responsibility for passing classified information on the North Korean nuclear program to Fox News reporter James Rosen in 2009. 

Still, someday Cartwright might prove to be unique in the annals of Obama era jurisprudence — the only Washington figure of any significance in these years to be given a jail sentence for a crime of state.  Whatever happens to him, his ongoing case highlights a singular fact: that there is but one crime for which anyone in America’s national security state can be held accountable in a court of law, and that’s leaking information that might put those in it in a bad light or simply let the American public know something more about what its government is really doing.

If this weren’t Washington 2014, but rather George Orwell’s novel 1984, then the sign emblazoned on the front of the Ministry of Truth — “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength” — would have to be amended to add a fourth slogan: Knowledge is Crime.

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Ann Jones: Star-spangled baggage

In 2007, a new phenomenon reared its ugly head in Afghanistan.  With two attacks that year and two more the next, it was first dubbed “green-on-blue violence,” and later the simpler, blunter “insider attack.”  At one level, it couldn’t have been more straightforward.  Afghan soldiers or policemen (or in a small number of cases Taliban infiltrators) would suddenly turn their weapons on their American or NATO mentors or allies and gun them down.  Think of these “incidents” as early votes in the Afghan elections — not, as Lenin might once have had it, with their feet, but with their guns after spending time up close and personal with Americans or other Westerners.  It was a phenomenon that only intensified, reaching its height in 2012 with 46 attacks that killed 60 allied soldiers before slowly dying down as American combat troops began to leave the country and far stricter controls were put in place on relations between Afghan, U.S., and allied forces in the field.

It has not, however, died out.  Not quite.  Not yet.  In a uniquely grim version of an insider attack just two weeks ago, an Afghan police commander turned his gun on two western journalists, killing Pulitzer Prize-winning news photographer Anja Niedringhaus and wounding AP reporter Kathy Gannon.  And even more recently, just after it was reported that a month had passed without an American death in a war zone for the first time since 2002, Army Specialist Ivan Lopez killed three fellow soldiers in an insider attack at Fort Hood, Texas.

With its hint of blowback, this is not, of course, a comparison anyone in the mainstream American media is likely to make.  On the whole, we prefer not to think of our wars coming home.  In reality, however, Lopez’s eight-minute shooting rampage with a pistol purchased at a local gun shop fits the definition of an “insider attack” quite well, as did the earlier Fort Hood massacre by an Army psychiatrist. Think of it as an unhinged form of American war coming home, and as a kind of blowback unique to our moment.

After all, name me another wartime period when, for whatever reason, two U.S. soldiers shot up the same base at different times, killing and wounding dozens of their fellow troops. There was, of course, the “fragging” of officers in Vietnam, but this is a new phenomenon, undoubtedly reflective of the disturbing path the U.S. has cut in the world, post-9/11.  Thrown into the mix is a homegrown American culture of massacre and the lifting of barriers to the easy purchase of ever more effective weaponry. (If, in fact, you think about it for a moment, most of the mass killings in this country, generally by young men, whether in schools, movie theatersshipyards, or elsewhere, are themselves a civilian version of “insider attacks.”)

Ironically, in 2011, the Obama administration launched a massive Insider Threat Program to train millions of government employees and contractors to look for signs in fellow workers of the urge to launch insider attacks.  Unfortunately, the only kind of insider attacks administration officials could imagine were those attributed to whistleblowers and leakers.  (Think: Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.)  So, despite much official talk about dealing with the mental health of military men, women, and veterans, the military itself remains open to yet more insider attacks.  After almost 13 years of failed wars in distant lands, think of us as living in Ameraqafghanica.

Today, TomDispatch regular Ann Jones, whose odyssey of a book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, captures the truly painful cost of these wars for America’s soldiers like no other, points out just what every commentator in this country has avoided writing about and every government and military official up to the president has avoided talking about, despite the massive coverage of the Fort Hood killings. Tom Engelhardt

How America’s wars came home with the troops
Up close, personal, and bloody
By Ann Jones

After an argument about a leave denied, Specialist Ivan Lopez pulled out a .45-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun and began a shooting spree at Fort Hood, America’s biggest stateside base, that left three soldiers dead and 16 wounded.  When he did so, he also pulled America’s fading wars out of the closet.  This time, a Fort Hood mass killing, the second in four and a half years, was committed by a man who was neither a religious nor a political “extremist.”  He seems to have been merely one of America’s injured and troubled veterans who now number in the hundreds of thousands.

Some 2.6 million men and women have been dispatched, often repeatedly, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and according to a recent survey of veterans of those wars conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly one-third say that their mental health is worse than it was before they left, and nearly half say the same of their physical condition.  Almost half say they give way to sudden outbursts of anger.  Only 12% of the surveyed veterans claim they are now “better” mentally or physically than they were before they went to war.

The media coverage that followed Lopez’s rampage was, of course, 24/7 and there was much discussion of PTSD, the all-purpose (if little understood) label now used to explain just about anything unpleasant that happens to or is caused by current or former military men and women. Amid the barrage of coverage, however, something was missing: evidence that has been in plain sight for years of how the violence of America’s distant wars comes back to haunt the “homeland” as the troops return.  In that context, Lopez’s killings, while on a scale not often matched, are one more marker on a bloody trail of death that leads from Iraq and Afghanistan into the American heartland, to bases and backyards nationwide.  It’s a story with a body count that should not be ignored.

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Nick Turse: AFRICOM becomes a ‘war-fighting combatant command’

Let me explain why writing the introduction to today’s post by TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse is such a problem.  In these intros, I tend to riff off the ripples of news that regularly surround whatever subject an author might be focusing on.  So when it comes to the U.S. military, if you happen to be writing about the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” really, no problem.  Background pieces on that pile up daily.  How could you resist, for instance, saying something about the U.S. refusal to send an aircraft carrier to China for a parade of Pacific fleets (after the Chinese refused to allow Japanese ships to participate)?  It’s mean girls of the Pacific, no?  Have an interest in the Ukrainian crisis?  Piece of cake, top of the news any time — like those curious pro-Russian protestors in eastern Ukraine who tried to liberate an opera house in the city of Kharkiv, mistaking it for city hall, or the hints that U.S. troops might soon be stationed in former Soviet satellite states.  Or, say, you’re writing about threats in cyberspace — couldn’t be simpler!  Not when you have Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel offering an amusing assurance that the country that launched the first cyberwar and is ramping up its new cybercommand at warp speed “does not seek to militarize cyberspace.” And, of course, any day of the week U.S.-Iranian relations are a walk in the park (in the dark).  At the moment, for instance, the Iranian nominee for U.N. ambassador — previously that country’s ambassador to Belgium, Italy, Australia, and the European Union, but once a translator for the group that took U.S. embassy hostages in Tehran in 1979 — has been declared “not viable” by the Obama administration.  In a remarkable act of congressional heroism, the U.S. Senate, led by that odd couple Ted Cruz and Chuck Schumer, has definitively banned him from setting foot in the country.  Mean girls of Washington?  Who could resist such material?

