Sunday, February 5, 2017

Media Disinformation on Purported Aleppo Atrocities Fits Historical Pattern

It has been several months since the barrage of nightmarish reports about the horrors in East Aleppo as the Syrian government army prepared to drive out the remaining rebels from the city in mid December. Purported "activists" posted their "goodbye" messages, claiming they feared they would be slaughtered by government forces. Women were said to have chosen suicide over rape. And most widely disseminated of all were reports that regime soldiers had executed 82 civilians, including women and children. (See here, here, here, here and here.) None of these shocking reports were verified by journalists on the ground. Though none of the news media admitted it, there were no foreign journalists in East Aleppo because they feared being kidnapped and killed by the al Qaeda-aligned rebels, as American reporter James Foley had been in 2014. But after hostilities concluded in East Aleppo with the rebels being driven out of the city, the same organizations who propagated the doomsday narrative have shown no interest in examining it and setting the record straight.

There have been no indications that anyone inside East Aleppo who posted a goodbye message was actually harmed. Lina Shamy, who miraculously enjoyed a reliable Wi-Fi connection and a steady supply of power to tweet constantly and grant Skype interviews from East Aleppo, warned on Dec. 12, 2016 that "this may be my last video. More than 50,000 civilians who rebelled against the dictator al-Assad are threatened with field executions or are dying under bombing." CNN published this terrifying message from Shamy along with another in which she claimed "genocide is still ongoing!" 

But Shamy was not executed upon the government taking control of the city. Instead, she was evacuated by the government out of the city. She is now living freely and recounting her experience in the pages of the New York Times, where she falsely blamed attacks on evacuation buses on the government's Syrian Arab Army (SAA). In reality, it was the rebels who set fire to the buses full of civilians and imperiled the peaceful evacuations. 

As for reports of executions of 82 civilians by government troops, it does not appear that anyone has followed up by presenting any evidence that this actually happened. There have been no names of the 82 people allegedly killed, no photos, no bodies, and no grave sites indicating that mass murder had occurred. 

Perhaps this should not come as a surprise. The original reports were completely unsubstantiated, based on nothing more than one United Nations official repeating hearsay. News media relied on the authority of the United Nations to bolster the credibility of their headlines ("UN says civilians shot on the spot.") Amnesty International took the UN reports at face value and said they "point to apparent war crimes," phrasing meant to prejudice legal claims against the Syrian government while deflecting responsibility for making them. 

The reports came from a single official: Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Colville told a news conference that in addition to 82 civilians (including dozens of women and children) reportedly killed by government troops, the death toll could actually be much higher, Buried deep below the headlines in the news coverage, we come across an important caveat.  Colville admitted "it was hard to verify the reports." 

Rather than present evidence of these horrible atrocities, Colville admits that they are merely rumors from an undisclosed source. To present this as an factual finding of the United Nations is like taking a prosecutor's opening argument and saying it was the decision of the jury at the end of the trial. If the media was really interested in reporting the truth, they would frame the allegations skeptically rather than treat them as settled and proven.

But the purpose of media in the United States and Western democracies is not to report the truth but to reinforce the government's position by accepting the fundamental validity of its narrative. As Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman write in Manufacturing Consent, "(a) propaganda model suggests that the 'societal purpose' of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state." [1]  

It is evident that the political and military establishment is fixated on regime change in Syria, and thus has chosen to align with Syria's local al-Qaeda affiliate -- if not directly then indirectly by supporting groups that make common cause in fighting under their command. The propaganda model would predict that the media would portray the Assad government as uniquely cruel and savage, and the opponents of the regime as worthy victims of the Syrian government's evilness.

Thus it should not be surprising that after the re-capture of East Aleppo actual evidence of a massacre was discovered, but was ignored.  Since the evidence pointed to atrocities by the rebels against the government, instead of vice versa, it went unreported in the Western press.

In late December, 100 government soldiers were found dead inside East Aleppo. Video by Syrian "activists" showed that at least some of the dead soldiers had been captured days earlier, suggesting they were executed rather than killed in battle. Despite photographic and video evidence, these deaths were not worthy of being covered by CNN, the New York Times, the BBC or other outlets who did report on unverified accusations of executions by the other side. 

