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18.2.05

America's all-star torture team: John Negroponte takes the floor

The president of the United States has nominated John Negroponte, current "ambassador" to Iraq and former accessory to widespread torture and political repression in Latin America, to head the most powerful intelligence operation in the history of the world.

The history of this cretin has been covered elsewhere (e.g., here is a short synopsis). Suffice it to say here that anyone who gets in the way is fair game for him: guerillas, suspected guerillas, peasants, nuns, passers-by, it doesn't matter.

Negroponte joins with Alberto Gonzales, the US's first "torture attorney general", on what will surely be recognized in the future as the greatest assemblage of torture advocates and practitioners since the Nazi period in Germany. They, and probably many other lower-level functionaries, are in turn backed up by academics and other apologists who are working tirelessly to promote the general societal acceptability of torture - for example, Harvard's "Torture Professor" Alan Dershowitz.

People like Dershowitz have the function of providing legal and "moral" rationales for the policies implemented at the political level. They do not, strictly speaking, make torture possible - it would and does happen without them. However, they enable it by making it seem less severe than it is and, in fact, "a necessary evil". The widespread and consistent application of torture, therefore, does depend on these "peaceful" and "democratic" advocates.

We are at a point where officials do not even bother to try and hide the general application of torture by the US; it is well into the public domain by now. The Guardian today has a long and excellent article on official US torture abroad and Britain's role in providing a precedent for it. The details are all there: beatings, sodomy, threats of death. The article, notably, also touches upon the ineffectiveness of torture in getting useful information, perhaps the main argument employed by people who like seeing others suffer:

Violence towards the prisoner, or humiliation of the kind practised in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, was ruled out. "Never strike a man," wrote Robin "Tin-Eye" Stephens, the monocled commander of Camp 020, in his secret advice to interrogators [during WWII]. "For one thing it is the act of a coward. For another, it is unintelligent, for the spy will give an answer to please, an answer to escape punishment. And having given a false answer, all else depends upon the false premise."

...

In late 2001 and early 2002, when the pro-torture lobby in the US was in full cry, the case of Abdul Hakim Murad, arrested in Manila in 1995, was often cited as justification. According to the story popularised in the US, torture by the Philippines police drew confessions from Murad which revealed a plot to blow up 11 US aircraft over the Pacific and led the FBI to captured Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, Murad's co-conspirator and the man behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York. Both men are now serving life sentences in US prisons.

In fact, while the plot and the torture were real enough, the notion that the torture helped save lives is bogus. In an investigation the Philippines journalists Marites Vitug and Glenda Gloria found that Yousef was actually caught after he visited his dentist in Pakistan. He had left his dentist's address in the conspiratorial flat. As for the aircraft plot, the information came from a computer found in the same flat.

Murad's torture may have cast its bane beyond tortured and torturers. The recent report of the 9/11 commission drew heavily on still-classified transcripts of interrogations with the three dozen or so most senior suspected Bin Laden associates captured and held by the US at secret locations around the world, particularly Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Yousef's uncle, thought to be the chief architect of the 9/11 attacks. Under interrogation, he seems to have talked freely about Murad - and contradicted almost everything Murad told the Philippines police.


Orwell said it best 60 years ago: the point of torture is torture.

Returning to Negroponte and how he fits in to our budding torture establishment, we find that there are other enablers at work besides the academics: journalists, who provide the link between the officials responsible for torture and their academic allies, on the one hand, and the public on the other.

This dynamic is apparent in this gushing WaPo "analysis" of Negroponte and the "challenges" he faces in his role as intelligence czar. In the entire article, there is not a single quote from anyone critical of Negroponte. Indeed, the character witnesses are former colleagues, friends, and others with only nice things to say about this man (the authors, Dana Priest and Robin Wright, must think that the two small paragraphs in this Walter Pincus article are sufficient background for Negroponte's criminal activities - no need to muss their article up with tales of the "wet stuff").

In addition to the hagiographic nature of this article, the character witnesses are a poor choice. One of these sources is a former CIA official by the name of "Dewey" Clarridge. Priest and Wright quote Clarridge as saying that "He probably has pretty good insights into covert action, what it can and can't do... Covert action is not an end in itself, but part of your total toolbox." Fine words - but what else is in Clarridge's "toolbox"?

