Archive for the 'World' Category

Déjà vu, WW I edition

This week, PBS is running a three-part series commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the United States entry into World War I. Called The Great War it is airing locally on WSKG as part of the on-going series “The American Experience.” The second episode which ran last night is particularly germane to the situation we face in the country today.

Notwithstanding his reelection campaign slogan “he kept us out of war,” President Woodrow Wilson lost no time after his second inauguration on March 4, 1917 in doing exactly the opposite, obtaining from Congress a declaration of war against Germany on April 6. There is ample evidence that the Wilson administration had been secretly ignoring Congressionally mandated US neutrality in the war since its beginning in August 1914. The British ocean liner RMS Lusitania, sunk by a German U-boat in May 1915 was carrying a concealed load of arms and ammunition which exploded leading to the ship’s rapid demise. But Wilson was faced with mobilizing a country in which the largest ethnic group was German to fight against their former homeland. He built his case on a number of incidents including the sinking of the Lusitania, in hindsight clearly allowed under the rules of war. Others included the sabotage in 1915 of a weapons depot in New Jersey called Black Tom and an explosion in the Kingsland munitions factory, also in New Jersey, in 1916. Although those responsible for the first remain unknown, an arbitration commission concluded in 1931 that the latter was not the work of any German agent. The last straw, perhaps, was the infamous Zimmerman Telegram in which the German foreign minister urged Mexico to launch a war against the US in return for which the victorious Germans would return to them much of the US Southwest. That telegram was supposedly intercepted and decrypted by the British who shared it with US. Many scholars believe that it was, in fact, a British forgery intended to push the US toward intervention, a position I support.

Having brought the US into what was a very unpopular war, Wilson established the Committee on Public Information, also known as the Creel Committee after its chairman George Creel, a former journalist who was a key player in Wilson’s 1916 reelection campaign. (It is no stretch to call him Wilson’s Stephen Bannon.) The CPI, as it was called, launched a massive propaganda campaign to drum up support for the war. Almost overnight the country was virtually papered with vicious depictions of Germans as brutes and barbarians. Needless to say, the truth was not an important part of the campaign. World War I was a particularly brutal conflict and all the combatants engaged in atrocities against civilians. Whether the Germans were worse than the French and British, or indeed the Americans, is obscured by the fact that, as German philosopher Walter Benjamin later wrote, “History is written by the victors.” (Often erroneously attributed to Winston Churchill.) In any case, anti-German hysteria reached such a fever pitch that many German-Americans, some of whose families had been here since colonial times, were forced to change their names to avoid threats and violence. Citizens were encouraged to report their neighbors if they suspected them of disloyalty, wasting food, or even of questioning the conduct of the war.

It was also during Wilson’s second term that the infamous Espionage Act and Sedition Act were passed. Enacted on June 15, 1917 and May 16, 1918, respectively, these were the most serious attacks on American civil liberties since the Civil War. Although the Sedition Act which made it illegal to speak ill of the government was repealed in 1920, the Espionage Act is still in effect and is routinely used to prosecute whistleblowers.

The legacy of World War I is complicated. The United States emerged from the conflict as a world power. The unreasonably harsh terms imposed on the losing Germans almost certainly let to the rise of Hitler. And the erosion of the basic protections of the US Constitution was established. On the other hand, Wilson’s deal with the powerful anti-war women’s lobby greatly advanced the cause of women’s suffrage which was realized by the passage of the 19th Amendment adopted in time for the 1920 election. In many ways, it was the origin of the United States we know today. Unfortunately, the Wilson administration showed how utterly fragile our civil liberties are and how easily they can be subsumed to militarism. Donald Trump, while far from being in the same class intellectually as Wilson, shows all of the latter’s disregard for those civil liberties. His irresponsible rhetoric has led to discrimination and violence against Americans of Middle Eastern and South Asian origin. His rabid supports routinely threaten and harass those they consider “libtards” disloyal to Trump. We must learn about the abuses of the Wilson administration because they are happening again.  