The Hue and Racak "Massacres"

Several historical examples are useful to see how stories that coincide with the government line are amplified by the media, no matter how little evidence exists. Later, when evidence emerges which calls into question the original narrative, the media simply ignore it and it is lost to history.

During the U.S. aggression against Vietnam, the brutality and viciousness of the "Communists" was exemplified in the American public imagination by the "Hue Massacre" in January 1968. The official narrative was that North Vietnamese troops, while retreating from the city of Hue after the Tet offensive, carried out indiscriminate massacres of civilians and buried them in mass graves.

London Times correspondent Stewart Harris reported in March 1968 that Hue Police Chief Doan Cong Lap claimed there had been 200 killings and a mass grave discovered with 300 bodies. The next month, the Saigon government's propaganda agency put out a report claiming there were 1,000 victims of a Communist massacre, many of whom had been buried alive. After this was not picked up, the U.S. State Department put out the same report the following week. It was duly splashed across all the major American newspapers.

"The story was not questioned, despite the fact that no Western journalist had ever been taken to see the grave sites when the bodies were uncovered," write Chomsky and Herman in The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism. "On the contrary, French photographer Marc Riboud was repeatedly denied permission to see one of the sites where the Province Chief claimed 300 civilian government workers had been executed by the Communists. When he was finally taken by helicopter to the alleged site, the pilot refused to land, claiming the area was 'insecure.' " [2]

Subsequently, a purported "captured document" was found that allegedly showed Communists had admitted to killing 2,748 people. This was taken at face value and became the new official version of the incident.

In reality, a vicious U.S.-led assault to recapture Hue had resulted in massive casualties. Photographer Philip Jones Griffiths wrote that most of the victims were killed by the air assault. The dead were falsely designated as victims of a Communist massacre.

Gareth Porter, who thoroughly investigated the events in Hue, described his findings as follows:
The available evidence - not from NLF sources but from official U.S. and Saigon documents and from independent observers, indicates that the official story of an indiscriminate slaughter of those who were considered to be unsympathetic to the NLF is a complete fabrication. Not only is the number of bodies uncovered in and around Hue open to question, but more important, the cause of death appears to have been shifted from the fighting itself to NLF execution. And the most detailed and 'authoritative' account of the alleged executions put together by either government does not stand up under examination.
But there was never any attempt by the mainstream Western press who were so quick to amplify the U.S. government's accounts to investigate what really happened and set the record straight if their findings did not match the initial story. Nor was there any interest in investigating casualties in Hue when there was substantial evidence that they were caused by the U.S. military and forces loyal to the military dictatorship they were supporting.

30 years later in Kosovo, the Western media reported the latest massacre by the evil forces of an official enemy. In this case, the Serbian military had allegedly murdered 45 unarmed Kosovo Albanians in the village of Racak. The first reports of a "massacre" and a "crime against humanity" in Racak were pronounced by Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mission head William Walker.

On January 18, 1999, Chief International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia prosecutor Louise Arbour showed up at the border of Kosovo and demanded entry to investigate the incident. In March, U.S. President Bill Clinton would use the pretext of Racak to justify an illegal air war against Serbia when he declared, "(w)e should remember what happened in the village of Racak, where innocent men, women and children were taken from their homes to a gully, forced to kneel in the dirt, sprayed with gunfire -- not because of anything they had done, but because of who they were." [3]

Clinton's version was created out of whole cloth. There were no women and children, and there was no evidence the dead had been marched from their homes and forced to kneel in the dirt. The Serbian government determined that there was only 22 men, and that the deaths had resulted from a fire fight during a police action to catch Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighters who had killed four policeman the week before.

While the Serb version, which was exculpatory to their own side, should not be accepted at face value either, it does raise possibilities worth examining. There was a context that could explain the dead bodies, i.e., heavy fighting between KLA and Serbian forces. As Michael Mandel writes in How America Gets Away with Murder: "to the extent that there was a massacre, it was provoked by the KLA as part of a deliberate and consistent pattern aimed at bringing on NATO's military intervention." Mandel notes that even NATO supporters such as Michael Ignatieff had written several months before that KLA tactics "were not a miscalculation, but a deliberate strategy" designed to force Serbian forces to overreact and force NATO to intervene on the KLA's side. [4]

It is not hard to see the double standard by which the media operates when reporting alleged atrocities by enemies of the U.S. government. Actual massacres by the U.S. armed forces are portrayed as one-off cases attributable to low-level rogue offices, like My Lai in Vietnam, or as honest mistakes and collateral damage, like the Kunduz hospital bombing in Afghanistan. Even in the wholesale murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent noncombatants, like the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the systematic carpet bombing of vast swaths of Cambodia and Laos, U.S. actions are never conceived of as evidence of barbarity and indiscriminate violence. Whereas atrocities by the other side are unfailingly portrayed as unprovoked mass murder, unconscionable examples of the enemy's lack of humanity and indicative of the difference between us and them.