Unfortunately, there’s one place in that city’s global viewfinder that never seems to provides much of anything to riff off of, and so no fun whatsoever: Africa.  Yes, today and Tuesday, Nick Turse continues his remarkable coverage of the U.S. military pivot to that continent, which promises a lifetime of chaos and blowback to come.  Admittedly, what’s happening isn’t your typical, patented, early twenty-first-century-style U.S. invasion, but it certainly represents part of a new-style scramble for Africa — with the U.S. taking the military path and the Chinese the economic one.  By the time U.S. Africa Command is finished, however, one thing is essentially guaranteed: a terrible mess and a lifetime of hurt will be left behind. This particular pivot is happening on a startling scale and yet remains just below the American radar screen. Explain it as you will, with the rarest of exceptions the U.S. media, riveted by Obama’s so far exceedingly modest pivot to Asia, finds the African one hardly worth a moment’s notice, which is why, today, without the usual combustible mix of what’s recently in the news and what’s newsmaking in Turse’s two pieces, I have no choice but to skip the introduction. Tom Engelhardt 

AFRICOM goes to war on the sly
U.S. officials talk candidly (just not to reporters) about bases, winning hearts and minds, and the “war” in Africa
By Nick Turse

What the military will say to a reporter and what is said behind closed doors are two very different things — especially when it comes to the U.S. military in Africa.  For years, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has maintained a veil of secrecy about much of the command’s activities and mission locations, consistently downplaying the size, scale, and scope of its efforts.   At a recent Pentagon press conference, AFRICOM Commander General David Rodriguez adhered to the typical mantra, assuring the assembled reporters that the United States “has little forward presence” on that continent.  Just days earlier, however, the men building the Pentagon’s presence there were telling a very different story — but they weren’t speaking with the media.  They were speaking to representatives of some of the biggest military engineering firms on the planet.  They were planning for the future and the talk was of war.  

I recently experienced this phenomenon myself during a media roundtable with Lieutenant General Thomas Bostick, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  When I asked the general to tell me just what his people were building for U.S. forces in Africa, he paused and said in a low voice to the man next to him, “Can you help me out with that?”  Lloyd Caldwell, the Corps’s director of military programs, whispered back, “Some of that would be close hold” — in other words, information too sensitive to reveal. 

The only thing Bostick seemed eager to tell me about were vague plans to someday test a prototype “structural insulated panel-hut,” a new energy-efficient type of barracks being developed by cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  He also assured me that his people would get back to me with answers.  What I got instead was an “interview” with a spokesman for the Corps who offered little of substance when it came to construction on the African continent.  Not much information was available, he said, the projects were tiny, only small amounts of money had been spent so far this year, much of it funneled into humanitarian projects.  In short, it seemed as if Africa was a construction backwater, a sleepy place, a vast landmass on which little of interest was happening.

Fast forward a few weeks and Captain Rick Cook, the chief of U.S. Africa Command’s Engineer Division, was addressing an audience of more than 50 representatives of some of the largest military engineering firms on the planet — and this reporter.  The contractors were interested in jobs and he wasn’t pulling any punches.  “The eighteen months or so that I’ve been here, we’ve been at war the whole time,” Cook told them.  “We are trying to provide opportunities for the African people to fix their own African challenges.  Now, unfortunately, operations in Libya, South Sudan, and Mali, over the last two years, have proven there’s always something going on in Africa.”

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Astra Taylor: Misogyny and the cult of internet openness

In December, and again in February, at the Google Bus blockades in San Francisco, one thing struck me forcefully: the technology corporation employees waiting for their buses were all staring so intently at their phones that they apparently didn’t notice the unusual things going on around them until their buses were surrounded. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a science-fiction novel, because my region is so afflicted with people who stare at the tiny screens in their hands on trains, in restaurants, while crossing the street, and too often while driving. San Francisco is, after all, where director Phil Kaufman set the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the movie wherein a ferny spore-spouting form of alien life colonizes human beings so that they become zombie-like figures.

In the movies, such colonization took place secretly, or by force, or both: it was a war, and (once upon a time) an allegory for the Cold War and a possible communist takeover. Today, however — Hypercapitalism Invades! — we not only choose to carry around those mobile devices, but pay corporations hefty monthly fees to do so. In return, we get to voluntarily join the great hive of people being in touch all the time, so much so that human nature seems in the process of being remade, with the young immersed in a kind of contact that makes solitude seem like polar ice, something that’s melting away.

We got phones, and then Smart Phones, and then Angry Birds and a million apps — and a golden opportunity to be tracked all the time thanks to the GPS devices in those phones. Your cell phone is the shackle that chains you to corporate America (and potentially to government surveillance as well) and like the ankle bracelets that prisoners wear, it’s your monitor. It connects you to the Internet and so to the brave new world that has such men as Larry Ellison and Mark Zuckerberg in it. That world — maybe not so brave after all — is the subject of Astra Taylor’s necessary, alarming, and exciting new book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age.

The Internet arose with little regulation, little public decision-making, and a whole lot of fantasy about how it was going to make everyone powerful and how everything would be free. Free, as in unregulated and open, got confused with free, as in not getting paid, and somehow everyone from Facebook to Arianna Huffington created massively lucrative sites (based on advertising dollars) in which the people who made the content went unpaid. Just as Russia woke up with oil oligarchs spreading like mushrooms after a night’s heavy rain, so we woke up with new titans of the tech industry throwing their billionaire weight around. The Internet turns out to be a superb mechanism for consolidating money and power and control, even as it gives toys and minor voices to the rest of us.

As Taylor writes in her book, “The online sphere inspires incessant talk of gift economies and public-spiritedness and democracy, but commercialization and privatization and inequality lurk beneath the surface. This contradiction is captured in a single word: ‘open,’ a concept capacious enough to contain both the communal and capitalistic impulses central to Web 2.0.” And she goes on to discuss, “the tendency of open systems to amplify inequality — and new media thinkers’ glib disregard for this fundamental characteristic.”  Part of what makes her book exceptional, in fact, is its breadth. It reviews much of the existing critique of the Internet and connects the critiques of specific aspects of it into an overview of how a phenomenon supposed to be wildly democratic has become wildly not that way at all.

And at a certain juncture, she turns to gender. Though far from the only weak point of the Internet as an egalitarian space — after all, there’s privacy (lack of), the environment (massive server farms), and economics (tax cheats, “content providers” like musicians fleeced) — gender politics, as she shows in today’s post adapted from her book, is one of the most spectacular problems online. Let’s imagine this as science fiction: a group of humans apparently dissatisfied with how things were going on Earth — where women were increasing their rights, representation, and participation — left our orbit and started their own society on their own planet. The new planet wasn’t far away or hard to get to (if you could afford the technology): it was called the Internet. We all know it by name; we all visit it; but we don’t name the society that dominates it much.

Taylor does: the dominant society, celebrating itself and pretty much silencing everyone else, makes the Internet bear a striking resemblance to Congress in 1850 or a gentlemen’s club (minus any gentleness). It’s a gated community, and as Taylor describes today, the security detail is ferocious, patrolling its borders by trolling and threatening dissident voices, and just having a female name or being identified as female is enough to become a target of hate and threats.

Early this year, a few essays were published on Internet misogyny that were so compelling I thought 2014 might be the year we revisit these online persecutions, the way that we revisited rape in 2013, thanks to the Steubenville and New Delhi assault cases of late 2012. But the subject hasn’t (yet) quite caught fire, and so not much gets said and less gets done about this dynamic new machinery for privileging male and silencing female voices. Which is why we need to keep examining and discussing this, as well as the other problems of the Internet. And why you need to read Astra Taylor’s book. This excerpt is part of her diagnosis of the problems; the book ends with ideas about a cure. Rebecca Solnit

Open systems and glass ceilings
The disappearing woman and life on the internet
By Astra Taylor

The Web is regularly hailed for its “openness” and that’s where the confusion begins, since “open” in no way means “equal.” While the Internet may create space for many voices, it also reflects and often amplifies real-world inequities in striking ways.

