Suck it


For Glenn Greenwald the news that the NSA has not only been spying on Benjamin Netanyahu but members of Congress who spoke to him, most likely about blocking the Iran deal, is like a glass of Veuve Clicqot. On the bleating of former representative Jane Harman a few years ago and colleague Pete Hoekstra’s newfound respect for the civil liberties of Americans:

In January 2014, I debated Rep. Hoekstra about NSA spying and he could not have been more mocking and dismissive of the privacy concerns I was invoking. “Spying is a matter of fact,” he scoffed. As Andrew Krietz, the journalist who covered that debate, reported, Hoekstra “laughs at foreign governments who are shocked they’ve been spied on because they, too, gather information” — referring to anger from German and Brazilian leaders. As TechDirt noted, “Hoekstra attacked a bill called the RESTORE Act, that would have granted a tiny bit more oversight over situations where (you guessed it) the NSA was collecting information on Americans.”

But all that, of course, was before Hoekstra knew that he and his Israeli friends were swept up in the spying of which he was so fond. Now that he knows that it is his privacy and those of his comrades that has been invaded, he is no longer cavalier about it. In fact, he’s so furious that this long-time NSA cheerleader is actually calling for the criminal prosecution of the NSA and Obama officials for the crime of spying on him and his friends.

This pattern — whereby political officials who are vehement supporters of the Surveillance State transform overnight into crusading privacy advocates once they learn that they themselves have been spied on — is one that has repeated itself over and over. It has been seen many times as part of the Snowden revelations, but also well before that.

The other point: at the moment it’s not illegal for Congress to undermine the president’s diplomatic efforts. As a result, the White House will probably face hearings in the new year.

Spouting the phrase ‘collateral damage’

The American airstrike on an Afghan hospital did not produce an edifying effect on the media’s coverage. Glenn Greenwald fumes:

This obfuscation tactic is the standard one the U.S. and Israel both use whenever they blow up civilian structures and slaughter large numbers of innocent people with airstrikes. Citizens of both countries are well-trained – like some tough, war-weary, cigar-chomping general – to reflexively spout the phrase “collateral damage,” which lets them forget about the whole thing and sleep soundly, telling themselves that these sorts of innocent little mistakes are inevitable even among the noblest and most well-intentioned war-fighters, such as their own governments. The phrase itself is beautifully technocratic: it requires no awareness of how many lives get extinguished, let alone acceptance of culpability. Just invoke that phrase and throw enough doubt on what happened in the first 48 hours and the media will quickly lose interest.

Charting the tergiversations of the story, Greenwald ignores the excuse that I’m sure ombudsmen will raise (and maybe have already): we don’t know all the facts, the “situation” is changing, bear with us. On the contrary: Greenwald contends that the behavior of the NYT and CNN is an indictment of the “process” by which the killing of non-Americans is covered. Pentagon experts, anonymous sources — I expected a Judith Miller byline. Coming after a week when Barack Obama, purple with frustration at adamantine congressional resistance to gun policy reform, was at his stumbling best, the death in Afghanistan demonstrates how we can support the killing of innocents here and abroad.

About Ahmed Mohammed


There are all sorts of obvious, extreme harms that come from being a nation at permanent war. Your country ends up killing huge numbers of innocent people all over the world. Vast resources are drained away from individuals and programs of social good into the pockets of weapons manufacturers. Core freedoms are inexorably and inevitably eroded — seized — in its name. The groups being targeted are marginalized and demonized in order to maximize fear levels and tolerance for violence.

But perhaps the worst of all harms is how endless war degrades the culture and populace of the country that perpetrates it. You can’t have a government that has spent decades waging various forms of war against predominantly Muslim countries — bombing seven of them in the last six years alone — and then act surprised when a Muslim 14-year-old triggers vindictive fear and persecution because he makes a clock for school. That’s no more surprising than watching carrots sprout after you plant carrot seeds in fertile ground and then carefully water them. It’s natural and inevitable, not surprising or at all difficult to understand.