The mainstream media is best understood as an appendage of the government and ruling class interests, one which functions as part of a propaganda system that has nothing to do with providing with facts, but rather creating an acceptable ideological framework for its audience. This explains why the media exhibits such a blatant confirmation bias. In this light, it should be anything but surprising that the story about the Syrian government executing 82 civilians can become an official historical fact without any serious attempt to verify the actual course of events either at the time they happened, or after the fog of war has cleared. 

References

[1] Chomsky, Noam and Edward S. Herman. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Pantheon, 2011. Kindle edition. (Loc. 7556)

[2] Chomsky, Noam and Edward S. Herman. The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism: The Political Economy of Human Rights: Volume 1. Boston: South End Press, 1979. (pp. 346)

[3] Quoted in Mandel, Michael. How America Gets Away with Murder: Illegal Wars, Collateral Damage and Crimes Against Humanity. Pluto Press, 2004. Kindle edition. (Loc. 1737)

[4] Mandel, Michael. How America Gets Away with Murder: Illegal Wars, Collateral Damage and Crimes Against Humanity. Pluto Press, 2004. Kindle edition. (Loc. 1820)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Political Prisoners Remain Behind Bars as Obama's Term Nears End

Protesters call for the liberation of Oscar López River in Washington D.C. in October 2016. (Photo by Matt Peppe)
In the last full week of Barack Obama’s eight year tenure as President of the United States of America, dozens of political prisoners still sit in cages across the nation’s prisons, rotting away as Obama consciously chooses not to exercise the power to simply free them with the stroke of a pen. Many activists for Puerto Rican independence, Native American and African American rights, and other causes were targeted by the political police’s illegal COINTELPRO program and convicted in sham trials. Now elderly, some in poor health, they may effectively be facing death sentences unless Obama’s decides within the next two weeks to grant their appeals for clemency.

Among the most well known political prisoners are Oscar López Rivera, Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal, who have all been locked up for at least three and a half decades. Many others including The Move 9 and The Holy Land Five have spent years or decades in jail for their political action and views. Many, like Chelsea Manning and Jeffrey Sterling, have been denied their freedom for exposing government crimes and misdeeds.

But you won’t ever hear this in the mainstream media. The corporate media hypocrisy is best demonstrated by the debate regarding political prisoners during Obama’s trip to Cuba in March 2016.

The U.S. government pretends that it always promotes human rights around the world and opposes human rights violations by other countries it considers adversaries. Hence, part of the propaganda narrative on Cuba is that it unjustly holds political prisoners as part of its campaign to repress the Cuban people - something that would never occur in the United States itself.

During a joint press conference with Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro, CNN’s Jim Acosta asked Castro why the Cuban government held political prisoners and whether he would release them. Castro responded by asking for the names of people Acosta was referring to, and said that if he was given a list, they would be free by that evening. Acosta did not name anyone. CNN declared that Castro “skirts question on political prisoners.” The press coverage treated it as self-evident that only the Cuban government should have to defend itself against allegations of human rights abuses. It was taken for granted that the U.S. President would not have to answer the same question.

By the time the meeting between Obama and Castro took place, all detainees in Cuba considered by Amnesty International prisoners of conscience had already been released. Meanwhile, Amnesty has directly called on Obama to free Leonard Peltier. They have produced multiple reports on his case.  However, no news organization questioned why an American reporter who covers the U.S. President every day had never bothered asking Obama - before or during the press conference in Cuba - about U.S. political prisoners.

When I asked Acosta via Twitter why he was silent about U.S. political prisoners and whether he would call on Obama to free Peltier, he did not respond. In the following months, he has not responded to multiple inquiries about his refusal to ask the same questions of his own President that he does of leaders of foreign countries.  