In an exhaustive 5 minute search on the internet, I turned up a few interesting tidbits (i.e., reasons to doubt Clarridge's morals and ethics), as well as indications of his "toolset". This article by Robert Parry contains a few:

The CIA official who engineered the covert war in Nicaragua has disclosed that an original goal of the operation was to "start killing Cubans" who were aiding the leftist Sandinista government.

In his new book, A Spy for All Seasons, former CIA official Duane Clarridge acknowledges that "my plan, stated so bluntly, undoubtedly sounds harsh." But Clarridge defends the bloody objective as necessary to protect inhabitants of neighboring El Salvador from supposed Sandinista-sponsored massacres.

"Ask the Salvadoran civilians who watched their villages burn and their children die what harsh is," argues Clarridge in justifying the contra war. "The Sandinistas were literally getting away with murder because no one could find a politically acceptable way to stop them."
...

Despite a few frank admissions, Clarridge's autobiography continues a pattern of former Reagan administration officials rationalizing their actions in Central America in self-serving memoirs.

Typical of the distortions is Clarridge's argument that the contra war was justified because the Sandinistas were responsible for burning down Salvadoran villages and killing Salvadoran children. In fact, it was the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military that carried out those scorched-earth campaigns and the slaughter of thousands of Salvadoran civilians with suspected leftist sympathies.

In December 1981, for example, the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion swept through northeast El Salvador. Around the town of El Mozote, the troops rounded up about 800 unarmed peasants of all ages. The Atlacatl soldiers first massacred the men, then the women and finally the children, some of whom were bludgeoned and then burned alive.


So we see that a) supporting large-scale murder, and b) re-writing history are necessary parts of Clarridge's "toolbox". There's more:

But Casey and Reagan wanted more results, and a harried Clarridge was wracking his brains in January 1984. "I arrived home from the Agency early enough for once to do something other than fall into bed," Clarridge writes. "I remember sitting with a glass of gin on the rocks, smoking a cigar (of course), and pondering my dilemma, when it hit me. Sea mines were the solution. ...To this day I wonder why I didn't think of it sooner."

When Clarridge shared his brainstorm about mining Nicaragua's harbors with other Reagan insiders, he recalled that the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Soon, the CIA's UCLAs were salting the international sea lanes through Nicaragua's harbors with explosive mines. When Sandinista defense forces fired on one CIA boat, the CIA's attack helicopters swooped into action, firing rockets at Nicaraguan coastal batteries.

As with the earlier raids, the contras were assigned only a public relations role. The CIA ordered FDN spokesmen to take credit for the mining operations and to warn foreign ships away from delivering supplies to the ports.

But the mining didn't succeed in frightening off all commercial shipping, as Clarridge had hoped. Many freighters simply ignored the warnings and plowed ahead into the harbors. The CIA's mines began exploding and damaging ships from around the world. In an undeclared war, the United States had taken to endangering crewmen and cargo in international commerce. A political furor erupted and an angry Congress stopped all CIA assistance to the contras.

Still, Clarridge and his comrades saw nothing wrong with what they had done. "We were proud of the mining," Clarridge writes.


We can add c) destruction of private property from around the world and endangering the lives of ordinary, civilian seamen to this "toolbox". But there's still more:

After Congress passed the 1984 Boland amendment prohibiting the use of federal funds to wage war in Nicaragua, Clarridge became chief of the CIA's European Division. As a result, he writes, he was only peripherally involved in the subsequent project of Colonel Oliver North and others to sell armaments to Iran and to use the profits to support the Contras in Nicaragua. Whatever the extent of Clarridge's involvement, it was sufficient to get him indicted for lying to Congress about his alleged knowledge of the activities.

Damn... we're going to have to add still another tool to the box: d) lying to the American people about it all.