An elaborate system organized around hubs and links, the Web has a surprising degree of inequality built into its very architecture. Its traffic, for instance, tends to be distributed according to “power laws,” which follow what’s known as the 80/20 rule — 80% of a desirable resource goes to 20% of the population.

In fact, as anyone knows who has followed the histories of Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook, now among the biggest companies in the world, the Web is increasingly a winner-take-all, rich-get-richer sort of place, which means the disparate percentages in those power laws are only likely to look uglier over time.

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Laura Gottesdiener: Fantasy, greed, and housing, the prequel

One simple phrase electrified the financial world this past week: high-frequency trading.

With the publication of his new book, Flash Boys, author Michael Lewis almost singlehandedly transformed the growing practice of high-frequency trading from an obscure form of financial wizardry cooked up in Wall Street’s mad laboratories into a fledgling scandal. What’s high-frequency trading? It’s when lightning-quick computers running complex algorithms race ahead of ordinary human investors — you know, those guys with the funny jackets waving and yelling on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange — to gain the slightest advantage in the trading of stocks. For high-frequency traders, speed means getting valuable market information a few hundredths or millionths of a second early, which in turn can mean millions in profit simply by beating the regular guys to the trade. If it sounds complicated, well, that’s the point. “The insiders are able to move faster than you,” Lewis said on 60 Minutes. “They’re able to see your order and play it against other orders in ways that you don’t understand. They’re able to front run your order.”

Lewis’s Flash Boys tells the story of a Canadian banker and do-gooder named Brad Katsuyama who, outraged over this “rigged” market, did something about it. Judging by the reaction in some corners of the financial world, you’d think Lewis had declared war on Wall Street itself. (See, for instance, this verbal slug-fest on CNBC involving Lewis, Katsuyama, and the CEO of one of the exchanges Lewis takes to task in his book.)

The opprobrium greeting Flash Boys wouldn’t be quite as ridiculous if we didn’t already know how dangerous high-frequency trading can be. As Nick Baumann wrote in Mother Jones magazine, high-frequency trading gone haywire can inflict huge damage, as was the case in the so-called flash crash of 2010, which wiped out almost $1 trillion in shareholder value in a few hours. If several flash crashes occur at the same time, former bank regulator Bill Black told Baumann, “financial institutions can begin to fail, even very large ones.”

If Wall Street’s need for speed doesn’t cause the next Great Crash, TomDispatch regular Laura Gottesdiener knows what might. As she wrote in November, massive investment firms are building a “rental empire,” buying up foreclosed properties by the thousands, renting them back to working people, and bundling up those properties to sell to Wall Street. It’s an ingenious scheme reminiscent of the subprime mortgage machine — and this scheme, too, has the potential to plunge us back into a crisis. Today, Gottesidener turns her sights to New York City, where the rental racket has been underway for years and the results have been instructively grim. Andy Kroll

When predatory equity hit the Big Apple
How private equity came to New York’s rental market — and what that tells us about the future
By Laura Gottesdiener

Things are heating up inside Wall Street’s new rental empire.

Over the last few years, giant private equity firms have bet big on the housing market, buying up more than 200,000 cheap homes across the country. Their plan is to rent the houses back to families — sometimes the very same people who were displaced during the foreclosure crisis — while waiting for the home values to rise. But it wouldn’t be Wall Street not to have a short-term trick up its sleeve, so the private equity firms are partnering with big banks to bundle the mortgages on these rental homes into a new financial product known as “rental-backed securities.” (Remember that toxic “mortgage-backed securities” are widely blamed for crashing the global economy in 2007-2008.)

All this got me thinking: Have private equity firms gambled with rental housing somewhere else before? If so, what happened?

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Peter Van Buren: No-fly-list America

Here’s what the president said back in June 2013, while reassuring the American people about the National Security Agency’s collection of their phone metadata: “When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program’s about.  As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people’s names, and they’re not looking at content.”

And indeed, the NSA was analyzing the metadata it was collecting from all of us.  Only one small problem (shades of the Bush era): it was also listening in and reading, too.  To be exact, without warrants and using a “backdoor loophole” in the law, the agency repeatedly plunged into massive databases that, while gathering emails and phone calls from “foreign targets,” swept up prodigious numbers of American ones in the process. (Evidently, the CIA and the FBI were using similar backdoors to similar ends.)  It’s true that, strictly speaking, those calls and emails were being collected by a different program than the one the president was referring to; so, if you’re a stickler for details, he didn’t exactly, officially lie.  In any case, it’s nothing you or I should really worry our little heads about, not when it turns out that whatever was done was perfectly “legal.”

We know this thanks to a legal expert of the first order, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who communicated as much to Senator Ron Wyden by letter recently.  Who, after all, should know better than Clapper, the man in charge of overseeing a secret world that has its own “parallel supreme court” renowned for only listening to one side of any case?  Here’s his statement on the subject of those warrantless searches of our phone conversations and emails: “There have been queries, using U.S. person identifiers, of communications lawfully acquired to obtain foreign intelligence targeting non-U.S. persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States.  These queries were performed pursuant to minimization procedures approved by the FISA court and consistent with the statute and the Fourth Amendment.”

If you don’t understand that, consider yourself English-challenged.  In fact, you should just stop fretting about government surveillance entirely and, while you’re at it, cut back on the overblown paranoia, too.  Americans, it’s time to go back to full-scale online shopping and banking, and to stop telling pollsters you’re doing less of it because of the NSA!

Really, there’s no point in making such a fuss about perfectly legal operations.  Isn’t it simpler just to stop paying attention to what the president, his top officials, and the guardians of our secret world tell us about what they’re doing?  After all, in the end, by hook, crook, or secret “law,” they will find a convenient justification for doing just what they want to do anyway.  Right now, we have a partial picture of what one agency in the U.S. intelligence community, the NSA, has been doing in these years, thanks to the revelations of Edward Snowden.  Someday, perhaps, we’ll have a fuller picture of what the other 16 agencies have been doing and it will surely take your breath away.

In the meantime, it’s rare that we ever get a glimpse of how our expanding secret state really works.  But every now and then, a single case can suddenly illuminate an otherwise dark landscape.  Such is Rahinah Ibrahim’s case, carefully laid out by TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren today.  It should chill you to the bone.  Former State Department whistleblower Van Buren has, by the way, just published quite an original, nitty-gritty novel, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, which is highly recommended. Tom Engelhardt

How many watch lists fit on the head of a pin?
Post-constitutional America, where innocence is a poor defense
By Peter Van Buren

Rahinah Ibrahim is a slight Malaysian woman who attended Stanford University on a U.S. student visa, majoring in architecture. She was not a political person. Despite this, as part of a post-9/11 sweep directed against Muslims, she was investigated by the FBI. In 2004, while she was still in the U.S. but unbeknownst to her, the FBI sent her name to the no-fly list.

Ibrahim was no threat to anyone, innocent of everything, and ended up on that list only due to a government mistake. Nonetheless, she was not allowed to reenter the U.S. to finish her studies or even attend her trial and speak in her own defense. Her life was derailed by the tangle of national security bureaucracy and pointless “anti-terror” measures that have come to define post-Constitutional America. Here’s what happened, and why it may matter to you.