Many journalists working in the American mainstream media see themselves as being on the same team as their own government, safely staying on the side of U.S. power by acting as a mouthpiece to promote the government’s own narrative and only opposing those countries and leaders that the U.S. government declares adversaries.

As the corporate press refuses to acknowledge that the U.S. has political prisoners, it is left to grassroots groups to demand justice. Recently, separate petitions calling for clemency for López Rivera and Peltier were created through the White House’s We the People web site, where citizen petitions that receive 100,000 signatures receive a response from the White House.

Both petitions exceeded the threshold and received the same dismissive response, which passed the buck to the Department of Justice’s Pardon Attorney and refused to comment on the individual cases:
“The President takes his constitutional power to grant clemency very seriously, and recommendations from the Department of Justice are carefully considered before decisions are made. The White House does not comment, however, on individual pardon applications. In accordance with this policy and the We the People Terms of Participation - which explain that the White House may sometimes choose not to respond to petitions addressing certain matters - the White House declines to comment on the specific case addressed in this petition.”
Translation: The President doesn’t actually respect citizens’ right to participate in decision making, and feels free to ignore them whenever he chooses. The We the People web site is merely a propaganda tool to give the illusion that the president is accountable to the citizens he purportedly serves.

Indeed, Obama has closed his eyes and ears and shut out the voices of millions of people who have spent his entire presidency calling on him to show basic human decency and stop the perpetration of historic injustices against López, Peltier, Abu-Jamal and many other political prisoners.

Throughout his term, Obama has been called on by fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates, foreign leaders, Puerto Rican politicians and others to free López Rivera. The case has become perhaps the most important political issue on the island, as well as among Puerto Ricans and allies in the diaspora.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who commuted the prison sentences of four Puerto Rican nationalists, including Lolita Lebron and Rafael Cancel Miranda, who participated in attacks on the Blair House and the U.S. House of Representatives in the early 1950s, recently asked Obama to free López Rivera, as he himself had done for Puerto Rican prisoners convicted of more serious charges. (Carter’s Dec. 13 letter to Obama was not reported in any American mainstream outlet, only in Puerto Rican press such as El Nuevo Dia.)

Puerto Ricans who are denied their right to self-determination and relegated to second-class citizenship have been unrelenting in continuing to demand that Obama grant López Rivera his freedom, despite years of being ignored by Washington.

Massive rallies have been held annually in San Juan and across the island on the anniversary of López Rivera’s incarceration each May. The group 35 Mujeres por Oscar (35 Women for Oscar) holds regular gatherings, the most recent on Jan. 6 for López’s birthday. A branch of the group in New York City does the same.

A demonstration in October in front of the White House was attended by nearly 1,000 people - many who took buses from Philadelphia and New York City - who rallied for López Rivera. Puerto Rican recording artist René Pérez (AKA Residente of the band Calle 13), said that the government of the United States should be seeking forgiveness from Oscar López Rivera and the people of Puerto Rico, rather than the other way around. His speech is worth quoting at length:

“We’re here in the United States of America, in front of the government that has enslaved us for more than 100 years. The government that in exchange for a passport took our families to its wars. The government that experimented with our people, since they came implanting its language by force. The government that performed medical experiments on our grandparents injecting them with cancerous cells. The government that experimented with anticonceptive pills on our island. We, who understand [López Rivera’s] fight, are here to tell this government - the only government in the history of humanity to fire atomic bombs - that they have in prison a hero much braver than Washington. That this hero has been imprisoned longer than Mandela. That this hero became a hero without hoping for anything in return. We, who understand the fight of Oscar López are in front of the White House to tell this government that every additional second Oscar López spends in prison converts him in a hero much bigger than any of the heroes the United States has had. We are here to tell this government that even though the history books don’t tell us the real history that includes heroes like Oscar López, we will take charge of telling it. We, who understand the fight of Oscar López, are here to tell this government that we will never ask forgiveness for defending our right to be free. So we don’t ask them to forgive Oscar, but that they recognize the true history of the world, that they recognize the history of Puerto Rico, and maybe some day, after they free Oscar, we will forgive them."