Shameless name-dropping

Perhaps I might be indulged in some personal reminiscence. Now in my 71st year I look back in amazement at some of the people I have been privileged to have met, worked with, known as friends, or even just crossed paths with. Living in Washington DC for much of my adult life brought me into contact with many famous, accomplished people. Without any intent of pretending that these contacts have made me other than the simple person that I am, I would like to share some of them.

My first brush with celebrity came when I was in the Air Force and selected to participate in a special mission. My teammates and I were summoned to the office of the Director of the National Security Agency, then Vice Admiral Noel Gaylor. Tall and resplendent in his gold-trimmed dress whites, the former test pilot made quite an impression on a 24-year old Air Force Staff Sergeant. Along with the rest of the mission participants I received a personal letter of commendation from Admiral Gaylor after the successful conclusion of the program, something I treasure to this day.

After I left the Air Force in 1972, I went to work at the University of Maryland as a laboratory technician. The department in which I worked hosted a number of famous scientists including Jan Oort who discovered the Oort cloud from which comets visit our region of the solar system. I remember him as a short, stooped man with white hair and a dignified air. The director of the institute was Jim Yorke who not only was a key player in the development of the mathematical field of chaos theory, but the person who coined the term “chaos theory.” It should hardly be surprising that I was entirely intimidated to be appointed as the staff representative to the department faculty senate. I never became comfortable addressing the distinguished scientists I worked with by their first names, no matter how much they insisted that I do.

During this same period, the professor I worked for convinced me to do est. Aside from whatever value I derived from it—rather more than I expected, actually—I got to meet a future Nobel laureate, NASA scientist John Mather, and a world-class musician, violinist Joshua Bell. Both were utterly charming and entirely unimpressed with themselves.

While at the University of Maryland and for some dozen years after I worked on a variety of NASA contracts through the university and several aerospace companies. During that time, I was fortunate to have met a number of astronauts. The most interesting was General Tom Stafford who flew on Gemini missions six and nine as well as into orbit around the moon on Apollo X. He was especially proud of having participated in the joint US/Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. After lunch, he presented me with a signed copy of his book. My colleague who had set up the meeting warned me that I had better read it because if I met again with the General, he would quiz me on it.

At one point, I decided that pursuing a master’s degree in satellite systems engineering would benefit my career. Life intervened and I never did get very far in the program but I did have the honor of having Mike Griffin, later to become Administrator of NASA, as one of my professors. Mike was, and I presume still is, a true space cadet in the best sense of the term. His enthusiasm for space was infectious. I think that NASA would be better today had President Obama kept him on.

Besides meeting interesting people, I occasionally got to visit some interesting places. One such was the laboratory at Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California where Ted Maiman invented the laser. Since a good bit of my career involved work on lidar—laser radar—that was particularly meaningful. Some years later, on a business trip to the United Kingdom I stayed at the Brownsover Hall hotel in Rugby where Sir Frank Whittle developed the jet engine just before World War II. His work room is preserved as a museum.

The year I spent working in the Washington marketing office of the Hughes Aircraft Company gave me a small taste of insider DC. It turned out that owning a tuxedo and being able to get a date on short notice made me one of the go-to people when a company bigwig was unable to make an event. One afternoon I was asked whether I could attend a dinner hosted by the American Enterprise Institute at a downtown hotel. After quick phone call to a friend and a dash across town to change I found myself among a who’s who of the Republican establishment. The keynote speaker at the dinner was Dick Cheney who was at the time considered a possible 1996 presidential candidate. At the next table sat Ed Meese, formerly Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General, and Jack Kemp, former quarterback for the Buffalo Bills and Congressman from Western New York. A couple of tables over were Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. My date accosted General Colin Powell as he passed and asked to shake his hand, to which he graciously agreed. At the end of the evening we passed Justice Scalia on a payphone in the lobby trying to summon a cab. I was tempted to offer him and his wife a ride, but chickened out.

Another dinner I attended was to honor the country’s astronauts. The evening’s speaker was Al Gore. At the time, I bore a strong resemblance to the Vice President and was amused when a Secret Service agent did a double-take as I walked past him.

