Monday, February 23, 2015

Against mugshots

Photos of the state's latest catch don't belong in a free press, or so I argue in a piece for Truthout. Check it out.

When it's wrong to keep your word

Edward Snowden was trusted with keeping a secret. When he took a job working as a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), he voluntarily took an oath pledging to not divulge classified information about the US government’s electronic surveillance programs. In the end, he couldn’t keep that oath. He broke it.

Good for him.

Many had access to the same information Snowden had, including members of Congress who had the platform to do something about it -- but none did. That’s a shame, because if any member of the political establishment had the courage to inform the public about what was being done in their name (and with their money), we would have known about the NSA’s gobbling up of telephone metadata several years ago. We would have known that the US government can tap into a Skype call or email thread with nothing more than a broad authorization from justices on a secret court that approved a full 100 percent of the surveillance requests they received in 2010.

But we don’t have people like that in Congress. We put people like that in prison.

Oath keepers

“Mr. Snowden broke the law,” Dick Durbin, the second highest ranking member of the Senate, recently told reporters. Never mind the wrongdoing Snowden exposed. What was important to liberal Democrat from Illinois was that Snowden -- “a man of limited education and limited life experience” -- wronged those whose wrongdoing he swore he’d take to the grave. “They told him, we will give you access to the most important and delicate classified information in America,” said Durbin. “You gotta take an oath that you will never disclose it. We take the same oath, members of Congress. He broke his oath. He committed a crime. He needs to pay a price for it.”

Durbin, of all people, should know better.

On April 25, 2007, the Illinois lawmaker took to the Senate floor to reveal a shocking secret: As a member of the Intelligence Committee during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he knew the Bush administration was lying.

“I would read the headlines in the paper in the morning and watch the television newscasts and shake my head because, you see, just a few hundred feet away from here in a closed room, carefully guarded, the Intelligence Committee was meeting on a daily basis for top-secret briefings about the information we were receiving, and the information we had in the Intelligence Committee was not the same information being given to the American public,” he said.

In particular, Durbin highlighted the case of Iraq’s “aluminum tubes,” which the Bush administration regularly claimed could have no other purpose than to deliver a nuclear warhead to the heartland, despite strong objections from US government scientists. Inside the committee room, this disagreement was acknowledged. Outside the room, however, “members of the administration were telling the American people to be fearful of mushroom-shaped clouds.”

“I was angry about it,” the senator continued. But, “Frankly, I couldn't do much about it,” he maintained, “because, in the Intelligence Committee, we are sworn to secrecy.”

No courage in Congress

Durbin could have come forward and announced the White House was lying to the American public. He could have dared the Bush administration to prosecute a sitting senator. But he kept his oath; he kept a promise with liars to keep their lies a secret. And then hundreds of thousands of people died.
Durbin isn’t the only senator who has kept silent when he witnessed something wrong, of course. There are 99 others.

Speaking on the Senate floor last year, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden warned the US government was relying on a secret interpretation of the law to justify its broad surveillance programs “should never be a secret from the American people.” In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, he also said that “Justice Department officials have -- on a number of occasions -- made what we believe are misleading statements pertaining to the government’s interpretation of surveillance law.”

But Wyden kept secret what they lied about. Why? Because he took an oath. As The New York Times reported, the senator “had to be content to sit in a special sealed room, soak in information that they said appalled and frightened them, then offer veiled messages that were largely ignored.”

Telling the truth works

When Snowden broke his oath and leaked evidence of the NSA’s appalling and frightening surveillance capabilities, the evidence wasn’t ignored. It made headlines around the globe. Rather than working within a system designed to stifle dissent, he went directly to the public. And it worked: everyone is talking about it.

In reasonable doses, loyalty can be a good thing. But when loyalty to power comes at the public's expense, it is a character flaw, not a virtue, something both Snowden and Chelsea Manning before him recognized despite their “limited education and limited life experience.” In fact, that's probably why they did what they did. Neither had been conditioned by years in Washington to believe there's anything honorable about keeping an oath with a liar. They knew shutting their mouths would only make them accessories.

Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning would make terrible senators. For that, we should be thankful.

An earlier version of this essay was posted by another website quite a while ago. I prefer this one.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Trend Watch: Former feds smearing antiwar activists

Coleen Rowley spent more than two decades with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. What's she up to now? Attacking antiwar activists by suggesting they're imperialists for being too critical of Syria's hereditary dictator.

In a piece published by both the Huffington Post and Consortium News, “Selling 'Peace Groups on US-Led Wars,” Rowley and co-author Margaret Sarfehjooy conclude that a group of Quaker pacifists in Minnesota – the “Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria,” or CISPOS, which is part of “Friends for a Nonviolent World” – is part of a campaign to promote democracy, “U.S. militarism style,” because it hosted “speakers and essayists with strong ties to the violent uprising to topple the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, resulting in a war that has already taken some 200,000 lives.”