I saw this firsthand on Thursday when a student, whom I didn’t have in class, said that Ahmed, regardless of the circumstances, deserved the heightened scrutiny because he was Muslim, and weren’t Muslims involved in the 9-11 attacks? Well, I countered, two of the Bush administration’s top men were evangelical Christians, specifically John Ashcroft. Two of the men responsible for the theorizing and planning (such as it was) of the war were Jewish: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Chair of the Defense Policy Board Richard Perle. We destroyed a country for the sake of an ideal. I’m not creating an equivalence so much as demonstrating where messianistic policies take us.

‘A Good Journalist must pretend they have no opinions…’

This morning’s Washington Post:


In thirteen words, we see a classic example of false equivalence, abetted by reporters conscripted by phony both-sides-do-it twaddle. Helen Thomas got the same treatment during the Bush administration. Because her questions didn’t defer to the authority of a Cabinet secretary or vice president, she got ridiculed by her sometime colleagues. From the WaPo:

While the 89-year-old Thomas is renowned as a trailblazer who aggressively questioned 10 presidents — including President Obama, whom she pressed last month on Afghanistan — her hostility toward Israel has been no secret within the Beltway. Though she gave up her correspondent’s job a decade ago, she retained her front-row briefing-room seat, even as colleagues sometimes rolled their eyes at her obvious biases.

“She asked questions no hard-news reporter would ask, that carried an agenda and reflected her point of view, and there were some reporters who felt that was inappropriate,” said CBS correspondent Mark Knoller. “As a columnist she felt totally unbound from any of the normal policies of objectivity that every other reporter in the room felt compelled to abide by, and sometimes her questions were embarrassing to other reporters.”

Or as Glenn Greenwald wrote:

A Good Journalist must pretend they have no opinions, feign utter indifference to the outcome of political debates, never take any sides, be utterly devoid of any human connection to or passion for the issues they cover, and most of all, have no role to play whatsoever in opposing even the most extreme injustices.

Thus: you do not call torture “torture” if the U.S. government falsely denies that it is; you do not say that the chronic shooting of unarmed black citizens by the police is a major problem since not everyone agrees that it is; and you do not object when a major presidential candidate stokes dangerous nativist resentments while demanding mass deportation of millions of people. These are the strictures that have utterly neutered American journalism, drained it of its vitality and core purpose, and ensured that it does little other than serve those who wield the greatest power and have the highest interest in preserving the status quo.

If I wrote, “A columnist is not a journalist,” reporters would protest, correctly. David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, and Jonathan Chait are journalists. Asking a source to explain a point of view and refuting him, as Ramos did Trump, is journalism.

As for the piece whose headline I screen shot, he also wrote the one-sentence paragraph: “For Ramos, conflict has become a career.” Even when including chunks of Ramos’ experiences with childhood poverty, Michael Miller can’t resist banalizing him.

The etymology of terrorism


Although the column is about the arrest of animal rights activists charged with domestic terrorism for releasing minks held in farms, Glenn Greenwald concentrates, again, on the selective means to which law enforcement puts that horrible ism:

But there’s something deeper driving this persecution. American elites are typically willing to tolerate political protest as long as it remains constrained, controlled, and fundamentally respectful of the rules imposed by institutions of authority — i.e., as long as it remains neutered and impotent. When protest movements adhere to those constraints, they are not only often ineffective, but more so, they can unwittingly serve as a false testament to the freedom of the political process and the generosity of its rulers (they let us speak out: see, we’re free!). That kind of marginal, modest “protest” often ends up strengthening the process it believes it is subverting.

When, by contrast, a movement transgresses those limitations and starts to become effective in impeding the injustices it targets — particularly when preserving those injustices is valuable to the most powerful — that’s when it has to be stopped at all costs, including criminalizing it with the harshest possible legal weapons. This is the dynamic that explains the emerging campaign in the West to literally criminalize the previously marginalized BDS movement designed to stop Israeli occupation: It’s gaining too much ground, becoming too effective, and thus must be banned, its proponents and leaders threatened with prosecution. The fear that the animal rights movement is growing stronger and will succeed in exposing the horrifying realities of these industries’ practices is driving the persecution to the point of declaring it to be — and formally punishing it as — terrorism.

Ask Chelsea Manning and John Kiriakou, one in prison and the other released after a thirty-month sentence. Ask Thomas Drake, who’s life was destroyed.