My years as a member of Mensa also brought me into contact with some fascinating people among them Adrian Cronauer, memorialized by Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam, and the late Tandyn Almer, whose writing for the Beach Boys included Along Comes Mary. At Mensa gatherings on the West Coast I even got to meet a couple cartoon characters, or rather their voices: June Foray (Rocky the Flying Squirrel) and Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson).

Then there was the time when I left a famous person fumbling for words. I was introduced to Ted Koppel at a reception at the National Press Club. I was struck by how short he is. Anyway, as I shook his hand I said, “Mr. Koppel, I hold you personally responsible for my being chronically late for work,” referring to the late hour at which his program Nightline aired. He stuttered something about getting a VCR as I moved away as gracefully as I could.

There have been others, of course. Some I have forgotten and a few have names that are not especially well-known. One of the latter being a losing gubernatorial candidate who had been president of a company I worked for. Even though he was a Republican I would have voted for him if I could have. I still find it odd to have been on first name terms with retired generals and admirals as well as a couple fairly high-ranking government officials. But, with a few exceptions, the more famous those people were, the less presumptuous they were. In the end, we are all just people and, in our country, equals. Still, it is fun to bask in a bit of reflected glory from time to time.

Goose, meet gander

Everyday it is becoming more apparent that Russia interfered in our recent presidential election. As unsettling as that is it is also rather ironic considering that the US has a long and sordid history of doing just that to other countries. A brief review is in order:

Perhaps the most famous example of US interference in another country was the 1953 CIA-engineered coup in Iran that restored the Shah to the brutal Peacock Throne. The animosity that intervention engendered boiled over in 1979 and underlies the tensions between our two countries to this day.

A year later the CIA the overthrew the president of Guatemala and installed the first of a fifty-year line of right-wing dictators. The poverty these despots have allowed to persist continues to play a major role in driving Guatemalans to immigrate illegally to the US. And the malign hand of the US in Central America was not lost on the young Che Guevara who witnessed that coup first hand.

During the same period, the US intervened in the governments of the Philippines and Lebanon, not for the first or last time in either country. And, of course, this was also when the US involvement in Vietnam began as the Eisenhower administration scuttled the scheduled 1955 national referendum in that country. More than 58,000 Americas and perhaps millions of Vietnamese paid for that bit of hubris with their lives.

One of the more notorious examples of US meddling in other nations was the 1973 CIA-backed military coup that took the life of freely elected Chilean president Salvador Allende. It was not until 1993 that some semblance of freedom returned to that country after the death of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

The US predilection for interfering in other countries did not begin in the mid-20th Century. Rather it dates to the early part of the 19th Century with the Mexican War when the United States wrested away a significant part of our southern neighbor. Before that we tried unsuccessfully to seize part of Canada in 1812. But that failure did not stop us from trying to grab part of Pacific Canada in the 1840s.

Sadly, the fact is that the US has been the most expansionist, interventionist country in the world almost since our inception. Perhaps getting a small taste or our own medicine from the Russians will, when dust inevitably settles, cause us to reevaluate our place in the world. Even more sadly, it is impossible to see that happening any time soon.

Trump on tap

It has become abundantly clear that Donald Trump’s response to critical news reports is to deflect and lie. The latest flap over his and his campaign’s contacts with Russian officials is a case in point. When the press reported that Trump surrogate and current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had met at least twice with the Russian ambassador to the US during the campaign, the Donald responded with angry tweets accusing then-President Obama of illegally tapping the phones at Trump Tower. Mr. Obama has denied ordering any such wiretap and both the Director of National Intelligence and of the Federal Bureau of Investigation have said categorically that there was no bugging of Candidate Trump or of his campaign. It is worth parsing these statements carefully to try to determine the truth.