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Tom Engelhardt: The Bermuda Triangle of national security

Hijacking the American plane of state
By Tom Engelhardt

Isn’t there something strangely reassuring when your eyeballs are gripped by a “mystery” on the news that has no greater meaning and yet sweeps all else away?  This, of course, is the essence of the ongoing tale of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.  Except to the relatives of those on board, it never really mattered what happened in the cockpit that day.  To the extent that the plane’s disappearance was solvable, the mystery could only end in one of two ways: it landed somewhere (somehow unnoticed, a deep unlikelihood) or it crashed somewhere, probably in an ocean.  End of story.  It was, however, a tale with thrilling upsides when it came to filling airtime, especially on cable news.  The fact that there was no there there allowed for the raising of every possible disappearance trope – from Star Trekkian black holes to the Bermuda Triangle to Muslim terrorists — and it had the added benefit of instantly evoking a popular TV show.  It was a formula too good to waste, and wasted it wasn’t.

The same has been true of the story that, in the U.S., came to vie with it for the top news spot: the devastating mudslide in Washington State.  An act of nature, sweeping out of nowhere, buries part of a tiny community, leaving an unknown but possibly large number of people dead.  Was anyone still alive under all that mud?  (Such potential “miracles” are like manna from heaven for the TV news.)  How many died?  These questions mattered locally and to desperate relatives of those who had disappeared, but otherwise had little import.  Yes, unbridled growth, lack of attention to expected disasters, and even possibly climate change were topics that might have been attached to the mudslide horror.  As a gruesome incident, it could have stood in for a lot, but in the end it stood in for nothing except itself and that was undoubtedly its abiding appeal.

Both stories had the added benefit (for TV) of an endless stream of distraught relatives: teary or weeping or stoic or angry faces in desperately tight close-ups making heartfelt pleas for more information.  For the media, it was like the weather before climate change came along. 

In response, just about anything else that could pass for news was swept aside.  Given a media that normally rushes heedlessly from one potential 24/7 story to another, this was striking.  In the case of Flight 370, for instance, on the 21st day after its disappearance, it still led NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams (with the mudslide, one week after it happened, the number two story).

In those weeks, only one other story broke their stranglehold on the news.  It was the seemingly critical question of what in the world was going on in Ukraine.  There was the Russian military move into the Crimea, the referendum on that peninsula, its annexation, the alarm of the U.S. and the European Union, the imposition of (modest) sanctions, and various warnings of a Russian military build-up and possible invasion of eastern Ukraine.  Unlike the other two stories, it seemed consequential enough.  And yet in some eerie way, it, too, came to resemble them.  It was as if with the news on Ukraine we were being sucked back into another era — that of the superpower-run twentieth century.

The question that seemed to loom was this: Are we in a new (i.e., the old) Cold War?  It was so front and center that it sent opinion pollsters scrambling and they promptly discovered that half of all Americans thought we were — itself less a testament to American opinion than to the overwhelming media narrative that we were indeed living through the Cold War redux.

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Michael Klare: Shooting up on Big Energy

Pssst, buddy, you want a report?  

Hey, I’ve got three for you, all in the news last week! There was a rare intervention by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which issued a report warning that “the rate of climate change now may be as fast as any extended warming period over the past 65 million years, and it is projected to accelerate in the coming decades.” There was a risk, it added, “of abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes in the earth’s climate system with massively disruptive impacts,” including the possible “large scale collapse of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, collapse of part of the Gulf Stream, loss of the Amazon rain forest, die-off of coral reefs, and mass extinctions.” Then there was the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest grim assessment, whose key message is: “It’s not just about melting ice, threatened animals, and plants. It’s about the human problems of hunger, disease, drought, flooding, refugees, and war becoming worse,” or as one of the scientists writing the report put it, “The polar bear is us.” And, of course, the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization released its annual report last week, pointing out that, though we are only 14 years into a new century, 13 of them fall into the category of warmest ever recorded.

Not enough bad news for you?  Rest assured that there will be prodigious new reports on climate change in the coming years, all from teams of sober, respectable scientists assuring us (yet again) that the next set of findings indicate the planet is going to get hotter (much hotter!), that extreme weather conditions are going to worsen, that drought is going to be endemic, that food production is going to suffer disastrously, that sea levels are going to rise, that chaos is going to ensue, etc., etc. 

By now, this is painfully predictable stuff rather than breakthrough science.  It’s middle of the road, ho-hum, world’s-going-down-the-drain material, and not even the worst version of what might happen either.  By now, this has essentially passed out of the realm of pioneering science and, for those across the planet who are experiencing heat records in Australia, drought in the Western U.S., or horrific superstorms from New York City to the Philippines, onrushing daily life on planet Earth.

The message couldn’t be clearer.  Individual scientists and groups of them continue to weigh in repeatedly.  Climate scientist Michael Mann, for instance, recently suggested that “if the world keeps burning fossil fuels at the current rate, it will cross a threshold into environmental ruin by 2036.”  Sadly, if we had 100 new reports this month, offering versions of the usual findings, it largely wouldn’t matter because we seem intent on doing the one thing that all the scientists say will make this so much worse.  We’re burning fossil fuels as if — excuse the phrase — there were no tomorrow, while the Big Energy companies are finding new ways to release ever more of the ever-tougher variety of fossil fuels from their underground reserves.  They’re building pipelines in profusion to ensure, for instance, that particularly carbon-dirty Canadian tar sands will sooner or later flood the market.  They’re drilling with increased intensity in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Arctic, in ever-deeper ocean waters.  Sarah Palin may be in retirement, but it’s her world and welcome to it.  We’re now on a drill, baby, drill and frack, baby, frack planet, where the prevailing state of mind is what TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author most recently of The Race for What’s Left, calls “carbon delirium.”  It’s a far better term for the mentality that simply refuses to absorb all those reports than the more rational-sounding “climate denialism.” Tom Engelhardt

Carbon delirium
The last stage of fossil-fuel addiction and its hazardous impact on American Foreign policy
By Michael Klare

Of all the preposterous, irresponsible headlines that have appeared on the front page of the New York Times in recent years, few have exceeded the inanity of this one from early March: “U.S. Hopes Boom in Natural Gas Can Curb Putin.”  The article by normally reliable reporters Coral Davenport and Steven Erlanger suggested that, by sending our surplus natural gas to Europe and Ukraine in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG), the United States could help reduce the region’s heavy reliance on Russian gas and thereby stiffen its resistance to Vladimir Putin’s aggressive behavior. 

Forget that the United States currently lacks a capacity to export LNG to Europe, and will not be able to do so on a significant scale until the 2020s.  Forget that Ukraine lacks any LNG receiving facilities and is unlikely to acquire any, as its only coastline is on the Black Sea, in areas dominated by Russian speakers with loyalties to Moscow.  Forget as well that any future U.S. exports will be funneled into the international marketplace, and so will favor sales to Asia where gas prices are 50% higher than in Europe.  Just focus on the article’s central reportorial flaw: it fails to identify a single reason why future American LNG exports (which could wind up anywhere) would have any influence whatsoever on the Russian president’s behavior.

The only way to understand the strangeness of this is to assume that the editors of the Times, like senior politicians in both parties, have become so intoxicated by the idea of an American surge in oil and gas production that they have lost their senses.