Iranians: cautious optimism

“American journalists, who pride themselves on ‘neutrality” and “balance,’ should spend some time considering how much of a platform they give to Israelis and how little they give to Iranians,” Glenn Greenwald writes in a column assessing the Iran deal. The people whom we want to cripple with sanctions and on whom we want to drop bombs escape mention. He records a couple of elite Iranian opinions, for example Rutgers professor Hooshang Amirahmadi, an Iranian-American:

To the extent this deal accomplishes that, he said today in an interview with The Intercept, he supports it, though if it ends up confined only to nuclear issues, “then it will be very bad for both countries.” Amirahmadi added that the mood in Tehran is, in general, “very happy.” Ordinary Iranians, he said, “obviously like what has happened” primarily because “they expect money to arrive, which will help the economy and create jobs.”

But he noted several critical caveats. To begin with, expectations among ordinary Iranians are very high: they expect substantial economic improvement, and if that fails to materialize, Amirahmadi sees a likelihood of serious political instability, which “could go in a terrible direction for Iran.” He pointed out that for many years, the Iranian government has, with some good reason, blamed the U.S., Europe and their sanctions regime for the economic suffering of Iranians. “They no longer have that pretext, which means they have to deliver,” he said.


As for outright Iranian opposition to the deal, Professor Amirahmadi said that it was largely confined to “conservatives,” by which he means “fundamental Islamists who are now the only real hard-core nationalists in the country.” But he also said that deal opponents “have some valid points.” For one, Iran (unlike Israel) is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and as such has the absolute right to enrich uranium at any levels; “there’d be no reason to join the NPT except to get that right, so the fact that this deal ‘lets’ Iran do what they already had the right to do, at lesser levels, is not really a ground for celebration,” he said. He also pointed out that “the money that will flow to Iran under this deal is not a gift: this is Iran’s money that has been frozen and otherwise blocked.” As a result, he said, the hard-liners have a valid objection to viewing these provisions as real concessions.

The last idea — “this is Iran’s money that has been frozen and otherwise blocked” — is one, I imagine, that doesn’t keep Tom Cotton and John McCain from a good night’s rest after hours of grueling labor in cable news green rooms.

Charlie Hebdo redux


For a semester I’ve co-taught a class in which we ask students to examine rhetorical strategies used by media, politicians, and groups that want to start revolutions. The Charlie Hebdo attacks happened a week into the new semester. Without prompting several students made Glenn Greenwald’s point in their capstone projects:

Q: You’ve written a lot about the controversy over the PEN “Freedom of Expression Courage Award” being given to Charlie Hebdo, which has inspired a lot of writers to speak out in opposition. Why do you think this story is so important?

A: It’s actually kind of a complex issue. I think any decent person is torn by the fact that what happened to the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists is obviously vile and repugnant. They are obviously people who were exercising what should be their right of free speech … and they were killed because of it. And that’s a bad and dangerous thing.

On the other hand, the way in which that incident was seized on was designed, I think, to bolster a very tribalistic and dangerous narrative, which is that we in the West are the advanced, progressive, enlightened people and there are these kind of marauding hordes, who are primitive and violent and threatening to all things decent, called “Muslims” or “radical Islam.” And this incident was seized on to bolster that narrative as kind of propagandistically and powerfully as anything that I can recall probably since the 9/11 attack.

Katha Pollitt responds to this “narrative” stuff:

I don’t agree that Charlie is racist, and not just because Muslims are not a race. Charlie is against all forms of authoritarian religion (Le Monde analyzed ten years of Charlie’s cover stories and found far more attacks on Christianity than on Islam.) Indeed, it is blasphemous. Is that not an honorable left-wing thing to be? It used to be so, before we became so hopelessly confused about Islam: half the time we’re reminding each other that violent fundamentalists like the ones who committed the Charlie Hebdo murders are a tiny fraction of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, who are ordinary, nonviolent people of good will, and the other half of the time we talk as if the murderers are out to redress real wrongs—and understandably so, even if the target is poorly chosen. Which is it? I’m not sure that latter view serves Muslims well—it’s a bit like saying people who assassinate abortion providers represent Christians, and West Bank settlers represent Jews.