Observe the language here: the initially peaceful 2011 uprising in Syria is characterized as “violent” (a curious critique for a revolutionary leftist) and to blame for all the violence followed; the brutal crackdown by a state armed with modern fighter jets and crude, indiscriminate barrel bombs is left unmentioned, lest the authors themselves be accused of spreading propaganda for a war against a regime with which the White House is currently coordinating its air strikes on Syria. Rowley and her coauthor strongly insinuate that the peaceniks whom they are tarring as imperialists hosted speakers with ties to the US government, but the most they can come up with is that the State Department has given grants to some opposition activists – it's done the same in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia – and that the ex-husband of one woman who spoke to the group was once, nearly a decade ago, in the same room as Dick Cheney. All they have is innuendo and a series of links to tangentially related evidence that isn't really evidence of anything that undermines the argument that "this Assad guy seems like a bad dude," ultimately convincing only to those who skim articles that make arguments with which they are already inclined to agree.

There is a glaring omission, however, which was noted by commentator Louis Proyect: That just a few weeks before they were smeared by a former federal agent (right eyebrow status: hella fuckin' raised), the imperialists of CISPOS were promoting a protest “against US-led Coalition airstrikes on Syria.” Those strikes, like the Assad regime's record of mass murder, are not mentioned in Rowley's article, which might make those inclined to engage in a conspiratorial analysis go: Hmm. But one need not think the moon landing was directed by Stanley Kubrick to think that's really weird.

Indeed, let's think about this: Imperial powers are actively bombing Syria in the name of a U.S.-led “war on terror” that Assad has repeatedly expressed a desire in joining himself – he tortured people for George W. Bush and long ago labelled all who oppose him “terrorists," while the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, in The New York Times, has called for “capitalizing on Mr. Assad's anti-jihadi instincts” – and a former fed decides now is the time to go after those who oppose both bombing Syria and rehabilitating its brutal (but secular and beardless) dictator as a potential ally of the West? Strange, one might say. Makes ya think.

This isn't the first time a former federal agent has decided to weigh in on Syria by smearing as “imperialists” members of an antiwar movement they were quite late in joining themselves. In December 2011, former FBI agent Sibel Edmonds wrote of a “very troubling switch of position and changes at” The issue, in her view: The site's coverage of Syria, which by virtue of its being insufficiently apologist, was determined to be “MSM produced war propaganda,” a development – a site called AntiWar learning to love the bomb and go pro-war – she blamed on “mystery-undisclosed funders.”

“I have researchers who are compiling data on their recent changes,” wrote Edmonds, “and running background checks on their new team members who have successfully altered this once truly valuable source of information.” There have been no updates since, presumably meaning that the investigation is still ongoing.

Now, is there a conspiracy to co-opt the antiwar movement by targeting those in it who refuse to go along with the rehabilitation of a butcher who U.S. elites appear to now view as a lesser evil? Yeah, probably not, but regardless: the divisive and disingenuous way these former agents of the state have engaged those who -- by the way -- were on to the whole “antiwar” thing back while they were still serving empire suggests that, perhaps, the antiwar left has been a little too welcoming of those who haven't quite given up the with-us-or-against-us mentality of a federal agent. At the very least, we should be viewing their work with as much cynical skepticism as we do the work of other, lesser known freelance writers for web-based publications. And while their transformations are very likely genuine, the Left has every reason to distrust anyone who ever freely associated with the FBI.

Amusingly, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, with which Rowley is now associated, knows there's a good reason for that general policy of distrust, having been targeted by the FBI for allegedly providing “material support” for terrorism, which took the form of expressing solidarity with the victims of war -- like millions of Syrians, for instance, who are currently freezing in refugee camps across the Middle East. As Freedom Road's Tom Burke told me, the FBI infiltrated the organization during a rare moment of unity in the often divisive world of antiwar activism, the bureau having long sought to sow sectarian division on the left (to that end, the FBI's woman on the inside would often attack her comrades for being insufficiently militant, masquerading as the only real revolutionary in the room). Around the same time, Brandon Darby, an agent provocateur on the payroll of the FBI, helped entrap activists at the 2006 Republican Convention in Minnesota by encouraging them to set off incendiary devices. One of his favorite approaches for dealing with those who questioned the wisdom of his tactics? “Pointing fingers at and 'snitch-jacketing' other people, accusing them of being cops, FBI agents, etc.,” according to Lisa Fithian, one of the many activists he betrayed.

In the case of Syria, the trend embraced by Rowley and Edmonds before her is to “imperial-jacket” those who think maybe the opposition to Bashad Assad has something to do with the policies of Bashar Assad, not just the meddling of outside agitators; rather than engage in good faith those who may have a different opinion, and whose years of antiwar activism ought to buy them the benefit of the doubt, Rowley and others like her have chosen to paint them as tools of empire – perhaps willing ones, they not so subtly insinuate – at a time, ironically, when the empire is busy bombing Syria in the name of fighting terrorism, not Bashar Assad. They may not be in the pay of the federal government, but they're still policing the antiwar left and the effect of their work is the same, turning leftists against each other when they should be working together to fight the common enemy: those who would have us believe cruise missiles are an effective means of addressing a humanitarian crisis.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Feds make awful friends

My latest piece for Salon is on the US government's practice of encouraging vulnerable people to be terrible. Check it out.