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In Memoriam: Jonathan Schell (1943-2014)

The widening lens
Jonathan Schell and the fate of the Earth
By Tom Engelhardt

“Up to a few months ago, Ben Suc was a prosperous village of some thirty-five hundred people.”  That is the initial line of The Village of Ben Suc, his first book, a copy of which I recently reread on a plane trip, knowing that he was soon to die. That book, that specific copy, had a history of its own.  It was a Knopf first edition, published in 1967 in the midst of the Vietnam War, after the then-shocking text had appeared in the New Yorker magazine. An on-the-spot account of an American operation, the largest of the Vietnam War to that moment, it followed American troops as they helicoptered into a village controlled by the enemy about 30 miles from the capital, Saigon.  All its inhabitants, other than those killed in the process, were removed from their homes and sent to a makeshift refugee camp elsewhere.  The U.S. military then set Ben Suc afire, brought in bulldozers to reduce it to rubble, and finally called in the U.S. Air Force to bomb that rubble to smithereens — as though, as the final line of his book put it, “having once decided to destroy it, we were now bent on annihilating every possible indication that the village of Ben Suc had ever existed.”

I had read the piece in the New Yorker when that magazine devoted a single issue to it, something it had not done since it published John Hersey’s Hiroshima in a similar fashion in 1946.  I never forgot it.  I was then 23 years old and just launched on a life as an anti-Vietnam War activist.  I would not meet the author, 24-year-old neophyte reporter Jonathan Schell, for years.

To look at that first edition some 47 years later is to be reminded of just how young he was then, so young that Knopf thought it appropriate in his nearly nonexistent bio to mention where he went to high school (“the Putney School in Vermont”).  The book was tiny.  Only 132 pages with an all-print orange cover that, in addition to the author and title, said: “The story of the American destruction of a Vietnamese village — this is the complete text of the brilliant report to which the New Yorker devoted almost an entire issue.”  That was bold advertising in those publishing days.  I know.  As an editor at a publishing house as the 1980s began, I can still remember having a fierce argument about whether or not it was “tasteless” to put a blurb from a prominent person on a book’s cover.

The year after Ben Suc was published, he wrote The Military Half, his second great book on that horrific American war, in which he widened his lens from a single devastated village to two provinces where almost every hamlet had been destroyed, largely by American air power.  To report it, he rode in tiny forward observation planes that were calling down destruction on the Vietnamese countryside.  He then went to work as a staff writer for the New Yorker and in 1975 widened his lens further in his book The Time of Illusion, taking in the history and fate of a single administration in Washington as it waged “limited war” abroad in a nuclear age and created constitutional mayhem at home, bringing yet more violence to Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, as well as to the American political system.

In 1982, with his globally bestselling book The Fate of the Earth, whose first chapter, looking directly into a future of annihilation, was memorably entitled “A Republic of Insects and Grass,” he trained his lens on the threat of violence against all humanity.  He memorably explored what was then known as “the nuclear predicament,” the way we had fully taken over a role previously occupied by God and, in the midst of the Cold War, were threatening the extinction not of a village, a couple of provinces in a distant land, or a political system, but the planet itself.

I was by then working at Pantheon Books, where in 1988 I re-read his two Vietnam reports and republished them in a single volume as The Real War.  It’s cover copy read: “The classic reporting on the Vietnam War,” which couldn’t have been more accurate.  And then, some years later, I evidently stumbled across that first edition in New York’s great used bookstore, the Strand.  My copy is dated 8/93 on a little yellow tag inside the front cover and cost me $4. I doubt I read it a third time when I bought it.  I can only imagine that I wanted to have that memorable first book by someone I already considered one of the greats of our age.

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Nick Turse: America’s non-stop ops in Africa

After years in the shadows, U.S. Navy SEALs emerged in a big way with the 2011 night raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Afterward, they were lauded in print as supermen, feted by the president, and praised by the first lady. Soon, some of the country’s most secretive and elite special operators were taking the big screen by storm with 2012’s blockbuster Zero Dark Thirty and a film starring actual Navy Seals, Act of Valor.

Last year, yet another Hollywood smash, Captain Phillips, featured heroic SEALs. This time, the elite mariners weren’t slipping into a compound in Pakistan or on some crazy global quest, but killing pirates off the coast of Africa. The location was telling.

In recent years, as stories of SEAL exploits have bubbled up into the news, the operations of America’s secret military have been on an exponential growth spurt (with yet more funding promised in future Pentagon budgets) — and a major focus of their activities has been Africa.  In 2012, for example, SEALs carried out a hostage rescue mission in Somalia.  Last fall, word of a SEAL mission in that country hit the news after a bid to kidnap a terror suspect went south, and the Americans were driven off under heavy fire.  (That same night, Army Delta Force commandos successfully captured a Libyan militant in a night raid.)  A few months later, three of four SEALs conducting an evacuation mission in South Sudan were wounded when the aircraft they were flying in was hit by small arms fire.  And just recently, SEALs were again in the news, this time for capturing an oil tanker with cargo from Libya that the weak U.S.-backed government there considered stolen.

By all accounts, SEAL missions in Africa are on the rise, and the Navy’s special operators are far from alone.  For the last several years, Nick Turse, author of the bestseller Kill Anything That Moves, has been covering the expansion of U.S. Africa Command and the quiet, under-the-radar growth of U.S. operations on that continent at TomDispatch.  He has repeatedly broken news about the military’s long African reach, its new bases (even if never referred to by that name), and its creation of a logistics network that now stretches across significant parts of the continent.  Today, Turse offers a revealing look at the quickening pace of U.S. military operations in Africa as the Pentagon prepares for future wars, and the destabilization and blowback it is already helping to sow on that continent. Tom Engelhardt 

U.S. military averaging more than a mission a day in Africa
Documents reveal blinding pace of ops in 2013, more of the same for 2014
By Nick Turse

The numbers tell the story: 10 exercises, 55 operations, 481 security cooperation activities.

For years, the U.S. military has publicly insisted that its efforts in Africa are small scale. Its public affairs personnel and commanders have repeatedly claimed no more than a “light footprint” on that continent, including a remarkably modest presence when it comes to military personnel.  They have, however, balked at specifying just what that light footprint actually consists of.  During an interview, for instance, a U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) spokesman once expressed worry that tabulating the command’s deployments would offer a “skewed image” of U.S. efforts there.

It turns out that the numbers do just the opposite.

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Catherine Crump and Matthew Harwood: The net closes around us

Twice in my life — in the 1960s and the post-9/11 years — I was suddenly aware of clicks and other strange noises on my phone.  In both periods, I’ve wondered what the story was, and then made self-conscious jokes with whoever was on the other end of the line about those who might (or might not) be listening in.  Twice in my life I’ve felt, up close and personal, that ominous, uncomfortable, twitchy sense of being overheard, without ever knowing if it was a manifestation of the paranoia of the times or of realism — or perhaps of both.

I’m conceptually outraged by mass surveillance, but generally my personal attitude has always been: Go ahead.  Read my email, listen to my phone calls, follow my web searches, check out my location via my cell phone.  My tweets don’t exist — but if they did, I’d say have at ‘em.  I don’t give a damn.

And in some sense, I don’t, even though everyone, including me, is embarrassed by something.  Everyone says something about someone they would rather not have made public (or perhaps have even said).  Everyone has some thing — or sometimes many things — they would rather keep to themselves.

Increasingly, however, as the U.S. surveillance state grows ever more pervasive, domestically and globally, as the corporate version of the same expands exponentially, as prying “eyes” and “ears” of every technological variety proliferate, the question of who exactly we are arises.  What are we without privacy, without a certain kind of unknowability?  What are we when “our” information is potentially anyone’s information?  We may soon find out.  A recent experiment by two Stanford University graduate students who gathered just a few month’s worth of phone metadata on 546 volunteers has, for instance, made mincemeat of President Obama’s claim that the NSA’s massive version of metadata collection “is not looking at people’s names and they’re not looking at content.”  Using only the phone metadata they got, the Stanford researchers “inferred sensitive information about people’s lives, including: neurological and heart conditions, gun ownership, marijuana cultivation, abortion, and participation in Alcoholics Anonymous.”