If I were to teach this class again, I’d ask students to spend time with several months worth of cartoons. Does their “context” become clearer? Do the cartoons reflect the point of view of the rightists whom the magazine often skewers?

“We’re still the greatest thing to exist!”

Glenn Greenwald needs no introduction. Edward Snowden’s famous interlocutor has spent years documenting CIA abuses. A couple of days after the Senate torture report, he talks to a reporter from his former home Salon. The most salient bits:

When I hear people argue against the anti-torture position, like Nicolle Wallace did Tuesday on “Morning Joe,” I often want to say, “Look, your fight’s not really with me right now, it’s with the Enlightenment.”

Exactly. Although, I have to say, one of the benefits of Tuesday, despite all my frustrations with the process, is that it has prevented anybody from denying that America tortured — and not just in the three cases of waterboarding. It actually has been a disinfectant of that central lie. I mean, for a long time, that was the debate; it wasn’t “Is torture good?” it was “These things aren’t torture!” Dick Cheney described [waterboarding] as dunking people’s head into water.

What was really annoying for those of us who were actually [covering] this is that the waterboarding was almost the least of it. It was the easiest case to call torture because there was a whole body of law calling waterboarding torture; but [the larger issue] was the entire regiment of techniques that they were using that clearly constituted torture — not on dozens or even hundreds but thousands of people, and not just at Guantánamo but around the world. It was a systematic regime of torture, and I think yesterday’s report has prevented that from being denied any longer.

And that’s why people like Nicolle Wallace and others are now resorting either to “Yes, we tortured, and we should have!” (which I think is a healthy thing to force them to say) or “Yes, we tortured, and we shouldn’t have, but we’re still the greatest thing ever to exist.”

I err in watching “Morning Joe” while eating my oatmeal, and, yeah, the slavishness with which his establishment guests utter the conventional line is so predictable that the Nicole Wallace freakout was actually fun: she was honest! Admit you’re a sadist and allow guests to ridicule you — it works.

The revolving door of government and lobbyists

Glenn Greenwald, co-star of Citizenfour, interviews James Risen about his new book with the self-explanatory title Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War. On record as claiming Barack Obama is the “greatest enemy to press freedom in a decade,” Risen is in a heap of trouble for refusing to testify against former spook Jeffrey Sterling; he faces possible jail time. Here’s a bit I’d forgotten about:

GREENWALD: One of the things that always amazes me—I remember that there was this reporting that was done by Wired, during the debate over whether to give immunity to the telecoms that participated in the NSA program that you uncovered. An extraordinary thing to do, to retroactively immunize the biggest companies in the United States, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller became the leading spokesman for it at the time. He was the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and there were studies showing that right around the time when he became the leading proponent of telecom immunity, AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint began donating lots of money to his campaign, they threw parties for him, but still, in the context of Jay Rockefeller—a Rockefeller—with a super safe seat in West Virginia, they were pretty trivial amounts to be able to just dominate congressional policy that way. And that was what struck me too about General Atomics. So they fund some congressional staff travel…

RISEN: You know, I don’t think that it’s the money that really does the trick. I think what really, you’ve got to look at is that all of the staffers, and all of the members of Congress are thinking about what are they going to do after they leave those jobs. The same is true for military officers. What are you going to do when you retire from the military, or from the House Intelligence Committee, or whatever? You’re going to need a job at a defense contractor. And so I think that the real incentive for a lot of these people is not to upset their potential employers in the future. The campaign contributions themselves are just tokens, as you said

Government existing for the sake of training future lobbyists and FOX News…it’s as if that’s the point.

Out to get you: Citizenfour

Hours of explanation regarding how the National Security Administration spies on Americans with the collaboration of European allies. Nervous eye flickers as the Hong Kong hotel in which he’s hiding holds a fire drill. He has to plug the room phone he’d turned off (these new phones can record conversations) and call the front desk. Finally, ready to inspect Guardian columnist and reporter Glenn Greenwald’s laptop, he throws what looks like a red curtain from his grandmother’s parlor in 1976 over his head. Someone might be spying on him at that moment. From — where? The room titters with laughter.