But none of this seems to matter to Priest and Wright - Clarridge is blandly described as "chief of the CIA's Central American Task Force from 1981 to 1984, who worked with Negroponte when he was ambassador to Honduras", and all of this history might as well never happened. What exactly makes this shithead a good character witness? Indeed, an endorsement from Clarridge would seem to be more of a comment on why Negroponte should not be confirmed rather than why he should be. But to say that Priest and Wright are not taking their jobs seriously is not correct. On the contrary, when we realize that they do not function here as journalists, but rather as enablers of power (Orwell again: power is the power to make another human being suffer), then it is clear that they take their jobs very seriously. I don't even want to think about the backgrounds of the other "character witnesses" cited by Priest and Wright.

So, barring a major moral and ethical turnaround by Congress, Negroponte will become one of the most powerful people in the world, with assistance from academics and journalists who alternately endorse, minimize, or erase from the historical record such unpleasantries as torture. Don't say you weren't warned.


17.2.05

Congress limits class-action lawsuits; bankruptcy relief next

The class war stops for no one, and Congress is showing a real aptitude for prosecuting it.

First, we have severe limitations on the ability of consumers to file class-action lawsuits. Supposedly designed to stop "frivolous lawsuits", what it will actually do is help prevent consumers from holding coporate offenders accountable for their dangerous products.

One Republican had this to say:

"These out-of-control class action lawsuits are killing jobs, they're hurting small business people who can't afford to defend themselves and they're hurting consumers who have to pay more for products," said Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla.

But when we look at the language of the bill itself, "small businesses" do not stand to gain from this new law:

(4) A district court shall decline to exercise jurisdiction under paragraph (2)-- ... over a class action in which ... (I) greater than two-thirds of the members of all proposed plaintiff classes in the aggregate are citizens of the State in which the action was originally filed ... (II) at least 1 defendant is a defendant ... who is a citizen of the State in which the action was originally filed; and (III) principal injuries resulting from the alleged conduct or any related conduct of each defendant were incurred in the State in which the action was originally filed; and ... two-thirds or more of the members of all proposed plaintiff classes in the aggregate, and the primary defendants, are citizens of the State in which the action was originally filed.

Since consumers harmed by an at-fault "small business" are reasonably likely to be from the same state in which such a business is located, it doesn't seem that the new law will be offering them any kind of bolstered protection against "frivolous lawsuits". The only organizations that really stand to benefit from this hand-out are large, interstate and international corporations. Screw you, mom and pop.

I'd also like to note that the vote for this bill was 279-149, or 65%. Looks like some of our Democratic friends helped out with this one.

Next, there's a bill, likely to become law before long, that will make it much more difficult for consumers to avoid debt through bankruptcy.

Lobbyists for the credit card industry say the legislation is needed to close loopholes that make it too easy for people to wipe out their debts when they could repay some of them.

Consumer advocates say it would allow some rich debtors to continue to hide wealth through homeownership while bankruptcy relief would be denied to many people with low or moderate incomes who have fallen on hard times because of illness, job loss or divorce.


The revival of the good old debtors' prison can't be that far behind.

So a note to the lower- and middle-class Bush voters out there: when young Tommy dies in Iraq or comes home mentally disturbed, when you find out that you can't hold a corporation accountable for that cancer you've developed from their products, and when you can't escape the debt you've piled up, just remember who is responsible. Don't blame the liberals, married homosexuals, radical Islamists, or even George Bush.

Blame yourself.


10.2.05

Bribes for Poland

Or a "solidarity initiative", as the White House likes to think of it. Or a "financial inducement", as the writer of this FT article delicately put it.

Or, speaking a little more historically, "hiring mercenaries", a time-honored imperial tradition. Just a few examples: the Assyrians hired various kings in their imperial periphery, notably North Syria (although one of these kings, Kilamuwa of Sam'al, appears to have engaged in a little historical revisionism, claiming that he hired the king of Assyria, not the other way around [historical revisionism - it never goes out of style!]); the Roman employment of formerly "barbarian", "Romanized" groups is reasonably well known; and, closer to home, Great Britain used Hessian (German) soldiers as part of its doomed efforts to prevent the United States from becoming independent.

But the money isn't what's really important - really:

"Poland has been a fantastic ally because the president and the people of Poland love freedom," Mr Bush said.

See, Poland isn't involved because of any money, or "financial inducements", or anything like that. It's simply the good feeling (love, actually) that one gets from being involved in a project associated with "freedom" that keeps the Poles in Iraq. The money is strictly to, uhh, cover any costs that may arise from carrying around so much love in the Polish people's hearts. Right.