Obama has chosen to ignore the massive injustice committed against political prisoners in American gulags while lecturing others that people shouldn’t be imprisoned for their political beliefs. He either refuses to acknowledge or refuses to care that the government he leads can - and often does - use the legal system punitively to silence those whose political views and actions threaten its perpetuation of the status quo, and to intimidate others into abandoning resistance. As Pérez said, perhaps someday people will forgive him.

This article originally appeared at American Herald Tribune.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Lack of Evidence Doesn't Deter Washington Post's Russia Smears

The Washington Post on Friday claimed in a bombshell article that a “Secret CIA assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win White House.” If true, this would be a shocking violation of U.S. sovereignty. One would think such serious accusations would require documentary evidence. Or in the absence of such evidence, at least putting officials on record to vouch for the findings. But the Post required neither.

As for the facts included in the CIA assessment, readers are left without any. The assessment is said to be “secret,” presumably meaning it is classified.  The Post cannot even confirm that such an assessment even exists, much less whether it contains evidence supporting the allegations. (I asked the three Post reporters listed in the byline via Twitter whether they viewed the assessment themselves, but none have responded.)

The source of the information is said to be “officials briefed on the matter” who are not named. There is no indication why they were provided with anonymity. The Obama administration has zealously prosecuted whistleblowers (Chelsea Manning, John Kiriakou, Jeffrey Sterling, Thomas Drake) who have provided classified information to the press while acting in the public interest - exposing government crimes or misinformation.

But officials who selectively leak or mishandle classified information that the administration does not view as damaging have little to fear. David Petraeus, Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton have all been given a pass or chastised with a slap on the wrist. Petraeus, who gave his lover/biographer access to classified documents, was given probation, slightly more lenient than the 35 years in a federal penitentiary meted out to Manning.

The New York Times soon followed the Post’s breaking story by reporting that U.S. intelligence agencies expressed “high confidence” that “Russia acted covertly in the latter stages of the presidential campaign to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances and promote Donald J. Trump.”

Like the Post, the Times depends on anonymous officials for their information.

The Trump campaign responded, logically, by casting doubt on whether the intelligence agencies should be trusted prima facie: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

It is a fair point. Government intelligence agencies certainly have not earned the benefit of the doubt. Their most important mission appears to be enabling the administration they serve to achieve its political aims, rather than acting in the interest of the American public. In fact, they have demonstrated contempt towards the idea they should be held accountable to the public.

During an oversight into the CIA’s illegal torture program, officers of “the company” hacked the computers of Congressional staffers investigating the matter. NSA director James Clapper lied to Congress in testimony by claiming the agency was not collecting data on Americans, when the Snowden documents later proved this is exactly what they were doing.

For months, we have been hearing repeatedly that the Russian government is behind a series of hacks into the Democratic National Committee servers and state election systems. Even Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein has pointed the finger at Russia. Each accusation has come without any hard evidence, yet that has not seemed to give the media who parrot them any pause.    

Hillary claimed in the final debate that “(w)e have 17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyberattacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin, and they are designed to influence our election. I find that deeply disturbing.”

Yet it seems not to have occurred to the news organizations who keep repeating these claims that perhaps the intelligence agencies making them have their own agendas. For example, hyping accusations against a foreign enemy is a good way to ensure job security and rationalize ballooning budgets without actually demonstrating any results.

It also helps justify the administration’s policy of confrontation with Russia, popular with officials who seem nostalgic for the good old days of the Cold War. Over the last 8 years, the U.S. government has continued to expand NATO, helped foment a coup in Ukraine and consolidate the fascist-dominated government that came to power, spent $1 trillion to upgrade its nuclear weapons program, and moved military equipment and troops permanently to Russia’s borders.

When Donald Trump questioned these moves as needlessly provocative and expressed his intention to work with, rather than antagonize, Russia, he was portrayed as a Russian tool or a Manchurian candidate. The Clinton campaign started spinning fantasies of Russian interference on behalf of Trump to deflect from their own candidate's historically low popularity and failure to resonate with voters.

The Russian government has categorically denied that the American “hysteria” has any truth to it, calling previous accusations of Russian meddling “mythical and fictitious.”

“Does anyone seriously think Russia can somehow influence the American people’s choice? Is American some kind of banana republic? America is a great power!” Putin said in October.  

And if the allegations were in fact true, and Russia had meddled in U.S. elections? Russia’s actions would surely pale in comparison to those of the United States government itself over the last 70 years.