First, though, let us consider the process through which such surveillance might be implemented. Before anything happened, someone at the FBI would have to suspect that some law was being broken. That suspicion could have arisen from any of a number of sources. Perhaps NSA intercepted unusual funds transfers between Russian banks and entities associated with the Trump organization or campaign. Persons with security clearances, including, one presumes, Senator Sessions, are required to file reports of contacts with certain foreign officials. Maybe one or more of those reports raised a red flag. It is no secret that the FBI monitors the activities of some, if not all, foreign diplomats in the US. Maybe they saw something that appeared questionable. And then there is always the possibility that someone within the Trump campaign blew the whistle on a perceived impropriety. In any case, if the FBI became suspicious, they might well seek a warrant for a wiretap. That warrant could be issued by a Federal Court in the District of Columbia or, if there were a national security issue at hand, by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also known as the FISA court. In an extreme case where human lives or critical national security interests were at stake, the FBI could initiate the wiretap before obtaining the warrant but that seems unlikely in this case. With the warrant in hand, the FBI, quite possibly with assistance from NSA, would establish electronic surveillance of communications to and from the Trump offices. Most likely NSA would mount a parallel effort against the backchannels from the Russian embassy for which they would need no warrant. The information generated by the intercepts would be processed and analyzed by the intelligence and law enforcement communities then presented to the appropriate prosecuting authorities.

But this case is a bit different because of the political sensitivity associated with surveilling a nation campaign, especially against the candidate of the opposition party. Against the backdrop of the Watergate scandal everyone involved surely exercised the utmost discretion. Here is how I believe events unfolded:

Sometime in the earlier days of the Trump campaign, the FBI became aware of questionable contacts between members of that campaign and the Russians. Paul Manafort, in particular, clearly engaged in dubious activities. I would not be at all surprised if money were being channeled to the Trump campaign from Russian interests as well—a clear violation of US election laws. Being aware of the political ramifications, the FBI most likely took the matter to the Attorney General who consulted President Obama who told them to stand down until after the election. I suspect that Director Comey’s ill-timed and unethical comments about Clinton emails, that may well have cost her the election, could have been a misguided attempt on his part to be even-handed. In any case, on November 9 or shortly thereafter, I imagine that the FBI took the matter to the FISA court and obtained a warrant to monitor communications between the Trump transition team and the Russian government. After the inauguration, as Trump appointees filtered down into the Federal bureaucracy, someone learned of the top-secret wiretap and informed Trump who responded with a typical tweet storm. Go back and read the statements from Obama, the FBI, and the DNI. They are all consistent with this scenario.

And this, I believe, is the history of the matter heretofore. What emerges in the next weeks and months promises to be interesting at the least and frightening at worst. The evidence of Russian interference in our election and influence over the Trump administration is becoming difficult to ignore or to dismiss as “fake news.” There is a lot of smoke coming from Trump Tower these days and it is hard to believe that there is no fire there.

Agent Trump

Let me begin by noting that I was a Russian linguist in the US Air Force and so I am quite sure that I know more about Russia and Russians than do most Americans. I am also an avid reader of history, so I believe I know more than many about the Cold War and the arms race. That background has led me to the conclusion that the Russians are not, and never have been, the threat to the United States that our leaders have led us to believe.

Russian behavior before, during, and since the Cold War has been entirely consistent with their thousand-year history of authoritarian rule, a national inferiority complex vis-à-vis the West, and a strong culture of religious or ideological mysticism. Post-World War II Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe was not about communism; it was about fear of Western invasion. By the late 1980s, the Soviets finally came close to achieving strategic parity with the US but the enormous cost of doing so bankrupted the country leading to its economic and political collapse in 1991. Since then post-Soviet Russia has watched as its western buffer crumbled and NATO advanced to the borders of the motherland. Perhaps the last straw was the defection of Ukraine to the West. German troops were again, figuratively and in some cases literally, on Russia’s doorstep. Besides symbolically taking back Crimea, which Ukrainian-born Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had ceded to Ukraine in the 1950s, there was little they could do about it.

Throughout the Cold War, the US was two steps ahead of the Soviets in the arms race. Despite the few areas in which they had technical superiority over the US—rocket engine design, for example (current US Atlas V and Delta 4 launchers use Russian-designed engines)—they never had a qualitative military lead over the US and their quantitative superiority in tanks, troops, and nuclear warheads was never sufficient to give them an edge. Perhaps the most ironic incident I recall was the panicky announcement by the Nixon administration that the US was in grave danger because the Soviet Union had tested their first missile with multiple independently-guide reentry vehicles (MIRV). That very same week the US Minuteman III carrying MIRVs became operational. The Cold War was, and its chilly aftermath remains, more about the profits of the US military industrial complex than about defending the United States against a marauding USSR.