Anyway, if Congress rubber stamps Bush's bribe, and if Kwasniewski accepts it, Poland (and the other countries on the receiving end of the "solidarity initiative") can take its place in history as a bit player in the effort to prop up yet another empire.


7.2.05

On Language
(Let me preface my modest proposal with the caveat that I am a believer in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Whereas the details and the extent to which language shapes cognition is under intense scholarly debate, the basic premise is by and large accepted—and I tend believe that the power of language is very strong, indeed. If you don't agree with this basic premise, then the following will have very little appeal. Otherwise, please read on.)

In popular American culture, over the last decade, but greatly accelerated in the last few years, we have seen a near abandonment of the words "press" and "journalism" in favor of "media." Often, this takes the form of "the media," implying a monolithic entity (as does "the press," but as opposed to "the press corps" or "journalists," which refer to groups of individuals). Moreover, "the media" usually takes singular verbs (e.g., "the media is screwing our country"), further modifying and diluting the meaning of the word. If one uses its singular form, medium, then the question is begged "which medium?" Call in radio talk shows? Glossy news weeklies? Oil on canvas? But used as a monolithic singular, "the media" subsumes so many shades of meaning as to reduce itself to near meaninglessness.

This imprecise use of the term, in my opinion, has allowed for the banal Fox-ification of our major press outlets. Nowadays, very few people speak of "the press," using instead the term "the media" as if it were synonymous. It's not! "The press" implies a physicality to the dissemination of information, and "journalism" implies professionalism (or, at the very least, a craft). "Media," on the other hand, implies either nonspecific modes of transmission or, since the rise of computers, flashy graphics. By calling journalists "the media" we permit them to focus on form over content. We permit them to ignore the meaning of their messages. We permit them to be intellectually lazy—and this laziness is a major component of the problems we face societally. It underlies our inability to address topics intelligently, and it simplifies the jobs of the professional propagandists by blurring the lines between legitimate news, opinion, and outright lies.

So my request is this: stop using the word "media" except in either a technical sense or as an epithet (a la "media whores"). If enough people reclaim the meaning of the word, wresting it back from its bland non-specificity, then maybe we, as a country, will start to remember what the press is supposed to be doing. And then maybe more of the press will remember, too. And then maybe journalists will actually start doing their jobs again. And then maybe we can climb out of this hole we've fallen into. Since direct engagement with the press—calling them out on their mistakes, missteps, and lies—seems to have little effect, maybe a subtle shifting of the linguistic landscape will do the trick. It certainly can't hurt to try.


4.2.05

One bite-sized take on the Social Security crisis

Some liberals are calling for good, yet easy-to-understand, arguments against Bush's proposed PRIVATIZATION (all caps following MAXSPEAK style guidelines) of social security. Here's one by Dave Lindorff:

Moreover, while the Right talks ominously of a generational conflict between older retirees collecting pensions and younger workers paying the taxes to cover them, in fact, those retirees are the parents of many of those workers (not everyone has children, but everyone has parents!). And how many people complain about the size of their parents' Social Security checks, or would really want to have to be personally responsible for taking care of their elderly parents' finances? There really is considerable support even among young workers, for a secure and generous retirement system, because people don't just vote their own interests; they vote their parents' and grandparents' interests, too.

...

... here's something the president has not told people: if the cap on income subject to Social Security taxation, currently set at $90,000 in wages, were eliminated so all income was subject to the tax, there would be no shortfall in the trust fund--not in 2042, not in 2075, never.


This is true: eliminating the cap on wages should be one of the main counterproposals for the PRIVATIZATION scheme. But, of course, if Democrats did that, Republicans would level the charge of "class warfare", which invariably causes Democrats to slink away with their tails between their legs.

But I don't think we'll be seeing many references to Lindorff's piece by our liberal colleagues. Since Lindorff's piece is on Counterpunch, people going there to read it run the risk of also reading articles by people like Ward Churchill and Gilad Atzmon, which might lead to all sorts of unpleasant repercussions for bland, yet "reasonable", worldviews.


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