And that’s just a crude version of what the future holds for all of us.  There are various kinds of extinctions.  That superb environmental reporter Elizabeth Kolbert has just written a powerful book, The Sixth Extinction, about the more usual (if horrifying) kind.  Our developing surveillance world may offer us an example of another kind of extinction: of what we once knew as the private self.  If you want to be chilled to the bone when it comes to this, check out today’s stunning report by the ACLU’s Catherine Crump and Matthew Harwood on where the corporate world is taking your identity. Tom Engelhardt

Invasion of the data snatchers
Big Data and the Internet of Things means the surveillance of everything
By Catherine Crump and Matthew Harwood

Estimates vary, but by 2020 there could be over 30 billion devices connected to the Internet. Once dumb, they will have smartened up thanks to sensors and other technologies embedded in them and, thanks to your machines, your life will quite literally have gone online. 

The implications are revolutionary. Your smart refrigerator will keep an inventory of food items, noting when they go bad. Your smart thermostat will learn your habits and adjust the temperature to your liking. Smart lights will illuminate dangerous parking garages, even as they keep an “eye” out for suspicious activity.

Techno-evangelists have a nice catchphrase for this future utopia of machines and the never-ending stream of information, known as Big Data, it produces: the Internet of Things.  So abstract. So inoffensive. Ultimately, so meaningless.

A future Internet of Things does have the potential to offer real benefits, but the dark side of that seemingly shiny coin is this: companies will increasingly know all there is to know about you.  Most people are already aware that virtually everything a typical person does on the Internet is tracked. In the not-too-distant future, however, real space will be increasingly like cyberspace, thanks to our headlong rush toward that Internet of Things. With the rise of the networked device, what people do in their homes, in their cars, in stores, and within their communities will be monitored and analyzed in ever more intrusive ways by corporations and, by extension, the government.

And one more thing: in cyberspace it is at least theoretically possible to log off.  In your own well-wired home, there will be no “opt out.”

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Tom Engelhardt: The inimitable Colonel Manners

Col. Manners answers your questions on CIA practices, proper cyberwar behavior, and invasion etiquette
By Tom Engelhardt

[Editor’s note: Our old friend Colonel Manners (ret.) made his first appearance at TomDispatch last October.  Today, he’s back for the third time.  We have yet to run into anyone more knowledgeable in the mores, manners, and linguistic habits of the national security state.  His CV (unfortunately redacted) would blow you away.  At a time of heightened tension among the U.S. Intelligence Community, the White House, Congress, and the American people, who better to explain the workings and thought patterns of the inner world of official Washington than the Colonel?  Once again, he answers the questions of ordinary citizens about how their secret government actually works.  Among advice columnists, he's a nonpareil.  Here's just a sampling of his answers to recent correspondence.]

Dear Col. Manners,

When Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, he insisted that we “look forward,” not backward.  While he rejected the widespread use of torture and abuse by the CIA in the Bush years, his Department of Justice refused to prosecute a single torture case, even when death was the result.  (The only CIA agent to go to jail during the Obama presidency was the guy who blew the whistle on the CIA torture program!) 

Jump ahead five years, and instead of looking forward, it seems that we’re again looking backward big time.  The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, usually the staunchest backer of U.S. intelligence, seems to have sworn a vendetta against the CIA on the Senate floor for spying on her oversight committee as it prepared its still-unreleased report on the Agency’s torture program.  The CIA denies it all and claims committee staffers spied on them.  Once again, the Justice Department faces the issue of charges over the Agency’s torture program!  It seems like little short of a constitutional catfight.

What gives, Colonel?  Shouldn’t President Obama have prosecuted CIA torturers in the first place and isn’t it time that he and his Justice Department finally take all this to court?

Tortured in Tacoma

Dear Tortured,

You’ve hit the nail on the head!  When Senator Feinstein turns on the CIA, the situation couldn’t be more disturbing — or out of hand.  But believe me, the answer is not to call on the Justice Department (of all places!) to sort this out.  After all, as you indicate, it was incapable of prosecuting the killing of tortured prisoners, so it’s hardly likely to adopt a take-no-prisoners attitude toward either the CIA or the Senate Intelligence Committee over possible computer spying. 

Instead, as the president long ago suggested, we need to look forward, not backward.  And with that in mind, Senator John McCain has, I believe, made the most useful suggestion: that an independent investigative body be empaneled to get to the bottom of the dispute between Feinstein and the CIA.  As you know, over the last five years, the Senate Intelligence Committee has managed to write a still-incomplete report on the CIA’s black sites and torture campaign.  Though unreleased to the public even in redacted or summary form, it is reportedly 6,300 pages long.  By comparison, the first novel in history, the Tale of Genji, is only 1,200 pages, and War and Peace only 1,800 pages.  (And yes, Tortured, we in the secret world do have a certain attraction to fiction.)

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Lewis Lapham: How ‘revolution’ became an adjective

In 1969, I was working as a (not very good) printer at an “underground” print shop in Boston.  There was, in fact, nothing faintly underground about it, but in what was then called “the movement,” it was a romantic label — and use it we did.  I had an older co-worker there who had played an early role in launching the movement politics that became such a part of the era. He paid me next to no mind and yet his presence intimidated me greatly.  He was, as they said at the time, “close” to PL, or the Progressive Labor Party, which was a hardline lefty outfit of the moment.  One day, out of the blue, he invited me to dinner.  I was surprised, to say the least, but took it as an unexpected stamp of approval and accepted with alacrity, experiencing a wave of gratitude that, being a guy, it was impossible to express.

On the appointed night, I arrived at his place where he and his girlfriend, also close to PL, welcomed me to the table. In the middle of dinner, however, they got into a fight.  Suddenly, it was as if I weren’t there at all.  As it turned out, they were arguing about the latest PL edict, a call to members to “build bridges” to co-workers, the category into which I obviously fell.  The question, it seemed, was which of several categories of fellow worker I fell into.  They ranged — at this great distance I can’t remember the exact descriptive details — from the equivalent of simpleton liberal dolt to equally insulting labels somewhat more to the revolutionary left.  After the meal, I slunk out into the night.

That, I suspect, was as close as I got to being a “revolutionary.”  In the generally exhilarating years we now call the Sixties, by which we tend to mean the period from perhaps 1965 to 1973, it often seemed as if an abyss had opened at your feet and the most reasonable as well as thrilling thing to do, even if you were a somewhat timid and polite boy of the 1950s, was simply jump in.  At an individual level in the America of that moment, the experience was, I suppose, revolutionary.  Certainly, in those years it wasn’t hard to bump into every shade and grade of self-proclaimed revolutionary or revolutionary group.  Still, as Lewis Lapham makes clear today, and as I learned at that dinner table, revolution was then in the eye of the beholder, an easy enough label to throw around even if, looking back, the real revolutions of the moment weren’t on the left but on the right and, as Lapham points out, also in fields that ranged from advertising to surveillance — and aimed not at liberating but controlling us all.