William Blum dedicates an entire chapter in his book Rogue State to U.S. interference in the elections of sovereign countries. He documents 20 cases of U.S. meddling:

Philippines, 1950s
Italy, 1948-1970s
Lebanon, 1950s
Indonesia, 1955
Vietnam, 1955
British Guyana, 1953-64
Japan, 1958-1970s
Nepal, 1959
Laos, 1960
Brazil, 1962
Dominican Republic, 1962
Chile, 1964-1970
Portugal, 1974-75
Australia, 1974-75
Jamaica, 1976
Nicaragua, 1984, 1990
Haiti, 1987-88
Russia, 1996
Mongolia, 1996
Bosnia, 1998

The most grievous case was in post-war Italy, when a Socialist-Communist coalition was dominating the polls and set to win the upcoming elections. The CIA mounted an all-out campaign to subvert the popular will by donating millions to opposition parties; forging documents that included personal and sexual details to make party members look bad; organizing letter writing campaigns from Italian Americans encouraging Italians not to vote for leftist parties; broadcasting radio propaganda featuring Italian American stars like Frank Sinatra; and threatening that in the case of a Communist victory that American aid would be cut off.

The U.S. has even been involved in interfering in elections in Russia itself. In 1994, when Boris Yeltsin’s approval rating was standing at a dismal 6 percent, American political strategists began providing advice that would help Yeltsin to overcome his Communist opponent. The American advisors from a San Francisco firm had suspicious connections to Bill Clinton, and while they did not admit involvement by the U.S. administration, they admitted their work was “made available to the Clinton White House.”

If the Post story were true, it would appear that the United States received a bitter taste of its own medicine for a change. But based on the information provided to date, there is no reason to believe that the story is anything more than McCarthyite scaremongering meant to delegitimize Trump’s victory and make it more difficult for his incoming administration to reverse the Obama administration’s hard-line policy towards Russia.

Amidst the hysteria over the threat of “fake news,” it doesn’t seem to occur to mainstream news organizations that to find the worst purveyors of such fake news, they ought to first look in the mirror.


This article originally appeared at American Herald Tribune.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The New York Times's Biased Obituary of Fidel Castro

After Fidel Castro passed away Friday night at 90 years old, the obituaries written about him in the American press typified the U.S. government propaganda used for decades to demonize Castro and obscure the tremendous social and humanitarian advances that the Cuban Revolution was able to achieve in the face of unrelenting interference, subversion and destabilization. None were more over-the-top in their bias than the obituary in the New York Times.

A mere 54 words, the lede paragraph contains an astonishing amount of misinformation and innuendo:

"Fidel Castro, the fiery apostle of revolution who brought the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere in 1959"

It's hard to imagine any Western leader being called a "fiery apostle." The phrase suggests Castro was driven by an irrational, religious mission to undertake revolution, rather than having resorted to armed resistance as a last resort after the possibility of nonviolent opposition through political means was eliminated. In 1952, as Castro was favored to win a seat in the House of Representatives, Fulgencio Batista promptly cancelled the upcoming elections as it became clear he would not be able to hold power in a free and fair vote. Only after this did Castro and others start to organize a guerilla resistance in order to prevent rule by a military dictatorship. Calling him a "fiery apostle of revolution" is reductionist and Manichean.

The second part of the sentence is easily disprovable. The Cold War was well underway and active in the Western Hemisphere long before the Revolution came to power in 1959. Five years earlier, the CIA, at the behest of the United Fruit Company and working in conjunction with Congress and the White House, supported the overthrow of Guatemala's democratically elected progressive President Jacobo Arbenz by the Guatemalan military. The reason was summed up by Senator George Smathers of Florida, who was quoted in an article in the CIA's professional journal, Studies in Intelligence, saying: "In all candor, we must admit that the democratic nations of the Western Hemisphere could not permit the continued existence of a Communist base in Latin America, so close to home."

Aside from misrepresenting the Cold War timeline, the idea that it was Castro who was responsible for Cold War tensions with the United States is laughable. Castro immediately reached out to the U.S. government after taking power in 1959, and even visited the country four months later. Upon arriving he was stood up by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who decided to play golf instead meeting with Castro. The next year, Eisenhower would cancel the sugar quota Cuba depended on for export revenue, provoking Cuba to exercise its sovereign right to nationalize U.S. properties. In return, the U.S. government prohibited delivery of oil to the island, which led to Cuba seeking oil from the Soviet Union.