There is one field, however, in which the Russians are the best in the world: human intelligence. They cannot come close to the technical prowess of the National Security Agency or the National Reconnaissance Office but when it comes to developing and exploiting human spies, they have no peers. Which brings me to the real point of this piece: Russian infiltration of the 2016 US election with the aim of accomplishing through subterfuge what they could not do militarily: roll back NATO from their western frontier.

Like any good undercover operation, the compromise of the US 2016 election was developed over a long period. The first thing the Russians did was to identify individuals who could be recruited, knowingly or unwittingly. As Malcolm Nance details in The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016), Russian spymasters look for certain character weaknesses that they can exploit to turn a person into an asset: avarice, cupidity, and narcissism. One person fits that profile perfectly: Donald J. Trump.

Just when the Russians began grooming Trump as an asset is unclear. His first foray into Russia was in 1987, a year before he first put his toe into the presidential candidate pool. But the internal chaos leading up to the demise of the USSR forestalled any deals. After the Soviet Union collapsed, a small number of entrepreneurs—if one can call them that—became extraordinarily wealthy privatizing Soviet state enterprises. Many, if not most, of them looked to the West to invest and hide their wealth.  Real estate was a favorite investment, especially in large American cities, and Donald Trump was one of the highest flying real estate moguls in Manhattan. Russian investors lavished money on Trump, buying condos in his buildings and reportedly bankrolling several of his grandiose plans. When those plans collapsed into bankruptcy it is likely that Trump was left owing considerable sums to Russian oligarchs. But it is probably after Trump again considered a bid for the Republican nomination in 2004 that the Russian government recognized that he could be exactly what they were looking for. From then on, Russian cash poured into Trump’s coffers. Persistent rumors suggest that the Russians cashed in their second chip, cupidity, when Trump took the Miss Universe Pageant to Moscow in 2013 and is said to have engaged in what can only be described as tawdry behavior with Russian prostitutes, who were quite possibly in the employ of Russian intelligence. The last character flaw, narcissism, was probably the easiest for the Russians to exploit. Trump is surrounded by toadies with connections to Moscow.

As I suggested earlier, I think it unlikely that Trump is a witting Russian agent. I doubt that a professional intelligence service would hire someone as volatile and unpredictable. But it does seem possible, and indeed probable, that Trump is an unwitting Russian asset sitting in the White House. His inchoate America-First rhetoric fits perfectly with the Russian desire for the United States to disengage in Europe. Without US participation, NATO will probably reverse its expansion into Eastern Europe. Trump’s belligerence in the Middle East makes Russia appear to many in the region as a sane alternative to the US. His promised torpedoing of the Iran nuclear treaty will surely drive that country farther in to the arms of the Russian bear. His apparent determination to make an enemy of China will strengthen Russia’s position in the Far East while slowing China’s growth as an economic superpower. And his hostility toward Latin America may well make Russia appear a reasonable alternative partner for that region. All in all, Trump being Trump is very good for Russia’s interests.

The evidence that Russian hackers interfered in the US election is incontrovertible. Their finger prints are all over the attacks on the DNC and DCCC computer systems. It seems possible, even probable, that Edward Snowden is a Russian asset. His trail to the position that allowed him to steal so much information from NSA seems hardly accidental as does the fact that after Trump was elected talk started of his repatriation. Contacts between Trump surrogates like Michael Flynn and the Russian government have been too numerous to be coincidental. Key Trump appointees, notably Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have long-standing connections with Russian commercial interests.  