At that moment the NSA contractor whose crisp jargon-free English betrays traces of his North Carolinian birth, becomes likable. Not that it matters. One of director Laura Poitras’ decisions when assembling Citizenfour was to exclude biographical montages, interviews with friends, relatives, and former lovers, accompanied by music — the cliches of documentary filmmaking. This isn’t Flag Wars or The Oath, Poitras’ best known previous films. The first thing out of Snowden’s mouth when Greenwald sits across from him is an insistence on depersonalizing the stories that The Guardian and the Washington Post will publish. Greenwald, a victim himself of smear campaigns and dismissals because he doesn’t hang out with Luke Russert at Peggy Noonan’s for Sunday brunch, practically claps. What the audience sees is an articulate twenty-nine-year old in a black tee on a bed explaining the extent to which a largely unaccountable state apparatus accumulates, with a bipartisan imprimatur, credit, banking, and electronic information from Americans. No NSA, State Department, or administration apparatchiks get interviewed for the sake of a phony balance. Snowden and Greenwald in a modern Hong Kong hotel, oitras invisible behind her camera, accompanied sometimes by Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill are all the film shows for a forty or fifty-minute stretch. There is never any question about Snowden revealing himself — how long he can evade detection without his story subordinating the purloined data shapes the drama. The only moment when Citizenfour succumbs to spy novel bait happens when Snowden and a human rights lawyer try to figure out how to slip him into a United Nations facility where he can claim asylum. Replacing glasses with contacts, fussing over how much mousse he spreads into his hair, smoothing his shirt, he’s like a star readying for a E! interview, albeit with a bullseye drawn on his back.

Separating my responses to what Snowden leaked from a full accounting of Poitras’ film is hopeless. Citizenfour is a political document. Readers of this blog know them. Click on the tags. It would be agitprop if Poitras belonged to a cause, but I hesitate to call an informed citizenry taking advantage of its constitutional liberties a cause. I wish she had drawn a line between Snowden’s revelations and Wikileaks. Using the fear of terrorism as an excuse to keep the United States as financial and military hegemon is the least surprising fact to emerge from Citizenfour,

“Spying, like censorship, affects all of us to the extent it shapes who holds power and what ideas hold sway”

“I have nothing to hide,” we’ve heard from those in both parties indifferent to the NSA revelations of Edward Snowden and published by The Guardian, Washington Post, among other newspapers. Julian Sanchez explains it slowly:

Privileged folks like Ben and I may well be right to think the laws, rules, and institutional priorities governing the intelligence community will protect us—a fortiori if we happen to be vocal advocates of that community—but the test of a just system is not how it treats the privileged. That doesn’t mean a privileged perspective is necessarily wrong, but it does mean we ought to be cautious about any inference from “this is not a problem I worry about” to “this is not a problem.”

In a democracy, of course, the effects of surveillance are not restricted to its direct targets. Spying, like censorship, affects all of us to the extent it shapes who holds power and what ideas hold sway. Had the FBI succeeded in “neutralizing” Martin Luther King Jr. earlier in his career, it would hardly have been a matter of concern solely for King and his family—that was, after all, the whole point.

Instead of a couple wonks comfortably ensconced in D.C. institutions, let’s instead ask a peaceful Pakistani-American who protests our policy of targeted killings, perhaps in collaboration with activists abroad; we might encounter far less remarkable confidence. Or, if that seems like too much effort, we can just look to the survey of writers conducted by the PEN American Center, finding significant percentages of respondents self-censoring or altering their use of the Internet and social media in the wake of revelations about the scope of government surveillance.

“That [Greenwald] can be truculent in defense of his position is simply part of the deal you make.”

Liberals grouse about Glenn Greenwald. Synonyms for “smug” and “self-righteous” appear in sentences often. Readers of this blog know the depth of my admiration for his documenting the foreign policy abuses committed by the Bush and Obama administrations (click on the tag). That he’s not a nice guy and his house smells like dog is irrelevant. Charles Pierce:

That he can be truculent in defense of his position, and that his expressed purity of purpose can give people (including me) the willies, is simply part of the deal you make. The important thing is the information, first, last, and always.

The wealth of info he’s uncovered exonerates him for self-satisfaction and wading into presidential prognostication. He’s got a lot to be satisfied about!