"and then defied the United States for nearly half a century as Cuba's maximum leader"

It is strange that Castro's commitment not to compromise on the sovereignty of Cuba and its people would be seen as remarkable enough to draw attention to it so prominently. Imagine a Russian obituary to Ronald Reagan stating that he defied the Soviet Union. Such a statement presumes that the natural state of affairs would be subservience to the dictates of a foreign power. Americans would find this notion absurd.

"bedeviling 11 American presidents"

This one way of stating that Castro survived more than 600 assassination attempts authorized by multiple U.S. executives and resisted their criminal economic war that sought "to bring about hunger, desperation" and "hardship" and to this day continues to deny food and medicine to children.

"and briefly pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war"

A year and a half prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the CIA directed a mercenary invasion of Cuba that failed spectacularly after it was quickly repelled. Understanding that another invasion was imminent, Castro sought nuclear missiles from the Soviet Union because he believed it would be the only possibly deterrent to another U.S. attack. Meanwhile, the United States had nuclear missiles positioned across Eastern Europe at the Soviet Union. When Kennedy protested to the Soviets, Khrushchev offered to withdraw the missiles before they reached Cuba if the U.S. would likewise withdraw its nuclear missiles from Turkey and promise not to invade Cuba. Kennedy said this would "look like a very fair trade" to any "rational man." Yet, he was still not satisfied and instead of accepting it decided to engage in a game of chicken that could easily have resulted in a nuclear holocaust. To pin responsibility on Fidel Castro for the escalation of this situation is a gross distortion.

"died on Friday. He was 90."

This I don't take issue with.

The rest of the obituary is riddled with other inaccuracies and rhetorical flourishes that all predictably echo decades worth of U.S. government propaganda.

The Times claims Castro "ceded much of his power to his younger brother Raúl." In reality, Fidel resigned his position as the President of State in 2006. He did not personally hand power to his brother in a dictatorial display of nepotism. Raúl was at the time Vice President, having been elected in the process stipulated by the Cuban Constitution. Likewise under the Constitution, as Vice President he assumed the role of the Presidency upon the resignation of the current President. No different than how succession would work in the United States.

The piece goes on to make unfounded claims of Castro's self-aggrandizement ("he believed himself to be the messiah of his fatherland") and launch evidence-free smears about his abuse of power ("he wielded power like a tyrant, controlling every aspect of the island's existence").

No one in recent history has been the subject of such vitriolic and politically biased propaganda emanating from the U.S. government as Fidel Castro. It is unsurprising that the self-declared paper of record in the U.S. would replicate the same disingenuous rhetoric rather than attempt to objectively assess the life of undoubtedly the most important individual of the 20th century based on documented facts placed in historical context.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Disrespecting the American Imperial Presidency

When the dust settled on the Nov. 8 election, we learned that a completely unpredictable, egomaniacal, narcissistic buffoon would inherit the White House and the vast powers that go along with it. This deeply offended many people who see Donald Trump’s racist and misogynistic rhetoric as “unpresidential.” Liberal New York Times columnist Charles Blow summed up this view: “I respect the presidency; I do not respect this president-elect.” That the president-elect should not be respected is a given. But why should we respect the presidency?  

The Imperial Presidency of the United States has evolved over the last century to the point that the executive holds certain powers that can be considered dictatorial. Arguably, the most consequential decision in politics is to wage war. The Constitution specifically reserves this right for Congress. The President, as Commander-in-Chief, directs the wars that Congress declares. However, starting with Truman’s intervention in the Korean War in 1950 and continuing with invasions of Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq and Afghanistan and the bombings of dozens more countries, the President’s ability to unilaterally initiate war with a sovereign nation has been normalized. Congress has not declared war since 1941 despite the fact the U.S. military has intervened in nearly every corner of the world in the years since.

In recent years, George W. Bush assumed the power to kidnap, torture, and assassinate any individual, anywhere in the world, at any time, without even a pretense of due process. Upon replacing Bush, Barack Obama legitimized Bush’s kidnapping and torture (by refusing to prosecute the perpetrators or provide recourse to the victims) while enthusiastically embracing the power to assassinate at will. Noam Chomsky has said this represents Obama trashing the 800-year-old Magna Carta, which King John of England would have approved of.