It does not require a conspiratorial mind to believe that, having failed to best the US in overt military and economic power, Russia has, at last, succeeded in beating us through the black arts of espionage where their millennium of experience in insurmountable. Who knows, perhaps it is for the best. Trump himself and his crackpot ideas will not last very long. The very character defects that made him a useful target for the Russians will not likely survive the US legal system very long. The autocracy he threatens will probably mellow into a form acceptable to Americans just as democracy in Russia evolved into a tsarist model with which the Russians are more comfortable. But whatever the future, it seems certain that the Russians have won this round.

The “good” news

For the most part, I am an optimist. I believe in the basic goodness of people and their general good intentions. Lately I have had to try to reconcile those beliefs with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. I think I have finally made some sense of it.

Since Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981 I have watched with dismay as trillions of dollars have been transferred from average Americans and their progeny to the top tier of the super wealthy. The total net worth of the US population is around $86T of which $37T is held by the top 1%. In 1979, the top 1% had a combined net worth of about $2T which represented 24% of the total net worth of $8T. Adjusted for inflation, the net worth of the wealthiest 1% grew from $7T to $37T while the total net worth of all Americans went from $28T to $86T. In other words, 52% of the increase in wealth went to the top 1%.

Where did that $58T in increased net worth come from? Well, some $20T was borrowed, more than $3T of it from the Social Security payments of working Americans. Much of the rest represents financial legerdemain funded in in part by deferred maintenance of our national infrastructure.  According to the American Society of Civil Engineers we need to spend nearly $4T in the next few years just to stay even. Estimates of the cost of developing a current state-of-the-art infrastructure range as high as $20T. So basically, the very wealthy have stolen some $40T from average Americans since Reagan began the looting. And that does not include the $1.5T in student loan debt or the $1T in credit card debt that average people have incurred while taxes on the wealthy were cut time and again.

So what does this have to do with the election of Donald Trump? Well, a lot as it turns out. By the early 1990s working class people were beginning to feel the pinch of job losses and stagnant wages as companies downsized or moved manufacturing overseas. Republicans under Newt Gingrich shifted the blame from the wealthy to the very poorest Americans, mostly African Americans they claimed were lazy welfare cheats. White America responded by giving the GOP control of Congress which they used to accelerate the theft. Through the early 2000s as the cost of needless wars soared and further weakened the economy, the GOP sponsored the Tea Party to capitalize on the distress of the working class by again blaming those even more disadvantaged. Meanwhile the wealthy were stealing the equity from people’s homes through re-finance mania leading to the economic crash of 2007/2008. The right blamed the mortgage crisis on the Community Redevelopment Act, claiming that banks were forced to make loans to unqualified black people. Rural whites, who had been duped into using their houses as virtual piggy banks through repeated cash-out refinancing, ate that up. The election of the first more-or-less black president, Barack Obama, was the final straw for redneck America; their anger stoked by endless whispering that he was a secret Muslim born overseas. Republican-dominated state legislatures nationwide launched a campaign to disenfranchise as many minority voters as possible. Meanwhile, Russian president Putin, seeing an opportunity to bring the US to its knees without firing a shot, ordered a covert disinformation campaign to elect Donald Trump. Now the US and Russia were both to be led by corrupt oligarchs. The triumph of the wealthy, begun in 1980, was now complete.

By now you are probably asking why I am optimistic.  Like I said, I have faith in the basic goodness of people. The shamelessness with which Trump is larding his cabinet with incompetent billionaires intent on crushing everything the US has accomplished in the past century will soon have its effect. The economy will stall and go into recession as it has under every Republican president since Taft. The promised jobs will not return from China and Mexico but prices will skyrocket as Trump alienates our trading partners upon whom we rely for nearly all of our consumer goods. His belligerent foreign policy will see the US embroiled in more regional wars and subject to more terror attacks. His attacks on blacks, the LGBT community, Latinos, Muslims, and others will almost certainly lead to civil unrest and quite likely widespread rioting. In short, Trump will crash the ship of state into the rocks of public outrage. The outcome will be the collapse of Reaganism that has dominated US politics for a generation. If we are lucky, sane heads will prevail, the Democratic and Republican parties will both field rational candidates and our ship of state will right itself in good order. If not, we are likely to have to endure a period of fascism like Germany did on its way from a belligerent monarchy to a social democracy. But whatever the short term outcome, it seems certain that Trump’s election will have been the bitter pill that saves the US in the long run. And that will be a good thing.