In those years, Lapham, as you’ll soon find out, was having far better dinners than I at far better establishments.  A half century later, he’s made “revolution” the topic of the Spring issue of his remarkable magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, and so the focus of his latest essay at TomDispatch. (You can subscribe to the Quarterly by clicking here.) As ever, this website thanks the editors of that journal for allowing us to offer an exclusive look at Lapham’s introduction to the new issue. Tom Engelhardt

Crowd control
Political revolt and the accumulation of more
By Lewis H. Lapham

[This essay will appear in "Revolution," the Spring 2014 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]

In case of rain, the revolution will take place in the hall.
– Erwin Chargaff

For the last several years, the word “revolution” has been hanging around backstage on the national television talk-show circuit waiting for somebody, anybody — visionary poet, unemployed automobile worker, late-night comedian — to cue its appearance on camera. I picture the word sitting alone in the green room with the bottled water and a banana, armed with press clippings of its once-upon-a-time star turns in America’s political theater (tie-dyed and brassiere-less on the barricades of the 1960s countercultural insurrection, short-haired and seersucker smug behind the desks of the 1980s Reagan Risorgimento), asking itself why it’s not being brought into the segment between the German and the Japanese car commercials.

Surely even the teleprompter must know that it is the beast in the belly of the news reports, more of them every day in print and en blog, about income inequality, class conflict, the American police state. Why then does nobody have any use for it except in the form of the adjective, revolutionary, unveiling a new cellphone app or a new shade of lipstick?

I can think of several reasons, among them the cautionary tale told by the round-the-clock media footage of dead revolutionaries in Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia, also the certain knowledge that anything anybody says (on camera or off, to a hotel clerk, a Facebook friend, or an ATM) will be monitored for security purposes. Even so, the stockpiling of so much careful silence among people who like to imagine themselves on the same page with Patrick Henry — “Give me liberty, or give me death” — raises the question as to what has become of the American spirit of rebellion. Where have all the flowers gone, and what, if anything, is anybody willing to risk in the struggle for “Freedom Now,” “Power to the People,” “Change We Can Believe In”?

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Nick Turse: American proxy wars in Africa

Our major post-9/11 wars are goners and the imagery of American war-making is heading downhill. The Iraq War was long ago left in the trash heap of history, while in Afghanistan the talk is now about “the zero option” — that is, about an irritated Obama administration making a lock, stock, and drone departure from that country as 2014 ends. Meanwhile, back in America, headlines indicate that the U.S. military stands trembling at the brink of evisceration, with the U.S. Army soon to return to pre-World War II levels of troop strength and all the services about to go on a diet in an era of belt-tightening.  The only new arms being promoted are the ones Republicans are “up in” when it comes to the potential destruction of U.S. military might.

As it happens, the impression this leaves bears only the most minimal relationship to the actual U.S. global military posture of this moment.  The Middle Eastern and Persian Gulf buildup around Iran remains massive, even as talks on that country’s nuclear program are underway.  Despite the “zero option” media focus on Afghanistan, Obama administration officials seem determined that a residual force of trainers, mentors, and special operations types will remain in that country to anchor a rump war after combat troops leave this year.  They clearly expect the successor to the recalcitrant President Hamid Karzai to sign the necessary bilateral security pact — even if at the last moment.  As for the axe being taken to the Pentagon budget, it turns out, at worst, to be a penknife.

In the meantime, hardly noticed amid all the hoopla about future cuts to Army strength (which do indicate a genuine no-invasions-no-occupations-on-the-Eurasian-landmass change of strategy initiated in the late Bush years), there has been next to no attention paid to a striking piece of budgetary news: despite speculations about cuts to its fleet of aircraft carriers, the U.S. Navy is expected to keep its full contingent of 11 aircraft carrier strike groups — essentially 11 giant floating bases off the world’s coasts.  This fits well with the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed “pivot” to Asia.  As Michael Klare recently explained, that pivot is, at heart, a naval strategy (consonant with those 11 carriers) of ensuring ongoing control over the crucial energy sea lanes in the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and the East and South China Seas through which China is going to have to import staggering amounts of liquid energy in the coming decades.

Finally, on a planet still impressively heavily garrisoned by Washington, hardly noticed by anyone and rarely written about, the U.S. military has for years been quietly moving into Africa in a distinctly below-the-radar fashion.  This represents a major new commitment of American power in a world of supposed cutbacks, but you would never know it.  If you’re a news jockey, every now and then you can catch a report, like David Cloud’s recently in the Los Angeles Times, which offers a brief snapshot of that process with, for instance, a head’s-up that 50 U.S. Special Operations troops have just been put on the ground at a “remote outpost” in Tunisia.  However, only at TomDispatch, thanks to the reporting of Nick Turse, can you find an ongoing account of the U.S. military move into Africa, its planning, its implementation, and the destabilization and blowback that seem to accompany it.  The Pentagon’s newest tactic for Africa, as he documents today: refight the colonial wars in partnership with the French.  Just tell me: What could possibly go wrong? Tom Engelhardt

Washington’s back-to-the-future military policies in Africa
America’s new model for expeditionary warfare
By Nick Turse

Lion Forward Teams? Echo Casemate? Juniper Micron?

You could be forgiven if this jumble of words looks like nonsense to you.  It isn’t.  It’s the language of the U.S. military’s simmering African interventions; the patois that goes with a set of missions carried out in countries most Americans couldn’t locate on a map; the argot of conflicts now primarily fought by proxies and a former colonial power on a continent that the U.S. military views as a hotbed of instability and that hawkish pundits increasingly see as a growth area for future armed interventions.     

Since 9/11, the U.S. military has been making inroads in Africa, building alliances, facilities, and a sophisticated logistics network.  Despite repeated assurances by U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) that military activities on the continent were minuscule, a 2013 investigation by TomDispatch exposed surprisingly large and expanding U.S. operations — including recent military involvement with no fewer than 49 of 54 nations on the continent.  Washington’s goal continues to be building these nations into stable partners with robust, capable militaries, as well as creating regional bulwarks favorable to its strategic interests in Africa.  Yet over the last years, the results have often confounded the planning — with American operations serving as a catalyst for blowback (to use a term of CIA tradecraft). 

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Rebecca Solnit: Evacuate the economy

Call it a nightmare that passes for good news. Recently, the New York Times optimistically headlined a front-page piece by reporters Coral Davenport and Steven Erlanger, “U.S. Hopes Boom in Natural Gas Can Curb Putin.” It offered an eerie overview of where the administration of the president who came into office committed to reversing global warming has ended up.  If there’s “green” left in his presidency, it’s evidently the green of envy — that’s what some of his advisors believe countries like Russia will feel on learning that, with our new frackable energy wealth, we are going to be “Saudi America” in a decade or two.  Then, the implication is, Washington will really be able to throw its weight around geopolitically.

The Times piece began, “The crisis in Crimea is heralding the rise of a new era of American energy diplomacy as the Obama administration tries to deploy the vast new supply of natural gas in the United States as a weapon to undercut the influence of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, over Ukraine and Europe.”  Admittedly, given the lack of facilities for exporting those new reserves of natural gas, this isn’t going to happen any time soon.  Still, filled with hair-raising quotes — “‘In World War II, we were the arsenal of democracy,’ said Robert McNally, who was the senior director for international energy issues on the National Security Council during the Bush administration. ‘I think we’re going to become the arsenal of energy’” – it describes an approach that’s been caught with eerie accuracy by Michael Klare under the label “petro-machismo” in a piece at the Nation magazine.