Can there be anything more dictatorial than the power of a single individual to kill and make war at will? While American presidents thankfully do not have the power to unilaterally impose taxes, pass legislation, or incarcerate without charges inside U.S. borders, the illegitimate authority they do possess to carry out unrestrained violence across the world is unquestionably a dictatorial feature.

There has not been a single American president since World War II that has not exceeded his constitutional authority by committing crimes that would meet the standard by which officials were convicted and executed at the Nuremberg trials.

Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 to imprison Japanese Americans in concentration camps was a flagrant violation of the Fifth Amendment right not to be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

Truman’s firebombing of Tokyo, nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and invasion of Korea violated provisions of multiple treaties that are considered the “supreme law of the land” per Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.

Eisenhower’s use of the CIA to overthrow democratically elected presidents in Iran and Guatemala, as well as the initiation of a terrorist campaign against Cuba, violated the UN Charter, another international treaty that the Constitution regards as the supreme law of the land.

Kennedy was guilty of approving the creation of a mercenary army to invade Cuba, as well as covert warfare in Vietnam. Johnson massively escalated U.S. military involvement in Vietnam with the introduction of ground troops, which he fraudulently justified through misrepresentation of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Succeeding Johnson, Nixon waged a nearly genocidal air campaign against not only Vietnam but Cambodia and Laos, killing hundreds of thousands of people, destroying ecosystems across Indochina, and leaving an unfathomable amount of unexploded ordnance, which continues to kill and maim hundreds of people each year.

Ford covertly supported the South African invasion of Angola and overtly supported the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Carter continued supporting the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, as well as providing financial and military support to military dictatorships in Guatemala and El Salvador. Reagan oversaw the creation and operation of a terrorist army in Nicaragua, sponsored military dictatorships throughout Central America, and directly invaded Grenada.

Bush the Elder invaded Panama and Iraq. Clinton oversaw sanctions in Iraq that killed as many as 1 million people, carried out an air war that indiscriminately pulverized civilian targets from 15,000 feet in Serbia, and bombed a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that produced medications for half the country. Bush the Lesser invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama continued both of those wars, as well as dramatically expanding the drone assassination program in as many as seven countries.

So I beg to differ with Blow and anyone else who claims the presidency deserves respect. Any institution or position that permits such illegal and immoral actions unchecked should be eradicated and replaced with some alternative that does not.

Liberal Clinton defender Matt Yglesias argues that from a historical perspective, Trump is uniquely dangerous. “(P)ast presidents,” Yglesias writes, “have simply been restrained by restraint. By a belief that there are certain things one simply cannot try or do.”

It is hard to take such vacuous proclamations with a straight face. As we have seen, every single American president since at least WWII has engaged in serious violations of international and domestic law to cause death, destruction and misery across the world, from murdering individuals without due process to unleashing two nuclear bombs on civilian populations in a defeated country that was seeking to surrender.

When Trump assumes the presidency, he will inherit a frightening surveillance/military/incarceration apparatus that includes a targeted killing program; a vast NSA domestic and international spying network; a death squad (the Joint Special Operations Command); and an extralegal system for indefinite kidnapping and imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay.

Partisans see a problem only when the presidency is in the “wrong” hands. If Obama is at the helm, liberals are fine with unconstitutional mass surveillance or killing an American citizen without charge or trial every now and then. Conservatives trusted Bush to warrantlessly surveill Americans, but were outraged at the Snowden revelations.

Principled opponents recognize that no one should be trusted with illegitimate authority. The hand-wringing and hyperventilation by liberals about the dangers of a Trump presidency ring hollow and hypocritical.

American presidents long ago became the equivalent of elected monarchs, beyond the democratic control of the those they purportedly serve. The occupant of the office is able to substitute his own judgments and whims for a universally applicable set of laws and limits on the exercise of power. It is what Dolores Vek describes as “actually existing fascism.” Both parties have contributed to it, the media has normalized it, and the public has accepted its creation and continued existence without rebelling against it. It’s time to stop treating the presidency itself with respect and start actively delegitimizing it.