The times they are a-changin’

The Nobel committee broke with tradition this year by selecting of Bob Dylan for this year’s literature prize. The uproar from the right is a silly as it is predictable.  Dylan is the poet of my generation, the Baby Boomers. He captured our dreams, our fears, our youthful idealism, and our ultimate disillusionment. The fact that he sang his poems, often interspersed with harmonica and guitar, does not make them less serious or less affecting. With this award, committee not only acknowledged the influence of electronic media on art but also paid homage to the centuries of oral tradition that birthed literature in the first place. It was a good choice.

Spies among journalists

In his recent book A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Ben Macintyre describes the life of the eponymous double agent in the Middle East before, during, and after the Second World War. Naturally, spies did not admit to their real reason for being in Beirut or other cities in the region but hid behind cover jobs that gave them plausible excuses for ferreting out information. Those cover positions were often, not surprisingly, as journalists. Mr. Philby himself collected a paycheck from several newspapers as a stringer besides being paid by the British and Soviet intelligence services. Nor was he the only free-lance journalist to be so employed. Since journalists and spies are basically in the same business—gathering information—this was a common arrangement beneficial to all the organizations involved. And there is no reason to think that this is no longer the case. Which brings us to the current situation in that benighted part of the world and to consider the strange cases of journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff, both beheaded by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, commonly known as ISIS.

After earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry from the University of Massachusetts, Foley enrolled at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Interestingly, Medill also has a branch in Qatar, the Middle Eastern country from which the US runs it operations in that region. After graduating in 2008, Foley went to Iraq as a contractor for the US Agency for International Development (USAID). From there he applied to become a free-lance journalist embedded with US troops in Afghanistan and, after a short time in that position, was hired by the semi-official US military newspaper Stars and Stripes.

This is where the story starts to get interesting. Two months after taking the job at Stars and Stripes, Foley was arrested by military police in Kandahar on charges of marijuana possession. He admitted to the charge and resigned his position, moving back to the free-lance world as a photojournalist embedded into rebel groups in Libya. During his time in Libya he was detained by government forces but was soon released to resume his work with the rebels. After the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, he moved on to Syria where a civil war was raging.

In November 2012, not long after going to Syria, Foley was again captured, this time by a shadowy group reportedly loyal to Syrian President Bashir Assad. The Syrians attempted to collect ransom from his employer, the online newspaper, GlobalPost, and from the US government, neither of which complied. But the most interesting part of the story is that in July 2014, the US military attempted to rescue Foley from Syrian captivity. Ask yourself whether the US government would spend millions of dollars and put dozens of lives at risk to rescue an ordinary citizen who was in Syria in violation of a State Department warning to avoid the country. I find that rather unlikely.

Which, of course, takes us full circle to the common use of journalistic cover for spies. Did Foley work for the CIA? We will probably never know but it is certainly plausible. It is simply not very credible that as an employee of Stars and Stripes Foley would have risked his coveted position for a bit of weed. But that incident would have provided a credible disconnect between him and the US government.

The story of Mr. Sotloff is murkier but equally interesting. Like Foley, he attended an elite private secondary school in New Hampshire. He then pursued but did not receive a degree in journalism at the University of Central Florida. From there he went to Israel to study at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, an institution that appears to have significant connections with Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. He next shows up in Qatar studying Arabic after which he traveled around the region in possession of a Yemeni mobile phone and working as a stringer for a variety of magazines and newspapers. During this entire time, the fact that he held dual US/Israeli citizenship was kept secret. Again, it does not take a great leap of logic to suppose that Mr. Sotloff was working undercover for the CIA, Mossad, or both.

Now, I should make perfectly clear that beheading people is a heinous act, even if those people are spies. However, it is important to question the casus belli with which we are presented. If Foley and/or Sotloff were indeed spies, they are to be commended for their extraordinary courage, but their executions by their captors are probably acceptable acts under international law. If, on the other hand, they were what we have been told they were—simply free-lance journalists, however foolhardy —their killings are murder and just cause for retribution. The troubling thing is that we most likely will never know the truth.