According to the Times, in 2011 Hillary Clinton, while secretary of state, set up an 85-person bureau to channel “the domestic energy boom into a geopolitical tool to advance American interests around the world.” In a sentence that goes right to the heart of the matter in the sixth year of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Times article pointed out that “the administration’s strategy has attracted unlikely allies, including major oil and gas producers like ExxonMobil and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill…”  Amusingly, in the online version, that ill-chosen phrase “unlikely allies” has been expunged and the sentence rewritten (without any indication of a change or correction) — since, in the Green Revolution president’s new version of energy geopolitics, ExxonMobil and its big energy compatriots are now clearly “likely” allies.

There’s little new in an imperial power (or wannabe) using its control over energy resources as a source of geopolitical influence.  (See: the United States in the twentieth century; see: Russia today.)  In fact, in normal times on a different planet, the Obama administration’s new energy path would pass for a sensible approach to maximizing national strength.  As it happens, these are not normal times and we are not on the planet we once thought we knew.  As a result, this supposed renaissance of American global energy and power, which will put the production of ever more fossil fuels on the American agenda for decades, is in climate change terms the path to hell.  No matter who hails it, as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit makes vividly clear, the new normal, the logical, the obvious, the prudent is these days a formula for, and a guarantee of, a planetary train wreck.  And if anyone cares about irony at all a couple of decades from now, this could well be Barack Obama’s true legacyTom Engelhardt

By the way, your home is on fire
The climate of change and the dangers of stasis
By Rebecca Solnit

As the San Francisco bureaucrats on the dais murmured about why they weren’t getting anywhere near what we in the audience passionately hoped for, asked for, and worked for, my mind began to wander. I began to think of another sunny day on the other side of the country 13 years earlier, when nothing happened the way anyone expected. I had met a survivor of that day who told me his story. 

A high-powered financial executive, he had just arrived on the 66th floor of his office building and entered his office carrying his coffee, when he saw what looked like confetti falling everywhere — not a typical 66th floor spectacle. Moments later, one of his friends ran out of a meeting room shouting, “They’re back.”

It was, of course, the morning of September 11th and his friend had seen a plane crash into the north tower of the World Trade Center. My interviewee and his colleagues in the south tower got on the elevator.  In another 15 minutes or so, that was going to be a fast way to die, but they managed to ride down to the 44th floor lobby safely. A guy with a bullhorn was there, telling people to go back to their offices.

Still holding his cup of coffee, he decided — as did many others in that lobby — to go down the stairs instead.  When he reached the 20th floor, a voice came on the public address system and told people to go back to their offices. My storyteller thought about obeying those instructions. Still holding his coffee, he decided to keep heading down. He even considered getting back on an elevator, but hit the stairs again instead. Which was a good thing, because when he was on the ninth floor, the second plane crashed into the south tower, filling the elevator shafts with flaming jet fuel. Two hundred to 400 elevator riders died horribly. He put down his coffee at last and lived to tell the tale. 

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David Bromwich: The leader Obama wanted to become and what became of him

Doesn’t this just say it all?  After Majority Leader Harry Reid went the ultimate mile for the president, loosing the “nuclear option” on the Senate to wipe out Republican filibusters of a bevy of log-jammed presidential nominations, and after the Republicans — the president’s proudly disloyal opposition — had fumed to their hearts’ content, Obama still couldn’t get his nominee to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division confirmed.  The culprits in a Congress where, from the White House point of view, evil has been every shade of Republican turned out to be seven disloyal Democrats.  Despite a “sustained closed-door effort” by Obama and his aides, they voted the nominee down.  Think of it as a little parable for the Obama presidency.

Meanwhile, in foreign policy, the din has been thunderous when it comes to Vladimir Putin and events in Ukraine.  Denunciations of the Russian president have rung from every quarter in Washington.  Sanctions against individual Russians have been issued with broader sanctions threatened and Secretary of State John Kerry has led the way.  But so far it’s been a Charge of the Lite Brigade.  Kerry actually had the chutzpah to say of the Russian troops sent into the Crimea, “You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped up pretext.”  And the former senator, who had voted for the invasion of Iraq (to deal with Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction program), did it straight-faced.  Had the situation not been so grim, it would have been pure stand-up.  

The poor people of Ukraine are, of course, caught in the ring with global heavyweights and wannabes.  And the action’s been hot and heavy.  For one thing, the White House seems to have leaked German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private suggestion to the president that, in a conversation they had, Putin had been “in another world” — i.e. deranged.  (It was assumedly a good way for the White House to depth charge her relationship with the Russian president.)  As for Putin, if he’s crazy, by all accounts he’s crazy like a fox. He’s managed to go to “war” with what’s left of the Red Army and as the leader of a far more ramshackle state than the Soviet Union without a shot so far being fired.  He’s been punching visibly above his weight.

Thematically true to the Obama era, Washington has no less visibly been punching below its weight.  Its theme, widely announced, has been to “isolate” Russia, particularly economically.  Even as Republican congressional representatives were clambering aboard the Good Ship Sanctions (while continuing to denounce the president), the Obama administration hasn’t been able to rally those who actually matter: its European allies.

Yes, they’ve all said the right words in the rhetorical war that’s been underway, but in a fashion new in the trans-Atlantic relationship, even Great Britain has balked at Washington’s urgings to impose real sanctions on the Russians.  And no wonder: unlike the U.S., the Germans and others have significant trade relationships with that country and rely on it for natural gas supplies, none of which are they eager to imperil.  Here, too, for all the sound and fury signifying little, Obama seems to have been trumped by Putin.

The president’s inability to get much of significance done, no matter the topic, has become legendary.  In this, he may be the perfect symbol of our age.  His is a presidency in a time of decline.  As TomDispatch regular David Bromwich indicates today in a sweeping character portrait of the man we’ve never quite come to know, he’s had an uncanny knack for embodying the waning of American power.  Whether at home or abroad, it seems as if that power is somehow mysteriously draining out of Washington.  As Bromwich suggests, the president’s words can still soar, but the actions he proposes show a remarkably consistent inability to leave the ground. Tom Engelhardt

The voice
How Obama became a publicist for his presidency (rather than the president)
By David Bromwich

Like many days, March 3rd saw the delivery of a stern opinion by President Obama. To judge by recent developments in Ukraine, he said, Russia was putting itself “on the wrong side of history.” This might seem a surprising thing for an American president to say. The fate of Soviet Communism taught many people to be wary of invoking History as if it were one’s special friend or teammate. But Obama doubtless felt comfortable because he was quoting himself. “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,” he said in his 2009 inaugural address, “know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” In January 2009 and again in March 2014, Obama was speaking to the world as its uncrowned leader.

For some time now, observers — a surprisingly wide range of them — have been saying that Barack Obama seems more like a king than a president. Leave aside the fanatics who think he is a “tyrant” of unparalleled powers and malignant purpose. Notions of that sort come easily to those who look for them; they are predigested and can safely be dismissed. But the germ of a similar conclusion may be found in a perception shared by many others. Obama, it is said, takes himself to be something like a benevolent monarch — a king in a mixed constitutional system, where the duties of the crown are largely ceremonial. He sees himself, in short, as the holder of a dignified office to whom Americans and others may feel naturally attuned.

A large portion of his experience of the presidency should have discouraged that idea. Obama’s approval ratings for several months have been hovering just above 40%. But whatever people may actually think of him, the evidence suggests that this has indeed been his vision of the presidential office — or rather, his idea of his function as a holder of that office. It is a subtle and powerful fantasy, and it has evidently driven his demeanor and actions, as far as reality permitted, for most of his five years in office.

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