He stoops to pander

New York governor Andrew Cuomo, accompanied by assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, state senate co-leaders Dean Skelos and Jeff Klein, and several well-heeled hangers-on, left today on a “unity trip” to Israel. Even under normal circumstances this would be a questionable state incursion into foreign affairs, but these are not normal circumstances: Israel is in the midst of a war with Hamas in the Israeli-occupied Gaza strip. While Hamas certainly has been a bad actor, the brutality of the Israeli incursion is completely disproportionate. Israeli forces have killed nearly 2,000 Palestinians, the vast majority of them civilians. Only three Israel civilians have lost their lives and they were actually working with the military. Cuomo’s trip is, basically, an endorsement of these atrocities. Furthermore, he and his delegation pointedly declined an invitation to meet with representatives of the people of Gaza. The trip is funded, it is claimed, by Cuomo’s reelection campaign. However, the fact that these worthies are flying El Al and not a US airline suggests that the real sponsor is the Israeli government.

I have no doubt that I will be accused of anti-Semitism for objecting to this blatant display of pandering to wealthy downstate Jewish campaign contributors, some of whom are almost certainly laundering illegal Israeli government money. But it must be said that the governor of New York should be tending to the affairs of the State of New York, not involving himself in international relations. The one-sided nature of this trip will only serve to further inflame the situation in Gaza. Mr. Cuomo will be returning from this entirely inappropriate junket with the blood of Palestinian children on his hands—and, of course, thirty pieces of silver in his pocket.

Thoughts on Tiananmen Square

The progress of history is rarely neat and never unambiguous. And major advances invariably involve the shedding of blood. Wipe away the sanitizing effect of time and the lead up to American Revolution becomes a violent series of government crackdowns on protestors. Nor were the sides always clear: a great many Americans, especially at first, opposed the idea of breaking away from the mother country. But in the end the radicals won out and formed a new nation. Yet only five years later, that new government launched a bloody crackdown on farmers protesting taxing of the whiskey they had been producing for generations. Since then the US government has, like every other government, periodically clamped down on protests of all sorts from the Bonus Army march on Washington in 1932 that was broken up by the US Army under General Douglas MacArthur to the anti-Vietnam War protests at Kent State University where four students were shot and killed by National Guard troops. More recently, even the singularly lame and non-threatening Occupy Wall Street protests were violently suppressed by state and local police across the country. If this is the norm in the United States, how can we pass judgment on the actions of other, arguably less citizen-oriented, governments?

Which brings us to Tiananmen Square. At the remove of twenty-five years it is easy to forget the scale of those protests and the very real threat they posed to the Chinese government. Not only were there as many as one million protestors in Tiananmen Square itself, but there were large demonstrations in more than 400 other cities across the country. It was, in fact, the largest mass uprising since the 1968 near-revolution in France. To put the protests in Tiananmen Square alone into an American perspective, they were roughly the size, per capita, as the largest of the anti-Vietnam War protests in Washington, DC. Setting aside the matter of whether or not the protestors were right, the fact is that they had put the authorities in a no-win situation. The military crackdown that ended the occupation of the square was brutal by US standards perhaps, but really not much out of the ordinary in other countries. For example, the protests in Cairo that brought down the Mubarak government in 2011 were comparable in relative size and at least as bad in relative number of dead.

Looking back at the events of June 4, 1989, it is hard not see that as a seminal moment in Chinese history. The legacy of Tiananmen Square is striking: in 1989, the per capita GDP of China was $403 and growing at 2.5%; in 2012, it was $6091 growing at 7.2%. And while still repressive by Western standards, China today is arguably the most free it has been in its entire 2000+ year history. I suspect that the Chinese government was, in its own way, as shocked by the events of that day as were the protestors and observers around the world. Clearly, the Chinese authorities did some serious soul-searching in the aftermath of the protests and the violence that ended them. So my inclination on this day is to remember those who lost their lives and to note that history will show that, in the end, they won.